Monday, June 30, 2008

Reading between the lines

An anonymous commenter asked me: "Tobold, I wanted to ask you if you are not a little bit disappointed about the announcements made at the WWI regarding wow. I mean, we learned nearly nothing. What do you think?" Well, I think that I learned a lot about WoW that weekend. Because often you learn more by reading between the lines and watching what is going on than by listening to a big new announcement.

Just read my interview with J. Allen Brack again. Many commenters simply projected their own view onto that, and just saw what they expected to see. But if you read it with an open mind, you learn a lot about the way Blizzard sees World of Warcraft. They are obviously extremely confident in the long-term future of WoW, so confident they don't even think they need to plan ahead. They strongly believe in quality, which is good, and don't believe in sticking to a timeline, which I think will bite them in the behind one day. You wouldn't want to produce lets say a car the way Blizzard develops games. Fortunately all other software companies have the same problem. Apparently creative coding doesn't lend itself to strict organization.

The interview also told us that if you hear anyone from Blizzard talking about a potential future feature, it is just that: Talk. For example somebody on some WoW panel mentioned Blizzard looking into allowing people to switch between two talent builds, and many people jumped on that and now think this is a feature that will come soon. But the interview clearly taught us that Blizzard looking into something only means the idea is on a board together with lots of other ideas. Maybe it will be patched in next year, maybe it will be part of the next expansion after WotLK, or maybe it will simply never happen.

Another important info from the interview is that Blizzard still considers World of Warcraft to be a group game. Did you notice that when we talked about the reasons for lack of healers and tanks, J. talked about the warriors damage contribution in a raid or group, which should be more meaningful? The solution to add more damage to warriors is the good one, but of course most players are worried about their damage output when soloing or PvPing, and couldn't care less about their position on the damage meter in a raid.

Finally there is a world of info contained in the simple phrases "We definitely want you to play at the high level with your friends. And we are always looking at neat good ways for you to get up to the high level." Not "we want you to level up with your friends". Blizzard is totally sold to the idea that the real multiplayer part of their game happens at the level cap.

I think that getting this sort of information of how Blizzard sees World of Warcraft, and how they produce the patches and expansions, is more useful than a precise announcement of lets say the WotLK release date or one more feature in it. For example I can now tell you with almost certainty that the next expansion after Wrath of the Lich King will come out in 2010, just by logically extrapolating the information about the production process. You heard it here first. :)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Blizzard WWI 2008 impressions

I had a great time Saturday at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008, and I'd like to share some impressions of the event. You can find videos of the opening ceremony and various debate panels elsewhere, I'm just telling a few stories of what I saw and thought.

First of all I have to thank Blizzard for their hospitality. Having a press pass is a huge improvement to the convention experience. That starts with being able to use an extra Press/VIP entrance instead of queueing in the morning. Then there was the well-equippped press room, with WiFi, some computers to play WotLK on, and snacks. The press pass allowed you to jump the queue in the gaming areas, and you got a reserved seat for the various ceremonies and panels.

I still ended up waiting in queues several times. Like everyone else I was eager to get a look at the goodie back when they opened up the distribution tent right after the opening ceremony. That of course caused long queues. There were two kind of goodie bags, English and French, and somebody had attached signs to that effect on the FRONT of the goodie bag tent, the side you'd see if you came from the entrance. But of course in this situation everyone came out of the hall, and there were no signs at the back of the tent, just two queues, causing lots of people to end up in the wrong queue. Some Blizzard staff had to repeatedly tell people in which queue they were, until in the afternoon somebody came up with the brilliant idea of moving the signs to the back of the tent where the queues started. By evening the queues were gone, so when we went again for my wife's goodie bag, there was no wait at all.

Similar situation at the Blizzard Store: long queues during the day, getting much shorter in the evening. Apparently they had underestimated the demand, because several items were sold out by Saturday afternoon already, with no fresh stock coming in on Sunday. So even if I had wanted a Blizzard Authenticator to keep my account from being hacked, I couldn't have gotten one because they were sold out. Another problem was that in one corner of the hall some guys were presenting a new WoW boardgame called World of Warcraft: the Adventure Game, which looked fun. But while the guys who presented the game said there was lots of stock and you could buy the game in the Blizzard Store, the game wasn't actually on the order form you had to fill out to buy anything, and so couldn't be bought. Only the old, huge WoW boardgame was for sale, the new game has half the size and appears to be better suited for casual boardgamers.

I must admit that before I arrived I had no clue why the event wasn't called "Blizzcon Europe". Only during the opening ceremony did it dawn on me that the core of the event was a worldwide tournament of the best players of Starcraft, Warcraft, and the WoW arenas. Thus the "invitational". Paris not being in South Korea, I had the impression that these tournaments didn't attract all that much attention. You could always get a seat there to watch, while people were queueing up for anything else.

Sunday morning in the hotel breakfast room I met two models. You know, the kind of girl where you can see that their beauty isn't totally natural, and with an unlikely tan. And after wondering for a second what they would be doing there, I realized that I had seen them disguised as WoW mages Saturday in the convention hall, posing with visitors for photo shots. And as they were wearing "original" WoW costumes, and WoW epic cloth armor for women is on the skimpy side, Blizzard had to hire good-looking models for that. Who else has a perfectly tanned flat belly and looks good in a push-up bra? The male hired costume wearers appeared to be just regular guys, there are no hulking barbarians in loincloths in WoW.

A few attendees also came with costumes, I even saw one guy lugging a self-made murloc suit around. If you hadn't brought a costume, there was a stand where you could get a costume and make-up from Blizzard, be photographed in front of a blue wall, and get the background filled in with a scene from the World of Warcraft. If that was too much effort for you, you could also just have a friend photograph you sitting on the frozen throne of the lich king, or in front of other WoW decorations like an orc mailbox or a full-sized nightelf statue.

The convention spread out over two floors, but after one full day I had seen everything. As unsurprisingly Mrs. Tobold had a different idea of how to spend a weekend for two in Paris, I didn't go back to the WWI for the Sunday events, most of which were about various tournaments anyway. Instead we visited a museum, walked around the quartier Latin, ate good food, and saw Notre Dame, before taking the train back home. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday in Paris either.

WWI 2008 goodie bag

As somebody asked what was in the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational goodie bag, I'll tell you:
  • A card with codes for a ingame pet, and another code for access to an unnamed Blizzard beta. I tried the beta code on the indicated website, and it didn't work. I tried the pet code on the indicated webpage, got an ingame code, but the instructions sent me to the NPC in Booty Bay, where there was no WWI 2008 pet listed. Speculation is that the pet will only come with the next patch. Or I need to go to another NPC, like the one near the fishing trainer in Orgrimmar with the murloc pets.
  • A starter set of Dark Portal WoW trading cards.
  • A collectible miniature for the upcoming WoW Miniatures game from Upper Deck.
  • A fake leather bound book with a Diablo theme and empty pages to take notes.
  • A WWI 2008 brochure with additional information about the event.
  • A WWI 2008 mousemat.
  • Promotional material with extra counters for Starcraft the Board Game.
  • Various other small advertising leaflets.
And all that came in a nice black WWI 2008 backpack. I'm pretty happy with the mix, although I'm still dying to know what the pet will be. And I hope Blizzard fixes the problem of the codes for the unnamed beta not working (the code of my wife didn't work either).

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

Another open Sunday thread, but with a twist: You can ask me questions about the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008 I'm visiting this weekend. If you're lucky, I can even answer the question. :)

Of course other subjects and discussion is also allowed.

Interview with J. Allen Brack

One major purpose of me applying for a press pass for the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008 was to get a chance to interview somebody from Blizzard about World of Warcraft. And my thanks go to secret PR guy (who wishes to remain anonymous), who made it possible that I got an interview with J. Allen Brack, Lead Producer for World of Warcraft. So here is the interview, word for word, just cleaned up a bit:

T.: J., what is your job title, what do you do?

J.: I'm the Lead Producer for World of Warcraft, so I'm the spiritual advisor, the solver of problems, I help control when patches and expansions come out, help getting them tested and ready to go, I'm remover of roadblocks great and small to all manner of programmers and artists and designers.

T.: That is already a very good introduction to my most important question, on the roadmap for World of Warcraft expansions in the future: In the next ten years, will there be 5 expansions or 10, or how do you see that?

J.: Great question. I don't know exactly how many. So we have kind of a stated goal releasing expansion once per year. But much more important than that is our commitment to that whenever a player actually buys the game and installs it they have a great experience. I guess we announced that we had the goal of doing it once a year about a year-and-a-half ago, and obviously it hasn't happened. It's been more than a year than The Burning Crusade came out, and we are not exactly yet happy with where [WotlK] is. The most important thing for Blizzard is that you have the best experience possible when you install it. And whenever Wrath of the Lich King gets to that point, that we feel you will have a great experience, we will release it. And that will be the case for the next expansion as well, whenever that happens to be. I don't know if that answers it or not.

T.: Well, the goal is there for one expansion per year.

J.: It's the goal, but it's more important that you have a great experience.

T.: In your mind, if you are scheduling a path, again for the next 10 years, will that be every expansion 10 more levels, one more hero class, a couple new features, maybe one more crafting skill?

