Sunday, September 30, 2007

Primary and secondary evils of RMT

RMT is bad because it is a form of cheating in a video game. You acquire something in the game the easy way, without having to overcome whatever hurdle or challenge the game put up between you and your goal. This devalues the achievements of others, who got to the same point the legit way. I'm calling this the primary evil of RMT. Primary because there is no way you could think of RMT that doesn't involve this cheating. (How opposed or in favor you are of video game cheating is another question).

RMT is bad because of regular players getting bombarded with spam, and because they are prevented from gathering certain goods in game due to lots of gold farmers camping the spot. RMT is bad because of gold sellers scamming their customers, and because they try to install trojans on your computer to steal your WoW password and sell your gold. And the list goes on and on. All these I call secondary evils of RMT. Secondary because they are clearly a result of RMT, but RMT could exist without them. Take in-game gold spam, that is a relatively new phenomenon. RMT existed for many years before the first guy started spamming gold sales in WoW.

Why would I want to make a distinction between primary and secondary evils of RMT? Because it gives us new ways to solve the problem. If some secondary evil is worse than the primary one of cheating, then legalizing RMT might solve some of the problems. How long would gold spam survive if gold sellers could get a license to sell gold on an official legit market, with a threat of spam revoking their license? Or you can attack the secondary bad effect directly, which is what some games do now with spam filters.

Look at the Ni Hao video I posted on Saturday, which besides the catchy tunes shows you that apparently people are more concerned with the secondary evils than the primary ones. The video complains about not being able to gather primals in Shadowmoon Valley due to the gold farmers. But it is easy to see how you could have exactly the same problem even if there was no RMT and there were just lots of other regular players farming the primals. The Burning Crusade already introduced some areas with dynamic spawns, where the more mobs get killed, the faster they respawn. If primals get farmed 24/7 and prices for them are still high on the AH, there are obviously not enough sources for them. If Blizzard put in dynamic spawns on the mobs that drop them, there would be enough supply for everyone who really needs the primals. And the gold farmers would just ruin themselves if they overfarmed them and crashed their value on the AH. A dynamic economy is less easily abused than a static one.

It is even possible to design games with a high inherent resistance to gold farming. Gold farmers exist because of their comparative advantage of living in a low-income country. The video says "10 cents an hour is good money if you are Chinese", which goes to the heart of the matter, even if it is probably a bit more than 10 cents per hour. By playing the same account 24/7 in shifts or by using bots, the gold farmers make use of the fact that money earning is linear with time spent in game. What if it wasn't? I'm thinking again of the harvesters in SWG, which produce resources in real time. For all we know Pirates of the Burning Sea has similar harvesters and production sites working in real time as the source of their player-based economy. But if you don't need to be online all day to make them run, then a gold farmer isn't producing any more wealth with a harvester than a casual player. If a gold farmer can't make more gold than a casual player, he can't sell that gold very cheap, and the RMT market in such a game never gets going. A game design in which wealth doesn't depend on you playing all the time is not only more fun for casual players, it also solves lots of the secondary evils of RMT.

Unless you remove the ability of players to transfer wealth between them, RMT is never going to go away completely. But if we focus on what is really bothering us about RMT instead of trying to solve a huge and abstract problem, there are solutions available to diminish many of the bad secondary evils of RMT.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

WAR combat and abilities

Warhammer Online has another video podcast out, this time about combat and abilities. It explains what type of abilities you can use in combat, and how to get them. Some you get just by leveling up, some you buy with points you gather. The video tells us that there are more abilities in the game than you ever hope to have on one character, just like in WoW you can't have all talents at once. No word on whether it will be possible to respec your char if you gimped yourself.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Tabula Rasa open beta

Never believe a review, it's much better to see for yourself. Fileplanet is offering open beta access for Tabula Rasa to anyone. So check out whether a third-person SciFi shooter MMORPG is the game for you!

Ni Hao (A Gold Farmers Story)

Some musical weekend entertainment from YouTube.

Dethroning WoW

Yahoo wrote up a list of the next ten major MMORPGs to be released and declared them all contenders for dethroning World of Warcraft. Keen disassembles that list and finds that none of the games mentioned stand a chance against WoW. I agree with most of his observations, but then maybe we have a bad definition of what the throne is: Everybody thinks to dethrone WoW a new game would have to beat the 9 million subscribers number. And Keen is right in saying that this will take another couple of years to happen, none of the games mentioned will arrive at 10 million subscribers in 2008.

But then, they don't necessarily have to. Of WoW's 9 million subscribers, more than half aren't actually subscribed, at least not to a monthly fee business model. WoW has over 5 million Chinese subscribers paying with game time cards at an hourly rate of about 6 US cents per hour. And of that money, Blizzard only gets a part. Before The Burning Crusade Blizzard only got 22% of the money, the rest went to their Chinese partner The9 Ltd. But Blizzard was able to renegotiate that contract by holding TBC hostage, the expansion was only released this month in China. Still they probably don't get much more than 2 US cents per hours played. That adds up to good money with those millions of Chinese playing, but still significantly less than $15 per month per subscriber. In the more profitable regions of North America and Europe Blizzard keeps mum about the subscription numbers, and there is evidence that the subscription numbers there are in decline. A new game getting just 1 million subscribers, but all of them in North America and Europe would already put a visible dent in Blizzard's earnings, as we can assume that many of them would be ex-WoW players.

And that is just the financial throne. That is arguably the most important one, but not the only possible measure. Look for example at the hype surrounding WAR compared with WotLK. Many people are giving WAR a lot of advance trust and applause, while the general media and blog reaction to WotLK can be summarized as "meh". Wrath of the Lich King might well sell much better than WAR, and get a lot less media coverage at the same time. "Blizzard adds more of the same" doesn't make much of a headline. Once both WAR and WotLK are released, you can be pretty certain that it will be Warhammer Online that everybody talks about in the second half of 2008. I remember in 2004 some people claimed that WoW was all hype and no substance. But marketing has turned out to be very important for selling MMORPGs, and if there is one company that is able to beat Blizzard in marketing then it is EA Mythic.

The other games on the list, Age of Conan, Gods and Heroes, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Pirates of the Caribbean, Tabula Rasa, Huxley, and SUN are all what I'd consider second league. I'm not even trying to rank them in any way. They might all be successful if you consider getting 100k subscribers and not shutting down as success criteria. None of them will even come close to 1 million subscribers in North America and Europe (SUN and Huxley will probably get more than that in Asia though, with Tabula Rasa hoping to join them there). But whether for example Pirates of the Burning Sea will sell better or worse than Age of Conan or Gods and Heroes nobody can say. A lot depends on finding the sweet spot between releasing an unfinished game too early and getting steamrolled by the release of a much bigger game in 2008. So many things can go wrong at the release of a game which are hard to predict in advance. And then the not-quite-an-MMO Hellgate London isn't even on the list, although it is easy to see how that could be a direct competitor to a game like Tabula Rasa.

The one company that can, and probably will, dethrone World of Warcraft is Blizzard themselves. It has become increasingly obvious that they haven't found the recipe for eternal MMORPG youth. WoW is slowly fading from the spotlight, while continuing to create massive amounts of cash. It is up to Blizzard to decide whether they want to milk that cash cow until it drops dead, or whether (and when) they want to get their spot in the limelight back by announcing something new like WoW2 or World of Starcraft. If they wanted, and if they reinvested a good part of the money they are making, they could remain at the top of the heap for a decade.

Feedback needed on blog layout

You might not even have noticed it, but the blog post titles should have changed color, indicating that they are now clickable hyperlinks. I've had permanent links at the bottom of the page for a long time, but thought that a clickable title would be more useful if you want to go to the page where there is just that one blog post with all its comments and links. If that change broke something, please tell me.

And while we're at it, I would like to invite you to comment on the layout of my blog. I'm trying to keep it simple for several reasons: I don't have leet programming skillz, and the blog is supposed to look professional enough that it isn't too obvious you're slacking at work and reading my blog instead of working on a Friday afternoon. :) I think I have all the necessary features of a blog to access my archives and such; tell me if this blog is missing features you'd like to see, and I'll check if I'm able to add them.

I know this blog doesn't have a blogroll, but that is intentional. I don't want to get into fights who should or shouldn't be included in it. And I'm far too lazy to check all the links of a long blogroll to see whether they are all still active. I do read other people's blogs, and if I see a good post, I'd rather link to it in a blog post of mine than just add the whole blog to a blogroll. If I overlooked your blog and you think I should mention it, send me an e-mail and I'll have a look at it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Swedes on strike

You might have noticed that this blog is principally talking about the big MMORPGs, the triple-A games, the ones you are likely to find in a box at your local games store. But there is a huge number of smaller MMOs, many of them web-based, playable via a browser. They usually have some play-for-free basic model with microtransactions as business model, and the ability to play them for free on any old computer gets them millions of players. One company running a number of those browser games is Gameforge, owner of the games OGame, Bitefight, Darkpirates, Gladiatus, and Battleknight. These games exist in many more languages than the major games, with lots of local teams all over Europe. And the news is that the Swedish Gameforge team is on strike, to which Gameforge responded by firing most of them.

Whether online games are addictive is another discussion, but it is obvious that many people have a strong emotional reaction towards their favorite game. Game companies profit from that by hiring people that are extremely motivated as game masters, and then paying them relatively little money. This is simply a matter of supply and demand, many people would rather do online support for a game than for lets say an insurance. With many people wanting the job, the game company doesn't have to attach a high salary to it to make it attractive. Many people in the game industry, especially customer service representatives, are underpaid and/or overworked.

