Sunday, May 31, 2009

Facts and opinions

Most of the things you can read on my blog are opinions. When I tell you that Luminary is a great game, that PvP sucks, or that World of Warcraft is better with accessible raiding, these are all opinions with which you can agree or disagree. You can value my opinion more or you can value it less, but you don't have to worry whether what I say is true or not true. Opinions are always subjective, there is no absolute truth involved.

The big news this weekend in the MMO blogosphere was about popular blogger Ferarro of the Paladin Schmaladin blog being a complete fake. The blog runs for over 5 years, with the author posing as a cute girl, posting frequent photos. It turns out those photos have simply been lifted from another blog, Techdarling. And lots of people suddenly raised doubts about the authors claim to work for Blizzard and to have been an intern with the CIA. Then Paladin Schmaladin claimed that in fact there wasn't one Ferarro but 7 of them. But finds that isn't true either, based on IP tracking. So now most of the posts on Paladin Schmaladin have been removed, except for a series of paladin guides.

And there is the point: The opinions "Ferarro" wrote about how to play a paladin are completely valid. You might agree or disagree on how useful a certain spell or ability is, but posts like that are always useful. It was the author's attempt to make himself (herself?) more interesting by posing as a cute girl and Blizzard employee, and thus give his opinions more weight, which was a sham.

Of course a person's opinions are always based on the facts of his life. For example in last week's discussion of the microtransaction business model people's opinions were colored by whether they had excess time or excess money. But as soon as somebody starts to try to strengthen his position in a discussion with arguments about his personal background, you have to ask yourself whether you can really believe his story. People say things like "I work for Blizzard", because you can't argue with facts, you can only believe or disbelieve them. But if these "facts" are found out to be untrue, the opinions that were supposed to be supported by these facts are discredited too.

Me, I've always been reluctant to tell any facts about my life. Mostly for reasons of privacy, but also because my work and my family aren't related to games, and thus not interesting in the context of this blog. The Ferarro story just adds another reason to my argument that blogger anonymity is a good thing.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Need I say more? This is the weekly "forum substitute" comment thread, where you suggest the subjects for discussion instead of me.

Friday, May 29, 2009

How SHOULD small game companies make money?

The one thing that astonishes me most about the often strong opposition to microtransactions is that it always sounds as if people want everything to be free. Nobody would pay a $15 monthly subscription fee for a small game like Luminary, and even if you reduce that to $10 or so very few people would play these games. Given that you can get WoW or WAR or LotRO for $15 a month, smaller games simply look like a bad deal in comparison.

So if they aren't financing themselves with microtransactions, how do you think smaller MMOs SHOULD be financed? Do you want an advertising break between killing a boss and getting his loot, or ads plastered all over fantasy towns? Do you want to pay per hour? Or do you want the game developers to starve and make these games for you for free? If you don't like microtransactions, what alternative do you propose? And what makes you think its viable?

Luminary feedback

It was with great pleasure that I saw how many people followed my recommendation in the Luminary review and tried out the game. Not only because of the recommendation points I'm getting in game (which still can't be spent on anything), but more because it is nice to see that my readers take my recommendation seriously enough to at least try a game they never heard of.

So this thread is dedicated to feedback from those of you who tried Luminary. What do you think of this game? Am I only on a bad WoW withdrawel trip, or do you think my recommendation was justified? What features did you like or dislike. I want to especially encourage those of you who aren't commenting regularly to take the opportunity to come out of lurkerhood. Give me your Luminary feedback!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

You can't cheat at Lego!

This week my review of the microtransaction business model, with its good and bad incarnations, advantages and disadvantages, evoked several responses calling microtransactions "cheating". Now I would agree with that in the context of a competitive game, for example a PvP game. Microtransactions have no place in a good PvP game (but then, neither has time-based advancement). But most of the games I was talking about, like Free Realms or Luminary, are not PvP games, they are PvE games. A PvE game is not by nature competitive, and ideally is even cooperative. In a PvE game you "win" by setting yourself goals and achieving them. That isn't unlike setting yourself the goal to build Booty Bay out of Lego (thanks for the link goes to the MMO blogosphere's expert on Lego and parenting, Ancient Gaming Noob Wilhelm2451) and "winning" by achieving that goal. You can't cheat at Lego!

Note that Lego is a microtransaction game too. The more Lego stones you buy, the more ambitious projects you can build. You might set yourself a goal in Lego with a competitive purpose, trying to build something larger and more impressive than your brother for example, or to impress your school mates. But that doesn't mean Lego is a competitive game. And the same is true of PvE-centric MMORPGs, whether they have a microtransaction business model or a flat fee subscription. World of Warcraft is not a competitive game. It is just like Lego, in that you can perfectly well be content of just setting your own goals and achieving them. The fact that some players are very competitive about their WoW achievements doesn't change that.

World of Warcraft and other PvE MMORPGs can't possibly be competitive games, because being a competitive game necessitates that the game is fair to start with. That is not the case with MMORPGs. Advancement in World of Warcraft to a large extent depends on how much time you spent in that game. A new player starting WoW today and being able to only play 10 hours per week will never ever "catch up" with a veteran player who plays WoW for years and spends 100 hours per week in the game. Even if for some reason the new players was more skilled than the veteran.

So just like in Lego, in World of Warcraft you set yourself personal goals, whether that is reaching the next level or killing the next raid boss or hitting the gold cap, and you get a positive feeling of "winning" or "achievement" from reaching that goal. Unlike competitive games, other players achieving their goals in no way affects you achieving yours. There is no competition between the casual player trying to reach level 20 this weekend and Ensidia. There are other players around you, and you sure see their achievements as well, but you automatically disregard them if they are too far from your own goals, and not achievable by you. It might come to a shock to some raiders, but there are millions of non-raiding WoW players who don't envy the raiders at all. When you read stories of exceptional "achievements" in WoW, like the people who reached level 70 in TBC after 28 hours, or level 80 in WotLK even faster, you're more likely to consider them no-life losers than role models. Again it's like Lego, if one kid has rich parents who buy him the expensive pirate ship set, the other kids are perfectly capable to see how exactly he managed to build that fancy pirate ship, and he'll ultimately fail to impress them with his leet Lego building skillz.

And that is why microtransactions work. If that mount or glowing sword is only available for cash, parading it in front of other players only demonstrates you have cash. Of course other players might wish they had more cash, but they'll never admire you for your leet microtransaction skillz. The more clever ones even realize that your glowing sword is subsidizing their Free2Play game, thus there is little bad blood. It takes a particular mean and envious mindset to consider everyone who drives past you in a Mercedes as a "cheater", and the same is true in microtransaction games. You know where that mount or glowing sword came from, and that is it. As long as that other player isn't beating you in PvP with that glowing sword, you're not really affected by it. You can't cheat in a PvE game any more than you can cheat at Lego.

Taking the best features for the next generation

Tipa of West Karana muses how SOE could use the Free Realms engine for Everquest 3. That might or might not happen, but it reveals an often overlooked truth: Even games you hate might contain some great features.

The problem is that we judge games as a whole. Some people have a short look at a game like Free Realms, see pre-teen graphics and microtransactions, and decide that this game isn't for them. Which might well be true, but in the process of quickly dismissing the game, they failed to notice the features of Free Realms that are innovative and independent of the actual game. Free Realms is streamed to your computer via a browser, which means you can start creating a character and even start playing without having to download or install several gigabyte of data first. It is totally possible, even likely, that we'll see completely different games using that technology in the future. Free Realms has multiple servers, but you character is *not* bound to a single server. If your usual server is down, you can simply keep playing with your same character on a different server. And if you happen to have friends on different servers, you can play with all of them, or persuade them all to move to the same server. World of Warcraft charges you $20 for moving even just one character from one server to another, with loads of restrictions.

The same thing is true for Luminary. There are good reasons why this might not be the game for you, with the graphics being 2D, and the combat even less tactical than the already not very tactical combat of World of Warcraft and similar games. But then you log on and see a list of people lining up to become your mentor and help you over the first couple of levels (not because they are so nice, but because they get advantages too from it), and you wonder why WoW doesn't have that feature. You take a quest in Luminary, kill the 10 foozles you are asked to kill, and your quest giver pops up, and gives you the reward and the follow-up quest without you having to run back to him. Why doesn't every game with quests have that? And the biggest feature of Luminary for me is the Game Info, where you can look up every item and monster in the game, complete with location and loot table. Why do I have to alt-tab to some database site for all the other MMORPGs to get that sort of info?

I so hope that when game developers start planning their next game, they look at *all* games for a list of the best features they could use for the next generation, and not just World of Warcraft. It is well possible that WoW is the best overall game (or at least the most successful one), but that doesn't mean that every single feature in WoW is the best possible implementation. Crafting in WoW is boring, the auction house is seriously missing buy orders and a sales history, and some quests can't be solved without using an addon like QuestHelper or a site like Thottbot or Wowhead. Lots of smaller games have single features that are better than the WoW implementation. It's just that nobody notices them, because the rest of the game isn't as good and successful as WoW.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


In yesterday's thread Baktru wondered whether he was the only person in the world who enjoyed Tortage. Certainly not! I loved Tortage! Everybody loved Tortage! Tortage was the reason why Age of Conan sold 700,000 copies in the first month. The rest of the game being no way like Tortage was the reason why two-thirds of them left Age of Conan after the first month.