J.: It might be surprising, but we don't actually plan more than one or two expansions ahead. So right now we have this expansion that we are working on, and we have started to talk about ideas for the next expansion. And that's it. We know that we have tons of ideas for other expansions, that come after the next one, but have no idea what actually will be in those expansions. We have no idea really even what will be even in the expansion that will come after Wrath of the Lich King. Right now we are just starting to talk about what would be some of our top cool ideas that we would want to do.

T.: Would you still be thinking about things like expanding lower level content,

J.: Sure.

T.: or introducing player housing?

J.: Sure.

T.: Those things are on the table, but we don't know what expansion they will be in?

J.: You don't know, and actually I don't know. The way Blizzard makes decisions like that is, when it comes time to do something like that, we'll put up all the ideas that we think are great for the next expansion. And we go "okay, that'll take us 5 years to make, way too long for players to wait for the next expansion. Let's talk about what the big, really solid ideas for the next expansion are". We did the same thing with the Death Knight. We knew we wanted to introduce a new class, and we talked about what are the various class options, and then kind of worked it down from there. Whether the Death Knight is the strongest option. You know it's a tank, we would like to add more tanks to the game. It's very lore centric with the lich king and Northrend, so that helped the decision get made. But we always talk about what are all the good ideas, and then figure out which ones are the best to take for each decision.

T.: Okay, lets follow up on you want more tanks in the game. You just need 5 minutes in looking for group chat to know that everybody wants more tanks and healers in the game. Do you think you can solve that by adding another tank class, and then you get more tanks, or do you think there is some underlying reason that people like the damage dealing classes more than the group classes of tank and healer?

J.: Yeah, tanking obviously is a very big responsibility. I think two things. Definitely I think by adding another tanking class there will be more tanks in the game. I think also in the past we had a tendency, if you take the protection warrior, it was the best tank, but it wasn't really useful for other things. So one of the kind of changes that we are going to make with tanking in Wrath of the Lich King is tanks, even protection tanks, will still do some amount of damage that contributes towards the overall raid or dungeon, or whatever you happen to be doing. Before their damage used to be near zero. Now we are going to actually make it a more meaningful contribution. I think that will actually help as well. Because a lot of warriors felt like they could tank or they could dps, and they just had to effectively do a talent change every time they wanted to switch. Now, you're not going to be the best dps'er whenever you are in your protection spec, but you are still be able to contribute meaningful.

T.: And that also would include changes to the warrior class, or is that just true for the Death Knight?

J.: No, no, that's all tanking classes. So we want all tanking classes to contribute meaningfully to damage.

T.: That is the reason for abilities like Titan Grip? [New warrior talent that allows you to wield 2-handed weapons in one hand, with a speed penalty. Yes, this time it's in!]

J.: Sure, yeah.

T.: And what are you planning for healers?

J.: Well, I actually play a healer.

T.: Me too.

PR guy: Me too. [Lots of laughter.]

J.: So that is dear to my heart. I play a holy priest. So we obviously have ten new levels and talents for healers to enjoy. Not really ready to talk about necessarily how that works. We feel tanking is the number one kind of shortage and then way further down is healing. So we introduce this Death Knight and see how that goes, and if we need to make changes or introduce a new class at some point later in the future maybe we will make that decision.

T.: You're not promising a healer hero class in the next expansion?

J.: That is correct, I'm NOT promising. We are very much a let's see how this goes type of thing. So we'll introduce the Death Knight, and we'll see how that goes, and if it's really successful then we'll talk about doing another hero class at some point in the future.

T.: Okay, lets talk about hero classes, Death Knight. There were earlier plans where you had to be 80 and do a quest, but now you basically removed all the requirements. You just have to have on level 55 character and you can make a Death Knight, and you can make him of any race.

J.: Yes.

T.: This will basically guarantee you that you will get a huge number of Death Knights.

J.: A huge number of Death Knights. Absolutely.

T.: Don't you think that you will have then the other problem, like 4 Death Knights shouting for a healer to go to a dungeon, if that even would be working?

J.: I think that will definitely be an issue on day 1. When we actually launch Wrath of the Lich King you'll be faced with a choice of whether to create a Death Knight and start that process, or to take your main and level it up to level 80. We saw kind of the same thing with Burning Crusade. We didn't introduce a new class, but we let the Horde play Paladins, and we let the Alliance play Shamans. In the first few months we saw huge numbers of Paladins and Shamans of the opposite faction. But now, or 6 months later, or 3 months later after that, you saw reasonable numbers of both, or what we feel is a reasonable number. And I think it will be the same for the Death Knight. Lot of people will start it, lot of people will create one, lot of people will level it. How many people will make it their main? I think some normal number of people will make it their main. The intent of the Death Knight is for it to be epic, but equal. Sort of feel like an epic experience, but it's not going to be any more powerful than any of the other classes. So some people will make it their main, and that'll be what they are playing, and other people will say "hey, I've done this for a while, and it's great, but it's not for me", and that's okay.

T.: Warriors will definitely feel somewhat threatened.

J.: Sure. Definitely.

T.: So what can you do or say to calm down the warriors?

J.: One thing we're doing is, you know, each kind of tank has it's own specialization. Every tank can tank, any dungeon and any raid, but certain classes are better [for certain situations]. Paladin is obviously a great AoE tank. Focus of the specialization for the Death Knight is going to be spellcasters. We don't really have a tank yet that is specialized for an anti-spellcaster role, and that is going to be the role of the Death Knight.

PR Guy: I hate to do that, but last question. J. has a panel and needs to be backstage in 10 minutes.

T.: Okay, then last question. The Death Knight starts at level 55. Every other class starts at level 1. Do you think that at one point you will introduce the option for other classes to start at level 55? Because if somebody chooses to make a new character, that might be a big factor in his choice, maybe he doesn't want to level up again.

J.: Sure, that's a great question. One of the things of starting at level 55 is kind of that epic but equal part of the Death Knight. We have talked about potentially having you, if you have some character that is a certain level that maybe you can create another character at a higher level, different than 1. We also just made a big change in patch 2.3 where you can much easier level up from level 1 to 60. So we are always looking at easier ways for you to level up. One thing we just announced for the next patch, that is 2.4.3. that we are changing the level at which you get your mount. It used to be level 40, now it’s going to be level 30, with a corresponding gold cost decrease. We definitely want you to play at the high level with your friends. And we are always looking at neat good ways for you to get up to the high level. So we will continue to look at thinks like that.

T.: Thank you very much for the interview, J.

J.: Thank you so much. It's always nice to talk with people who obviously very much like the game.

Blizzard announced Diablo III

Okay, so I'm a horrible n00b as journalist. I went to the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational without a camera, and left my laptop in the hotel, because the FAQ said that visitors can't make screenshots with a camera, and laptops couldn't even be brought onto the premises. Turns out these rules only apply to people who bought a ticket. I received my press pass without a problem, and press is allowed to use cameras and laptops. Doh! My bad. Well, this isn't really a photo blog anyway, and other sites are faster and better than me in news coverage anyway. This is a blog of words, and I'll give you my thoughts and impressions of the big Blizzard announcement: Diablo III is coming.

I saw the Diablo III announcement in the opening ceremony, and then listened to a panel with the Diablo III developers. And I must say, I'm impressed. I'm going to buy that game, it looks great. The announcement had actual gameplay footage, and the focus is on the player being overpowered and fighting against huge swarms of monsters, using various abilities. This is still very much Diablo, that is: random dungeons, random loot drops, fixed isometric view. But there are lots of cool new things as well, for example destructable environment, which affects gameplay. They showed one scene where the player caused a wall to fall on a bunch of zombies, crushing them to death, and that wasn't a cutscene but real gameplay. They showed two classes, Barbarian and Witch Doctor, and the Witch Doctor had some very cool abilities, like summoning a wall of zombies.

There will be small-group cooperative play on the new Battle.net, competitive multiplayer features as well, with new anti-cheat methods, and of course a full single-player campaign in various difficulty levels. The devs stressed ease of use, and fast furious combat. There will be quests (called "adventures"), big boss mobs, and lots of character abilities. In fact overcoming challenges by drinking tons of potions is out, using abilities and positioning well is in. For example they showed a skeleton shieldbearer mob, which acts as a tank in front of ranged combat mobs, and which is hard to kill because the shield blocks direct attacks. So you need to do stuff like knock the skeletons of their feet with an earthquake, or stun them, and that destroys the shield and you can kill them easily. There will be lots of loot, and the devs promised to improve the inventory system, without giving details.

In fact lots of the game is still unknown, they don't even know how many different character classes there will be. Don't expect Diablo III this year, you'll be lucky if you can buy it christmas 2009. Nobody even asked about the release date, because everyone knows the answer: "When it's ready."

Well, I'll go back to the convention now, and have a second look at Wrath of the Lich King. I already played a level 55 female gnome deathknight with pink hair for 10 minutes, but apparently this is still an earlier build of the alpha version, and my deathknight had 0 talent points. But she looked good, coming fully equipped with a great looking complete armor set. Even if that armor was only of "green" quality, it looked like a set of epics. I'm not going to report on details of talents of this or other classes, because I'm pretty sure they aren't done yet. But I did get a goodie bag with a scratch code for "Beta key of future Blizzard title". And I bet that's a WotLK beta key.

