Monday, August 31, 2009

How do you measure tank and healer skill?

About half a year ago I did an experiment with my priest, tried a shadow spec, researched what the current builds were, asked my readers for help on the spell rotation, and practiced that rotation on a dummy. In spite of wearing mostly "healing gear", I managed to get a spot as dps on a Naxxramas raid, and ended up doing 3K DPS during that raid. Which means that under the definition of a certain goblin, I'm not a "Moron & Slacker". In fact you could even say that my performance was in line with said goblin's theory that gear doesn't matter as much as skill. On the other hand, while "holy priest gear" isn't totally perfect as "shadow priest gear", it is nevertheless close, so the fact that I was wearing full epics certainly helped.

It is certainly true that some players are just plain bad at playing their dps class. I recently was in a group with my protection warrior as tank doing a 5-man dungeon, and at the end of the dungeon I looked at Recount (a damage meter addon) and was surprised at seeing that I had dealt more damage than the dps death knight in the group, who was at just over 1k dps. That death knight could certainly improve his overall performance by a significant margin by looking up a good talent build and spell rotation, and practicing it a bit on a dummy.

But dps in this discussion is the simple case. There are usually 3 dps in a 5-man group, all having the same role. And that role is easily quantified with any damage meter addon. Even taking into account variations of gear, it is easy to see that the guy who deals 3K DPS is a good damage dealer, and the guy who deals 1K is not, especially if the two just went through the same encounter. And for dps the spell rotation that maximizes damage is usually independant of the target. That is you can look up a spell rotation for your class and talent tree on the internet, practice it on a dummy until you master it, and you'll do well enough in most dungeons and raid encounters. I'm certainly not calling everyone who doesn't do that a moron, because it might simply be a case of not being interested enough in the kind of encounters that require higher dps. But if you *want* to improve your dps, it certainly isn't rocket science to arrive at some decent output.

For tanks and healers the matter isn't quite as simple. That starts with the problem that you can't use the training dummies to practice your craft. Yeah, you can first damage the dummy and then heal it to measure your heals per second with various healing spell rotations. But as the famous How To Top The Healing Meter jokes show, being the best healer and having the top heals per second on some meter are two very different things. I would be very, very careful before making a screen shot of the healing meter at the end of a 25-man raid, and then pointing fingers at those who aren't as high as the others. Coming low on a healing meter can be a function of having less fast spells, or it could simply be a result of the healing assignments. And unlike dps it depends a lot more on the nature of the encounter. If you reset the healing meter before each boss fight, you'll have encounters in which one class tops the healing meter in one case, and another class in another case, depending on whether just the tank, or just a few players, or the whole raid gets regularly damaged in the encounter. And how do you practice tanking on a dummy, or measure it with a damage meter?

The other big problem of measuring the skill of tanks and healers is that in a 5-man group there is normally only one of each. You can compare the performance of the 3 dps, but you don't have any comparison for the single tank and the single healer. The only thing you *do* know is whether you succeeded in beating the dungeon or not. If you did, both tank and healer were obviously competent enough. If you didn't, in spite of a tendency to always blame the healer, it is totally possible that either the healer was bad, or the tank was bad, or even that the dps messed up aggro management. For example a mage who does AoE damage in a situation where he shouldn't have will look perfectly good on a damage meter, but still be responsible for the wipe that followed.

The underlying reason that you can't practice tanking and healing on a dummy, or measure it very well, is that both activities are a lot more interactive than damage dealing. Which is why I play them in the first place. But the theory on tanking rotations and healing rotations doesn't reach further than simple tank'n'spank fights against a single boss, and there are barely any left of those. Being a good tank requires you to be aware of every mob in the fight, and putting the right priority on managing the aggro of each of them. Being a good healer requires you to decide who to heal, and with what spell, not just producing the maximum amount of healing per second.

And to close the circle and to come back to the eternal gear vs. skill debate, it is certainly true that a tank is more gear dependant than any other class. Tanking gear is more difficult to acquire than any other sort of gear, for example it is impossible to get tanking gear as reward from PvP, and it is underrepresented on every loot table. It is much, much easier to get a set of gear together that allows you to reach 3K dps than it is to get gear together in which you have 540 defense, 30k armor, and 30k health unbuffed. (If anyone knows of a guide how to get to that sort of warrior gear the fastest, I'd be very interested.) PuGs don't even invite tanks for lack of gear. Any guild knows that if their main tank walks out, he is far more difficult to replace than their best healer or their best dps. I have a faint suspicion that Blizzard is regulating the speed of guild raid advancement by limiting how much tanking gear they hand out.

So in the end we do have a system evaluate the skill of dps classes, even if that measures the mix of skill and gear. But for healers and tanks we don't have any good way to measure skill at all. And so we are stuck with "blame the healer" when a PuG wipes, and tanks being judged solely on their gear. That not only negatively affects the eternal lack of tanks and healers, it also makes it a lot harder for those tanks and healers to improve their game.

WoW combat thoughts

Over the last 10 days playing World of Warcraft again I did a lot of switching between characters. I played 5 different characters, from a level 1 paladin to a level 80 priest in full epics, with a druid in his mid-20s, a mage at level 72, and a badly equipped level 80 warrior in between. I didn't do any raiding, but did regular quests, daily quests, the Argent Tournament, and various dungeons on normal and heroic. And besides just having fun, I also took some time to reflect on what I was doing, and what gameplay was more fun, and what less so. In this post I'll just throw out some random thoughts on WoW combat, based on these observations.

What was striking in playing different characters in different situations was how different combat was in terms of interactivity. While I did find the paladin now much improved, a low-level paladin is still very little interactive. Most of the spells I have are buffs, like auras, seals, and blessings, which you cast before combat, not in it. Then I have healing and purification, which I don't cast much in solo combat either. The few remaining spells, like hammers, all have a relatively long cooldown. Thus at my low level (10 now), I quite frequently am in the situation that I have already pressed all the buttons I could possibly press in that combat, and until some slow cooldown finishes, I'm limited to auto-attacks. And of course the paladin starts with a slow 2-handed mace as initial weapon, and staying with 2-handed weapons is better in terms of maximizing dps. That means that in the combat not only do I have no buttons to press, but even the auto-attacks happen only every 3 seconds or so. 3 seconds can feel like an eternity when you watch you character and absolutely nothing happens. In fact I sometimes had the situation that I had killed 1 mob, a second mob was still hitting me, and I didn't even notice that my auto-attack wasn't turned on any more. I'm not giving up on the paladin yet, because I'm sure that with the levels he'll gain more and more buttons to press in combat, but right now low-level paladin combat isn't much fun.

The other extreme on the interactivity scale from my characters was the warrior tanking heroics (or Trial of Champions on normal). It used to be that warriors were limited by rage generation, but this is much less the case now. With the help of shockwave and glyphs that allow me to sunder armor on several mobs at once, I can effectively AoE tank, and the incoming attacks plus various rage generation talents mean my rage bar is never empty. That, plus being level 80, means I have dozens of possible buttons to press during combat. And not just some "rotation", but in a quite interactive way: I need to watch the mobs around me, and use taunt when I lose aggro on one. I need to be aware if an enemy starts casting spells, and reflect or interupt it. And I need quite a lot of positional and situational awareness to be a good tank. All that is *way* more interesting than paladin auto-attack soloing. But then I can't do it for hours on end. Not only is it difficult to always find a group, but also after a couple of hours I stress out on tanking, and need to do something more relaxing. The level 80 priest in heroics is similarly interactive, with me having to decide who to heal, and with what spells.

The druid and mage are leveling, thus often soloing, and less interactive. I must say the mage interactivity improved much since the introduction of more interactive talents. Up to Wrath of the Lich King I had gone for an extreme, but efficient, strategy of equipping my mage exclusively in gear than maximized his spellpower, which enabled him to reach level 70 using basically only the frostbolt spell. I simply had upgraded that single spell to an extent where any mob I had to kill for a typical quest dropped dead before it reached me, or at least before it could do much harm. That strategy still works, but now I have talents that randomly allow me to cast free fireballs, or randomly proc the frozen fingers effect, which makes that the instant ice lance is more effective than the frostbolt. Thus instead of casting the same spell over and over, I start with spamming frostbolt, and react to the procs of the talents which make other spells better. Thus while this is much less interactive than a tank or healer in a group, it is more interactive than the paladin, or the mage himself pre-patch 3.0.

The Argent Tournament introduced a new sort of gameplay into WoW, jousting, which is used for various daily quests, and the first part of the Trial of Champions instance. Now in principle I very much like the idea, because adding different modes of gameplay adds to the variety of World of Warcraft. In practice unfortunately I hate jousting, at least in its solo form. With the help of guild mates I did figure out an optimum strategy: Wait until the enemy rides away from you, charge him with button 3, during the charge hit button 1 to simultaneously strike him, then turn around immediately and hit button 2 to further reduce his shields. Works perfectly when I'm extremely fit and all this happens on a flat surface. As soon as I get slightly more tired, or there is some lag, or the stupid NPC decides to leave the arena and gets us tangled up in the decoration around it, jousting gets rather annoying. You get stuck somewhere, the NPC miraculously manages to launch 3 shield breakers in the time you need for one, or you lose the combat because you moved too far from the arena following the NPC. The whole thing is rather twitchy, with success more relying on you being able to turn fast and hit buttons fast, than on you making a right tactical decision.

