Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Alganon beta key contest

[UPDATE: I already got over 50 entries, and as I promised the keys to the 10 *first* correct applications, the contest is over.]

Alganon is a new fantasy MMORPG which will launch on October 31, 2009. Not a big budget production, so it might have slipped under the radar of many of you. I'm unable to voice an opinion about the game for legal reasons, but what I can do is give you a chance to find out for yourself. I've been given 10 keys for the private beta, to hand out in a contest, and given freedom to design the contest myself. So here are the contest rules:

1) The contest is a basic IQ test, checking whether you are able to follow simple instructions, and whether you have a minimum skill to express yourself politely and intelligently.

2) Send your entry to by e-mail, with the words "Alganon beta key" in the subject. Applications in the comment section will be ignored.

3) Your mail should contain two things: A nickname, and one paragraph (more than one line, but less than ten) explaining why you want to beta test Alganon. I will post the 10 winners' nicknames (not their real names nor e-mail adresses) plus their application paragraph on my blog. (Thus, legal disclaimer: By writing me that paragraph you give me permission to publish it.)

4) The first 10 applicants who manage to both follow these instructions *and* whose justification paragraph is literate will receive the Alganon beta keys. If atrocious spelling, rudeness, or leet speak makes a contestant look like a moron, his application will be ignored.

5) You need to send me your application *before* Sunday, October 4, because on that day I will post the results, whether I have 10 winners or not.

Not part of the rules because unenforceable: When the Alganon NDA drops, I'll put up a post asking everybody who played it what he thinks about the game. It would be nice if the 10 winners would participate in that discussion.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Aion and the death of the traditional server model

Players are notoriously unable to agree upon what features a MMORPG should and shouldn't have, and what level of technical difficulties are or aren't still supportable. But the one thing they do agree upon, the absolute minimum requirement, is that you have to actually be able to log on and play. Aion does not fulfil that basic requirement, not for the large part of the customer base which doesn't have hours of time to wait in a queue before playing. Melmoth says:
And to all those who have said that this is the smoothest launch they’ve ever seen, of course it bloody well is, nobody can get onto the servers to stress them. I could solve all of the public transport problems in England if I only let ten people on to each bus and then thanked everyone else for their patience while they stand around for two hours to get on to the next one.
after having found that there was a login queue for every single European server, of up to 2 hours. That is clearly unacceptable, and will drive a lot of players away.

Funnily by driving players away NCSoft has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. It appears as if the low number of servers have been created in a Darkfall-like attempt to only let in the most dedicated players, and thereby keeping the player numbers stable over a longer time. Opening up sufficient servers for launch risks the fate of WAR and AoC, losing a lot of players after the first months, and then having to deal with empty worlds, which according to Brad McQuaid is much harder than dealing with overpopulation.

But of course the root of that problem lies in the traditional server model. Why, oh why do we have to select the name of our server first, thus being tied to that server, and unable to play if that server is full or down? Maybe for fantasy games the one-server solution of EVE Online isn't feasible. But have a look at a game like Free Realms, where you create your character first, and select a server later. You can always jump to the server where your friends are on, without having to use the server with the same name every time. And that solution can easily be downscaled, as how many servers are on offer is determined dynamically. Less players result in less servers open, and the number of players per server always close to an optimum.

Whether you decry them as "WoW tourists" or simply realize that the overall market size for MMORPGs has grown due to World of Warcraft, fact is that there are now millions of players out there with a certain familiarity with online role-playing games. And these might well be willing to try out a new game, so any new game must be prepared for a strong initial interest. Which is an opportunity, not a threat. Because if the game is actually very good, most of these players will stay. If they were determined to go back to WoW anyway, they wouldn't spend the money to try out the new game. But every game, even WoW, loses players one day. And a scaleable server model deals much better with that, both with permanent player losses and with temporal dips in player population due to summer holidays. And the scaleable option is also far superior with regards to public relations: Nothing hurts a game as much as announcements of server mergers. So why not just avoid that?

