Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Preventing asymmetric trade

For years I have been accusing all major MMORPG companies of hypocrisy: The all lament the practice of gold selling, but are not using the means at their disposal to actually stop it. Especially Blizzard is famous for using gold farmer bannings as a publicity stunt, doing nothing for months, and then banning them all at once with a big press release [a technique I copied for banning trolls from my blog :)]. But if gold selling becomes actually illegal, governments might come down like a ton of bricks on game companies, and tell them that putting a paragraph in the EULA and banning a few gold farmers twice a year is not sufficient. So lets explore the other options game companies have to stop gold selling.

The principal problem with stopping gold selling is that half of the transaction happens outside of the game, beyond the control of anyone. Not even a government could know whether player A gave player B $50 in cash in a dark alley, in return for player B giving player A 5,000 gold for an epic mount in World of Warcraft. (Sorry if the exchange rate is horribly off, I have no idea of the current price of WoW gold, and no desire to visit a gold selling site to find out). The only thing which is visible, and easily controlled is the transfer of gold in game. The reason why game companies do nothing about gold selling is that they want to allow player B giving player A 5,000 gold for free, for example if the two players are friends or relatives. They just don't want to allow player A giving $50 to player B. Thus the illegal half of the transaction is the one that is invisible. That policy can't possibly work.

Thus if the game companies were pushed to actually get serious about stopping gold selling, what they would have to do is to prevent asymmetric trades. That includes not only player B opening a trade window to player A and giving him 5,000 gold, but also player B sending the gold by mail, or player B "buying" one piece of copper ore from player A for 5,000 gold. It also includes removing any other means of transfer of wealth, like shared guild bank accounts.

As I said in the post about the Chinese government banning virtual currency trades, it is certainly feasible to simply remove all these features from a game like World of Warcraft. WoW would be a very different game without mailbox, auction house, trade windows, and guild banks, but it would still be completely playable.

But there are less drastic options than to remove all forms of trade. It would be sufficient to remove only the asymmetric trades between strangers. You could be allowed to exchange goods between alts, and even between different accounts from family members, as long as they are linked to the same credit card or other means of identification. Note that Blizzard is already allowing character transfers between accounts based on such a rule. All your linked accounts could for example have a shared bank, thus enabling you to give e.g. heirloom items to your alts, or exchange trade goods.

Between strangers it would still be possible to allow symmetric trades. Instead of players being able to put up an item for any price they want on an auction house, players could sell that item to an NPC merchant. But unlike with a current WoW vendor the item wouldn't simply disappear, but would be stocked by the NPC merchant, for resale to other players at a slightly higher price. The more of any item the NPC merchant has in stock, the less he will pay for it, but the cheaper he will also sell it. So it would still be possible for some players to farm items and sell them, and other players to buy those goods and craft something from them, reselling the product. But as all the transfers are indirect via an NPC merchant, asymmetric trades are prevented.

Designing a MMORPG with a player-run economy, but no asymmetric trades, and no gold selling, is completely feasible. But I'm afraid that unless there is government intervention, it will not happen. Despite all what they say publicly, game companies obviously aren't all that interested in stopping RMT. Developers are absolute gods over their virtual worlds, and have far more power over their creations than any government has over their citizens. Claims that they hate RMT and are just unable to stop it are simply bogus.

China stops trade in virtual currency

This Monday the Ministry of Commerce of the People's Republic of China announced a prohibition of use of virtual money for trading in real goods. Note the order of the words! Of course this also prohibits the use of real money for trading in virtual currency, because real money is a real good. But the order of the words tells you that this isn't done because China is worried that their gold farmers might ruin World of Warcraft. The intention is a very different one, which they clearly state:
China has unveiled the first official rule on the use of virtual currency in the trade of real goods and services to limit its possible impact on the real financial system.
The intention is to prevent activities like money laundering via a transfer and back into virtual currency. But whatever the intentions are, it remains to be seen how this will actually be formulated into law, and what activities it affects. Will Chinese gold farmers playing on US servers of WoW become extinct, or at least driven underground?

One tricky part is the sales of virtual goods that aren't currency for real money. In the wording of the press release that appears not to be affected. But of course one could launder money not only buy buying virtual gold with it, but also by buying and reselling virtual epics or trade goods. But if you prohibit that, then the microtransaction business model also becomes illegal in China, and it is far more widespread there than in the US or Europe.

Even more interesting is the potential effect of this on future game design. It is possible that the Chinese government will hold game companies responsible to completely stop RMT. That is easier than you might think. You just need to completely eliminate the player economy and all forms of trade. For example in World of Warcraft you would need to eliminate the auction house, mailboxes, and direct trades. Then you'd better remove the current limit of 2 tradeskills, because everybody will need to be able to do everything, when there is no trade possible. You would also have to remove the shared guild banks, but could add shared banks limited to the characters on the same account, so people could still pass trade goods and heirloom items between alts. Of course that would be a rather significant change to World of Warcraft, but it would still be very playable like that. And as the goal here is to prevent harm to the greater financial system, I doubt that the Chinese government is too worried about the effect of that on game balance. We might even see games without player economy here in Europe and the US, if the game company wants to sell the same game everywhere.

Weight Watchers: Slim your Tauren down to a Gnome

In a completely predictable move, after allowing you to change your name, server, sex, and look, Blizzard is now working on a system that lets you change your race in World of Warcraft, including changing a Horde character into an Alliance one and vice versa. Yes, you somewhat overweight Tauren can now do a diet and slim down in bulk and size until he is a Gnome. Details are still being worked out.

Some commenters accuse Blizzard of this being just another RMT option, as you'll have to pay to change. But I don't think the income of that is really going to have a big impact on the billion dollar annual revenue of World of Warcraft. I'd say the main motivation is to keep people playing after they got bored with one side, but don't want to abandon their old character.

And in WoW, unlike other RPGs, that is easier than it looks. Race has very, very little influence on your character, much less so than in other games. In many other systems a large race like the Tauren would be stronger, while a small race like a Gnome would be more agile or intelligent. In Everquest it was completely possible to gimp yourself by making a sub-optimal race / class combination. Not so in WoW. The Tauren warrior transformed into a Gnome warrior will not suddenly become less strong and more agile. The stats will only change minimally, or not at all.

What made this predictable was that it is just another step in the process of diluting character identity. That is a bad thing, because it weakens social cohesion, which isn't strong in WoW in the first place. Next up: The ability to change you character class.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Anno 1404 and sandbox MMOs

My copy of Anno 1404 (Dawn of Discovery) arrived yesterday, and I've also been reading up on that game. The game appears to cause some confusion among some players and reviewers. At first glance there doesn't appear to be a tutorial. The campaign is somewhat short, only about 20 hours, and the difficulty settings for the campaign are limited, ranging from trivial to far too easy. What's going on? The answer is simple: The 20-hour campaign *IS* the tutorial. The actual game of Anno 1404 is the endless sandbox game, where a single game can take over 100 hours. And you can customize the sandbox part with a huge number of parameters, ranging from the completely peaceful to the highly military, and from the very easy to the ultra challenging.

Of course I couldn't help but notice that this is exactly how I would design a sandbox MMO: Have an extensive tutorial explaining really every aspect of the game, before releasing the players into a completely freeform game.

Complex sandbox games, like EVE, often suffer from the tutorial not explaining anything beyond the most basic functions. The EVE tutorial has much improved over the years, but many new players still feel extremely lost at the end of it. And of course there is the Tortage risk as seen in Age of Conan: Players like the guided gameplay of the tutorial more than the freeform gameplay afterwards. But I do think that is an issue of properly managing expectations: Tortage was heavy on story-telling, and light on obvious "tutorialness", so it was easy to confuse it with being the actual game. In Anno 1404 the campaign is more easily recognized as a tutorial, although maybe it should have been named differently. All the main quests are about using new game functions or building new buildings, and you frequently get advice in case things go wrong.

Ultimately the main problem of a sandbox game is how to make it complex enough for players to be occupied forever, but still be able to integrate new players without them feeling lost or unable to catch up. Linear advancement, quest-based games can get away with much simpler gameplay, as long as you provide thousands of "kill 10 foozles" quests that superficially look different from each other. A sandbox game in which there is nothing to do but kill foozles isn't likely to be a big success. An extended tutorial could lead players into the required complexity, by helping them to build something up which they then need to sustain in the freeform sandbox main part of the game.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blood Bowl - First Impressions

About 20 years ago I visited a little shop in London and bought one of the games they produced themselves. The shop was the Games Workshop, and the game was the first edition of Blood Bowl. Blood Bowl is a strategy game in which two teams from the Warhammer universe play a game not unlike American Football, after having discovered an ancient religious text with the Lore of Nuffle (that is an NFL rulebook). At the time the rules were rather complicated, and not all that well balanced. But Blood Bowl is a game that kept on going, and the ruleset is now is the Living Rulebook 5 (LRB5), which contains a lot of input from the player base.

Last week Cyanide Studios released the PC version of Blood Bowl, currently only available as download either directly from that site, or from a few download platforms. It has both a turn-based mode adhering strictly to the LBR5 rules, and an optional real-time mode, which can be paused to give orders. I played it over the weekend, and it is quite fun. And the computer is playing Blood Bowl quite well, for somebody like me who hasn't played for a long time, or a new player, even on easy difficulty the game is still quite challenging. Besides all these strong points in gameplay, Blood Bowl also is pretty. There are several different stadiums, with fans, cheerleaders, and everything. All with a comic style tongue-in-cheek humor.