And there is my preference in World of Warcraft combat in a nutshell: I do like being forced to make decisions, tactical decisions which need to be done inside of a second or two, but where making the right decision counts for more than being able to hit a button 100 milliseconds faster. I hate knowing that one reason I do badly in some forms of WoW combat is that I turn with the keyboard instead of with the mouse, because I think that the few milliseconds difference in turning speed should not make a difference in good MMORPG combat. But they do, far too often.

This penalizes people on slower connections, as well as middle-aged players like me, who move somewhat slower than teenagers. My wife, who plays WoW, but has a lot less practice with video games in general, already needs to call me every time a quest requires fast reaction time, like the Triage quest for first aid. I don't think she'd get far with jousting. And of course if you can't play Super Mario, you are also excluded from doing well in many modern raid encounters. Personally I don't think that this is what MMORPG combat should be about, there are enough other games for people to demonstrate their fast reflexes. I'd rather have that MMORPG combat evolved to become more and more tactical. Unfortunately that is not where the current trend is heading, a lot of new MMORPGs have much twitchier combat than World of Warcraft. But then, maybe the developers of these twitchier games should wonder whether they aren't shooting themselves in the foot by excluding a huge part of an aging demographic of video game players with slower reflexes. To be appealing to a mass market, MMORPG combat needs to be interactive, but not too twitchy.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Feeling heroic?

Zoso of Killed in a Smiling Accident remarks that MMORPGs have a general problem with there being too many heroes, and too little regular population. Quote: "the 2006 Azerothian census broke down employment in the region as: 0.4% - Farming (livestock & dairy); 0.5% - Farming (arable); 0.8% - Innkeepers; 1.4% - Retail; 97.9% - The Chosen One Who Will Rid This World Of Evil". He also thinks that "suspension of disbelief is particularly difficult in a superhero game", which in combination with his post title made me think about the quote from The Incredibles, that if everyone is special, nobody is.

Non-heroic activities, like crafting, are nearly universally less popular than the more heroic adventuring. But somehow man's natural preference for stable and safe employment breaks through, and most people, most of the time, try to minimize risk and maximize reward while adventuring. Which, ironically, obviously isn't all that heroic. Instead of heroically helping the weak, we rather help the NPCs who offer a bigger reward.

So I'm wondering if anyone really feels heroic while playing an MMORPG, or if that suspension of disbelief never happens. What do you think?

For the record: Champions Online press account

Just for the record, and in line with my usual policy, I'd like to let you know that Cryptic Studios sent me a 90-day press account key for Champions Online. Which I accepted, and verified that it works. So if I find the time, I could play some more of that game, and see if it grows on me.

Friday, August 28, 2009


A reader commented that he read about my evil twin hoax on Twitter, which kind of surprised me, because I'm not on Twitter. I tried it out about a year ago, found that the character limit didn't fit well with my verbosity, and stupidly deleted my account. So now somebody else is Tobold on Twitter.

So I typed "Tobold" in the Twitter search box. Do you call that tweeting yourself, like googling yourself? First thing I found was that every blog post of mine results in 11 separate but identical Twitter entries. Some software apparently turns my RSS feed into an abbreviated URL, and then posts that URL together with the name of my blog and the post title. Apparently the sort of people who previously made automated blogs out of RSS feeds from other blogs have invaded Twitter as well.

But that was the harmless part. The people who actually mentioned "Tobold" in their tweets were a lot worse. What an ugly and hateful place this Twitter can be! Makes the official WoW forums look like the salvation army. Which was insofar a surprise as on my blog the comments were relatively mild. What you could read this week in my comments section was not a heavily edited version with lots of comments deleted by comment moderation. You saw all the comments, as there were none so bad that I had to moderate them out. The only comments I had to moderate this week were spam in Japanese.

I am pretty proud of you readers right now. A huge amount of you were able to see my question of whether you read my theory posts as exactly what it was: A question, not a grab for attention. And I got far more answers than I would have expected, covering the whole spectrum from saying my theory posts are tl;dr to loving them. On the evil twin hoax I also got nothing but good feedback, some approving, some disapproving, some just laughing, or calling my bluff, but all of them within the limits of polite society, and some offering quite intelligent analysis or thoughts of their own. Pretty much exactly what I was aiming for.

The most obvious explanation is that comment moderation works, so people who have something unpolite to say about me now do it on their own blogs or on Twitter. Which is great, because I'm not forced to read Twitter. But I was wondering whether there also was a difference between the opinions of people who just read blogs, and the opinions of bloggers about bloggers. The most vitriolic comments on Twitter about me were from other bloggers, many along the lines of me having pulled a series of cheap stunts to increase visitor and commenter numbers, and planning to "punish" me by "blacklisting" me. Wow, I haven't heard the word "blacklisting" since I stopped playing Everquest.

It appears as if some other bloggers are very much caught up in a mindset in which a blog is all about "credibility", a "brand", and trying to maximize visitor numbers. I can certainly understand that, it is quite fascinating to watch your visitor numbers grow over the years. But at some point you stop caring about numbers, and start to become more worried about quality. I'm not an idiot, I know perfectly well that asking who reads my theory posts makes me look weak (as does this post), and that pulling stunts and messing with people's minds is going to drive away more readers than it attracts. But for me the perfect situation would be to have a community here where I am allowed to look weak from time to time, as keeping up the appearance of always being in command is rather hard, life just doesn't work that way. And I would love to have a community that thinks for themselves, enjoys the occasional unpredictable experiment, and doesn't just "believe" what I say because of my "credibility".

Fortunately I think I'm slowly getting there, which is a definitive step up from earlier this year. If I lose the kind of sanctimonious reader on the way who objects that my vision of myself doesn't fit with his view of how bloggers should be, that is just fine with me. I'm not out to start a personality cult of myself, as dear leader Tobold. I'm just trying to create a sympathetic place for myself to hang out. And Twitter apparently doesn't quite fit the bill.

WoW cross-server LFG

So as a side remark from some dev panel at Blizzcon it appears that we will get cross-server dungeons, complete with a cross-server looking for group system in patch 3.3. Which is a nice idea, because the larger the total pool of people is from which you can recruit for a group, the higher is the probability that the group will actually happen. And while players are always tempted to shout their LFG requests in trade chat instead of using the LFG system, they can't do that cross-server, so the underutilized WoW LFG system might see some more use.

Now Ixobelle points out correctly that a larger pool of players doesn't help all that much if all of them are dps. Quote: "The issue is that no one wants to fill roles that require anything resembling responsibility. I'm not going to qualify that 'responsibility' statement, as it's ground I've covered before. People want to DPS because it's easy (not simple, just non-commital). There will now be 700 little sword icons in LFG, but the lack of little PLUS or SHIELD icons will stay the same. Multiply any large number by zero and the result is still zero."

I think Ixobelle got the effect right, but not necessarily the cause. That is especially easy to show for the leveling part of the game. Why is it hard to find a tank or healer for Blackfathom Deeps? Because nobody in his right mind levels with a tank or healing spec! I did it with my first characters, my warrior and priest, but that was in the context of a guild environment with frequent grouping. The new characters I play now, the druid and the paladin, they level with a dps spec. Grouping during leveling is such a rare occurrence, and having a tank or healing spec is such a penalty to solo leveling speed, that it takes a special sort of masochist to level as tank or healer nowadays. And at the level cap the situation changes only for those who group or raid often. A casual player who spends his time doing daily quests, PvP, and the like, and groups rarely, still will favor a dps spec because it is simply so much better for his purposes.

But there is a bright side: Cross-server LFG will increase the probability of grouping during leveling, which will increase the interest in a tank or healing spec. With gold being so easy to come by nowadays, respec costs have become cheap, and at level 40 you can have dual spec. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that in a LFG system with "700 little sword icons" you'd better respec to tank or healer when you want to go to a dungeon. So it is quite possible that things won't be quite as bad as Ixobelle fears.

A reader wrote me about cross-server LFG, observing that this system will help World of Warcraft when server populations decrease. That is certainly correct. I wouldn't go as far as to say that Blizzard is introducing it because they foresee a decline, but with activity numbers already dipping between expansions and during summer holidays, any system that alleviates the problems of declining server populations is welcome.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Skipping pillars

Imagine that in some MMORPG at the start of a combat you could hit the ESC key and by that way skip all the boring details of the fight, and fast forward directly to the end, with you having lost some health and mana, and the mob lying in front of you, dead and looted. Ridiculous idea, combat is one of the pillars of MMORPG gameplay, skipping combat makes no sense at all.

Now Bioware claims that in Star Wars: The Old Republic storytelling will be another pillar, as important as combat. But people definitely have a habit of skipping storytelling in previous games. If SWTOR tells you the quest text with voice acting, will you be able to hit the ESC key and skip it? And if that functionality isn't in the game, will players demand it?

The new SWTOR gameplay trailer shows how this voice acting works in a bit more detail. Fortunately it isn't just one long droning quest text, but there is some dialogue, with dialogue options. But if you look closer, you'll wonder whether these "options" really influence anything in EVERY dialogue. They sure do in some dialogues, but when you see the developers point out especially how in this one dialogue with the captain you can choose to kill him or cooperate with him, then what about the previous dialogues? There is a scene in the trailer where the bounty hunter has dialogue options like "I'm just here for the money" and "I'm just here to kick ass and chew bubblegum". Now theoretically that could influence the quest reward, giving more money in one case, more bubblegum in the other. But I have a faint suspicion that these dialogue options are just for fluff. You get to choose what your character says, but the quest afterwards proceeds exactly the same way whatever you say. Between you clicking for the first time on the quest NPC and you finally having the quest in your log and leaving there might be several minutes of voice acting dialogue with no consequence, and one could well imagine that some people would prefer that ESC key to skip it. So if people want to skip storytelling, but not combat, is storytelling really such a pillar?

