Thursday, July 9, 2009

Taking a break from blogging

Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a break, and to re-examine whether what you are doing is in fact well aligned with your goals in life. So I'm asking myself, why do I blog?

I do not blog to maximize the number of visitors, as I don't run any scheme which would turn visitor numbers into revenue. I do not blog because I think my writing will influence game developers to make better games, there is little hope of that. I do not blog because I want to influence players, what could that possibly bring me? I blog because I like to voice my ideas and opinions, and would like to have some polite and intelligent discussion about them. I don't ask for people to agree with me, or thank me, or anything, I just want a place to hang out and chat in a mature fashion, among friends, or at least sympathetic strangers.

Right now I don't feel I'm succeeding all that well. I might simply have a too thin skin for the rough place that is the internet, and can't simply grow a thicker one. But I have the impression that even at the moderate success level of this blog, the audience is becoming too wide to communicate with effectively. Some people misunderstand my motivations, others feel entitled to something I never promised and couldn't possibly deliver, and some simply can't or won't stick to discussing opinions in polite terms. At best these people end up disappointed, at worst they voice their disappointment or disagreement with me in various forms of personal attacks against me or my blog. Intellectually I am fully aware that the attacks come from a vocal minority of my readers, I should just ignore them, "illegitimi non carborundum" and all that. But emotionally I find that the attacks and having to deal with them to avoid threads being derailed simply drains all the fun out of blogging. What I'm doing doesn't get me closer to my goals, so I'd better stop.

Thus I will use my summer holidays to take a break of at least three weeks from blogging. Hopefully that will shrink the audience, and make some of the disaffected go away. I will use the time to think whether I want to restart after the break, or stop completely, or voice my thoughts in other ways. Commenting will remain enabled, but will automatically switch to moderated mode after two weeks. Suggestions in this thread on how to become a happier blogger are welcome. I can also be reached by e-mail, but won't necessarily read it every day. Have a nice summer!

Unilluminaried

I've been playing Luminary for 6 weeks now, but I think I'll stop playing this now. The problem with Luminary is one shared with many Asian Free2Play games: They get exponentially more grindy over time. In one quest series I arrived at a point where to finish a quest I would need to gather over 50,000 resources, which at a drop rate of around 10% would mean killing half a million monsters. The exponential nature of quest series is most visible in sword-crafting quest series I'm also doing, where after making 1 stage 1 sword I had then to make 2 stage 2 swords, then 3 stage 3 swords etc., with both the number of swords and the resources needed per sword increasing.

I assume this is deliberate game design, to make sure everybody arrives at a point where the game is too grindy for him, because then you can dangle the carrot of faster advancement through items from the item store in front of them. Unfortunately the Aeria Games item store for Luminary is still not working. I wouldn't have minded giving them some of my money, I find that having fun with a game for 6 weeks is worth something, and the game company deserves some of my money. But I do know that on the internet that sort of opinion, that somebody providing entertainment should get paid for it, is an extremely outlandish one. And even me, while I would have been okay to pay *for* playing, I'm not going to pay them *after* I stopped.

I think it would actually be a good idea if games became more complex and difficult the further you advanced. But in the case of Luminary the complexity and difficulty remained pretty much the same, and only the number of monsters you needed to kill for your next task went up. It isn't more difficult to kill 1,000 monsters than to kill 100, or 10, it just takes longer. I had the same problem with WAR, where killing a mob at level 20 wasn't more difficult than in lower levels, but it took more and more kills to advance another level. Weirdly the Wrath of the Lich King expansion of World of Warcraft had the opposite problem: Going from level 70 to 71 was relatively slow, but the further you advanced, the faster progress got, and from 79 to 80 was pretty fast (because xp needed for next level only increase minimally, while xp per kill and quest go up much faster).

In WoW, not only is it already extremely easy for a fresh level 80 character to succeed in the average level 80 daily quest, but also it gets easier with time. Whether you raid, craft, PvP, or farm factions, your gear is improving at the level cap, but the quests remain the same. We all like our virtual rewards, but in the end the reward destroys the solo PvE content, making it too trivial. Outside of raids, or PvP if you are so inclined, life at the level cap is extremely boring.

So I do question the idea that "the game begins at the level cap". And I wonder if ultimately Everquest wasn't onto something with making reaching the level cap take much more time. The endgame is a notoriously weak point of most MMORPGs, so why hasten the process of the players getting there? The art is to design a progress curve which never gets so steep as to appear insurmountable, but in which progress also never becomes trivial. Not an easy task, that.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Does WoW ruin the monthly subscription model?