The only weakness of Blood Bowl is that this isn't really a casual game. There is a campaign mode, in which you start out with a limited amount of gold, buying players, creating a team, and then earning gold and levels by playing in competitions. But leveling up is extremely slow, you're lucky if you have one single player level up from 1 to 2 after one or two games, and thus your team is mostly defined by its race and the types of players that race gives you. If you start for example with the orcs (recommended for beginners), you'll quickly find that every game against a particular other race, lets say skaven or dwarves, plays very similar to the last game against that race. Of course the strong random elements make every game different, but the basic strategies stay the same. So you'll be playing a lot of similar games, giving you plenty of opportunity to refine you strategy, but advancing rather slowly. Of course the positive side of that is that a Blood Bowl campaign offers entertainment for many, many hours. And with a strong community from the board game, there is plenty of sources if you want to read up on strategy.

So if you are interested in a rather different Warhammer fantasy strategy game, check Blood Bowl out.

Achieving happiness in MMORPGs

Happiness, chemically speaking, is the release of certain chemicals in the brain. One of them is dopamine, which is related to rewards. If you get an reward, dopamine is released, and that in turn increases the happiness you feel when you get the next reward. So one way to be constantly happy is to be on a constant dopamine high, fueled by frequently receiving rewards. Which is exactly how MMORPGs work.

Basic MMORPG gameplay consists of setting yourself a goal, and then achieving it, which leads you to the next goal, the next achievement, and so on. As achieving a goal is coupled with a reward, that makes you happy, especially if there isn't too much time between the achievements. Ideally, of course, the gameplay between the rewards should be fun by itself, or at least not frustrating. But very often players are more attracted by the constant stream of rewards than by the gameplay leading to it.

With developers eager to give the players what they want, getting from one reward to the next has constantly become quicker. While in earlier games you still needed to set your own goals, now in most games the goals come pre-packaged as quests, easy to do, and with a reward at the end. And often you don't even have to explore or think any more, as Larisa noticed even World of Warcraft will soon patch in an official "Questhelper", showing you where to go to do your quests. And of course because other players could cause delay and possible failure, soloing went from an emerging gameplay to being the norm.

Thus the standard gameplay of a modern MMORPG consists of you accepting a solo quest, performing a trivial task, and then being rewarded for it. After which the next quest starts, and the cycle repeats over and over. The "ding" of gaining another level adds another dopamine rush. Being constantly rewarded is what makes playing MMORPGs so addictive, although the drugs involved are produced by our body itself, and not some controlled substances. Still, taking that drug away can have consequences.

Dopamine's function in the brain is related to learning, and acquiring new behavior. We learn through carrots and sticks, and dopamine is the brain's carrot. Thus getting constantly rewarded in a MMORPG also changes our behavior, especially our expectations towards rewards. There is a certain danger involved in that. Not only that sooner or later the effect of receiving the same type of reward over and over dulls, and we get bored with MMORPGs; but also in that life is not a MMORPG, and is usually handing out rewards a lot less frequently, so there is a mismatch between our expectations and reality. MMORPGs teach us the wrong things about life, that success is easy to achieve, and anything you do gets rewarded.

But because it makes us happy, the MMORPG game design with ever increasing rewards in shorter and shorter intervals is going to remain with us for some time more. Until one day we collectively get bored of the virtual rewards, and they stop making us happy any more. Then maybe one day MMORPG design goes back to include other things that can make us happy: Social contacts, interesting gameplay, having to think to overcome challenges. I still have hope that one day we'll wake up and realize how dull a gameplay of constantly getting rewards for nothing much is.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Hard week, so I'm glad it's Sunday and I get to take one day off from blogging. As always, I'm leaving this thread for you to discuss whatever subject you want.

Friday, June 26, 2009


There was a news story recently where a student inserted a fake quote in a Wikipedia entry of Maurice Jarre right after his dead, and watched newspapers all over the world copy that fault. In the MMO blogosphere the biggest story on journalistic accuracy this year was the Ed Zitron review of Darkfall, which contained several factual errors, and gave the game a 2/10 rating after the reviewer only played the game for a few hours.

This week I made two factual errors on my blog. I quoted a story by Spinks, where she said Aion did not have auction houses, which happened to not be true. And I said Mortal Online was eBaying 999 limited editions, because it looked like that on the eBay page, and I hadn't read the Mortal Online newsletter saying only the first copy was auctioned off. Both of these mistakes have been fixed by A) admitting the mistake, and B) correcting it in the post.

Which, as you will find, is exactly what newspapers do with mistakes, only they don't have the luxury of being able to edit the already printed copy. So why is syncaine making a blog entry (which ironically contains several untruths) calling me an asshole for my misrepresentation? Why did some commenters try to derail those threads, attacking me for "misrepresentation", up to the point where I had to delete several comments to get the discussion back on track? Why did Ed Zitron get death threats and a "war declaration" on YouTube?

"Misrepresentation" and "journalistic standards" are the latest weapons of discreditation in the arsenal of those trying to oppress the opinions of others. In fact my blog is probably full of mistakes, starting from spelling errors to factual mistakes, because I never double-check my stories. But you will note that it is only ever the hardcore fans of certain games who complain about misrepresentation. My real crime is not that I wrote things without double-checking, my crime is that I have a negative opinion of Aion, Darkfall, and Mortal Online. Aion actually not so much, I'm just not enthusiastic about it. But I definitely think that both Darkfall and Mortal Online are worthless pieces of garbage designed for jerks who like to gank other players. That is a strong opinion, and a completely biased and subjective one. But it is that opinion syncaine calls me an asshole for, not my "journalistic standards". As I said, his post saying that also contains several untruths, but he is just making his defense of a bad game look pure like snowflakes by dragging journalistic standards and charitable donations into it.

My journalistic standards have not changed in 6 years of blogging, and they won't change anytime soon. I do not double-check news. If the source I am using is wrong or incomplete, I am likely to report the story wrong or incomplete. Yes, I could have done better if only I had found that developers post buried on page 7 of a long thread in a sub-forum of that game I don't play, but frankly, I can't be bothered looking for that. Because "truth" is not a goal of any blog, opinion is. If I make a mistake, and it is pointed out to me, I will correct that mistake, and always have done so. If, which is far more likely, my offense is having a different opinion from you, you're out of luck, and I won't "correct" that. I would have had no problems whatsoever with Ed Zitron's review if it had been a blog post, because it totally confirms to general blog journalistic standards.

And as other writers can maybe express themselves better than me, I'd like to close this post with a quote provided to me by a reader in a comment from the site disclaimer of blogger and SciFi writer John Scalzi:
Everything on the site is my opinion (except comments written by others, which are their opinions). I have strong opinions. At times, you may not agree with these opinions, or how I choose to express them. This is not my problem.

I make no claims as toward being even-handed, fair, or nice. I write what I want here. Your being offended is not a reason for me to stop writing as I choose.

I run this site as I please. You do not get a vote. If you try to suggest that you do, I may be rude to you.

A hypothetical vote for change

Imagine you took 10 random MMORPG players, and asked them to participate in a series of votes. In the first vote the players would be asked whether MMORPGs are already perfect, having the best possible design, or whether they could be improved by some changes. The most likely outcome of that vote is all 10 players voting for change, because everybody has some idea how to improve MMOs.

So now you ask everyone separately to put to paper their specific proposition on how to improve MMORPGs. And then you run a second series of votes, where every player gets to vote yes or no on all of the 10 proposals. And, surprise, surprise, you'd find that every single proposal would be voted down, most commonly 9:1 or 8:2 against.

While that vote is hypothetical, the result can be predicted from existing and easily observed reactions: Just take any blog, including mine, or any forum thread, where the original poster proposes some change, and you'll always find the naysayers outnumbering those who agree. The only posts and threads where people can agree, are those who are either just complaining without offering a solution, or those who are just offering a nice-sounding catch phrase as improvement. That not only is depressing for those bloggers and forum posters who took some effort to propose something, but it also has a range of other negative consequences: Game designers reads those blogs and forums, and decide to stick with what is already there, because obviously MMORPG players are against change. And forums quickly descend into being dominated by negativity, because any constructive criticism is booed down.

For new games this also feeds the hype to disappointment cycle. People asked me what I thought about the chances of SWTOR to succeed, and my opinions on the planned improvements that game promises. But that is a typical case where right now we only have a few catch phrases, like "storytelling as the 4th pillar", to which most people can still agree. And when the game arrives, and we'll see the details, people will start turning against it. SWTOR might be a very successful game, but probably has better chances with a new generation of players who never played an MMO before than with the jaded veterans of WoW or earlier games. Just do the same hypothetical vote test again: 10 out of 10 players will vote for "improved storytelling", but every specific proposal, e.g. using cutscenes including your character to tell the story of every quest, will be voted down for various reasons, like "too long", by the majority. MMORPG players are extremely conservative and impossible to please.

How much money can you get out of a hardcore player?

You remember this weeks news of Aventurine asking US players to pay a second time for Darkfall? Amateurs, just amateurs, I'm telling you. The competition is far, far ahead of them. Mortal Online is auctioning the first of 999 copies of their limited edition on EBay, and the current bid is at $2,550. But no worry, the offer includes a lifetime subscription, so after just 15 years you'll have recovered your investment.