Browser games are profitable only because the cost to run them is low. People are already complaining about the bad customer service they get from games they pay $15 a month for, imagine how much less a game company with play-for-free browser games is investing in customer support. Now imagine a local team far away from the game companies headquarter, and it is easy to see where the Swedes complaints about being left in the cold by Gameforge are coming from. Players bombard the game masters with questions, and if the GMs themselves can't get answers from the game company it must be extremely frustrating. And even from a player's point of view I can assure you that love towards a specific game doesn't last forever. So if one day you find yourself as underpaid GM in a game you no longer love and the frustrations mount because the game company is more interested in cost cutting than in making your job easier, no wonder you go on strike or quit.

Will that change anything? I doubt it. Gameforge will fire all the malcontents, hire new GMs on the cheap, make some symbolic but cheap gestures towards the players, and in three months the whole thing is forgotten. Many game companies try to project an image of being more interested in fun game design than in profit. Don't believe a word of it, from no-one. In the end all companies are about profit, whether they are selling online games, insurance, or any other service. Don't work for them unless the money is right and the job is fun.

Discovering my female side

Trinity from has an interesting article on what women want: clothes and houses. I mean come on, nobody wears the same clothes day in and day out in real life, why the heck to we have to in a game?! And puh-leaze, don’t those devs know that it’s the height of embarrassment to be seen wearing the same clothes as someone else, especially if they were of the opposite sex? That’s one of the most basic things that annoys me in most MMOs. A friend of mine used to tease me that I’d be the best dressed corpse in the battlefield, because I simply refused to wear ugly armor. And what about player housing? Guys think of them as structures where they can dump their loot. Girls think of them as home, a place to decorate and have parties with their friends. Hmmm, I want more from player housing than just dumping my loot. And I'd like better options on clothes, for example the ability to dye them in different colors, or otherwise change my appearance independant from my stats. Guess that's my female side. :)

The latest EQ2 patch was interesting in that respect insofar as you now have not one paper doll but two. The normal paper doll works as before, you put all the gear with the nice stats on it to receive their benefits. But if the gear you have there for the stats isn't looking good to you, you can override the look of it by putting something else into that slot on the second paper doll, the "appearance" paper doll. Anything you put on the appearance paper doll doesn't give you any benefits from stats, but it takes precedence on what you are displayed of wearing. So you be armored heavily, but appear to be wearing just flowing robes. I don't think this is a concept which could be applied to every game, because at least in PvP situations that feature would be used more to mislead the enemy than for just aesthetical purposes.

I noticed that some other games, in the spirit of City of Heroes / Villains, have completely cut the link between the gear you wear, and how you look. Originally in CoH you'd just create your costume at the start of the game and would be stuck with the same look forever. Later a tailor was introduced, where at level 20 for a quest and some cost you can change your look. But the "enhancements" the game has instead of equipment don't modify your look in any way.

Still the majority of games are like World of Warcraft, where what you wear determines both your stats and how you look. Unsurprisingly in many cases people choose stats over looks. And unless you are lucky enough to be able to acquire complete epic sets, the gear you are wearing in WoW often doesn't fit well together, especially since WoW is using lots of bright colors. And often your class determines what looks you can achieve. On my troll warrior helmets mostly look very bad, but I can't wear a much better looking fedora hat without sacrificing major stat advantages, so I just turned helmet display off. My undead priest has epic gear, but most epic priest helmets are displayed as oversized collars, whose look I don't like much either. I would have loved to have a halo on my priest, but never found one with decent enough stats. But while I care about the way I look, I fortunately don't have the typically female problem Trinity is talking about, caring too much about what other people are wearing, not even if it is the same as what I am wearing. That would have been a killer as a raiding priest pre-TBC. There were so many guilds at pretty much the same level between Molten Core and Onyxia that half of the other high-level priests I met were wearing the same T1 gear with T2 helmet from Onyxia as I did.

What I like about Lord of the Rings Online is that it not only has more subdued colors which naturally fit together better, you can also apply dyes to your gear to at least change the color. And player housing has been promised for the next major content patch, book 11. Would be interesting to know whether LotRO ends up attracting more women than WoW by offering them what they want: clothes and houses.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

WAR archetypes

Warhammer Online video podcast #10 presents the classes and archetypes of WAR. There are 6 races in WAR, and each race has the same 4 archetypes: tank, melee dps, ranged dps, and healer. But while the archetypes are the same, their implementation is different for the different races, so we get 24 unique classes. That is obviously great from a PvE and replayability point of view. But what about PvP? Knowing human nature, especially that of MMORPG players, there will be endless shouts of "the tank/dps/healer of the other faction is stronger than ours. Nerf! Nerf! Nerf!".

But balance problems aside, I'm wondering whether the classic PvE holy trinity of tank, dps, and healer is optimal for PvP. One of the eternal problems of other games is that tanks have "taunt" abilities of aggro management, which are extremely important in PvE group and raid play, but totally useless in solo PvE and all forms of PvP. DPS classes are king in PvP. Healers are easy to kill and find themselves always at the top of the enemies list of targets. Tanks are simply ignored as long as possible, because they move slowly, deal little damage, and have no way of preventing the enemy to kill the classes that are actually dangerous. Now WAR has collision detection, which is already a big improvement over being able to just walk through the enemy tank, but I doubt that will be enough for the tank to effectively protect the healer or ranged dps.

Taunt abilities are problematic in PvP, because you can't force other players to target the tank without them feeling robbed of their fundamental freedom to play as they want. So how is a tank supposed to protect the less well-armored classes? The best you can implement is a kind of buff that redirects damage from the protected target to the tank, and even that is far from ideal.

On the other hand PvP has a huge advantage regarding archetypes in that it is Rumsfeldian: You go to war with the army you have, not the tank / dps / healer mix you'd want for a group or raid. DPS classes have obvious advantages over tanks and healers in both solo PvE and in PvP, which makes them much more popular. Players won't distribute themselves evenly over the 4 archetypes of WAR. There will be a distinctive lack of healers, as in every other game, and a distinctive surplus of dps classes, especially ranged dps. But for PvP you never have the problem that you can't start because your group doesn't have a tank or healer, you can simply go with a group containing only dps classes and not fare any worse than a balanced group.

Me, I regularly score as ESAK in all Bartle tests I take, meaning I'm primarily an explorer, then a socializer, just a bit of an achiever, and not a killer at all. Which means I'm looking very much forward to playing Warhammer Online through *at least* six times, once for each race. And then I still might play it through another six times or so, trying classes I haven't tried yet. If I understood the earlier video podcasts correctly, each race has their own complete set of zones to level up from 1 to the level cap, there is no "Barrens" where the orcs, trolls and tauren all mix. Six completely different lines of zones and quests to the top, 24 different classes, WAR could turn out to be an absolute dream for replayability.

I'm just wondering whether you ever get to mix with player of other races, or whether somebody playing Empire will never be able to visit the lands of the nominally allied dwarves and high elves. On the maps in the video podcasts WAR nearly looks as if it was three separate one-on-one wars in parallel. Which would be a very interesting approach. Bad for "worldyness", that is for sure. But instead of adding levels at the top, you could expand the game endlessly by creating new areas where a new pair of races fights another one-on-one war. Expanding breadth instead of length. Could that work?

UO amnesty

Ultima Online celebrates it's 10th birthday, with what they call an amnesty, allowing former players to return to the game for free. Razorwire from Warcry disagrees with that use of the term amnesty. He says it isn't an amnesty, because only players "in good standing" are allowed back, so if you had been banned, you're still not welcome. I'd say that amnesties don't have to be total. In fact it is far more common that amnesties apply only to minor crimes, and not to all criminals.

But if it is an amnesty, then obviously the crime was not paying a monthly fee any more, and the punishment was exile from that particular virtual world. Which is an interesting way to see it. In terms of law enforcement, virtual worlds are a rather harsh place to be. There is only one form of punishment: exile. But you could easily consider permanent exile to be a form of death penalty, not for the player but for the avatar, as the avatar ceases to exist when banned from the virtual world. You can suffer this virtual death penalty for minor crimes like sexual harassment or black market activities, which in the real world would be punishable by only a fine. But fraud, which carries much heavier legal penalties in the real world, is not punished in virtual worlds, which is why there are so many scammers around. Most things you can harm another player with, including "killing" him in PvP, are allowed. Anything that has the potential to hurt the game company is punished with virtual death.

I left Ultima Online "in good standing", so theoretically the amnesty would apply to me. But the last time I played UO was in 2000, and I completely forgot my user name, password, and even the shard I was playing on. Even the e-mail address I used at the time has long since been discontinued, as it didn't have a spam filter. Thus even if I wanted to, I couldn't take EA Mythic up on that offer. Fortunately I'm not interested anyway, UO has aged badly in spite of graphics improvements, still being 2D (with pseudo-3D added on top, EA calls it 2.5D) and all. I don't know whether the gameplay advanced anywhere since 2000, but at the time there weren't even quests except for simple escort missions. And I was never a big fan of the level-less skill system of UO, because I found the 700 point skill cap too restrictive.

