Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Indiana Jones Online

Think Lara Croft without the boobs, but online, would that make a great MMORPG? Apart from the sad fact that it wouldn't sell without the boobs, Indiana Jones Online is just my desperate attempt to spin the same news that everybody reports in a different way: Bioware and LucasArts are teaming up to create a new game. And absolutely everybody assumes that it will be Knights of the Old Republic Online or some similar Star Wars themed MMORPG. Hey, what about Monkey Island Online, the only MMORPG where the combat is based on a parser of insults typed into chat? Not likely either? Well, then KOTORO it is.

Unlike Star Trek, where every single video game using the license totally sucked (good luck with Star Trek Online, Perpetual!), the Star Wars license has produced a mix of good and bad games over the years, with highlights from X-Wing to KOTOR. The only problem is that there is already a Star Wars MMORPG, Star Wars Galaxies, and it evokes a lot of bad memories in MMO veterans. In the originally released version you could play a Wookie hairdresser, but not a light sabre swinging jedi. That had solid lore-related reasons, but unsurprisingly players weren't so excited about the hairdressers and would have preferred jedis. Then the devs came up with a brilliant idea to make matters much worse, by introducing the probably most stupid possible system of letting people attain jedi rank: having them master five different random professions in a specific order. That not only forced people to master professions they didn't like, e.g. hairdresser, but also to unlearn mastered professions to have the skill points to start the next one. When SOE learned that in spite of all this bad design they still had some customers left, they decided to drive the remaining players away by completely rewriting the game in the NGE patch. That finally made the jedi class available right from the start, but changed the game so completely that SOE had to offer a refund for the SWG expansion which came out at the same time. Through all these changes SWG also battled against a bug count which was higher and more severe than industry standard. In spite of this rather bumpy ride, SWG sold over 1 million boxed copies, and still has an estimated 50k to 100k subscribers, down from a 250k peak.

Chances of a SWG revival are less than slim, and so making a new Star Wars MMORPG could actually work. If it was based on the old republic instead of the time between episode IV and V, having lots of jedi players would cause less of a lore problem. Preferably the new Star Wars MMORPG would also have space ships right from the start, a feature that SWG only introduced in the Jump to Lightspeed expansion. The Star Wars license is certainly strong enough to support a second MMORPG, especially if that game picks up some of the lessons of the SWG fiasco and the success of World of Warcraft.

But don't hold your breath, Bioware and LucasArts just signed the agreement and haven't even started working yet. Thus whether the game they will produce is Knights of the Old Republic Online or something else, the most realistic estimate for a release date is somewhere in 2012.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet

What's in a name? Okay, okay, enough with the Shakespeare quotes. Since last weekend Blizzard is offering paid character name changes for World of Warcraft. So if you have a warrior named Phred and don't like that name any more, you can pay $10 to rename him to Djoe. But this apparently innocent service raises some fundamental questions of identity in virtual worlds.

In the real world, some people I meet greet me by name, others don't. And there is a certain correlation with how well people know me, because only those that know me well enough to actually connect my face to my name can greet me using my name. I'm not running around with a huge name tag. Recognition in the real world is mostly visual. If I changed my name, the same people would still recognize me.

The virtual world doesn't work like that. If a new guy is invited to your guild you get a message saying:
[Djoe] has joined your guild
[Guild] [Djoe]: Hello guys!
and you can greet him with "Hello Djoe" without ever having even seen his face. You would have no idea if Djoe was previously called Phred, even if you had read on the forums that a guy named Phred had quit his previous guild taking the contents of the guild bank with him. And facial recognition doesn't work in MMORPGs, because first of all there aren't so many different faces in the game, and second the face is relatively tiny on your screen. If you met Phred a few days ago, and today you meet Djoe, still being a level 70 warrior but having meanwhile acquired a different shoulder armor and a new name floating over his head, you'll think he is a different person. There are too many similar looking characters around to assume otherwise. The name *is* the identity, and by changing your name you can easily change your identity. No FBI witness protection program needed.

If Phred never did anything wrong and just changed his name to Djoe because he liked the new name better and didn't think the consequences through, he'll be in for some nasty surprises. For a while he won't get any tells from friends, because they don't have his new name on their friends lists [EDIT: As some readers are prone to dismiss my whole post because of the tiny error in this phrase, I'd like to point out that I missed the fact that the WoW name change apparently also edits friends and ignore lists]. And some guild members might treat him like the new guy Djoe, and not like their pal Phred with whom they did a thousand raids, until they realize that Djoe is Phred. Whatever reputation as a reliable tank for pickup groups, or as the best master smith on the server, Phred had acquired will be totally lost to the new Djoe. It's not unlike the whole Prince / Symbol / The Artist Formely Known as Prince fiasco. So in the end I'm not sure that offering a name changing service is really such a good idea.

Social raiding

I stumbled upon an interesting post by Moroagh on social raiding. He defines it as: "Social raiding is characterized by heterogeneous groups (needing accessiblity time-wise, flexibility in raid composition and tolerance in encounter sensitivity to individual error). It’s also characterized by low attendance and fluctuation in individuals attending and it’s optimized around happiness of the participants (fair raid slot distribution (no benching if specific classes if at all possible) and flat loot distribution (no favored players to optimize performance) and not speed of progression." Good definition, and you can clearly see how this social raiding existed in classic WoW, and disappeared in the Burning Crusade. Thus Moroagh's question of whether Wrath of the Lich King will bring it back.

Twice a month for the last couple of years I'm spending a Monday night with friends playing pen & paper roleplaying games. We just finished a long D&D campaign that lasted almost 3 years, and are now starting with a d6 Star Wars RPG campaign. And when I hear "social raiding", I have to think of my pen & paper RPG group. The thing about that group is that we get almost nothing done during one session. The story advances slowly, and we're lucky if we complete one combat per evening. But that doesn't matter at all. Getting anywhere or leveling up or gaining anything just isn't the point. The role-playing is basically just background, a good excuse to hang out, to sit around a table eating junk food, to chat, joke, swap WoW stories, and have fun. Theoretically we could just hang out without the RPG, but that isn't likely to happen. The structured environment of a RPG campaign with a fixed date and time makes it easier to set such evenings up.

And that is something that is missing from World of Warcraft right now. You could theoretically hang out in a tavern somewhere in Azeroth, but there isn't a structure to it. A 40-man raid to Molten Core gave such a structure, while at the same time having enough slack to still allow taking all your friends with you, regardless of class, and whether they were very good players or not. The TBC 10-man Karazhan raids removed that slack. To get anywhere on a Karazhan raid, you need to have the right class composition, and everybody needs to stay focused. That makes for superior gameplay, but for a lousy social environment. You don't even have the time to do much chatting or fooling around with the people that are there. And you had to kick out or not invite some of your best friends and fun social characters, because they were of the wrong class or just not playing well enough.

In my RPG group, which is nowadays better informed about WoW than I am, because most of them are still playing, somebody mentioned the addition of Zul'Aman in the next content patch. And my first question was whether it would be easier or harder than Karazhan. Apparently it will be harder, and I wasn't happy with that answer. And I ain't happy either that it is a 10-man instance. I'd rather see a new raid dungeon that is easier than Karazhan, and is for 25 players. Because that is what would enable social raiding again. This isn't about "free epics", of course the loot should be less good than Karazhan loot. This is about enabling large groups of people to hang out in a low-stress raid environment and get some raiding experience. Right now the barrier to entry into raiding is just too high. If there was some social raiding, some people would always learn how to raid better and evolve into better raiders, able to take on Karazhan and more. But basically we just want a good excuse to hang out and have fun.

Pirates of the Caribbean Online

What if you released a MMORPG and nobody noticed? That is happening to Disney today, they are releasing their free-to-play Pirates of the Caribbean Online and at least the MMO blogosphere didn't even notice. Maybe somewhere out there there is a bunch of kids quite excited about this game, but the internet is strangely silent.

I had the opportunity to play PotCO for a few hours in beta and it isn't absolutely horrible. The graphics are decent enough, controls work okay, and there are lots of references to the movies. You start out in a harbor and the first couple of quests teach you how to move and fight. You fight some zombies and soldiers until you acquire a ship. At which point the game was over for me. For me a pirates game is all about ship-to-ship combat. PotCO does have that, but you can't solo it. You need one player to steer the ship, and other players to man the cannons, which means you basically need a group to do anything ship related. That was the point where I said "Doh!" and proceeded to uninstall the beta. Sorry, but I'm going to wait for Pirates of the Burning Sea, which is not only less of a kids game, but also gives you complete control over your ship without needing a group.

But hey, as I said, PotCO is free to download and play in the basic version, only the full version costs $10 a month. So if you have kids who are big Jack Sparrow fans, they might like to play the game for a while. It's Disney, so you can be sure that it is appropriate for children. I'm just not sure it is appropriate for adults.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Are powerful guilds a problem for PvP?

This blog has been a place in which the conflict between the hardcore and the casual gamers in games like World of Warcraft has been extensively discussed. But most of the real casual players in WoW aren't really bothered. The conflict is purely one of jealousy, fighting about abstract things like the attention of developers. It is fought on message boards, while being nearly invisible in the game itself. The casual player with his dozens of low level alts doesn't care that there are hardcore raiders loaded with epics, and the raider doesn't mind the casual much either. As long as they are all doing PvE, they barely notice each other.