Of course that is a huge oversimplification, but like so often with simplifications, there is a large core of truth in it. Tortage, the level 1 to 20 instanced tutorial of Age of Conan had this great mode of storytelling. The same story was told from four different angles, depending on what archetype you played, with your part in the story being appropriate to your class. Thus the fighter would get the kill quest, and the rogue the sneak quest, while the mage feigned alegiance to the evil sorceress to get information. It reminded me of Akiro Kurosawa's Rashomon, and that is no small compliment.

Tortage was also the only part of Age of Conan which was accessible in the various betas, so it hugely shaped expectations about the game. But once you reach level 20 and leave Tortage, the great storytelling vanishes in a puff of smoke. Your "destiny" quest line only has one lousy quest every 20 levels in the rest of the game. It isn't as if Age of Conan was really bad after level 20, but if you loved the storytelling of Tortage, the rest pales in comparison. I trudged on to level 30 for the next destiny quest, was disappointed, and quit Age of Conan. And I'm pretty certain I wasn't the only one. The difference between Tortage and the rest might not be responsible for all of the drop in subscription numbers after the first month, but it certainly explains a good part of it.

Which of course poses two questions: Would Age of Conan have been more successful if there hadn't been a Tortage, but instead a tutorial closer to the rest of the game? And would a game which had Tortage-like storytelling throughout be a smash hit? Bioware is apparently betting on the latter with Star Wars the Old Republic. Here's hoping.

How much time do you need to play a game before you can review it?

The Ed Zitron Eurogamer review has become a running gag in the MMO web sphere. But nobody really answered the question of how long exactly you are supposed to play a game before writing a review.

For comparison, when I put up my Luminary review, I had played the game for over 40 hours, and reached level 38 with my main, plus had two level 20 alts to try out other weapons and skills. After that time I certainly understood how the game fundamentals work, what the game is about, but only for the lower to mid-level of the game. Somebody who would review World of Warcraft after playing it for 40 hours would certainly know how the leveling game functioned, and maybe have done a 5-man instance. But he couldn't possibly know anything about raiding or other end game activities. So his review would necessarily be incomplete.

But imagine the other extreme. Imagine I had not up to now written anything about Warhammer Online, but been busy playing it for 1,000 hours, and just killed Emperor Karl Franz, and done all the parts of a successful Altdorf siege. So I'd write my first WAR review now. Who the hell would be reading that? Sure, I might have a far more complete view of how the whole game works from start to end game. But the interest in a review of last year's games would be close to zero.

There is no question that in 2 hours (he claims 9) Ed Zitron couldn't possibly get more than a fleeting impression. But that is actually *more* time than many people would take to judge a Free2Play game, where the barrier to entry is just the time to download. Of course if you paid $50 for a game you probably play a bit longer before deciding you don't like it and giving up on a game. But I doubt anyone takes 40+ hours to make that decision for himself.

So, how long do you think a reviewer should play a MMO before writing a review? And how long do you play a game before forming an opinion about it?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

MMOs vs. other games

In the open Sunday thread there was a discussion whether once you played MMORPGs you wouldn't be able to enjoy single player role-playing games any more. I think that question is posed too narrowly. During the same weekend my wife remarked that she wasn't enjoying the Heroes of Might and Magic V game she recently started in an attempt to take a break from WoW as much as she used to enjoy the previous games of that series, and that in fact after getting used to World of Warcraft, all other games pale in comparison. So the question is not how MMORPGs affect SPRPGs, but how MMOs in general affect all other video games.

Market data bear witness to that. After reporting shrinking PC games sales for years, some market analysts in recent years reversed position and said that the decline was limited to retail sales of boxed games. Once you looked at the wider picture, and included downloads as well as subscriptions for MMOs, it turns out that people are spending more time and money on PC games than ever. Reports of the death of the PC games market turned out to be exaggerated.

Even on an individual scale the difference between MMOs and single-player games is easy to notice. As I recently reported, I played World of Warcraft for over 4,500 hours, or just over 20 hours per week, and that isn't an unusual number, but rather close to the average. Single player games don't have that many hours of entertainment in them, it is rare to find one which would occupy you even for 100 hours. Thus if you look simultaneously at a game which offers thousands of hours of entertainment, and another game which offers less than a hundred, the conclusion that single player games don't cut it isn't surprising.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel: After spending those thousands of hours in the same game, sooner or later you're going to burn out. That is inevitable, novelty is always a big part of entertainment, and at some point any MMO doesn't hold any secrets any more. Even if there are content patches and expansions, at some point you discover certain patterns. The third expansion of World of Warcraft isn't even announced yet, but many veteran WoW players can already give you a pretty accurate prediction of what the content of that expansion will be. Even switching to a relatively similar game isn't helping much against the burnout. At some point you simply can't stand 3D fantasy MMORPGs with hotkey-bar based combat any more, and you're looking at something else.

That something else can be a very different MMO, like the one I'm playing now, or it can be a single-player game. Even a single-player RPG. After all, there are a lot of SPRPGs which offer things that typical MMORPGs don't offer. Single player RPGs tend to be much better at storytelling for example, and are better in creating the illusion that you are a hero that changes the world permanently. If you look closely, you're still just *a* hero killing *a copy* of the dragon, but at least that fact is better hidden in a single-player RPG than in a MMORPG, where you can see the other heroes lining up to kill another copy of the dragon in front of its lair. Some single-player RPGS also offer a much different combat system than MMORPGs, or let you control a whole group instead of just one character.

So playing something else than the same old MMORPG for a while is certainly worthwile. Even if that other game only entertains you for a weekend, or a few weeks, it gets you out of the treadmill of familiarity. I'm not willing to give up on single-player games just yet.

Why I can't be bought

Everytime I get excited about a game and write about it, someone asks how much money I've been receiving for that positive review. And as I'm getting tired to have to explain every time that I never receive any money for a review, and I always publicly declare any goodies I might receive from game companies, I'll explain once and for all why I can't be bought. And at the same time I'll explain why I'm not interested in running any advertising on this blog.

The simple truth is that the amounts of money on offer for fake positive game reviews and banner ads on a blog are far too low to ever tempt me.

I am not a rich person, by any reasonable definition of "rich". But I don't have to be rich to not be tempted by the money on offer on the internet, because frankly, that money is just peanuts for any average middle-aged, middle-class guy. Bloggers even of well-frequented MMO blogs who experimented with various forms of advertising quickly discovered that the amount of money you can earn with a blog is just a few cents per day. Highest offer I ever received was $40 per month for a big banner ad. I never even got an offer of money for a fake good review, but even if I did, the amount of money I could possibly make with that probably wouldn't be higher than with advertising.

You might have read reports of people making hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month with advertising. Most of these reports are scams from people trying to sell you the "how to" guide. Commercial sites certainly make a good income from advertising, but for a typical blogger that is much harder. And for a MMO blogger things get even harder, because 99% of the companies that *want* to put an ad on your blog are tiny companies with little money themselves, or operating in some grey area of selling "guides" and other dubious services, or outright gold sellers. Just check out all the World of Warcraft blogs that have ads: Seen any official Blizzard banner ads on them? When Mythic ran WAR banner ads everywhere, that was so unusual that they ended up all over various WoW sites. :)

I'm not saying I can't be bought. There are very, very, very few people who can't be bought at all, it nearly always is a question of how much money is on offer. Pay me a hundred thousand dollars, and I'll write you a glowing review of any game you want on my blog, or put up a huge banner ad for you on top of it. Seriously. But until somebody is offering me that, the blog will remain free of advertising, and any glowing reviews of games you read here are from games I honestly had fun trying.

Of course that means I'm offering "free publicity" to many games, and always have. How many posts have I written about World of Warcraft? That probably was worth a fortune of advertising I handed out for free. And curiously very few people mind me doing free advertising as long as I do it for their favorite game. It is only as soon as I start the games the trolls don't like that suddenly they accuse me of having been bought. Bought for small change? Pleeeeeeeease, don't drag me down to their level! I don't know what they would be willing to do for $40, but in my case it isn't much. The value (or "utility" in economists speak) the integrity of my blog has for me is a lot higher. So come back when you have that $100,000.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Luminary tips for beginners