I sure hope that the experience of Aion teaches game companies to start looking for a different technical solution. The traditional named server model just isn't suitable for today's requirements any more. We need more flexibility to avoid both queues at the start and server mergers near the end of a game's life.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pacing excitement

It is said about war that it is "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror". In the recent discussion about crafting and economic systems, somebody asked me the inevitable question I always get: Why don't I play EVE Online? Well, I would say EVE Online is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Mining is terribly boring, hauling goods from A to B over long distances is terribly boring, but then while mining or hauling you get attacked by pirates and experience moments of sheer terror. Or you have other moments of strong excitement, pulling off a great deal, forming an alliance, or something else. But in general the pacing of the excitement is very different from games like World of Warcraft: EVE Online certainly offers stronger peaks of excitement, but they are spaced out more, and there are some game elements which are definitely not exciting at all.

Of course that is a strictly personal preference. There are certainly other people who find a gentle stream of mini-excitements (oh, another quest done, oh, another level dinged, oh, another nice loot drop) a lot less interesting than the stronger stuff that EVE Online and other impact PvP games like Darkfall offer. But I would say that it is a lot easier to keep those little excitements coming all the time, while it is pretty much impossible to keep up "sheer terror" over long periods.

What do you think? How do you prefer excitement to be paced: Smoothly or with peaks and valleys? Or do you think a game could be extremely exciting all the time, for hundreds of hours?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thought for the day: Wrong book?

We play fantasy MMORPGs because we wanted to be in Lord of the Rings. Why does it so often feel as if we ended up in Lord of the Flies instead?

(Wonder if this question will get any comments, or whether it was tl;dr, too literary; didn't reply.)

Dragon Age Origins

EA Bioware sent me some press material about their upcoming RPG Dragon Age Origins. I have a general policy of always looking at that sort of material, but only writing about it if I think it would be interesting for my readers. While I was generally aware that Bioware was working on a RPG named Dragon Age, I hadn't looked deeper into it. I mean, yeah, Bioware makes good RPGs, and I read the facial animations were good, but otherwise I thought it would be more or less yet another fantasy roleplaying game. But to my surprise Dragon Age Origins appears to be rather unusual: It is a RPG for adults, with an 18+ rating. And apparently that isn't limited to sex and violence, but also to a darker and deeper story than the usual fare.

Now I watched some of the videos, and I'm starting to get excited about this game, even if I'll have to wait for early November before it is released. I'm not a big fan of the blood spatter, but I do like the concept of my character having moral choices in a world which isn't the typical good vs. evil fantasy stereotype. Already having an 18+ label, Bioware even added sex to the game, but hopefully more to make the stories more realistic and believable. And the graphics and animations are really superb.

I'll keep you posted what I think of the game once I actually played it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

In favor of variable challenge levels

Spinks has a great post up on games which are fun even if you aren't very good at them, with obvious implications for MMO game design. Being "very good" at a game implies being part of a small minority, ahead of more people who are just "good", lots of people who are "average", and so on. If a game is only fun for those who are very good at it, it is not fun for the majority of players, who in the case of an MMO will then stop playing and stop producing an income for the MMO game company. Thus the often leveled charge at Blizzard to have achieved multi-million subscriber success by making the game "too easy", or rather easy enough for the average and maybe even sub-average player.

The underlying wrong assumption behind that train of thought is that a MMO necessarily has to offer the same fixed challenge level to everybody. As spinks noted in her description of The Sims 3, the reason why it is fun for everybody is because you can set your own goals, according to your abilities. To some extent that is already possible in a MMORPG, where you can set yourself different goals beyond the standard leveling up and getting the best gear route. But the standard route more often than not has a fixed level of challenge. During leveling you can still have some variability, with players who are very good battling monsters of higher levels than they are, while sub-average players still advancing by battling monsters of lower level than themselves. But that often breaks down at the level cap, where the challenges are fixed to some level of performance. If you aren't *this* good, you can't raid.