The only place where things get a bit more annoying for the casual players in WoW is the small battleground PvP. A guild team from a powerful guild, well organized, having played together before, and being equipped with advanced technologies like voice chat is totally stomping a team of casual strangers into the ground. But in WoW that doesn't matter much, because you don't lose anything by losing in PvP, you actually get a prize for losing. And PvP isn't really the central point of World of Warcraft anyway.

But I'm wondering what will happen in all those new games now postponed into 2008 which proudly proclaim being more about PvP. The one thing that will undoubtedly be the same as with WoW is that a well-organized hardcore PvP guild will easily beat up any opposition made up from unorganized casual players. Only that in a more PvP centric game that might matter a lot more. There might be actual losses involved when losing in PvP, loss of xp or items (or ships in EVE-like games). And even if losing in PvP doesn't cost you xp or gold, at the very least you didn't achieve your PvP objective.

I am very much afraid that a handful of powerful guilds will dominate the battles in realm vs. realm types of PvP. The casual players will at best just be extras on the battlefield, at worst they'll be the eternal victims. And there is a certain logic to it, a well-organized guild *should* be much better in PvP than a bunch of casuals. Only that while the hardcore are more visible, and online a lot more than the casuals, the casual players are actually more numerous when you count subscriptions. In a PvE-centric game the silent majority of casual players isn't bothered by the hardcore minority, as the casuals can still advance at their own pace, killing computer controlled monsters that don't mind getting slaughtered. In a PvP-centric game you can't win without somebody else losing. And paying a monthly fee for losing all the time isn't very attractive. Casual players with no desire to raise their effort to that of the hardcore will quickly find themselves stuck, not able to achieve anything in PvP, and getting their butts handed to them when getting anywhere near it.

What is missing in all forms of PvP I've seen up to now is some sort of fair pairing system, which makes the best PvP players fight against each other, and has the less good PvPers battle against equally bad opponents. Just like in the real world the little league teams don't play against the Red Sox, in a MMORPG the PvP should be more league structured and not a free-for-all. You need to get every player into a situation where he wins sometimes and loses sometimes, not having the best win all the time and the least good never win. Because if the least good lose all they time, sooner or later they will quit, at which point another group is going to be the least good, and the player base will erode from below. And even for the powerful guilds it is probably more fun to battle somebody who is actually putting up a fight. But besides the WoW arenas I don't see any game even trying something in that direction. Which makes me doubt that the PvP games of 2008 are going to be a huge commercial success.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A look at LotRO housing

So I had the opportunity to play around with the new player housing feature of Lord of the Rings Online, and wanted to share my observations.

On the positive side the houses in LotRO sure are beautiful. Being in instanced neighborhoods enabled Turbine to give us houses with a garden around them. They really *feel* like houses, not like appartments as in EQ2. And they come with two useful features: One is the ability to teleport to your house from whereever you are, and the other is the ability to store items in your house. Additional minor features are a mailbox on your doorstep, which sounds very logical, but is unique to the MMORPG world; in all other games the mailboxes are communal. And there is a banker and an NPC furniture vendor in the neighborhood.

On the negative side there is no feature to turn your house into a shop and sell crafted goods from it, which was always my favorite housing feature in UO or SWG. And the house decorating feature is primitive: You can't freely place stuff, there are fixed spots. For example my bed stands in the middle of a room, because there was no possibility to put it against the wall. And while the other room has a table in the middle, the chair stands in a corner, because there wasn't a spot foreseen to put the chair next to the table. I couldn't even find how to rotate things. House decoration is much more elaborate in any other MMORPG offering housing that I know.

Ethic from Kill Ten Rats has a problem on his server that all the cheap houses sold out, but the deluxe and kinship houses remain unsold, and no new neighborhoods are opening until they are. Putting a fixed number of houses of each type per neighborhood was probably a bad idea. I would have put small houses on every plot, with the ability to upgrade the houses to something bigger if need be. Ethic also thinks that putting farmland and a village center into every neighborhood is a bad idea, because while it livens up the neighborhoods, it risks deserting the non-instanced towns.

I'm pretty much neutral on the new LotRO housing. I like some things, but housing is still far from perfect. I would have made the neighborhoods smaller, thus having the houses closer together with more possibilities to meet the neighbors. And I would have made the system far more flexible. I also was disappointed that while I could set my alt to have full access to my house, including the storage, he would need to buy his own house to get the teleport home feature. But maybe Turbine will still improve housing a bit, and for a first try it isn't half bad. Beats WoW housing by lengths. :)

Some data on WoW server populations

Last week we discussed how having strictly separated servers can be a disadvantage for World of Warcraft when the server population is falling. But I had only annecdotal evidence for the falling server population in the US and Europe. Now community manager Drysc from the WoW forums admitted there was a problem, and gave us some tidbits of data.
We're in the process of implementing alternate solutions to help assist the lower population realms. The problem here is that Agamaggan is not really what would be considered a "low population" realm, it's not even in the bottom 25 realms. While it's not at capacity (it's at around a 55% nightly pop) there are quite a few realms below it that we would need to focus our attention on first, such as Coilfang (around a 30% nightly pop) and 10 or so other realms like it.

Just to compare there are technically around 200 realms that aren't actually hitting capacity (no queues at any time for a month+) out of about 220 total US realms. While we would like all realms to be near capacity, there is a middle ground that still allows an extremely functional and fun play experience. A lot of the realms live in this "middle area" of capacity, and they have extremely lively economies and interactions. Before the population cap increase with Burning Crusade they might even be considered "high population".
What that tells us is that the most problematic servers are only one-third full during prime time, and many medium population servers are only half full, which Blizzard doesn't even consider as problematic. We know that Blizzard is aware and working on a solution, but they aren't telling us yet what the solution looks like. Makes me wonder whether they will come up with anything better than the classic server merger solution.

One Blizzard specific problem is that World of Warcraft has much longer periods between expansions, and it is right after an expansion comes out that many people resubscribe. So they can't go overboard with merging servers just to see them overcrowded once the Wrath of the Lich King comes out next year.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

MMORPG subscription data

Via I found that the MMOGData site is now hosted by, so I thought I'd post a link for reference. MMOGdata is working in the tradition of the apparently abandoned of Sir Bruce. But I must say Sir Bruce's site was better in that he only counted actual subscriptions. MMOGData on the other hand counts accounts, thus giving Second Life with it's 4 million accounts a 12% market share, although there are only 40k maximum concurrent users and less than that paying subscribers.

What we would need would be a site counting only monthly subscriptions. That would even take down WoW a couple of notches, because more than half of their customers are in China now, paying by the hour. Or even better we could count annual revenues instead of player numbers. Too bad this sort of data isn't available.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pirates of the Burning Sea preorder delayed

This just in from the folks at Flying Labs:
This is not the news that we wanted to bring you, but there’s been a hold up in the pre-order process. It turns out that the release of the preorder box is being delayed while the retailers and SOE finish processing all of the returns of Gods & Heroes preorder boxes. Obviously, the cancellation of Gods & Heroes after the preorder boxes were already in stores is a very unusual situation and it is taking a bit longer than expected to work out the kinks.

To give the retailers and SOE time to finish processing those returns, the PotBS preorder box is being delayed until the week of November 13th.

We’re really sorry for the confusion, but we’re fixing it and then we can get the boxes in your hands.

Our friends at SOE are also very sorry. This has been a difficult week for them as most are working remotely out of hotel rooms and friends’ houses safely away from the fires. Some are getting back into the office today, and with their help we were able to sort out the issues involved in the preorder delay.

Before the preorder release date, we’ll make sure we have all the information you need: when the boxes will be in stores, what stores you can find it in, and where you can order the preorder box online. These are the three big questions you’ve been asking on our forums, and now that not quite so many things are burning (!) we will be able to get you those answers in time for the release.

Just a couple more weeks and then we’ll be there. Land is in sight.
Some fans are making a huge drama out of it, but realistically it doesn't matter whether you get the pre-order box three weeks later, as the release is only in January. I'm sure the guys from SOE are doing their best, but between the fires and the Gods & Heroes pre-order recall fiasco they aren't having an easy time right now. I can understand retailers not wanting to put another pre-order box on the shelves right after selling one of a cancelled game from the same distributor.

On the good news side of things the PotBS devs announced that they were close to a deal with European distributors, thus they are confident they will be able to launch PotBS in North America and Europe at the same time. Australia and Asia unfortunately will have to wait some more time.

CSI:NY does Second Life

Anyone seen yesterday's episode of CSI: New York, in which Mac Taylor hunts a killer in Second Life? Not living in the USA I won't be able to see it before the episode comes out on DVD. But I read about it in the New York Times.

From the description at least it is a good thing for Linden Labs, because fans of the TV series CSI:NY will be invited to play CSI-related games inside Second Life, which should attract a good number of new potential customers. But I'm not sure whether I like the idea of video game players once again being depicted as obsessed murderers. There was a CSI:Miami episode showing students killing people in a live replay of a video game which didn't exactly paint gamers in a positive (or even realistic) way.