I was positively surprised how many of my readers turned up in Luminary and set me as their recommender. As only a handful of my readers tend to comment on my posts, I tend to forget how many lurkers there are. :) It was really nice to meet some of you in game and chat, although that obviously is a problem with my US readers and the time zone difference. I do get a message every time somebody who set me as recommender levels up, and if I don't have them on my friends list yet, I send them a friends invite. I do get recommendation points (RP) for people leveling past level 10, but right now they aren't used for anything. The Korean version has an NPC who hands out goodies for these points, maybe it'll be implemented later. Anyway, since I noticed some common problems people starting to play the game have, here is a list of some beginner's tips for Luminary:
  • By default Luminary starts in windowed mode, with a fixed resolution. That is fine on a small laptop, but the window is tiny on a 22"+ monitor. So the first thing to do in game is to go to Menu, System, Setting, and put a checkmark next to the Use Full Screen box. Then relog, and the game will be in full screen mode. The disadvantage of that is that Luminary doesn't react well to Alt-tabbing, and can even crash to desktop on trying to get back.
  • You start the game with the first quest already active, and the quest instructions in the lower right corner of the screen. If you ever lose that window, you can get it back via Menu, Quests, selecting the quest, and choosing quest relay.
  • The first quests are from Sarah, who sends you to the next city to Airin, then back to the starting city. Then there is a series of quests from McCoy (crafting), Siegfried (fighting), and Gieselle (resource gathering). Do those in the suggested order. Try to keep the Siegfried and Gieselle quests at the same level, the monsters that Siegfried tells you to kill are usually those who drop the ingredients Gieselle wants to have. So sometimes you need to kill a couple more than the Siegfried quest says to do both quests. By the time you have done all Gieselle quests, you should already be level 20, and Siegfried leads you on to level 25.
  • Two things I already mentioned in my review: Quests asking you to click on a "red box" or "red square" on the Game Info screen are talking about the black on white frame with a thin red border on the mid-low left of that screen. You first need to open the Game Info on the page you are asked to open for that to work. And second, the quest that asks you to craft a level 8 weapon fails to mention that you probably don't have the skill to do so. Buy at least 2 manufacturing books for that weapon from the market before doing the crafting, otherwise you will produce a worthless junk weapon.
  • If ever you *do* produce a worthless junk weapon, you can still use it to enchant a weapon of the same type. Select the MIX window in your inventory, put the good weapon in the "power-up" field, the bad weapon in the "normal" field, select an element like Wind, and press Enchant. A wind enchanted weapon has bonus damage against earth based mobs, etc., in a circle of the 4 elements. You can find what mob is what element in the Game Info, but low level mobs tend to not have one.
  • I recommend sword, spear, or axe as the weapon for your first character, as the stat distribution for those is easiest. Gun and bow are still okay, you just need additional agility, and arrows / bullets. Stay away from canes, as these not only need lots of different stats, but also consume mana, and combat is thus much more expensive. Wait until your first character is rich, and make a second character with cane if you wish to become a magic user.
  • If you do the Siegfried quest to kill country rats, you should get a medal which allows you to summon a horse at level 15. Use F9 to mount up. A horse also doubles the size of your starting inventory. The first horse you get comes completely trained. So do *not* feed your horse, and turn off auto-feeding in the Status Info, Horse tab, because otherwise your horse will simply eat out of your inventory.
  • Your first horse coming trained also means you don't need to read Horse training skill books for the moment. If you experiment with various skills and find that you wasted skill points, you should be able to reset them at level 10 and 30 for free. Later that only works with paid for skill reset tickets, so don't miss the chance at level 30 to rethink your skills like I did.
  • At level 20 you can mine using a hoe in Shenburry, Ankha, or Kucha, or farm using a sickle in Athravan. That is expensive, you pay around 50k for the tools, which only lasts for 2 days or so, and 10k to 20k for a 10-hour mining/farming license. But some of the resources you can mine/farm sell for 1k to 2k each, and you can mine/farm afk, so this can be profitable. Check market prices, usually mining brings more than farming. Your chance to find something per attempt is 10% plus 1% per skill book you read, so read at least 10 skill books to get your chance up to 20%.
  • Skill books marked BGN for beginner only get you so far, usually to skill 10. After that you need INT books for the next 10 skill levels, which are made out of 5 BGN books. You see how this gets exponentially more expensive. Don't overpay for INT books on the market if they are listed for much more than 5 times the price of BGN books. Rather set up a manufacturing request, or learn how to make INT books yourself. You need to either make the tools for that, or get them from a series of quests in the Monkey Hot Springs for levels 30+.
Well, I hope that covered most of them. Feel free to add your own tips in the comments section.

Why the hate? - An answer

If you mentally zoom out and have a look at the situation of the MMORPG market (which isn't easy to do, because most of us are too close to some game or other), you will notice that we live in interesting times. While World of Warcraft is still dominant, it isn't completely smothering the market any more. There are more and more games coming out that are trying new things, new modes of gameplay, new business models. The market is both growing and fragmenting, with everything from hardcore PvP to pre-teen Free2Play games being released and finding an audience. After years of people complaining about there being only WoW and WoW-clones, all this novelty should be a reason to rejoice. But what do we get? An outpouring of hate on all possible game discussion channels!

This isn't just coming from one particular group. This ranges from the hardcore bashing the players of WoW and Free Realms, to the Ed Zitron 2/10 review. From one side calling the monthly subscription model "welfare for the hardcore", to the other side's vitriolic outbursts against everything RMT and microtransaction. PvE players bashing PvP, and vice versa; Everybody has his preferred way to play (and pay), but instead of just leaving everything else be, they feel the need to express a hate of everything different. MMO xenophobia at it's worst. Why the hate?

While I do prefer the Pink Pigtail Inn if Larisa posts herself, her "bartender" Elnia just pulled off a post which is both a perfect example of that hate, and manages to give a glimpse towards explaining that hate. She accuses developers of micro-transaction games to play favorites towards the 5% of players that actually pay for these games, to the detriment of the 95% of freeloaders (her term). Well, didn't we have years of discussion about how the World of Warcraft developers were playing favorites towards the 5% of players that raided, to the detriment of those who didn't? But then she offers a great insight: "When you get right down to it all people who pay to play on-line games are engaged in “rent a developer”"

And that is where the hate is coming from: There is a competition over a limited resource, developer time. None of us have $50 million+ of spare change to hire a team of developers to create our personal dream game. But we all do want a maximum number of games that cater directly to our personal preferences. And because we feel unable to move a billion-dollar market with our $15-a-month contribution, we try to influence the market by arguing for what we like, and against what we dislike.

That certainly includes me. Long-time readers certainly know my personal preferences in MMO features, even if I try to keep an open mind, and carefully balance the pro and contra arguments of everything. I don't generally "hate", but of course it happens that I rant about something I dislike from time to time. The blog would be much poorer if I didn't have an opinion. Other people express themselves with much less words, but much more forcefully. Seen as a battle for developer's time, this becomes understandable.

Part of the hate certainly comes from the market growing up. There is an old saying that every developer creates the game he would like to play most. But while that is a model that works well for smaller companies, the fact that Blizzard makes $1 billion per year from World of Warcraft doesn't quite fit with that. Once a game company becomes big enough, they won't let a handful of developers make whatever game they want. Suddenly you get people with PowerPoint slides full of bullet points about market analysis, customer satisfaction, turnover and retention rates, and so on. Whether you like it or hate it, the current trend towards accessible raiding in World of Warcraft is the direct result of such a rational market analysis. If everybody pays the same, it makes financial sense not to predominantly create content for a small subgroup, but to make content accessible to a larger audience. And on the other hand, once you know a small subgroup is much more engaged with the game than average, various business models in which not everybody pays the same aren't far off either. As a German I could observe first hand how West Germany had a car market with everything from cheap, tiny cars to expensive, big Mercedeses, while East Germany had a car market in which everybody was driving the same Trabant. Guess which business model won once the wall came down! Market stratification is just a fact of life in our capitalist society. But of course it provokes the hate of those who are best served by everybody paying a flat fee for a game that just happens to fit exactly their personal preferences. There isn't really a perfectly fair solution, and any change always provokes a negative reaction from those who are losing out from it.

I think there isn't really that much reason to get too excited about this. Microtransactions and more accessible games for wider audiences have been predicted for years, and we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg emerge now. But that doesn't mean that flat fee games and hardcore games are going to disappear from the market. Are millions of pre-teens and ultra-casual players playing Free Realms really hurting your favorite game, or this a demographic you didn't want to see playing your game anyway? As long as there is a sufficiently large number of players demanding a game with a specific focus and business model, games of that kind are going to be made. There will always be a market for more challenging, more complex, more mature games with a flat-rate subscription plan. No reason to overreact when a different style of game is being discussed or is doing well.

The limits of microtransactions

In the battle of business models for MMORPGs the monthly flat fee subscription model has one decisive advantage: It is extremely simple to understand, and has only one variable, cost per month. A statement that a particular game is going to be Free2Play and financed by microtransactions is not really telling you much; there are lots of parameters on what exactly is for sale, and how much it costs.

Much of the instinctive dislike of microtransactions from some people is caused by unfamiliarity and mistrust. I would argue that there are both "good" and "bad" microtransaction systems, and everything in between. I don't share the instinctive dislike, because I'm very, very familiar with the microtransaction model. In the decade before I played MMOs, I played Magic the Gathering, which is fundamentally a microtransaction game. It is Free2Play after the initial investment. But from having one deck to having a collection of thousands of cards there is a huge range. Every booster you buy increases your chance of being able to build a good deck, but the more you spend, the more you suffer from diminishing returns. I did have that famous suitcase full with over 10,000 cards, and I did spend thousands of dollars on that game. I got out, and a decade later, with disposable income having gone up and the microtransactions proposed by a typical MMO being a lot cheaper than Magic cards, I have a rather serene view on the possibilities, advantages, and disadvantages of microtransaction system.