Okay, so they promise to donate the proceeds to Doctors without Borders. But nevertheless it is astounding how much money you can get out of a hardcore player. If they wanted, they could sell all 999 copies around this level, and they'd already have over $2 million before the beta even starts on July 6!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Recycling as endgame

If you take half a dozen MMORPGs at random and look at their gameplay, you'll probably find that most of them share an almost identical gameplay from level 1 to whatever the level cap is. Sure, there are variations, but basically the majority of MMORPGs have you doing quests and killing monsters for experience points, levels, gear, and improved stats, one way or another. But once you reach the level cap, the differences begin to become larger. Some games have not much of an endgame at all, other have mainly a raiding endgame, some have a PvP endgame, and there are a few games where the endgame is more political, with player-run cities for example. Not only is there a huge variation in different types of endgames, but generally all of them have important problems, and are usually the source of the bulk of player's complaints about games.

To some extent an endgame is always a crutch. In any other game you'd stop playing after reaching the end, get a game over screen, rolling credits, and maybe a computer singing to you. In a MMORPG the game company doesn't want you to stop playing, because you still give them money as long as you play, so they offer you an endgame instead of a game over screen. But is that the only way?

Take for example World of Warcraft. The raiding endgame in World of Warcraft has two major problems: It is a very different game from the leveling game, with very different requirements, thus difficult to balance between those who only play WoW for that higher challenge, and those who don't like the jump in difficulty at the end. And every expansion makes the previous endgame obsolete, including making all the rewards worthless. World of Warcraft adds 10 more levels in every expansion, so the game gets longer and longer. The leveling game suffers from that, because there are often not enough players at a given level and location to do anything actually "multiplayer". And Blizzard is forced to devalue the leveling game as well, speeding it up with every expansions, so the total time from level 1 to the level cap doesn't go up.

Now what if we removed the endgame from a leveling game like World of Warcraft, and replaced it by an incentive to start over? For example the first time you play WoW there could be only a handful of basic classes: Warrior, Priest, Mage, Rogue. Once you reach the level cap, the hybrid classes unlock, but you have to restart playing from level 1. Once you reach the level cap a second time, either with another basic class or a hybrid, hero classes like the Death Knight open up, and so on. The classes that can be unlocked wouldn't be more powerful as the basic classes, but they would be more complex to play, thus adding more challenge to keep people entertained.

As a consequence of a gameplay like that, expansions would not be vertical, adding more levels, but horizontal, adding new classes to unlock, new zones to play through from level 1 to 60. The world would grow with every expansion, but the new content would add to the old content, not make it obsolete. There would be less of a rush to reach the endgame, because there is none, and more players available to play together at every level. Of course such a game design would be controversial, MMO players are an extremely conservative bunch. But if you think of the long term, it is easy to see how a game with horizontal expansions and continuous recycling is more stable than lets say WoW with a level cap of 150.

Anno 1404

So after playing the demo, I decided to buy Anno 1404 (US name is Dawn of Discovery). Steam was selling it, but the price of 50 Euro appeared rather high to me. I looked around just a tiny bit, and found the game on Amazon.co.uk for £23, which is 27 Euro at today's exchange rate. Even with shipping that was far cheaper than Steam. But of course I'll have to wait a couple of days before the game arrives by mail now.

But I'll gladly wait, not just for getting the game at half price. Anno 1404 is also the type of game which my wife might enjoy playing. And if I buy it on Steam, not only can it not be played simultaneously on two computers, but when my wife would play Anno 1404 I could not play *any* other game I bought from Steam on another computer. At least the last time I tried to play two different Steam games on two computers, logging into Steam on the second computer kicked me out of Steam on the first. That seems a bit too restrictive to me. I certainly don't mind copy protection and following license agreements. But no license agreement says that I shouldn't be able to play two different games on two computers simultaneously.

Well, Amazon thinks I'll have the game by Monday. I'll just wait. And wonder whether digital distribution would really take off if the games online weren't so expensive and came with so many restrictions.

Darkfall boycott ended

It turns out I can't keep up my attempt to completely boycott mentioning Darkfall. My readers keep bringing up the game in comments, and the stories around the game are just too outrageously funny to be completely ignored. So my Darkfall boycott is officially over, but I'll step in if the game's fans are misbehaving.

In their latest move Aventurine does something of which I can completely understand the business logic, but which is bound to royally tick off the hardcore players which are the core audience of Darkfall: If you want to play on the new Darkfall US servers on release, you will have to buy the game again, even if you already paid for the European version. You *do* have an option to not pay, reuse your Euro client, and transfer your character to the US servers, but only at some point at least 3 months after release.

I find it highly entertaining to watch how extremely anti-hardcore Aventurine's business practices are. First they punished early adopters by forcing them to camp the website to buy the Euro version of the game, now they'll make them jump through hoops again for the priviledge of being early on the US servers. There is a sublime logic behind it, and a refreshing honesty: Being the first on a server has obvious advantages in a competitive persistent online game. So why not make people pay for that advantage?

Darkfall is like a very exclusive club with restricted access. That is contrary to the policy of every other MMO, all of which try to get the maximum number of subscribers. But by separating those who really, really want to play from what syncaine would call the tourists, Aventurine avoids the fate of AoC and WAR, dropping off a cliff after high initial box sales. That saves them money on server hardware etc., and thus has some justification as a strategy. So kudos to Aventurine for doing their own thing in managing their subscriber numbers.

The downside is that some US Darkfall fans will be less than happy about this. There will be yet another Hitler movie with Darkfall subtitles on YouTube, and the whole gammut of outrage and overreaction on various forums. Might be quite amusing to watch. Anyone got popcorn?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Misunderstandings and a warning

Advance warning: I'm going to get extremely impolite in this post and use swear words.

I made a mistake with my last Aion post. I wasn't allowed in the beta, so my only source of information is what other sources write about the game. One of those sources wrote something wrong, and I quoted that source. I appreciate the input of those who pointed out the mistake. I fixed the mistake. End of story.

But this is just a blog. It's free for you to read, and I don't even make money with advertising. Getting all sanctimoneous about my standards of journalistic integrity is just plain silly. I'm writing a bunch of assorted opinions about games here, not the Washington Post.

But comments have been getting worse recently, mostly from people who either irrationally hate or love a particular game. One idiot posted three comments in a row full of insults, calling my writing bullshit, for the simple reason that I said I liked WoW's version of keep battles. One guy falsely accused me of being on an anti-Aion crusade, quoting my post about uninspired WoW clones as evidence. Only that post didn't even mention Aion, and was in fact about a completely different game.

All this is the equivalent of me coming to your house and starting to tell you what a loser you are, criticizing your decor, and pissing in the corner of your living room. Which would probably make you very angry. So you'll understand that right now I'm very angry, and I'm telling those whose comments contain personal attacks on me and my blog:

Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on!

If I came to your house to insult you, you'd probably chuck me out. And I'd like to remind you of my Terms of Service where it clearly states that this is exactly what I'm going to do. I'll run an extremely tight ship in the coming weeks, deleting every post with personal insults. Feel free to disagree with my opinions, and point out my mistakes, but don't call my blog bullshit, or you will be banned. This blog is dedicated to the polite and intelligent discussion of games, and if you can't live up to those minimum standards, you're invited to leave.

Mythic merges with Bioware - Mark Jacob leaving

So the big news is that EA merges their two RPG / MMO subsidiaries Mythic and Bioware. That probably makes business sense, because there are obvious synergies in having all MMOs under the same roof. But of course if you merge two companies, you have one General Manager too much. So Mark Jacobs left EA.

I've read one nasty bunch of comments from people that were previously fired by Mark, and other comments wishing him well for the future. But most comments expressed surprise at him leaving Mythic. Well, I'm not surprised at all.

To me it appears obvious that when EA bought Mythic three years ago, Mark had to give them certain promises about the expected performance of Warhammer Online. We don't know what exactly he promised, but he did publicly announce his criteria for failure: Less than 500,000 subscribers and servers having to merge. Earlier this year EA announced that WAR had 300,000 subscribers, and there were server mergers. Now I'm not saying that Mark is personally responsible for the failure (as defined by his own criteria). But he was the boss. The buck stops here.

I don't know if Mark was pushed or fell on his sword voluntarily. But I do give him credit for this being a lot cleaner than when Vanguard failed and merged with SOE, and all employees were fired on the parking lot. Of course Warhammer Online didn't fail that hard, and is probably even making money. But not as much money as EA required and expected. Being held responsible was part of Mark's job description. Must be hard on him now, but if even Brad McQuaid can stage a comeback, I'm certain that Mark Jacobs will find another good job in the industry.

Aion knocked out

In a strange coincidence, shortly after me posting about knockout criteria, Spinks is posting Aion impressions and mentions one feature I hate with a passion: "There’s no auction house, instead players can populate their own private vendor and set it out for other players to look at. This means that in any populated area, you’ll have to push your way past hordes of players in vendor mode. And if you want to buy, you’ll need to browse all the vendors individually."
[EDIT: Turns out Spinks was mistaken, there is an auction house as well. I'll edit this post, but don't remove it, because the point that I dislike games with only personal shops remains valid.]