Why would that have to be so? What would be the interest of a game to exclude the less good part of their demographics from a major element of gameplay? The trick is that instead of making everything so easy that everybody can do it, you replicate the same content in different difficulty levels, with different rewards, so there is something at an appropriate challenge level for everybody. Blizzard is already going into that direction, with dungeons available in normal and heroic modes, and various "hard modes" for raid encounters. I'm not saying that WoW's implementation is already perfect, or the only viable solution, but the approach is the right one: Variable challenge levels, where the lowest difficulty setting is designed to allow for a majority of players, and offering incentives for them to evolve and become better and tackle the harder challenge modes for better rewards. As much as you might despise the "n00bs", keep in mind that it is the subscription fees of millions of n00bs which creates the money that allows the developers to build more raid content for the l33t. Why not let them have an "easy mode" version of that raid content, so they can have fun at the game even if they aren't very good at it?

Design principles for crafting and economic systems

I got a mail from Verilazic asking me what my ideal MMO in terms of the crafting and economy would be. Well-timed question that, recently Jeff Hickman from Mythic listed at the GDC Austin what he thought were WAR's three biggest mistakes, and the lack of crafting and economy made the list, if only on spot 3. Now I could pull half a dozen nice crafting systems out of my hat, or link to the excellent discussion from Ixobelle (who is currently digging a secret tunnel into the Blizzard building, after the security guard didn't let him to apply for a job there, and camping outside the building with a big sign didn't work either. Please, Blizzard, give the man a job!). But when you discuss specific designs, lots of energy gets wasted in the discussion of details, perceived peculiarities and flaws. Thus instead I'm going to list what I think would be the design principles *behind* creating an ideal crafting and economy system for an MMO.

That starts with talking about what the purpose of a crafting and economic system is. Curiously it appears as if that discussion doesn't always take place during the design phase of an MMO, developers sometimes seem to just add a crafting system to check another box on the list of features every MMO has. But generally speaking, the objective of a crafting system and economy is twofold:
  • Enable a form of indirect social interaction between players, thus making your virtual world feel more alive.
  • Provide an alternative activity of gameplay to complement adventuring / combat.
How to design a good crafting and economic system derives directly from these objectives. When discussing any detail of a proposed crafting and economic system, it is necessary to check whether that detail helps to achieve these objectives, or whether it hinders getting to them.

The objective of enabling indirect social interaction necessitates that the crafting system results in players buying from and selling to each other. That means that at least a part of the raw materials for crafting has to be gathered by players and be bought and sold on whatever auction house or market system you have. It also means that the resulting crafted goods need to be attractive enough to be sold to other players. The latter isn't easy, because it puts crafted goods in competition with items acquired by questing or looting. Players tend to take the way of least resistance to any goal, so if crafting a sword is much easier, or buying a crafted sword much cheaper, than getting the same quality of sword by adventuring, you end up hurting the adventuring part of the game. Nobody wants that, not even the crafters.

Fortunately the solution to the problem lies in the second objective, providing an alternative mode of gameplay, a different activity than combat. If the act of crafting is non-trivial, and requires both time and skill, it both provides this alternative activity, and prevents crafting goods from becoming too cheap and common. The worst possible design is unfortunately the most common in existing games, where crafting is rather trivial, with either no gameplay at all, or an uninteresting, not challenging gameplay requiring no skill or thinking at all, but then requires players to craft hundreds of items to advance their skill. You end up with players buying tons of materials, auto-crafting lots of worthless junk, and then just selling it at a loss, flooding the economy. It is better to have a system where skilling up is done with cheaper "practice" crafting, which doesn't actually produce any goods.