I really liked the South Park episode Make Love Not Warcraft, because it was very evident that the people who made that episode did really understand World of Warcraft. They took some artistic license, of course. But the "evil" guy wasn't killing people in real life, he only killed them in game, and he was overly powerful because he didn't have a real life, and was playing all day. While the events of the South Park episode couldn't happen exactly like this in WoW, the core problems of PvP griefing and in-game power depending on playing long hours really exist. The message of "to become the most powerful guy in WoW you need to have no real life" is sad, but true. I'd much rather see that sort of a story than another "video gamers are killers in real life" story. I'm afraid CSI:NY won't help to make people understand virtual worlds better.

Bildo on Mythos

I'm not the world biggest fan of action RPGs, but I play them. It isn't the gameplay which I dislike, but the sad fact that there are so many bad Diablo clones among them. But when I hear somebody whose opinion I respect talk very highly of an action RPG, I start to get interested: Bildo is a big fan of Mythos. Unfortunately I only saw it after he had handed out all the beta keys he had available, but his enthusiasm got me interested enough to sign up myself for the beta on the Mythos website.

Mythos apparently started life as a test platform for Hellgate London, but then Flagship Studios decided they will bring it out as a separate game. There is no release date yet, but it was announced that the game will be free to download and play, financed by microtransactions for in-game items. Which is another positive point, because even if I don't get invited to the beta, I'll still be able to test it for free. This is certainly a game I wouldn't buy before testing, because if it shares the Hellgate graphics engine, it might also cause me video game motion sickness, which is always a big disqualifier. I would have played more of the action RPGs of 2007, a year rich in them, if it hadn't been for the fact that most of them caused me nausea and headaches. I so hope that mouselook controls get out of fashion soon!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

LotRO housing patch today

Today Lord of the Rings Online adds the content patch officially known as Book 11: Defenders of Eriador. Inofficially it's known as the patch adding player housing to the game. Which is definitely a step up from the last content patch, known as the "chicken play" patch. :) LotROLife has a LotRO housing guide up, that explains how it all works.

I haven't played LotRO since July, since before my holidays. But I guess this weekend I'm going to download the patch and have a look at housing, if I can find enough money on my characters to buy at least the smallest kind of house. 1 gold, I think I have that. I did like the free placeable housing in UO and SWG, but was less enthusiastic of housing in AO, FFXI, and EQ2 with their fully instanced housing. Apparently LotRO will be somewhere in the middle between those concepts, having individually placed houses, but in instanced housing zones. That is probably the best way to do it, I wouldn't want to see housing spring up in the Lonelands or other spots which by lore shouldn't be heavily populated.

The only bad news is the lack of rentable NPC vendors, the ability to turn your house into a shop. I've never been big on decorating, that is not the main feature of player housing for me. LotRO houses have storage functionality, which is good, but they don't have the possibility to sell goods from your house, which is not so good. But apparently Turbine is planning to expand housing functionality in later patches, so all is not lost.

I'm still happy that I took that lifetime subscription. While Lord of the Rings Online was a bit thin on content when it was launched, the speed in which Turbine is adding new content is quite nice. And the lifetime subscription enables me to take hassle-free "holidays" from the game and come back whenever I want.

When the Web 2.0 goes bad

Techcrunch reports a new decision of the US court of appeals helping a new generation of Web 2.0 porn sites. Apparently there are sites that work like YouTube, only providing porn instead of funny home videos of skateboarding dogs, and the court's decision on age record keeping laws being unconstitutional removes one of the legal hurdles for these sites. I can hear US politicians howling already.

Personally, being European I have a more relaxed attitude towards sex and porn than the US public. It would appear to me that most parents would want their children to have sex after a certain age, and would not want them to take drugs or to kill other people at any age. Thus I'm with the general European policy of restricting kids access to depictions of violence more strictly than their access to nude images.

In any case all the politicians and parents thinking that they could "shield" their children from porn are deluding themselves. You might be able to prevent them from accidentally stumbling upon it. But a normal teenage boy will actively search for porn on the internet, and the technical solution to prevent him from finding it doesn't exist. Restrictions to porn websites of any kind, Web 2.0 or old style, won't help a bit. 70% of the traffic of the internet is from filesharing, and a good portion of that is pornographic material. As filesharing is mostly illegal anyway, adding another law to restrict it won't hinder it a bit.

The only solution is the forgotten art of "parenting" that many people nowadays haven't even heard about. Parents need to talk with their teenage children about sex, just as they need to talk with them about drugs, violence, and all the other bad things in live. Trying to create a perfect world bubble around your children will not only not work, it also ends up with your children being less likely to be able to handle difficult situations when they finally come into contact with the real world. Regarding sex, it is better to listen to scientific facts than to outdated ideas of conservative politicians.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Trinity on PotBS economy

Trinity from has two articles on the economy of Pirates of the Burning Sea: The first with a good explanation of how the economy works, and the second with an interview with Isildur (Kevin Maginn), the dev responsible for the economy.

The player-run economy of Pirates of the Burning Sea promises to be really exciting and interesting to people like me who like that sort of gameplay. In case you hadn't noticed it: the PotBS economic gameplay is ideal for the mature, casual gamer. There is no twitchy button-mashing involved, and it is based on real-time, not just time spent in game. In most other games, the more time you spend in game, the richer you get. But in PotBS it appears that the production of wealth happens in real time, via the stored labor of the production buildings, while the destruction of wealth happens in game time, when ships sink or consumables are consumed. Especially PvP appears to be expensive, as you'd obviously would need the most expensive ships to gain an advantage, and losing a PvP fight can mean losing that ship. So somebody playing PvP all day will have trouble financing that, while a casual player who only logs on for an hour every day to run his production and selling his produced goods will swim in money. I like it! :)

The only thing I'm worried about is that I perceive a clash between the economic concept and the PvP concept. Isildur says: "I’m the closest thing we have to an economist (note: not an economist).", and I'm afraid he hasn't understood some of the consequences of his free market implementation. In PotBS merchants of any nation can freely buy and sell in auction houses of any nation. This leads to the possibility of arbitrage: the merchant buys where goods are cheap, and sells them where they are more expensive. This in turn leads to market equilibrium, with goods costing the same in all markets in the long run. That is a good thing in the real world between friendly nations. In a game which is about warring nations, a free market like that is contrary to the interests of the players engaging in PvP. If lets say nation A tries to take away from nation B all the ports in which iron for cannon balls can be produced, you don't want merchants of all nations starting to ship iron from A to B. As Isildur says, "it puts more money in the hands of your enemy’s merchants and producers", but also into the hands of all other merchants, while the people who did all the PvP gain absolutely no advantage from it. Nation A doesn't gain any advantage as a whole when their merchants are richer, because the merchants are different players than the PvPers, and they aren't handing over the profits to the people who are running the war. There is a reason why in the real world there are trade restrictions towards unfriendly nations.

Well, I'm planning to play a merchant in PotBS (probably with an alt of another class to enjoy the fighting part of the game), so the current setup is advantageous for me. But sooner or later the PvP players will realize that the merchants are profiting by sabotaging the effect of taking away ports from the enemy, and they won't be happy.

Why are user interfaces so bad?

I have a high-end graphics card, a NVidia Geforce 8800 GTS (640 MB), which should be able to run most games at high resolutions, like 1600 x 1200. Many games already offer that resolution, and when I turn it on the games usually work fine with still good frame rates. Only I can't play that way, because most games don't have scaleable user interfaces, the UI elements and fonts are a fixed size in number of pixels. Thus the higher the resolution, the smaller the user interface gets, until you simply can't read the text any more nor distinguish the icons on the hotkeys.

Modern games costs millions of dollars to produce, a large part of which is spend on the visuals, the 3D graphics and art. So why do so many games feel as if the user interface had only cost $19.95? If you can spend years designing shoulder armor artwork for orcs, why can't the devs spend a month to check whether all their fonts are readable at all resolutions, whether the color combinations work, whether the icons are easily distinguishable from each other, and how to place everything in a logical way?

Even World of Warcraft, which nowadays has a rather good UI, only got there by allowing people to modify the UI, and then copying the most popular mods into the standard UI with later patches. And user interfaces that are easy to modify are probably the way to go. A UI should be scaleable, moveable, and easy to modify by the player. Games in which the UI only looks good in one specific resolution really shouldn't exist any more.

Put World of Warcraft on your resume

At least if you are applying for a job at IBM. BBC News reports how companies discovered the value of skills acquired in MMORPGs. Quote: "The formidable organisational skills needed to run a game team or guild, organise raids involving perhaps 40 people and co-ordinate their different abilities to defeat a game's strongest foes are all relevant to work."

Other companies started organizing work like a MMORPG, giving out experience points for tasks, or presenting projects as quests. Rewards can come as, quote: "a virtual currency as a reward system allowing workers to cash in their savings for benefits or extras for their office space." I'm just afraid that the number of companies working that way is very, very small.

And you wondered why your last raid felt like work. It actually was!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Read any good books lately? While playing?