Tobold out.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The $50 million question

I mentioned in a comment earlier that I'm near the bottom of a hypothetical list of people most likely to receive $50 million to develop a triple-A MMO. And then I noticed that this might make a good discussion subject: If somebody gave you $50 million to develop a triple-A MMO, how would your game look like? The result should be fun enough to make you want to play your own game, and we'll presume that the $50 million investor wants his money back, so we have to talk business model as well. I propose as template:

Name of the game: (if you can think of one on the spot, otherwise leave blank)
Genre: (in the sense of setting: fantasy, sci-fi, pirates vs. ninjas, etc.)
Short description of gameplay: (especially the unique selling point, what makes your game special)
Business model: (monthly fee, free-to-play with micro-transactions, advertising, etc.)

To give an example, here is the game I'd develop with $50 million. I mentioned it before.

Name of the game: Shandalar
Genre: Fantasy
Short description of gameplay: Shandalar is a 3D virtual fantasy world with many of the classic features of modern MMORPGs: Various zones with cities, wilderness, and dungeons, populated by quest givers, and monsters to battle. The unique selling point is that the combat system is based on trading card game systems: you have a "hand" full of "cards" drawn from a "deck" you built. Every card represents a possible action in combat. As your hand is drawn randomly, every combat is different, even if you fight the same monster repeatedly.
Business model: Free-to-download, free-to-play with a basic deck and common cards you loot from monsters or get as quest rewards. Money comes from players buying "booster packs" containing a mix of rare, uncommon, and common cards, to build better decks. Point out to investor that this business model worked great for Magic the Gathering.

So, how would your game look?

Making quests less anti-social

If we look at the behavior of players in MMORPGs, for example World of Warcraft, we find that their behavior is likely to change when the incentives and reward system changes. This was especially visible in WoW with the PvP system, whose popularity over time changed significantly in response to changes in the PvP reward system. But also other changes, like the introduction of daily quests, changed player behavior a lot. It appears as if the main fun of a MMORPG comes from the rewards given out for an activity, not from the activity itself. The catch is that there *is* a difference in fun of various activities, and if the best rewards are given out for activities that are less fun, players are steered in the wrong direction. They do what gives the best rewards, but end up ultimately unsatisfied, and complaining about "the grind".

Recognizing that, game developers have changed MMORPGs from a system in which you advanced by killing random monsters to a system in which you advance by doing quests. That solved many problems. While a player of Everquest might log on, find a group, and then keep killing the same camp of monsters all day long, the quest system broke up that static gameplay and encouraged him to move all over the zone hunting various monsters for different quests. If done well, that can be a lot more fun than grinding. Badly designed, players start complaining about having to run around unnecessarily too much, but that is simply a question of placing quests and quest givers well.

But in the long run the quest system showed one important flaw: In the current form it is anti-social. Most quests in World of Warcraft not only *can* be done alone, they *must* be done alone if the players want to maximize rewards. Two players of the same level in the same zone often end up having only a small percentage of quests in common, unless they played together from the start. One player went east first, the other went west first, so each one has mostly quests the other already did. Then there are quest chains, where players rarely are on the same step. And even if two players have the same quest, or it can be shared, it isn't necessarily an advantage to quest in a group. If the quest is "kill 10 foozles", then killing them in a group might be faster. But if the quest is "collect 10 foozle ears", two players need to kill twice as many foozles as one player, and in many cases they end up not getting enough foozle ears from killing all the foozles around and end up having to wait for respawns. And because the xp for each kill are divided by two and only a very small group bonus added, the experience points per hour gained by questing in group are lower than if they had soloed.

When was the last time you grouped up for a quest that wasn't marked "group" or "dungeon"? And as there are enough quests around to skip those group quests, many players simply solo all the way up to the level cap. Not because soloing is inherently more fun than playing together, but because the reward system steers you that way. Even very social players who would prefer to play with others, even if that cost them some efficiency, end up playing solo, because they simply can't find anyone interested. What is the point of playing a massively multiplayer game alone?

The goal would not be to abandon the quest system completely, as it has been shown to be better than a pure grinding system. The goal would be to improve the quest system to encourage playing together, not to discourage it. Besides simple fixes of improving group rewards, one also would have to look into quest organization, so that it becomes more likely that several people want to do the same thing. Would walk-in quests, like the public quests of Warhammer Online be a solution? What else can we think of? Is social questing possible at all? Tell us what you think!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Public Figures - Part 2

The recent Bartle controversy caused a huge amount of comments here and on other blogs, as well as lots of blog linkage, not all of them very nice. Of course I freely admit that my remarks about Richard Bartle were not very nice either. But there are still degrees between calling somebody bitter and irrelevant, or calling somebody a fuck and asshat in an underhand "professional" way. I had a few of those insults in comments on this blog, and I deleted them. That makes me vulnerable to charges that suppress dissent, but in reality it is language that I suppress, not criticism. I left all comments that disagreed with me, even strongly, as long as they were polite.

I didn't feel like going around to all the blogs that attacked me and justify my words, like Dr. Bartle did. I very much enjoyed his comments here and elsewhere, because they made his ideas and point of view much clearer than his original provocative remark. But the only comment I can say about the people writing over me is that they have a point that I shouldn't have reacted that strongly and emotional to the provocation in Bartle's remarks. And they shouldn't have reacted that strongly and emotional to my provocative remarks.

What the whole thing taught me is that I'm a public figure now as well, in the small universe of MMORPG discussion, of course of lesser importance than Dr. Bartle. Massively had a Richard Bartle vs. Tobold headline. The thought frankly scared me a bit, because as a public figure you can get away with less. This blog is a non-commercial venture, a labor of love. I write because there are things that I feel strongly about, there are things that make me angry, and there are things I have totally subjective opinions of, and I want my opinions to be heard. The whole process of loving or hating a game is not very rational. Me writing not very nice things about a game I don't like, or about a person who said something provocative (intentional or not), is me being human, being angry, being emotional, being irrational. I have neither the superhuman willpower nor the editorial oversight necessary to prevent that from happening. I write what I think. And I hate the thought process where I catch myself thinking "Oh no, you can't write that, its going to cause too many angry comments". It is a perverse system in which the more you have the means to express your opinions, the less you have the right to do so.

So now I'm a bit at a loss what to do. I could pull a "reverse Lum" and turn into "Tobold the Mad", with an angry rant blog, and not care about all the comments with foul language that would undoubtedly attract. But that isn't really my style. I could write much less, or shut down the blog for a long period unless I'm out of the public eye and thus regain the ability to say what I think. Or I could shut down the blog completely and open a new one as "Dlobot", without telling anyone, and escape scrutiny that way. But I think the most rational is a mix in which I use the current summer MMORPG slump and holiday period to write less, try being myself without self-censorship, and wield a heavy banstick if that causes the language in the comments to deviate from my Terms of Service. And blacklist the kind of blogs that tend to call me names. What I don't know can't hurt me, because the internet is just words.

Where I'll be this weekend

I found this map from WoWInsider funny:

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The one-dungeon guild

A reader wrote me with an interesting solution to the guild hopping problem in World of Warcraft. You know, people leaving one guild to join another guild which is one dungeon further in the raid circuit, speeding up their progress, but slowing down the progress of their original guild in the process. As this behavior is widespread and hard to stop, why not turn it into an institution: The one-dungeon guild. You'd have guilds like the Karazhan Dragons or the Knights of Serpentshrine, and all that guild does is organizing raids to the one dungeon they were made for. Once people have all the loot from Karazhan, they quit the Karazhan Dragons and join the Knights of Serpentshrine without guild drama, because now this is what is actually expected of them. Others might opt to stay behind longer because they like Karazhan as a place, or prefer smaller raids, and become the experienced raid leaders in the Karazhan guild.

Spinning that thought further, if a guild is simply a means towards a specific goal, and not a voluntary association of likeminded people, there is really no reason why we need all that complicated manual application, invitation, and vetting process. If third-party website can tell you what raid dungeon you're well-equipped enough to visit, then so should the game itself be. Quitting the Karazhan Dragons and joining the Knights of Serpentshrine could be done with the press of a single button in-game, as long as your equipment score qualified you for Serpentshrine Cavern. Why go through all the bother of lying on your application of how loyal you are going to be to your next guild, if all you want is get ahead in the raid circuit?

There would even need to be only one guild for every dungeon, preferably with in-game tools like raid calendars and easy raid slot distribution. Why have lots of small Karazhan guilds, each failing to get 10 raiders together on bad days, if you could have one big Karazhan guild that organizes a number of raids proportional to the number of people interested?

If now you are thinking of organizational details and the administrative problems this could cause, you fell for my sarcasm. Because I think that in spite of there being a trend towards guilds that are only there to get you to the next raid step, this trend will kill MMORPGs in the long run. If you compare single-player RPGs with MMORPGs, you'll find that the single-player games often offer more features, like a storyline for example. The reason why so many more people are playing MMORPGs than single-player RPGs is that MMORPGs offer you better interaction with other players. There is a well-known phenomenon of people already being bored with the game they are playing, but staying in it (and keeping to pay monthly subscriptions) because of their friends and guild mates. Turning a guild into an impersonal machine with a single purpose diminishes human interaction. If guild hopping is popular, it is a sign that there should be more rewards to guild loyalty, not that guild hopping should be made easier.