The history of industrialization is one of mass production. A company has both fixed costs, and variable costs per item produced, so the more items you produce, the lower the so-called "marginal" cost of producing one more. The same is true for MMORPGs. The cost per player is much lower if you have 1 million players than if you only have 100,000, because the fixed costs, for example the development cost, is spread out more. Unfortunately the players don't see it like that. For them it doesn't matter whether the game has 1 million subscribers or only 100,000, and they wouldn't want to pay more for the smaller game.

When Mark Jacobs announced, before Warhammer Online came out, that the game could quite possibly cost more than $15 per month, there was such an outcry that Mythic quickly had to drop that idea. World of Warcraft effectively caps the monthly fee other game companies can ask. WoW is the most popular game, so the players don't see why they should pay anything more for a less popular game. So when WAR ended up with a very respectable 300k subscribers, their profit margin and return on investment were so low that EA merged Mythic with Bioware and fired Mark Jacobs.

If it's "half a million subscribers or bust", then this makes life difficult for smaller game companies producing less mainstream games. They would need to charge players a monthly fee of $20 or $30 to get a decent return on investment if their development cost is in a similar order of magnitude than WoW or WAR. As players aren't willing to pay that, game companies either have to save on development cost and make visibly cheaper games, or they have to break out from the monthly fee business model and survive by some players paying a lot more than $15 per month. So next time you complain about a game with microtransactions, keep in mind that this could well be World of Warcraft's fault.

Recommend a game to me!

I often recommend games to my readers. That isn't that easy, because I'm effectively talking to all of you at the same time, and the game which is a good fit for one player, isn't necessarily so for another. For a good recommendation, you need to know more about the person you are recommending the game to. Fortunately you all know a lot more about my preferences than I know about yours. You recommending a game to me should thus be much easier. So it's time for you to return the favor: Recommend a game to me!

To make matters even simpler, I'll state my preferences again:
  • The game should be a MMORPG, but can be of any genre, not just fantasy.
  • The game must be available. No recommendations of games that aren't out yet, there should be at least an open beta this year.
  • NO non-consentual PvP. Not even of the "you'll rarely get attacked in the high security zones if you don't carry anything valuable" variety. If there is even the slightest chance to get ganked involuntarily, the game is out.
  • The game must have some PvE. No "social spaces" virtual worlds with no game in them please.
  • The game must at least have a separate client, no browser games please. But anything from a 2D Free2Play game with a thousand players to a triple A multi-million subscribers game is okay.
  • Any business model is okay with me, whether it is monthly subscription or microtransactions or something else. It would be nice if the game offered at least a free trial.
  • A strong player-run economy with a good crafting system is a definitive plus.
  • Preferably a game I haven't played yet, as far as you know. Don't recommend WoW. :)
So, given these preferences, and whatever else you know about me, what game would you recommend I should play?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

International servers

When I was playing Ultima Online and Everquest, I did so on international servers located in the US. There simply weren't any others. EQ introduced European servers in 2001, which for me was major catastrophe, because it lead to my European guild on the US server Lanys'Tvyl splitting up between those who staid and those who moved to the European server. When I started playing Final Fantasy XI in 2003, it was on international servers, located in Japan. It was very interesting to play with Japanese players, even if many didn't speak English, and you had to use the in-game click-to-chat system which automatically translated the communication. The Japanese players often were both extremely hardcore *and* extremely polite, a combination you don't find that often in the West.

But FFXI also was where the trouble started. The game had rare spawns which were often camped, and soon the American players started complaining that it was always the Japanese who tagged the rare mobs first, due to them having 100 ms or 200 ms lower ping. When World of Warcraft came out in 2004, the idea of international servers was dead. I actually had to use the services of a US intermediate company to make a WoW account on the US servers, Blizzard refused to accept European credit cards to pay on US servers.

The argument was that you couldn't play on a server on a different continent, because the 100 ms or 200 ms more ping would make playing impossible. As I actually played WoW on a US server, I know that in reality the latency doesn't make that much of a difference, but of course that was only PvE soloing. Both in PvP and in modern Super Mario Raiding encounters, latency can kill you.

Unfortunately if you accept the argument of game companies that 200 ms latency is a big enough disadvantage to require localized servers, it follows that having 200 ms slower reaction time is an equally big disadvantage. And with me being in my mid-40s, I certainly have that big disadvantage compared to a teenager less than half my age. Which is why I'm not a big fan of MMORPG in which fraction-of-a-second reaction times are required.

Plus I'm missing the cultural exchange that international servers offer. Meeting people from different continents with often very different approaches to the same game. Having a server with no "prime time", but one which is always active, because it is always prime time in one time zone somewhere. So if I could play a MMORPG where combat was designed in a way where 200 ms of latency or slower reaction time don't make a difference, and which was running on international servers, that would be great!