I already abandoned several other games with that feature, only because I reached the point in the game where buying and selling stuff became important, and found that I just can't stand visiting a hundred small personal shops to find the one item I need. This feature single-handedly removes Aion from my "games I must play" list. Because in the worst case I'll be forced to search hundreds of small vendors; and in the best case the only reason why I don't have to search the vendors is that there isn't much of a player-run economy. I'm all for player-run shops, but only if you can search them from a centralized data base, or they work in addition to a centralized auction house.

Having to go into vendor mode to sell things not only makes it hard for the buyer to find things. It also means that you can't sell while adventuring. And presumably you need to stay online, afk, while in vendor mode, at least that is the case in most of these Asian games I've seen with that feature. That usually ends up with me setting a vendor up, going to bed, and coming back next morning only to find I got disconnected for some reason during the night and didn't sell anything. For a player shop to work well, and not use unnecessary bandwith, it has to work offline or when the player is doing something else, for example by operating out of player housing. Now there is one thing that Star Wars Galaxies did well, or even Ultimate Online! I won't suffer a worse system a decade later.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clone wars

In the previous post I spoke about games getting a bad review because they had a feature the reviewer particularly disliked, or were missing one he considered must-have. In this post I'll talk about games which are more or less having identical sets of features. The clones. The clone wars title is not just a Star Wars reference, but is also because I think that the clones are killing each other.

Why do we have clones? Lets zoom out a bit, and have a look at the development of a product, any product. There are two major starting points for any development of a new product: Either market pull, or technology / design push. Market pull is when somebody notices a demand of the market, and develops a product to supply this demand. Technology / design push is when somebody has a bright idea for something new, and develops it without the market asking for it, hoping that demand will form once the product is on the market. Clones are typical market pull games. Somebody notices that for example World of Warcraft is making a lot of money, and wants a piece of the pie. He puts up some money, hires some developers, and tells them to make a game for the same market that WoW occupies.

The best case scenario for that results in a game like Runes of Magic. It is obviously a WoW clone in many aspects. But the devs realized that to compete with WoW they needed some unique selling points, so they added things like housing and dual classes. And the business managers of Runes of Magic realized that because they couldn't afford to make RoM as big and polished as WoW, there was no way to get people to pay the same as they did for WoW, and went for a Free2Play microtransaction business model instead. Runes of Magic is doing pretty well.

A more typical bad scenario is the devs having no idea what exactly makes WoW work and where one could sensibly add to it or modify it, and just producing a copy as good as they can. Basic gameplay identical to World of Warcraft, but with the budget being much lower the game is smaller, less polished, and with more flaws and bugs than WoW or Runes of Magic. Add some business people who believe that people will pay $15 a month for anything, and going for a monthly subscription business model, and you have a recipe for disaster.

And I think it isn't World of Warcraft that kills the WoW clones, it is Runes of Magic. A game like Runes of Magic can survive from the people who got bored with WoW, or who don't like to pay a monthly subscription. But those people will have a choice among several different WoW-like games. So the clone which is somewhat better done, offers a few new features, and is cheaper, is going to beat the less good clone that asks full price for nothing really innovative.

This year I already played several betas of games where I do think that they will be an utter failure. A game which slavishly tries to copy all aspects of WoW, mixes a few unoriginal and not really compatible features from other games in, and hopes you'll pay a monthly fee for that. Another game which plays more like Tabula Rasa, just working less well, being less fun, and having less good graphics. Even if the scenario is post-apocalyptic and not aliens, seeing how badly Tabula Rasa did, I don't think this one will make it.

And if I can see a game will flop after an hour in the beta, I wonder why the people who make it can't. Are they too close to their own creations that they can't see that another game is doing exactly the same but much better? Or are the devs simply lying to the investors, knowing very well the game will not live long past release, but unwilling to give up the monthly paycheck? Why are there so many bad games released, and I don't mean games that just don't appeal to some gamers, but simply bad clones with lousy workmanship and no innovation?

Knockout criteria

I was playing the demo of Dawn of Discovery, aka Anno 1404, and then started reading some reviews. One review basically said "this is the best city building / economic simulation game we've seen in a while, but because it doesn't have violence and big explosions we downrank its rating to 7 out of 10". Which serves to show why using a numerical rating system is bad in the first place, if you end up using it to compare games of different genres. But it also shows that we all have certain "knockout criteria", where if a game has certain features, or doesn't have certain other features, we automatically downgrade it.

I'm certainly not immune from that, although I don't give numerical review scores, and always make it clear what exactly I didn't like in a game. If a game has for example non-consentual PvP, I automatically like it a lot less than if the same game had a PvP flag you could manually set. I also dismiss games that can't be played with the reflexes of a gamer in his mid-40s; note that most twitchy single-player games can still be played by us old foggies by using normal or easy settings, while that option obviously is missing in multiplayer games like team shooters.

The smaller the game, the more likely it is that the developers had to save money somewhere, and that in consequence the game is missing features that are "must have" for some. If you absolutely require 3D graphics, half of the Free2Play MMOs are already eliminated. If you can't stand any microtransactions, all of them are out. Me, I do have knockout criteria for Free2Play games that include that the game must have some sort of auction house, and not just personal shops, which are horrible if you are searching for something. On microtransactions I'm more flexible, but I do stop playing games where things bought with money make a major part of the game obsolete, instead of just speeding things up or adding convenience.

Of course the result of dismissing games due to some personal knockout criteria is usually somebody shouting "not fair!". To which I'd say that it is only not fair if it leads to some bad review score. The statement "I didn't like this game because of this feature, or because that feature was missing" isn't unfair, because everybody can judge for himself whether he thinks that criterion to be so important. If somebody tells me "great game, but lousy graphics", I might still be willing to try it, as I don't think graphics to be *that* important.

Nevertheless you have been warned about my criteria, so don't be surprised if I'm somewhat dismissive of your favorite game, because of one feature which is a red flag for me. Usually I at least test the game anyway, and only completely count it out when it has other flaws. For example while unlimited PvP is certainly a major reason for me not to play EVE, I also didn't like the extremely boring mining, and endless voyages where if you weren't ganked nothing happened. EVE also goes beyond my personal RMT threshold, with "I can make all that mining and flying around obsolete by buying ISK via a PLEX". But then, unlike others, I have no problem with EVE playing like a spreadsheet, and I would wish more games would have EVE auction house's buy order feature.

On the other side of the coin I am fully aware that the game I'm currently playing and like, Luminary, is full of features that are knockout criteria for quite a lot of people: 2D graphics, a requirement to participate in the economic game to be really successful, resource gathering / quests that require you to kill hundreds of mobs, and limited microtransactions. I'm not telling you that this aren't valid knockout criteria, they just aren't for me. You don't have to like Luminary, I can totally understand if for some reason you don't like this or any other game, especially if it is a niche game. Just don't tell me that I can't write about the game I like and have to write about your favorite game instead, because it is "better" or "bigger" or something. Especially don't criticize me for lack of coverage of your favorite not-yet-released game, I only cover major news on those, or when I played them in a beta and am not bound by an NDA. I leave the major pre-release hype, followed by the discovery of personal knockout criteria a month after release, to people like Syp and Keen. It is very difficult to say if a game doesn't have any knockout criteria for you hidden somewhere unless you actually played it.

We can argue until our faces are red about how valid any given knockout criterion is. Why do I accept microtransactions that speed up the game, but not those that skip it completely? Why do I insist on PvP having to be consentual? I have my reasons, and I could write long explanations (and often already did), but in the end there will always be people who disagree, because their personal criteria are different. Which brings us back to the statement that descriptive reviews are better than review scores, because if you have a list of pros and contras as a review, you can always weigh them with your personal preferences in mind. A score tells you much less, and might simply be the result of the reviewer preferring very different games than you, in which case the score is totally useless to you.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wintergrasp becomes a battleground

The changes announced for World of Warcraft with patch 3.2 continue to dominate MMO news. I'm not covering the various "Waaaaaah! Blizzard nerfed my class by making some spell 3.275% less effective" subjects, but I do report on what could be major changes to gameplay. And one of those is certainly that Blizzard caved in and gave up on their only successful venture into open world PvP content, and will now turn Wintergrasp into a 100 vs. 100 battleground. For the simple reason that Wintergrasp is too popular. Ironic, isn't it?

I like Wintergrasp, and for somebody not generally into PvP that is saying a lot. In particular I remember the first time I played it how much more fun Wintergrasp is than the WAR keep battles. In WAR only the gates of the keep can be broken, and siege engines are stationary and can only be set up at predefined locations. In Wintergrasp the keep walls are destructible, and siege engines move. Add daily quests, decent rewards, and opening a small raid dungeon for the winning side, and you have a recipe for massive success. Unfortunately it turns out that a massively multiplayer online game can't handle massive.

If 2 players meet, each of them needs to receive a data packet about the other player, for a total of 2 data packets. When 3 players meet, each of them needs a data packet of the 2 others, for a total of 6. When 200 players meet, each of them needs to see the 199 other, for a total of 39,800 data packets. In short, the amount of data rises proportionally to the square of the number of players on the same spot. Anything that makes several hundred players turn up at the same spot, be it a huge open world PvP battle or a PvE world event, causes at least massive lag, if not the server to crash. I'd say that things could be improved by making the data packets much smaller, for example by not sending all the details of everyone's equipment, but it appears that there are hard limits in any case with current technology.