Mass market MMORPGs and hidden gems

I'm certainly guilty of having reacted to the provocation in Richard Bartle's remark about Warhammer Online instead of the subject. From all sides there has been too much discussion about whether that provocation was intentional or unintentional, and not enough discussion about Dr. Bartle's ideas. I think lots of people reading his contributions on this blog, Brokentoys, or Waaagh would agree that there are some very valid points in his extended explanations. Or as one of his comments puts it, he comes over better when he has "a backspace key". So lets forget about the controversy, and have a look at one of the underlying issues: Mass market MMORPGs and hidden gems.

I think you'll have noticed by now that I am a fan of mass market MMORPGs, and Richard Bartle is a fan of hidden gems. If I understand his explanation correctly this is because I play for fun, and he plays to look at the underlying mechanisms and innovation. I can agree with Dr. Bartle that if you make a list of features of World of Warcraft and a list of announced features of Warhammer Online, the two lists will be largely identical. And the features WAR has that WoW hasn't, like RvR, the Tome of Knowledge, or Living Guilds, look suspiciously like old ideas from games like Dark Age of Camelot, Lord of the Rings Online, or Everquest 2.

But as I am playing for fun, I'm less concerned about whether an idea is novel, I'm more concerned with the execution of that idea. The term is overused, but "polish" is important for a mass market MMORPG. Quests certainly weren't a new idea when World of Warcraft came out, but somehow WoW made them more fun than the quests in other games. So when I am looking at WAR, I don't see a bunch of old ideas. I see a potentially fun new execution and new mix of old ideas.

Also one major interest of mine in MMORPGs has always been how players react to game design and features. And I found that the reaction very much depends on tiny details in execution. For example there are games where the looking for group feature works very well, and in World of Warcraft it simply doesn't. If I see WAR's public quest system described, I don't see a combination of old concepts, quests combined with forced cooperation. I see a potential new way of people interacting, which could lead to very interesting new social dynamics, both positive and negative. If done right, this could be a lot of fun.

I do play "hidden gem" type games sometimes. I went through several incarnations of A Tale in the Desert, I played Puzzle Pirates, and currently I'm having a lot of fun with Kingdom of Loathing. But most of that fun is of the "explorer" type, as Dr. Bartle would call it. Which is fine if you start a new game, but is running out relatively quickly. "Achiever" and "socializer" fun tends to have a longer lifetime, because achievements can be done with repetitive content, and socializing fun is endless, unless you get tired of the human race. The same is true for "killer" fun, even if I'm not into that. So while hidden gem type games are innovative, I usually don't play them for very long, because by definition innovation only lasts until you are familiar with it.

Mass market games can justifiably be accused of just being a polished version of old ideas catering to the lowest common denominator. But by doing that they attract a larger crowd of people, and that larger crowd brings certain advantages. One advantage is simply money: You can't design a niche game with a $50 million budget. So the hidden gem games have less content, less graphics, less quality control, less money invested in hardware. That might not be important if you only look for innovation, but can be important if you play for fun. The other advantage is that more people means more possibility of social interaction, although not necessarily better quality. A Tale in the Desert certainly has a better community than World of Warcraft. But as discussed in the previous article, a bigger game means a better chance to get past the critical mass needed to find groups. And some interesting social phenomena only appear in mass market games.

Finally I would argue that mass market games are more fun. Not in the sense that any one given person can not have more fun in a hidden gem game than in a mass market game. But in a sense of statistical probability. A random person is more likely to have fun in World of Warcraft than in Achaea. Because to assume otherwise you have to subscribe to a theory that players don't know what fun is, and are herded into bad games by big companies with clever marketing. I don't buy into that theory, I think most players know very well what is fun, and are rather fickle in chosing games. The decision which game to choose might be affected by other factors than game design, like cost, or where all my friends are. But subscription numbers are broadly indicative of fun, even if they tell you nothing about how innovative a game is.

New ideas are certainly important for the future of MMORPGs. If game companies would produce nothing but identical WoW clones from now on, the genre would be dead in a few years. But new ideas isn't the only important thing for the future. Money, and the social acceptance that comes from millions of players playing the same game are also a part of that future. Ideas are a great thing, but implementing ideas often costs money. If we only had lots of small games with a few thousand players and financing based on donations, the MMORPG genre would be going nowhere either. In the end, we need both: the hidden gem that serves as a testbed for new ideas, and gives home to small groups with more specific tastes; and the mass market MMORPG that "polishes" the ideas, and distributes them to millions, making enough money for investors that they are willing to finance the next big game, and driving the perception of the genre in the media.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Servers and critical mass

Eric from Elder Gamer says that an MMO dies when its population no longer reaches critical mass, and wants the EQ2 servers to be merged. The problem is that most games even in bad times still have "critical mass", only it is badly distributed over many servers, each of which is below critical mass. Or there is critical mass only for the most popular content. There are still enough players on any one WoW servers to get a group to Karazhan together. But there aren't enough to get a Gnomeregan run together. And with the typical summer slump coming up, on less populated WoW servers on the less popular faction it will be hard to find groups for many dungeons. The specific problem for WoW is that server mergers are probably not a good idea. Most of the absentees will come back for the Wrath of the Lich King, and then servers would suffer from overpopulation and queues if they were merged.

I'm not a tech guy. I have enough tech knowledge to install a new graphics card or RAM, or to network a printer, but I know nothing about servers and data protocols and stuff. But from a simple user perspective I have to ask: why are most MMORPGs divided into several servers? Why can't we all play together on one big single server?

Apparently it is *not* a problem of total server population. EVE Online has only one single server, with a quarter of a million players on it, and most of the time it is running fine (although the Empyrean Age seems to have caused connection problems). The problem in general appears to be server instability and lag if too many people gather at the same point. Even in EVE there are hubs like Jita, where bad things happen if too many people gather there. In World of Warcraft the opening of the gates of Ahn'qiraj caused too many players to gather in Silithus, which then caused server crashes and enormous lag. In Age of Conan siege warfare, where by definition many players gather at one place, are a buggy lagfest. Apparently when in a virtual world you go somewhere where there are many other players, data traffic goes up exponentially, because every one of those players needs to be informed of the movements of every other player, and the servers can't handle that traffic.

So I'm wondering if developers can't come up with a better system. I remember in Final Fantasy XI the data traffic simply was automatically throttled when you came to a crowded area. You stepped onto the square in front of the auction house and at first saw nobody, and then people plopped into view slowly, one after one. Of course that can't be a solution for massive PvP battles; but who says that I need to be instantly informed of every other player's action in Orgrimmar when I just want to use the bank and auction house? I think clever programming of the way data traffic is handled could seriously improve matters.

Another possible solution would be instances. World of Warcraft should have cross-server dungeons working the same way as cross-server battlegrounds already do. The majority of group content in WoW is instanced, so as long as you put in the same restrictions to trade that already exist in cross-server battlegrounds, why shouldn't people be allowed to find a cross-server group for dungeons that are rarely visited nowadays? In Age of Conan all zones are already instanced, I don't know why they also need to separate people into different servers.

The final hope is technological advances. Future servers might simply become more powerful and be able to handle more people. Right now the maximum population a server can handle isn't a large multiple of the "critical mass" Eric is talking about, so even normal daily or seasonal variations of the number of concurrent users mean that at some times there aren't enough people online for groups to certain destinations. If a WoW server could handle 10,000 players, there would be less problems when only half of that are online, because that would still be more than a full server now.

And maybe there are other ideas which could guarantee that a MMO always has more than critical mass for people to play together. If you have an idea, tell us!

Atari and early reviews

The story of the day is Atari suing reviewers for bad reviews of Alone in the Dark. Which obviously is a bad idea, because the negative backlash for suing them is going to hurt them more than the positive effect of getting somebody to retract a bad review. And far more people will now be aware of that game having bad reviews than if the bad reviews would just have been allowed to stand.

But of course there is more behind the story than the headlines suggest. Atari isn't suing reviewers for bad reviews, it is suing for bad reviews that came out before the game was officially released, and written by people who didn't receive an official preview copy. Atari claims the reviewers basically pirated the game, and there are effectively already pirate copies on Bittorrent, before the game is even released. The reviewers claim they got copy from distributors who didn't take the official release date all that serious, or got a second-hand preview copy.

So what interests me about the story is the question in how far a game company should be able to control pre-release reviews. Even single-player game preview copies might be incomplete. And alpha- and beta-leaks of MMORPGs are not always representative of the real game. Some companies start a beta only when their game is nearly complete, other companies still do major changes to the game during the beta process. Some games, like AoC, even still do major changes in the months after release.

I will see a version of Wrath of the Lich King this weekend at the Blizzard 2008 Worldwide Invitational at Paris. How close will that version be to the release version? If I see a bug or badly designed game feature, should I write about it, or assume it is going to be fixed and keep mum? I simply don't know how much development is still going to be done on WotLK, I don't even know the release date.