WoW subscriptions down to 5 million

Blizzard is quick to boast about their "over 11 million subscribers", but more than half of these subscribers are in China. And the Chinese servers have been down for a month now, with rumors circulating that they won't come back up anytime soon. So if Blizzard were to truthfully state how many subscribers they have right now, the number is down to somewhere around 5 million. But what is really happening is hard to make out, because everyone involved is keeping a lid on the news, total radio silence.

The best guess is that the story started by Blizzard transfering their WoW license in China from The9 to NetEase. Obviously The9 wasn't happy to lose this major earner, and filed several lawsuits. The new operator, NetEase, needs a license to run WoW. But the Chinese authorities didn't give NetEase a license, and "said that in order to protect the interests of domestic gaming enterprises, they would suspend review of all games belonging to foreign companies in the event of lawsuits or arbitration between foreign companies and Chinese companies". This could still go on for months!

Now financially this is less of a blow to Blizzard than it sounds. The Chinese players pay only about 6 cents per hour to play WoW, and most of that went to the Chinese operator, so in spite of China providing most of the players, it only provided a small part of the revenues and profits of Blizzard. Nevertheless the game being down for a month already certainly isn't good press, which is why Blizzard is keeping mum about it.

Imagine Blizzard ran into some regulatory trouble with the US or European authorities and the US or Euro servers would be down for a month! Obviously that would cause a major shift in MMO market shares. In China WoW isn't even the biggest MMO, but there is no doubt that the disguised protectionism of the Chinese authorities will have some effect. Not all 6 million Chinese WoW players will patiently wait until the issue is resolved. The longer it takes, the more of them will wander off to other games, and not necessarily come back when the servers are back up. This may hurt the pride of Blizzard more than their wallet, but there is no doubt that this is major bad news for them. Just don't expect a press release from Blizzard spelling out the truth and its consequences.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Game design and business models

Heartless_ correctly points out that there is a confusion with the terms RMT and microtransactions. RMT is a term coined to describe *players* selling virtual items to other players for cash. While the sellers could possibly be professional "gold farmers", they nevertheless have to play the game to get the item they want to sell. Free2Play games have microtransacions, where the seller is the game company itself, and not only do they have infinite supply of whatever they want to sell, they can also sell things that aren't available through playing. How smoothly that works is very much a question of game design.

With Dungeons & Dragons Online switching from a monthly subscription business model to a microtransaction business model, there are expectations of that becoming a standard tactic of game companies for other MMORPGs who failed to attract sufficient subscribers. People ask: What game you currently aren't playing would you play if it went Free2Play? But I have my doubts that the transition will always be easy, because the initial business model will have influenced the initial game design.

Take for example the much-discussed $10 horse in Runes of Magic. It is available at level 1. In fact at level 1 you are provided with a horse that lasts only 1 day, so you can experience the difference, with the game company hoping that this induces you to buy one. In World of Warcraft initially you had to get to level 40 to buy a horse. Why that? Because Blizzard expected the average player to take several months to get to level 40, paying a monthly subscription fee every month after the first. So if, for example, it took you two months to get to level 40, you would have paid $15 to get that horse. In both cases the horse is the lure which makes you give money to the game company, even if of course the monthly fee in the WoW case is a package deal, and you get much more than just the horse for it. But giving out the horse at level 1 wouldn't have made business sense in WoW at the time, nor would it make sense in Runes of Magic now to give out horses only at higher levels. 5 years later the normal horse isn't much of an attraction any more, so Blizzard hands it out ever earlier, promising ever better horses for the higher levels. If WoW ever went Free2Play (extremely unlikely), it would be best to sell all mounts at level 1 for cash. But then you run into the problem that the old world isn't designed for flying mounts.

But monthly subscriptions and microtransactions aren't the only possible business models. In Asia many games are played in internet caf├ęs, and paid for with timecards, effectively paying by hour. You can play Chinese Aion for 208 hours for a $20 game time card (imported, not the Chinese price, which is even lower), so for most people that is actually the better deal. That business model has a completely different influence on game design. For example the personal shops in Aion and other Asian games only remain open when you are online, thus paying the game company money. A western player, paying a monthly fee for the same game, will ask himself why he has to remain online, probably afk, to sell items in a personal shop. By having changed the business model, you take away the reason for a specific feature. For a monthly subscription game the personal shop should remain open even if you log off, because it makes no difference to the revenue of the game company, and is more convenient for the players.

So I'm asking you a more complicated question in two parts: What game you aren't currently playing would you play if it went Free2Play with microtransactions? And how would the design of that game have to change, to make that new business model actually work? I'm sure, you'd prefer if all games went Free2Play and only charged money for fluff, but if not enough players buy enough virtual items, a game would simply disappear. So how do we change game design to sell enough items that are useful, and desirable, but don't make the items that you can get by playing obsolete?

