Thursday, April 30, 2009

Virtual gender and sexuality

I totally skipped the Noblegarden event in WoW, because camping colored eggs and trying to click faster than the other players camping it doesn't hold a lot of interest for me. But apparently the event contains a lame sexist joke achievement, attaching bunny ears to female players over 18 (levels), and some feminists are up in arms about it. Meanwhile in a completely different game, Ixobelle ponders the question whether playing Free Realms will turn you gay. And on the forums of Star Wars: The Old Republic there is an uproar over a community manager comment that "gay" and "lesbian" "are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.".

For me virtual worlds are very asexual places. In a famous survey on Everquest it turned out that half of the female avatars were played by men. Ixobelle uses a female name for his blog, and plays female avatars, but is a man in real life. The only problem that causes me is one of grammer (do I refer to Ixobelle as "him" or as "her"?).

There simply isn't any real sexuality in virtual worlds. Avatars aren't born by a female avatar having sex with a male avatar. Any perceived sexuality in virtual worlds is just a projection from the real world. Attaching bunny ears to an avatar in WoW, or running around as a fairy in Free Realms, is very rarely an expression of sexual preference, it is just an element of gameplay. Of course there are both heterosexual and homosexual players, male and female, playing these games. But a statement that homosexuality does not exist in the lore of Star Wars, World of Warcraft, or the Lord of the Rings for that matter, is just a statement of fact. You can complain that Luke Skywalked didn't end up in bed with Han Solo, but that complaint has to be directed to George Lucas, not the Bioware guys. I am pretty sure that there will be no sex at all in SWTOR, neither hetero- nor homosexual. And if you use this or any other virtual world as platform for cybersex, you obviously aren't limited in your choice, neither by gender, nor even by species.

I would even go as far as saying that many cases of projecting sexuality onto a virtual world is a sign of immaturity and sexual insecurity. As Ixobelle says, "if you're that close to the cusp that you're afraid this game will affect you, you need to just go kiss a guy and get it over with." People who are grown up and 100% sure they are heterosexual tend to have LESS problems playing a fairy or female character than those who aren't. It's if you only ever can play hunking males that you should start to ask yourself what's wrong with you. ;) Me, I'm playing a fairy. :)

Even my bank alt is depressed of WoW

I didn't play World of Warcraft at all last weekend, and barely logged on since. I was feeling too burned out and depressed, and wasn't motivated at all to play. I still want to raid Ulduar, but the rest of the game doesn't hold much interest for me right now. I wonder how many raiders feel the same, I notice a lot of people logging on in my guild just before the raids start.

Even my bank alt is depressed of WoW: This morning I had 70 returned auction house mails, and only 15 gold from items sold in my mailbox. And that's with a wide mix of items, all of them posted at the cheapest price in the AH. Business is ultra-slow, nobody seems to be buying anything any more. Trading in a deflating economy isn't much fun, especially as I don't need the gold anyway.

So I guess I'll reduce my World of Warcrafting to pure raiding twice a week, and use the rest of the time to play other games. Like Free Realms, or Empire: Total War, for which the big patch came out yesterday. So I can test this weekend whether that patch solved my crashing problems, and lets me play more than a turn or two before dumping me to the desktop. My English invaded and eliminated France, and got the thirteen colonies to join the Empire by capturing three specific American provinces. But up to now I only played a few turns per session, before I got too annoyed with the crashes. So this weekend I'll be busy beating back the Spanish who are marching on Paris, and the Cherokee who didn't like me taking their capital city.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Failing to give 100 bucks to SOE

I like Free Realms, and to not get carried away with microtransactions I decided to set myself an allowance of 100 Euro to buy Station Cash with. That Station Cash I can then use to pay my subscription, buy boosters for the trading card game, buy a pet, and for all other microtransactions. So yesterday I tried for hours to give 100 Euro to SOE and failed.

I tried from inside the game, from the Free Realms website, and from the Sony Station account management site. I tried all three of my credit cards. But all I got was unspecified error messages that my "purchase failed", without explaining me why. Was SOE's accounting system broken? Was there an error in the data I supplied? Had my bank finally run out of money? There was no way to find out.

Finally I found a support telephone number in the in-game help section and called SOE in San Diego. That was a surprisingly pleasant experience, with just a minimum of taped voice (with the voice of the squirrel you see on all those Free Realms screens), just one menu selection, and no wait time at all until I could talk to a customer support representative. The CSR was very nice, but unfortunately couldn't help me either. Even the CSR don't see why a purchase failed, probably due to some privacy laws. But the CSR told me that if I had already tried several times, my account would be now blocked for a week or two anyway, so there was no use trying further. And no, that block didn't come from SOE, but from the company handling their credit card transactions, and the CSR couldn't tell me whether I was blocked or for how long. Thank you for calling!

Meanwhile the Free Realms forums looked rather dead, with more Community Manager posts than player posts. Apparently lots of people are having problem giving their money to SOE. If you don't have a subscription, you can't post on the forums. And even those who managed to buy a subscription were having problems getting their forum permissions set up.

So all in all a rather typical MMORPG launch. Accounting systems breaking down on launch day is a classic. Somewhere, somebody for every single MMO must have made a PowerPoint slide projecting large numbers of subscribers for their newly launched game. And they all failed to draw a line from that large number of subscribers to the fundamental question of "Can our website and accounting system actually handle such large numbers?". And the answer is always "no".

Drumroll for the one big advantage of Free Realms in a typical situation like this: In most other games, if the accounting system breaks down on launch day, you cannot play. In Free Realms you CAN play, you are just limited to the jobs and content available to non-subscribers. And the game itself ran well enough. I had a few disconnects, but nothing really annoying. There even was a "miracle patch", which had fixed the jobs that were broken in the beta! I got further in the mining job in one evening than in the whole beta, where I had been stuck on a bugged quest.

I still plan to give 100 bucks to SOE, but I guess that will have to wait at least one week, assuming they flagged my credit cards as blocked, and they'll need some time to sort their accounting system out. Well, at least I can play.

[EDIT: Problem was resolved 24 hours later.]

Meet Tobold in Free Realms

Neither Free Realms nor the Empire: Total War patch were released yesterday, despite the announcements. The Total War people blamed distribution problems, and said the patch will be on Steam today. We'll see.

Free Realms launched today, one day late, and I was able to create my character. I even already got my manually entered name approved: You will find me in Free Realms as

Tobold Stoutfoot

Searching just for "Tobold" with the character search function at the moment only turns up me as well. I would be happy about lots of friend requests from readers, as guilds don't appear to be supported yet. I just don't know yet whether it is possible to make friends without first meeting in game.

My toaster doesn't have internet access, so I couldn't test whether Free Realms would run on a toaster. What I did have at hand was an Acer Aspire One 8" netbook, which I used to create my character. That worked, but then entering the game only resulted in an error that for Free Realms your video card needs to support at least 1024 x 768 resolution, which the netbook doesn't. One point for WoW, which happens to run on a netbook. But otherwise the system specs for Free Realms seem to be on the low side:

Video card: Supporting 1024 x 768 resolution, and having a Vertex Shader 1.1 (recommended Geforce 6 or better)
Intel Pentium 4 or greater processor
Windows XP or Windows Vista operating system
Broadband internet connection
512 MB RAM (recommended 1 GB)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Google Maps can be used for a lot of different applications, and now somebody came up with an idea of using it for a wargame. BattleCell has the map of the world overlayed with 55 million cells. When you sign up for the game, you get one of these cells, and have to try to build an empire from there, buying or conquering more cells. I can't tell you more, because I couldn't test the game, as it is incompatible with Internet Explorer, and I haven't got anything else installed on my new computer.

But from a game design point of view, I can already see a problem: Map size is a critical factor for many games. Too much space and players never find each other, too little space and it's getting crowded. I have a sneaking suspicion that 55 million cells is too many for the amount of players they can hope to get for that sort of browser game.

Anyway, if this is something that could interest you, check it out and post some feedback here!

iLevel 226 epics for just $9.95

Two things happened last weekend: Gevlon posted of having reached the 214k gold cap of World of Warcraft, and on this blog in the player classification thread there was a small discussion about EVE's legal RMT option. mbp challenged me to try to earn 100 million ISK without firing a shot, and I refused that challenge as being pointless, due to the option of legally buying 300 million ISK in exchange for a PLEX game card.

Grats to Gevlon, there aren't many players who ever reached the WoW gold cap. But one major reason why few people do it is that the amount of gold at which making gold in WoW becomes pointless is a lot lower than 214k. I have 35k, three characters with epic flying mounts, a bunch of crafted or bought epics, and no good idea what to use the rest of the money on. Well, new recipes drop in Ulduar, maybe I can buy some even better epics. But I guess my priest will get epics from raiding, and my two non-raiding characters basically don't need epics as they don't raid. So while I'm still trying to get rid of the last unsold glyphs, I'm not putting any effort into making more money I don't have a use for anyway.

There are a lot of reasons why I don't play EVE. I don't like PvP, and I never liked the EVE mining activity that is at the base of the game's economy. But if I found a way to avoid PvP, and to play a trader instead of a miner, the fact that I could legally buy 500 to 600 million ISK for $34.95 would pretty much kill my motivation. EVE does not have character levels, only skills which are learned in real-time, thus your total skill level is a function of how much money you paid to CCP in subscription fees. If you don't do PvP, your only "achievement" would be making ISK by mining or trading. But it would take months to earn 500 million ISK. What's the point in even trying if other players just get that much virtual money in 5 minutes for less than the cost of video game?