EA announced a sequel to Ultima Online twice, and cancelled it twice before release, in 2001 and 2004. Fear of hurting subscription numbers of the original UO was cited as one reason for the cancellation. But I don't expect UO to live another ten years, and a sequel might have been a better option. I just don't see how EA could announce a third attempt at a sequel for UO. And Richard Garriott and Raph Koster are long gone, so I don't even know if EA Mythic has the talent to design a MMORPG which would actually be a sequel to the "worldy" UO, and not just another "gamey" WoW clone. There is a good chance that whatever Raph is developing as game on his new Metaplace will resemble "UO2" more than anything EA Mythic will ever produce, gameplay wise. Meanwhile Richard Garriott apparently has given up on the "worldy" concept, his latest creation Tabula Rasa is even more "gamey" than WoW (and thus managed to fall over the "I'm not paying a monthly fee for that" cliff for most people).

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not enough social engineering

I'm looking at the various features patched into older games or promised for the upcoming games, and I'm asking myself whether all these game developers are working on the wrong set of features. I see all sorts of variations of game content, different sorts of combat systems, crafting systems, quest systems. I see new classes, new zones, new dungeons. But what I don't see is innovation in chat systems, looking for group systems, guild functionality, and all the other social aspects of MMORPGs. If anything modern games are less social than the first generation games, as they now allow you to play solo and to avoid all player interaction including PvP if you want to.

It is well known that you can get players to stay in your game beyond the point where the game itself bores them, if only they have friends in the game which they don't want to leave. Thus if game developers introduce some social engineering into their games and promote people making friends, they ultimately help the longevity and profitability of their games. Problem with that is that social engineering isn't easy, and if it is overdone it can easily backfire. "The Vision" is social engineering gone wrong, and has been thoroughly discredited by the failing on Vanguard. Yesterday's news about that Chinese game company demanding proof of being female before being allowed to play a female character is another example of bad social engineering.

But that doesn't mean that social engineering in itself is wrong or can't work. You simply need to go from trying to enforce social ties to trying to promote social ties. And as the players of a MMORPG mostly communicate with each other using the systems of the game, there is a huge opportunity here. You can easily foster social ties by simply improving the social features of your game: the chat system, the looking-for-group system, the guild system, and whatever more you can think of.

Except for the introduction of voice chat into MMORPGs, I haven't seen much innovation here. And voice chat isn't actually the best way to meet new people and make friends, although it is useful for friends to cooperate better. If you look at MMORPG chat system, the overwhelming majority is downright primitive, and hasn't evolved at all since Everquest. Many still work with command line /commands to operate them, and are way too complicated for most people. A developer would just need to spend a week using various internet chat systems to come up with hundreds of ideas how to improve in-game chat and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. SOE is ahead of the curve here, offering options like being able to join guild chat from a web browser, or being able to chat to people playing on a different server, or even different game. But even they would really need to invest some time into improving their chat interface.

While facilitating chat is important, you then still need to give people a reason to talk to each other. This is where looking-for-group and guild systems kick in. There is a lot of room for improvement here, even in the market leader World of Warcraft. It is not that some games don't have good ideas in LFG systems, but somebody needs to go and gather all these good ideas and combine them into one coherent and working system. And guilds need much more than a dedicated guild chat channel: A guild should have common projects and goals beyond raiding, and systems that enable guild members to contribute to these goals as well as record their contribution. Knowing what others contributed to the greater good of the guild helps a lot to build trust, and could go a long way to overcome the paranoia and guild hopping going on in WoW for example.

Social engineering in MMORPGs needs to bring people together, enable them to communicate, and give them common goals towards which they can work together. Partial solutions to all that already exist, but developers don't spend enough time on these features. Creating new content is important, but not sufficient for the longevity of a MMORPG.

Blizzard takes a day off

Just kidding, but by a curious coincidence the day of SOE downtime is the same day where patch 2.2 brings an extended downtime to World of Warcraft. Patch 2.2 has patch notes long as my arm, and as I'm not actively playing any more I find it hard to say which of these numerous small changes really have a big impact on the game. But the one thing that sticks out is the introduction of voice chat. Yes, voice chat is now integrated into World of Warcraft. Goodbye Teamspeak and Ventrilo!

Somebody please try it out and comment how good or bad it is working.

Girlz Don't Exist on teh Intarweb

It is well known that Girlz Don't Exist on teh Intarweb. Thus anyone playing a MMORPG with a female avatar must obviously be faking it, and should be banned. The funny story of the week comes to you via Random Battle: A Chinese MMORPG company banned all accounts of female avatars, unless their owners could "prove" their sex with a webcam picture. Read Random Battles list of problems with that approach.

I always considered avatars to be sexless, because in most games they can't even touch each other, but would walk right through each other instead. Being incorporeal makes performing sexual acts pretty much impossible, you can only pretend the visuals for some clever screenshots. The only problem I have with men playing female toons is one of grammer: Do you refer to such a character as him or her? Or it?

Guys create female avatars for many different reasons. Most famous is the "staring at an ass in tights all day" argument of Francis from Scott Kurtz's PvPOnline comic. It has also been reported that males are more helpful and generous towards female avatars than to male avatars. (Same source mentions that statistically 1 out of 2 female toons are played my a man). And then there are simple roleplaying reasons. I had a female gnome warlock with pink hair in WoW, because I liked the dissonance between her cute looks and her "evil" profession. Why any of that should be bannable is a mystery to me.

Most probably the game makers were trying to "protect" the Chinese youth from accidental gay cybersex. Or they were lonely and tried to get their female customers to send them some photos. I don't think this is something that a western game company would ever try.

Defining success

The reader of this blog who signs with the symbol = # # = is busy doomcasting any smaller game I mention based on the number of reader comments my post gets. While that is a rather inaccurate measure of hype, and thus not a good predictor of success, we might need to have a look at how we want to define success or doom for a new MMORPG. And with us living in a capitalist system, success is probably best defined as financial success. A financial success keeps a company afloat, and allows them to develop more games. A financial flop gets everybody fired and the remains of the game acquired by SOE. ;)

We often correlate financial success with subscriber numbers. Even in a very rough approximation that is only valid for games with a monthly subscription fee model. Of the famous "9 million" WoW players, at least 6 million don't pay monthly fees, because WoW is on a pay-per-hour business model in Asia. If the average Asian WoW player gets bored and plays only half the amount of time he used to play, Blizzard would only make half the money from him, although it wouldn't change the number of customers Blizzard reports. Games that have micro-transactions or optional fees for premium access can have millions of "residents" without making any money at all, with Second Life being the case in point.

We got so used to these numbers in the millions that we forget that 100,000 subscribers used to be the level which separated the successful from the not-so-successful. Everquest 1 was a bestseller at just over 400,000 subscribers. If you sell your game for around $50 and take a monthly fee of $13 to $15, you make just over $200 per subscriber per year. Thus 100k subscribers result in $20 million revenue per year, which isn't half bad.

But revenue isn't profit, so you need to substract the development cost, cost of capital, distribution cost, and running costs for servers and customer service from that. And there we as players don't get enough information to judge the financial success of a game. I've read that Pirates of the Burning Sea has been in development since 2002, which sounds expensive, but I haven't got a clue what size of a team they had, and whether that came ended up costing as much as World of Warcraft in development, or significantly less. The subscriber numbers for A Tale in the Desert are tiny, a few thousand, but the game is running since 2003, the development team is small, the graphics engine was developed in-house, and apparently they can at least live from what they are making. Earth & Beyond was shut down when its subscriber numbers went down to below 20,000, I don't know what the numbers were for Auto Assault. Asheron's Call 2 was cancelled because it had less than 35,000 subscribers, which was said to be the break-even point.

I think most MMORPGs would be a success with 100,000 subscribers, as long as these subscribers stay in the game. Vanguard sold 142,000 copies, but retained less than 30,000 subscribers after the free month. So lets define success as still having 100k subscribers after one year. Unless the development was excessively expensive, that would probably be a financial success for most games. Too bad many games don't disclose their subscription numbers any more, especially not when they are going down.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Time to level cap

A reader wrote me because he was worried about the effect of server age on the RvR combat of Warhammer Online. RvR in WAR is divided into 4 tiers, so that even the outcome of the RvR between the lowest level characters has some influence on which realm is winning. What happens if like in WoW everybody hits the level cap after a certain time and there are few or now low- to mid-level characters around? I told him not to worry. As far as I've seen in the video podcast the lower tiers contribute to the result of the higher tiers, but it isn't necessary to win the lower tiers to capture the enemy capital and win the war.

But the question assumes that the time to level cap in WAR isn't significantly different from the time to level cap in WoW. And that might be a bit too early to presume. Time to level cap is not the same for all games. With World of Warcraft having been such a huge success, there is a danger that other games copy as many features from WoW as possible, not knowing which one is the secret ingredient. But I don't think that WoW got their time to level cap exactly right, there is still room for optimization.

Early in World of Warcraft's history the PlayOn blog made a census and determined that the average player took 21 days, or 500 hours to level to 60. But their latest count has people leveling to 70 in 15 days, because of players now being more familiar with the game, there being more spoiler sites, and because of all the twinking going on. Wrath of the Lich King raises the level cap to 80, but makes leveling up through the mid-levels faster, so time to level 80 will probably stay below 500 hours.

500 hours or less to level cap is rather short. Everquest wasn't as meticulously studied by third parties as WoW is, but inofficial polls at the time of the Kunark expansion revealed an average of over 2,000 hours to level 60. Personally I never got to the level cap in EQ1, I got stuck at level 42, with some unfortunate deaths costing me so much xp that I didn't level up for weeks until I finally gave up. The problem with the time to level cap is that people tend to experience that time in real-world weeks, regardless of how many hours they play per week. If you'd play only 10 hours per weeks, even WoW would take you a year to reach the level cap, and Everquest would take 4 years, which is way too long. But if you play 40 hours per week, you finish WoW in 3 months, and Everquest in a year.