By the way, 20-minute, 4-part trailer then proceeds to show SWTOR combat. Which, predictably, looks very nice, and starwarsy. I couldn't really get all that excited about the dev telling us how the warrior has this wonderful charge ability, as I'm already playing a warrior who has charge, even if it doesn't involve jumping through the air and wielding light sabers. Looking at the UI I saw, predictably again, that combat will involve clicking on an enemy, and then using hotkey buttons to launch a range of special abilities, different from class to class. Now which previous MMORPG did I see a similar system in? Oh yeah, I remember: All of them! It worried me a bit that in the part which supposedly was "high level combat", the character had a choice of a grand total of six different buttons to press, but then I thought that this is probably just the early version, and there will be many more abilities in the final game. So all in all, combat looks good, appears to be solid, but doesn't offer much in the way of innovation, apart from a cover system for smugglers. I'm looking forward to SWTOR, but sooner or later somebody will call it "WoW in space" or "WoW with jedis" or something like that, and Richard Bartle will say "I already played SWTOR, it was called WoW", and we'll have that whole discussion again about how different a MMORPG has to be before you can consider it innovative.

In lieu of a Champions Online review

As I feared, my reentry into the World of Warcraft resulted in me not spending enough time in the Champions Online beta, so I can't really write a review. I spent 3 or 4 hours only with the game, of which 2 hours and 22 minutes on my "main", who got up to level 7, adventuring in the crisis zone of Canada. Turns out that wasn't even the main world yet, just a second part of the tutorial, so I really didn't see all that much. I stand by my initial impression, that it feels very much like a console MMORPG (which it is supposed to become), that as long as you see it as that it is not a bad game, but that with the more arcade-like combat and MMORPG-lite features of a console MMORPG this isn't the game for me.

Fortunately some other people had more staying power. Bright Hub has a preview of Champions Online, which covers all the basics, and is very balanced. If you prefer the more personal blog style of game reviews, you can read one at the Church of Pangoria.

What is most confusing about Champions Online is it's business model. Not just the stories that they "ran out of" lifetime and 6-month subscriptions, and then "generously" created more of them. Not just the fact that Champions Online will have both a monthly fee, and a microtransaction shop. But the much bigger question of whether Champions Online will still have a monthly fee in the console version. Console games are generally more expensive than PC games, so it would be completely possible that the console version of Champions Online costs 20 bucks more than the PC version, but has no monthly fee, only the microtransactions. Which, in my opinion, would be a lot fairer, as it is really hard to argue that CO is "as much" game as a classic PC MMORPG for the same price. A "Guild Wars plus microtransactions" business model would suit the game a lot better than a monthly fee plus microtransactions model. I actually have problems believing that Champions Online can hold a large number of subscribers at $15 a month, while without a fee on a console the game would probably do quite well. But I can imagine the uproar of the PC players if the console version has no monthly fee, and the early buyers basically feel they got scammed. So either way it is going to be difficult.

Contentious writing

Of course the previous post wasn't true, I'm not Gevlon. Of the various commenters, Rem came closest to the truth, by saying "I think (sure, I can be wrong) most of you (including Gevlon) didn't fully understand this post. It's not the truth. Nor is it a prank. It's just Tobold's subtle and verbose way of showing us, what "contentious" writing style actually looks like, and why he's not in the business of producing flame bait, even if such always generates more feedback."

I basically started the day with two subjects in my head, both of which I wasn't totally sure whether I should write about. One was a request from one of my readers, who asked me to reply to Gevlon's "proof" that gear doesn't matter in raiding. That reply would have said something along the lines that I think (and Gevlon confirmed that with a post of his) that Gevlon knows perfectly well that raid success is a combination of gear and skill. And it would have said that I suspect that Gevlon deliberately chooses the most contentious way possible to get his point across, with the goal of getting maximum uproar and feedback, in a way which would be called trolling on a message board. I wasn't sure whether I should write this, because such a post would have basically been "feeding the trolls", being exactly the sort of response that such contentious writing tries to evoke.

The other subject in my head I wasn't sure about was a reply to some of the comments of yesterday's post, who advised me to write more outrageous stuff instead of balanced analysis if I wanted feedback. I started thinking about what to say about that, but that post would have been a balanced analysis on the advantages and disadvantages of contentious writing. When writing about a subject, do you want to blast out your favorite one-sided argument, to get the other side of the coin in the comment section? Or do you want to demonstrate that you have thought about the pros and cons, and risk nobody replying because you already said everything there is to be said? But of course if I had written it that way, the style of the post would have given away my obvious preference, however balanced I try to present it.

Neither post would have been especially interesting, nor thought-provoking. Gear vs. skill has been discussed a hundred times, and a long post about how I write my blog would just have diluted the excellent input I got yesterday. By stating so many completely different opinions my readers already made it perfectly clear that there is not one optimal writing style. It is unlikely that I'd even be able to completely change the way I write, nor would that change be universally welcomed.

But while thinking about the two posts, I noticed the obvious overlap of the two subjects, my writing style being diametrically opposed to what I suspect is Gevlon's deliberate tactic. And I observed that apart from the style, and more often than not being on opposite sides of the discussion, we were rather close in our subject area: World of Warcraft, economics, social interactions. Which led to the thought that Gevlon could be regarded as something of an "evil twin" of mine. And then I realized that writing all this together in that "hoax" of me claiming to be Gevlon made much better, more thought-provoking blogging.

That wasn't about the number of comments and feedback posts I'd get, but about the more fundamental question of how you get your readers to think about the things you are currently thinking about. The "hoax" touches a lot of very interesting subjects, like identity on the internet, trust, the value of flame bait to get inherently passive readers to respond, and whether straying from a well-known "brand" style from time to time can liven up a blog. However you want to call that post, I am pretty sure it did make you think. And the posts that make you think are the good ones. And in the end, like Rem said, I got my point across: The inevitable flames provoked by the flame bait made my argument about the disadvantages of contentious writing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

My secret evil twin identity

After several people in yesterday's mega-comment thread advised me to write in a more contentious style, because that attracts far more comments than a long and balanced post, it is time to come clean. About a year ago I had pretty much the same idea, wondering whether if I wrote about basically the same WoW, economics, and game design stuff in a more outrageous, preferably unpleasant way, I would get a lot more visitors and heated discussion. But as I didn't want to change the style of this blog, and the "Tobold" brand and identity, I simply created a second artifical blogger identity. Opened up a second blog on blogspot, and started posting in a deliberate anti-style to Tobold. The result was a success beyond my wildest dreams. You guessed it: My other identity is Gevlon, the Greedy Goblin.

I always thought that somebody would sooner or later guess that behind Tobold and Gevlon in reality there is the same writer. Two bloggers, both which exist only as their avatar icons, with no real name or photograph behind it, no information about their private lives, both on Blogger (too much hassle to master a different system), and writing diametrically opposed views on exactly the same themes, that should have raised suspicions. Guess I underestimated the power of brands, where when people see the exact same item sold under two different brands, they believe the two are actually different. I even got away with frequently cross-linking and cross-quoting the two blogs.

While I couldn't really hide my naturally verbose writing style, and tended to produce walls of text as both Tobold and Gevlon, I simply used a book about Ayn Rand and objectivism as philosophical background for the Gevlon persona, to create the deliberately objectionable and controversial "evil sociopath" persona. Based on the knowledge that the hardcore are a known vocal minority, and the majority of players are social, casual players, I deliberately baited this otherwise silent majority by making fun of them as "socials", or my famous M&S, morons & slackers.

And it worked so well! My Greedy Goblin blog after one year has as many readers as my Tobold blog after over 5! And I got away with the most outrageous stunts, without anyone noticing! Nobody ever asked why somebody who is so obstensibly anti-social than proceeds to take somebody he would call a moron and slacker under his wings to teach him how to make 5k gold per week. Nobody ever questioned what somebody who pretended to not feel any social bonds was doing in a raiding guild (although that might say more about raiding guilds in WoW than about my ability to fake a personality). Pretending to have bought my way into that guild was a stroke of genius, and people believed it even after I posted screenshots demonstrating that I was doing a good job as healer in raids.

But now it's time to end the charade, post a final big announcement as Gevlon on my Greedy Goblin blog, and go back to be simply one virtual blogging character, Tobold. Getting lots of visitors, and lots of feedback, isn't everything, and isn't actually all that pleasant when most of that feedback is predictably negative. Running two blogs in the end was too much work, even if I posted a lot less as Greedy Goblin. My apologies for the ruse, but I thought it was a rather interesting experiment on the nature of blogging and reader reactions. Just shows you can't believe everything you read on the internet.

[EDIT: You might want to read the next post before commenting.]

Kingdom of Loathing announces 2 million accounts

And now for some free advertising. The guys from Kingdom of Loathing want me to let you know that recently the 2 millionth account was opened in their game. They also announced KoL Con 6, the annual gathering of players in Mesa, Arizona, on September 19th-21st. I'm not posting all the press releases I get, but this one was signed by the "Director of Propaganda" of KoL, so how could I possibly refuse?