That is a bit as if Blizzard started to sell the best epics in the game (iLevel 226 currently, I believe) on their website for $9.95. Sure, for some time they would sell like hotcakes. But ultimately that would destroy World of Warcraft. Not only does it destroy the achievement of those who actually worked hard to get those epics in game by raiding; but also once you have the best gear in the game, there is no more motivation to play further, as you already got the best possible reward. I doubt people who ever bought a fully equipped high-level character on EBay actually ended having a lot of fun playing that character. The fun is in *getting* somewhere, not in reaching some destination.

Even Gevlon apparently had more fun getting to the gold cap than being there. He is now trying to buy a raiding guild with the gold, having run out of other sensible options. Fortunately for him he is a sociopath, and won't notice the difference between a guild who wants you to join them, and one you had to buy your way into.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Free Realms Trading Card Game - Deckbuilding 101

15 years ago Magic the Gathering became very popular, made a ton of money, and started a huge wave of trading card games. Magic and Pokemon were the most successful ones, but there were also lots of other games. But after a few years, the popularity faded, and although many of these games are still around, there isn't all that much buzz around them any more. Now Free Realms contains a online trading card game, of which a paper version is also available. And while this is a new game, it uses a lot of the fundamentals of Magic the Gathering. So in a blast from the past, I'm going to talk a bit about building a deck for the Free Realms Trading Card Game (FRTCG).

First some basic rules: A FRTCG deck contains a minimum of 40 cards, with every card having a maximum of 3 copies in the deck. Now picture in your mind two different possible decks: One that has exactly 40 cards, of which 13 have 3 copies each, and a second deck with over 40 cards, in which every card has only 1 copy. It is easy to see that the deck with the minimum number of cards and maximum number of copies of each card is "less random", and gives more reliable results than the more varied deck. Having 40+ different cards in your deck yields a lot more surprises, and can be fun too, but if you run into problems winning because you never draw the card you need, going for the less random deck is the more reliable way to success. That is an universal rule valid for practically every existing and future trading card game. Play random for fun, reduced randomness to win.

In the FRTCG, there are three different types of cards: Creatures, resources, and tricks. You can play only one resource every turn, so in your first turn you'd usually have 1 resource, in your second turn 2 resources, and so on. Creatures cost resources to play, so that big creature costing 5 resources can't possibly be played before turn 5. But unlike other trading card games you don't need to worry about the chance that you don't draw enough resources: You can play ANY card as a resource face down. Nevertheless it is a good idea to pack around a dozen resource cards (the ones with the chest symbol) into your deck, because a resource card can be played face up, and then turned face down at some point during the game for some additional effect.

Tricks (cards with a star symbol) in FRTCG can only be played during combat, and most of them make your creature stronger in that fight. Thus if you have a trick and your opponent doesn't, you can possibly beat a stronger creature of his with a weaker creature of yours. Again I'd go for around a dozen of these cards in a 40-card deck.

Creatures are the most important part of a deck, because they are the only cards that can hunt and win fights to gain the 12 points you need to win. If you put 12 resources and 12 tricks, you'll have room for 16 creatures in your deck. Creatures (like tricks) cost resources to play. So don't put a lot of powerful but expensive creatures in your deck, but rather build a pyramid of creature cost, with more low-cost creatures, and few high-cost creatures. By the time you have the resources to play an expensive creature, you will have drawn a lot of cards, so chances are you will have found one. But on turn 1 you can only play a cost 1 creature, and if you have too few of them, you won't have one in your starting hand.

Unlike many other trading card games, resources in FRTCG do not have a color. This makes it possible to build decks with cards of all colors, even true rainbow decks. Nevertheless there can be an advantage to building decks of only one or two colors, if you have cards that give special bonuses to other cards of a specific color. If you have a creature giving an attack or defense bonus to red allies, you're best served to build a deck around it which is mostly or only red.

The final thing to consider in FRTCG is the combat system. The attacking creatures attack value is compared with the defending creatures defense value, but both sides flip the top card of their deck and add the number of diamonds on the bottom of that card to the result. And many creatures trigger special effects if there are diamonds of the right color showing up that way. So cards with lots of diamonds, having the color of diamonds that your creatures need, are better than cards with just one diamond.

Of course all of these tips are just basic advice, and there might be tricky decks that are good without following these rules. But if you are new to deckbuilding, try a basic deck as I describe here first, play a couple of times against NPCs, and see how you fare. From there you can experiment, taking some cards out, putting others in, and see whether your deck improves or gets worse. Against NPCs you should always be able to win after a couple of tries, because you know what they will be playing, and can build a deck to counter their specific threat. For example a card protecting your creatures from stuns might not be all that useful in a regular deck, but becomes very useful once you found out that the NPC wins by constantly stunning your creatures. Experimenting with deckbuilding can be a lot of fun: Try it!

Release Day

Today is not only the release day of Free Realms at an unknown hour, but also the release day for a miracly patch for Empire: Total War, promised for 19:00 GMT. I so hope that patch makes this game finally playable. I tried every solution, Vista 64 hotfix, driver update, and strange trick I could find on any official and inofficial ETW forum, and still can't play more than a turn or two before the game crashes to desktop. And that even if I don't do any 3D battles!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Free Realms Trading Card Game costs

So I was looking around the internet for what other people say about Free Realms. Some people like it, others don't, and that is totally okay. This isn't a game for everybody, and especially those who already played a lot of MMORPGs might well find it too simple.

But then I read a blog post that really annoyed me, Oz does Free Realms Beta on Kill Ten Rats. I don't mind that Oz doesn't like Free Realms, but I do mind that he tries to discredit the game by writing things that are just outright falsehoods. Quote: "The card game is incredibly expensive compared to others on the market, giving 3 cards for $10. Any other game you can find that has an online component has at least 10-15 cards for $10." This is either a deliberate blatant lie, or incredibly badly researched. The Free Realms Trading Card Game costs the same thing online and offline: $4 for 10 cards plus 1 code for an in-game item. Well, it's $3.99 for the paper version, and 400 Station Cash for the online version. But it isn't, and never was, $10 for 3 cards. In fact the FRTCG is actually cheaper than Oz's standard of "10 to 15 cards for $10". And as in the Free Realms beta you got constantly bombarded with free boosters, which already contained 10 cards, this would have been easy to find out. A click on the shop icon would have easily revealed the actual price. I can't understand how an otherwise good MMORPG blog can post such falsehoods.

And by the way, Oz's statement that SOE wanted to charge him for testing the subscription content isn't true either. The UPGRADE button was in the game, but it wasn't functional.

There can be a valid discussion about the sense or nonsense of buying virtual trading cards. And obviously if you want hundreds of cards, at 40 cents per card this is quickly going to get expensive. But that discussion isn't helped at all by false statements that each card would cost $3.33, eight times the real price.

Free Realms - beta preview

While looking through the Free Realms beta forums, I just saw that without much fanfare SOE has dropped the NDA. So, mystery solved, the game I am having so much fun in the beta, but couldn't talk about, is Free Realms. Which will come to some surprise, as Free Realms is completely different from what I am usually playing. But I guess I need a break from linear games, so I'm enjoying myself very much in Free Realms. In this post I'll give a short description of Free Realms, and then proceed to list the good, bad, and ugly (controversial) features of this game.


Free Realms is a game mainly targeted at children, but contains such a vast variety of gameplay options, that even adults will find something to enjoy. You play Free Realms with just one character (although if you pay for a $5 per month subscription, you can make 2 alts), who can be either human or fairy, and either male or female. Character generation is fast and simple, with not very many options; but then, I never understood the need to be able to modify the length and slant of your nose some games offer, especially since you mainly see your character from behind anyway. The novelty of Free Realms is that you don't have to choose a character class: Your character can be everything in Free Realms, and switch freely between 15 character classes called "jobs". Of these 10 are available for free, the remaining 5 only for subscribers.

The fun thing is that you level each job independently. You can concentrate on one, a few, just do those you like, or try to do everything. There is some minor interaction between jobs, like some food you cook as a chef being helpful for combat jobs, or mining producing the metals for blacksmithing. But in most cases game design is horizontal, you have lots of equally valid options what to do next, and not one clear "best" path to maximum power. Jobs are linked to various games, and if you don't like a particular game, there is no need for you to do it. This isn't like World of Warcraft, where there is one "main" game of making your character more powerful in combat, and crafting is just a trivial side-option. How good or advanced you are as lets say Kart Driver has zero influence on you Postman or Card Duelist job. And not only does every job offer various mini-games, there are also lots of quests and areas that offer even more, different mini-games. The idea is that you do things that are fun to you, not just because something advances your character.

The Good

Free Realms has a level of polish rarely seen outside World of Warcraft. SOE really pulled it together this time, and produced a game which is intuitive, easy to learn, and full of fun surprises. The amount of content and different games is great, and that's just with one region finished, with 4 more regions around labeled as "coming soon".