My level 42 druid in the original Everquest, when out of mana, would need exactly 15 minutes of meditation to get to full mana again. But at least he could teleport to various continents. My other characters, if they just missed the boat going from Freeport to Butcherblock would need to wait a full 20 minutes for the next boat to arrive, and that is not even counting the time needed for the trip itself. And there were lots of other features in EQ that made you wait, like a quest NPC spawning only every 8 hours, or a mob I once camped for 16 hours, which spawned every 23 minutes, but had a very low chance of dropping the mammoth cloak I wanted. The developers stated that all this "downtime" was intentional, so groups would have opportunity to chat. But if you were soloing you often ended up reading a book while playing.

Modern games have little or no downtime. In World of Warcraft you get up to full mana in a minute or two, the longest wait for a boat is 5 minutes, and the longest flight path is also just over 5 minutes. The only really slow-spawning mobs are those you need a raid for to kill, anything you are supposed to solo respawns within minutes. WoW doesn't give you much opportunity to catch up on your reading. The only games that still have significant downtime are those which have traveling as part of the gameplay, for example EVE Online. Going once across the galaxy in EVE takes a long time, during which not much happens, except at the gates.

The faster gameplay without downtime waiting periods has obvious advantages. If you wanted to read you could always log out. But sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn't be good to slow down a bit. For example the emergence of voice chat is partly due to the fact that the games are so hectic now that there isn't any time to discuss tactics with typed chat. Maybe not to book-reading slowness, but at least having combat slow enough that tactical decisions matter more than button mashing. What do you thing, are the games you play too fast, too slow, or just right for you?

How will WoW handle falling server population?

No, this isn't a "WoW is doomed" post. But XFire reports that the number of hours played by US and European WoW players dropped by 18% from August to September. This is due mainly to school starting again after summer. We don't know exact subscriber numbers for the US and Europe, as Blizzard doesn't publish them any more since they started to decline. They still have robust growth in China, where The Burning Crusade was only recently released. So the only thing we have is a range of annecdotal evidence that WoW user numbers in North America and Europe are shrinking. No death spiral, but a significant drop from the peak in February.

Which raises the question how World of Warcraft is going to handle falling server populations. There is such a thing as an ideal number of people playing on a server. More than that and you get into problems of lag, which Blizzard prevents with login queues. But if the population is significantly less than the ideal number, other problems occur: It gets more difficult to find groups, the less popular zones become deserted, the player economy suffers. And from a financial point of view, Blizzard is paying for server resources that aren't fully utilized.

One of the disadvantages of having a game with hundreds of identical, but separated, servers is that the system is less flexible than lets say the server setup of EVE, where everybody is on the same server, and growing population is dealt with by shifting capacity to where the players are. Games with strictly separated servers can only adjust to falling user numbers by merging their least populated servers. That usually causes problems with people having chosen the same name, one of which will have to change his name, while the other guy starts receiving lots of tells from people who wanted to talk to the first guy. In a MMORPG your social existence is mostly based on your name, that is how people find you and talk to you, so a name change can be a big deal.

Blizzard's other option is to keep all servers running with sub-optimal population numbers, and count on the inevitable next spike of resubscriptions when Wrath of the Lich King comes out. It helps that while total numbers are falling, the population nowadays is very concentrated in the TBC zones. That makes traveling old Azeroth a bit sad, but at least with their level capped characters it is still easy enough to find a group. Patch 2.3 will help even more here, by adding daily quests for specific dungeons, which should lead to many more people wanting to go to the same dungeon at the same time. I really have to give Blizzard credit for patch 2.3, although I'm not happy with all the changes, they at least are obviously trying to put something for every sort of player into that patch.

So, tell me, how is your WoW server nowadays? Does it feel overpopulated, underpopulated, or just right? What would you propose to do against underpopulation of servers? There are still millions of people playing this game, Blizzard just needs to come up with a good way to bring them together.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Hellgate London demo

The demo for Hellgate London is now available from pretty much anywhere. You can either play a blademaster (melee combat) or a marksman (ranged combat) until about level 4, at which point you'll find yourself at some dead end in a dungeon without being told that the demo is over. But at least you get to play a couple of quests, kill lots of zombies and even a few boss mobs, and get to know the game.

Me, I didn't like it. It's mouse look, even in 3rd person over-the-shoulder view I get video game sickness from it. And I don't think the game justifies the hype. It's a Diablo clone with a Sci-Fi theme. A good one, but far, far from being a MMORPG. As blademaster it plays similar to a fantasy action RPG, click, click, click, monster dead. As soon as you notice that you can put the skill which replenishes health on your left mouse button and it also slashes with your weapon when you do so and click the mouse, the game gets far too easy. Only the bosses remain a challenge. The marksman plays more like a shooter, and funnily has less problems with the bosses, but more problems with larger numbers of trash mobs. Throwing grenades is lots of fun, because you never know where they'll land.

You collect lots of loot, which you can either sell to buy better stuff, or you can disassemble it into parts, which you can use at a nanoforge to upgrade existing items to a higher level. Rarely you can also find mods, but the only one I found was a relic, which is used to improve blademaster items, only that I was playing the marksman at that time. Makes me wonder if in the final game you can pass items from one character to another, but I'd guess that would then only be avaible for subscribers.

If you like action RPGs, you should download the demo and have a look. Me, I've seen enough and will not buy it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

RvR and server location

World of Warcraft has US servers, European servers, Asian server, and they are all strictly separated. For example with my European client I can only access the European servers, I can't play on the US ones. For a PvE game with a raiding end-game this makes perfect sense. Most people are online in the evening in their time zone. So if everyone on the server comes from the same time zone plus/minus one, it is easy to organize a raid together. If I bought a US WoW client and account (which is only possible via an intermediate broker) and joined a US raiding guild, their raids would start at 3 am in the morning for me, which wouldn't be very practical. I left a very nice multi-game US guild once, just because I rarely got to see the guys.

So localized servers have the advantage that most players play at the same time. The disadvantage is that most players play at the same time. :) That means that during certain times the server is more or less dead, because everyone is sleeping. Not only does that mean the game company is having costs for resources that aren't used half of the time, but it also becomes problematic if the game is a realm vs. realm PvP game. If a game like Dark Age of Camelot has PvP objectives like castles which in the absence of player defenders are only defended by weak NPCs, guilds whose players need little sleep start staging raids in the middle of the night. Imagine your realm/faction/nation captured a castle during prime time at immense effort and heavy losses, only to lose it at 5 am to a small bunch of guys sneaking in through the back door against little resistance from NPCs.

Anyone know whether Warhammer Online plans to have localized or international servers? I think for a RvR game international servers would be better, because it is always prime time somewhere in the world. When the players from one continent are sleeping, the players of another continent are playing, and defending the realm. And whenever you play at unusual times, you meet people online from foreign countries, which is nice. Another advantage of international servers is that you can find groups even at odd times. The only disadvantage is that the servers have to be physically somewhere, so the ping to the different continents is never the same. You'd think that fractions of a second difference in pings wouldn't matter, but in Final Fantasy XI the forums were full of Americans complaining that the Japanese had an unfair advantage in grabbing rare mobs, because they had 0.2 seconds faster ping.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quests and decisions

Overlord, Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, and a few other games are offering you a choice between good and evil. In various ways you can either be helpful and nice, or cruel and self-serving. And the game keeps track of your decisions, so that you being good or evil finally has some consequence: you might get access to different spells and abilities, or your look changes. Compare that to the choice you get in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. When Edward Castronova stated that only evil people play Horde in WoW, the idea was ridiculed. The actual activities of a Horde character are exactly the same as those of an Alliance character. You get a "kill ten foozles" quest, you go out to kill ten foozles, you come back and get your reward. The only difference is that Alliance is more likely to have to kill a mob who carries the name "bandit", while Horde might have to kill mobs called "farmer". But it isn't as if either player actually has the choice between killing bandits or farmers, once you have choosen a race you have choosen a fixed set of quests. And as the farmer reacts as aggressively to the presence of a Horde character as the bandit reacts to the presence of an Alliance character, players don't consider them to be different. There are no moral choices to be made in World of Warcraft. Many people played both Horde and Alliance, just to get access to more different zones and quests.

Much later in World of Warcraft players get the choice of Aldor vs. Scryer. But neither side is clearly good or evil, and there are very few quests for either side. Aldor vs. Scryer ends up as farming reputation for one side or the other, with the decision taken based on the rewards. If you are in a hurry, you can even buy the items for the repeatable quests in the auction house. Again no moral choice is made.

I would hope that future MMORPGs offer more choice. Instead of choosing a "good" or "evil" race at the start and then forgetting about the concept of good and evil, you could well have all races being initially neutral. And then you could have every quest carry a clear identification of giving reputation either towards good or towards evil. There would have to be more quests around, so people could level up either doing only good quests or only evil quests. Or they could remain neutral, and do both types. Choosing an alignment would have the advantage of getting access to quests only available to the good guys, or only available to the bad guys, or even only available to neutrals. And the decision could also have an influence on what spells, abilities, recipes, or even zones you'd get access to.