Warhammer Online is a similar story: It is public knowledge that the game changed significantly during the beta process, which is a long one. When I read comments from people who said "I tried the beta and it sucked", I don't even know whether whatever they didn't like isn't already fixed, nor do I know what changes will still come before release. Of course it doesn't help that this sort of comments usually isn't very specific. How do you measure "suck"? And is that "suck" based on personal dislike of a feature, or more objective? No game is perfect, and again Age of Conan is a good example for a game where some people love the game so much they are willing to overlook the imperfections, and other people are so annoyed by the imperfections that they are willing to call the whole game bad.

In the case of Age of Conan at least Funcom can't complain if they get bad reviews, at least these are based on a released game, where people paid money for in the current state. Blizzard has more of a case when it shuts down sites with alpha leaks for WotLK. EA Mythic apparently only kicks people out from the WAR beta without going after their reporting, as far as I know. Putting a genie back into the bottle is hard to do anyway. Certainly alpha- and beta-leaks are at least a breach of some NDA.

I think there are cases where even if a game company doesn't want the word to spread, it is justified to warn people from a bad game. I remember the collective jaw-drop from all beta testers when Vanguard announced they'd release the game in 4 weeks, and everyone said that it was far, far from finished. But for games where there is no fixed release date yet, or the release is still several months in the future, complaining too loudly about some bug or feature that might not even make it into the release version is unfair. The closer a release date is, the more accurate is a judgment about the state of a game. So the bad reviews about Atari's game were probably justified, even if the law might be on the side of Atari concerning reviewing pirated game copies. But anything you hear about WotLK or WAR I'd take with a grain of salt. That includes announcements from the developers.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Public figures

As if we hadn't discussed that issue enough, some people can't stop trying to tell me what I can write and what I cannot write. In this case I had several readers complaining about my comments about Richard Bartle (although some of those comments might have been Richard himself, disguised as "Anonymous", which would be more understandable). So I re-read what I wrote to check whether I used any inappropriate language. Did I call the man an "asshole" or "idiot"? No, I called him "bitter" and "irrelevant". Actually I'm pretty certain that the language I used could have passed the editor and legal department of most print media without problems.

The law is pretty clear on the matter of writing about people: I'm limited what I can write about lets say you, or my next-door neighbor, due to privacy rights. But those rights for privacy are much more limited in the case of public figures. So if I believe that Bartle doesn't get modern MMORPGs, Tigole turned WoW into a raid game, Raph isn't so innocent of SWG's failure as he claims, and Paul Barnett is a reincarnation of P.T. Barnum, I am legally allowed to write that.

And it isn't just a legal matter. If one of the public figures of the MMORPG scene gives an interview or makes public statements, he is counting on the fact that these statements carry more weight because of who he is, and how his words are going to be reported. One of my readers writing "WAR is just like WoW" in the comments section of this blog doesn't carry the same weight as Richard Bartle saying the same thing in an interview on Massively. His person is part of the argument, so facts about his person are a valid part of the counter-argument. That is why for example I allow comments on this blog calling me a carebear when PvP is discussed: In the context of this blog I'm a public figure, and me not liking hardcore PvP is a well-established fact, so it is a valid counter-argument to me saying that I don't like PvP in game X.

I know it is sometimes difficult to draw the line, to know exactly when one personal remark is justified and when another is not. I can call Bartle "bitter" about his lack of financial success, because I can quote remarks from him that prove that point (just read his comments about Spielberg on Brokentoys). I can't call Bartle an "idiot", because there is nothing to suggest that he isn't a highly intelligent man. And his argument that MMORPGs evolve too slowly from one generation to the next is certainly a good point one can discuss about. But if he condenses that argument into a sweeping generalization that "WAR = WoW", supported only by his own personal gravitas, he is setting himself up for scrutiny of his motives and relevance. Blanket statements like that rarely lead to a refined discussion of the underlying argument, even if that argument is valid.

WoWProgress

I found another interesting site using the World of Warcraft Armory for some statistical data mining. This one is called WoWProgress. Besides tracking the progress of guilds in WoW, it also tracks movement between guilds in some charts. Did you for example know that priests switch guilds most often, but hunters switch least often. Interestingly while for every class it is more likely that somebody switches from a weaker guild to a stronger guild, priests seem to be the most burned out class, and are the class that most frequently moves from a stronger guild to a weaker guild.

WoWProgress also has another interesting feature: It tracks people who moved from one server to another or changed name. If you want to really disappear, you better change your gear, otherwise somebody with a specific set of gear leaving one server and somebody new appearing out of nowhere with the same gear is going to leave a trace.

WoW+

Richard Bartle is the co-author of MUD, one of the ancestors of modern MMORPGs. But as he failed to patent any of the inventions he did while creating it, all he got was a Wikipedia entry. Being aware how many millions other people make from those ideas, he tends to be somewhat bitter. And out of that bitterness comes a deep desire to annoy other people in the field, for example by proposing to close down World of Warcraft. And now Keen reports Richard Bartle saying “I’ve already played Warhammer. It was called World of Warcraft.”, thereby making a lot of WAR fans angry. Well, as attempt of somebody who has become irrelevant to make it back into the news this succeeded; but now he'll have some clever explaining away to do, before everybody considers him to be just crazy.

Of course games from the same genre resemble each other, or they wouldn't be part of the same genre. WAR is no more identical to WoW than WoW is to Everquest. And as a marketing strategy the guys from EA Mythic make unhelpful statements like “We have everything you would expect from a MMO; The greatest hits.” With the visual style being somewhat similar, of course some people now start to think of WAR as being some sort of WoW+. World of Warcraft plus RvR, for example. But that isn't really a fair assessment. LotRO isn't WoW plus hobbits, AoC isn't WoW plus nipples, and WAR isn't WoW plus RvR. These are all completely separate games, all drawing from a pool of general genre features. And yes, WoW significantly contributed to that pool, but earlier games like Everquest contributed even more.

Of course if you don't like MMORPGs in general, you won't like WAR either. Or if WoW totally burned you out from games where you do quests and kill monsters to advance in levels, WAR isn't going to offer you something completely different. But nobody really expects that. Nobody blames Crysis for being similar to other first person shooters, or Starcraft 2 for being the same as other real time strategy games. Players buying WAR *expect* certain standard features of a MMORPG. And they buy a new game for new content and different variations of an old genre.

And with multiple generations the variations from one game to another evolve the whole genre. Nobody says "I've already played Spore, it was called Populous.", even if Spore is definitely part of the same god-sim genre. But in 19 years that genre has evolved into something that makes Spore appear to be very different from Populous. In the genre of MMORPGs the games of today already appear to be much different from Everquest. And in 10 years the new games will be much different from World of Warcraft. But most of that difference will not come from huge quantum leaps, but from a sum of smaller additions to features.

That is why Richard Bartle's statement of WAR being the same as WoW only makes him look foolish. We don't know yet how important features like RvR, the tome of knowledge, or public quests are going to be for the future of the genre. Maybe in 5 years public quests are as standard as golden symbols over the head of quest givers, maybe they end up being forgotten or considered to be a failed experiment. But dismissing WAR because it shares features with WoW or other MMORPGs simply stops all evolution. Relying only on people coming up with revolutionary new ideas that found completely new genres would mean we would only get new games once every decade or so. WAR is important because it will attract a large audience, and it will evolve the MMORPG genre in some way. Discussing the evolution and the changes is a lot more important than listing the similarities.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Restricting play time per day

I'm having lots of fun playing Kingdom of Loathing. It's silly, but that just adds to the fun. And some of the game mechanics are surprising well designed. But as much as I like KoL, I can't play it for more than about 1 hour per day. Because every day you only get 40 adventures, and most things you want to do cost 1 adventure. You can get more adventures by eating, drinking, having special items equipped, or by clan items, but all these are limited in some way. So you end up with maximum about 100 adventures per day, and then you can't adventure any more. You can still buy and sell stuff, or do other things in your inventory, or chat with your clan or other players, but for further adventuring you need to wait for the next day.

So of course I'm wondering if this is a principle that would be possible for other games as well, for example World of Warcraft or a similar MMORPG. We don't hear very much about it any more, but back in 2005 there was a story going round that the Chinese government would impose a 3-hour limit on online games, but it seems to have been implemented in 2007. While being forced to stop to play can certainly be frustrating, the idea certainly also has it's good sides.

One advantage, and we'll have to see how important that one gets in the future, is that restricted play hours per day preempt accusations of the game being "addictive" or harmful for people playing it endlessly. Of course nobody forces you to actually eat, drink, exercise, and take a shower when you daily play time is over. But by leaving the flow, there is at least some chance that you remember the real world and do the most urgent stuff there instead of playing on until you drop dead.

But as Kingdom of Loathing shows, restricting how much you can play also has an important game design function: You prevent certain gamers from playing through your game in a few days, or from advancing much faster than everyone else, just because they played 16+ hours per day. For the game company restricted play offers the obvious advantage that people would need more days to play a game through, thus more subscription fees. Of course a simple time limit is probably not a good solution, because then players wouldn't chat any more, because it would cost them time best spent adventuring. But WoW for example has a definite "in combat" and "out of combat" status, so you could for example easily be limited to 2 hours "in combat" per day. Anything more would not give you any xp, reputation, honor points, nor loot. Which means that you could still be online for more than 2 hours, and do other stuff like chatting or playing the auction house; but questing, adventuring, raiding or PvP would be limited.