Free Realms is a perfect starting MMO for children, with the usual child protection features like an option to either randomly create a name, or needing to have your own name suggestion pre-approved by a GM before you can use it. The mini-games are designed to be easily explained to children as well, although that doesn't mean they are necessarily trivial for adults. Easy to learn, hard to master, the best games in Free Realms correspond very well to that old rule. And some activities are just for toying around, like training a pet dog or cat that'll run after you and do tricks.

My favorite game in Free Realms is the trading card game, which has simple rules, but surprising depths, and the AI plays it well enough to be challenging.

Free Realms uses some interesting technology. There is no huge client to install on your computer, the game is accessed via your browser, and streams content to you while you play. That works surprisingly well and seamlessly. There are multiple servers, but your characters aren't bound to any particular server, you just play where you want, or where your friends hang out. Apparently the game will also be playable via a Playstation 3.

And best of all, you can play large parts of Free Realms completely for free, as the name suggests. More on that later.

The Bad

By it's very nature Free Realms is an ultra-casual game. If you play it "hardcore", you'll probably level all jobs to maximum in a month and then wonder why there is no endgame or raid content. There are levels to gain, and gear to collect, and money to make, but ultimately this just isn't about the long-term achievement, but for the fun of the moment. Not every player of traditional MMORPGs will be able to enjoy this. And it is perfectly possible that you'll play this with great fun for a month or two, and then just stop and move somewhere else.

Free Realms is in beta, and if SOE knew what they were doing, it would remain in beta for a while longer. The game works quite well *for a beta*, but there are visibly unfinished features and quests, and even a few crashes to desktop, although those usually happen when you are on a loading screen transitioning from one instanced game back to the world, so except for having to restart the client, they don't hurt you at all. The game obviously needs a bit more work to be ready for release, especially to a younger audience which might lose patience faster than the average MMO player. Currently only the "free" content can be tested in the beta, so I don't know how far finished the jobs and games you can only access as subscriber are. Housing isn't in yet either. But apparently Free Realms goes live tomorrow, which is kind of a gamble.

The Ugly (or controversial)

Free Realms has its own graphical style, which I'd call candy colorful cute. I kind of like it, but if you are allergic to cutesy, you might want to stay away.

The most controversial feature of Free Realms will be that of course it isn't *totally* free. The guys from SOE apparently want to have a salary and keep their company alive, or something. I already mentioned that about a third of the game is only accessible with a $5 per month subscription, which isn't all that expensive for what's on offer. But in addition to that you can spend nearly endless amounts of money with microtransactions. You buy 100 station cash (SC, already used in the Everquest games) for $1 or €1 (Europeans get screwed again, paying about one third more at current rate), and then you can buy lots of things in the game: Boosters for the trading card game with 10 cards for 400 SC. A permanent dog or cat pet for 250 to 400 SC. Clothes for your pet (I kid you not) or yourself, including gear that gives stat bonuses. Potions, scrolls that increase your xp and coin drops, food that transforms you into a different shape for half an hour, various items to create funny special effects, you name it, SOE has got it, and is willing to sell it to you. If you want everything, you easily end up paying more for "Free" Realms than for a classical $15 per month game without microtransactions.

That *will* cause some drama with children who absolutely want this or that, although you could take it as opportunity to give them an allowance and teach them about living on limited resources. Maybe some adults will need a similar lesson.


Free Realms is a great game, even if it is still in beta and not quite ready for release. I'll probably buy a couple of months subscription, and splurge some money on trading cards and other microtransactions. But this will probably not last all that long. Free Realms is no "WoW Killer", because it doesn't have that long-term motivation of making your character all-powerful. I do however think that Free Realms will easily get millions of players, even if many of them will just play the free part. Especially for children Free Realms might actually be the better choice. Blizzard is probably aware of that, the official minimum age to play WoW is 12.

So Free Realms is the "next big thing", it just doesn't look at all how we imagined it. That is because we are still rather niche, if we are completely honest. The only way to beat WoW is to out-mainstream it, and Free Realms is heading in that direction.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Instead of a forum, my site has this: The open Sunday thread, every weekend, in which YOU give the impulse for discussion and initiate threads.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Player classification

As Dr. Richard A. Bartle himself might have said, "I've already seen Bartle's new player classification, it was called Players Who Suit MUDs". The explorer turns into Alice in Wonderland, who goes wherever fortune and fancy might take her. The achiever turns into Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, who follows the yellow brick road. And the socializer turns into Wendy from Peter Pan, who makes up her own stories. The killer is dropped, because there were only these three girls in the child pornography graphic novel Lost Girls, and world literature is curiously void of children stories having small girls killing her peers.

But while maybe not being original, Bartle's keynote at the Independent MMO GDC is very good, stating that games that focus only on one player type aren't as good as balanced games in which they all play together. And that while following a yellow brick road is great for newbies who otherwise would get lost, is somewhat lacking for veteran players. About PvP he says "RvR is never resolved and therefore pointless. Pvp is better - if you’re good at PvP, but the results are also pointless." Which I completely agree with, although it is strange in this context that the only game figuring as positive example in that talk is EVE Online. Isn't it strange that the only significant player interactions MMOs have come up with up to now is either killing each other, or getting each other wiped in a pickup group?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Game design blog?

Scott "Lum" Jennings has a post up about game design blogs, and links to me as "a good place for player-centric commentary", which is nice, in the "You probably are cloning World of Warcraft. Just admit it." section, which is less nice. I don't see my blog as a WoW blog (in fact I'd even say I'm currently approaching a WoW burnout period). And I don't see it as a game design blog either. But the "player-centric commentary" part hits the nail on the head.

I don't want to design a game. I'm actually pretty certain that if I did, the game wouldn't even be very good. Design is not my strong point, analysis is. I can play a game, and not only tell you whether I like it or not, but also analyze a bit deeper what parts are contributing to me liking the game or not. And I can determine trends that go beyond my personal likes and dislikes, and see what features are popular or not. And how players react to incentives. Such analysis has value (and there are actually consultants out there who are getting paid big bucks to do exactly that). I'm offering it for free, not to make money or to become famous, but in the hope that it helps real developers to make better games, which I would profit from as a player.

Of course that involves a certain amount of armchair design, like launching discussions of whether feature X in game Y wouldn't be better if it was designed differently. I once joked I could get hired as Chief Social Engineer by a game company that wants my input on how incentives steer players through an MMO. But in reality I'm not really interested in a job in the game industry. I already have a very interesting and well-paid job in a far more solid industry, which is less prone to exploitation than the game industry. The kind of game developer position I could possibly hope to get with a resume like mine would pay 50% less for 50% more hours per week than I'm doing now. No thanks.

So why I can of course only echo Lum's recommendation that game developers read my blog, and other player-centric blogs as well, I wouldn't call this a game design blog. I don't want to be a game developer.

Free Realms Trading Card Game

Today is the official release date of the Free Realms Trading Card Game from Topps, although boxes have been sighted in some toy stores already earlier this week. The FRTCG is a simplified version of Magic the Gathering. That isn't necessarily a bad thing: I was certified level 1 DCI judge for MtG at one point, and you wouldn't believe the amount of rules and exceptions and interactions you had to study for that. The Free Realms brand is targeted at a younger audience, and there will be NPCs in the Free Realms MMO playing this trading card game, so both for kids and AI a game with less complex rules is better. Less complex isn't the same thing as dumb, and the FRTCG still offers the familiar and fun combination of resources, creatures, and spells to boost those creatures, which is at the heart of MtG as well.

Nevertheless the boxes of the Free Realms Trading Card Game in toy stores pose a problem: They make it more evident that Free Realms the MMO is missing its targeted release date of April 2009. People who buy boosters will find codes for ingame items in them, but if they visit the Free Realms website they'll only get the option to sign up for the beta, unless they happen to have a beta key. To me it appears pretty evident what happened: SOE and Topps planned a simultaneous release of the Free Realms MMO and Trading Card Game, the MMO got delayed, and for some contractual reason the release of the card game couldn't be postponed as well.

This somewhat embarrasing start doesn't stop me from believing that Free Realms is going to be the next big thing, the next MMO that will get over a million of players. In "number of players" or even "number of concurrent users" it might even surpass World of Warcraft in a year or two. But of course that is because most of these players will be younger than the average WoW player, and will play for free. I do think the Free Realms brand will turn out to be extremely profitable for SOE, with optional $5 monthly subscriptions, microtransactions, and a trading card game in both virtual and paper form. But it won't get as profitable as World of Warcraft. And on the radar of most hardcore MMO gamers, Free Realms won't even show up, unless they happen to have children for which they are looking for a suitable game. For very casual WoW players Free Realms might actually be a good alternative, but it is more an indirect competition to WoW than taking on the market leader head-on. Seeing how the games of last year fared, that is probably a clever move from SOE.

Crafting differentiation

One thing that attracted me to the inscription profession when patch 3.0.2 introduced it into World of Warcraft was the new way to learn recipes by research. You had a research recipe with a cooldown of 20 hours to learn the minor glyphs, and when Wrath of the Lich King came out and added higher level glyphs, there was a second research recipe added working the same way. A similar method, just with a longer cooldown, was introduced to alchemy as well. This way to learn recipes has several big advantages: Doing a daily research is something you can easily do on an alt, while raid-drop recipes are usually unattainable for alts. And by making research a relatively slow process, for quite a while there was differentiation between inscribers, not everyone having the same recipes.