I kind of liked their formulation of "For those keeping score, that makes the free-to-play KoL only 2/11ths as popular as World of Warcraft, yet it remains infinitely less expensive.", because you can feel it is tongue-in-cheek. Free accounts never expire, and as far as I remember you need several accounts if you want to play several characters. So if you'd really want to measure "popularity", you'd better look at numbers like peak concurrent users, where Kingdom of Loathing like most other free games ends up looking a lot smaller than 2/11th of WoW.

This reminded me of an old question I had, for which I never found an answer: How many boxes of the basic game (as such, or as part of a pack with expansions) of World of Warcraft did Blizzard sell overall? I know that WoW still regularly appears in the top 10 of PC games sales charts, which makes me believe that they still sell tens, if not hundreds of thousands of boxes every month. We always hear about those fabled 11 million subscribers, but if everyone who ever had a WoW account would resubscribe, how many players would we have then? 20 million? 30 million? 50 million? More?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Are you reading theory posts?

As I frequently said, my main reward for writing this blog is the feedback I get from my readers. It was very nice to see how many of you replied to my question which class I should play on a new Alliance character, that post got 55 comments, plus some advice by e-mail. Thanks again!

But of course I couldn't help but notice that for example my summary post on the "Why do we play?" series only got 4 comments, in spite of having been linked to by Massively (and that link only resulted in 250 page visits, they'd get more if *I* linked to *them*). The individual posts of the series got somewhat more feedback, but if I don't count the people who replied to several posts several times, the whole series got less feedback than that one "Paladin or Warlock?" post.

I think you'll believe me that writing a 7-part series over the course of two weeks, plus introduction and summary, requires a lot more effort than firing of a half-page post with a question on WoW classes. So now I'm wondering if that effort was worth it. There are basically two explanations: The less charitable being that nobody is interested in such theory posts, and my posts were tl;dr (too long; didn't read) walls of text anyway. The more charitable explanation would be that people read my posts with interest, but didn't feel like giving feedback. I mean, a question automatically evokes more response than some long text full of statements. You're probably not writing comments in the margins of the books you are reading either.

So to find out which of these explanations is closer to the truth, I'd like some feedback here: Are you reading theory posts like my "Why do we play?" series? Are you enjoying them, or shouldn't I bother? Is there some value in my general game design theoretical posts at all?

Thinking outside the box

Thank you to everybody who contributed in helping me decide whether I should make a paladin or warlock to explore the Alliance zones pre-Cataclysm. If I had just counted the "votes", the warlock would have come out on top. But it was interesting to hear that people who recently leveled a paladin thought that he'd be a good leveler too nowadays. So the decision remained hard, until more by accident than by design, I used a problem solving method called "thinking outside the box".

The principle of thinking outside the box is to first state a "box" constituting the limits within which the solution must lie. In this case I had stated those parameters, that I wanted to play one character from 1-60, on the Alliance side, either paladin or warlock. But the second part of thinking outside the box is to allow in the discussion of the problem to talk about solutions that lie outside the box, which then lead you to conclusions that allow you to find a better solution inside the box.

In this case the "out of the box" thought was a comment proposing that I should play both, paladin AND warlock. Clearly outside the parameters I had stated. But the "why not play both?" thought led to the answer that I probably wouldn't have the time pre-Cataclysm, and that one character would be enough to explore the Alliance zones of the pre-Cataclysm world. Which then led to the part of the plan that I had failed to mention, that of course POST-Cataclysm I would want to level a goblin, and possibly a worgen too, through the post-Cataclysm world to see what had changed. And suddenly the answer which class to play was perfectly clear: Neither goblin nor worgen can be paladins, but they can be warlocks. So the obvious solution is to play a paladin now, and then play the warlock after the expansion comes out with one of the new races.

But thanks again to everybody who gave feedback, even if you proposed something which I didn't end up choosing, all the comments were helpful in the decision process. And I was positively surprised about the unusually high level of feedback on the subject. Of which more, later.

Guild advancement in Cataclysm

A reader asked me on my opinion on the announced guild advancement system in Cataclysm. By taking an inherently social entity, and adding rewards to it, guild advancement is potentially a very powerful tool of social engineering. Now some people have jumped to conclusions, and already dismissed it as clone of the suboptimal guild advancement systems that other games already have. But we simply don't know whether that is true yet, and one thing that Blizzard is famous for is stealing the badly executed ideas of others and unleashing their potential, thereby making their version much better than the original.

I recently read a book about management, which proclaimed as golden rule of managing people that "you get what you reward". I was laughing, because that sounded exactly like me talking about social engineering in game design. You get what you reward, and that does apply to guild advancement systems as well. Where previous systems frequently failed was that guild advancement systems more or less automatically rewarded pretty much everyone, as long as he was in a guild. That is still a possibility for the WoW system, but it would be a wasted chance. If three months after release both Ensidia and that pickup guild inviting random strangers both have the same level of guild advancement, then this system will simply fail to do anything. If your actions don't matter, and everybody gets rewarded the same way anyway, there is no effect of guild advancement on behavior. You get what you reward, and if you reward just being in a guild, you get people just being in a guild.

If done right, a guild advancement system can reward two desirable modes of behavior: Collaboration, and loyalty. But the way to there is strewn with pitfalls. For example it is far too easy to design a system where the guild advancement depends on a fixed number of points, and every action of a guild member adds to those points; with the inevitable result that larger guilds have an advantage over smaller guilds. You get what you reward, and in that case you'd get more large guilds, destroying many smaller ones. Another big pitfall is getting the encouragement of loyalty right: You want to reward people for working out difficulties with their guild, and sticking with their friends, instead of guild hopping. But you also don't want to punish them too harshly if ultimately things don't work out, somebody leaves, or gets kicked out, or a guild breaks up completely. Thus deciding what guild advantages a player loses when quitting a guild and joining a different one, and how fast he regains those advantages, is tricky. Too slow, and you lock people into guilds well beyond the point where the guild is still fun; too fast, and you end up encouraging guild hopping to the guild with the higher level of advancement.

So until I've seen the system in detail, and know all the parameters, I simply can't say whether the guild advancement system in Cataclysm will be good, neutral, or bad. Social engineering is a difficult science, and easy to get wrong.

Monday, August 24, 2009

WoW Plans: Paladin or Warlock?

The direct train of thought which led from me hearing about the details of the Cataclysm expansion of World of Warcraft to me resubscribing went like this: Revamp of Azeroth announced as part of Cataclysm. Read that this isn't a trivial change, but will introduce major changes to most zones of the old world. Realized that this change is irreversible, the old versions of the zones will be gone forever. I should play through all these old zones once more before they are gone. Hmmm, that is going to take some time. Better resubscribe NOW.

So, as I mentioned, raiding isn't the main reason why I'm back. Low level alts are. Just before my WoW break I had started to level up a Tauren druid. Now I'm planning to level that druid to at least 60, questing through all the major Horde zones in the process, and revisiting lots of old favorites. This weekend I burned through my accumulated rest bonus, and dinged 26, having done lots of Barrens, started Ashenvale, and planning to move to Thousand Needles afterwards. As the goal is more a nostalgic revisit than to powerlevel, this is going to take some time. But the druid was already equipped with the heirloom shoulders and staff, and now I got him the heirloom chest piece as well, so he's pretty well twinked and shouldn't be too slow.

But I'm already thinking about the second part of my revisit plans: Creating a level 1 Alliance character, to level to 60, visiting the zones which I missed with the Horde alt. I'd play that one on another server, as my various Horde alts including bank alts pretty much block up all space on my main server. But I have an old level 60 priest from years ago on the server my wife is playing on, so between my old characters there, and the guild bank full of stuff my wife likes to accumulate, I should be able to equip a new character with all the necessities of WoW life. Not heirloom items, I'm afraid, as my wife never did any activity which would have gained her any emblems, and my highest level character on that server is 60. The only way to get a level 1 Alliance alt equipped with heirloom items would be to create him as Horde, grind lots of emblems with my Horde 80's, equip him with heirloom items, and then pay for a faction change when that one is implemented. Not worth it, I'd say.

So we come to the question of what class to play as Alliance. Taking into account the various classes I've already played a lot of, dismissing Death Knight as not suited to revisit level 1-60 content, and dismissing some classes I tried and didn't like, I narrowed down the selection to two possible classes: Paladin or Warlock. It has been literally years since I last played one of these. And I'm a bit concerned that both of these classes have changed so much, I might not be fully aware about their class role and soloing capabilities nowadays. So input from you would be welcome.

When I played one last, a warlock was one of the best soloing classes around, due to the voidwalker pet being able to tank for you, and an impressive amount of dps. The paladin I played last, as I said, years ago, was a horrible soloer: Basically dealt no damage at all, fights took forever, and I ended up making him an engineer so I had at least some ranged combat and added dps. But all this is probably yesterday's news. I hear warlocks have been nerfed so much, that nobody is playing one any more. And I hear paladins are so uber now, that they are better than any other class in just about anything. But then, people tend to judge classes on their performance in PvP and raids, and I have no clue about how good these classes really are in solo leveling PvE now.

So, in your opinion, which would be the better class to play from level 1 to 60 with an Alliance character: Paladin or warlock? Is paladin still a much slow leveler than the warlock, or has that been balanced better now? What other things do you like or dislike about these two classes as they are now? Please keep in mind that I'm not interested in PvP or raiding, the character is just for visiting old content before it disappears. Which of these classes is more fun to level?