The key questions when looking at a microtransaction system are how much the items for sale cost, and how much of an advantage they give you in the game. If the items are too expensive, or don't give the potential buyer any advantage, there won't be enough sales to support the game. But if the items for sale give the player too much of an advantage, and actually make large parts of the game obsolete by allowing you to skip them for cash, players will become bored or disgusted and leave.

Useless items have the advantage that you can always add them to a game's catalogue of items for sale without much risk. Maybe only very few people will buy that special costume or flaming effect for the weapon, but at least very few players are going to be too annoyed if somebody else bought those. For example that flaming weapon effect costs an outrageous $11 in Free Realms, but if you don't want to spend it, it doesn't hurt you in any way.

The other end of the scale is where the bigger risk is. Another Free Realms example are the level 1 weapons you can buy for $2.50 (or $5 for the same stats plus fancier graphics), which are better than the best level 20 weapon you can either find or craft in the game. Having first leveled up a blacksmith to the level cap of 20, and struggled with a Free2Play combat class, the brawler, I tested this out by playing the member's only warrior class with a $5 weapon. After easily killing monsters with the thus armed warrior at level 3 that my level 10 brawler had problems with, I haven't touched Free Realms since. Having the class and the weapon you have to pay for being so much better than the Free2Play content really turned me off. And I felt that the effort I put into blacksmithing was completely wasted. It is not that I couldn't afford the $2.50 or even the $5, or the $5 per month for the membership. But I feel as if both possible choices, of either paying or not paying, are equally bad: If you don't pay you are blocked from the membership content, but if you take the membership content and buy a weapon on top, the Free2Play part of the game becomes comparatively so unattractive, that it might as well not be there.

But fluff and overpowered stuff are the extreme cases, and most items you can buy in most games are somewhere in the middle. If all goes well, Luminary is opening the item mall Wednesday in the open beta. As characters aren't wiped for release, this is the last step of beta testing before official release of the game around the end of the month. I'll give a detailed review of that item mall in a future post, but what I saw up to now is a system which can be best described as "items of convenience". A typical example are teleport tickets, where you can either buy a bundle of tickets, each of which allows you to teleport once, or one ticket for one month of unlimited teleports. Note that even without those tickets you always have the option to teleport to the central city for a low amount of in-game currency, or for free to the town of which you are resident. A teleport thus never saves more than 5 minutes of your time. So it would be very convenient to effectively pay a monthly subscription and always teleport directly to the town or dungeon you want to go. But if you decide not to do so, you aren't at a horrible disadvantage.

The theory behind that is that if you make a graph with one point for each player, listing how much time he can spend on the game on the X-axis, and how much money he is willing to spend on the Y-axis, the large majority of players will be concentrated in two quadrants: The time-rich-but-money-poor, and the time-poor-but-money-rich. Items of convenience allow the money-rich to trade their money for time, but allow the time-rich to arrive at exactly the same result by spending time. As long as the money-rich aren't able to buy advancement past the point which is possible to reach purely by spending time, this system is actually better balanced than a monthly subscription MMO, where the time-poor always lose out.

In the same vein, the time-rich are usually better informed about the game, and less prone to gimp themselves, so it makes sense to have items like status and skill reset tickets, for those who missed the free resets at level 10 and 30 in Luminary. And of course the clearest example is the perennial favorite of microtransaction games: The item which for a limited time allows a player to gather xp at a faster rate. It completely fulfills the criteria for a good and useful microtransaction item: Allowing you to trade money for time, without enabling you to completely skip content, or get to a point where somebody who only spends time can't get to.

Besides the question of how much of an advantage microtransaction items give you, there is also the difficult question of how much these items are pushed onto the user. With Asian companies having a much longer experience with microtransaction games, it comes to no surprise that it is again the US game Free Realms which serves as the bad example: Quite a lot of players complained how constantly in-your-face the in-game advertising for Free Realms membership is, especially in view of the game being marketed to pre-teen children. It is an essential feature of a good Free2Play game that you are actually able to play it for free, without constantly getting rubbed in what you are missing out on. While it does offer an opportunity for good parenting, giving an allowance and teaching the value of money, Free Realms is likely to make life hell for parents who decide their child should only play the free part of the game.

The final point of discussion on the limits of microtransactions is about the amount of money a player can spend on them, and the possibility of spending "too much" money on the game, whatever amount "too much" might be. Having seen both trading card games and microtransaction MMOs, I must say that trading card games are by far the worst offenders. I spent several thousand dollars on Magic the Gathering, but never spent more than $200 on a MMO. In cost per month there are two very different numbers to consider: Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), which tends to be less than $15 per month for most microtransaction games, and Average Revenue Per Paying User (ARPPU), which often is higher than $15 per month. In other words, the typically around 5% of users who do spend money on a microtransaction game are subsidizing those who just use the Free2Play part. No wonder they want *some* advantage out of that deal.

If spending a different combination of money and time to achieve the same result in a game strikes you as unfair, maybe you should remember that $1 or 1 hour does not have the same value for everyone. No, the person who spent more money in all likelihood wasn't screwed, he probably chose to do so out of his own free will, because having to spend more time and less money would have "cost" him more in his personal reference system. Spending $50 or $100 per month on a game might appear outlandishly expensive to some, but cheap compared to other hobbies to others. It is possible to buy something via microtransactions and later regret it, but a game which constantly makes players regret their purchases isn't going to last long. For many people, having the choice of how much money to spend and how much time is actually the better deal than a flat rate. Even for people with little self-control, microtransactions might be the better choice; I'm pretty sure that ultimately the economic damage dealt by World of Warcraft through people neglecting their studies or job is higher than that of any microtransaction MMORPG.

In summary, there are both good and bad forms of microtransactions, and players need to look carefully at what is on offer. Being able to trade money for time, without enabling you to completely skip content, or get to a point where somebody who only spends time can't get to, is not only acceptable, but can actually be a better deal than a flat rate for the time-poor-but-money-rich. In return they finance the game for those who choose to not pay anything, creating a win-win situation. But if paying to play becomes absolutely necessary, is constantly advertised, and makes you much more powerful than you could ever become by just playing, the game risks to turn players off. Players aren't that stupid, so ultimately the game with the better and more voluntary microtransaction system makes more money than the game that tries to push the player too hard.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Luminary Review

So this is the mystery review I was talking about: I am currently spending a lot of time in the open beta of Luminary, a new game from Aeria Games, a company specializing in Free2Play games. Luminary is easy to underestimate, because it looks a lot like many other Asian 2D games, with colorful, cute, cartoon graphics, and screenshots that overflow with dozens of characters and monsters. But once you start playing it, you'll discover a surprisingly deep economical game, the likes of which I haven't seen before. Forget everything you heard about games promising you a "player-run economy", Luminary is the real deal.

All weapons, armor, and tools in Luminary are player-made. By killing monsters, doing quests, and harvesting, you gather resources, and these resources are what everything else is made of. If you want a better sword, for example because you outleveled your current one, you will either have to craft one yourself, buy one via the market (auction house) from another player, or find a player to craft one for you. There are even "manufacturing requests", where you can state what you want another player to craft for you, provide the resources and a commission, and can even set a minimum skill level of the crafter. And there is a helpful window showing all master crafters online.

Now you think "but how do I know what resources I need for that new sword, and where to get them?". All this info is contained in a handy Game Info screen. You can search it for any item, monster, town, dungeon, or NPC. It will not only tell you what resources you need, but also give you the location of all the monsters that drop this resource, including drop probability and the complete loot table. This gives farming monsters a unique dynamic, because suddenly you aren't just doing a kill ten foozles quest, or farming monsters for random loot and xp, you are working towards a specific goal, looking for specific resources for your next piece of gear. I never understood why other games outsource that sort of information to third-party database websites, it is a lot more useful when integrated directly into the game. As you can always check what all items and resources are currently worth on the market, and how to get them, you can easily find economic opportunities for maximum profit.

There are no character classes in Luminary, but there is a system of skill points. You can improve your skills by exercising them, but that is usually rather slow. The faster way is to read skill books, but many of these cost 1 skill point to read, and you only get 1 skill point per level. So you can't be good at everything. But you can make 3 characters per account, and you are even allowed to have two accounts (not more), and run one of them multi-client or on a second computer for the boring afk harvesting jobs. As you will probably only master one of the 6 possible weapon types in the game (3 melee, 3 ranged), the weapon you choose defines a lot of what would otherwise be considered your character class. Every level you get 5 stat points to distribute, and somebody who has chosen a bow, or the "magic" cane as weapon will distribute the points differently than somebody who chose a sword, spear, or axe. You can gimp a character by distributing his stat points badly, but at level 10 and 30 you are able to reset and redistribute. I recommend a melee weapon for your first character, as the stats are easier to distribute for those (keep DEX and VIT at or slightly above your level, put the rest of the points into STR). On the other hand ranged weapons have the obvious advantage that if you shoot a monster that uses melee, you can already wound it before it can reach and hit you.