Unfortunately patch 3.1 introduced a new way to learn glyph recipes, which is far inferior: The book of glyph mastery, a random world drop. At first these were so rare that some people doubted they even existed, but then the droprate was increased. Book prices dropped from 5k gold to 1k gold, and will probably still fall a bit further. But for all I read there are somewhere between 40 and 58 new glyph recipes learned by these books, so even if the price goes down to 500 gold, it will cost you up to 30k gold to learn the recipes. And you can't even go out and deliberately farm them, they just drop from every mob with an equally low drop rate.

As I mentioned before, on my server and side there is an unusually high number of inscribers. Which is to be expected to happen on some servers, the number of inscribers on every server being more or less random, some bell-curve distribution from servers with just one active inscriber to rather crowded situations. But not only does having a lot of inscribers drive down glyph prices, sometimes to below profitability, it also drives up prices for the new books of glyph mastery. On some servers, with few inscribers, getting hold of these books will be cheap and easy, and then you can sell the glyphs learned from them at high profit. On servers with lots of inscribers the books will be expensive, and then you risk just another price war destroying profits. So personally I'm going out of the glyph business. Yes, I made about 20k from it since it started, but a good part of that was from stockpiling herbs before patch 3.0.2 hit, and now my only regular income is selling low volumes of Armor and Weapon Vellum III. As I said, that has more to do with the number of inscribers on my server than with the inscription profession itself, but the books of glyph mastery for me are the final straw tipping that profession into the unprofitable region.

Nevertheless it made me think about ways how crafters can differentiate themselves from other crafters. You hear "raiding takes no skill nowadays" all the time, but barely anyone complains that crafting doesn't take any skill, never did, and is just a simple click, provided you have the materials and the recipe. In other games gold farmer farm gold. In WoW gold farmers farm crafting materials and sell them to crafters. Many recipes are simply learned from trainers, even epic recipes. Other recipes drop, either in specific places, or as random world drops. A random world drop recipe which isn't bind-on-pickup nearly always ends up on the auction house, because what are the chances that this was just the recipe you were looking for, in the profession you actually have? The new books of glyph mastery are the same, only worse, because you don't even know what recipe they'll teach you. So crafting mostly consists of buying materials and recipes, and a completely dumb one-click crafting process. The "most difficult" crafting recipes require you to wait and watch a progress bar for 10 second before you actually get your item. Wow, what a challenge!

And it isn't as if nobody ever had come up with a better way! Lots of older games have crafting systems that are far superior to WoW's. Star Wars Galaxies, for all its flaws, had a great crafting system, in which people could make a name for themselves as crafters of quality goods. A Tale in the Desert has lots of crafting mini-games, and no combat. Puzzle Pirates has a different puzzle for every craft, and you need to be actually good at a puzzle to make a high-quality good (or hire somebody who is). Even games as old as Dark Age of Camelot had crafting quests, allowing you parallel careers to adventuring. In comparison to all what is out there, WoW crafting is downright primitive, and their effort to clone WoW, newer games often copy this bad part of WoW together with any good parts. I'm really waiting for a new game with an interesting and engaging crafting system, where killing monsters isn't the only thing to do in the virtual world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Is popular the enemy of good?

A frequent commenter on this blog, Toxic, is currently filling whole comment sections here with rants about how Ulduar is too easy, and how Blizzard is debasing WoW to make it more popular, get more subscribers, and hold them longer. So before that discussion fills more barely related threads, I'm dedicating a thread to it.

I fully agree that Blizzard made World of Warcraft a lot easier than it was during the Burning Crusade era. I also agree that they are doing it to make WoW more popular, and that the changes are designed to please a larger percentage of WoW players, who during the BC era didn't get anywhere and then quit the game. Making raiding more accessible makes WoW more popular, because a larger part of the player base is involved in the endgame, and thus Blizzard's profit go up.

The point I can't understand is some people saying that this is a bad thing. Isn't this a win-win situation? More money for Blizzard, more fun for a larger percentage of players. The only ones hurt by this change is a small percentage of elitist hardcore players, for who the game on normal mode is "too easy", and who hate to see all that riffraff at the meeting stone when they go raiding. But sorry, not having content exclusive for a small group is an improvement of WoW, not debasing it.

Furthermore with this patch Blizzard created a lot more content for the hardcore. The bosses in Ulduar have hard modes. The final hard mode boss, who is not available for normal mode, Algalon can only be attempted 1 hour per week. How is that for a real test of skill? Yes, it would be nice if there were even harder raid dungeon available, but that is a problem of this expansion having much fewer raid dungeons than the previous expansion, not that they are too easy. For the majority of players Ulduar has exactly the right difficulty level, challenging, doable, but no pushover. It would have been easy for Blizzard to create bosses nobody can beat, but that would have been plain dumb. Why spend development money on content few people are ever going to see?

Spinks does Protection for Beginners

If you are playing a warrior in World of Warcraft, and aren't an expert on playing a warrior as a tank yet, Spinks wrote a great guide to protection for beginners. Whether you are unsure of how protection changed in patch 3.1, or whether you just started on the protection path due to dual specs, this is the first place you should be heading to. Not only will you find a great introduction into the various concepts of tanking, from what talents to choose to what gear to wear, you'll also find links to every important tanking resource on the internet.

There are lots of people telling others to learn2play, and very, very few who can express themselves clearly enough to teach2play. Spinks' guides for protection and fury warriors are some of these rare resources. Great work!

Too much speculation

Warcraft Econ posted WoW economy observations of the first week of patch 3.1, in an attempt to explain why the predictions of every single WoW economy blog on items which would go up in price were dead wrong. The only item which did make money on many servers was glyphs, and even with these there were some servers (including mine) where glyph prices went down instead of up with the patch.

Basically the advice that you can make a lot of money from a patch, by looking at what crafting materials are needed more after the patch, and buying them cheap before the patch hits, is self-defeating. Yes, demand for something might go up by 10% after the patch. But if enough people stockpile it, you end up with supply still outstripping demand, and prices falling. Especially if the demand is only going up slowly, because it is based on rare drop recipes from a new raid dungeon.

So across the board on my server I mainly observed another big step in deflation, with most crafting materials now costing less than before the patch. Maybe the predictions that people would need more of certain things for Ulduar or for the new crafting recipes was right, but with too many people speculating on these predictions, the expected price increases never happened. And of course all the epics you can craft now look less good compared to Ulduar loot than when they were still compared to Naxxramas loot. Buying somebody a bunch of epic gear has never been as cheap as today, compared with income from daily quests etc.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Linear progress makes content obsolete

Today I finally became exalted with the Kirin-Tor with my World of Warcraft priest, earning me a +spellpower gem recipe. But I made two observations in the process, and found they were connected: In spite of wearing a Kirin-Tor tabard, it took me half a year to get exalted with them. And the epic reward was an iLevel 200 cloth robe, which wasn't quite as good as the one I was already wearing. The common connection was me having advanced too far, too fast with raiding, which made both visiting heroics for reputation, and the reward for exalted reputation pretty much obsolete. I made the last 200 points of reputation doing jewelcrafting daily quests 8 days in a row, at 25 points each, because I couldn't be bothered to do even a single heroic.

The problem is that progress in World of Warcraft is more or less linear. That is easiest to see for dps classes: Anything that increases damage per second is progress, everything which doesn't isn't, and is thus not attractive. If you are a freshly minted level 80 in green/blue armor, doing heroics for the loot there and added reputation rewards is a great thing. But if you move on to raids relatively quickly, and get completely equipped with gear from Naxxramas 10 and 25, heroics just become obsolete. And now Ulduar is going to make Naxxramas obsolete. Just do a /who Naxxramas tonight, and you'll see how the population going there has dropped precipitously.

It isn't just that the rewards of heroics aren't worth it any more, the challenge also diminished. Unless your idea of challenge is to go there with a badly equipped and badly playing as well as rude pickup group. If you visit an heroic dungeon with the people you already beat Naxx with, not only will none of you get much useful reward, but also the run will be far easier than when you did the same heroic first before you got all that epic gear. So unless you are helping to gear up an alt, there isn't much chance to get a group of more advanced friends together for it, thus also diminishing the social aspect of 5-man dungeons.

And when the next expansion comes, the whole continent of Northrend will become obsolete. Dalaran will turn into a ghost town, just like Shattrath already did. Naxxramas will join the list of "tourist attractions" for guild runs on off nights, a list everything from Molten Core to Sunwell already is on. If you are at the level cap of the *previous* expansion, it always makes a lot more sense to go to the new zones of the current expansion than to try and organize a raid with people of your level to the previous expansion's endgame raid content.

Due to the linear progression of your character, only a tiny part of the huge amount of content World of Warcraft has is actually useful to you. That gives you the impression of playing a really tiny game, because unless you have an alt of every possible power level, most of the content of WoW might as well not exist. We're stuck with whatever raid dungeon is appropriate for our current level of power, plus some daily quests, and it is getting repetitive fast. You can break out by playing a different character, but only at the cost of giving up most of the power you so painstakingly accumulated with your main. No wonder so many people manage to get bored in spite of there being such a huge game around them.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ways to generate content

Although of course in a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game there is a lot of player interaction, the actual content in most cases is made by developers. Over the years it has become very clear that handcrafted content is preferred by players, and procedural or randomly created content isn't appreciated all that much, often feeling bland and badly balanced. But even handcrafted developer-made content has it's problems: There often isn't enough of it, due to the time and cost involved making it. And if the MMORPG isn't just a sandbox virtual world, but a game with progress, any challenge or mystery that this developer-created content might hold is revealed on various websites, leaving the game void of surprises.