We talked this week about how it would be nice for a guild to have something in common besides going on raids. If you have good and evil quests, you could have part of the reputation gathered go to the reputation of the guild, so there would be good, neutral, and evil guilds. Guild members could get additional rewards for contributing to the reputation of the guild. And the older guild members would have an interest in looking after what the newer members were doing, to make sure they didn't do the wrong kind of quests.

Whether somebody has to be real world evil to play an evil character in such a system is a discussion I'll leave to the guys at Terra Nova. :)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cap'n John improves WoW

Cap'n John has an interesting post up on improving WoW. He has two ideas: One is more RvR style of PvP outside of battlegrounds, and the other is permadeath. I can see how the former could work, but I'm afraid the latter is out of the question.

If you ever played on both a "normal" and a "PvP" server, you notice that there is actually not very much of a difference between them. The more important part of PvP takes place in the arena or on battlegrounds, because that is where the PvP rewards are. And arena and battlegrounds are as available on a normal server as they are on a PvP server. Basically a PvP server only adds ganking. Somebody who signed up for a PvP server because he likes PvP can't be very satisfied with that, because there aren't any additional PvP objectives on a PvP server, unless you like to grief people. So the idea of turning more places into Halaa-like contested towns on PvP servers would be interesting.

Permadeath on the other hand isn't viable in a game like World of Warcraft. The game is designed for you to die often. If you enter a heroic instance or raid dungeon for the first time, you are near certain to wipe a couple of times before learning how to overcome a new boss mob. I've played Everquest, which while not having permadeath had a much harsher death penalty, and even that lead to boring gameplay. If death is painful, people play it safe. Which means that dungeons are void of people of the level range they were designed for, and the Deadmines would only be visited by groups with a level 70 player helping guild mates to get equipped. People invest far too much time into a single character to accept the possibility of losing him permanently.

Games for explorers

I mentioned end of last year that I have a Guild Café page, and that Guild Café is also the current home of the Bartle test and similar quizzes about what kind of a MMORPG player you are. Now mbp just mentioned in a comment that he is mainly an explorer in the Bartle test, and that the World of Warcraft end game is appeals only to achievers. Which would leave him and his fellow explorers, including me, to play crap games like Project Entropia or The Sims Online.

I don't think the situation is quite as bad. World of Warcraft is actually a rather good game for explorers, because it takes hundreds of hours to explore all the zones, different classes, quests and dungeons. The only problem is the end game. The explorer in me went to Karazhan only a few times, made a tick mark behind it saying "been there, seen it", and didn't come back. An achiever goes to Karazhan several nights a week looking for tiny incremental improvements to his power, which will then enable him to go on to the next raid dungeon. Making an end game for achievers is a lot easier than making an end game for explorers. Explorers want new content all the time, achievers are happy with hitting their heads against a brick wall over and over, as long as they make tiny dents into that wall and thus "advance".

The result is that explorers jump from one game to the next more often than achievers. It is somewhat unfortunate that the biggest growth of my blog readership occured over the last 3 years, of which I spend 2.5 years in World of Warcraft. It makes me look as if I usually stay in a game very long. But only the original EQ and WoW were games in which I stayed for more than 6 months. I played tons of games for only a few months, because either I had explored all the accessible parts of them after that time, or further exploration just didn't appear to be any fun, due to the game being bland.

For me exploration is not only looking at pretty 3D graphics. That is why games like Second Life don't interest me. I want to explore gameplay, strategies, tactical options, game economy, and the influence of game design on player behavior. That requires a game to actually have a gameplay, and to have a variety of interesting strategies and tactical options. Many bad MMORPGs fall short in that respect.

So basically the game I'd like to see is a new World of Warcraft. A game as big and as good in gameplay as WoW, but different and new. A WoW expansion like Wrath of the Lich King interests me less, because there are only a few new elements in a sea of more of the same. For some time I was hoping that Warhammer Online could be a good next game for explorers, having 6 different races with 4 different classes per race, thus offering a huge replayability and amount of exploration content. But right now most WAR beta players I hear from say it is "like WoW without the fun". So the best case scenario is that EA Mythic needs some more time to find the fun, and I won't see WAR before christmas 2008. Worst case is some suit deciding to release WAR as planned in Q1 2008 and WAR becoming next year's Vanguard.

I sure hope they'll manage to make the leveling game of WAR fun. But even if it is very good, I'll sooner or later arrive at the end game, having tried all possible alts. And then I'll probably leave the game again to look for the next explorer game. A player-killer type of end game in WAR interests me as little as the achiever type of end game in WoW. I'll play with it a bit, but if you expect me to raid the same PvP zone for the umpteenths time I'm out.

Monday, October 15, 2007


One thing that works pretty much the same in every MMORPG is spawning in the common part of the virtual world. (The private, instanced parts sometimes work differently.) Spawning is the process of creating a monster for the players to fight. Most of the time the monster just appears out of thin air, only in Tabula Rasa can you see some of the aliens beamed in from a mothership, which looks better.

Spawning works by static coordinates. There is a fixed spawn point somewhere in the virtual world which is linked to one monster. That monster might be standing still on that spot, or it might move around. But whenever that particular monster is killed, a new monster will spawn on that particular spot some time later. Conversely if the monster belonging to a specific spawn point is not killed, no new monster will appear on that spot. It isn't necessarily exactly the same monster respawning when the original one is killed. Sometimes there is a spawn table with several different monsters, or a small chance for a rare mob to spawn.

Clever players have always used their knowledge of spawning to their advantage. One good example is "placeholders". You are out to hunt Red Foozles, and you need to kill a lot of them. Now imagine the Red Foozles share a spot on a spawn table with the Green Foozles. If you go and kill every Red Foozle in sight, but not attack the Green Foozles, you will soon run out of Red Foozles to kill, because every time you kill one, there is a fifty-fifty chance of a Green respawning instead of a Red. Thus instead of running around trying to find the few Red Foozles in a field of Green Foozles, you better slaughter every Foozle in sight, and get more Reds to spawn. Another example is spawn camping, where your knowledge that some extremely valuable mob is spawning at a particular spot enables you to sit there and wait for him to spawn, instead of needlessly running around looking for him.

While the principle of spawning hasn't changed since Everquest, some parameters of spawning have changed. Mobs still spawn always at the same spot, but spawn timing changed a lot. In EQ there were some quest mobs spawning only every 8 hours, which is obviously horrible, because you need to camp the spawn to ever get that quest done, and then you must rely on people coming later not to jump in and steal your kill. In modern games spawn times are much shorter, and often a bit more random. Some games, like City of Heroes even have anti-camp code, preventing monsters to spawn at the location of a player. World of Warcraft in the Burning Crusade expansion experimented with variable spawn times, so instead of a new mob respawning exactly 5 minutes after the old one, the game takes into account all the mobs of the same type in the same area, and if lots of them are dead respawns them quicker.

Eternally discussed and even promised by some developers, but never realized, is a more dynamic spawning system, where spawn locations aren't static any more. If in the real world you would be hunting animals in one part of a forest, but not in another part, the population in the part where you were hunting would drop, while the population in the part with no hunting would slowly rise. With some effort such things could be realized in a game world too. Such dynamic spawn systems would not only add some interesting uncertainty to a game, it would also kill automated bots. One could even imagine combining dynamic spawns with dynamic quests: if nobody has killed orcs in some area for some time, the orcs there would get stronger and more numerous, but the people in the village next to them would offer better rewards to kill them. You could even imagine every village having some sort of prosperity score depending on the level of threat from monsters surrounding it. Lots of players clearing the area would make the village richer, and new NPC vendors with more interesting goods would appear. But if there are no heroes interested in working for the village, it would decay into ramshackle buildings surrounded with few NPC vendors, but lots of monsters in the surrounding area. The villagers would offer better rewards for heroes to save them, and the heroes would also be interested in places with a high monster density because it makes hunting easier. Thus a cycle between prosperity and poverty of a village would develop, making the whole game less static and more dynamic.

Public apology to Krones from Plaguelands

Dear Krones,

I can see that a recent post of mine has very much upset you. My sincerest apologies for that. I didn't mean to insult you. I was only freaked out a little by realizing that in a growing "market" of MMO blogs we are starting to see more and more instances of large parts of the MMO blogosphere writing the same sort of comments to the same events.

I certainly didn't mean to accuse you of not having any original thought. If anything I was scared of not having any original thought myself. I write something, then I surf around and find other people writing more or less the exact same idea, just in other words. Scary! Depressing! And the post I wrote in response to those feeling wasn't very good, and in no way fair towards you. I'm sorry.

Your fan,


Game design causes guild behavior

Via Sweet Flag I found an older post I had missed over at Mind Bending Puzzles, which then lead me to a post at Hardcore Casual. What these posts have in common is that they are talking about guilds, and especially Syncaine's post on Hardcore Casual about "the sickness that was WoW raiding" is very revealing. I know exactly what he is talking about. Even if my raid schedule was never 7 nights a week, I did the whole MC / Onyxia / BWL thing too ad nauseam.