People like their characters to progress. Advancing too slowly along the leveling curve is bad, but hitting the level cap and not advancing any more except by gathering better gear and reputation is bad too. Some features of a MMORPG, like raids and the ultimate PvP, is only available at the level cap. The level cap is the big equalizer, where all the people playing at different speeds finally end up having the same level and thus being able to play with or against each other without level difference getting into the way. With time to level cap being so short in World of Warcraft, the level cap turned into "the place to be" far too quickly. Many people nowadays just rush through the game to get to level cap, some even paying powerleveling services to level their characters up for them. It is a game design which places the best content at the end which makes people want to skip the leveling part of the game. And I don't think that is the optimum way to do it.

Other games, for example City of Heroes / Villains, did a better job of overcoming the difficulties of level differences before the level cap, by giving players the option to adjust their level to that of their friends and play together with them. It is easy to imagine a game having more content in the low- and mid-levels, and not reserving all the epics for end game raiding and PvP. If there was simply not much interesting stuff to do at the level cap, people wouldn't be in such a rush to reach it. You could make games which took longer to reach the level cap, lets say 1,000 hours, and make all of that time more interesting.

Unfortunately EA Mythic thinks that by offering end game RvR they have found the miracle cure of MMORPG longevity. I'm afraid leveling up in WAR won't take any longer than leveling up in WoW, and after an initial phase of exploration many people will rush to the level cap as fast as they can. It might get even worse than WoW, because some people derive their self-worth out of being able to beat other players in PvP. That is a bit pathetic, but sadly it is part of human nature. And I am not sure that the first rush of kicking ass in realm wars will last very long. I might not be the biggest fan of raid content, but at least it is some sort of content. Relying on players to entertain each other in RvR without the developers contributing any content is probably not going to work for years and years. My hope for WAR is more on the PvE side, because apparently all 6 races have their own zones from level 1 to the level cap. So even if the end game turns out to be boring, WAR might have good replayability. There is always hope.

SOE takes a day off

Well, not really, actually they are probably working very hard today. But for the players the effect is the same: All SOE games will be unavailable today, September 25th, all day long. This is their announcement:
A reminder about tonight’s downtime…

Beginning at 11:30 p.m. PDT on Monday, September 24th, all SOE services will be unavailable so that we can perform significant upgrades to our authentication and account management systems.

Currently we expect this maintenance to take approximately 14 hours. But as first indicated, it could extend to as long as 24. Customer service, chat and support will also be unavailable at this time. Phone support will still be accessible. SOE websites will indeed be inaccessible at that time but there shall be an automatic site redirect that will be continually updated throughout the day as to the progress of the maintenance.
No EQ2 for me today, nor any other SOE game, they are updating the login system for everything it seems. Even the website will be down, but I like the idea how they plan to replace it with a redirect to a status page which is continually updated. I'm not a big fan of long downtimes, nobody is, but when they are unavoidable I really like getting updates on when the servers will be back up. Other MMORPG companies could learn something from SOE here.

Gods & Heroes delayed

Via Common Sense Gamer I heard the news that Perpetual is delaying the release of Gods & Heroes to early 2008. They are also "restructuring", a.k.a. firing people. While Darren worries about the impression that makes, and the fate of the fired people, and the originality of Gods & Heroes, I'm personally more worried about the timing. If WoW's Wrath of the Lich King second expansion, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, Age of Conan and Gods & Heroes are all released around the same date, the latter two are likely to fall through the cracks. Yeah, I'm not a big fan of WotLK, and I have certain doubts about WAR, but I'm pretty sure that these two will sell very, very well. In comparison AoC and G&H are definitely second league.

Speaking of second league, I don't think anyone confuses Pirates of the Burning Sea with the mythical "WoW killer". But apparently PotBS is well on track to be released in time for the christmas business, and lo and behold, now it will be the only MMORPG released then. This is a chance for Flying Labs, they could really profit from this good timing if their game is in a playable state on release. Not talking millions of subscribers here, but over 100,000 would probably be enough to get back the development cost and keep them afloat. I wish them the best of luck.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

WoW raid lockouts

Alcaras has a passionate article on raid lockouts and arena charters in World of Warcraft, features which he accuses of making it harder to play together. Raid lockouts certainly caused a lot of problems in the Burning Crusade, when guilds started raiding Karazhan in two or more groups of ten, and on the next days were stuck with two half raids they couldn't combine. While raiding itself is in no way trivial, the challenges of beating raid bosses do in no way explain why the raiding population is so small. The main problem that keeps many people from raiding is a logistical one.

Nevertheless I don't agree with Alcaras that Blizzard put raid lockouts into the game only to "Prevent people from getting loot too quickly and burning out of the game". Raid lockouts are based on a simple design problem of instances in a persistent world: If a mixed group enter a raid dungeon, whose members range from people who haven't been there at all that week to people who already nearly cleared the place since the last reset, then how should the instance look to them? Should the instance reset to all mobs being alive, or should the players who advanced furthest determine which bosses are already dead? It is easy to see that there is no good answer to that question. Whatever solution you implement, somebody will be unhappy. Some raids would like to be able to beat the first and easiest boss repeatedly each week for maximum loot farming, other raids would prefer to get as far as possible.

Forcing people to stay in the same raid group for several evenings certainly has its disadvantages. But on the other hand it makes some of the social problems of raiding easier to solve, namely loot distribution. Raids by their very nature give out a small number of very good rewards. Thus some raid members get nothing, while others hit the jackpot. This inevitably causes tensions, which guilds try to fix with all sort of DKP systems or other loot distribution schemes. But all these rely on "you help me today, I help you tomorrow", which depends on more or less the same group of people going raiding tomorrow. A system without raid lockouts which would make pickup raids far more feasible would have serious problems with trust. Trust is already the main issue when forming pickup groups of just 5 people, everybody fears ninja looters or players not pulling their weight. Raid lockouts hold raid groups together, and by raiding together repeatedly build trust.

If you want people to be able to raid together without raid lockouts, you need to completely redesign raiding. You need to split up a raid dungeon into several wings, which can be visited separately, finished in 2 to 4 hours, and which reset every day. And then the boss mobs should not drop epics, but give every participant some sort of token, a number of which can be exchanged for tokens. Harder bosses could either give more tokens, or a different kind of token for better rewards.

But for the social structure of a game like World of Warcraft such a changed raiding system would be a blow. We already have a game in which people solo more than they group. Removing the need for guild organization to participate in raiding effectively removes the need for having guilds in the first place. WoW doesn't have any other guild projects, like the player-built and controlled cities of SWG, or building pyramids together in ATITD. Alcaras wants people to play together more easily, but removing all restrictions like raid lockouts also makes people more fungible, easy to be exchanged and replaced. That helps your group or raid right now, but isn't necessarily the best solution for the long term. There must be incentives not only for playing together one evening, but for staying together and making compromises for each others needs.

No WAR for me

Sometimes I get mails asking me how I get into so many betas. Honest answer is that I don't know for sure. But I do assume that the fact that I have been a customer of many of these companies for many years can only help. And some beta applications ask whether I have a "fansite", and although I wouldn't characterize this blog as a fansite, I don't want to split hairs and give them the URL of this blog. Maybe some companies are interested in having bloggers write about their game.

Not so EA Mythic. I never got an invite into the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning beta, and I'm beginning to suspect why: EA Mythic is inviting everybody *but* people with a blog or fansite. The just put up another contest to win beta keys and that one specifically says that "No members of the web or print media, moderators or volunteers for a fansite, may enter". Apparently I'm not welcome, and by being honest in my beta application I have excluded myself from getting a beta slot. Seems they don't want the free advertising they would get from blogs. Makes you wonder what they have to hide.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

DVD's long tail

After having finished watching season one of Boston Legal last week (William Shatner is just great), I went shopping today to get season two. But no luck. Neither did I find Ally McBeal season one, or Grey's Anatomy season one, although season two of that was stacked high in the store. I ended up with M*A*S*H season one, and The Shield season four.

Two or three years ago there were very few TV series on DVD available, and a DVD store basically had them all. Now more and more are coming out, and shelf space is limited, so not everything is stocked any more. It's getting to be just like books, where a bookstore only has the bestsellers available, you'll need to order anything else. The large number of not-bestsellers is called the "long tail", and is often quoted as one of the success reasons for Guess that is where I'll be heading to buy my DVDs.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The virtual property debate revisited

Appearances can be deceiving. Most players of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft believe that they somehow own their characters, and the virtual items on those characters. And they also believe that these virtual properties have some dollar value, as there are obviously people buying and selling virtual items and accounts. But in reality the legal situation in most countries remains unresolved, only China had some virtual property lawsuits resolved in court. The position of most game companies is that they are the sole owner of all characters and their virtual possessions, and that these virtual items have absolutely no value, as you aren't allowed to buy or sell accounts or virtual items. But they are doing their utmost to never have that question be resolved in a court of law in the US, because the consequence could be terrible for the game companies as well as the players.

The biggest concern for the game companies is that if virtual property has a value, then the game company could be liable for any losses. Every game company is aware that MMORPGs won't be commercially viable forever, so one day even the biggest game is going to be shut down. But if virtual property has value and is owned by the players, closing down the servers decreases that value to zero, and the players could sue the game company for damages. Similar damages could occur if virtual property gets destroyed by bugs. And every patch and change to the game might change the value of the existing virtual property, likewise causing property damage to the players. A good example is the Burning Crusade expansion, which diminished the value of the WoW gold piece due to increased availability, and totally destroyed the value of level 60 epics and similar virtual items.