WoW-a-like: A definition

There is a huge number of games out there which are all definitively MMORPGs, but which do not play like World of Warcraft at all: EVE Online, Luminary, A Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates, Darkfall, to name just a handful. But inside the MMORPG genre, there is a sub-group of games that do play remarkably similar to World of Warcraft: Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Runes of Magic, and Aion, for example. I call these games WoW-a-like, because they aren't necessarily clones, but they share much of the same gameplay experience. Now what defines this experience? Mainly 2 points:

1) Combat is done by targeting the enemy, and then attacking him by using a range of spells and abilities from your hotkey bar.

2) The player is guided through the game by an endless stream of quests, leading him from one quest hub to the next, all the way from level 1 to the level cap.

Note that for example Everquest 1 is not quite WoW-a-like, because it doesn't have the endless series of quests (which is kind of ironic, given the name), but Everquest 2 certainly is WoW-a-like. Note also that this definition only holds true until the level cap, there is often more variation in the endgame.

Why do we need a word for this? Because some people are falling into the trap of thinking that if you make "a MMORPG", you *must* make a WoW-a-like. I do expect many of the announced future MMORPGs to be WoW-a-like, including Star Wars: The Old Republic. That does not mean that these games bring nothing new to the genre, for example SWTOR promised to much improve storytelling, and Aion brings flying. All these games will also have their distinctive look, feel, and lore. There will be nobody who confuses Aion or SWTOR with WoW, they look all very different. But the basic gameplay of quest-guided hotkey-combat is the same for all WoW-a-likes, in spite of there being millions of other options. It is a gameplay that has been proven to work, so it is used in different games. But we can't declare that this sort of gameplay is what defines MMORPGs, because it would do a huge disservice to all those other games out there, which experiment with other forms of combat, or which offer more open worlds with less hand-holding. Some people will think that "plays like WoW" is derogative, others will think it is a compliment. But given that the very fact that a game is WoW-a-like by the above definition betrays a lack of courage to innovate, I do think the term is not overly harsh.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Aion review - beta version

As "how much time do you need to play an MMO to review it?" is a controversial subject, I'll start this by stating exactly how long I played and what I did: I played Aion during the 3rd closed beta event weekend, for over 20 hours, leveling a priest and a warrior to ascension (level 10) and a bit beyond, and playing the other two classes less than that. So I know nothing about the end game beyond of what I read. Let's call this Aion review a beta. A beta game gets a beta review. :)

Aion is a very pretty game, if you are into the Eastern style of MMO / RPG graphics. The animations are especially well done. It is also a very solid one, I didn't have a single crash, and only a few very minor bugs, like hair sticking through clothes, or translation errors. Aion is a very accessible game, easy to learn, easy to play, if you played any other MMORPG you need nearly no time to learn how to play this. All these great qualities mean that if Aion had come out in 2004, it would have given World of Warcraft a run for its money, much more so than Everquest 2 did at the time. But as it is now 5 years later, Aion will have to stand comparison with several other games.

If you would draw a map of the archipelago of MMORPGs (a bit like Tim Howgego's map of WoW online communities), the island of Aion would be extremely close to the island of World of Warcraft, and a bit in the direction of Warhammer Online. Term's like "WoW clone" or "copy" have such negative connotations, so I'll use the term WoW-a-like. It is impossible to deny a certain WoW-a-likeness in Aion, more so than for example WAR or LotRO.

You start the game by creating a character of one of only two races, Elyos or Asmodians. Aion's lore is one of civil war between those two races, so they don't look very different. There is a huge number of sliders for character creation (including one for boob size for females), so you can modify your look over an extremely wide range. For example your height can be anything from 4' to 8', regardless of race. As the end game has a strong PvP component, expect many people to choose the less easily clickable and visible minimum size.

Your character can be one of 4 different classes, warrior, priest, scout, or mage. On ascension at level 9 or 10 you will have to specialize into one of two sub-classes. For example tank or dps for the warrior, healer or buffer for the priest, etc. As the sub-classes still share a lot of spells and abilities, this is more like choosing a talent-tree in WoW than like having completely different classes. Aion doesn't have talent trees, but you can specialize your character further by choosing what manastones to put into your gear. Manastones are a nice feature, stat buffs you typically find as a loot drop, and which can be placed into slots in your gear. The ones giving critical hit seem to be the most sought after, makes me wonder whether the stones are already well balanced.