So with patch 3.2, people can either be in Wintergrasp or queue up with a battlemaster, but at the start of the battle a maximum of 100 players for each side will be randomly determined, and the rest will be ejected from Wintergrasp. That won't change much for the battles at odd times, which weren't that full. But people who only play during prime time, and on the more populated side (usually Alliance), might not be able to get into Wintergrasp every evening any more. Effectively Wintergrasp becomes a battleground, only that it isn't instanced, there is only one copy of it. Makes you wonder if Blizzard will make multiple copies when they get lots of complaints from people being locked out.

I recently mentioned the Battle of Agincourt in a parody on PvP battles. That wasn't even a particularly large battle, but it would already be far too big to recreate online. Fact is that for the foreseeable future we will not see massively multiplayer online battles with thousands of participants. If a game promises you that war is everywhere, be aware that this is only in the form of small skirmishes. Massive clashes of big fantasy armies are currently technically impossible.

Classic raiding? I don't think so

Several commenters here and on other sites, including a Blizzard community manager, mentioned the possibility to use the "turn XP off" switch at level 60 and have a guild doing "classic raids". Sounds like a great idea at first, but I'm afraid that is going to turn out to be an illusion. It's not that easy to turn back time!

One important aspect is that a level 60 today is very different from a level 60 three years ago. There have been numerous patches, two expansions, and quite a lot of class changes since then. Most of them making characters more powerful. Spells and talents have been upgraded, and glyphs have been added. If you tried playing a Death Knight you probably considered him overpowered at level 60, compared with your memory of being level 60 in 2006. But I do think that if you leveled another character to 60 now, not only would it go a lot faster, but you'd also find him to be similarly powerful at that level. And if not, you could always take a Death Knight to Molten Core.

And if that wasn't enough, of course a level 60 character nowadays has access to gear from the early parts of The Burning Crusade. That not only makes them more powerful, it also removes much of the motivation of going to a raid in the first place.

And motivation is what is finally going to kill the idea of classic raids. Where do you find 40 people who want to raid Molten Core several times per week for several months just to "progress" to BWL? At the time we didn't have much of a choice, there was nothing better to do. But many who did it felt somehow cheated when The Burning Crusade made all that "progress" obsolete. And nowadays, knowing how hollow the achievements of killing Ragnaros and getting those epics from him is, I doubt people will really go through all the trouble of leveling a character to 60 just for classic raiding. A few might try, but I don't think this will catch on.

Empire: Total Ripoff

I'm highly annoyed about Empire: Total War. Last weekend Steam put the game on promo for half price, making me look foolish for having paid in full, and receiving an unplayable game with lots of crashes to desktop. Today they release patch 1.3, plus 14 new units for the game, but the units don't come for free: Steam wants 2.49 Euro for it (probably $2.49 in the US). Yeah, right, the devs didn't have the time to fix crash to desktop bugs earlier, because they were busy adding content they want us to pay extra for. And that's what I've been waiting over two months for? What a ripoff! And I'm not even sure yet the patch fixes all my crash to desktop problems.

MMO Redux

I am reading various MMO blogs, and one thing that struck me recently was how different the basic gameplay activities in a MMORPG can be, and how different people enjoy different gameplay modes. So I thought I'd list various gameplay modes of MMORPGs in general, without reference to specific games, or even specific sub-games like "PvP" or "raiding". Instead I'll reduce everything to what players are actually doing in the various activities.

1) Arcade gameplay mode: This is the type of gameplay which challenges your eye-hand-coordination and reaction speed. Things are happening fast on your screen, and you need to react. What you have to do is not terribly complicated in itself, its often not more than moving to the right place at the right time, or using the right ability at the right time. But the fact that you're not given a lot of time to think makes it that this is what is often considered to be "challenging" in MMORPGs.

2) Planning gameplay mode: This is a completely different type of challenge, which also exists in many MMORPGs. But in this case you have all the time you want, and the challenge is in taking the right decision in complicated circumstances. This type of gameplay often requires planning, including taking notes (or using an addon that takes notes for you), and sometimes even Excel spreadsheets. Often it is the economy which gives rise to this sort of gameplay, buying low, selling high, or finding which sort of crafting turns low-value resources into high-value goods. But planning could also be involved in long-term character development, planning "builds" etc.

3) Relaxed advancement mode: Now we moved away from challenge, but still are in the world of character advancement. I'm talking here about the kind of gameplay you might prefer when you get home after work, are too tired or not in the mood for any big challenge, but would still like to advance your character a bit by playing. This often involves questing, or "farming" monsters at low risk for xp or loot, or the forms of resource gathering where you have to move around and gather stuff by clicking on resource nodes. Things you can do without really exerting yourself, or taking much of a risk, but still slowly improving your character by gaining points or currency.

4) Hanging out mode: Finally we arrive at modes of gameplay where you aren't even trying to advance your character, or doing anything useful. Instead you're just chatting, hanging out with friends, or wandering around like a tourist looking at things in areas that aren't dangerous at all. Maybe you're waiting for something, or are just socializing, or you are trying to grab the attention of others with unusual behavior or by parading exclusive possessions.

I think that is more or less it, or did I forget any major modes of gameplay? I would say that most players play in all of these modes at various times, but have their preferred modes. I definitely prefer planning challenges to arcade challenges, often engage in relaxed advancement, and rarely just hang out doing nothing much. How about you?

The future of WoW twinks

Twinks used to be a general term for second characters in a MMORPG being overly well equipped thanks to the help of the first character. But in World of Warcraft the term is more often used for a particular narrow sub-group, second characters of level 19 or 29 using their uber gear to PvP in battlegrounds. While that is certainly a fun thing for the person playing the twink, it is obviously less fun if you happen to be a "real" untwinked character and face unbeatable opponents in a battleground.

So when Blizzard announced plans to make character gain xp in battlegrounds, a first common reaction was that this would be the end of BG twinks. By winning battlegrounds due to twinking, you'd gain xp, thus eventually leveling up to 20 or 30, and falling out of the BG bracket. Cheers from the people who didn't like BG twinks, loud protests from those who played them.

In the end Blizzard went for a compromise: You will now be able to pay 10 gold to turn off xp gains. So everything is back to how it was before? Not quite! Because if you turn off xp, you'll only be paired against other people who did the same in battlegrounds. Thus the twinks will have the choice of either turning xp off and only facing other twinks, or leaving xp on until they are ejected by leveling. Subtle! Because of course the twinks can't admit that they had fun ganking less equipped players, and always claimed it was all about the skill and challenge of PvP. So they can't possibly complain about being forced to face only other twinks. We'll see if this new system leads to BG twinks dying out, or becoming a major sub-game of World of Warcraft.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

As every Sunday, this thread is for you to discuss, ask questions, or propose blog posts, without me giving a theme.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Unbundling MMORPGs - Part 2

You probably guessed this was coming, the second part of my suggestion to unbundle parts of MMORPGs that don't really fit all that well together. In this part I'm going to talk about two very different games, the leveling game up to the level cap, and the raiding game at the level cap. There is an apparent advantage for somebody who likes the leveling game to have a raiding game at the level cap, because the alternative would be a game over screen. Even if you don't like raiding, it is still better to have the *choice* of restarting than to be forced to restart. But how about the other way around? There aren't really any advantages for somebody who wants to play only the raiding game to be forced to play the leveling game.

Some people claim that leveling is necessary to "learn your class". That is nonsense. If you want to see a good tutorial teaching somebody how to play his class, you just need to play the Death Knight starting area in World of Warcraft. At level 58 you know everything about Death Knights that can be taught solo. Level 1 to 54 for other classes, and 59 to 80 for everyone, don't serve any useful learning process. Most people level from 1 to 80 either completely alone, or they solo most of the time with only a few group dungeon encounters. That sort of gameplay isn't a good training for raid content at all. You can get to the level cap as a warrior without ever having touched the taunt button, so what good is that training?

And there is a big downside to being forced to level up all the way before you can raid: It prevents people from playing other classes. For example there is a notorious healer shortage in World of Warcraft. Now maybe there aren't all that many people who would like to heal in raids, but I'm certain there are some who wouldn't mind playing a healer in a raid, but can't stand leveling one up, because the healer is so bad at leveling. The people who *do* play raid healers usually leveled the character up with a non-healing spec, which puts another nail in the coffin of the "training" idea.

Why not create a pure raiding game with an extended tutorial? You create a character, and the tutorial has not only solo content, but also content with NPCs teaching you how to play your character in a group. After lets say 4 hours of tutorial, you can start raiding. As there are only dungeons and raids, there is no need for a huge open world to travel through, you just assemble the raid groups in a lobby. You can still have guilds, but pickup raids would be much easier to find too.

And in some aspects the people who like leveling would profit from a pure leveling game too. There would be no need to rush through it, if all there was at the end was a game over screen. And an expansion adding 10 more levels would actually make the game longer, and not like now shorten the lower level experience. There would be more people around at all the levels, making it easier to find groups for dungeons etc.

For game companies unbundling has the big advantage of being much cheaper. Assuming you don't have the same kind of money as Blizzard, your limited resources are spent better on a game that doesn't offer everything, but does do one thing extremely well. People would play a pure raiding game, but not necessarily another cheap WoW clone.

Grinding to Valhalla interviews Tobold

Grinding to Valhalla is what I'd call a tertiary gaming site: It isn't a primary site of a game, nor a secondary site talking about games, but it is a site talking about people who talk about games. If you want to know more about some MMO blogger, chances are there is an interview in multiple chapters with him on that site.