WoW Plans: Raiding

I've seen from various comments on this blog or my guild that many people think that I'm back to World of Warcraft because of raiding. That would be rather overstating it. I might raid a bit now I'm back, but certainly much less than before my break, and it certainly wasn't the reason for me to come back. If anything, raiding was more a reason for me becoming burned out than to come back.

The principle problem of raiding, and other endgame activities as well, is that it suffers very much from diminishing returns. The further you get, the slower your rate of advancement. You're on what as scientist would call an asymptotic curve, which goes ever upward, but never actually reaches the top, because you get stuck at some point of infinitesimal rate of advancement.

In the specific case of World of Warcraft raiding there are added problems. One being a logical loop: You raid to get better epics, but the only use for these epics is to raid. My priest is wearing a nice set of Naxxramas epics, and I can't find a reason for him to want better gear from raiding, unless it is for raiding. For daily quests, 5-man dungeons, even heroics, my gear is good enough by far. For PvP, not that I'd be interested, raiding wouldn't help much, due to WoW PvP being so dependant on resilience. And even if the next expansion has only 5 new levels, I'm pretty sure that there will be some sort of gear reset again: At the latest once we start doing level 85 heroics and raids, we will have to replace our level 80 gear.

The other WoW raid specific reason is the conundrum that plagues guild raids as well as pickup groups to dungeons: The potential for reward is inversely proportional to your contribution. The more you contribute to the success of the group or raid, the lower is the chance of you receiving a reward which is still useful to you. In my current situation, with my guild having advanced through Ulduar, while I'm still wearing Naxxramas gear, I'd basically be a leech. As I know the encounters less well, and am less well geared than the others, my contribution would necessarily be below average. But as the others are already regularly disenchanting the kind of gear I'd still need, my chance to gear up would be extremely good. In the case of my guild that is something I'd feel uncomfortable with. I'd either be a leeching tourist, or I would have to decide to make up for the leeching by raiding more later, thus getting back into raids feeling like a duty, like work, with a high risk of burning out.

Without reciprocity, the sense that you owe helping the people that helped you earlier, you arrive at the situation of the pickup group, which is basically a version of the prisoner's dilemma: The overall group would profit maximally if every member was contributing the same, and the sum of contributions would be exactly good enough to beat the dungeon. But the individual would profit maximally if he found people stronger than himself to leech from. As a result you'll often get a group in which everybody, or at least too many, people "optimized" their situation by being weaker than the challenge they are attempting would require, with the inevitable result that the whole group fails.

Probably nobody noticed the irony, but what I was doing in the last paragraph was applying game theory to games. Which is funny, because game theory isn't really about games, but about social sciences, and behavioral economics. But as behavioral economics can explain a lot of things, closing the loop and applying game theory to games gives valid results if the game is a social one. Note that in this model a guild becomes a case of an iterated prisoner's dilemma, where because the same people group together repeatedly, they can arrive in the situation where they collaborate, maximizing the benefit for everybody. Behavioral economics and game theory in this case can explain perfectly well why a guild group is more likely to succeed than a pickup group, in spite of using the same pool of people.

I have noticed that Blizzard improved their looking for group tool further since I last used it, in that you can now flag yourself as tank, healer, or dps. And I hear rumors of a future patch adding cross-server instance groups, which would be great. But all of these improved tools don't address the prisoner's dilemma of leeching being the optimal strategy for the individual vis-à-vis a pickup group of complete strangers, and a group with too many leeches failing to succeed.

The result of all this, diminishing returns and game theory, is that I can't go to the kind of raid I'd love to play most. Being still a bit burned out with my priest, I'd rather go raiding to Naxx-10 with my warrior, who isn't even full epic yet. But with no Naxxramas on the guild event calendar, and me not having much confidence in PuG raids, I guess I'm forced to equip my warrior with other activities than raiding. And I'm not sure I'm willing to raid several nights a week with my priest any more. So raiding really isn't the reason why I'm back to WoW.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Booking into Hotel California

As some readers suggested, World of Warcraft is a bit like Hotel California, where "you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." That is because probably the biggest single reason why people quit World of Warcraft is that they ran out of things to do. Blizzard simply can't produce content fast enough. So every major content patch and new expansion results in a surge of resubscriptions, proudly presented in a Blizzard press release; and then over the months which follows, without any comment from Blizzard, subscription numbers slowly decline. Note how the last press release, on the announcement of Cataclysm, was curiously free of the usual "WoW now has X million subscribers" phrase, although the footnote explaining what exactly is counted as subscriber was still in it. As far as I know the Chinese servers are still not up again, and in the US and Europe there is a distinct lull, related to Wrath of the Lich King getting old, and the summer holidays. This is most visible via measures of player activity, be it from sites like Warcraftrealms, or services like XFire.

Of course decreased player activity is not identical to decreased subscriptions, it is completely possible for players to be subscribed to World of Warcraft and not playing it. But that is something most people wouldn't keep up for very long, so there must be millions of people who unsubscribe while taking a break from WoW, and resubscribe later.

And once you look at it, you'll notice that unsubscribing and resubscribing isn't all that painless in the context of the monthly flat fee business model. Already the question for how long you should subscribe poses a problem: If you subscribe for 3 or 6 months, you pay $1 / €1 or $2 / €2 less per month. Nice saving? Not if you don't perfectly time your burnout with your subscription period. Getting fed up and losing the will to play is usually something that happens unplanned. So statistically on average you'll still have half of your subscription period left the day you decide to stop playing. You'd need to have played for a year on the 3-month deal, or a year-and-a-half on the 6-month deal, for your savings on the monthly fee to equal the cost of the time you pay for and don't play.

Of course the one game where you are most likely to need one doesn't offer a lifetime subscription. In hindsight it is very obvious that a World of Warcraft lifetime subscription would have been a sweet deal back in 2004. Less obvious is that it could still be a good deal now, for the millions of players who'll often come back to World of Warcraft after having taken a break, or tried another game. At the typical lifetime subscription rate offered by other games, $200, which is equal to about 15 months of monthly fees, it is still quite likely that you'll spend this much time in World of Warcraft over the coming years, even if you just play 6 months after each expansion. While it is possible that WoW has peaked by now, the servers will be running for many years to come, and Blizzard can easily keep their current "live team" churning out content patches and expansions for another decade. So personally, if Blizzard started offering a lifetime subscription to WoW now, I'd take them up on it immediately.

The even better deal for most people would be the one that the players on the Chinese servers are already enjoying (if the servers are up): Paying the equivalent of 5 cents per hour. Now of course the purchasing power in China is less high than in the US and Europe, so if a pay-per-hour business model came to here, it would probably cost more. But even at 15 cents per hour, you'd need to play over 100 hours per month before this became more expensive than the monthly fee. And on a pay-per-hour plan you don't pay anything if you go on holidays, or take a break from WoW. Also there is no more hassle of unsubscribing and resubscribing.

The one thing that World of Warcraft does well with regards to people taking a break, is that Blizzard never deletes your characters or other virtual possessions. Other games, like Final Fantasy XI, had the habit to delete your characters after 3 or 6 months of inactivity, then found that this seriously hampered any "come back to us" marketing efforts, and had to furiosly backpedal and offer character reactivation services. Games with player housing, if that housing isn't completely instanced, suffer especially from that, because the alternatives are having either having neighborhoods of abandoned buildings, or resubscribing players finding their house gone and their favorite spot taken.

I wonder whether Blizzard will ever offer better deals to people who frequently take a break. Of course the very notion that a deal could be better for the subscriber implies that the deal is less profitable for Blizzard, so this isn't all that likely. But I'd love to see alternative subscription deals, like a lifetime subscription, or a pay-per-hour alternative payment method. And once the second Blizzard MMORPG comes out, I'd sure be interested in a deal where subscribing to both costs only a little more than subscribing to just one of them.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back into the World of Warcraft

I don't know if that was part of Blizzard's plan, but the announcement of the Cataclysm expansion made me resubscribe to World of Warcraft, with the idea of leveling my Tauren druid, and maybe later some Alliance character, through the old content before it disappears. Kind of "last chance to see". But once I resubscribed of course I couldn't help but also do lots of other stuff, like trying the new Trials of Champions dungeon, or participating in the Argent Tournament. Having lots of fun!

The downside of that is that, as I was having much less fun there, I didn't continue playing the Champions Online beta past level 7. Not that it is such a bad game, but a WoW it ain't, and the more twitchy kind of combat, where you need to block big incoming attacks, isn't my style either. So I'm not sure if I'll write than Champions Online review after all.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Champions Online beta now open for everyone

Don't trust the reviews, see for yourself. After their usual "subscribers get in first", Fileplanet now opens access to the Champions Online open beta to everyone. For free, even if you aren't subscribed to them, even if then maybe you'll have to queue a bit before the download. Nevertheless, Champions Online is one of those games which some people love and others hate, and I really recommend checking it out while you can do so for free.