Combat in Luminary is similar to those of many 2D games, you just click on a monster once, and exchange blows until one of you drops dead. But you have an unfair advantage over the monster, you can drink unlimited numbers of healing potion during combat. That makes it possible to beat even monsters a good deal higher in level than you are, unless they one-shot you. But of course healing potions cost marbles, the virtual currency of Luminary, and if you try to farm higher level mobs you'll quickly find you're spending more on the potions than what the loot is worth. There are no spells until much later in the game, but cane wielders use mana to power their weapon, and thus need to drink mana potions as well. At level 20 you'll learn to summon a combat pet, but even with that there isn't really much strategy involved. But the mob density is high, and most mobs don't attack you, so combat is more about farming monsters, a more interesting variety of resource gathering than harvesting. Luminary is more of an economic game than a tactical combat game.

And of course there are also quests in Luminary. The first quests are a kind of tutorial, teaching you how to fight, gather resources, craft, and trade. Starting at level 25 other quest NPCs open up, and you can also visit Jack, who gives you timed quests to farm a certain number of monsters in a limited time, and get a stack of resources as reward. There are not only monster-killing quests, but also specific quest-givers for every type of manufacturing craft skill. Starting at level 30 (I think) you can also get random quest from the magic lamp that is delivered to your inventory at random times if you are online.

Crafting is a major part of Luminary. Reading books to improve your crafting skill doesn't use up skill points (apparently this is different from the Korean version of the game), so you can always be a crafter in parallel to whatever else you put your skill points in. But getting crafting up can be extremely expensive and time-consuming, so don't expect everyone to be able to craft everything. Simple items are crafted by simply choosing what you want to make, the make menu helpfully shows only items you have the resources for, choosing how many you want to make, and waiting 10 seconds for the crafting to complete. More complex items, like weapons and armor, can exist in various degrees of quality. This is influenced by you dexterity and by the score you achieve in a mini-game. The mini-game is a particularly uninspired clone of Bejeweled, but you only need to play it to a score of 10,000 to get the maximum bonus of 10% (less score gives linearly less bonus).

Luminary also has a political part of the game, which is tied in with the economic game. Players can buy "shares" of the various cities in Luminary, each share giving a vote. There are regular elections to town council, and there is even an elected leader for the whole server, called "GoonZu", who is elected every three months. Political, economical, and social factors come into play in Luminary's mentoring system. When you first create a character you are asked to state who recommended the game to you (choose me! :) ), and then you can choose a mentor from a list of players of at least level 50. While you level up, these people get rewards and reputation points. So your mentor has an interest in you doing well. Of course there are always some people who just try to collect a maximum number of pupils, without doing anything for them. But as you can always switch mentor, it is easy to find somebody who is actually willing to help you, at least with advice, but sometimes even sending you newbie stuff and so on. That makes for a much better new player experience than most other MMOs.

As I mentioned, Luminary is Free2Play. Which means there will be an item shop where you can buy stuff for real money. The item mall isn't enabled in the open beta, but as Luminary is a port of a Korean game, I have an idea what kind of things players will be able to buy. They are the usual suspects for these sorts of games: Added inventory space, teleport tickets for those too lazy to walk, skill and stat resets, clothes for looks (the character doll has the ability to equip clothes for stats and clothes for looks), various stats bonuses, mounts, skill books, and items that increase the rate with which you gain experience. It is hard to say yet how balanced all this will be, between people who spend a lot of time and little money, and people who spend a lot of money and little time. But the open beta is certainly very playable without all these items, so there don't appear to be any must-have things.

Of course no game is perfect, and Luminary certainly has a number of flaws. One classic problem is the translation from Korean to English, which is relatively well done, but not quite perfect. You'll often stumble over small mistakes like the "Successful Rate", where the meaning is obvious, but the English isn't quite correct. More seriously some of the quests explaining the more complicated game features to you suffer from the direct translation of the instructions being not that easy to understand, or too short. Especially McCoy's crafting quests suffer from that. Typical stumbling blocks are you being asked to click on the "red square", which actually is a white frame with black text, and only a thin red border around it. One quest only advances when you craft a level 8 weapon, but the instructions aren't clear, and most players end up making a useless junk weapon, because they weren't told to increase their skill first.

But mostly whether you like Luminary or not depends on whether you can like a game which is so different from the classic big 3D MMORPGs. Luminary is an MMORPG, but just like both chess and monopoly are board games, Luminary is very different from World of Warcraft. Combat is much easier, but the economic game is satisfyingly complex and deep. Your WoW raiding skills won't help you a bit, but if you used to play the auction house in WoW, you might very much enjoy Luminary. You'll have to ask yourself whether you can live with colorful cartoon 2D graphics. And while of course Free2Play has big advantages, you'll also have to live with the possibility of somebody else spending a lot of money on microtransactions to get ahead of you. To me that isn't very different from somebody else spending a lot of time in game to get ahead of me, but opinions on that are divided.

Personally, for me Luminary is just the game I need right now. A game where thinking and planning what to do next advances you faster than your button-mashing skills. This is *not* a casual game like Free Realms, in fact I'd say Luminary is a lot more hardcore than World of Warcraft, but in a very different way. Getting elected as GoonZu, or even just town chief, is a feat that would require a huge amount of dedication, and online time. I'm not planning to do that, but I'll try to make a name for myself as a crafter. I don't mind microtransactions, in fact (Shock! Horror!) I plan to spend some money on items of convenience, like teleports and a bigger inventory. Luminary is currently in open beta, but apparently characters won't get wiped again before release, so you can effectively already start playing. Recommended! Speaking of which, in a blatant attempt of self-promotion, don't forget to put "Tobold" as the person who recommended the game to you. :) Western game companies can learn a lot about social engineering from Asian games.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Still busy playing and writing that review. So as every Sunday the floor is yours, for discussion of whatever subject interests you.

Mysterious announcement

Sorry, no blog entry today. I'm awfully busy playing an MMO you never heard of. Review on Monday.

Friday, May 22, 2009

New York Times review of Free Realms

The New York Times is not all that well-known for keeping you up to date with all the latest MMORPG news. A game has to be hugely successful and mainstream to get coverage in the NYT. Thus the glowing review of Free Realms is significant.

And their remark that "For Sony Online, Free Realms is a triumph of the company’s own reinvention." is spot on. In 2004 SOE lost the duel EQ2 vs. WoW by a huge margin, and EQ2 being less accessible certainly played a big role in that. With Free Realms they now created a game that got 1 million players (not subscribers) in 3 weeks, and will certainly continue to make news with increasing multi-million player numbers. And while a million FR players will produce less income than a million WoW players, the point where Free Realms makes more money than all other SOE games together isn't far off.

Even veteran MMO players should take notice. Because ultimately game companies are not charities, but for-profit organizations. As long as WoW was the only game which was both ultra-accessible and attracted millions of players, some people could get away with claiming that it was an exception which couldn't be reproduced. The more successful Free Realms becomes, the more accessibility starts to look like a trend, and will influence the design philosophy of future games.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Alternative WoW subscription plans

Wolfshead calls the current one-size fits all World of Warcraft monthly subscription Welfare for Hardcore Players, because the players who play the least subsidize those who play the most. And he suggests alternative WoW subscription plans at lower price, for example just the basic edition, or packages without PvP, or without raiding, for people who don't use that sort of content anyway. There could even be packages with better customer support, or including world events. Most other forms of entertainment, for example cable TV, cost more the more content you want to have access to.

Do you think alternative subscription plans for World of Warcraft would be a good idea? Should people who take up more of the developers time pay more than those who just use the vanilla content? And which package would you choose for yourself?

Toilet humor

I blame the British. Different cultures find different things funny, and the British find toilet humor funny. Other cultures just find it disgusting. And so it comes that there is a petition against Jarate plus lots of angry discussions going round in the Team Fortress 2 community. What is Jarate, you ask? The latest TF2 weapon technology, using a jar of urine to give a debuff to an enemy. It has been described as disgusting, stupid, unfunny, gross, etc.

Of course others point out in defense of Jarate that Team Fortress 2 is full of another bodily fluid: Blood. Apparently people aren't as offended by a pink mist spray of blood from a head shot, or characters burning covered in napalm, than they are by urine.

World of Warcraft of course has some toilet humor too. There are several quests where you end up digging through poo of various animals. Of course there are also less disgusting versions, like the dwarf who got locked into a toilet, and gives you a quest to find him the key as well as some silk cloth, being strangely reluctant to tell you what exactly he needs the cloth for, but appreciating its softness.

So, do you think that toilet humor is just harmless fun, or is it something which shouldn't be in any games?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The fundamental flaw of RvR

Keen and Green Armadillo are discussing how the new Land of the Dead content of Warhammer Online is increasing the problems with faction balance. I'd say the problem is a fundamental one, which limits the RvR approach.

Fact is that people prefer winning to losing. Another fact is that in any massively multiplayer RvR conflict, numbers play a big role: In any reasonably balanced game, the more numerous side has an obvious advantage. Now what happens is that people randomly distribute over a number of servers, and by simple statistical chance some servers have more players from one side, while on another server the other side is more numerous. On both servers the less numerous side does less well than the more numerous side. So some players switch sides on the same server, while others switch server remaining on the same side, but always leaving the losing team and joining a winning team. Or people on the losing side simply quit, while those on the winning side keep playing. Over time you get more and more servers on which one side dominates the other side.