Once in the game, you meet an NPC with a glowing symbol over his head, click on him, and he'll ask you to kill some level 1 monsters. Just like WoW you'll spend most of your time doing such quests, usually involving going from A to B, and killing mobs, mostly pretty standard stuff. The monsters you kill are quite original though, not the standard wolves, boars, and orcs. Okay, so a "porgus" looks very much like a boar, but in general the monsters are quite well done. There is also a kind of "destiny" quest series, including some quests that have very nice cutscenes. Only drawback is that this destiny is the same for every player, regardless of race or class, I would have hoped for an AoC Tortage-like intervowen web of different destinies. Quests are relatively easy, and the quest text has hyperlinks to names and places which you click on for explanations, and even get locations shown on the map. Quest rewards are mostly cash, avoiding the problem WoW has with you getting too many gear rewards you don't need. Mobs also don't drop gear all that often, at least not in the lower levels, but NPC vendors have a handy "sell all junk" button to clear your inventory of grey items. Some quest chains earn you titles, and selecting a title also gives you some stat bonuses, nice!

Combat is mostly like WoW's, with a touch of WAR mixed in. So you target a mob, auto-attack, but do most of your damage with special attacks launched from your hotkey bar. There are combat ability chains, like in WAR, where you can launch the level 2 ability only after having done the level 1 ability related to it. But somebody decided that finding two buttons was too challenging for players, so after clicking on the level 1 ability button, the button automatically changes into the corresponding level 2 ability. It's a 1-button-chain system, a bit too simple in my opinion. At ascension you get the ability to fly, but only for a minute at a time, plus added time from flight potions, and only in certain areas. Flying combat is possible, but tricky due to the time restriction, and you can't just fly and hit non-flying mobs from above, they evade. Curiously swimming is not implemented, you just walk under water.

Crafting is better than in WoW or WAR (not much of a hurdle). Gathering works like in WoW, clicking on nodes, but you don't need to buy tools or train, and you even get a few xp from gathering. After ascension you have access to 6 crafting professions, from alchemy to weaponsmithing. You can learn all 6 to 399, but only one of them to the absolute cap of 450. Unfortunately the act of crafting itself is not interactive, so getting that high will involve a lot of downtime waiting for progress bars. Critical successes during crafting lead to better items. To avoid having to make items nobody wants, there are work requests from the crafting trainer. Except for the first one, these *do* cost you some money, in vendor bought materials, but skilling up that way is still much cheaper than crafting items nobody wants to buy. You can sell items on the auction house or open a personal shop while afk. Both work reasonably well, I'm just not sure the sorting of items in the AH is working as intended, and for items posted as stack you don't get the price per item calculated.

The only major disappointment of my Aion weekend was the severe lack of replayability. There being only two races means there are only two newbie zones from level 1 to 10. And the two newbie zones are very similar to each other, starting you in the wilderness, getting you to a first village with all the trainers, then a lake area, a forest, another wilderness area, a big camp full of enemies, and a cave. Several quests in the two zones are downright identical, for example the final quest in the cave where you need to activate three colored colums before destroying an abyss gate. As I mentioned, even the big cutscenes for the destiny quest line are the same for the two races, and for every class. So while Aion can compete with World of Warcraft in terms of quality and polish, in terms of amount of content WoW is far ahead, even if you compare 2004 WoW with 2009 Aion.

I haven't decided yet whether I want to buy Aion or not. While the leveling game is fun enough, it isn't much different of the leveling game of half a dozen other fantasy MMORPGs. And I'm a bit wary of the Aion endgame, which is labeled as PvPvE: It seems to be similar to WAR keep battles, with a PvE faction thrown in. There even appear to be world raid bosses in the PvPvE zone, apparently working a bit like Wintergrasp: Win the PvP battle to be able to battle the raid boss. I can't say how good this is going to be, but knowing myself, I probably won't like the PvP part of the endgame.

I would expect Aion to do quite well, there aren't all that many games out there with that level of polish and accessibility. But the mythical "WoW Killer" Aion is not. While Aion has some unique features, the same level of quality as WoW, and even surpassing WoW in some areas, World of Warcraft still comes out ahead with being much bigger, offering better replayability through more classes, races, and zones, and having the more popular PvE raid endgame. It is difficult to image millions of players quitting WoW to play Aion, when Aion isn't that different in the leveling game, and its endgame is PvP-heavy. It is hard to predict how much being WoW-a-like is going to help or hurt Aion in the long run.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Open Sunday Thread

Tell me your thoughts and opinions about the games you are currently playing, and the game you are looking for! Or your ideas about games and features you would like to see. It's the open Sunday thread, the discussion post without a fixed subject.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Why RMT discussion must fail

$1 is not worth the same thing to every person.