So some people, following the "Web 2.0" trend, think that user-created content is the future for MMORPGs. There are a lot more users than developers, so they can create a lot more content, and you can often even get them to do it for free. The concept isn't actually all that new, for years many single-player games came with editors to make maps or scenarios. The user-generated maps or scenarios were then posted on various sites on the internet, often offering more content than originally shipped with the game.

But user-created content has its problems, most prominently Sturgeon's Law, saying that 90% of everything is crap. For every user with lots of talent who spends hours to carefully craft content a developer couldn't have done much better, there are 9 cheap hacks that are just toying around with the editor and produce just mediocre stuff, or even total garbage. And then there is the famous TTP ("Time to penis"), measuring the usually rather short amount of time it takes a group of users given a set of tools to produce the first rude content. Spore is full of penis-monsters, in spite of everything EA is trying to censor that sort of stuff. And again there is a problem with progress-based games: If users can make content that advances a characters progress, they can exploit that system and make content that yields better rewards than the developer-made content.

I'm not currently subscribed to City of Heroes, but it appears the Mission Architect functionality they released last week to allow users to create instanced missions is a big success. In the first 24 hours the users created more missions than the developers had produced in the years since CoX was released, and now there are tens of thousands of them. So how are they avoiding the problems of user-created content?

One thing the mission architect in CoX does is not to give the users too much freedom. You can't design your own monsters or maps or textures or items, thus anything penis-shaped is easily avoided. You can still put rude text in the mission description, but that is about it. By only allowing users to place monsters that already exist in the game on maps that also already exist, the creation process is much easier than that of a virtual world like Second Life, where you need to code every object. I don't know how rewards are handled, but I'd assume that if you can't create your own push-over boss mob with a huge loot table, balancing will be better too.

Sturgeon's Law still applies, but the mission architect has a way to rate user-created missions. And apparently it is just 10% of missions that got the highest rating. :) Of course the system isn't fool-proof, people can get their friends to rate up their content or rate down the content of somebody they don't like. But the more ratings come in, the less easy it will be to manipulate them.

Of course this only works because missions in CoX are instanced. It would be hard to imagine how to include a quest-editor system into World of Warcraft. And ultimately the content is still limited by the work of developers. The reason why I stopped playing City of Heroes back in the days was that there were only a limited number of tile sets, so you frequently wandered through warehouses that looked just like the one in the last mission. But ideally if users are taking over the job of putting together the tiles and mobs to a coherent mission, developers have more time to design new tile sets and mobs. So this is something that could work, and of which we probably will see more in the future: User-created content limited to putting together developer-developed puzzle pieces.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hanging-out games

So I visited Ulduar for the first time last night, trying Razorscale and XT-002 for the first time. We didn't succeed killing either, but we did have fun, laughing about the childish antics of the killer robot, and trying to figure out strategy. We couldn't play very long, because after a bit over 2 hours we got struck by some strange bug, where after a wipe we all found ourselves in front of Ulduar, unable to reenter because "encounter still in progress". But I was happy enough to have had the opportunity to hang out with the guys, and see some new places together.

I think that World of Warcraft isn't really a good game to hang out with friends. It is too achievement- and progress-oriented. Your character is at a certain level of power, determined by his level and gear, and that seriously limits the places he can play at. Too easy and the rewards that drop aren't useful for you, too hard and you don't succeed and there aren't any rewards at all. So hanging out with people who aren't at exactly the same level of power than you are is a problem. The other problem is that once you are doing something together, everybody is kept very busy by the game mechanics. There isn't all that much chatting going on during a raid.

Some games, especially Asian ones, have deliberately low-input grinding activities, where a group can hang out and grind together, using the time for social interaction. EVE mining with a guild fleet works in a similar way. The big downside is that if you are trying to solo these games, you have nobody to chat with during the grind, and it quickly becomes incredibly boring.

I think the best games for hanging out offer a mix of interesting activities and opportunities to do nothing much in a group. Features like player / guild housing obviously helps. And of course you need to find people with a similar mindset. I always found it amazing how different the same game plays if you are on a "roleplaying" server, where people invest more time in social interaction, and less time in character advancement. One of the best hang-out events I've been at was a hobbit farmer's market my guild organized on a LOTRO roleplaying server. Great mix of doing something at least minimally useful, selling my crafted goods, and just hanging out and having fun.

If you see the tremendous success various "social spaces" like Facebook or Twitter have on the internet, I do think that more social interaction will be a big feature of the multi-million player MMORPGs of the future. Not everybody is an achiever Bartle type, and happy with a game where you select your friends by their class, level, and gear. The new kind of hanging-out game will most probably have a different business model than monthly fees, but being more social helps there: Buying a pink sofa for your virtual house with real money only makes sense if you have people to show it to. Sometimes I think Blizzard knows what they were doing when they didn't introduce player housing into World of Warcraft. It just might work better in a game like Free Realms.

[EDIT: Great minds think alike! It was only after posting this that I found a post from Spinks on MMO hang-out places.]

Your chance to help MMO research

The Newcastle University Business School is conducting research to investigate the potential beneficial or detrimental effects of playing MMORPGs during off-job hours on employee well-being. For this purpose they are looking for MMORPG players with a full-time real-world job, the help them by filling out a survey, and they asked me whether maybe I know such people. :) So if you don't mind filling out a survey, here is your chance to help science!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Hey Brain, what are we going to do this Sunday? The same thing we are doing every Sunday, Pinky, TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD! aeh, posting on the open Sunday thread. :) As every Sunday you have the opportunity to express yourself here without a subject matter given by me. Post your questions, discuss, or propose subjects you want me to write about!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Virtual traveling

The Lord of the Rings would have been a rather short book if Frodo had had a flying mount to travel all the way from the Shire to Mordor, or if he had used a teleport to cover most of the way. The last perilous journey I did in a MMORPG was running at level 10 from Freeport to Qeynos in the original Everquest 9 years ago. Since then a desire to reduce "downtime" has led to more and more, easier and easier, ways of travel, with zero danger involved. And while it is understandable that people consider long travel times as an obstacle to grouping, removing travel from the game is nevertheless cutting out an important source of adventure.

I was thinking about that when reading Keen's latest comment on Darkfall, where he says: "I can travel from one side of the map to the other, but why would I? There is no destination, purpose, or incentive. Players have no reason to congregate anywhere publicly outside of their own Clan or alliance circles. There are no regions of the map which someone would say “I need to go there to get x or y or z”." Because this isn't limited to Darkfall or PvP games. There are a lot of games where it basically doesn't matter where you are, and which are huge, but feel empty. And other games, with a densely populated world full of content, where it is far more important where you are, but then the developers provided you with some fast and risk-free way to get there.

When Wrath of the Lich King came out, I felt a burning need to level up my mining/jewelcrafting and herbalism/alchemy fast, faster than I could level. So I was sneaking through zones with mobs 5 levels higher than me, searching for ore or herb nodes, and that was great fun. There was a sense of both exploration and danger, paired with a reward for finding the resources I wanted. Today the two characters in question are level 80, have epic flying mounts, and gathering the same resources is extremely boring: The exploration is over, there is no danger, and the resources are less useful, because my tradeskills are already maxed out.

There are some single-player games, often SciFi spacefaring games in the Elite tradition, where you need to get resources or trade goods at some place, and then transport them on a perilous journey to another place of the universe, where they are rare and worth more. That is a concept I'm missing from MMORPGs. You not only travel instantly and without risk, you can also transport goods the same way, so most wares aren't worth much more in one part of the world than in another. The closest we get is EVE, but even there there is only a difference of resources based on how dangerous the space is, there are no resources that are abundant in one corner of 0.0 space, and rare in another, worth trading, smuggling, or waging war over. But the next couple of years will bring more spacefaring MMOs, so I still hope that there will be elements of trading by transport and perilous journeys (PvE, not PvP) involved.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How is patch 3.1 treating you?

I have yet to visit Ulduar or the Argent Tournament, due to a mix of server problems and real-world time constraints. I happily played with dual-specs, so now I have a holy priest who can switch to shadow in seconds, and deal 3K dps, which isn't half bad for a secondary job. Then of course I suffered from a bug which reset half of my talents and had to distribute them again, but now the priest is ready for Ulduar. My priest being also a miner/jewelcrafter, I had stockpiled the Titansteel Bars I made in the last 40 days, but in spite of everybody's predictions the price for those hasn't gone up on my server. I'll hold onto them a bit longer, maybe just a case of too many people having stockpiled them.

With my warrior I'm planning to follow Spinks excellent guide of dual-speccing Fury, but still have to do some research on whether I can reuse my old protection main spec, or whether there are better options now. The warrior is also my only character with fishing (really no reason to have that skill on several characters), and so I'm content with the new daily quests, and the Wintergrasp fishing, especially now that Fish Feasts aren't bop any more.