From a game design point of view, current MMORPGs have a big downside: The power and status of your character depends too much on how many hours you played, and not enough on how skillful or efficient you play. If you could only gain xp in combat for 2 hours per day, those 2 hours would really count. Efficient and skillful gameplay would be important again.

And if the game is good, players would accept that restriction. Of course not if we really added it to an existing game, like WoW. But the players of Kingdom of Loathing accept limited play per day, because it was in from the start. A MMORPG would just have to be new and different for players to accept the restriction in that game as well. Being restricted could even end up making the play time more valuable to the players, and end up being more fun than endless sessions in a classical MMORPG.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

So here it is again, your chance to suggest subjects to I could post about, and to discuss hot topics I haven't covered yet. As the past week was somewhat turbulent, I'll ask you to keep the discussion civil.

Beyond orcs and elves

While the first tier of triple-A 3D MMORPGs is somewhat dominated by fantasy games, the variety is much bigger with browser games and other free-to-play games. A reader alerted me to Football Manager Live, which is a massively multiplayer online football manager game from SEGA, currently in beta. I'm not in the beta yet, so I can't say how good the game is, but I looked at various blogs covering the game, like FMLMod and Zutcorp FC, and the game appears to be quite interesting. Normal football manager games are often a bit boring, because they are designed to let you win in the long run. In FML you play against other players, and they are as eager to win as you are, and you need luck and the better strategy to win. Might be worth checking out once the game goes live.

Blizzard not doing so well against MDY

If you think that the subject area of my blog is narrow, you should see Virtually Blind, a blog that only discussed the legal aspects of virtual worlds. Sid67 alerted me to their latest news about the Blizzard vs. MDY (WoW Glider) lawsuit. Apparently Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, intervened as "friend of the court", blasting Blizzard's claim that modifying a copy of WoW in the RAM is a copyright infringement. And the judge ordered Blizzard to respond, which means he doesn't simply accept Blizzard's claim as is.

This is interesting, because it not only is important for Blizzard's lawsuit, but for the rights of modders and writers of addons everywhere. If modifying the copy in the RAM is a copyright infringement, game copies can go after creators of mods they don't like for some reason. Hey, they could even sue you if you use some cheat program to modify a running program. So while I'm not a fan of bot software, I think it would be good if a court set rules on how far game companies can restrict what players can do with their games.

Friday, June 20, 2008

WoW patch 2.4.3 and luxury handbags

Blizzard is preparting World of Warcraft patch 2.4.3, and it isn't a very big patch, as you already might have guessed when they didn't call it 2.5. Things like changing the level at which you get your first mount from 40 to 30, and reducing the cost accordingly would have made big waves in 2005, but raise barely a yawn in 2008. Much more interesting is what happens at the other end of the game, for level 70 characters: Haris Pilton is selling luxury handbags. Gigantique 22 slot bags for 1,200 gold, to be exact. Not unique, in case you want to buy 4 for yourself and another 7 for your bank. If you close your right eye and squint with your left eye, the pearls on the luxury handbag form the word "money sink". :)

In the real world luxury handbags are one of the most faked items on the black market. In my opinion that is because while women love to show off, they are also realistic enough to not want to pay the price for an original. For the WoW virtual version I can only advise you to pursue a similar strategy. I am pretty certain that Wrath of the Lich King will have easier to get 22 slot bags, most probably in form of a tailoring recipe for level 80. And as these will be a lot cheaper than the Haris Pilton Gigantique 22 slot bags, I'd recommend keeping your money and waiting for those cheap bags. After all, in WoW nobody can see what brand of bag you are wearing.

Crafting, what is it good for?

Great discussion going on at Psychochild and Hardcore Casual about what crafting is for. One point of view discussed there is that crafting is often done by socializers, who use crafting as an opportunity to stand around and chat. For that audience crafting shouldn't be too interactive, because if they have to click all the time, they can't chat simultaneously. For that kind of audience the current crafting systems might actually be suitable. But me, I don't really like the crafting system of WoW and other games using similar systems.

One thing I dislike is the current mechanism of resource gathering. It's fine that you have to travel around to find resources, but not so great that your success in resource gathering mainly depends on how many other people are online. Why should it make a difference whether I gather herbs or ore at 5 am or 5 pm? It only leads to players starting to hate the other players, who swooped in before them and "stole" their resources. I liked the resource gathering system of Star Wars Galaxies much more, where you had to prospect for high-quality resources that shifted position every week, and then harvest them, with the player coming first getting the best yield, but not a monopoly. In a game like WoW I'd much prefer if ore nodes and herbs would NOT always be in the same few locations, and if they would NOT deplete for all other players once the first players gathered there. What if resource nodes were redistributed every day, but would stay there all day long, and if you used a particular node it would be empty for you, but not for everyone else? Star Wars Galaxies also had one huge advantage in that copper ore wasn't always just copper ore, it had stats. Using resources with high stats lead to items with higher stats, while cheap resources with low stats were mainly used for practicing.

Regarding crafting itself, I'd rather an actual game to craft something. Best system I've seen up to now is smithing a blade in A Tale in the Desert: You start with a block of metal, a template which you should try to reach, and a set of hammers. You hit the block with the hammers, which changes its shape in a logical way. You can stop at any time, but the closer your metal block resembles the template shape, the better the quality of your blade. Other possibilities are systems like the one used in Puzzle Pirates: Every different craft is a different puzzle game, and the better you get with the puzzle game, the better quality of goods you can produce.

The basic principle for me is that crafting should be a game, an activity, with rewards that aren't much worse than the rewards from adventuring. Why should one hour of adventuring give you money and xp, while one hour of crafting only loses you money? People talk about adventuring having more risk, but that is an outdated concept dating back to Everquest, the last game where you could actually lose a lot by dying when adventuring. In WoW you can only lose time and repair money if you die, and that could easily have an equivalent in a crafting system. Craft badly and you lose time and money for materials, same thing as if you do a bad pull when killing monsters.

MMORPGs already have a variety of activities, most of them centered around combat: You can fight solo or in a group, against mobs or against other players. A crafting system which would be a game by itself would just add to the possible activities you can do in a virtual world. The more different and varied activities a MMORPG has, the more it feels like a world, and not just a linear game in which you rise to the top. The more there is to do, the longer it takes for people to get bored. Creating better crafting systems would be in the interest of the game developers.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blog map

Michael Zenke from Massively has posted a blog map with a recent article, showing the MMO part of the Blogipelago.

It's funny, and I'm in a prominent position at the northern tip. It would be even better if the various blogs on the map would be clickable, which would be way cooler than a blogroll. It isn't a complete fit of the list of blogs I read regularly, but a good overlap. So if you don't already know all the blogs on that map, it might be worth googling for them and checking them out. Enjoy!

Dreamlords The Reawakening

As I was asking for a more strategic MMORPG, the makers of Dreamlords The Reawakening wrote me to tell that their MMORTS just released this week. And it's free-to-play, so I tried it for a while.

Dreamlords combines a 3D game downloadable client game part with a 2D browser game part. In the browser you manage your patria, your country. You do things like building housing, putting workers into various buildings, and doing research. In the 3D client you go adventuring and questing in a RTS-like gameplay. Winning victories in RTS rewards you with items, which you can either use, or transform into things useful for your patria, like gnosis, which controls how many inhabitants you can have. The game has lots of options and is relatively complex. And apparently at some point you can do PvP against other players.

The idea is nice enough, but the execution isn't all that great. Movement in RTS is slow, and the RTS fights not very interesting, at least not at the start of the game where you only have your dreamlord and 3 soldiers. The game manual is very short and often leaves you wondering what you are supposed to do. But then I'm not a big fan of real-time strategy anyway, always have preferred turn-based. So as Dreamlords is free, you might want to check it out for yourself.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Fire extinguishing

As the post itself and the commentaries evolving from it proved to be too incendiary, I deleted my post about internet provider AT&T planning to cap monthly volumes to either get rid of, or at least get more money of, the 5% of users they say use 50% of their bandwith. I'm sorry if it appeared as if I was calling every heavy internet user a pirate, that was certainly not my intention, even if P2P filesharing is unarguable one of the top sources of internet traffic.

There is a pervading myth on the internet that the companies making money from making operating systems, software, providing internet services, or producing content like music and videos are "evil" if they don't give away all of that for free or at least under cost. I am a capitalist, and proud of it, and don't agree with that point of view. As I get paid for in my day job for inventing stuff, I have a strong belief that innovation costs money, and the same is true for the creation of content. If people are not willing to pay for technology and content, then innovation will dry up, and content will be reduced to amateur writing (like this blog), amateur videos and music.