Some smaller, niche games have much better crafting systems, a prime example being A Tale in the Desert, where for example forging a blade is a highly interesting game of its own, requiring both time and skill, with the result being directly proportional to the amount of time and skill invested. If that is too hardcore for some, a more mass market viable approach is the one of Puzzle Pirates, where every craft is a different puzzle mini-game. Just don't use the same cheap Bejeweled clone for every single craft, to be really successful a crafting system needs to offer some variety. I think sometimes developers of big triple-A MMORPGs look down on the developers of casual puzzle games, and end up underestimating the difficulty of designing a good puzzle game with endless replayability, and the correct mix of chance and skill elements. Meanwhile the devs of casual puzzle games are laughing all the way to the bank, because with good game design and a small budget they end up being more profitable than many a MMORPG.

Once we have a crafting system which requires some effort, time and skill-wise, we need an economic system to trade the raw materials and crafted goods. At least for a US/Euro market, a system with a public auction house or similar market is preferable, where players can post their goods and be offline while they are sold. Adding bells and whistles to that system is much appreciated by players. An auction house should not only enable you to find the goods you are looking for, but also provide you with some price history of past sales, so players don't need to use addons for that purpose. Having the option of buy orders, and not just sell orders, is a big bonus for crafters.

But probably the biggest design question on creating an economy is whether you want a localized economy, or one that is uniform throughout the virtual world. The uniform system, where players can put an item on the auction house in one city, and other players can buy that item in another city, is obviously easier. It fits well with virtual worlds in which traveling by teleport is common. If however you have a world in which traveling is an important part of gameplay, and teleporting isn't possible, then localized economies can be used to enhance that. For example a typical crafted good could need two resources, A and B. In one part of the world A is common, and B is rare, while in another part of the world A is rare and B is common. Thus buying common raw materials in one location and transporting them to where they are rare and thus more expensive becomes an important part of economic gameplay. The catch of that is that you then need to make traveling interesting, and there appears to be a lack of ideas in that field, beyond having traders robbed by other players in PvP while traveling.

So there you have it, some design principles on how to make a good crafting and economic system for a MMORPG, based on two simple objectives. As this post will undoubtedly evoke lots of responses in the form of "my favorite game X already does all this", let me already assure you that I did play game X, and it fell far short from ideal, for any given value of X. Of course nothing I discussed here is completely revolutionary, but any existing game I've seen lacks parts of it, and has flaws like uninspired crafting mini-games, a badly designed auction house, boring traveling, or some crafting grind where you need to produce hundreds of items.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Onyxia is back!

Amidst much cries of "more dots!" and "minus 50 DKP" Onyxia made her return to World of Warcraft this week, Tuesday for the US, yesterday for Europe. So yesterday night I went on an impromptu Onyxia raid with my guild. By either great design or great luck the new Onyxia encounter was tuned in difficulty to exactly the perfect level for the raid group I was in. So we wiped a few times while relearning the encounter, and learning the new parts of it, advanced a bit further with subsequent tries, and finally killed her. Besides 3 Emblems of Triumph I also rolled high on a bag containing two epic gems, and the raid group received three rather nice epics in the old T2 design but with iLevel 232 stats, plus a 22-slot bag. Good times, and not only for nostalgia reasons.

Epic Slant is reflecting on Onyxia and asks "can this be considered new content?". No, I don't think this can be considered as being new content, but that doesn't make it a bad idea. In fact I would like to see more old raid dungeons recycled to the level cap, maybe with the next expansion. Old raid content suffers even more than other old content from nobody visiting any more. Well, people run for fun and for the achievement through Molten Core and the like at level 80, but that isn't the same as playing it at an appropriate level. Even if you wanted to, it would pretty much be impossible to get 40 level 60 players together to do Molten Core, and even if you performed that miracle, you'd find that MC isn't retuned for the level 60 characters of today, which are far more powerful than the level 60 characters of 2005.