Sooner or later the winning side on each server has the other side "on farm". In Warhammer that means one side locks out the other side from their capital city frequently. And with the new Land of the Dead content it means that one side has access to the new content all the time, while the other side finds itself frequently locked out of that too. Suddenly even people who don't mind losing all that much find that being on the losing side means not having access to much game content, and either quit or join the winning side.

This is not a sustainable system. Of course Mythic can apply some band aids, like merging servers with different sides dominating. But that just delays the inevitable. A stable situation would require equal numbers of people being satisfied with winning as with losing, and that just isn't going to happen. Unlike players of chess or football, where half of the players always lose but keep playing, video game players are bad losers, because single-player games taught us the false lesson that you can always win. Unless you introduce rather strict limitations, like servers not allowing more players of one side to log on than players of the other side, RvR will never work.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Accommodating less good players

Shamutanti wrote me with a link to a post of his on raiding difficulty, saying that "I’ve found myself becoming more and more accommodating towards those who really don’t know what they’re doing and I’m trying to help" and "Not everything needs to be hard and not everything needs to be complex.". And he asked me what my point of view is, because he thinks I have changed my point of view. I haven't, people just have problems understanding my point of view.

I'm on record as saying that A) Naxxramas being easy is perfect as a starting raid, and B) players dealing less than 2k dps should stay away from Malygos. And it is surprising how few people believe that both statements can be true at the same time. Far too many people think that either EVERYTHING has to be easy, or EVERYTHING has to be hard. Which, in fact, would be awfully bad game design. Because while everybody wants all the content to be tuned exactly to the difficulty level he personally prefers, the whole player base will span a wide range of different preferences. And the developers need to cover this wide range, and not just cater to the needs of one small sub-group.

I never said that World of Warcraft should not contain any hard content. I did say that WoW should not have ONLY hard content. A situation where nearly everybody can do Naxxramas, a somewhat smaller but still big subset of people can do Ulduar at normal, and a few bosses like Malygos and Algalon only beatable by the top raiders is great. Even if yes, that means that the top raiders are bored in Naxxramas, and the least good players will take months before even reaching Ulduar.

With not all raid content tuned to the same small subset of people, whichever group that would be, but spanning a wide range of difficulty levels, the main problem for Blizzard is creating enough of it to make everyone happy. Whether Ulduar is too easy or too hard is a straw man dispute. The real problem is that Ulduar is too *late*, it should have been released with Wrath of the Lich King, and patch 3.1 should already have added the next dungeon.

There is nothing inherently wrong with there being players who play less well, be that for reasons of not being skilled enough, not having spent enough time, or just not being interested enough. Just like you don't have to be Tiger Woods to play golf, you don't have to be Ensidia to play WoW. The whole stupid argument how easy or hard a raid dungeon should be is just a fight between various sub-groups for limited resources. Of course it would be better if everybody had a place to go, but with Blizzard only able to make a limited number of raid dungeon, everybody wants those few raid dungeons to be designed for him, and him only.

While having raid dungeons spanning a wide range of difficulty levels, accommodating the hunter who deals 1k dps as well as the one who deals 5k dps, is great, it still isn't perfect. It's only "as good as it gets" in the confines of World of Warcraft game design. A raid dungeon used to have only one fixed difficulty, either you could beat BWL or you couldn't. Today one raid dungeon already has two different difficulty settings, normal and hard. Some future MMORPG (and it might well be Blizzard's next one) will have an ingenious system in which the same place exists in infinite different difficulty levels. Just like a chess club, or a ladder system for some game manages to match players against opponents of the perfect difficulty for them, that future MMORPG will match any given raid group with a raid dungeon with the perfect difficulty for them, being both challenging and achievable. And then that stupid fight about raid difficulty will hopefully disappear.

Understanding the financial crisis


If you happen to be struggling to understand how this huge financial crisis we are all in could have happened (don't worry, you aren't alone), I can only recommend to read My Personal Credit Crisis in the New York Times. There an economics reporter of the New York Times, well qualified to have known better, explains in detail how he got deep into debt up to the point where he is waiting for the foreclosure on his mortgage. He explains exactly how with not much disposable income after alimony payments he still managed to borrow half a million dollars, which he then obviously couldn't pay back.

It somehow reminds me of a 20 year old film called Rosalie goes shopping, which explains that: "When you're $100,000 in debt, it's your problem. When you're $1,000,000 in debt... it's the bank's." You just need to add that if *everyone* is a million dollar in debt, then it's the world's problem. If everybody used to spend (income + X%), then not only need people to go back to spend only their income, but they need to spend (income - Y%), with the Y% used to pay back the debt. The combined total is the spending and thus GDP falling by (X+Y)%.

I'm not very optimistic that this will be over soon, because I suspect the banks still have a lot of skeletons in the closet, for example in the form of credit card consumer debt. A recession means rising unemployment, which usually hits people most who already had the most credit risk, and causes them to default on their debt. It might take years before the mess is completely cleared up. And once the banks balance sheets and everybody's personal debt is "back to normal", whatever that is, we need to start paying back the trillions that our governments are now spending on our behalf to rescue the economy.

While the temptation is big to blame somebody for the mess, in the end it was a case of collective insanity. You need to be crazy to borrow half a million dollars on not sufficient income to pay it back, but there need to be a whole lot of crazy people involved in you actually getting that loan. I just hope that this scars us permanently with the lesson that you shouldn't live beyond your means. But like any major crisis, some people whose personal finances were perfectly in order will suffer too, because they lost their job, or their savings, or both. It just is very hard to explain to somebody that he just got fired because his company was exporting goods that a buyer on a different continent couldn't really afford, and now stopped buying.

Nevertheless there will be an even greater number of people who will come out of this crisis with not too much of a loss. 10% unemployment is a catastrophe for many, but it means that the other 90% still have a job. If you *were* saving instead of living on credit, you probably lost money from your investments, but if you weren't speculating wildly, most of those losses are on paper only. Working in a company during a crisis can be unpleasant, and many perks, bonuses, and pay rises will disappear or become much smaller in the years to come. But at the end of the tunnel many of us will emerge a bit poorer and a lot wiser. Just fasten your seat belts, this might be a bumpy ride.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Inventory management

Richard Bartle and Scott Jennings have very different opinions about the quality of Stranglethorn Vale, whether it is one of the best or one of worst zones in World of Warcraft. I'm trying to find a good expression like "discussing the stable door after the horse has bolted", to describe a discussion which is good, but somewhat late, considering the median player level nowadays. Anyway, I decided to leave the two to it, and only pick up one tiny bit from the discussion: The quest Tigole himself admits having created and being the "worst quest in the game", Green Pages of Stranglethorn.

The problem with that quest is that it takes up a lot of inventory slots, and that back in a time where people were running around with 12-slot bags. Basically an inventory slot has a value, which is the opportunity cost of not being able to pick up some other loot, and the value of the sum of inventory slots used by that quest was higher than the value of the quest reward.

But if we take a step backwards, and look at the World of Warcraft inventory situation from a wider angle, we notice that Stranglethorn pages are just one symptom of a bigger problem: The WoW inventory system is slot based. You are limited by how many *stacks* of items you can carry, not by anything more logical, like size or weight. A Stranglethorn page takes up exactly the same inventory page as a plate mail chest piece of loot. A stack of metal bars or ore takes up as much inventory as a stack of herbs. But that is just one of several possible inventory systems used in various RPGs, and none of them are really perfect. There are more realistic weight-based systems, but those often don't use slots at all, and end up with your bags being a jumble of overlapping icons in which finding anything is a challenge. Then there are systems with a grid, which are basically limited by size, with a potion or page just taking 1x1 spaces on the grid, and the plate armor 2x3 spaces. Those often end up with you playing a Tetris-like subgame of sorting items in your inventory to fill up the grip with no holes. The best inventory systems are usually found in various space games. Every item has a weight (or a size, or both), and as long as you are under the total weight limit, you can pick up whatever you want. That enables the game to give you things like pages with zero weight and no inventory problems. Another extreme is games like Free Realms where your inventory is bottomless, and there are no restrictions whatsoever to how much stuff you can carry around. Which makes sense when the game is trying to make money by selling you stuff.

A weight-based inventory system would also allow a travel system which depends on the weight you are carrying. You could make transports like teleports and flying mounts have a weight limit, so adventurers with just whatever gear and consumables they'd need for adventuring would be able to travel fast. But transporting large amounts of trade goods, like metal bars, would have to be done in a slower way. Once you have that, you can have local resources and local auction houses, with an opportunity to make money by transporting goods from A to B. Such systems are pretty common in space ship games like EVE Online, or games based on wooden ships and oceans, but extremely rare in fantasy MMORPGs.

I'm not suggesting World of Warcraft to change its inventory system, it is way too late for that. But I've noticed an annoying tendency of newer games to simply copy various sub-systems of World of Warcraft without thinking about the consequences. Even something seemingly as simple as an inventory system, and whether players are limited by number of items, weight of items, size of items, or a combination thereof, can make a big difference to how a game ultimately plays out. Do you want to limit what the players can carry? And if yes, why, and by what criteria? Is your inventory system just a clever ploy to get people to go back to the nearest city after some time of adventuring, to sell loot? Or does it enable other modes of gameplay, like a career as a trader?