I do know that having a capitalist opinion on a anti-capitalist platform is difficult. Nevertheless I insist on my right to have an opinion. You do have the right to disagree with me. You do have the right to voice your concerns about the downsides of the capitalist system, and the abuses of that system, which certainly do exist. You do not have the right to tell me that I'm stupid, don't know what I am talking about, haven't researched the issue properly, am not entitled to an opinion because I'm not American, or that I should stick to MMO reporting. If you don't want to read my opinion about politics, technology, or the capitalist system, feel free to skip those posts. If you want to read them and disagree with my point of view, state your own point of view without attacking my point as being invalid. There is no such thing as one universal truth about subjects as who the next president of the USA should be, or how the business model for internet providers should look. There are only opinions, and my opinion is exactly as valid as your opinion.

If flame wars errupt on this blog, I will make use of my right of censorship to extinguish the flames, either by deleting individual comments, or by completely closing or removing the discussion. On the day where I feel that I can't freely express my opinion at all any more, I will stop blogging. To those of you who are threatening to unsubscribe if I continue to express non-MMO opinions that you don't agree with, I'm still waiting for a good explanation of how that is going to hurt me, as you neither pay any subscription fees nor generate any advertising revenue for me. If you, my readers, manage to shut me up, I'm afraid it's your loss, not mine.

WoW gold getting worthless?

I'm always a bit wary of sites offering price comparison for WoW gold, because most of them just offer that comparison to get a cut. But a reader sent me a link to a comparison site, and that site has a graph showing the average price of WoW gold in the last three months. And that chart shows the price of gold in WoW falling rapidly, from $40 to $20 over that period. Is WoW gold getting worthless?

One fundamental reason for WoW gold losing value is the added daily quests of the Shattered Sun Offensive, which allow regular player to make quite a bit of cash every day, thus decreasing demand for bought gold. Another reason is that raiding seems to be in decline, thus less people spending money on repairs and consumables.

I always have some hope that declining prices will actually end up killing RMT. Yes, gold farmers can do daily quests too, but only 25 a day, the rest of the time they still need to farm primals or whatever earns them the most gold. So overall they aren't earning gold much faster now, and if prices keep falling sooner or later farming gold will simply not be profitable any more, not even on Chinese wages.

Looking for tank and healer

Age of Conan recently introduced regional chat, a general chat channel spanning several zones in the same region, to which you are subscribed by default. So what are you most likely to hear on that channel? "LFM tank and healer needed". Although the combat system of AoC is much faster and initially appears to be different than that of World of Warcraft, the same holy trinity of tank, healer, damage dealers is ruling group combat. And although you usually need only one tank, one healer, as compared to three damage dealers, it is still always the tanks and healers that are in short supply. Because just like in WoW they are needed for groups, but not quite as good as damage dealers in soloing. Plus ├ža change …

So lets have a look at where this system is coming from. We start with a thought experiment: Imagine you and 4 friends want to go out in the woods to hunt a bear (Disclaimer: This is a *thought* experiment. Do *not* try this!). One of you is wearing his best quarterback armor, one of you has a medical degree and a first aid kit, and the other three are armed with swords and bows. The guy in the armor is telling dirty bear jokes to the bear to taunt him, the guy with the first aid kit heals him, and the other three are trying to deal maximum damage to the bear. If you picture it you'll immediately realize that this would never work in the real world. You can't "taunt" a bear, he'd probably attack the person closest to him trying to stick a sword into him. You can't heal somebody during combat either. The bear will not just hurt one of you after the other, but thrash around and all of you that are close. It'll be difficult enough to use a sword without hitting the others in the group that are close by, and firing an arrow into the melee combat is more likely to hit one of your own guys than the bear. The whole tank, heal, dps system is completely unrealistic.

The system is also not coming from pen and paper roleplaying. I haven't read the 4th edition rules of Dungeon & Dragons yet, but in all the D&D systems up to now there was no "taunt" at all, and healing somebody in combat was difficult, because healing spells in D&D aren't ranged, and you'd need to roll a touch "attack" roll to do it. What D&D has is positioning and control zones, so you can have a warrior standing in front, a rogue sneaking up to the enemy from behind, and a mage or priest hiding behind the back of the warrior. But firing an arrow into melee has a well-defined chance to hit somebody from your group instead of the monster, and a mage can't use his best spells like fireballs without frying his friends.

Many single-player computer RPGs also worked with positioning. In the simplest form you could assign group members to either stand in front or in the back, which modified their changes to get attacked. I've never seen a single-player game using "taunt" abilities, but in-combat healing was often used.

The first game I saw a "taunt" ability in was the original Everquest, and since then pretty much every MMORPG uses that system. If positioning doesn't play a role in a game, there aren't many possibilities left to determine which group member a monster should attack. Either its completely random, or the game determines some sort of threat list, based on dealing damage or healing activity. But if you have some classes in lighter armor dealing more damage and some classes in heavier armor dealing less damage, if you have a threat meter with no taunt ability, the heavily armored guys never get attacked, because they deal less damage than the other group members. Without taunt a tank would be as gimped in group combat as he already is in PvP and solo PvE, two cases where taunt doesn't work.

If we wanted to design a game without the eternal "looking for tank and healer" problem, first of all we would need to make all classes deal the same amount of damage per second, just in different variations. As solo combat and PvP very much depend on damage output, having all classes have the same damage output incidentally solves many class balance problems, there are no more gimped classes that are only good for group support. There could still be classes more heavily armored than others, but that would be balanced by other class abilities for the less armored classes, e.g. stealth, or better ranged combat. In any case the effect of armor would have to be much weaker than in current games. And taunting or other "threat management" abilities simply shouldn't exist. Healing should be done by everyone for himself with potions, and between-combat regeneration methods. Combat healing, if we really wanted it, would be a secondary class feature of a class having the same damage output as anyone else.

In the end we could either have a system with no tanks or healers at all, or an intermediate system where at least tanking and healing classes are as popular as other classes, because they would be equally powerful in solo PvE and in PvP, while being not so extremely mission critical for group PvE. Ideally there would be collision control, and some zone of control system, so positioning would be more important, instead of people spamming abilities that increase or decrease their threat level. Just because players and developers are so used to it doesn't mean that the tank and healer based group combat system is the only one possible. It's disadvantages are abundantly clear by now, and it is time that some game breaks out from that mold.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Kingdom of Loathing goes multiplayer

So many pretty 3D MMORPGs around, and I spend the whole evening playing Kingdom of Loathing. Very fun game, but a simple HTML-based browser game with lots of text, a few hand-drawn stick figures, and no animations at all. In KoL you get a number of "adventures" every day, which limits how many places you can explore and possibly get into fights in. Fortunately most other actions, like buying and selling stuff, chatting, training, or managing your inventory don't cost adventures. Nevertheless Kingdom of Loathing is a game where you play a short while every day, not long play sessions where the time you spend is proportional to your advancement.

What I like most about KoL is the humor, because it is often intelligent. And intelligent, text-based humor without flashy graphics and decapitations also lead to the player base being more mature than in other free-to-play games. I was positively surprised how helpful the other players in the new player chat channel were, answering all my noob questions.

Gameplay in Kingdom of Loathing is turn-based, which up to now meant that adventuring was more or less exclusively a solo affair. But this week KoL expanded into massively multiplayer gameplay, introducing Hobopolis. This is basically a dungeon which is accessed from your guild hall, and while still turn-based, guild members can and have to cooperate to succeed there. I'm looking forward to trying this, but I haven't found a clan (guild) yet.

Clans in Kingdom of Loathing are very important, because clan members contribute to equipping the guild hall with features which benefit each member. Being in a clan you can get more adventures or meat (the currency of KoL) every day than if you just play solo. Primitive as KoL looks, in fact the guild features are things that lots of triple A MMORPGs, including WoW, could learn from.

WAR fixes population imbalances with queues

Keen and Graev have the news that WAR realm population balance will be done with queues. That means a server doesn't have a maximum total population, like in WoW, but a maximum population per realm. So it could be possible that if lets say Chaos is more popular than Order, anyone wanting to log on with a Chaos character would find himself waiting in a queue, while he could get in with an Order toon immediately. Will that work?

Lets have a look at two possible extreme cases. The first extreme is that the number of servers is so limited, that there is zero extra space, there is just one server spot per player who wants to log on or less. This situation could happen early in the game during prime time. In this case the solution works well insofar as people would be pretty much forced to play on a less populated server and on the less popular side if they wanted to play at all, and thus the two sides would be very well balanced. Only condition for this to work is that current server populations are well indicated for all servers and both sides, so people can make a good choice if they want to avoid the queues. The disadvantage is that if you already created a character on a high-population server on the more popular side, or if your friends have a guild there that you'd want to join, you'd be forced to either abandon that character / guild, or to wait very long in a queue every time you want to log on.

The other extreme is that there is far more space on the servers than needed. That could be if EA Mythic overestimates the number of customers, or subscription numbers eventually decrease, or simply during a low population time, like 5 am in the morning. In that case the queue solution does nothing for balance, as everyone can log on whatever side and server he wants. On the upside nobody has to wait in a queue, and nobody is restricted in his choices.