Now when first asked I refused to be interviewed, because many of the questions were about the private lives of the bloggers, where they live, what they work, and a lot of other stuff I've always been reluctant to post. So Randolph decided to accept my desire fro privacy, and sent me an edited list of questions about my gaming and blogging, leaving out the more personal stuff. You can find Randolph's interview with me here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Unbundling MMORPGs - Part 1

At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 about 6,000 English archers won a surprise victory against over 20,000 French knights. Shortly afterward the forums exploded with unhappy customers: The French were calling the archer class overpowered, and demanded it to be nerfed. They also complained that the English had grinded a lot of experience with their archers, and spent a lot of time getting their longbows. The English on the other hand were furious about server imbalances allowing the French to outnumber them 3 to 1. Knights having much cooler looking armor apparently made lots of new players choose that class, and the English were worried that the French would just zerg them once their n00bs learned2play. :)

When discussing combat systems, I always get a lot of comments from people saying that yes, one player against one PvE mob combat might be boring, but PvP, especially large scale PvP, was a lot more interesting and tactical. That might well be, although my experience in Alterac Valley or WAR keep sieges suggests strategy is often reduced to zerging. But the reason why I think that PvP doesn't work in MMORPGs is a very different one: The motives and requirements for good PvP are incompatible with standard PvE MMO gameplay.

Standard PvE MMO gameplay is about character development, making your character stronger first by gaining levels, then by accumulating gear. Good PvP is all about balance and fairness, so one player being better geared than the other is already counterproductive. A class balance that works well for a PvE raid is unlikely to work well for PvP, because PvP combat doesn't rely on artificial mob stupidity regarding aggro control. A PvE game profits from having a large world in which players can freely move, but if you have that in PvP you end up with both sides attacking the other at some undefended location. For PvE you want graphics that make every character look different, showing off his achievements in form of the epics he is wearing; for a PvP game hundreds of different looking characters and the need to display all their stuff usually causes lag and server crashes. And the list goes on and on.

So I wonder why game companies feel they have to bundle up all those incompatible features. Why not have one PvE game perfectly balanced for PvE, and one PvP game perfectly balanced for PvP? I am sure a much better PvP game could be designed if there was no PvE in it, with bigger, and better balanced battles. And classes in a PvE game could have a lot more variation if they didn't need to be balanced for some PvP part. And why first cram both PvP and PvE into the same game, and then try to make sure that being good in one part doesn't help you too much in the other? Unbundling PvE from PvP appears to be the much better solution to me.

Progress systems

Via The Ancient Gaming Noob I found this article in Wired pointing out that in the 80's video games often forced you to restart from the beginning when you lost, and jokingly proposing to define "hardcore" games as those that work in a similar way. Your raid wipes in World of Warcraft? All restart at level 1! The exaggeration shows that it is obviously easy by creating something recognizably "hardcore" by simply increasing the punishment for failure. And obviously nobody would want to play such a game nowadays.

The other extreme of that scale is Progress Quest, a MMO which allows you constant progress without even requiring any input from you. Or Jade Dynasty, where you can pay the company to not play the game. But even World of Warcraft is extremely close to the Progress Quest side of the scale: Progress from level 1 to 80 (or whatever the level cap will be in the future) is virtually guaranteed, regardless of skill. And in the end game skill is only measured for large groups, enabling some people to be carried.

So Jormundgard poses the obvious question of whether having a higher punishment for failure really makes a game hardcore. Well, it can, as long as you define hardcoreness by being able to reach exclusive content. If every failure sets you back, and you make that setback big enough, then only the most dedicated will ever reach the end. The reason why in World of Warcraft raid content is considered hardcore is because there is a punishment for failure: The raid dungeon resets, so if you didn't manage to get to the end before the reset, you have to start over. If there was no reset, any guild would be able to reach the last boss eventually, just like anyone can reach the level cap eventually.

The disadvantage is that it turns out that players are very risk averse. For example in Everquest going to a level-adequate dungeon was potentially rewarding, but also very risky. You could die somewhere at the end, with monsters having respawned at the start preventing you from getting back to your corpse, so potentially you could lose all your gear. In consequence EQ dungeons were mostly populated by higher level characters farming certain specific mobs for their rare drops, and players of the appropriate level rarely ventured there, in spite of zone bonuses later being added. Not working as intended. If dying really hurts, players don't risk anything, and end up farming boring green mobs instead of something that actually poses a challenge. Even in modern games like World of Warcraft, where the penalty for dying is minimal, players rarely try to push the envelope and go for orange or red quests and monsters. There isn't anything in the game that would prevent them from challenging themselves, but the majority goes for the safest option with the best rewards for the lowest risk of failure.

A completely different progress system is used in chess or WoW arenas, although there are numerous exploits in the latter case. The basic idea of an ELO system is that you have a score which is equivalent to your skill level, and only by improving your skill can you improve your score. In such a system playing it safe isn't an option, because winning against a much weaker opponent gains you very little, and the occasional loss sets you back by a lot. Even playing more than somebody else doesn't improve your score, unless by playing more you actually get better at it. Of course somebody playing a lot of World of Warcraft will equally claim that by doing so he now plays better than somebody who plays less; but of course that isn't necessarily the case, and the Progress Quest system isn't designed to really show the difference between skill and time spent, or a bunch of other factors. Wielding some epic from some raid boss means you were there when he died, but doesn't say anything about whether you were the MVP of that raid, or just trundled along and leeched. Being at the level cap doesn't show how many hours it took you to get there, how often you died along the way, or how well you played.

So to make an MMO in PvE work more like an ELO system and show skill, not only would you need to lose xp on dying, you also would need to lose a lot more xp from dying against easy opponents than against a hard challenge. And easier mobs would have to give significantly less xp than harder challenges. In theory a system could be designed in which everybody's level reflected their actual skill at playing that particular MMO. Why is nobody designing such a system? Probably because players don't really want an accurate measurement of their skills.

People on average, especially men, famously estimate their IQ to be much higher than it really is. That is if you asked everybody for an estimate of their IQ, the average of the estimates would come out significantly higher than 100, although by definition the average must be 100. The same thing applies to video game skills: People, especially men, estimate their video game skills to be much higher than they really are. A progress system which assures them of their superior skills, by making everyone a winner, is more popular than a system which shows who the winners and losers really are. MMORPGs are designed to be positive sum, and extremely hard to lose, so that everybody can feel good about themselves. But in reality the system simply fails to measure skill, and those who boast the loudest about how leet they are, are often simply overestimating themselves the most.

Too many games

I'm getting lots of press releases and announcements, especially from smaller MMO companies. And I'm not quite sure what my policy should be. The problem is there are too many games, and too little time to play them all. And then of course I'm already less interested is some types of games, so I'm not likely to find the time to play very twitchy or PvP centric games. So should I post these sort of press releases as being "news", or should I just talk about games I actually played, and the major AAA game releases?

Anyway, Aeria Games announced two betas, one open beta for martial arts PvP MMO Dragon Sky, and a closed beta for the first-person-shooter MMO Wolf Team. Once you start visiting these Free2Play MMO hubs, you're surprised how many of these games there are, and of what a huge variety. It's not as if I really wanted to play a racing MMO, but it is good to know that such a thing even exists. And then I'm probably not aware of half of the MMO hubs and games available out there.

In the MMO pecking order below the Free2Play games, with a client to download, there are the even cheaper to produce browser games. And I swear there must be millions of them, I wouldn't even know where to start covering those.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Elements of making MMORPG combat better

The biggest disappointment when playing a new MMORPG is finding out that it plays pretty much like the previous one, especially regarding combat. Most MMORPGs have been using exactly the same combat system in the last decade, since Everquest, based on targeting a mob, usually having some auto-attack, and launching various spells and abilities with hotkeys. There have been minor variations with combos, and due to technical advances combat has become a bit faster since Everquest, but mostly the system has stayed the same. So how could MMORPG combat be improved?

For this post, I've decided to stay with the basics. There are probably a million ways how you could make combat better using new input hardware, like the Wiimote, or EyeToy, or Project Natal. There are also lots of ideas using the mouse to lets say draw runes on the screen to cast spells. But in this post I'll stick with the system where you target an enemy with your mouse, and then use hotkeys to launch spells and abilities. And I'll show that even under those constraints there are a lot of very different systems that could be designed. So many that I'm not going to design just one new system, but list the elements that could be combined to design many new systems.

First of all we have to set some goals. What do we want from a MMORPG combat system. Combat is the "basic repetitive unit" of MMORPGs, that is over the life of your character you'll be in many thousands of combats, from level 1 to the final raid boss. So as players do it a lot, combat needs to be fun and engaging. Basically we need to hide the fact that combat is repetitive by making it more interactive and slighly less predictable. Most of all we need to prevent every combat having exactly the same sequence of keystrokes, because players will either macro that or get bored fast if they do 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 all day long. Another important goal is that the fun should start early; we don't want to force players to have boring combat for 80 levels before being allowed the first interesting fight.