I was wrong, leak was true

Blizzard just officially announced the third World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, and I was wrong doubting the leaks: They were completely true. My apologies. Best details can be found in the official Cataclysm FAQ, videos at the Cataclysm site. Main features are:
  • Two New Playable Races: Adventure as one of two new races--the cursed worgen with the Alliance or the resourceful goblins with the Horde.
  • Level Cap Increased to 85: Earn new abilities, tap into new talents, and progress through the path system, a new way for players to improve characters.
  • Classic Zones Remade: Familiar zones across the original continents of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms have been altered forever and updated with new content, from the devastated Badlands to the broken Barrens, which has been sundered in two.
  • New High-Level Zones: Explore newly opened parts of the world, including Uldum, Grim Batol, and the great Sunken City of Vashj'ir beneath the sea.
  • More Raid Content than Ever Before: Enjoy more high-level raid content than previous expansions, with optional more challenging versions of all encounters.
  • New Race and Class Combinations: Explore Azeroth as a gnome priest, blood elf warrior, or one of the other never-before-available race and class combinations.
  • Guild Advancement: Progress as a guild to earn guild levels and guild achievements.
  • New PvP Zone & Rated Battlegrounds: Take on PvP objectives and daily quests on Tol Barad Island, a new Wintergrasp-like zone, and wage war in all-new rated Battlegrounds.
  • Archaeology: Master a new secondary profession to unearth valuable artifacts and earn unique rewards.
  • Flying Mounts in Azeroth: Explore Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms like never before.
The most interesting part in all of this is something that rarely, if ever, happens with an MMORPG expansion: The disappearance of old content. The old zones of Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdom will disappear. And that will happen for everyone, whether he bought the expansion or not: "When the Cataclysm occurs, it will occur for all players, whether they have purchased the expansion or not--you will no longer be to play in the original version of Kalimdor or the Eastern Kingdoms. However, certain features such as the new zones, new races, and new level cap will only be accessible to players who purchase the expansion." The original versions of the zones will disappear completely, and will be replaced by new versions, which are flight-enabled. Well, there is still quite a while until the Cataclysm happens, so you can still roll a couple of alts and explore the old world zones as they are right now. But when the expansion comes, the old content will be gone forever.

Oh, and there is no new hero class.

Why do we play? - Summary

I'm wrapping up my why do we play series of posts here with a short summary. After an introduction of the subject, I covered a range of possible factors of why we play MMORPGs so much longer than single-player games: Storytelling, gameplay, challenge, character development, rewards, social interactions, and finally learning.

What I think evolved from these posts and the various comments is that the reasons why we play MMORPGs are very different from the reasons why we play single-player games. Factors that are very strong in choosing a single-player game, like whether it tells a good story, or whether it has the right level of challenge, or whether the gameplay is just fun, are much weaker when choosing a MMORPG. Social interactions are much more important, but not necessarily direct social interactions. The indirect social interaction of just sharing a virtual world with other players appears to make character development and rewards much more powerful motivational factors than if similar character development and rewards were available in a single-player game.

There are different theories for that effect: One is that the rewards are treasured more in a multi-player environment, because the rewards serve as status symbols. Another is that how far you can develop your character, and equip him with rewards, is part of an indirect competition with other players. The fact that character development and rewards do not depend 100% on the player's skill, but can all be achieved with sheer determination and effort, is not a disadvantage, just the opposite: Being able to achieve everything if you just put enough effort into it is a definitive plus for motivation.

For the developers of MMORPGs, the motivational factors have consequences on how to produce better games. Of course improving storytelling and gameplay are always important. But if player behavior is mostly influenced by rewards and the social effects of these rewards, it is important to well balance these rewards to encourage social cohesion and to make sure that all areas of gameplay are equally desirable. By controlling what sort of activity gives what sort of rewards, developers engage in some sort of social engineering, whether they want to or not, with potentially catastrophic consequences if this is done badly.

There is no single answer to the question of why do we play, and the same answer might be true or false to different degrees to different people. The matter is further complicated by the observation that what players say they want on game forums and in surveys does not always correspond to what they really do in the virtual world of the game. The sometimes excessive chase after rewards, and conflicts arrising from a group effort resulting in group members not all being equally rewarded, is very visible inside the game, while players tend to downplay greed and jealousy as motivational factor when asked about it in a survey. Overall it appears that MMORPGs provide their players with a sensation of success of some sort, and that it is this which is one of the strongest reason of why we play.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thinking man's PS3 games?

I do not own a Playstation 3, or any other of the current generation of video game consoles. I still have a PS2 and a Game Cube from the previous generation, but mainly use the PS2 as DVD player nowadays. But the announcement from Sony that their new version of the PS3 would only cost 299 $=€ is of course an opportunity to think again whether buying a Playstation 3 would be worth it now.

Not just because of the price, but also because there are a lot more games available for the PS3 now than two years ago. But as I haven't watched that market much, I'm not so sure whether the existing PS3 games are a good fit to my gaming habits. When I last checked the PS3 games available, just after release of the console, there was a heavy emphasis on fast, twitchy, action games, with no turn-based games, or slower strategy titles and role-playing games in sight. Are there games like tactical RPGs on the PS3 now? Or more traditional role-playing games without twitchy combat?

If you have a Playstation 3, and knowing my preferences, what PS3 games would you recommend to me?

Reviews and opinions

I played the Fallen Earth beta about one hour, decided I completely hated everything about this game, and uninstalled it again. Judging whether a game is fun for you doesn't take longer than one hour, and in some cases you can make the decision in 5 minutes. There isn't much of an argument that can be made that it takes, lets say, 20 hours to decide whether you like a game, because there are nowadays so many games much shorter than that, that this would mean you would have to play them through several times before deciding whether the game is a good personal fit for you. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Games simply don't get that long to convince their potential users that they are fun; either a game is already fun in the first hour, or players will just drop it.

Unfortunately we live in the Twitter age, the age of mass opinions, where everybody is constantly bombarded with opportunities to publish his opinions on just about everything. And in this deluge of opinions from everybody, people forget that an opinion is just that, a personal opinion, which in many cases tells you as much about the person who expresses the opinion as about the subject he is talking about.

For example activists with strong opinions on digital rights management have repeatedly used the Amazon user review scoring system to give the lowest possible score to all games with strong copy protection. And because there are not many people really taking the time to review games for Amazon, and hundreds of anti-DRM activists, the score of these games is now considerably lower than the quality of the games themselves would justify. Of course it is totally valid to have a strong opinion about digital rights management, and to express that opinion publicly. But a review score influenced by such strong opinions only tells you a lot about these activists, and very little about whether the game is actually good or bad. For somebody who just installs the game once, plays it through, and forgets about it, a review score decimated because the game can only be installed five times is pretty much worthless, as it doesn't really tell him what he wants to know about the game.

Opinions also reflect hopes and fears about stuff that hasn't even happened yet. If I was to put a poll on this blog, asking "Which is the best MMORPG ever?", and sneakily put Star Wars: The Old Republic on the list of possible choices, SWTOR would get quite a solid amount of votes. Which is obviously completely crazy, because nobody has played SWTOR yet. But that doesn't stop people from publishing opinions everywhere of what a great game SWTOR is going to be. That tells you a lot about the strength of the Star Wars brand, the skill of the Bioware marketing guys, and the general hope people have for a next big thing, but nearly nothing about the quality of the game SWTOR itself. The MMO blogosphere is also full of reports of what a great expansion WoW: Cataclysm is going to be, and that is before that expansion is even announced, just based on a "leak", which still could turn out to be a hoax.

And then there is what I call the "Ed Zitron effect": People become unable to distinguish between an opinion and a review. That is true for both the reviewers and the readers. It is totally okay to have a negative opinion about Champions Online, without having played it, just based on the fact that one leading developer, Bill Roper, produced Hellgate London, which then failed and closed down. It is also totally okay to play Champions Online for a short time, notice that it is more an arcade, console game than a classic MMORPG, and decide that this isn't the game for you. But such opinions do not constitute a "game review". Bloggers, including me, nearly always publish what is more a mix of descriptions and opinions than really an objective review. And opinions are never wrong. The readers' opinions might differ from the author's opinion, and that is what comment sections are there for to discuss.

In a perfect world, everybody would state his opinion in a polite way, and the total collection of all opinions would paint a pretty accurate and balanced picture of the actual strengths and weaknesses of the game. In the real world we get "reviewers" who think that because they personally don't like a game, it is a bad game, and virtual lynch mobs trying to shout down anyone who expresses an opinion contrary to theirs.

Google Analytics tells me that over the last 30 days the keyword that lead to the most visits to my site from search engines was "aion review". What it doesn't tell me is whether these visitors were satisfied with what they found. First time visitors nearly never leave comments. I certainly make a special effort on any post I label "review", for example playing Aion with both possible races and several classes to check for replayability. But what I can't avoid, and I think no blogger, and probably not even professional game reviewers can avoid, is that all my personal history with games affects my judgment of a game like Aion. If I had never played World of Warcraft, my view of Aion would certainly be a very different one. And my "plays like WoW" opinion is possibly only true for the leveling part that I did play, and not really relevant for that part of the population who thinks that any MMORPG only starts at the level cap.