That might seem counterintutitive, but the value of $1 isn't absolute, by itself it is just a worthless piece of green paper. The value of that 1 dollar is determined by what you are going to buy with it. And that is pretty much depending on how many other dollars you have. Common Sense Gamer is furious about a permanent horse in Runes of Magic costing $10. Then he gets even more furious when nobody agrees. But the point is that there is no absolute answer to the question of whether $10 for a virtual horse is too expensive or not.

If you would otherwise use those $10 to buy food for your starving children, of course spending those $10 on a virtual horse instead is downright crazy. But if you have paid all your bills, done all your shopping, put aside enough money for your retirement, and you still have $10 left, whether you spend those on a virtual horse or on a cinema ticket or on a 13 shot venti soy hazelnut vanilla cinnamon white mocha with extra white mocha and caramel at Starbucks doesn't really matter.

What microtransactions do is put a fixed price on something which is at best a convenience, a luxury. There is no "true" value to anything on offer here, so discussing whether the price is fair or not just doesn't make sense. It is as pointless as discussing the price of a Luis Vutton handbag.

Fallout 3 on Steam

I have an unopened box with the game Fallout 3 sitting on my shelf since it came out. For all I hear that is an excellent game, but I have too many other games to play, and not enough time, so I can't say from personal experience. Nevertheless I thought you might want to know that you can get Fallout 3 for half price on Steam this weekend. Nothing better to celebrate the 4th of July than battling in a postapocalyptic wasteland.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The illusion of impact

The discussion in the last open Sunday thread was about making MMOs more dynamic, less static, with the players having an impact on changes in the world. In the current situation, players feel more like stuck in Groundhog Day, with them evolving every day, but the world around them always remaining the same. Why is that so?

The main reason why having a real impact on a virtual world is hard to implement is that it would affect other players. Imagine Hogger or Onyxia or Kel'Thuzad being permanently dead after the first players killed them, or mobs generally not respawning; after a few days the virtual world would be void of monsters. Game over. Imagine *players* not respawning after being killed in PvP. Game over. Imagine an RvR game in which one realm wins, there is no reset, and due to having control of everything the winning side keeps getting stronger and at some point can't be overthrown any more. Game over. Everything resets in order that the next player can still play the same game.

What we are left with the possibility to create an illusion of impact. In its most simple form that is created by the player moving through content and not coming back. You got the quest to kill Hogger, you go there and do the deed, you see Hogger lying on the ground and loot him, you go back and get your quest reward. As there is no real reason for you to go back to the little peninsula Hogger roams, you have the illusion of having killed Hogger, when in reality of course he respawned 5 minutes later.

The more advanced method of creating the illusion of impact is by using copies of parts of the game. If you killed Onyxia or Kel'Thuzad today, they will still be dead tomorrow. Unless it's Wednesday, and the raid dungeon reset and they are all back. This was much expanded in Wrath of the Lich King, so if you do the quest series in Conquest Hold in Grizzly Hills that leads to a different chieftain becoming the boss there, or if you do the Wrathgate event in Dragonblight, you will see these places permanently changed every time you go there. What you can't do is go there with a friend and show him "look what I have done", because your friend will see those places as they were before the quest, until he does the quest himself. In some cases that can also lead to two players being unable to cooperate on a quest, because they are in different phases, and see different things.

Another illusion of impact is a location that exists in two (usually) states, and alternates between those states based on player actions. In PvP that is places like Halaa in Nagrand, or keep battles in WAR. You conquer the keep, and it is yours! Then nothing happens. You get bored and log off. Then the other side comes and conquers the keep and it is theirs! And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. That could theoretically be done for PvE too, for example questing for the villagers to chase away the wild animals from the forest, so the lumberjacks can log wood there; and other players later questing for the druids to chase away the lumberjacks from the forest to restore natural balance. I just can't think of any game that does this right now.

Thus the best possible case of a dynamic world is one where everything exists in several states, which are in some sort of dynamic equilibrium that can be influenced by the players. Fight a lot of orcs, and the village prospers. No players doing those quests for a while and the orcs burn down the village, opening up new quests to reconquer the place. Moving frontlines in PvP, with some balancing factors that prevent one side permanently dominating. We could have player run cities, that evolve with the actions of the players, but following certain rules. We could even have unique events planned by the devs in which the world is permanently changed, but following a script balanced by the developers. What we can do is to make the illusion of impact very good, very convincing. The question is whether players will be happy with that illusion.

Aion beta EU authentication server down

So my Aion beta experience got off to a bad start, the authentication server for Aion Europe broke down, not that this is unheard of when a beta launches. The authentication server being down also means I can't log into the Aion beta forums. So how do I know what's going on? Aion has their CMs on Twitter. I'm usually not a big Twitter fan, and deleted my account there, but telling people over Twitter about tech problems when players can't get that information from the game or the forums is just brilliant.