Recently an anonymous (!) commenter was taunting me saying how funny it was that a guy who gets over 2,000 readers a day on his blog can't even find enough people to guild / group with. That comment, and many other things you can read in various blogs about guilds are all based on the common misconception that it is the quality of the people that determines how good, powerful, and pleasant to play with a guild is. I disagree with that. While there are certainly jerks and immature people who can ruin guild life (see previous post), a major part of guild behavior is determined by game design. If you read 100 stories about World of Warcraft guild dramas, you will find the same problems appearing over and over again. The same "my casual guild broke up because some people wanted to go raiding", the same "we had a great 40-man raid guild going, but now Karazhan 10-man raids are splitting the guild apart". Or as mbp says: "The fact is that WOW's end game destroys guilds. In particular it destroys friendly casual guilds, the kind of guild I want to play with. I still haven't forgiven WOW for that." If you read guild drama stories of games that work different, like EVE, you'll see a set of completely different storeis. The EVE stories resemble each other, but they don't resemble the WoW stories, because different game design causes different guild behavior. There are certainly a couple of exceptional guilds that manage to break the pull of game design, but the average WoW guild follows a path where even the drama is predictable. It just evolves naturally out of a combination of basic human nature (which is eternal) and game design (which depends on the specific game).

We can only hope that future MMORPGs offer more to guilds than just a chat channel and the lure of phat loot from raiding. It would be great to have a system where cooperation was more beneficial to all involved, where helping newbies would be an advantage also to more experienced players, and where a guild could have common projects that didn't involve everyone being online from 8 pm to 2 am, 5 to 7 nights a week. There isn't much hope for values such a loyalty if the game design is such that guild hopping is the most efficient course of action.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Adults only

Please do not continue reading if you are under 18! You have been warned!

Today I'm going to talk about something dirty: Money. And age. And the connection between money, age, and MMORPGs. You might have noticed that most of my reporting is about relatively expensive games like World of Warcraft: $50 a box to buy, $15 a month to play. I'm barely ever mentioning Guild Wars, and don't touch most free-to-play browser MMORPGs. At best I play those for an hour, write a few lines, and then forget about them.

So I was thinking why I disliked these games. I'm not a graphics snob. In fact I liked the 2D colorful manga graphics of Dofus better than the uncanny valley pseudo-photorealistic graphics of EQ2 (I had to switch EQ2 to more comic style alternate graphics to play it). It can't be a question of gameplay either, because there isn't too much of a difference between free-to-play MMORPGs and triple-AAA MMORPGs in that respect. Some free-to-play games are actually more innovative there than the big games. But where there is a big difference in quality is in the maturity of the players. There are too many kids in the free-to-play games, and the result is unpleasant. The more kids you have in the game, the worse is the quality of the general chat, the more you have players disrespecting the rules, and the worse the attitude gets. If somebody judges you as "cool" or "noob" only by your level and gear, he is probably under 18.

I mentioned that the marketing people from Dofus had sent me a presentation of their game with some demographic statistics: 65% of players being 18 or under, and only 7.5% of players over 31. Compare that to Nick Yee's studies on the demographics of monthly fee MMORPGs: He found a third of the male players and over half of the female players are 29 or over, and only 20% of the male players and 4.4% of the female players are under 18 years old. He also found that over 50% of the players worked full-time. The reason for that is simple: Money. For an adult working full-time, $15 a month is pocket change. For a kid it isn't. The kid in most cases need to argue with his parents to be allowed to play a monthly fee game, but he can download and play all those play-for-free games without the parents even noticing. There is a barrier to entry biased against younger players in monthly fee games, and that keeps the community of these games more mature.

Now I am wondering about the viability of making games even more expensive and adult-oriented. No, not by adding sex to them. But I've noticed a trend of some companies trying to make more twitchy action-MMORPGs, and I don't think those will sell all that well to the over 30 demographics. But I could imagine a MMORPG with more tactical gameplay, more thinking, less twitching, more community tools, more "world" elements, in short being more suited to what adults are looking for in a MMORPG. And if that game was good, I wouldn't mind paying a monthly fee of $25 instead of $15. The higher fee would serve the dual purpose of making this more niche game financially viable, and keeping an even larger percentage of kids out. Hey kid, look over there, there is a twitchy action-game, and it's cheaper, go play over there!

[If this post upset you, you are probably under 18. Don't say I didn't warn you!]

Friday, October 12, 2007

Puzzle Quest also available on XBox Live

In case the announcement that Puzzle Quest will soon be available for the PC didn't move you, I just got the news that you can now also download it on the XBox Live Marketplace for the XBox 360. Enjoy!

Evil Aempire

Another case of my blog writing about the same news as all the other blogs: EA buys Bioware. But in this case I'm not just playing devil's advocate, I really have a different opinion than everybody else. Every single blog I've seen thinks EA is the evil empire of gaming, and will destroy the creativity of Bioware, alternatively firing the employees or turning them into drones. Everybody is afraid that this will kill the unnamed Bioware MMO or turn it into some horrible abomination. Oh come on, stop that paranoia! EA isn't the acronym for Evil Aempire.

EA made a lot of money with not very original games, especially all those sports series where you need to look on the box to see whether you are playing the 2004, 2005, 2006, or 2007 version, each of which sold at full price. But they are well aware of the fact that this doesn't work very well for other forms of gaming. In MMOs they actually overdid it in the other direction, by *not* releasing a sequel to Ultima Online. "UO2" under two different names has the dubious record of being the only MMORPG being cancelled twice.

On the same blogs that today write that EA will totally ruin Bioware and their MMO you just need to scroll down a bit to find raving hype previews of Warhammer Online, which many people think will be the next big thing, greatest game ever, WoW killer, you name it, it's been called it. And WAR is made by EA Mythic. So why shouldn't a EA Bioware be able to make a good Baldur's Gate Online or Neverwinter Nights Online?

As I said, the future of MMORPGs comes when companies realize that they can make profits with MMORPGs costing $50 million to $100 million to develop. You can't play in the same league as WoW if you don't spend the same amount of money as Blizzard does. And with all respect for their creativity, smaller game companies just won't have the financial muscle to do that. We *need* companies like EA as investors. And they don't appear to have damaged the creative spirits at Mythic, so what interest would they have in destroying much of the value of their acquisition by destroying the creative spirit of Bioware?

So I suggest you all cool down a bit and stop acting as if this was the end of the world. The CEO of Electronic Arts wants a great MMORPG as much as you do.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Overcoming player separation

The discussion of the World of Warcraft patch 2.3 faster leveling modifications continues, with some interesting input from GSH over at Blessing of Kings, who asks whether Time to Max Level should depend on the value of the max level. We didn't get anywhere near a consensus, because some people (including me) still believe that leveling up is the game in a MMORPG, while others believe that leveling up is the obstacle before the game, which only begins at the level cap. So while I compared a WoW expansion to another book in the Harry Potter series, prolonging the entertainment, others said this wasn't a valid comparison, because your friends still talk to you when you haven't read all 7 Harry Potter books, but they don't talk to you if you haven't reached the level cap in WoW.

Of course I have to remark that this is a great bunch of friends you must be having if they judge you on your level and gear in WoW. But snide remarks apart, I can see the problem. You see, the "World" of Warcraft isn't a world, it is a linear series of places with certain levels. For example if you are not between level 42 and 50 (or looking for resource nodes of that level), there is no reason why you should hang out in the Hinterlands. If you are lower than that level range, every wandering mob there kills you. If you are higher than that range, you don't get any xp any more and the loot you can get isn't interesting either.

But it isn't only that the level range is fixed, it is also that the content is static. If you did the quests of the Hinterlands with one character, and thus explored the zone a bit, you know where everything is. And if a year later you make an alt, get to level 42 and head to the Hinterlands, everything will still be at exactly the same place. The quests will still be the same. You can free Rin'ji again from his cage in the Quel'Danil Lodge, and five minutes later he will be back in that cage and wait patiently for the next rescuer. It *is* boring to do the same zone twice, so I can see how people would cheer when Blizzard enables them to rush through that content faster.

Adding more level 40-50 zones isn't a miracle cure for that problem either. Server demographics make it that there are less and less people of any level range below the cap around, and the more zones there are, the more diluted this already small population becomes. Besides making leveling faster, patch 2.3 also turns most elite quests and mobs into non-elite, for the simple reason that people below level cap nowadays are highly unlikely to be able to find a group to do an elite quest. The addition of content to Dustwallow Marsh in patch 2.3 fixes a bottleneck in the linear progression from zone to zone. But that is probably going to be it, we can't count on Blizzard adding any more content to the old world in the foreseeable future. They understandably don't want the 10 people of any one level online to hang out lonely in 10 different zones.

One of my readers added a long comment to the previous discussion of patch 2.3, in which he describes the situation in Final Fantasy XI. In some respects the situation there is even worse now, because you actually *need* a group to level up, you just can't gather xp solo. So with the same sort of server demographic "aging", new players or alts simply get stuck with no way to advance in FFXI. They'd probably much prefer being able to solo and at increased speed to catch up to the level where everyone else is. And this is something that seems to happen in all games that have this "zone of level X" sort of gameplay. I remember once partaking in a "rediscover EQ1 for a free trial", and found all of the zones where I used to hang out now totally empty. There were very few players of low and mid levels around, and those that were on were in the zones added in the latest expansion, not the classic zones.