The odd man out is my mage, who is having a terrible, terrible patch 3.1. I didn't even look into dual-spec for the mage, there isn't much point to it, especially with me not doing PvP. How many damage dealing PvE specs do you really need? Then Blizzard nerfed the daily cooking quest, changing its minimum level from 65 to 77, leaving my level 72 mage out in the cold. And finally, with every WoW economics blog posting how much gold they are raking in selling glyphs, I seem to be playing on one of the few servers with a too large number of inscribers. I made a measly 500 gold up to now, because I keep getting undercut. Now I don't mind undercutting as such, it is a logical consequence of the non-blind WoW auction house, but why do people have to undercut market prices by half? There are 2,500 glyphs listed on my AH, and for some of them prices range from 50 gold down to less than 1 gold. What is the point of selling a glyph for so low, with the materials being worth more? According to auctioneer most glyphs now sell for LESS than the average market price before the patch. I am seriously considering dropping inscription again, maybe going back to enchanting. [EDIT: I consider the absolutely horrible way in which you learn the new glyphs from random world drop books as another reason to quit inscribing.]

So how is patch 3.1 treating you? What are the things you are happy about, and those that didn't work out as well as planned?

Life on the fast lane

It keeps surprising me how fast some people go from "this is the best game ever" hype phase to the phase where they mostly see a game's flaws and only stick around because their friends play, or they are hoping for a miracle patch. Keen, who leads a particularly fast life in this respect, only needed one month to go through these phases with Darkfall, and now calls it poorly executed. Meanwhile Syncaine recovered from Tourette's and actually posted a thoughtful analysis on why many players are losing interest in Darkfall now. Who would have thought he would ever echo Scott "anti-PvP" Jennings' thought that a lot more players THINK they like PvP than really do?

Kudos to Aventurine for either realizing this truth beforehand, or having been extremely lucky in having had only the financial means to open up one server, because that is all a niche game like Darkfall is ever going to support. Contrary to popular belief I don't "hate" Darkfall. I wish them lots of success and financial stability for many years to come. Some people just take my totally realistic remarks on the size of the hardcore PvP market for negativity or "hate", when in fact PvP mostly evokes a feeling of indifference from me. It is really hard to hate a game you're not even playing, and have no interest to play. I play them a bit, in an effort to remain informed, and then usually quit fast, having found that none ever overcame my principal objections against PvP games in general.

Syncaine calls Darkfall a "sandbox" game, which to some extent all PvP games are: A large portion of the "content" is the interaction with other players, and not developer-produced content. Which wouldn't be so bad if that interaction wasn't so fundamentally negative. I do like PwP (player with player) sandbox interaction games like A Tale in the Desert far more than I like PvP games, in which players constantly work against each other. Not to mention that some people in these games make you think that "sandbox" game is a reference to the kind of tantrum-throwing behavior you'll find from 3-year olds in a sandbox on the playground.

But to come back to the original subject, I do find that PvP games evoke far stronger emotions than PvE games, which by nature a more passive, and about the consumption of developer-produced content. Developers make sure the content they throw at you is at least minimally pleasant: The monster might kill you, but at least it won't teabag you. And I do have the impression that by force of these stronger emotions the hype-to-burnout cycle for PvP games is faster. What do you think about that theory?

Elements of Performance

So there you are, looting the freshly killed raid boss in World of Warcraft, and checking your performance with some addon like Recount. It shows you how much damage you dealt, in total and per second, or how much you healed, and even what spells you used on what target. But how did you get to this level of performance, and how could you improve it? The addon can't tell you, so lets analyze the elements of performance:

1) "Skill", as in arcade game skill. You pressed every button you had to press at exactly the first possible moment the cooldown allowed, while in parallel moving your character to exactly where he should stand. The importance of this element varies a lot from boss to boss. At some bosses like Patchwerk or Loatheb you might have been standing perfectly still all fight long, while other fights like Heigan require a lot of movement, Malygos phase 3 even in 3D. As long as you don't move, pressing your spell and ability buttons in time isn't a huge problem for most classes, due to a relatively long global cooldown. Some classes need to move more or press more buttons than other classes.

2) "Skill", as in tactical skill. You had to make some quick decisions during the fight, and you always chose the right option. That means you need to keep your eye open and notice what is happening around you, see whether there is some area effect you need to move out of for example. Some classes are more likely to have to take decisions during a fight, for example healers that might need to decide who to heal with what spell. Taking a decision includes the option of taking the wrong decision, so raid strategies usually try to minimize decision making. In some fights that works so well that you don't have to decide anything at all, you just follow a fixed spell rotation. Other fights are more random in nature, and need you to decide more.

3) "Skill", as in knowledge of your class, coming from theorycrafting. You don't necessarily need to have done the math yourself, but then you need to be aware of the results of other theorycrafters. What talents, stats, and spell rotation give the maximum performance? This element of performance is one you don't do during the fight, but well before, and often even outside the game, reading up on forums like Elitist Jerks. There is often a "best" solution, even if frequent patches and nerfs make this seem to be flavor of the month. In most cases the best solution does not depend very much on which boss you are actually fighting.

4) "Skill", as in knowledge and experience of the particular fight. Bosses in World of Warcraft differ by their special abilities, and you need to know what special abilities they have, and what are the relevant countermeasures. A part of this you can acquire before you meet the boss for the first time, by reading boss strategies, or watching videos on YouTube. But practice makes perfect, especially on some of the bosses that need more arcade game skills.

5) "Gear", or rather the stats that gear gives. All other things being equal, a caster with more spellpower bonus performs better than somebody with less. A caster who runs out of mana in the middle of a fight is only marginally useful for the rest of it. A tank with too low health or insufficient damage mitigation stresses the healer's resources to the limit, or over the limit and dies. Gear is what Blizzard uses to regulate raid progression. Raid dungeon A is "before" raid dungeon B, because you need the gear from A to succeed in B. If there was no gear requirement, there would be nothing to keep you from going to B directly, now that there are no attunements any more. Gear is also what keeps guilds repeating raids they already succeeded in. A raid dungeon doesn't end because you killed the final boss, you're going again next week, and the week after, and the week after, until you are well enough equipped for the next raid dungeon.

It is important to stress that your overall performance is the sum of these 5 elements, arcade skill, tactical skill, theorycrafting skill, practice skill, and gear. And there is no fixed proportion, it isn't as if each of them made up 20% of your performance in every fight. Different boss fights depend on different elements, some are more gear dependant, others need more arcade game skills. And you can often compensate deficits in one area with better performance in other elements. Guilds that are stronger on the various skills often dismiss gear as not important for that reason, although of course that only means they need less of it, not that they are doing boss fights naked. More casual guilds, which spend less time studying and practicing, can compensate to some degree by gearing up more. But of course that doesn't help much on fights that don't depend much on gear, which is one reason why vehicle fights are contentious. The Malygos phase 3 fight has zero influence of gear, and in the first fight of Ulduar gear gives a comparatively small bonus only, plus of course all theorycrafting you did for your character goes out of the window if you play a vehicle instead. By reducing a boss fight to arcade elements which only depend on your reaction time and practice, you're stripping away a lot of what defines a MMORPG, and end up with massively multiplayer online Super Mario Brothers.

Another problem is that some people sum up all the various skills into one big "leet skillz" bundle. That makes discussion complicated, and often unfruitful. The different skills I listed have different prerequisites. For example intelligence obviously helps for theorycrafting, whether it is done on your own, or understanding the results of others. But intelligence doesn't help your reaction time or muscle memory at all, so calling somebody "stupid" or "moron & slacker" just because his arcade game skills are low is totally misleading. While I don't like the term, nor the disrespect implied in it, there is admittedly some justification in calling somebody a "moron & slacker" if the lack of performance comes from that person not having read up on his class, the fight, or failed to understand the basics of either. But it is actually easier to teach somebody the things he hasn't understood about his class or the boss fight (or simply do his talent distribution for him and show him the 3 buttons to press) than it is to teach him better reaction time. Especially if you consider that the average age of the World of Warcraft player is around 30, with a wide distribution from small kids to pensioners, and that things like reaction time and decision time are highly correlated with age and gender.

Thus is summary I think that raid encounters that are based on a variety of skills and gear are better balanced than those which are reduced to an arcade game. The more elements there are that determine performance, the more inclusive the game becomes, enabling people with deficits in one area to compensate with other strengths. Of course some people prefer World of Warcraft to be *not* inclusive, because the less people are able to beat an encounter, the more special those who can feel. Understandable, but somewhat petty. And exclusiveness is not necessarily a good business strategy for a company trying to hold onto the maximum number of subscribers.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Yet Another Patch

So patch 3.1 finally came out this week for World of Warcraft, and there was much excitement and rejoicing. Not from me. All I see is Yet Another Patch (YAP), of which the main feature, Ulduar, is something that should have been shipped with the Wrath of the Lich King expansion in November. For me that is pretty much the same as Mythic cutting 4 character classes from WAR at release, and then making huge publicity about the patches that put those classes back in.

Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to playing Ulduar and the Argent Tournament. I just don't think the new content will be enough to last me, or even the average player, until the next content patch. Clearing Ulduar might take longer than clearing Naxxramas, just because Ulduar is harder, but that doesn't really increase the amount of new content delivered per patch. It's a crutch, you stretch the little content on offer by forcing people to repeat it more often before succeeding.

