Monday, September 3, 2007

Buying virtual cards with 3-dollar bills

*Long Rant Warning* I've been exploring Legends of Norrath some more, but came away a bit disappointed. But that might be less about the game than about the players. Or maybe the deja vu experience with flashbacks from Magic the Gathering Online just overwhelmed me. LoN isn't even fully live yet, and the trading room already stinks as much of greed and people trying to exploit their fellow players as in MtGO. What is it in trading card games that brings out the worst in people?

I started Legends of Norrath with the one starter deck and two boosters I got for free. The starter was a fighter deck, which meant I could play with that deck, or build a very similar deck, by swapping the few cards from the two boosters that were useable in and out. The cards for mages, priests, and scouts from the boosters were useless to me, not having enough of them to make a deck. So I ended up spending $60 on LoN, buying the other three starter decks and 10 boosters. Now I have a total of 400 cards with enough variety to build different decks for all character classes. When the game goes live, I'll see how hard it is to get cards as drop in EQ2, but I don't plan to invest any more money.

Now LoN, like all other trading card games, has rares, uncommons, and common cards. You can only put 4 cards of the same name in a deck, so if you have more than 4 from anything, you simply don't need them. I had a couple of commons too much, but didn't have every common in the game 4 times. So theoretically now the "trading" part of the trading card game moniker kicks in, where I look for other people in a similar situation and trade my excess commons for their excess commons. As excess commons are basically worthless, this is an ideal win-win situation, as you trade a card that is of no use to you against a card that could still help you build a better deck. In praxis unfortunately that doesn't happen. I hung out an hour in the trading post, traded only one card, and came away with a bad taste in my mouth.

Legends of Norrath has two trading systems: One for automated trades, and one manual. In the automated trade you can post that you would like to trade away card X for card Y, log off, and come back later and hope somebody accepted your trade. This isn't ideal for my situation, because I have several cards to trade away, and am not looking for a specific card Y, but would take any common I don't have 4 of. But I looked through the offered trades, also using the helpful "show all trades where you actually have the cards the other guy wants" function. Most trades were rare card against rare card. Even worse, several trades wanted my rares and offered me a handful of worthless commons in trade, far, far away from the fair value. Scams, basically. The second trade system works by you hanging out in the trading post lobby, occasionally spamming a message about what you want to trade, and reading the messages of other people. Once you thus found somebody to trade with, you click on his name in a list and open a trade window. The trade window is badly done, you need to set a filter to even just see only the cards the other guy has for trade, and then it isn't easy to check how many copies of that card you are looking for. I did one trade like that, but it took some time for both of us to figure it out.

But the reason I could only get one trade done was that nobody was interested in commons or uncommons. Trades were mostly about rares. And actually most trades weren't "trades" in a literal sense, but "buys". Because in LoN, just like in MtGO, you can trade unopened boosters. An unopened booster being worth $3, that turns them into virtual 3-dollar bills. And many, many of the messages in the trading post were about buying or selling the most valuable rares or loot cards for X of these 3-dollar bills. Already foreseen, but not yet implemented, is the introduction of $1 event tickets, which after their release will quickly become the new currency. The trading post is dominated by professional traders, who always try to buy cards cheap from people not sure what their cards are worth, and then turning them around and selling them on for more. To cash in they finally sell the unopened boosters on EBay for slightly under $3. I saw one guy advertising 150 rares for sale, which with only one rare per booster and $3 cost per booster is already a bunch of money. But I assume he didn't buy 150 boosters, but traded up to get those 150 rares, and he'll sell them on for much more than 150 boosters. There doesn't appear to be any room for people who just want to trade cards for cards, without ripping anyone off.

I wonder what kind of tournaments Legends of Norrath is going to offer. The nail in the coffin for me in Magic the Gathering Online was draft tournaments. In a draft you pay 2 event tickets and 3 boosters for participation in a quick 8-player tournament, where the top players receive boosters being worth more than their cost. Thus if you win repeatedly, you make a profit. But the total amount of prizes is worth less than the 8 times (2 tickets plus 3 boosters), so the game company always takes a cut. I never understood how MtGO got away with that. Yes, you're not betting cash or receiving a cash prize. But as tickets and boosters are easily convertible into dollars, you basically pay $8 to participate, in the hope of getting more than $8 of worth in prizes. Which for me is pretty much the definition of online gambling, which happens to be illegal in the US and many other parts of the world. Of course you also keep the cards. So if you are a bad player, you still have a chance of getting more than $8 worth out of your bet, by doing rare-drafting, selecting not the best cards for playing, but the most valuable cards for your collection. Of course that only works really well if you are the only one of the 8 players doing that, with the other 7 prefering powerful commons to hard-to-use valuable rares. And by doing so you distort the draft, passing the powerful commons to your immediate neighbors, who end up with a better than normal deck and a solid advantage in the tournament. I'm not proud to say that I did that sometimes in MtGO, out of spite, hating the "sharks", the professional Magic players emptying the pockets of the average players online just like the poker sharks back in the days of the Wild West. I can just hope that Legends of Norrath won't have that sort of tournament, the game system doesn't seem to be well suited to drafting.

Some bloggers reported that Legends of Norrath was a trading card game without trading. They misunderstood the fact that only the cards dropping in EQ1 and EQ2 would be untradeable in the Everquest games, to prevent people selling them for lots of platinum, driving up the business of gold farmers. But right now I wonder if a collectible card game without trading wouldn't have been the better idea. Real barter trade doesn't happen, people just invent a currency and start buying and selling, aiming for profits instead of fun. The RMT the devs didn't want in Everquest is already dominant in LoN. *End of Rant*

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