And in the long run this has a negative effect on the longevity of the MMORPGs which work like that. There are always players leaving for one reason or another. The only way to keep up your subscription numbers is to attract new players. But the new player to World of Warcraft today has a much inferior experience of the game than a new player had in 2004 / 2005, because the world at low levels is empty now. Grouping and other interaction with other players is a major selling point of a MMORPG. Telling people they have to solo for x hundreds of hours until they reach the point where they can finally group isn't going to sell as well.

And the crazy thing is that it doesn't have to be that way. There *are* enough players of any level around at any given time to be able to play together. They are just separated by artificial barriers: Americans can't play with Europeans or Asians. Players from different servers can't play together because you can't hop from one server to another easily. Horde players can't play with Alliance players, even if they are both on the same neutral quest. And even players of the same faction and server can't easily find each other, because the looking-for-group system isn't working well enough.

All this makes me wonder how the situation would be if the server architecture would be different. Games like EVE or Guild Wars don't have a server selection screen at the start. City of Heroes / Villains produces copies of every zone depending on how many players are in that zone. Instead of 300 WoW servers having 300 Hinterlands, we could have a game in which the devs determine a good number of player density for every zone, and if for example they think that the Hinterlands should have around 100 players, and there are 3,756 players world-wide online in the Hinterlands, there would be 38 copies of that zone, all with a near-perfect player density. A new player logging into a 3-year old game would find it as easy to get into a group as a the players who were there since release. There wouldn't be a need to rush through content just to arrive to where everybody else is. Add some better tools to find friends and strangers to group with, and the game could be a social one even at lower levels, with nobody being forced to solo. I'm aware it isn't technically trivial to do for very large games, but I'd think that since the time of the original Everquest the technology has advanced. Why are we still separated by artificial borders and prevented from playing with each other?

Puzzle Quest coming out on the PC

Good news: The great Puzzle Quest is finally coming out on the PC. Release date is October 22. If you don't know what I am talking about, download the Puzzle Quest demo. Or read my review.

The future of MMORPGs

For us as players, massively multiplayer online role-playing games are exciting virtual worlds into which we escape to have countless interesting adventures. Our discussion revolves mostly around game design, gameplay, and the various features of MMORPGs. But if we want to take an educated guess on what the future of MMORPGs could be, we need to take a step back and see how the rest of the world sees those games. And the answer is that for the rest of the world a MMORPG is a form of entertainment, comparable to books or movies, just more interactive.

Movies are a good point of comparison. Just like movies, MMORPGs are produced by a large team of people, a company. And just like a movie company, a MMORPG company has to invest a large sum of money in advance to produce their entertainment product, in the hope to recover that investment plus a profit from sales later. To judge whether a Hollywood film was a blockbuster or a bomb, people often compare the films production cost with the U.S. domestic gross revenue. As you can see in this list a blockbuster movie costs between $100 million and $200 million to make, and has a U.S. domestic gross revenue of $200 million to $600 million.

Now lets have a look at World of Warcraft. Speculations of how much WoW's cost of production was are between $25 million and $65 million, cheaper than many of the movies created during the same time. But the U.S. gross revenue of WoW is huge. The last official numbers we have spoke of 2 million U.S. subscribers, that is over $300 million gross revenue right there, without even counting the revenue from selling the boxed game. Of course then the comparison stops working, because we could discuss endlessly about how much longer a MMORPG sells than a movie, and lose ourselves in arguments about DVD sales or merchandising. But I think everyone agrees that WoW is hugely profitable, at least as profitable, if not more, than a blockbuster movie. Single-player games usually have a much lower development cost than WoW, because just like movies they only sell for a relatively short time, and don't have the additional income from monthly fees. Only very few games sell more than 1 million copies, which at $50 per box just makes $50 million of gross revenue.

What I think happened shortly after World of Warcraft came out was that many executives in all sorts of game companies got those big dollar signs in their eyes, dreaming of making as much money as WoW did. But not all of them were wise enough to realize that to produce a blockbuster MMORPG you need a much larger development budget than for a single-player game. You need much more content, because you want people to keep playing for a long time. And you need to invest heavily in hardware like the servers your game is running on. If we look at the bad news of 2007, much of it can be explained by simple underfunding. Vanguard was released too early, because Sigil had run out of money. Gods & Heroes got cancelled because Perpetual ran out of money. All the games that got delayed realized that they needed more time and money to actually get a game out which people would buy.

Capitalism is a wonderful thing. The other movie companies didn't pack up and quit the business just because Titanic was such a blockbuster. There is no reason why game companies should do so just because WoW has such a dominant position now. If World of Warcraft proved one thing it is that it is possible to expand the existing market: In Europe WoW sold more copies on the first weekend than the previous assumption of the size of the MMORPG market there was. We just need some time for the game companies to realize that MMORPGs can justify a much bigger production budget than single-player games can. If a company would seriously put $50 to $100 million into a "next generation" MMORPG, it could very well succeed as good if not better than World of Warcraft. And besides that there is room for many second league games with lesser cost and just 100k+ subscribers. It is just not realistic to believe that one of these second league games will turn out to be a WoW killer.

I don't know what the next big game will be. Maybe EA Mythic realized they aren't ready yet, and decides to put more effort into WAR, releasing it for christmas 2008 and it will rock. Maybe we'll see only premature releases and second-rate games in 2008, and will have to wait some time longer for the next big game. Maybe Blizzard needs to produce another $50 million blockbuster MMORPG before the rest of the market realizes that this is the amount of money you need to invest to get there. But sooner or later they will realize, and we will see big budget MMORPGs, and some of them will be great. The future is bright, MMORPG history doesn't end with WoW, it begins with it.

A déjà vu experience

So I'm surfing around the MMO blogosphere and find an interesting article on 2007’s MMOG Doom and Gloom on Plaguelands, written a couple of hours after my post yesterday on the same subject. Krones is writing well, and I obviously agree with what he is saying. It just nags me that I don't know whether he, hmmm, let's say "borrowed" the idea from me, or whether great minds think alike and the post was pretty much the natural response everyone has to the Gods & Heroes cancellation.

Obviously all MMO blogs pretty much report the same news. But it gets a bit creepy when even the editorials start to resemble each other. I'm all for having a blogosphere discussing one subject, in this case MMOs, from all angles, with the bloggers reading other people's blogs on the same subject and finding inspiration and subjects to discuss there. I just don't want it to degenerate into groupthink, where a reader just needs to read one of those blogs to have read them all.

What is needed to avoid groupthink is a devil's advocate who is argueing the exact opposite of what everybody else says. Especially when the current mood of everybody is one of gloom, due to all our hopes for a great new MMO for christmas being foiled. So for my next post I'll try to come up with some arguments why the state of the MMO market isn't as bad as it might look right now, and why there are some great games ahead for us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Dofus review

Most of my reporting regards the kind of MMORPGs you can buy in a box at your local PC games shop. But there is a huge world of download-only MMORPGs out there, by necessity less graphical intensive, but not necessarily less good games. And more often than not you can at least play part of the game for free. One of the more successful of these games is Dofus from Ankama Games. It's free-to-play part has over 3 million players, and 225,000 of these chose to pay a $7 monthly subscription fee to get access to the rest of the game.

When you visit the Dofus website and look at the game description and screenshots, you might mistake Dofus for a Korean game. But in fact Ankama Games is a French company. So while the graphics are 2D, very colorful, and look like manga, the gameplay is much improved over that of the often grindy Asian games. The most brilliant feature of Dofus is its tactical, instanced combat. Whenever you start a combat, you (or your group) and all the mobs of the enemy group are placed on an instanced copy of the zone you were in. The map has a square grid, and combat happens turn-by-turn, although there is a timer that prevents you from taking forever for your turn. You have 3 movement points and 6 action points per turn, thus you can move up to 3 squares and use any combination of spells and abilities as long as they don't cost more than 6 AP together. While this makes combat obviously slower than in other games, it also makes it a lot more tactical, especially if more than one player and one mob is involved.

There are a dozen different classes, all of them unusual. Of course the basic functions of warrior, healer, and damage dealer exist (how would you make a game without them?), but there are also gamblers, treasure hunters, or mages that control the flow of time by manipulating AP in combat. By combat you gain xp, which makes you go up in level. At certain levels you get new spells or abilities. But in all levels you get points to distribute among your stats, and also points to increase the level of your spells. Besides doing quests and combat, you can also learn up to three tradeskills. Gathered resources, crafted goods, or loot, can be traded in two different ways. You can either set up your character as a merchant, sitting somewhere in the city while you are offline, selling the goods from your inventory you flagged as being for sale. This is a classic feature of Asian games, although I never understood why, it is very hard to find anything specific like that. But Dofus offers a second method, specialized auction houses. For every type of good, like gathered resources, scrolls, tailored items, smithed items, etc., there is an auction house where only this type of good can be bought and sold.

I tested the free-to-play side of the game and liked it so much that I wanted to subscribe. Unfortunately that turned out to be not as easy as I would have thought. Ankama Games is accepting any obscure payment method known to man, except the most common ones for MMORPGs: credit cards or Paypal. You can send them money stuffed in an envelope, do an international bank transfer, pay via your mobile phone in some countries, or use some of the more obscure internet payment systems. But you can't pay with a credit card, and on the "suggest different payment method" page is a sign saying that Ankama decided not to use Paypal. I think this is hurting them, because me for example I found all my payment options too complicated, and ended up not subscribing.