I totally plan to play Champions Online more this week, and all weekend. And I'll probably label the resulting post "Champions Online beta review", or something like that, so that search engine users can find it. I'll have played CO over 20 hours by then, and I'll try to be as balanced as possible, as I always do in review posts. But in spite of all that my review will ultimately be just a bunch of descriptions and personal opinions. It will be influenced by my personal dislike of PvP and twitchy games, as well as my personal like of cell-shaded graphics. And it will be influenced by my personal mood, being a bit burned out from MMORPGs right now, and having done too many "kill 10 foozles" quest in my life. And that mix of descriptions and subjective opinions is all that you really can expect from a review of a game on a blog. By knowing your favorite bloggers, reading between the lines, giving greater weight to the descriptions than to subjective opinions, you will be able to get a pretty good idea about a game. But ultimately that one first hour playing the game will tell you much better whether this particular game is fun to you than ten hours spent reading reviews.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Champions Online is a console MMORPG

I have a XBox 360 gamepad controller connected to my PC, a remnant from playing The Last Remnant, so to say. So when after downloading a second, working, client for Champions Online I finally was able to enter the game, the first thing I noticed was that the hotkey button shortcuts were shown as XBox controller keys, and when standing in front of an NPC I was told to "press D-pad up to talk". So I put mouse and keyboard aside, grabbed the gamepad, and was able to play through most of the tutorial without ever letting go of the controller. And that is already basically all you need to know about this game: Champions Online is a console MMORPG.

Finally I understand some people's instinctive hostility towards Champions Online. It is not that CO is a bad console game. Graphics, gameplay, and controls work perfectly well in the context of a console game. But if you were expecting a classic PC MMORPG, with the polygon count of Aion, the complexity of at least WoW, and the typical mouse and keyboard controls, Champions Online doesn't deliver. It has cell-shaded graphics, which I personally like, but which are very different from what you see elsewhere. And while there are some advantages to gamepad controls, like being able to control camera and character with two separate thumbsticks at the same time, it quickly becomes evident that combat has been designed with a gamepad in mind too. Not that there is anything wrong with arcade buttonmashing games, but for somebody like me who already finds World of Warcraft combat not tactical enough, Champions Online combat is downright primitive. You do the whole tutorial with just two buttons, a quick, weak attack that charges your energy, and a slow, powerful attack that discharges it. If you see the enemy preparing his slow, powerful attack, you can block it, avoiding a part of the damage.

I can see the potential of this being a big success on the XBox. As I said, seen as a console game, Champions Online totally works. And there not being much competition for MMORPGs on the XBox, Champions Online will offer console players the well-known delights of quest-guided gameplay, character development by leveling and finding gear, even public quests. Only, of course, with just a gamepad in hand, I never chatted with anyone, and any cooperation with other players was just accidental.

For somebody used to PC MMORPGs and expecting another one of these, Champions Online might well be a disappointment. Controls don't work quite as well with mouse and keyboard, and having been designed for a gamepad, the user interface and menus works somewhat different than you're accustomed to. Although I assume that you'll gain more powers later, it appears that you'll never have quite as many spells and abilities as you'd have in a classic MMO. There are also obviously less items, finding loot from a dead mob isn't all that common. I did find how you could customize your powers, shooting your attack from the forehead instead of your palm for example, but that is just style and not substance. Compared to a standard PC MMORPG, Champions Online feels a MMORPG-lite, a redux version for the console. And the question of whether you really want to pay a monthly fee for that is totally justified. There are a great many Free2Play games out there which are considerably more complex than Champions Online. Makes you wonder what the business model for CO on the XBox will be; even if the game "works" for the console, console players aren't used to pay monthly fees, and might well simply refuse to do so.

Atlantica Online Crafting

As I said in my not-review of Atlantica Online, I want to look at some features of that game which are very different from better known MMORPGs, to show that there are different ways to handle things. I'll start with crafting, although ultimately I wasn't all that happy with crafting in AO.

In its most basic form, crafting in Atlantica Online is directly linked to combat. When you learn a craft, and there are very many different crafts, one of every type of item in the game, you get a first recipe. Like everywhere else, the recipe tells you what materials you need to craft that item. But when you gather the materials and start the crafting, absolutely nothing happens, except that the materials disappear, and a small icon appears at the top of the screen, showing progress stuck at 0%. Further examination reveals that crafting anything needs something called "workload". Depending on what you craft, and how many items at once, you will need more or less workload. And the basic way to create workload is by combat: At the end of a successful combat you will receive an amount of workload which depends on how many monsters of what level you just killed. Your crafting progress indicator will advance, and at some point your crafting will be finished, and you can click on the icon to receive the crafted items. Using this method you obviously can't have a crafter career without an adventurer career. But as you are most likely fighting combats all the time anyway, using the fights to simultaneously produce workload can't hurt. If you don't have any personal crafting projects ongoing, the workload of each fight is used for guild crafting projects if there are any.

Unfortunately crafting by fighting is relatively slow. By the time you leveled up your various crafting skills for armor, helmet, shoes, gauntlets, pants, shields, and various weapons, and made the weapons for the level you are in, you'll long have outleveled the equipment you just made. So either you limit yourself to one speciality, and get the rest of your equipment elsewhere, or you use the other two sources of workload: The auto-craft skill and crafting books. Auto-craft is an "action" you can craft yourself or buy, and then use to increase your auto-craft skill from an initial zero to as high as you can afford. Once you have the auto-craft skill, you can press "Z", and you'll sit down and slowly create workload. The higher your skill, the more workload you create (Workload per tick is 80 plus 20 per skill point). Problem is you can't do much else, except chatting and using the bank and market, while auto-crafting. You can't move, and you can't fight. And rather quickly the workload requirements to advance your crafting skill one more level gets so high, that it literally takes hours to craft something that way. When I started to install AO on my laptop so I could auto-craft on the laptop while playing something else on the main computer, I realized how stupid that is as game design to encourage people to be logged in but inactive. Crafting books are somewhat better, you buy them, click on them, and it adds an amount of workload to your current project. As books exist with up to 1 million workload, you can pretty much craft anything quickly, but it'll cost you a fortune, way above the cost of the materials.

Once you crafted something, you'll have earned crafting experience for that specific type of item, e.g. shoes. Crafting experience enables you to gain crafting levels, with which you automatically gain new recipes. But you don't just simply level up when you have the experience, you need a crafting trainer. Up to level 10 there are static NPC trainers for most basic weapons, armor, and consumables. After that you will need to find a wandering NPC to teach you, or have another player with higher skill teach you to gain a crafting level. Both of these are interesting concepts: To find a wandering NPC you first need to pay a small sum to another NPC who gives you the current location of the NPC you are looking for, and then you need to travel there. As there are lots of different wandering NPCs, and not only crafting trainers, there is always a reason to travel around even known places. It isn't like in classic MMOs, where a zone becomes depopulated once there aren't any players of that level around any more. Learning a crafting level from another player is often easier, but of course you need to find somebody to teach you first, with the help of a crafter's list. That makes high-level crafters quite famous, and fosters social contacts between crafters.

Many recipes, especially the basic ones, use only ingredients that are sold on the market in unlimited quantities at a fixed price. Which means it is easy to calculate the cost of making an item. Once you calculated that, you'll be disappointed to learn that the market value of most items is way below the fixed cost of crafting it. That is something that happens frequently in various MMO economies: People like leveling up crafting, so they craft lots of stuff nobody needs, and in consequence the crafted items are worth less than the materials. Crafting destroys value, which is counterintuitive. Of course the idea is that not everybody makes it to high-level crafting, and at some point crafting will be profitable.

Fortunately Atlantica Online has a very interesting system to get rid of excess items. If you have lets say two identical swords, you can use 1 weapon enchant stone of the appropriate level to combine the two swords into one +1 sword. Two +1 swords and 2 weapon stones give a +2 sword. Two +2 swords plus 3 weapon stones give a +3 sword, and so on. So making a +10 sword costs the grand total of 1,024 regular swords and 2,036 weapon enchant stones, providing an inexhaustible sink for junk crafted items. The thus enchanted items are quite good, even a +2 item is already better than an unenchanted item of the next higher level. So given enough money, you can equip your characters in highly enchanted gear which is much better than the regular gear they'd only get much higher levels. And after the +6 enchantment level, the items become "sealed", basically bind-on-equip, effectively removing them from the economy.

Monsters in Atlantica Online do not drop equipment, only crafting materials and boxes with random pieces of the same gear that you can also craft. So crafting is a major source of gear in this game. And probably by looking at all the prices, especially of the higher level and enchanted gear, you could find a way to make profit from crafting. Nevertheless I pretty much abandoned crafting, because of the high workload requirements. I dabbled in medicine crafting, which provided my character with quite good potions to regain health and mana, but getting that far in just one skill involved several sessions of afk auto-crafting over night or while I was at work. Which not only is not much fun, but also leads to your friends complaining that you never answer their whispers. Crafting by combat is an interesting concept, but rather slow, especially with me only being level 50ish (out of 120 possible). I could continue crafting by buying crafting books, but then I can forget about any hopes of making a profit.

So when looking at what Atlantica Online does well, so it could serve as example for other games, the system of enchanting gear by using many of the same type is certainly a good one, and alleviates the classic problem of the auction house being flooded with hundreds of bronze daggers. By turning your hundreds of items into one highly enchanted one, you'll find some twink as customer, and remove the crafted goods from the economy. The fact that most gear in Atlantica Online is crafted, so there is a player-based economy, is also a positive one. Where Atlantica Online fails is in turning crafting into an interesting alternative activity. Crafting systems which encourage you to go afk are just terribly bad game design.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Nothing to play in 2010?