But the players wouldn't be better off if some court decided that they own whatever their avatar carries and that this virtual property is valuable. Look at the guy who just sold his account for $10,000. Apart from other legal problems, he just received $10,000 of taxable income. If he fails to declare it he'll make himself guilty of tax fraud. If he declares it, he'll have to pay some income tax on it. As he received real money, the tax situation is pretty much clear here. But what about some other player who happens to have a character just like the one that got sold for $10,000, but doesn't want to sell it? Taxable income isn't limited to cash earnings only. The tax authorities could easily argue that the player "earned" the current value of his character, and after deducing the cost for the WoW game and monthly fee, the player would be liable for taxes on the added value. If you find the Sword of Uberness in the game, and this sword has a value of $100, you'll have to pay taxes on $100 of income. You'd also need to pay taxes on every gold piece you find. That would make a game like World of Warcraft prohibitively expensive very quickly.

So at least in what regards the value of virtual property, it is better to regard it as worthless or near worthless. This is easy to defend: The money people get for gold and virtual items on EBay or gold selling sites is only the "black market" value, which is very much inflated because the trade isn't allowed and risks your account getting banned. A game company like Blizzard could easily produce WoW gold out of thin air and sell it for a tiny fraction of the current market value. They just don't do it because it would harm the game, even if it would be a surefire way to ruin all gold farmers.

In property rights I think with time there will be some development where players get slightly more rights than they have now. The current situation where the game company can ban you for whatever reason they see fit, including for founding a "gay friendly" guild or an "extreme erotic roleplaying" guild, is probably not going to be the last word. Especially with business models like lifetime subscriptions sooner or later a customer is going to sue if his lifetime subscription account is banned after a short while because the game company doesn't like his lifestyle. And just like Microsoft ran into trouble with the European authorities over some too restrictive terms in their Windows Vista license agreement, game companies might find that restricting account access to only one person is against some national laws. Blizzard isn't quite as big as Microsoft yet, but the more widespread MMORPGs become, the more likely it becomes that their EULAs and ToSs get scrutinied by some lawyer.

Sooner or later we'll see a big US lawsuit about virtual property rights. And that could have a big impact on game design, for example forcing all items to be bind on pickup to avoid them becoming a tradeable virtual property. But until some court decides, we'll remain in a legal gray zone on virtual property.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

World of Warcraft Internet TV

Sites like YouTube have thousands of World of Warcraft videos showing boss fights and other achievements. Most of them are really, really bad. There are no or just minimal comments, the video is blurry, and the purpose seems to be bragging much more than giving information. So the guys from ON Networks sensed unmet demand, and produced ON Warcraft, a World of Warcraft downloadable TV show. The show has two hosts giving comments like anchormen of a sport show, leading you through the instances of World of Warcraft. Currently only the Hellfire Ramparts videos are available, but the fact that this one instance is covered in 4 videos shows you the level of detail. I'm embedding the first video, giving a general overview of Hellfire Ramparts, including basic stuff on how to get there, at the bottom of this post. The other three videos are about the three boss fights. You can get the videos on the ON Warcraft site, or via iTunes.

Pirates of the Burning Sea preorder

The release date of Pirates of the Burning Sea hasn't been announced yet, but the preorder date has. Starting from October 23 you can get the preorder box at retailers, for which you get a PotBS music CD, a parrot and sword in game, and 15 days of early access with a level cap of 20 to the game. Which is good for people that don't preorder too, because the preorder players will already kick-start the player-run economy.

Do the math: The release date of PotBS can't be before November 7 (15 days after preorder). And they probably don't want you to buy the box and then not be able to use it for weeks. Plus they will want to get the game out before the end of November, for the christmas shopping period. So most likely release date is somewhere around the middle of November. I'm looking forward to it.

Raph's new game

It's "Raph Koster week" in the MMO blogosphere, with everybody discussing his new Metaplace project. What I missed in my first discussion of it is something that was hidden in Community Director Cuppycake's blog: "And of course, the part you’re all waiting for. We’re making Raph’s new worldy MMO in our platform. Yes, we’re spending all of our time talking about the tech right now and how open ended it all is. But we are gamers too, and a good part of why we’re doing this is to make the cool games that we want to make. We’re still in the early stages on that, but you can expect to hear more about this game in the next few months."

Nice synergy here, making a game platform and a game at the same time. If the game is good, the promise that you could make your own MMORPG using the same tools sounds even more exciting. The only part that has me worried here is the adjective "worldy". And I'm not talking about the fact that you can't use that word in Scrabble, because it isn't a real word. In the not-quite-official dictionary of gamers, "worldy" is the opposite of "gamey", and the debate whether MMORPGs should be more a virtual world or more a game is as old as UO and Everquest. After gamey MMORPGs were commercially more successful than worldy ones, their paths split. Most worldy MMOs are now of the free-to-play kind, while gamey MMOs mostly stick to the monthly fee business model. So by only counting number of users, worldy MMOs seem to be as successful as gamey ones, by counting everyone who ever spent 5 minutes in it as a user. If you count revenue and profits, or even just hours spent, gamey MMOs clearly won.

World of Warcraft is on the extreme gamey end of the scale, with Second Life being on the extreme worldy other end. I often wish that WoW would move a bit more towards being worldy, for example by introducing player housing and better community communication tools. But that doesn't mean that I'm a proponent of the worldy type of MMORPG. What I want is a good mix, and that mix probably has more than 50% game in it, and less than 50% world. A new worldy game by Raph makes me question how worldy exactly this is going to be, and whether there will be enough gamey components to make it any good. I don't know if you ever played The Sims Online, which was a worldy MMO with too few game components, and it was a disaster. And after some initial hype, the Second Life enthusiasm of the press is rapidly deflating as well.

I'd love to have the feeling that I'm living in a virtual world, owning a house there, being part of a community, and all that. But I don't want to spend the majority of my time in that virtual world with shopping or decorating. I need MMORPG game elements to keep me occupied. Whether I'll be a troll warrior, a pirate, or a space trader I don't mind. But I don't want to play some lazy layabout with nothing to do all day. For that I can go on holidays in the real world and do nothing for three weeks, and it would be much better. I can't battle ogres, rescue princesses, or build a spaceship in real life, that is what virtual worlds are for.

The West Wing

Some time ago I bought The West Wing on DVD, and recently I finished watching them all, all 7 seasons, over 150 episodes. And I liked it a lot. Not just because it is good TV, in fact the later seasons aren't quite as good than the earlier ones, they are getting to much soap opera like. They didn't go for a Soprano finale leaving everything open, but neatly resolved everything at the end, getting everybody in bed with their secret love and all. But the fun part of watching The West Wing is the learning experience, especially for somebody who is not an American.

The United States of America have a unique political system, with some features like the electoral college or the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary being hard to understand for foreigners (actually they might be hard to understand for Americans as well). This year's fight over the primary calender doesn't have an equivalent in other countries. There is a lot of tradition involved in US election rules and customs, and some of them date back over 200 years. The electoral college for example is a brilliant solution if you want to hold nationwide elections of a president in a time before the telegraph was invented. And once you introduced those rules, they are very hard to change, because every change disadvantages somebody, who will veto the process. There is a very funny episode in The West Wing, where some delegation from an ex-communist country comes to study the US constitution, and the White House staff tries to explain them that this is in fact not the ideal solution for them, even if it works good enough for the US.

So while the later seasons of The West Wing weren't quite as good as the earlier ones, they happen to cover a complete presidential election, from primaries to inauguration, in great detail. And because the people in the series are fictional, they can say things about the process that real politicians rarely do. At the end one has a pretty good idea how a US presidential election works, and the news from real 2008 election are getting a lot easier to understand. You learn something from The West Wing, and that is what makes it fun. Apparently Raph Koster's Theory of Fun is valid for other things than games too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Build your own MMORPG

Not many MMORPG game developers are famous enough to have their own Wikipedia entry, but Raph Koster has one. Koster was lead designer for Ultima Online (good!) and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies (not-so-good). Then he wrote a book about the Theory of Fun. And a year ago he founded a company named Areae and started working on a secret project. That secret project has been revealed today, and is called Metaplace. The news is all over the net, although it isn't quite clear whether that is due to Metaplace being such a brilliant idea, or due to the celebrity status of Raph. Let's hope it's both.

The idea of Metaplace is to allow normal people like you and me with minimal programming experience and no budget to build their own games, including but not limited to their own MMORPGs. All the tools you need will be web-based, and you can stick the result on your own website, blog, even your MySpace entry. And you can have your game have a "door" leading to somebody else's game, connecting the two. If you are a firm believer in the Web 2.0, this is Web 2.0 game design. You can sign up for the alpha (!!!) version on the Metaplace website.

The other extreme point of view is if you are firm believer of Sturgeon's Law, that 90% of everything is crap. Cynics might say Raph created Metaplace as the ultimate weapon against all those who ask why the author of Theory of Fun was creative director of the not-so-much-fun SWG: Go ahead, make a better game, here are the tools!