If I look back at The Burning Crusade, including all content patches, I still maintain what I said at the time, that this isn't enough to keep people occupied for two years. And if I look at Wrath of the Lich King, patch 3.1, and the previsions for future patches, I have the impression that this expansion cycle offers even less content. Unless a miracle occurs and Blizzard takes significantly less than 2 years to bring out the next expansion, there is simply no way to avoid large numbers of players becoming bored as early as this summer.

Not that I predict a mass exodus from WoW, as there is basically nowhere to go yet. But it seems as if Blizzard is operating on a schedule of expansion - YAP - YAP - YAP - expansion, with roughly 6 months in between each step, plus a couple of minor patches. They are feeding the players the minimum required for them to not completely abandon World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft is essentially their cash cow, maintained with minimum effort, and milked for maximum profit, which is used to finance the 5 projects rumored to be currently underway at Blizzard: Starcraft 2, Diablo 3, the third WoW expansion, the next-generation MMORPG, and a super-secret fifth game for which the only indication is some job postings on the Blizzard site.

That makes me wonder if Blizzard is operating on business model of built-in obsolescence for WoW. Which might not be such a bad idea, considering the alternative: EA twice announced and then abandoned sequels to Ultima Online, because of fears that the new game would cannibalize the original. By not developing WoW further to a degree which would be in line with its profits, Blizzard has more manpower and money available for their future games. By already operating WoW on a minimal life-support cycle, Blizzard can maintain that rhythm for WoW, even after their next MMORPG comes out. The disadvantage for the players is that there will be some boring periods between now and the release of that next MMO.

It is disappointing to hear Blizzard talking about the total development cost of World of Warcraft having been $200 million, and comparing that to their annual profit of $500 million. I don't buy the story that Blizzard couldn't possibly invest more into WoW, because that would dilute quality. There would certainly be diminishing returns, but other companies have clearly demonstrated that one can release quality expansions once per year or even faster, not just once every 2 years with a couple of YAPs thrown in to keep the player base from starving. If you compare the quantity of content in a typical Blizzard patch or expansion with that of a patch or expansion from other games, 30 times smaller, why is there barely a difference?

Shut up they're talking

Just a short link to Virgin Worlds podcast Shut Up We're Talking #45, in which I'm mentioned as extreme end of a blogger privacy scale, the opposite of people who put their real life photo, name, and address on their blog, and then Twitter about that they are eating cornflakes now. Interesting discussion, but I think they missed a major point on why somebody would be interested in privacy. It isn't the fear that somebody doesn't like a blog post of mine and comes to my house to slaughter me with an axe.

Rather the problem is the reverse: What if somebody who only knows you in a professional context googles your name and finds your gaming blog instead of whatever professional info he was after? There have been reports of people getting fired for blogging. Or people not getting a job in the first place, because somebody from human resources found compromising pictures of them on Facebook. Now a gaming blog might not be quite as compromising as drunken nude pictures, but it does leave an impression which might be different from the one you are trying to convey, unless you work in the gaming industry. Is your employer or prospective employer really going to say "Wow, great writing skills, fine analysis, I must hire that guy"? Or will he dismiss you as somebody who spends far too much time with games, and not enough time working on "serious" things?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Games developed by porn stars

Zubon, who after a big success with pants humor is considering to turn the Kill Ten Rats blog into a comedy show, compares game developers to porn stars. The problem is a well-known one: There are lots of young people who dream of working in the games industry. So the games industry reacts in true capitalist fashion, exploits them to the max, and throws them away to be replaced by the next batch after the project is finished. Gevlon would approve. Lum doesn't.

But if we put aside the discussion of the ethics of exploitation, there is another serious question to be looked at: Is this system even likely to produce good games? Would you take a bunch of young engineers fresh from school, work them 60+ hours per week in permanent crunch mode, and have them design and build a bridge? Would you *drive* over that bridge once its done, or would you rather take the money and flee to South America?

I'm sure these game developers are all brilliant people, full of youth and enthusiasm. But they are lacking experience, and in most game companies there is a lack of culture of attention to detail. Games, even more so than other software, are quite often full of bugs, and even frequent crashes. So knowing how for example EA is often accused of exploiting young game developers, am I really surprised that my Empire: Total War is still unplayable due to constant crashes to desktop from the campaign map? If other products we bought were as defective as games, we wouldn't let the producers get away with it. But with games we not only let them get away with bugs, we also let them get away with systems that prevent us from getting our money back. If I charged back my credit card for my Empire: Total War purchase on Steam, Steam would disable my account and make not only Empire, but every other game I bought from them unplayable.

And MMORPGs are some of the worst offenders when it comes to bugs and being unplayable. When did you see the last MMORPG launch at which there were no launch problems, and where the game wasn't full of bugs at the start? And if a bug isn't serious enough to cause a crash, it might not be fixed for months, if not years! I think this is a direct result of working conditions in the industry.

Tech advice to Gordon Brown

When British prime minister Gordon Brown visited Obama last month, he received a set of 25 classic American movies on DVD as present. Which of course wouldn't run back home in the UK due to the US having a different regional code. And while most of us are unlikely to receive a similar gift from Obama, it is certainly possible that we pick up a cheap DVD on a trip to the US, and find ourselves confronted with exactly the same problem. Or in reverse for Americans who for some reason buy a DVD in Europe. So what could Gordon Brown or us lesser folks do?

DVD players are actually technically able to play DVDs from all regions, most just have been disabled by some code. And that code can be turned off, if you know how, usually by entering some code via your remote control. My DVD player is region code free due to a code I happened to find on the support site of Amazon, of all places. Unfortunately searching for a region free code often involves visiting the seedier side of the internet; better update your virus software first, and be wary of possible scams, asking you to pay for a code. Some cheap DVD players sold are even region code free, you just need to be lucky and find a tech savy salesman in your local store.

It becomes much easier if you decide to watch the DVDs on a computer instead of on your TV. Computer DVD drives aren't hardcoded for just one region, you can change their regional code up to 5 times before you're stuck. If you have several computers, or one computer with several drives, you can simply use one drive for European DVDs and another drive for US DVDs. Changing the region code is as easy as just inserting the DVD into the drive and trying to play it. A window should pop up asking you whether you want to change the region code, and how many changes you have left. If you want to watch all DVDs on the same computer DVD drive, you have to install some software to make the drive DVD region free. I won't provide a link, but you can find such software as freeware or shareware from various sites. The only disadvantage is having one more application running in the background.

I have a lot of US DVDs, for the simple reason that most TV series I like to watch come out on DVD in the US first. And in the last years the exchange rate was often favorable to buying DVDs in dollars instead of euros. I set up a game corner with a TV and PlayStation 2, and bought a copy of DVD Region X from Amazon UK, so I can watch DVDs from all regions using the PS2 as DVD player. I guess if I can find a solution to this problem, so can Gordon Brown. Although one would hope that if Obama and Brown are now aware of how annoying regional codes are, there might be some political pressure to remove them. The producers of DVDs claim that regional codes are necessary for copyright protection, but in fact the measure is pure protectionism and a marketing ploy: The same DVD is sold in different countries for very different prices, and regional codes prevent people to reimport DVDs that are being sold much cheaper elsewhere. Not exactly a highlight of free trade.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Roleplaying losing its roots

In the open Sunday thread there was quite an interesting discussion whether massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) shouldn't have more "roleplaying" in the sense of "theatrics" in them. That discussion is actually over 20 years old, because even when people were still playing roleplaying games without computers there was a wide range from players solely occupied with tactics, stats and gear to players running through woods in costumes wielding foam swords (you could say the swords had been nerfed).

Of course either form of roleplaying is completely valid. But if we look at the historical roots of roleplaying, we must say that the original "roleplaying" game Dungeons & Dragons was clearly evolved from tactical wargames. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (recently deceased) came up with the bright idea that it might be fun to have fantasy battles in which the players didn't control whole armies, but which were squad-based, with every player controlling just a single character or "role". Even their company was called Tactical Studies Rules, later just shortened to TSR. For a couple of years the modules for D&D were simple hack'n'slash affairs, with lots of opportunity for tactical battles, and little story. With time players introduced more acting elements, and modules became more logical and story-based. The acting elements fell away with the first computer roleplaying games, them being single-player, and "roleplaying" was back to being a tactical game of controlling a single unit or squad in tactical battles, and making that unit stronger over time through various means (skill points, levels, gear, etc.). The possibility of acting a role came back with multiplayer roleplaying games, but that activity remained clearly niche.

Personally the question of whether MMORPGs are losing their roleplaying roots struck me as being relevant in way that the people who were asking it weren't aware of: I see signs that MMORPGs are losing their tactical wargaming roots. Thus for example my dislike of Malygos phase 3: That part of World of Warcraft has clearly more in common with an arcade videogame than with tactical roleplaying. But even outside vehicle combat, World of Warcraft is not a very tactical game. Many raid boss fights are extremely gimmicky, with arcade game elements like the Heigan "dance". Take away the gimmicks, and positioning in a WoW fight becomes nearly irrelevant. If a boss doesn't have AoE attacks, it doesn't matter at all whether the mage is standing in the back, or right in front of the boss. You can't outflank an enemy, and unless you are a rogue, even backstabbing makes no difference.