Are we still having fun?

Wolfshead runs a blog on which the post range from brilliant but grumpy to just grumpy. His latest brilliant but grumpy post is about tackling player inertia, in which he takes the 2008 WoW zombie invasion event as example to demonstrate how much MMO players hate change and anything unpredictable.
Over time we willingly trade the feeling of wonder and excitement for the security of the daily grind and the routine. We become like the cast of Cheers. We show up in our favorite MMOs each night, occupy our virtual bar stools and embrace the insanity of tedium and repetitiveness.
This leads him to the conclusion that if Raph Koster's Theory of Fun is correct, and we are having fun by learning things, we can't possibly have fun after having settled down into a routine of daily repetitive tasks. So the big question is:

Are we still having fun?

Right now the answer appears to be no. I'm not playing any major MMO at the moment, spending my time with single-player games and small niche MMOs instead. I've seen various reader comments on my blog from people either still playing but grumbling about it, or not playing any MMO and loudly proclaiming hate for them all (Which makes a MMORPG blog a strange place to hang out). The most positive excitement I hear nowadays is about games that haven't even been released yet. It is easier to find somebody saying nice things about Aion or SWTOR than somebody saying nice things about World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online or any other existing MMORPG.

And not only are we not having fun in the existing games, we also strongly resist any proposal to change them. Just watch the players recent reactions to the various changes that patch 3.2 brings to World of Warcraft: Every single one of them has been blasted as bad by the players.

But if we look beyond the world of blogs, comments, and forums, an explanation dawns: The games themselves are still full of millions of players, apparently still having enough fun in the game to not quit it. If unhappiness about MMORPGs were widespread, shouldn't the user numbers be dropping? So the alternative theory to "MMOs are not fun any more" is that the people who are having fun are so busy playing that they don't find the time to hang out in blogs or forums; while the people who stopped having fun also stopped playing, giving them more time to complain about the existing games, or to express hope for the future games. People writing on forums, blogs, or comments are not representative of the average MMORPG gamer. And increasingly the writing sub-part of the MMORPG community is far more negative than the non-writing part.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Best economic system

I've been asked what MMO I thought had the best economic system. The sad answer is "none of them". Economic systems are often not at the heart of MMORPGs, and only added at a late stage of the development as an afterthought. Warhammer Online, for example, did not have an auction house for most of the beta, and when one was added just before release, it didn't work very well. Crafting in WoW is a joke, you can get from level 1 to the level cap in an hour once you bought the resources. And in nearly all games you are forced to craft a huge number of useless items to skill up. If we want to have a good economic system, we'll have to design one from scratch, taking highlights from various games:

Resource gathering: By far the most fun resource gathering I ever played in a MMORPG was in Star Wars Galaxies. In that game the location of resources change once per week, and resources have stats. So you go out exploring with a fun scanning system to find resources, manually extract one resource to find out its quality, and if that quality is to your liking, plant a harvester. Great system, with lots of advantages: Putting in more effort to find better quality resources pays off, but somebody not playing a lot can still have his harvesters running while he is offline, unlike most other games where you don't get anything if you're not online.

Trading: In the real world trade happens because certain goods are plentiful in one place, and rare in another. Thus transporting the good from A to B enables you to sell it at a profit. Very few MMORPGs have a system like that, and most of those who have are space flight games. In a game like WoW the auction house of lets say Undercity is linked with that of Thunder Bluff, thus the price of goods is the same regardless of location. And if that wasn't the case, transporting items by teleport would quickly remove all opportunity for trading. If we want to add trading to an economic MMORPG, we would need a system where teleporting and other fast transport is limited to characters and their equipment, while the transport of goods was much slower. Ideally transporting goods from A to B would have some adventure involved, so there would be an interest in a career as trader, transporting goods all over the world.

Crafting: The best crafting system I know is smithing a blade in A Tale in the Desert. There you start with a block of metal, and need to hammer it into the shape of the blade you want, using different types of hammers. The closer your block of metal resembles the target shape, the better the quality of your produced blade. Thus you can hammer out a cheap blade quickly, or spend an hour on a perfect product. And the whole process really feels like smithing, you're not just clicking a button, or playing Bejewelled to craft something.

Craft skilling: I'm still looking for a good system here. I do not like systems where you need to craft useless things to skill up to be allowed to craft useful things. Star Wars Galaxies at least had a sort of practice crafting, which used less resources, did not produce anything, but still gained you skill points. Systems where you can salvage a crafted item and get most of the resources back can also work to avoid markets being flooded with items only crafted for skilling.