Me, personally, I'm somewhere in the middle between those two extreme opinions. (That happens to me quite often. I must be a centrist.) Much user-created content on any platform will turn out to be crap. But even if Sturgeon is right and 90% is crap, that still leaves us with 10% of good stuff, we then just need tools to rank it and find it. I played a lot of single-player games which came with a map editor, and many of the user-created maps you could find on the internet were as good as the developer created maps. It all depends on the quality of the tools. I can't say anything about the quality of the Metaplace tools yet. I'm not even sure I will try it, because I haven't really programmed anything since the 80's, and I don't have tons of free time on my hands. But if somebody sends me a link to some Metaplace-powered game he created, I'd love to have a look at it from the player's point of view. I'm much better as a player commenter than as a developer. I do armchair development in my blog, but even that is more meant as a comment of what I would like to see than as a plan to develop my own much better game.

So for now my main doubt about the whole thing is the "meta" part, where all these individual game creations get connected into a huge meta game. I can't even start to imagine how that could possibly work, except by attaching a fancy meta label to the mundane fact that you can switch from one game to another. At first the idea might sound great, the equivalent of my level 70 troll warrior from WoW being able to walk into Everquest 2 and continue playing there. But there are some obvious problems: How do you translate all of my stats, abilities, and equipment into another game? What if leveling in WoW is much faster than leveling in EQ2, would I keep my level 70? And what if my troll warrior didn't walk into EQ2 but into EVE Online, how do you translate from one genre into the next? What if the name I'm using for my character is already taken in the other game I'm moving to. And so on, and so on, the list of potential problems of the meta concept is endless. And if nothing remains from my WoW character when I move him to somewhere else, but end up in EQ2 as a level 1 newbie with a different name, class, and race, well, then I already did that when quitting WoW and starting EQ2. Nothing meta about it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Encouraged grouping

Social ties are important in a MMORPG, they contribute a lot to the longevity of the game. But getting people to play together, especially play *nice* together, isn't that easy. Early games tried the concept of enforced grouping, where mobs were simply too hard to kill solo, and people needed to find a group for whatever they wanted to do. That turned out to highly unpopular. Not everybody wants to group all the time. Finding a group requires some unproductive wait time, and then everybody needs to stay together for some time to make the wait worth while. People just wanting a short play session, or likely to be interrupted by real life events, have problems. And in some cases you end up in a horrible pickup group, where the other players play badly and try to grab more than their fair share of the loot. So soloing is a lot more popular.

World of Warcraft did rather well with a concept of optional grouping. You can solo all the way up to the level cap, but some elite quests and all dungeons require a group. And this group content gives out better item rewards than the solo content. A solo player will be mostly dressed in "green" items, while a group player will be mostly dressed in superior "blue" items. That system worked quite well in the early days of WoW. Unfortunately in the long term there are two problems with it: The end game at the level cap has relatively little solo content and a lot more group and raid content. And the older a server gets, the fewer players are available for grouping in the lower levels, often forcing everybody to solo because there simply isn't a group to be found for the dungeon you want to go to. It can be argued that the pendulum has swung too far to the soloing side, and that people should be encouraged to group a bit more.

So how could encouraged grouping look? We don't want to make soloing impossible, or restrict it to limited content. Some people will always want to solo, for personal reasons or because of the length of their play sessions, and we need to accomodate those. What we need to look at is the middle field, the people who are deciding on whether to group or to solo based on the situation, and what is in it for them. And in a game like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online we will see that these people simply don't group because it isn't efficient. If you are on an average quest to kill ten foozles (I would have said rats, but I didn't want to infringe on somebody's copyright) you get more experience and treasure per hour if you solo the quest than if you group to do it.

The key to this the group experience bonus. If you solo a mob worth 100 xp, you get 100 xp. If you kill the same mob in a group of five players, you get 20 xp (100 divided by 5) plus the group experience bonus. That group experience bonus is relatively small in WoW, so you end up with something like 24 xp for killing that mob. So unless your group has formed instantly and then kills mobs more than 4 times faster than you would solo, you get less experience points per hour in a group than if you soloed.

This opens up great possibilities for tuning. Imagine if killing a 100 xp mob in a group gave 100 xp. As killing in a group is easier and faster than killing solo, grouping would be hugely popular. If the group bonus would be even higher, lets say 200 xp for killing a mob in a group which gives only 100 xp when solo, it would be as if grouping was required, as in a group you'd earn xp much, much faster than solo, and solo would feel like a slow grind compared to group play. Thus by tweaking only one single parameter in the game, the group experience bonus, we can go all the way from a game where everybody soloes to a game where everybody groups. All that needs to be done is to find the right level for the group bonus.

Now I don't know where the right level is. How many xp should a character get for killing a mob in a group of 5, if the same mob gave him 100 xp when soloed? I think 24 xp like in WoW is too little. 100 xp or more is too much. But you'd need a huge field experiment to find out whether the good level is 40 xp, 60 xp, or 80 xp. The bonus should be large enough for players to "risk" joining a pickup group. Yes, I know how much people hate pickup groups, but that is a viscious cycle: good players don't join pickup groups, so pickup groups are full of bad players, so playing in a pickup group is often a bad experience. If a group experience bonus would persuade even good players to join pickup groups more often, the quality of those groups would increase, and they would be less horrible. Sure, you'd get unlucky sometimes and still end up with the idiots and ninja looters. But that would be compensated by gaining more xp whenever you find a decent pickup group. And once in a while you'll find a great pickup group, and end up making new friends. And there would be the real value of making groups more popular.

A simple model of MMORPGs

Modern MMORPGs are multi-million dollar projects, and thus come with so many bells and whistles that we forget what these games are about. What I am going to try here is to look beyond particular games and explore the root purpose and means to achieve that purpose of a MMORPG. Thereby I hope to construct a simple model of MMORPGs in general, and see how features work or fail when compared to the model.

A game is defined as an interactive entertainment undertaken for enjoyment. In a MMORPG the interactivity has a social component, interaction with other players, and a more static component of interaction with the game itself. The interaction with the game comes in two basic flavors: repetitive and non-repetitive. A typical example for a repetitive interaction would be a combat. While playing a MMORPG you will have many combats, and while the exact details might slightly vary, the basic gameplay of combat is always the same and repetitive. Having such a repetitive component differentiates a MMORPG from other forms of entertainment, like most books or movies. The advantage for the game developer of having basic repetitive units in a game is that you only need to program them once and get many hours of entertainment out of it. But that is not to say that repetitive is bad for the players; for example combats being similar to each other allows players to learn how to do them best by trial and error, until they ultimately master the activity, which can be a lot of fun.

If you consider the basic repetitive units as the bricks of a MMORPG, the non-repetitive part is the mortar that keeps those bricks from falling over. We usually call this non-repetitive part the "content" of the game. Content is everything that isn't repetitive: zones, quests, or the game's lore. Doing just one fight after the other quickly becomes boring; but doing quests that encourage you to explore zones are much more interesting, even if that leads to repeated combats against the same type of mob.

And that is already the simplest form of the model: basic repetitive units like combat surrounded by non-repetitive content like quests. All the other stuff, gaining experience, leveling up, equipping yourself, collecting magical treasures, is all just virtual rewards, a Skinner Box to motivate us to keep playing the content and basic repetitive units of the game. And while anything with a chat function is open to an infinite multitude of social interaction, the social tools in a MMORPG are mostly designed to enable people to go through the basic repetitive units and content together. The goal is to keep you entertained, which is exactly what the player wants, but also to keep you paying for it, which is what the game company wants.

How well a MMORPG succeeds in keeping you entertained (and paying) depends on the quality and variety of the basic repetitive units, as well as the quality and quantity of the non-repetitive content. Quality is difficult: Everybody wants it, but nobody has a clear idea on how to produce it, except by throwing tons of money at the problem during development. Quantity of content is also money-related, because designing a good zone or quest takes development time, and providing lots of good zones and quests takes lots of time, thus costs lots of money. Cheap cop-outs like copying and pasting content, or randomizing the creation of zones and quests, have been proven to not work; you can't make the part of your game that is supposed to be non-repetitive into another repetitive part. It leaves you with too little content to hold the game together.

But seeing how much entertainment players get out of combat, a basic repetitive unit which is relatively cheap to produce, it is surprising how few games manage to add a larger variety of high-quality basic repetitive units. Instead of making for example crafting into an activity which is as entertaining as combat, and thus would keep people entertained for a long time, many games reduced it to a few simple clicks, which isn't entertaining at all. Adding other mini-games, like card games, to a MMORPG is still at a very early stage of development, a promising one. Whenever developers add features to a game, they need to consider how much time players can actually spend playing with those features. Why introduce a feature like player housing when all the house does is sit there? Having housing as just another money sink, without any play value, is a waste of development time.

So I think the future of MMORPGs is adding a larger variety of basic repetitive units which are equally entertaining. Instead of having a brick wall, where all the bricks are nearly the same, held together by the mortar of content, we get a stone wall with many different forms of stones. Players get a larger choice of activities to pursue at any given moment, which leads to repetitive features becoming boring less quickly. MMORPGs are already much advanced, offering a thousand and more hours of entertainment, instead of less than a hundred hours like a single-player game. But that still puts us on a cycle where few players play the same game for longer than three years. MMORPGs need to evolve further to break through that barrier.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Buying nothing for $10,000

A reader alerted me to a story my role-playing friends were already talking about: Some guy bought another guy's account with one of the best-equipped rogues in the world for 7,000 Euro, which is just under $10,000. WoWInsider suggests that the buyer then got banned, while the seller levels a new rogue with the help of his old guild.