But Dofus is really a nice game, and at least worth trying it out for free. As the game is 2D and Flash based, the download is small, around 100 MB. And if colorful manga games are not your style, maybe your kids like it. According to Ankama Games, two-thirds of their players are 18 or under, which is typical for free-to-play games. Meanwhile Ankama Games is working on a new and improved game called Wakfu, which should be out end of this year or early 2008.

PS3 downgraded

I own a PS2 and a Gamecube. When the "next generation" consoles came out, I didn't see the need to buy any one of them, neither PS3, Wii, nor XBox 360, mostly because the games on offer weren't all that interesting to me. I had the opportunity recently to play a bit with a Wii, with its very interesting control system, but the fun grew old quite fast. The XBox 360 never interested me. But I had planned to one day buy a downward compatible PS3 to replace my old PS2.

Those plans have been rudely killed by Sony removing downward compatibility and several other features from the PS3 this month. They are bringing out a new, cheaper PS3, with a smaller hard drive and several features removed. Apparently it dawned upon them that they were losing out on sales due to being the most expensive next generation console. Now I could rush and still try to get an old PS3, but I won't, because I can't even be sure that future hardware additions or software will be compatible with the original PS3. And it is a bit too expensive for my taste anyway. I'm not interested in buying a new PS3 either, as it is lacking not only PS2 compatibility, but also isn't WiFi enabled any more. Internet connectivity was supposed to be one of the strong points of the PS3, and my router is too far from my TV to make connection with a cable viable.

And while the list of PS2 games had lots of RPG and strategy games, nearly all PS3 games are action oriented. I'm getting too old for twitchy games, and I don't enjoy them as much. So I guess I'll just keep my PS2, or even buy a new one if the old one ever breaks down. No next generation console for me.

Is 2007 a bad year for MMORPGs?

I'm starting to get a bit depressed by all the bad MMORPG news recently. And although it isn't December yet, I'm looking back at what 2007 has brought us, and I don't see much good news. Here is the list:

World of Warcraft : The Burning Crusade was a huge sales hit, but US and European subscription numbers peaked shortly after its release. I think nobody disagrees when I state that the Wrath of the Lich King announcement has a lot less enthusiastic reception. WoW will continue to be the best and most popular game around, but many people had hoped the expansions would bring more than they do.

Lord of the Rings Online: The best game that came out in 2007. Great low-level game, but getting a bit less great in the middle and higher levels. Fortunately Turbine is adding content at a very good rate, with book 10 adding mid-level content, and book 11 later this year even adding player housing. Some controversy about managers lying about subscriber numbers, and then leaving the company. But these problems are more due to being overshadowed by WoW than to inherent flaws of LotRO.

Vanguard: Wins this year's prize as the best bad example. Strangely Vanguard ended up being probably the most influential MMORPG of 2007, because the catastrophic January launch resulted in many other companies being wary of premature releases later in the year. Whenever you read a dev mentioning the need to "polish" a game more before release, he is talking about Vanguard.

Age of Conan: Delayed into 2008, needing "polish".

Pirates of the Burning Sea: Delayed into 2008. In a curious reversal of old prejudices industry rumors have it that FLS wanted to release before christmas, and it was SOE who prefered a delay into 2008 for reasons of both distribution and "polish".

Tabula Rasa: Delayed into later this year. And the dropping of the NDA revealed everybody saying "nice game, but not worth a monthly fee".

Auto Assault: Cancelled in 2007.

Warhammer Online Age of Reckoning: Delayed into 2008. Beta suspended for 2 months. WAR by far has the best marketing, information, and hype machine going in 2007, leading everybody to believe that WAR will be the next big thing. But apparently right now the game isn't quite as much fun yet as WoW was in beta, and the official release date of Q1 2008 will most likely be delayed again, as the game still needs "polish".

Gods & Heroes: First delayed, then cancelled. For financial reasons, the state of the game in beta wasn't that bad.

Did I miss anything? A failed game, lots of delays, some cancelling, and the only games that sold well were those that played it safe, which is sending the wrong message to the guys in suits. I sure hope 2008 will be a better year for MMORPGs!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ophelea explains cultural differences

Over at Gamersinfo Ophelea has a nice essay up on the cultural differences between east and west, regarding MMORPGs. Nice explanation on how the Asian culture of playing with friends in an internet café instead alone at home on your own computer changes the players requirements of game features and business models. You simply wouldn't want to pay a monthly fee if you didn't have a computer at home. Free-to-play games with microtransactions are the better business model for Asia, until PC ownership becomes a lot more widespread there.

This also makes it clear how hard it is to publish the same game with the same business model everywhere. Even World of Warcraft is paid for by the hour with game time cards in China. But microtransactions haven't quite jumped the cultural divide to the west yet, and are still regarded very sceptically here. As Ophelea points out, with the average income of people in the US and Europe, $15 a month looks like a very small amount of money, even if you belong to the half of the customers that play less than average and who are effectively financing the other half.

Gods & Heroes cancelled

This just in, WarCry reports that Gods & Heroes has been cancelled. The official website confirms that news. It appears as if basically Perpetual didn't have the money to keep on developing both Gods & Heroes and Star Trek Online, and decided to drop the former to concentrate on the latter.

I am not a lawyer, but I guess that means the NDA just got lifted. :) I was in the Gods & Heroes beta, and the game looked quite nice. The ancient history setting was well done and a refreshing change from elves and orcs. But gameplay was very similar to every fantasy MMORPG, only with more pets, and I can see how they might have had problems getting a huge number of subscribers together. Star Trek is certainly the stronger license.

Red 5 Studios

Two years ago a group of employees who had been working on World of Warcraft left Blizzard to form their own MMO company: Red 5 Studios. They haven't announced yet what game exactly they are working on, except that it will be a "next generation MMO", but they do have some interesting ideas.

To my surprise I just received an offer to "discuss opportunities here with our development team in Orange County" from Red 5 Studios. I declined, because I already have a job which is probably paying a lot more than a game developers job, and because I don't plan to move to the US (who wouldn't necessarily let me immigrate anyway). Maybe I am too conservative, but European companies wouldn't send out job offers based just on a blog. If somebody wants my game development ideas, he can "borrow" them from my blog. (If you do, it would be nice to put a magical item named after me in the game. The CEO of Red 5 Studios, Mark Kern, has the Mark of Kern ring in WoW, so he knows what I'm talking about.) If there is any subject I didn't cover, I'm even willing to write about it on request. But quitting my brick-and-mortar job to pursue a risky career in game development just isn't my thing. I wish them the best of luck, but the concept that everybody who worked on WoW would automatically be able to create a game as good is hard to believe, even if they had help from me. :)

Oh, and if you want to work for Red 5 Studios, they have a recruitment web page with open positions.

WAR beta closes down

Via Foton's AFK Gamer blog I got the news that the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning beta is closing down tomorrow for a least 2 months. Which is terrible news for the 3 guys EA Mythic actually invited to the beta, from 448,000 applicants. :) Honestly, they either have the best enforced NDA ever, or they only invited a very small number of people. I know only one WAR beta player, and he isn't playing, because the game crashes his computer every 10 minutes.

As much as I am looking forward to playing WAR, hopefully in an open beta before release, I get a sneaking suspicion that the Q1 2008 release date is too optimistic, and WAR will be delayed until later in 2008. You don't shut down a beta for two months if you are close to release.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cross-server dungeons for WoW

This is a side train of thought I had when writing about Blizzard's new fast forward mid-level game: In spite of them also improving the mid-level dungeons by reducing the level-range and making the loot better, a faster mid-level game probably means even less people visiting the mid-level dungeons. If people go through these levels faster, it becomes even harder to find a group of the appropriate level range. Already cities are full of lower level players begging for level 70s to run them through dungeons. This is not the way to enjoy the dungeon content.

When World of Warcraft had a similar problem with getting enough players of the right level range into the PvP battlegrounds, they solved that by introducing cross-server battlegrounds. So why not introduce cross-server dungeons? Dungeons being instances just like battlegrounds, there should be no technical problem with that.

To make that successful, we would need a better LFG system. You should be able to specify what classes you'd want in your group. Like having one slot for either a warrior or feral druid as tank, one slot for a priest or paladin as healer, and three slots where you'd accept any dps class. Players could see all the not complete groups waiting for a dungeon, and see where there is room for their character, of set up a new group if there isn't any. And this dungeon group forming interface would be shared between several servers, thereby much increasing the number of potential participants.

I enjoyed playing World of Warcraft by joining lots of groups for dungeons of all levels. Some places like Shadowfang Keep or the Deadmines are really great. It would be a pity if new players couldn't experience them, just because there are too few other mid-level players around. Cross-server dungeons could really boost this sort of gameplay. And by playing in groups early, players would arrive at the end game with a much better understanding of how to play in groups. The "level up to 70 solo and then group / raid" concept isn't really working all that well, people simply don't know how to play well in groups if they never did it.