The obvious plan from EA Mythic is that *some* people are not very picky regarding server and faction, but very allergic to queues. So during prime time enough people move towards the initially less popular servers and factions to balance populations. Then during off-prime people keep playing the same characters, and although there is no direct restriction, the population keeps being balanced. So whether this will work depends on how persistent people are to play what they want, and not what would be best for balance, and on how overcrowded the servers are during prime time. Server queues are certainly "a" solution, but whether it is "the" solution remains to be seen.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Best AoC review evah!

Since Scott Jennings isn't (Lum the) Mad any more, he unfortunately writes a lot less, and his blog entries are nowadays often just one-liner links. Which is a shame, because WHEN he writes, he writes so extremely well. His analysis of Age of Conan is spot on, quote: "You can have a server bugfest and a client that barely runs on year-old machines - but all is forgiven, as long as you can set things on fire."

Of course he is writing about the Herald of Xotl, the class I played too. Scott says: "Age of Conan clearly has staked out a niche: people who like burning things. My suspicion is that this may be a fairly large niche." And my problem with AoC is probably that setting virtual people on fire only amuses me for a rather short time, I'm not part of this fairly large niche. I find the various fatalities, with or without fire, a bit disgusting, especially the blood splatter on the "camera". Maybe I should have bought the German version. But I can see how gore and nipples, plus semi-twitchy gameplay, can attract a fairly large crowd of young, male, hardcore gamers with hardcore gaming PCs. And that's okay. Not every MMORPG has to be for everyone. It is okay to have games targeted at some specific audience. Now where is the game specifically for the middle-aged male who prefers strategic thinking and tactics in his MMORPG?

AoC and the future of story-telling in MMORPGs

I finally had a bit more time to play this weekend, and thus leveled my Age of Conan Herald of Xotl to level 30. I was looking forward to that, because the destiny quest which stopped at level 20 in Tortage continues at level 30. A friend of mine had the problem that his quest journal was full or something, and his level 30 destiny quest got bugged, so he is without destiny. So I deleted all quests from my quest journal before talking with the NPC for the level 30 destiny quest. All went well, he sends me to talk to some other NPC, then I'm sent into a small solo dungeon, where I need to collect some items, then first kill a mini-boss before killing the final boss. Fun, but short. I go back to the destiny quest NPC for my reward and the next quest, and am told that the next quest I can only accept at level 50. I log off, go to the account management site, and cancel my subscription for Age of Conan. Really, the destiny quest was the only thing that kept me going in that game. Even Funcom admits that content in the level 30s is thin at the moment and promises to add more later, so I don't think I'll grind to level 40 just to have a slow ride on a mammoth. I started another new character to see another angle of the destiny quest in Tortage, but that'll go quick, and I don't feel like playing Age of Conan any longer after that.

In addition to lack of interest in AoC, I'll also be on holiday for 3 weeks in July, and AoC won't run on my laptop. I'd rather go back to WoW or play some beta, or even some non MMO game. Maybe I'll buy Mass Effect, which just came out for the PC. I read a review which said that the main story of Mass Effect was great, even if the side quests were weak in comparison, and there were a couple of bugs. I couldn't help but think "oh, just like Age of Conan", only that in Mass Effect the main story doesn't end at one quarter of the level cap and then continues in tiny bits every 20 levels.

World of Warcraft doesn't really have a main story, but I never really missed one in that game, because the whole world, every quest, every zone, is of such high quality that you simply forget that there is not much purpose to killing another 10 foozles, except for gaining some xp and reward. Lord of the Rings Online has a main story, and it is certainly the best part of the game. I always liked the main story line with the cut scenes in FFXI. And in the pen & paper roleplaying campaigns and single-player computer or console RPGs I played, the story is usually of utmost importance. Just look at games like the Final Fantasy series, which manage to elevate themselves from a mass of console RPGs with similar gameplay by their superior story-telling.

And so I'm wondering if this is the future of MMORPGs: better stories, better story-telling, a main quest that leads you from level 1 to the level cap. Having a solo main quest doesn't mean that there would be no multiplayer interaction, there could always be group-only side quests or dungeons like in WoW. The quest system in WoW already does a good job of guiding people from one zone to the next, but it does so with a series of totally unrelated single quests and short quest chains. A coherent main quest line would perform the same guidance job, but be more engaging due to better story-telling, and more motivating because you follow a single epic quest to the level cap. There could even be real choices, leading to forks in the story path, providing replayability. And of course ideally there would be various main quests for the various classes or races.

Such a move wouldn't be historically unprecedented. The first D&D modules were simple hack and slash dungeon crawls with little story, but the pen & paper roleplaying genre evolved into something which is nowadays heavy on story-telling, often with an epic story-line spanning a campaign over years. Even in cinema the first movies were without a story, just a collection of scenes, where the fascination derived from the novelty of having moving pictures. It is quite possible that the MMORPG genre will evolve in the same way: the novelty of living in a virtual world will wear off, and the producers are forced to introduce stronger motivation to stick to the game, in the form of better stories.

And Age of Conan actually proves that telling a good story in a MMORPG is quite possible, I really liked the destiny quest from level 1 to 20. If that quest line would continue without huge gaps up to level 80, I'd still be playing AoC. It would be a lot easier for a new MMO to stand out from the competition with a unique and better coherent story, than to create a better virtual environment. And the AoC example of Tortage even shows how a well staged story can give the players the illusion that they actually had an impact, changed something in the virtual world, even if real change remains elusive due to the multi-player aspect of virtual worlds. Epic stories and better story-telling could really be the "next generation" of MMORPGs.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Open Sunday Thread

In what is fast becoming a tradition, this is the open Sunday thread: The place where you can suggest topics for the next week, and already start discussing them.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Maybe I'm press after all

On the old question of whether bloggers are press, my stance has always been that it doesn't matter so much what I think I am, it only matters what game companies think I am. I mentioned previously that I asked Blizzard for a press pass to the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational 2008 in Paris in two weeks, and they generously promised me a free ticket. That was already quite a success, but it looked as if that was just a regular free ticket, just like the one I already bought. But now I got the mail with the link to print out the barcode that I'll have to scan at the entrance to get the ticket. And while my bought barcode say "attendee" under it, my free ticket barcode says "PRESS". So, woot, apparently I'm press after all.

I've been attending game conventions as attendee and as referee (DCI certified judge for Magic the Gathering), but never as press. I'm promising you extensive coverage, but not live coverage, laptops are actually banned on the convention floor. One is also not allowed to photograph or film any computer screens, so I'll just leave my camera at home. I have no idea whether I'll have the opportunity to interview anyone, so I'm wondering whether I should buy a voice recorder. Maybe I'll do it just for the look: Tobold the reporter. :) But knowing myself my coverage of the event will be short on journalistic fact finding, and long on impressions and opinions.

Friday, June 13, 2008

WoWnui or general burnout?

Normally when I travel I get MMO withdrawel, yearning for my current virtual world to play on. That is why I have WoW installed on my laptop. But on this trip I didn't play WoW at all. And I wasn't missing it either. Nor did I miss Age of Conan or any of the betas I'm in. Over the past weeks I only occasionally logged into WoW and did things like Shadowcloth or alchemy transmutes, but no real playing. I have WoWnui, or WoW burnout, and don't really feel compelled to play it any more, until something changes. I didn't cancel my account because in two weeks I'm going to the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in Paris. (On my request for a press pass, Blizzard generously sent me a free ticket, which I don't need, because I already paid for one. I thinkt they misunderstood what I wanted.)

But the problem is that when I play other MMORPGs, I don't get much more excited either. Yes, other games have other classes, other spells and abilities, other content. But the basic gameplay of quest NPCs sending you out to kill 10 foozles and you earning xp to level up towards some level cap and repetitive end-game (PvE or PvP) remains pretty much the same. So while I'm still looking forward to games like WAR, it isn't with the same fervor as I was looking forward to WoW 4 years ago.

So how about you? If you are burned out from WoW, do you consider other MMORPGs as the solution to your problem? Or do these games all play like Progressquest to you? Are you still excited about MMORPGs in general, even if you are suffering from WoWnui?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gone West

I'm on a business trip to Washington (the state, not the capital), flew in today via Seattle. At first I was surprised that flying to Seattle didn't take much longer than flying to Atlanta, but then I realized that what you see on a typical world map is only the highly distorted Mercator projection. Earth being a globe, the shortest connection between two points is a great circle, not a straight line on a flat map. For the same reason California is much further away from Europe than Seattle is, although on a flat map the distance is the same. Take a globe and a piece of string to see for yourself if you don't believe me.

Anyway, as soon as I arrived I went on a shopping spree for books, DVDs, and clothing. Due to the dollar having fallen so much, the purchasing power of my Euros converted into dollars goes up a lot. It's like getting a 30%+ reduction on everything. The downside was me falling for the guy at Best Buy who said that the CSI season 7 DVD had subtitles, which turned out to be not true. Fortunately most people in that series speak relatively clearly with not much of an accent, so I'll survive. The rest of my stay is work-related and will be less fun than shopping.

I've never been so far west. And the countryside still looks like from a Wild West movie in many places, with praerie where it hasn't been built over, and mountain ranges at the horizon. Very pretty, and I'm lucky with the weather, so quite an enjoyable experience. I'll try to keep blogging via WiFi, but if there is a day without posts you know why. I'll be back Sunday.