I never understood the interest of buying an account. I "get" RMT, where you basically boost your own existing character. But why would you want to buy somebody else's character? That rogue might be powerful in his tier 6 armor and wielding legendary twin blades of Azzinoth. But such a character is also very, very close to a virtual GAME OVER screen. Even if the buyer wasn't banned, he would be unable to further develop the character. He doesn't know all that well how to play him, and he has neither the knowledge nor the social connections that would allow him to raid effectively. The character is about as useful as a gold statue, pretty but useless. You can gank some other people in PvP, but how long is that going to be fun if you can't even use the rewards?

While banning the account was the only thing Blizzard could do once the story broke, it kind of hurts the wrong guy. Buying something useless for $10,000 is stupid, but selling it is downright criminal. Especially with the buyers guild helping him to make a new rogue. It seems I have forgotten to list this particular option in my list of end game options: Sell your character and restart. How exactly is that different from gold farming? In both cases you convert time you invested into the game into cold, hard cash. Blizzard should ban the seller's IP and credit card, and slap his guild on the wrist for helping him start over.

On meme strike

While you would think that the idea of chain letters is dead, it is in fact still living on in the form of blog "memes". Bildo tagged me. But while I participated in such a meme once, I never really liked the idea. Thus I decided to go on strike, and not participate in this meme.

One contributing factor was that the meme wasn't a very interesting one. Come on! Couldn't the original author come up with something better than "4 jobs you had, 4 TV shows you like, 4 places you lived, etc."? Answering that feels like filling out a tax form or something. With a meme like "5 things you didn't know about me" you at least get a large degree of freedom what you want to answer.

Another thing is that you don't know who tagged you, unless you read that person's blog. No disrespect to my fellow bloggers, but I won't guarantee to anyone of you that I'm reading your blog regularly, and thus would automatically be aware of any tag. I read blogs in bursts, some days I read a lot of them, on other days I don't read any. I wouldn't want anyone to be disappointed because he tagged me and I never replied.

So I'm reserving my freedom to opt out of any memes I'm being tagged with, unless they are particularly interesting.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Community - Does it matter?

Keen from Keen and Graev worries about Warhammer Online community management. Apparently Warhammer Online doesn't have official forums, only the WAR Herald to announce stuff. And the new WAR community managers aren't very visible on the various WAR fan sites. Which leads us to the question of whether a game *should* have official forums, or, if not, community managers *should* post a lot on fansites. How much does the fabled "community" matter?

In no way would I want to imply that community managers aren't useful or aren't doing a great job in many cases. Grimwell would kill me if I suggested that. :) But fact is that the so-called "community" is only a small part of the player base. A great many players, especially casual players, can play a game for months or even years without visiting the forums even once. And of those who do stumble into the forums and ask a honest newbie question, the typical response of a gaming forum (ridicule, flaming, derailing the thread, anything but a helpful response) leaves most scarred for life and they don't come back.

*Warning: I'm now going to cite a politically incorrect joke. My apologies to the handicapped community!* I once read a forum post stating that winning an argument on a forum was like winning the special olympics; you won, but you're still a retard. And while that is an extreme and nasty way to express it, jokes are only funny if they contain a kernel of truth. Do we really need a place for people to post "nerf warlocks!" threads on? Or are the kind of people who whine in a language that only faintly resembles English about minute details of the game to be considered as borderline obsessed and should better be ignored?

What games need is a community manager who keeps people informed about what is going on, especially when something went wrong. I remember when EQ2 had a 48-hour breakdown shortly after release, and the community manager posted an update every hour, just to say that the servers were still down, and they didn't know when they would be up. And that was the best community service I've ever encountered, most games fare much worse. World of Warcraft has the unique problem that when the servers are down, so many people check the server status page and forums that they add up to an involuntary denial-of-service attack, making it impossible to reach the server status page. Not that this page is very useful, because when there is a problem with the login servers, the server status page shows all servers as up, only that nobody can reach them. Having a dedicated low-bandwidth announcement page where in case of any sort of server problem the situation is described, including what sort of error message you are likely to see, and updated every hour, would be a great improvement for all MMORPGs.

I'm less convinced that community managers should argue details of game design with a few diehards on a game's official forums. I'm all for devs making public their reasoning for certain features of game design, especially when they change features. But that could better be done on some sort of developer blog, or a "Herald" site, or even in interviews. The "blue post" on page 17 of a thread on the official forums is not visible enough; why take time to explain something to so few people and leave the rest in the dark? There is a reason why some fans started "blue tracker" websites, extracting the dev posts from the surrounding mess.

I'm not even sure community managers or developers should *read* forums, official or otherwise. The people who post there tend to be a vocal minority, and tuning the game to follow the demands of that minority isn't in the best interest of the game. And it isn't even possible to please that minority; for every person demanding a change, you'll get two persons to complain about it if you actually change it. One key experience I had back in the days of Everquest 1 was when the devs after years of complaints finally made the underpowered hybrid classes more powerful, and then some paladins started complaining that they had leveled all the way up to the level cap under the old hard rules, and it wasn't fair that new paladins would have it much easier. And nothing drives a forum community into a frenzy like a dev saying "I read this idea here on the forums and I implemented it". Then everybody comes out of the woodwork to demand that their ideas are implemented too, and complain that whatever the change was about was less important than their pet peeve. Community managers are better employed as silent observers of many sources of feedback, without appearing to give preference to one. And they have to filter what they read through a reality check, and make sure it isn't just the opinion of a few crackheads.

So I'm not convinced the situation for Warhammer Online is that bad. If they want to have no official forums, and communicate very little on fansites, but instead concentrate on the WAR Herald, that might actually be a good idea. The game isn't even released yet, discussing too much of it's design already would probably not be wise. We are already fed enough information via newsletters and video podcasts.


This is my 1,500th post. Now excuse me while I use an offline browser program to make a backup of my blog.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Improving player-run economy

The auction house in World of Warcraft is a wonderful tool if you want to sell your Sword of Uberness to the highest bidder. But this specific setup of auction house isn't ideal for trading commodities. There is a very long post on a Pirates of the Burning Sea developer's blog on why their auction house is better for trade in commodities (My thanks to Pendan, who posted that link in my comments section Friday.) But are invisible prices really the best we can do? I think further improvement is possible.

Player-run economies suffer from various problems. One is the very start, where all the auction houses are empty, and people can't produce goods because they lack the other goods they need to build the production facilities. GMs then usually "seed" the auction houses with goods, until some clever player comes and buys out all the seeded goods to resell them for twice the money. But even long after the start it is possible that some good simply isn't available at all, stopping a player from doing whatever it was he wanted to do. Other goods are in abundant supply, causing the underbidding wars described in the dev post above. When players sell items on the auction house for less than they are worth to an NPC, or less than they cost to produce if there is a production cost, the economy has a problem too.

What would be needed is a better regulated market, in which each good has a minimum and maximum price. There should be an infinite supply of any good at maximum price, and the market should buy goods in infinite numbers at minimum price. We will also want the market to be dynamic, thus the actual price should fluctuate between minimum and maximum, based on supply and demand. So how do we install such a system?

Easy, we get rid of the auction house, and install an NPC broker instead. This broker will buy and sell any trade good there is in the game. When you open the broker window and select a good, lets say iron, you'll see a pyramid which is partially filled starting from the top and has several segments. This represents the iron "market" at this broker. Each segment of the pyramid is a price level, with the price marked next to it. At the top of the pyramid is the maximum price we want to allow for this good. If the pyramid is completely empty, people can still buy iron, but only at this maximum price. They can also sell iron at the maximum price, but the more they sell, the more the pyramid fills up, until the first segment is full, and any further good is sold at the next lower price. If the pyramid is completely filled, you can still buy and sell at the lowest price. Every good has its own pyramid. And if your game allows for transport (like EVE Online or PotBS), you can have brokers with different prices at different locations, with players able to make a profit by buying low and selling high, thus moving these different markets towards equilibrium.

The disadvantage of this system is that the player can no longer freely choose a price, he can only accept or not accept the current price. Given how irrational player pricing has turned out, that might actually not be such a bad thing. The big advantage of the system is that both buying and selling happens immediately. In an auction system only buyouts happen immediately. For bids you need to wait for the auction to end. And worst off in an auction system are the sellers, who need to wait for somebody to buy their goods, sometimes waiting in vain. Much of the bad pricing in a WoW auction house can be explained by the fear of not selling at all. The pyramid broker market works as an intermediate, buying and selling instantly, and holding all the inventory with a computer-typical endless patience. All the trade goods are always available, at a price.

Oh, and if the game besides trade goods also has more unique items, you can have the pyramid broker market and the auction house in parallel. The broker is for all commodities: the raw materials and intermediate goods of crafting, as well as all consumables and crafted goods that you'd want always available. The auction house is for selling the Sword of Uberness to the highest bidder.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pirate-run economy?

Trinity from has an interesting article on the economy of Pirates of the Burning Sea, describing the system and asking whether it will work. I sure hope it does, but I have my doubts, which I would like to list here:

1) Crafting in PotBS is not an activity taking up any significant amount of time. You have 10 production lots, which produce X items per real-time day, whether you are online or offline. Quote: "For example, you might have a lumber mill, with a corresponding recipe to turn oak logs into planks. A structure starts accumulating “stored labor” from the time you set it up, and each recipe has a requisite “stored labor” component. In other words, before you can start producing the planks, you have to have the required number of hours of stored labor on your mill. Once you have that, all you have to do is click on a button, and the planks are produced immediately." Emphasis is mine. Second quote: "Materials/product movement will be done manually, ie. you have to actually transport goods from one port to another in your ship. No UPS delivery through the mail." Which tells me that there is no "crafting game" per se, there is only a transportation game. Once you have your 10 trading structures up and running, you just log on once a day, click a button, and immediately produce items out of all the stored labor in your structures. Put the stuff on the local auction house, and log off again, having played just 5 minutes. That is nice and easy for people who *don't* like crafting, but doesn't sound very interesting for people who do like it.