The first element which could make MMORPG combat better is interactivity, meaning players have to react to what happens on the screen. That doesn't have to be twitchy and fast, but it has to make a difference whether you press the right button or the wrong button. In a game like World of Warcraft, once you targeted a mob in single combat, it often isn't necessary to watch the screen. If you turned your monitor off, you could still beat the monster as long as you have your keyboard shortcuts memorized and a sense of timing for the cooldowns. In an improved MMORPG combat, that wouldn't be the case, you would have to react to what you see happening in combat. There could be, for example, a system of opportunities, where you can detect a weak spot in the enemies defences, and hit that spot with a special attack. Those attacks would be more powerful than a standard attack if you used them on the appropriate weak spot, but less powerful than a standard attack if you used them at the wrong time.

Related to interactivity is the second element of randomness. At the moment combat is not very random, except for a small variation of plus minus a few percent around standard damage of any attack, and the possibility of spikes from critical attacks. A good example of why interactivity doesn't work without randomness is the combat system of Age of Conan. AoC has a somewhat different system than other games, without targeting, and the enemy has "shields" left, right, and center. So in principle you would attack the enemy where his shields were lowest. Only in AoC that was very predictable, if you hit the mob right three times, it would lower its shield on the left side and strengthen it on the right. So you still ended up doing the same sequence in every combat, right-right-right-left-left-left and so on. AoC also had combos, but again the sequence to do a combo was always the same. So as AoC was somewhat too twitchy for me, I ended up having the combos programmed on my programmable G15 keyboard. That is exactly what we don't want for an improved system. So combining interactivity and randomness, we could have combo attacks that are not started by always the same sequence, but by doing attacks in a sequence shown on the screen, which would be given randomly. And of course the previously mentioned idea of weak spots opening up also should happen at random.

A very different use of randomness is one used by Wizard101, as well as all trading card games: You don't have access to all your spells and abilities at all times. Instead you "build" a "deck", that is before combat starts you select which abilities you think you will need and what your chances should be to have them available. For example your deck consists of 40 "cards", but you can put in your fireball 4 times, so your chance of drawing a fireball is 10%. At any given time you only have access to a "hand" of e.g. 7 cards. So your average chance of holding a fireball in your hand is quite good, but there will be moments where you hold all 4 of them, and moments where you hold none. Thus every combat is different. Of course this combines very well with a system like the weak spots, because it opens up great tactical opportunities: How many cards do you put in your deck which are specialized attacks for weak spots, giving you a chance of hitting the monster for much more than average damage if only you hold the right card at the right time? Other systems of not having always access to the same set of abilities can be designed. The Chronicles of Spellborn have a wheel which advances after every keypress, but the sequence of abilities on that wheel is fixed, not random, which still allows you to do exactly the same sequence of abilities in every fight.

The last element I want to point out is tactical choice from not having every attack being equally effective against every possible opponent. Whether you fight a wolf, an ogre, or a fire elemental in World of Warcraft doesn't matter, except for the few classes using fire attacks and the few mobs like the fire elemental being resistant. But this is something that could easily be expanded a lot, with various weapons and spells being more or less effective against various enemies. For example the D&D classic of skeletons being more susceptible to blunt weapons that shatter their bones than to arrows or daggers that glance off or pass through. This opens up the possibility of having not just standard attacks, but specialized attacks that are more efficient against specific types of monsters, and less efficient against others. Many Asian games, including Final Fantasy XI, use some sort of elemental cycle of fire, water, earth, and air each being weak to one other element and strong against another. Of course this doesn't add much in the current system where you can use all your abilities all of the time, because then you'd simply always use the best attack. But in combination with systems in which you only have access to some part of your abilities, the tactical choices can become interesting.

So, as you can see, there are a wide range of different combat systems available which would all improve on the current system, without even having to use new input media or other new technologies. The different elements I listed can be combined in various ways, making combat more interactive and interesting, without even having to leave the "target with mouse, attack with hotkeys" boundaries. Not only would a new combat system be more fun, it also would allow a new game to differentiate itself from the competition. It is often said that players don't want change, and it would certainly be foolish to change the combat system of an existing game much. But a new combat system would be a major selling point for a new game, a "unique selling proposition" in marketing speak, the reason why people would buy your game instead of sticking with their old game or buying something else.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Aion NDA dropped

A reader informed me that the Aion NDA dropped. Nice, but that doesn't change anything for me, as I'm not in the beta. Guess I'll have to wait for September for the release, or the open beta.

Not that I'm holding my breath, really. I've informed myself a bit more about the game, most notably by watching the Aion Video Tutorials to learn about gameplay. And it appears that apart from minor features like being able to fly without a mount for a short time, the gameplay is pretty much identical to that of World of Warcraft. I hunted down some crafting info on YouTube, after hearing that crafting was so much better in Aion than in WoW. Unfortunately it turned out that this statement applied to the crafting *animations*, which are much better in Aion than in WoW. Crafting gameplay appears to be similar, except for something that looks like a fail bar under the progress bar, opening up the possibility of failure in crafting. Not a huge revolution.

Aion appears to be a solid mainstream MMORPG. But as I said yesterday, that isn't exactly what I'm looking for at the moment. I'd prefer something with more different gameplay, even if its not quite as polished.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mainstream and niche games

If somebody who had never played a MMORPG before came and asked me for a recommendation what would be the perfect first MMO to try, I'd send him with no hesitation to World of Warcraft. Sure, he'll probably have less fun now than we had 4 years ago when there were still people in the old world, but other than that WoW is still the most accessible game for new players. It is the most polished game. And it covers nearly every feature any other MMORPG could have, albeit often in a relatively simple and harmless way. So you can experiment with things like player economy or PvP, but they are optional, and don't have as much effect as in other games. World of Warcraft is the ultimate mainstream game, and that means if you don't know what somebody likes, the chances that he'll like WoW are greatest.

People who played World of Warcraft for 4+ years now often moved on to other games. And these other games are often a lot less mainstream than WoW. Whether that is me playing Luminary, or hardcore players enjoying EVE or Game-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, or people with other specific preferences playing specific games that cater to those, the games we moved to are often a lot less polished. The have obvious flaws, and are neither as well-rounded nor as accessible as World of Warcraft.

And I wonder if that is not by choice. I *could* play a game that is very similar to World of Warcraft, but I feel no desire to do so. And I'm not the only one, companies now actively advertise having no elves in their game. (There are no elves in Luminary, btw.). By making a game which is strong in one area, like player economy, or PvP, but on a small budget and thus less good in other areas, you might not make the perfect game for MMO beginners. But the MMO veterans will often be able to live with the quirks and idiosyncrasies of these smaller games, as long as they are strong in some nice feature they especially like.

The thing is you can't make a game which is both mainstream and ultra-specialized. Mainstream games have to go for the lowest common denominator, and that means not requiring too much from their players, and not frustrating them too much. Thus mainstream games end up for example with PvP systems in which everyone is a winner, and there is no "impact" of player actions on the world, which could negatively affect other players. Or a player economy in which you can't actually do very much with the virtual currency you accumulated, so those who aren't that business-savy aren't disadvantaged.

So in a way a mainstream game like World of Warcraft is a game where you still have training-wheels on. Of course you can try to beat WoW, and be proud of your achievements in the arena or as a raider. But you need to be aware that there are other games out there in which these activities are a lot more challenging. Even before WotLK WoW raiding was much easier than raiding in lets say the original Everquest, where you'd lose xp for wiping, and in extreme cases all of your gear. Playing with those training-wheels can be a lot of fun, especially if you are new to the genre. But it is completely possible that at some point you know better what features you like and dislike in a MMO. And then some niche game might actually be the better choice. Even if it lacks polish, or has obvious weaknesses, as long as it is strong in your area of preference, it might end up being more fun than the mainstream fare.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Retirement and Challenge

Spinks writes about the end game concepts of retirement and challenge:
This week I have committed a terrible crime which I usually try to avoid. I read something cool in a blog post and forgot to bookmark it. So if this came from you, let me know and I’ll add in the link.

In any case, I was reading this article and the writer compared the ideas of Retirement Gaming with Challenge Gaming. This is simple but brilliant. The Retirement Gamer thinks ‘I put some work into this game and got some reward. Now I want to enjoy it by having the game become easier.’ The Challenge Gamer thinks, ‘I put some work into this game and got some reward. Now I want more of a challenge!’

The best MMOs cater to both of these viewpoints.
I don't know whether Spinks got it from this comment or elsewhere, but the concept is interesting. I just don't think that games like World of Warcraft manage pleasing both sides very well. The problem with WoW is that at any given level of power, the content that gives you meaningful rewards is quite limited. So if you are wearing a complete set of Naxxramas-10 and -25 gear, Ulduar is basically the only place to go. Yes, you *can* do retirement gaming and farm Molten Core or some type of monsters in the open world. But the rewards you'd get are pretty much meaningless, and won't do anything for your character development.

I was thinking of that when I was playing Luminary. My character is level 54 now. And I recently spent a few hours farming level 6 mobs. Classic retirement gaming mode, I just one-shotted them. But in Luminary that action actually made sense, because every mob drops different resources. And if you need the things that level 6 mobs drop, and there aren't many for sale at the market, or they are overpriced, farming low level mobs is quite a reasonable thing to do. But I could equally well have choosen to switch to challenge gaming mode, and worked on quests and higher level monsters to increase my level. Having that choice, and either choice giving you reasonable rewards, is a good thing. It is just funny how a free 2D MMORPG manages it better than a billion dollar game.