Again, of course arcade gaming is a completely valid form of entertainment, and many people prefer their games that way. But personally, as somebody who grew up with roleplaying games as being tactical, I feel something is missing when your success in a MMORPG depends more on hand-eye-coordination and fast reaction time than on making correct tactical decisions. I guess that is just me getting old. But I've already seen the strategy game genre go down that very same drain: If today you buy a game that says "strategy game" on the box, it is quite likely to be a real-time strategy (RTS) game in which your strategic decisions might matter less than your reaction time. Being over 40, I'm afraid of a future in which I can't play either strategy games or roleplaying games, because I don't have the fast reaction times required for them any more. And if you're young and laughing at me now, just wait until you have the same problem in 20 years.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Last Remnant

Turn-based battles with real-time overland maps? Check! Emo hero with oversized weapon? Check! Huge story with long cutscenes? Check! Fantastic graphics with original monsters and exaggerated spell effects? Check! Made by Square Enix? Check! Chocobo? Nope, The Last Remnant is just a Chocobo away from being confused with a Final Fantasy game. Which is not a bad thing if you happen to like Final Fantasy games, because The Last Remnant runs on a PC, which few games of the Final Fantasy series do.

The Last Remnant takes you to a fantasy world full of magic and intrigue, with no orc nor elf involved. You control not just your hero, but his complete party, which is considerably larger than in other games. I'm still very much at the start after a full weekend of playing, and already control 12 units, and at the end of the game there will be 25 units under your command. Of course giving individual orders to 25 units in a battle would be far too slow. So your units are divided into up to 5 unions with up to 5 members each, and you give orders to the whole union. That is something that takes getting used to, not being able to tell specific units what they should do, but in general it works fine. The secret is your ability between battles to switch off certain spells and abilities for certain characters, if you want to micro-manage things. But the good thing is that if you don't want to micro-manage, things run quite well if you just tell your union whether to use combat arts or magic arts or healing.

The Last Remnant is working extremely well on my high-end Vista 64 PC, I haven't had a single crash yet, and no problems with low framerates even when the whole screen is exploding with spell effects. But be advised that this is on a computer I bought this year, with a GeForce 9800 GTX+ graphics card, and people report less good framerates on older machines. The only technical issue I had was that The Last Remnant refused to work with any of the 3 gamepads I had in the house. I had to go and buy a specific XBox 360 controller for Windows to play with a gamepad. Which is the way I prefer to play these games. Of course you can also play with the keyboard, but be advised that if you do that, you should go to the gamepad settings and select "keyboard" as your gamepad. If you don't do that, the keyboard still works, but the tutorial keeps showing you what gamepad button to press instead of teaching you keyboard commands.

The Last Remnant isn't exactly a casual game. It is huge, and the "tutorial" part at the start of the game only explains you the basics. It didn't help that the Steam version came without a manual. The good news is that you can totally play this game like that. But if you want to delve into the game's surprising strategic depths, and find out everything on how to gather tons of components to customize or create your own weapons and equipment, you'll need some guide or walkthrough. This is the type of game where even I consider buying a strategy guide, but the only printed strategy guide for The Last Remnant got very bad reviews on Amazon. So to look up who of my characters wants what weapon, I use the Last Remnant Wiki. Because again the game tries to keep equipping your troops simple, by not allowing you to do it. If you have some loot unequipped in your bag which one of your units need, they'll ask for it. They also ask for components during loot distribution, and upgrade their equipment themselves. So again you pretty much have the choice between just letting all this happen, or trying to micromanage by getting the right equipment.

I very much like The Last Remnant, especially in contrast to World of Warcraft, because it has all the things that WoW is missing: A story, and real tactical combat, where thinking is more important than fast reaction (there is a fast reaction combat option for critical hits, but you can turn that off and get the hits randomly). This game might already be too complicated for the average gamer, but if you happen to like this sort of game, I can very much recommend The Last Remnant.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Happy Easter! Like every Sunday, I am not blogging today, so I leave the floor to you for discussion and suggestions.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Emblems of Valor

Quite a lot of people are apparently disappointed about the announcement that Ulduar-10 will drop Emblems of Valor, and except for some class-specific off-hand items, there will be nothing new you can buy with those. Me, I'm not surprised, I saw that one coming. Blizzard didn't want people stockpiling Emblems of Valor and buying T8 gear with them, players will need the new Emblems of Conquest from Ulduar-25 for that. Which means that guilds that never get 25-man groups together, can progress from Heroism to Valor by doing just 10-mans.

Of course if somebody already did a lot of Naxx-25, he'll be swimming in Emblems of Valor. Me, I bought some boots for those emblems, but have no use for the 33 of them I still have. The "valorous" pants and shoulders I got as drops, and the wrist, ring, and cloak are about as good as what I'm already wearing. I'll probably end up exchanging some Emblems of Valor for Emblems of Heroism, to buy the last heirloom item (trinket) my low-level druid doesn't have yet.

While I'm totally okay with Blizzard not wanting to hand out iLevel 226 items for Emblems of Valor, I *do* wish they'd introduce a wider selection of iLevel 213 items for them. There are several slots you simply can't buy anything for, and of course Murphy's Law dictates that it is exactly those slots where you are unlucky with loot drops.

Can't recommend Empire: Total War

I would have liked to play Empire: Total War this long Easter weekend. But unfortunately it now crashes nearly every turn, forcing me to replay turns frequently. I guess I'll have to wait for the promised patch. It appears that lots of people have similar problems, although not everybody. In any case, the quality being as it is, I can not recommend Empire: Total War. You can't even test whether it runs on your machine, because the demo doesn't have the campaign map, which appears to be the crashing part. So you buy this at your own risk of having an unplayable piece of garbage on your drive. Better stay away!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Positive guild news

I'm afraid I might have given some people a wrong impression of the competence and atmosphere in my guild. The reason is simply that when everything goes well, I don't write about it, because I consider that as "normal". It is in the rare occasions of failure and guild drama, when I get annoyed, that I write about my guild. Time to correct some impressions.

Last night we had planned a heroic Naxxramas run. We usually have no problems filling those up, but due to the Champions League football (soccer) games that night, we ended up with only 19 players. But far from letting that discourage us, we simply started raiding with those 19 people. And that went quite well! Of course progress with less people is slower, but we did clear out first the plague wing, and then the spider wing. With other guild members logging on later, by the end of the evening the raid had swelled to 24 members, and we finished the night by killing Patchwerk. The atmosphere was relaxed, we joked a lot, and had a good time. I didn't get any loot, but I was pleased enough with myself landing on the second spot out on the healing meters out of 5 healers. And the top spots on the damage meter also were quite impressive. So I don't think anyone of us is worried that when Ulduar comes we won't be able to handle that content. Maybe not clear it on the first night, but at some agreeable pace of progress for a not-quite-hardcore guild.

This is still the guild for which my warrior 4 years ago, on the first day of the European WoW servers, was one of the 10 people signing the guild charter. We had our problems over time, usually in some variation of the issue that some guild members wish we were more hardcore than we are, causing some unrealistic expectations and then disappointment. But overall we are quite a nice bunch. So excuse me if I'm not really considering the advice of those readers who said "your guild has problems? /gquit!". Various guild members, me included, did leave the guild or WoW at some point in time, but came back. So I'd consider the ability of the guild to work things out over time as one of its strong points. I am proud to be member of my guild.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Persistence and blogs

I had to clean up my Google Reader and remove a bunch of MMO blogs that have gone inactive, or downright declared they were closing down. There have been some news stories in the MMO blogosphere about even big blogs, like Resto4Life and Big Red Kitty for WoW, and Waaagh! for WAR, closing down. Although we write about persistent worlds, our blogs aren't necessarily persistent. Blogs like mine that are over 5 years old are actually quite rare.

I have no plans to stop blogging, but I'm not handing out guarantees that this blog will be around forever. And, maybe more importantly, there is even less guarantee that I'll keep writing things you are interested in. Because our interests might drift apart. I always insist that this is not a World of Warcraft blog, it is a MMORPG blog of a guy who happens to play WoW since 2004, on and off. If you move on to play Darkfall, and I develop an unexpected passion for Hello Kitty Online, it is likely that our interests would overlap less.

It is very difficult to write every day about something you aren't passionate about, so I totally understand all these blogs shutting down. Especially when they dedicated their blog to a particular game or even class. I've been passionate about games for over 30 years now, so I think I'll remain interested in games for a very long time to come. Thus there is a good chance that I can keep up the blog with it's current subject matter for years to come.

One thing that struck me about blogging is the way how your blog URL acquires a value of its own, due to the way search engines and Google page ranks work. If I stopped blogging here tomorrow, but opened Dlobot's MMORPG blog on a new URL, writing there exactly what I'd normally write here, it would take months, if not years, before the new blog would get the number of daily visitors and feed readers that this blog is getting now. Or if I kept this URL and completely changed it's subject to "Tobold's Blog on painting garden gnomes", I could instantly get the number one spot on Google among all garden gnome painting blogs. In short, Google attaches a page rank, and thus value, to my blog URL, not to my person or the actual content of my blog. Well, let's hope that you are interested in painting garden gnomes. :)