World of Warcraft video contest

The guys from Xoxide asked me to spread the word about their World of Warcraft video contest. There are three different categories, so you can make either real life videos LARPing WoW, or ingame videos with voice acting, or make a spoof of the WoW ads. As a reward you could win a mouse that costs more than your old computer is worth nowadays (just kidding).

Personally making machinima or other videos isn't something that appeals to me. But given how popular YouTube is, I'm clearly in a minority there. So maybe this is something some of you could have fun with.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Not missing the boat

As you might have guessed from the titles, this post is related to the previous one. What I said there about the risks of missing the boat if you start playing a massively multiplayer game a year or more later completely reverses if we talk about single-player games. I'm currently catching up on single-player games I missed while being totally immersed in virtual worlds, and I notice some definitive advantages.

One, which is arguable shared with MMOs, is that games often are released in a bugged state, and patched in the year after release. Thus if I now play a game that was released over a year ago, I can usually already find one or several patches for it, and avoid some of the trouble the people who played it on release day experienced. Besides official patches, in games with a map editor or similar means of adding user-created content, it is easier to find lots of such content for older games than for games that are freshly released. That also is true for walkthroughs and cheats, for people who need those.

Another big advantage of starting a single-player game which was released a year or more ago is that prices from older computer games fall rapidly. That was always true, but when you bought all your games at the local computer store it wasn't always easy to find last years bargain. The bargain bin usually had already been picked clear of all decent games by other people, and some games simply couldn't be found a year later. The internet changed that.

While I did complain about Steam charging me 50 Euro for a 50 Dollar game, I have to admit that Steam isn't a bad source for older games. This weekend I bought the original Company of Heroes for 9.99. Which is a great bargain, if you consider that for the same money you could have had either Company of Heroes or Plants vs. Zombies. The Steam Weekend Deals are also often interesting, although I decided against buying Call of Duty 5 at half price, I still haven't started CoD4 yet, which supposedly is better anyway. But Steam isn't always the cheapest source for older games. Amazon for example has its "marketplace", where other sellers sell the things Amazon doesn't have in stock any more. I just ordered Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway for just £5.99 there.

A last advantage of buying games later is hardware requirements. The game that two year ago only ran on high-end computers now runs perfectly well on a medium-range machine. So all in all missing a single-player game and playing it a year or two later isn't such a bad thing. Of course you can't stretch that out forever. Playing 10 year old games now is going to hurt your eyes. :)

Missing the boat

In the open Sunday thread David asked what MMO to get back to, after having made a pause of 1.5 years. Well, if you still know where your friends are playing, go and play whatever they do. Otherwise going back to an old game has a lot of issues, and you might be better off with something relatively new, like Runes of Magic or Free Realms, which have the added advantage of being free.

I was watching a funny video with Paul Barnett and Jeff Hickman, in which they are advertising their new Land of the Dead added content. And they actually say that this might be a good point to get back into the game. I disagree. Land of the Dead for me has the same problem as the Mines of Moria expansionfor LotRO: I never got high enough in the game. If I went back, I still couldn't visit the new content, because the new content is high level, and I'm low level.

And that is actually a serious design problem. Most expansions and content patches add content to the end game, because that is where your existing players are usually hanging out and starting to get bored, so you want to hold onto them. But that means that all this new content isn't attractive at all to people who never got that far, or to people who are completely new to the game. If you start World of Warcraft for the first time today, the Wrath of the Lich King expansion is doing nothing for you. Just the opposite, by drawing the majority of the population into the high-level content, the expansions make the low level content deserted, and less fun. You simply can't find a regular group for the Deadmines nowadays. That also explains why many people are in such a rush to get into a new game on release day. If you wait too long, you miss the boat, and end up playing solo all the time.

Better design could be possible. For example cross-server dungeons in World of Warcraft would solve the problem of there not being enough players around at lower levels. Or guild structures with a mentor / apprentice system, where high-level players and guilds get rewarded for helping lower level players. And then there could be vertical expansions, adding content for all levels, or creating new races and classes you'd start at level 1. I believe there could be a lot of other ideas to prevent games from becoming less interesting for newcomers. We just need to break out of the same old, same old linear progression design mold.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Every Sunday I'm taking off a day from blogging, and leave this thread for my readers to contribute. It's kind of like a cheap way to replace the forums I don't have. :) So if you have anything to say, or to ask, this is the place to do it!


I do get several "press releases" from smaller game companies every week. I do usually take the time to have a look at their product, but only actually write a blog entry when the product is interesting. So when Cyanide Studios wrote me that they had acquired the rights turn George R.R Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ into games, it didn't look good for them. I had never heard of Cyanide, I hadn't read those books (although research told me they were popular), and the press release didn't even say what kind of game they were hoping to make from it.

But interest peaked up when I visited Cyanide's website. Because besides that press release, there are also two other games: Blood Bowl, to be released June 18th, and Dungeon Party, which was released yesterday. I did play Blood Bowl the board game 20 years ago, and Cyanide's version of it looks quite interesting to me, as it can be played either in real time or turn based. Dungeon Party is a Free2Play group vs. group PvP game. I tried it out, it's kind of fun, but you know me and PvP don't really go together.

Cyanide is a French studio, which explains some of the "funny" names of monsters in Dungeon Party, which you'll only understand if you speak French. It also helps to know how the layout of a French keyboard looks, because on an English keyboard you'll need to press Q and D to turn, while the screen text says A and D.

Anyway, I did like the quality of the games I saw there, and now I'm looking forward to Blood Bowl's release. Not holding my breath for that ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ game though, until I know more about it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

My thoughts on Plants vs. Zombies

Killed in a Smiling Accident has a brilliant review of Plants vs. Zombies, so I don't need to write one. :) Instead I'll just ramble on with some personal thoughts on the game.

Of course at the start I enjoyed Plants vs. Zombies very much. Who wouldn't enjoy a game in which a pole vaulting zombie jumps over a wall-nut only to splatter satisfyingly in your exploding potato minefield? But the longer I played, the more frantic the game became, until it reached the point where it was simply too hectic for me. Besides, at that point I had already grocked the game, understood the tactical principles behind a good defense, and by ending the learning process (according to Raph) also ended the main fun part of the game.

So when I read Melmoth's paragraph where he discusses into what drawer of game genre to forcefully shove Plants vs. Zombies, my reaction was "No question! Plants vs. Zombies is a real-time strategy (RTS) game!". Which is probably not how most people would describe it. But Plants vs. Zombies ends up leaving me with exactly the same feeling as other RTS games I recently tried, like Dawn of War 2: The tactical decisions you make a really, really simple, and wouldn't pose any challenge if you weren't forced to take these decisions in a hurry while trying to watch several parts of your screen simultaneously and having to click fast when stuff happens.

Now I'm an old codgergamer who grew up with turn-based strategy games, and for me that sort of gameplay is unsatisfying. I'm okay with losing because I made a wrong tactical decision, but I hate losing because I didn't click fast enough, or got overrun at some point of the map I wasn't watching at the moment. And I don't like having only very limited tactical choices, made artificially challenging by speeding them up. But that's just me.

MMO sequels

Third and last post on questions from the open Sunday thread. But I'll tackle the question of "How do you create EQ3 with out dividing your player base by 3?" a bit wider, and will talk about MMO sequels in more general terms, so as to cover Blizzard's upcoming next MMO as well.

So you have a company that produced a popular MMO, and you want to reinvest the money into making a new game, again a MMO, because you think that is the core competency of your company. What goals would you typically set yourself?
  • The new game should be even more popular (and make more money) than the old game.
  • While a certain number of players inevitably will quit the old game to play the new one, you don't want to completely cannibalize and destroy the old game, as long as it is still making money.
Unfortunately there are no known cases of MMO sequels that reached these goals. The sequel to Ultima Online was announced and then cancelled *twice*, for fear of destroying the original. Asheron's Call 2 was a complete flop. Everquest 2 probably has the crown of "most successful MMO sequel", but never reached the subscription numbers of the original EQ at its peak. So, what happened, and how could you do better?

The main problem is finding the balance between keeping the old and creating the new. For reasons of brand awareness as well as making the new game cheaper to produce, there is an obvious attraction of making the new game a "improved" version of the old game, using the same name, related lore, and making a world which is similar to the old one, moved a millenium into the future or the past, or struck by some cataclysm. And of course the people you have available to work on the new game are those that already worked on the old game, and are likely to retain similar game design ideas. It should be obvious that this approach can't fulfil our two goals. If the new game is just a new and improved version of the old game, it will either succeed and completely kill the old game, or it will be not quite as successful, and only split the player base. Very few people play several subscription MMOs in parallel, so if your new game is mainly attracting players of the old game, you can't possibly win.

So as strange as it might sound, your best bet is a new game which the core player base of your old game positively hates. The perfect sequel for Everquest is Free Realms, not EQ2 or EQ3. In that case the new game is more accessible to a wider audience, targets a different core player base, and has lots of unique selling points which are completely different from those of the old game. Free Realms will undoubtedly peak at a much larger number of players than Everquest, and it won't cannibalize EQ1 or EQ2. Goals fulfilled, bingo!