The obvious advantage of having everything in the game drop something that can be useful at any level is that none of your content ever gets completely obsolete. World of Warcraft is a *huge* game, many times the size of Luminary. But at any given level in WoW, only very few zones make sense being in. And every expansion adding 10 more levels and another continent, makes the previous continent practically disappear. If Blizzard would add an auction house to Dalaran, and class trainers, there would be no reason to ever leave Northrend.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

The curse of the open Sunday thread is that every time I have to repeat the same explanations, that this is the place for my readers to ask questions, propose subjects, or otherwise discuss without me having given the theme. I'm sure those of you who read this regularly are getting quite tired of it. But as there are new readers every week, I can't just leave this post empty and hope you all know what to do.

MMO weekend at Steam

This weekend many MMOs on Steam are at least 20% off. You can get EVE Online and Age of Conan for half price, and EQ2 The Shadow Odyssey for 75% off. I was toying for about half a minute with the idea of buying EVE for 7.49, but then quickly realized it wasn't the cost that keeps me from playing that game. It's the fact that there is no 100% safe way to play EVE without getting ganked. So, I'll still wait for that EVE PvE server, or Jumpgate Evolution, or some other PvE space game.

Syncaine has a good post up about EVE. It's well written, so I don't really see why he felt the need for a sensationalist and provocative title of "Why your MMO is dying, and EVE is still growing", which just leads to people pointing out that at the current rate of "dying" and "growing", EVE will surpass WoW in the year 2078.

Unfortunately the skill point constantly growing with real time system Syncaine likes so much is also keeping new players out. In a game like World of Warcraft it is hard to catch up to the people in the endgame. In EVE it is downright impossible. Basically, the more money you paid to CCP in the past in monthly fees, the more powerful your character is. RMT at its worst.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Skill-less WoW

Joel feels he missed something, and didn't understand my remark in the class vs. skill post that outlined the importance of PLAYER skill (not avatar skill) in most non-MMORPGs. Gevlon hates social players. And Green Armadillo reports on Blizzard making transport easier in WoW, with easier teleports to Outlands, and mounts starting from level 20. What has all this to do with each other?

If you have a thick skin and can withstand Gevlon's sociopathic ranting, most of his analysis is correct and shows where the problem is. Blizzard is nerfing WoW, because easier is more popular. Quote: "I feel hate now. Not towards Blizzard, they did the goblin thing, defending their $15. If I were a Blizzard executive, I would do the same. I had warned the raiders in 2 weeks advance so they could focus on FL+4, to have it before the nerf. But I'd nerf it too. I hate the socials now, who are paying for this nerf." Of course the hate part is irrational. If you don't blame Blizzard for making WoW skill-free, because that is where the market is, you can't possibly blame the market. Blaming the market never works, as every economist should know.

But he is right that there are apparently more people wanting World of Warcraft to be even easier than it already is, so every nerf results in 10 skill-free players subscribing and staying, for every 1 player who is leaving because the game is now too easy for them. As I said in my Sims post, auto-questing isn't far ahead. In fact the WoW-clone Runes of Magic already has auto-running back to the quest NPC. The easier transport is just part of that. You'll now be able to buy a flying mount at level 60, thus you can do all of Outlands flying. On the one side there is a certain logic to that, because previously once you hit level 70 and could buy your flying mount, you immediately moved to Northrend, where it didn't work any more. On the other side the quests in Outlands were designed with ground transport in mind, and a flying mount at 60 makes many of them much easier.

And yes, while I defended Blizzard for making the STARTING raid dungeon easier, and still think that this is a good idea, I never wanted them to nerf hard mode for the more advanced raid dungeons. And I repeatedly said so, but nobody listened, because everybody makes the same mistake as Gevlon: They all think that 100% of the game should be designed to be exactly at the difficulty level they enjoy most. So the hardcore want everything hard, and the skill-less want everything skill-free, while the casual raiders want everything at medium difficulty. Not only is it obviously impossible to please everyone, it also is rather bad game design.

What happened to the idea of the game getting more complicated the higher you level up? Somehow it got lost in the process. Any player who is able to do the very first quest to kill 6 wolves is nowadays also able to do any level 80 daily quest. And if you ask a developer to design something hard, the only idea he can come up with is making it faster and more twitchy. A "hard boss fight" is one where you constantly have to be moving in unison with your raid, a giant game of Simon says on high-speed.

I blame the combat system. At level 80 you have more possible buttons than at level 1, but they don't do anything different. The little added complexity more buttons bring (small heal fast for little mana or large heal slow for lots?) is concentrated in the first 30 levels. From there on you just get the same abilities over and over, in different colors and textures. Ultimately it doesn't matter at all whether you hit a monster that has 100 health for 10 damage, or whether you hit a monster that has 10,000 health for 1,000 damage. Forcing a large group of players to run around to avoid fire or all press a button at the same time increases the chance that the group fails, but doesn't make the game much more complex for the individual player. Its simple math, if you have a 90% success chance, but all 25 players in a raid need to succeed, your overall chance of success goes down to 7%. Wow, a hard boss, you fail to beat him 93% of the time. Still doesn't change the fact that every single player just has to perform a trivially simple action with 90% success chance, it just changes who to shout at after the wipe.

Might as well play Luminary, where combat only uses one button. I recently fought a monster there at my level, and got killed in a moment of distraction, not drinking my healing potion fast enough. And noticed that in the presumably much more complex WoW my chance as a warrior to die when fighting a single monster of my level just because I didn't watch the screen for 5 seconds was much lower, near zero, even at the level cap.

What I would like to see in a MMORPG is combat being easy at the start, but getting more complex when leveling up. Not simply by adding more buttons that do the same thing, but by adding more interactivity and decision-making. Not simply twitchy "hit that button in the next 0.1 seconds or die", but more like tactical combat games, where you get a bit more time to think about what to do, but have to take an non-obvious decision.

But just like Gevlon I realize that I'm a niche gamer in wanting tactical challenge, and the more mainstream a game is, the less likely it is to cater to my needs. World of Warcraft will get easier with every patch, with every expansion adding 10 more levels, and a new level cap which takes even less skill to reach than the previous one. Star Wars The Old Republic will copy that model and garnish it with great storytelling, but still getting you all the way to the top without having to think much. I blame neither those who prefer twitching to thinking, nor those who prefer not having to do anything at all to get their virtual rewards, nor the game companies that are willing to sell you those feelings of "achievement" for nothing much. Hate is not a solution. The only reasonable thing to do is to look for niche games catering to my niche gamer needs, and supporting those games with my money, so they don't die out. Thus my opposition to flat fees, which end up favoring the bigger, mainstream games to the detriment of the niche games. If you don't like Disney movies, neither blaming Disney nor blaming those who make Disney movies a multi-million dollar business is going to get you anywhere. Targeted spending on indie movies you like will, because it allows the producers to make the next movie. Games are just the same.

$60 is not too much money

Both Heartless and Cuppycake are quoting from a Gamasutra article on how much money people actually pay for a Free2Play game, taken the example of Puzzle Pirates (which also exists in a monthly subscription version). The result is that the average PAYING customer ends up spending just under $60 over the whole time he plays the game. And as there are lots of non-paying customers, the average per customer over the whole lifetime is just $2.

Of course that is an average, and there are probably extremes of people spending hundreds of dollars. But ON AVERAGE Puzzle Pirates with microtransactions is cheaper than WoW. Even for the average paying customer, and of course very much so for the average customer.

I think the misconception comes from people with an extremely competitive mindset, who always want to have everything. Of course if you go some Free2Play item shop and buy absolutely everything, that is going to cost you hundreds of dollars. But very, very few people will ever do that. Just like very, very few people play WoW for over 100 hours a weeks. And even then it is still arguable which of the two extremes ends up doing more economic damage. My most extreme microtransaction hobby, Magic the Gathering, cost me about $1,000 per year, a sum I wouldn't spend any more, certainly not on a Free2Play game. But even those $1,000 are peanuts compared to the possibility that I could have finished my Ph.D. one year earlier and thus started earning earlier if I hadn't lost so much time playing MUDs and other stuff instead of studying.

But the point is that extremes are just that, extreme, and not the normal case for the average player. The average paying customer paying $60 in total for the complete lifetime from downloading Puzzle Pirates for free over playing it for weeks or months to finally growing bored and stopping is certainly not paying too much for the privilege. That is totally comparable of buying a console game for $60 and playing it for a while, and then you're still likely to have spent less time with the console game than with the Free2Play MMO.

Not only is the average paying customer just spending a pretty normal amount of money for a game, by doing so he also finances 30 players that don't pay anything at all (simple math from the average per user and average per paying user income). The non-paying users again span a wide range from the guy who downloaded the game, played it for 5 minutes, and uninstalled it again, to the guy who doesn't have any money and plays the game for free every day. The closest you can do like that in a monthly subscription game is playing a series of free trials using different mail addresses, but you'll have to restart every 10 days or however long the free trial period is.

The idea that somebody ultra-rich swoops in and using thousands of dollars buys himself a place at the top of the heap just isn't the reality of microtransaction games. Most are even designed in a way that doesn't make this possible. You're more likely to meet somebody in WoW who bought his level 80 full epic character on EBay than you are to meet somebody whose success is solely due to money in a typical Free2Play game. The mundane reality of microtransaction is average people buying some convenience and faster progress for what they otherwise would have spent on a game that isn't free. And subsidizing those less fortunate in the process. Nothing wrong with that.