Auction house: I much prefer blind auction houses like the one in Final Fantasy XI to the more common simple WoW AH system. In a blind AH you don't see for how much the seller has put up his goods, but you do see how many items are available, and for how much the last X items sold. Then you make a bid, and if there is a seller whose offer price is lower than your bid, you'll buy his item. In a WoW system you only see the price of the items that *didn't* sell, so the average computed by an addon like Auctioneer is systematically too high. Blind auction houses also prevent people from seeing at what price the competition offered their items, and then simply underbidding them by 5 copper. In addition to being blind, a better auction house system would also offer buy orders, not just sell orders.

Personal shops: I'm not totally against personal shops. I do however strongly dislike systems where there are ONLY personal shops, and no centralized system to find who is selling what, example Ragnarok Online. In such a system, whenever you want to buy anything, you need to visit every personal shop one by one to see whether what you want is on offer. Comparing prices takes forever, a really horrible system. Personal shops however can be a good addition to an auction house system, or you could design a system with only personal shops, but a centralized register to find who is selling what where at what price. Another suboptimal feature of many personal shop systems (mostly in Asian games) is the necessity to stay online to keep your shop open. That is a design based on the fact that in Asia you often pay per hour hour for these games. Thus keeping your shop up costs you real money, and earns the game company revenue, which is why they design it that way. In a monthly fee or Free2Play business model, the need to stay online to sell something is just annoying and serves no purpose. Nothing more annoying than to come back after having set up an afk shop and finding that you sold nothing, because for some reason you got disconnected shortly after going afk. A much better personal shop system is the one in Star Wars Galaxies, where there is player housing which can effectively be turned into a shop, the selling is done via vendor robots and works offline, you can even put up a display of the wares you want to sell, and over time you can get a reputation as a master crafter and good shop source for some type of item.

Inflation: One major problem of economic gameplay is the convention that a level 1 character killing a monster will earn currency or items worth only a few coppers. A high-level character killing a monster of his level, in spite of that being no more difficult than the level 1 character killing that level 1 monster, will get far more valuable loot. In World of Warcraft the reward for one daily quest at level 80 is sufficient for all the monetary needs of a character from level 1 to 20. That level based inflation is extremely destructive to economic systems. Nothing but the economic activity at the level cap really matters.

Rest of game: I mentioned before that economic systems are often added as an afterthought. While some people have a lot of fun doing economic activities like resource gathering, crafting, or trading, most games are designed in a way that these activities are not necessary. You can perfectly well get from level 1 to the level cap in World of Warcraft without ever visiting the auction house, gathering a single resource, or crafting a single item. Items never break permanently, they can always be repaired. The only items leaving the economy are those that are soulbound, being either bind on pickup, or bind on equip items that have been equipped, and where the owner got hold of a better item. So the old item gets vendored or disenchanted. Crafted items compete with all other sources of items, loot drops, quest rewards, PvP rewards, token items, etc. In a game where crafting and the player economy was to play a bigger role, crafting would have to become the major source of items. For example the raid boss would not drop epic loot, but only a resource that was needed to craft an epic item. All current non-crafting sources of items would give out resources or gold instead, and you'd have to take these resources to a crafter to get items made, or sell the resources and buy the items on the market. This is how Luminary works, which is why I'm playing that game now. Other game systems that encourage crafting are systems in which items break, and have to be replaced, or where repairing gets more and more expensive until buying a new item is simply cheaper.

So as you can see, elements of good economic gameplay are already existing in various games, but there isn't really one game where all the elements are good. One game has fun trading, but boring resource gathering. In another game crafting is fun, but there is no need for the items you crafted, and nobody buys them. No game is really a good economic simulation MMORPG with fun in all of the various aspects.

Aion third beta event

The most reliable way for a MMO blogger to get into betas remains a Fileplanet subscription. Having that, I finally managed to get a beta key for Aion, valid for the third beta "event" (period in which the beta is open), starting this Thursday. So I'll have a look at the game, which will help me to decide whether I want to pre-order it or not. I'll tell you what I think next week.

What I could do up to now is use the Aion beta key on my NCSoft account, and download and install the NCSoft Launcher and the Aion beta client. Starting the Aion beta client only gets me to the login screen, where obviously any login attempt fails right now. What worries me a bit is that I have no cursor on the login screen, so the quit button is unuseable, and I have to shoot down the program with the task manager to end it. Anyone else having mouse cursor problem with Aion and Vista 64?

A more amusing error is contained in the NCSoft Launcher. If you click the "Store" button, there is advertising for various NCSoft games, including one asking you to buy Tabula Rasa. :) NCSoft might want to clean up their launcher a bit. :)