The NDAs of several games about to be released next month dropped, and the resulting crop of reviews was disappointing. Disappointing in two ways, actually, both by being not very positive, and by apparently all having been written by Ed Zitron: Less than 9 hours played, and then writing a negative review which tells you very little about gameplay, and a lot about the personal reasons why the author didn't like the game. So I read that Champions Online isn't feeling massive because everything is in 25-man instances and has wonky combat, Fallen Earth is just dreck, and Aion is a pretty WoW clone which will collapse a month after release when people realize that there aren't any raids in the game.

Personally I can't confirm or disprove these opinions, I played Fallen Earth less long than Ed Zitron, never got past level 10 in Aion, and couldn't even get into Champions Online yet, where the patcher is, well, patchy. There seems to be a strong, negative vibe against Champions Online in the blogosphere, which, not having played it yet, I don't know where it is coming from. Aion got a better reception, but there is some truth to the comments that pretty isn't the same as good. And personally I'm wary of games with a PvP endgame, as these tend to lose a lot of players early on. I'm not sure there is really a mass market for PvP games in the US and Europe.

There are no announced release dates for WoW: Cataclysm, SWTOR, or the next Blizzard MMO. But it appears that 2009 is another year that yet again failed to produce the next big thing, and 2010 won't be much better, offering nothing more than yet another WoW expansion, and that only at the end of the year, if at all. The list of games I'm looking forward to which still might come out in the next 12 months has shrunk to Star Trek Online, plus an outsider hope of Jumpgate Evolution being not as twitchy as I fear. Somehow the MMORPG market seems to be stuck with one aging giant of a game with increasing problems of player burnout, plus a large number of dwarves that fail to hold many players for very long. The fabled "next big thing", if it exists at all, doesn't appear to be around the corner. So what will we play in 2010?

Blizzard's quest tracker didn't happen

It was widely reported that patch 3.2 would introduce Blizzard's own version of Questhelper to the standard interface of World of Warcraft. I found that interesting, because it touches some important questions on what a "quest" really is: Is it really a kind of search, like the quest for the holy grail, or is it just an errand?

So I used my wife's account to log into WoW and check out the new feature, now that patch 3.2 went life. Only, it wasn't there. I couldn't find any quest marks on my world map, nor any option to turn them on in the interface section, where the other new features had helpfully been marked with a golden exclamation mark. And reading the patch notes, the text about the addition of the quest helper feature was missing as well.

After some searching, I found a forum announcement that for some technical reason the feature didn't make it, and they hope to implement it later. Which still leaves us some time to ponder why the average player can't do a quest that tells him to "kill 10 wolves in the mountains north of the village", unless the wolves north of the village are marked on his map, and preferably there is a big arrow pointing towards them.

Once bitten, twice shy?

In January 2007 Turbine announced something new to the world of MMORPG business models: A lifetime subscription to their upcoming Lord of the Rings Online, limited time offer exclusively available to pre-order customers. And a lot of bloggers at the time thought that this was a good idea. Although you obviously had to give Turbine your money before having played the release version of the game, the reception of this offer was pretty positive. After all, if you didn't want to, you could always stick to the regular payment model.

Two-and-a-half years later Cryptic Studio's exactly same offer for Champions Online is being heckled from all sides as a scam, trying to get people's money before they can walk away. Some even conclude that Cryptic Studio believes Champions Online will fail, citing the existence of a lifetime subscription offer as evidence.

What has changed?

I can only assume that what changed is people's experience with lifetime subscriptions. Before LotRO they had none, thus the idea was welcomed as new. But already with LotRO it appears that many people who paid for the lifetime subscription, me included, did not play the game sufficiently long for that offer having been cheaper than a monthly subscription. And then there were lifetime subscription offers for games like Hellgate London, where the game went under quickly, and anyone having paid for a lifetime subscription realized that a lifetime could be rather short. So once bitten, twice shy, now lifetime subscriptions are regarded with a lot more suspicion. Which is somewhat unfair against Cryptic, because they aren't offering anything less than Turbine did at the time. It is only the expectation of the worth of such an offer that has changed.

I still think that a lifetime subscription has some added value in convenience over subscribing and unsubscribing repeatedly to the same game. But as the only game where I regularly quit and come back is World of Warcraft, that would be the only game I'd buy a lifetime subscription right now. And I'm sure I'm not the only one, everybody expects WoW to live for many more years, knows about the waves of resubscriptions at every expansion or major content patch, and thus a lifetime subscription offer from Blizzard would be greeted enthusiastically again.

But we also learned in the last 5 years how many games are released with great promise, and then fail to deliver on that promise. That ranges from games which are quite good, and just failed compared to their hype, to games which are so bad they get closed down after some months. But nobody wants to get stuck with a lifetime subscription to failure. So it appears this particular business model is a non-starter nowadays. Or does it depend on the amount of hype? Would you buy a lifetime subscription to SWTOR before having played it? I wouldn't.

Why do we play? - Learning

According to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, learning is one of the major motivational factors in games. We play until we learned how a game works, then we get bored and stop. Theoretically. It certainly is fun to learn a new MMORPG, especially if it is somewhat different from what one played before. New games get a substantial amount of sales from the simple fact that they are new, thus promising a learning experience. But when we consider why we play the same MMORPG for thousands of hours, the "fun through learning" explanation appears rather weak.

Look at some of the more complicated single-player role-playing games, like the Final Fantasy games, or even Final Fantasy Tactics. They are good value for money, because the learning experience is a long one. But long in the context of a single-player games means something in the vicinity of one hundred hours. By the time they played the game through once in one hundred hours, most people completely grasped even the details of a complicated Final Fantasy game. Now compare that to a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, and you'll immediately see that WoW is a lot less complicated, but takes much longer. Nobody needs thousands of hours to learn how to play World of Warcraft well.

That does not mean that after having played thousands of hours, everyone is playing World of Warcraft well. That is because most of those hours are spent doing things that don't teach you anything. This is easy to see with the example of the Death Knight: The average player of a level 60 Death Knight knows his character as well as the average player of any other level 60 character. Only that the Death Knight player completed this learning experience in a condensed 5 levels, while the players of the other classes had to play for the full 60 levels. Thus the other player obviously wasted a lot of his time with activities that didn't teach him any better than the accelerated Death Knight tutorial.

Also the time to level 60 is getting shorter and shorter. When WoW came out, the average player needed 500 hours to reach level 60. Nowadays even a completely new player will level to 60 in less than half that time, without that having any negative consequence on his mastery of the class he is playing. The reason is that the amount of time needed to get to the next level is completely artificial, and is not at all related to the time it takes to understand the spells and abilities of the previous level. Character levels up, gets a new spell, and completely grasps all the uses of that spell in a few fights; but then he still needs to do another hundred fights or more before getting the next new spell or ability to learn. The learning experience is artificially diluted.

The famous archetypical player who bought a level-capped character on Ebay will have difficulties playing this character well right away, but he *will* learn how to handle that character much faster than it would take to level a character to the cap himself. That is the reason why there is demand for means to accelerate the leveling process: Power-leveling services, twinking, getting boosted through dungeons, or even paying with microtransactions for some scroll of fast leveling. People are able to learn and master MMORPGs a lot faster than the game actually lets them advance.

Even worse, in the specific case of World of Warcraft, what the game teaches you during the leveling period has very, very little relation to the skills you need to succeed in the end game. By making the leveling process completely solo-able, and not even offering NPC groups that would teach you basic group tactics, it is completely possible to reach level 80 with a warrior without ever having used the taunt ability. What would you have used it for in solo play? It does nothing there!

The learning period when you start grouping can be fun, but can also be extremely frustrating. Not because the basics of heroics or raiding would actually be hard, but because the game is designed to be as unfriendly as possible towards people who learn. Players able and willing to explain well what to do to another player are few and far between. And the learning by trial and error method usually gets your whole group wiped, and the new player kicked from the group. It is one of the consequences of having a game with so many players, but one which isn't very social: It becomes easier to kick a player out and replace him by somebody else, than to teach him anything.

Raids in World of Warcraft are considered "difficult". That would imply that it would be fun to learn and master them. In reality that is often not the case. Factors like having to get 25 players together at the same time and place, raid lockouts, tedious trash on the way to the boss, and long recovery times from wipes limit how often a raid group can try a specific encounter. As frequently explained, the main "difficulty" of a large raid encounter is that it can fail even if the large majority of participants executed their part perfectly well. And as the interactions are often complex, in many cases the persons responsible for the wipe aren't even aware that it was their fault, and learn nothing. Even at their best, raids are all about a perfect synchronous execution of rather trivial moves, and not very intellectually challenging.

What little opportunity there is to learn something in World of Warcraft, players regularly circumvent. They prefer predictable daily quests to new ones. The use of addons like Questhelper became so common, that Blizzard now introduced it into the standard client. Nobody works out boss strategies by himself, or with his guild, as the perfect solution is found on Youtube and other sites. Experimenting with talent builds etc. is strongly discouraged, instead players are directed to sites like Elitist Jerks to get the cookie cutter build of the month. I'm sure the theorycrafters there have a lot of fun to work out the mathematical optimum after every patch, but the regular player just copies the result. As all game systems, and all challenges, are static, there is no need to think on your feet. Somebody else already beat exactly the same challenge, and can tell you all about it.

In summary, I can only accept the theory that we play for the fun of learning for the limited case of starting a new game. Why we play the same game for years and thousands of hours is beyond this motivation factor. MMORPGs are better seen as an interesting exception to Raph's Theory of Fun, where you have to explain why people keep playing after they obviously stopped learning.