2) Apart from not taking any time, the system also appears to tend towards being static. You are limited to 10 lots per account, thus expansion of your business isn't possible unless you two-box. Once you filled all 10 lots with some production structure, they are going to produce the same X items every day. You can probably destroy structures and build new ones, but as that apparently costs money and materials, there isn't any profit in changing too often. Once you found some production chain that makes a product that sells well, there isn't much incentive to change. The whole thing becomes a source of free gold, with no decisions or effort required from you. Just produce the same stuff every day and sell it.

3) The only challenge lies in transporting stuff, because obviously the prices for oak in a port where oak can be produced will tend towards zero profit. So you load your ship full of oak and sail to somewhere where there is none, selling it at a profit. There are two extreme risks involved with that: either it is boring, or you are being robbed by pirates. I'm not sure how the developers plan to make shipping oak from port A to port B fun. You could increase the excitement level by going through PvP zones, but after being ganked by pirates a couple of times you probably stop doing that.

Quote Trinity again: "What excites me - and no doubt all other spreadsheet/database geeks - about the concept is the challenge of figuring out what to produce, how to make it, where to set up my factory, where to sell the product, and how much to sell it for." Yep, that excites me too. But what happens once I figured it out? Once my spreadsheet tells me that I should build 6 oak lumber camps, which produce enough oak for 3 lumber mills, which produce enough oak planks for 1 ship mast factory, and I set all that up, what then? I'll be stuck as a ship mast salesman, transporting ship masts from my home port to some port where other players have set up ship building factories using lots of masts. The only excitement will be whether I will be ganked on the way there, and I can avoid that by only going when there is no PvP currently on in those two ports. That gives me flashbacks to Earth & Beyond, where trade was also static. Once you found out the best trading route, you went that same route over and over, until you got bored, quit the game, and forced EA to shut Earth & Beyond down after 2 years.

The only hope is that the trade actions of other players and the PvP wars make change profitability over time to a degree where at some point selling ship masts isn't a good idea any more and building a new production chain to produce cannon balls is worth the investment. I just wonder how often that will happen, and whether that is enough to keep me busy playing as a trader.

Imagine WoW without levels

In yesterday's discussion of end game option I mentioned that MMORPG games are scaleable. And several commenters mentioned that they would prefer games without levels. So I was thinking how to combine these facts and make levels in WoW irrelevant and came up with several different solutions. Imagine the following hypothetical World of Warcrafts:

A) All instances would scale the difficulty of their monsters and all the rewards according to the level of the group entering the dungeon. If a level 70 group entered the Deadmines, the mobs would be level 70, and there would be level 70 blue items dropping. If a level 20 raid group entered Karazhan, the mobs would level 20ish. The bosses would drop purple epics, but they would be level 20 epics, barely better than level 20 blue gear. Thus dungeons would never become irrelevant. If you liked Gnomeregan, you could go there with your friends at whatever level you are, and always get rewards appropriate to your level.

B) The dungeons of World of Warcraft would remain at the level where they are. But whenever a group enters the dungeon, all group members are set to the standard level of the dungeon, regardless of their previous level. So a level 20 could group with a level 70 and other characters of whatever level, and when they enter the cathedral part of Scarlet Monastery, they would all be level 42. Their gear would likewise be scaled up or down to level 42. The monsters would drop whatever item they usually drop, for example Whitemane's Chapeau from High Inquisitor Whitemane. In the instance everybody would see the normal stats of that item (Cloth head armor, 52 Armor, +14 Spirit, +14 Intellect, +9 Stamina). But once out of the dungeon, the chapeau adjusts to the real level of the user at the time he entered the dungeon. Thus it would always remain a head cloth armor with bonuses to spirit, intellect, and stamina; but for a level 20 it would give less of those than normal, and for a level 70 it would give more.

C) The most radical solution would be to forget about levels altogether. Every character on creation starts in a single-player instance, or even offline like in Age of Conan. In this instance he levels up to 70 in a few hours, learning all the spells and abilities of his class. Once he enters the multiplayer part of the World of Warcraft, all the monsters he sees are level 70, all zones are level 70, as well as all dungeons. With everything at the same level, basically there are no levels any more.

I don't think that any of these hypothetical WoW's would work much better than the current one. It solves some problems of content becoming obsolete, or people not able to play with each other. But it creates bigger problems with a loss of motivation. Leveling up and character development are major driving forces of MMORPGs, if you take them away many people just won't be interested any more in playing. If anything would work, then probably a more individual system of mentoring / sidekicks like in Everquest 2 or City of Heroes, with people being able to adjust their level to that of a friend to play together. But I don't see that used all that often in EQ2, because the rewards don't scale.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

EQ2 as knowledge-based gaming

My excuses if this EQ2 post sounds a bit like the last one, but I did something similar in EQ2 to what I did last weekend, and it made me realize some things. My warden is level 16 now, and in Kelethin I got offered a quest which was obviously the start of a series of crafting quests. Oh, interesting! I already did some of the simple crafting quests, make X items and receive status and money for them, but this one appeared to be more complex.

The first step of the quest told me that for the crafting I'd need lots of materials, and asked me to travel to Thundering Steppes and gather 50 tier 3 resources there. Now if I had been a total noob, that would have been the end of it. At that point of the game there isn't even a safe way for a level 16 character to *get* to the Thundering Steppes, and with the place swarming with aggressive mobs in the mid-20s, it is hardly safe to gather resources there. But I had two things going for me: One was the probably most popular spell in the history of the Everquest series, Spirit of Wolf, or SoW for short, which makes me run much faster, enabling me to outrun many mobs. The other was previous knowledge.

I knew that on the west side of Thundering Steppes there is a large area full of non-aggressive centaurs with lots of resources, because I had gathered those resources with my level 14 guardian / 26 carpenter 3 years ago. (The centaurs are kind of funny, because the females wear panties between their front legs, which if you think about centaur anatomy doesn't make sense at all. There isn't anything to cover there.) And I knew how to get to Thundering Steppes because I had travelled to Antonica last weekend, and getting to the Steppes is even easier, there is a direct boat from Butcherblock docks. So I ran like hell through dangerous Butcherblock, and then again through Thundering Steppes until I arrived at the centaur place. There are some aggressive griffons and lions there, but not all that many, and they are easily avoided. I gathered my 50 resources, plus some extra pelts and roots for my tailoring, even got a few rares, and then teleported back. Next step is crafting something with those resources, I'll see where that leads to this weekend.

But the whole exercise made me realize how important knowledge is in Everquest 2. Not that knowledge isn't helpful in World of Warcraft; but in WoW there is much more hand-holding and guiding you to your destination. There aren't any quests in WoW in the dwarven newbie zone that ask you to go the other continent and gather stuff from Ashenvale, a higher level elvish zone, with no information on how to get there. And WoW quests usually tell you pretty much exactly where you have to go. Not so in Everquest 2. Even the worst WoW quest (finding Mankrik's wife in the Barrens) gives a lot more hints as to where to go compared to many EQ2 quests. I don't know if that quest still exists, but back in 2004 I had a quest in Qeynos that asked me to find "a dwarf in Antonica". With Antonica being twice as big as the Barrens, and no hint whatsoever as to the location, that is a lot harder than finding Mankrik's wife, of who you know at least that she is close to the Gold Road and near the Bristlebacks. In World of Warcraft most quests are for close to where you are, leading you to content appropriate to your level, and once you run out of quests for that corner, there will be a quest leading you to the next higher one. In Everquest 2 quests are all over the place, leading you in many different directions towards content of different levels, and it is up to you to chose where to go. Even newbie quests like "Welcome to Kelethin" ask you to find landmarks of which you are only told the name, with no hint as to their location (I was level 15 by the time I finished that level 7 quest, because I couldn't find the Opal Pond).

What I realized was that this isn't due to bad game design, this is by intent. If you were told where the Opal Pond is, or looked it up on sites like Allakhazam, the quest would be trivial and boring. But if you go exploring on your own you'll learn more about the zone, and the more you explored the zone, the easier it gets to find all those landmarks or mobs for quests, because you remember where you saw them. Quests in EQ2 aren't there to lead you to somewhere like in WoW. In EQ2 quests are there to reward you for the knowledge you acquired about the game. The search for your goal, or the previous exploration that makes you know where that goal is, is an integral and important part of the quest. Or as Raph would say it: It is the learning about the game that is fun.

And up to now that is working very well. I'm having fun exploring Greater Faydark. In the few cases where I really can't find something and get frustrated, I look it up on some website or with my EQmap UI mod (which still messes up my inventory, although I downloaded the latest version, so I haven't loaded it permanently). I would still say that for a player new to MMORPGs World of Warcraft is the better choice. But with growing MMORPG experience at some point you just don't want to be guided any more, and a game where you have to find everything out for yourself is more fun. In EQ2 I have the impression to have a bewildering multitude of options what to do next, and that is not a bad thing. Every day in the game I learn something more, and that is fun. Reading a quest and saying "Hah! I know where that is!" is fun. I call it knowledge-based gaming, and so far I'm enjoying it.