Of course things are never black and white, and there is a wide field between making a pure sequel and making a completely different new game. I do believe that Blizzard's new MMO will be somewhere in the middle. They recently confirmed again that yes, it will certainly be a completely new IP, not WoW2 or World of Starcraft or World of Diablo. But many of the people making the new game will be from the WoW team, including Jeff "Tigole" Kaplan. The talk on "directed gameplay" he gave at the GDC09 makes it obvious that Blizzard still strongly believes in a game design in which players are steered in the "right" direction by quests and incentives. There is some hope that the new game will be a different genre than fantasy, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had linear advancement, and the game guiding you through the content by various means, instead of giving you complete freedom.

MMOs on my radar

Second post of answering questions from the last open Sunday thread, this one about "What releases are you looking forward to?".

I think I'm looking forward to most to Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Star Trek Online. But then neither of these is coming out any time soon. There aren't even official release dates, but I don't expect either before 2011. I do look forward to Diablo 3, but I don't consider it to be a MMO, and I guess it's only coming out 2011 as well.

Thus games like Jumpgate Evolution or Champions Online, which are supposedly to be released this year, are a lot closer on my radar, even if they are what I would call second tier games.

And then there is a list of games that have already come out, and which I haven't had the time to play yet. On that list are Runes of Magic, and Atlantica Online, for example. And I'm open to suggestions about games I should try out, especially if trying them out is free.

This blog and WoW

Sorry for being a bit late this week answering the questions from the open Sunday thread. So I'll dedicate this day to just posts giving the various answers.

First point: Will the popularity of this blog suffer if I don't play WoW any more?

First of all, me not playing World of Warcraft doesn't mean I'll never post about WoW again. WoW is the dominating MMO in the western market, and there simply is no way to discuss MMOs and pretend WoW didn't exist. Every new MMO will be compared to WoW, various MMO news will be about WoW, and World of Warcraft being practically known by everyone makes a great starting point for discussion of game design theory.

The second fallacy is to automatically assume that I would want to maximize the number of readers of this blog. I don't. Quality is more important than quantity, because I do appreciate feedback and intelligent discussion, but have banner ads etc. up which would convert visitor numbers into cash.

Having said that, of course I do know that a WoW blog can get higher visitor numbers than a general MMO / gaming blog. Which is mostly due to the way Google, and other search engines, work. I could write the most brilliant post on MMO game design, and people wouldn't find it, because they are unlikely to search for the keywords I'm using. But if you write a WoW Warrior Guide, that is a keyphrase that a lot of WoW players are likely to search for, and thus end up visiting your blog. The more specific your subject is, the better is the chance to be found via Google. But if you tried to make Google give you a list of every general MMORPG blog, you'd be out of luck, because they might not all use the term MMORPG or MMO, and instead you'd find a lot of sites that aren't really blogs or are just fake blogs that just want to sell you gold and copy content from other sites to get Google hits.

I don't care. I created this blog to have a place to express and discuss my ideas, not to make money or to achieve some "highscore" of visitor numbers. If my interest in WoW temporarily wanes, that means I'm not only less interested in playing it, but also less interested in talking about it. I won't create WoW posts just for the purpose of attracting visitors. I will create posts mentioning WoW when appropriate as a point of reference for whatever I do want to discuss. There is no WoW boycott going on here, not like for "Game-That-Must-Not-Be-Named".

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blogging about your life

As I was recently cited by SUWT as a bastion of privacy on the internet, I think I should link to this perfect example of one of the risks of blogging about your life: Ixobelle blogs about some recent changes he made in his life, gets an anonymous comment on why his choices are bad and how he should do better, and promptly explodes with understandable anger about people telling him how to live his life.

The demographic of MMO players, and MMO blog readers, has a high concentration of young adults. By nature this is a time in life where consciously or not you make a lot of choices which have a huge impact on the rest of your life. These choices are often complicated, and depend on many factors, so describing your complete life situation on half a page of a blog entry is nearly impossible. So even if you want to blog about your life, the picture other people get from your life is necessarily incomplete and fragmented. And then you get some anonymous troll making a snarky comment. Great!

I do sometimes mention some of the life choices I made. For example that my wife and me are dinks (dual income, no kids), which explains where I find the time to play so many games, and the money to pay for them. But I certainly don't want to preach the advantages of more disposable time and income versus the advantages of parenthood. There are many different and totally valid life choices you can make. Games were not the reason why I made my choices, and I'm not going to discuss all the details of how I arrived at my choices and my current situation with a bunch of strangers, some of them hostile. I already get enough flak from people who think that having children is the only way to live. And then I'm still lucky that many of the choices I made in life were rather conventional (9 to 5 job, opposite sex marriage). You imagine what a blogger with more unconventional life choices would have to endure for comments if he blogged about his life!

So in spite of some people expressing a desire to get to know the person behind the blog better, I think it is preferable to not blog about your life. Unless of course you *want* to discuss the details of your choices with a bunch of strangers. But this is the internet, a place where you can get death threats for a bad game review. Do you really think this is a good place to discuss your private life?

Playing for incentives

Green Armadillo of Player vs. Developer has a great post up on Blizzard trying to discourage players from playing Wintergrasp by removing incentives, turning the daily quests into weekly quests. Simply put, there were too many incentives to do Wintergrasp, so too many players played there, causing a lot of server problems. Reducing the incentives will reduce the number of players, and balance the load on various zones better.

Thinking about that I couldn't help but notice how different a game like Free Realms is regarding incentives. So different that I sometimes get reader's comments about FR here which completely miss the point, trying to apply the WoW incentive-based game philosophy to Free Realms, which simply doesn't work. For example I don't particularly care for the Free Realms two kart racing games. But in Free Realms my level in kart racing, and any quest rewards I might acquire doing kart racing, only affect the kart racing game itself and are completely irrelevant to my progress as blacksmith / miner, or chef, or brawler, or any other job. Thus whether SOE increases or decreases the incentives of the kart racing game has zero influence on me playing the kart racing game, because in any case the rewards would only help me to race karts better, which isn't that much fun to me.

In World of Warcraft the various possible activities are much more connected. You don't need to be a big fan of PvP to want to play Wintergrasp. Some people just do it because of the incentives, because the rewards are good, and doing Wintergrasp every day will help you get gear you'll want for arenas or raids. Thus Blizzard's plan will work, because by removing the incentives you remove a lot of players who are only there for the rewards, while those who play Wintergrasp because they happen to like it will stay.

Is it just me, or is there something inherently wrong about a game design in which you end up pursueing a game activity you don't like very much only because of the incentives, the rewards that will enable you to access the part of the game you really want to play?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Free Realms - Finished mining / blacksmithing

After having received friendly advice from a reader who told me that you don't actually have to enter the haunted mines to find the hilt of the Summersaber for the level 20 blacksmithing quest series, I finished those quests last night. That involved getting mining up to level 20 as well, as you needed gems from gold mines which are only accessible at level 20. While the whole quest series was fun enough, the final reward was a huge disappointment: The legendary Summersaber turns out to be a "white name" level 5 ninja weapon with worse stats than the "green name" level 5 ninja sword I already had the recipe for.

It appears as if the quest series is planned to be a requirement for further blacksmithing content. But right now the NPC you are getting send to at the end basically tells you that this content isn't implemented yet, and you should wait for some content patch.

So after having reached the level cap in mining and blacksmithing, and finished all the quests, I have a pretty good idea about how useful mining / blacksmithing is. As you need different weapons for every job, being able to smith your own weapons is useful enough, but only if you don't want to spend $5 per job for a level 1 weapon which is better than the best level 20 weapon you can smith. Beyond making weapons, mining / blacksmithing is a great combination to get gold and treasure tickets. The supplies you need to buy and add to smelt the ore into bars, and smith the bars into weapons, cost less than the sell price of the weapons you make. The ore and gems you get for free from the mining game. Thus if you mine, smelt, and smith all day, and sell the weapons you made to a vendor, you'll end up with a lot of gold.

And even me, who isn't the world's fastest button masher or greatest puzzle game player, I can manage a lot of goals and secondary goals in the various mini games of this process, getting rewarded with treasure tickets every time. The treasure tickets are used in a cave under the bridge leading to the main city, Sanctuary, to exchange for random treasures. There is a royal vault for non-members, and a royal deluxe vault for members, and each contains three chests. The first gives a random level 1 to 4 item for 10 treasure tickets, the second a random level 5 to 14 item for 20 treasure tickets, and the last a random level 15 to 20 item for 30 treasure tickets. The chests respawn quickly, so you can take the same chest repeatedly. I usually go for the middle chest, because in the mid-levels gears is most useful to help you to advance. Of course the rewards being random means you can end up with gear you don't need, but then you can sell it and get gold instead.

Of course you don't need mining / blacksmithing to make gold and treasure tickets, there are other ways in Free Realms to get those. The average quest gives you 31 gold and 5 tickets. But I'd say that with smithing you get gold and tickets faster, and it's repeatable, you don't have to run around looking for quests you didn't do yet. Ultimately it depends on how much you like or dislike the mini-games of the various mining and smithing activities.