I'm not saying that Blizzard shouldn't make new raid dungeons any more, but if recycling old raid dungeons is a lot faster than making a new one from scratch, why not do a mix of both? That would result in an overall higher number of raid dungeons to choose from, which would be nice. And while some people might get bored of doing old content again, many others are likely never to have seen BWL in its old glory, and would be delighted. To me that sounds like a better idea than to let the old content rot in obscurity.

Nils on unpredictable dungeons

Nils, otherwise known as "the guy who writes more on Tobold's blog than Tobold does", finally realized that his analytical mind and good writing skills are better employed on making a blog of his own. He has posted a very interesting article on unpredictable dungeons, listing their advantages and disadvantages.

Historically speaking it is curious that Blizzard, who mastered the random dungeon in Diablo, ended up using so few unpredictable factors in the dungeon design for World of Warcraft. As Nils says, that leads to dungeons becoming boring after X runs, and a requirement to "know" raid dungeons before even going there for the first time. Is having to follow instructions from YouTube or some Bosskiller site by the letter really the most fun we could possibly have? Or does this predictable dungeon design lead to people confusing "skill" with the ability to react quickly with a predetermined response to a predetermined event? Me, I'd be all for some more unpredictable dungeons, where players would actually have to think tactically to succeed, and not just follow the script.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Raid encounter classification

By design every raid encounter is different, as players would get bored quickly otherwise. Nevertheless it is possible to find certain similarities in the underlying design between the different raid encounters, which allows us to set up a raid encounter classification, making discussion of what is good design and bad design easier than if you talk about specific encounters not everybody knows. In this post I'm proposing such a classification system of raid encounters, based on *who* is challenged in the raid, independent from how hard the individual challenge is. With that system, I classify raid encounters into three groups, type A, B, and C.

Type A: Challenging the Strongest This type of raid encounter is characterized by the individual challenge not being the same for every player in the raid. A typical example would be the simple tank'n'spank raid boss with lots of health, lots of damage, and few or no special abilities: In that case the challenge falls hardest on the tank and his healers, whose skill and gear is essential for success. In a type A raid encounter, at least some players have a large margin for errors. If somebody makes a stupid mistake and dies right at the start, that doesn't necessarily cause a wipe. In fact the raid encounter is beatable with less than the maximum number of players in the raid, so everybody else is just an extra. This allows the raid group to bring weaker members to gear up, or even sell raid spots.

Type B: Challenging the Average In a raid encounter of this type, the raid as a whole has to come up with a defined level of performance. A typical example is raid bosses with an enrage timer: The raid has X minutes to deal Y million of damage to kill the boss, or they wipe. Thus you can easily calculate the damage per second that the raid has to deal on average. That does not mean that everybody has to deal the same damage; it is possible for some very good players to compensate for the lower damage of less skilled or geared players, or even a single early death. Nevertheless a certain minimum performance would be recommended from everyone, because several early deaths or complete incompetence from too many players would make it impossible for the raid group as a whole to get to the required level of performance.

Type C: Challenging the Weakest In this type of raid encounter special boss abilities are used which result in errors of any player causing a wipe. Usually this is done with some sort of debuff, which requires a fast reaction from the victim to not hurt the whole raid. As the debuff is random, the raid group cannot afford to bring anyone not likely to react fast enough, as that would cause a wipe for everyone.

Note that players generally consider that the overall challenge of a raid encounter goes up from type A to type B to type C. But in fact the difference is mainly affecting the weakest players in the raid group. For the strongest players there is no inherent difference in the degree of individual challenge in the three types.

That has important social consequences. Some players will of course say that type C encounters which challenge everyone equally are the best. But for the strongest players that isn't automatically the case: They have a huge influence on the outcome of a type A raid encounter, but will frequently fall victim to the errors of other players in a type C encounter. The wide-spread anger and hate of good players against weaker players can be explained by this type C sort of encounters: Nothing is more frustrating than if you did the best performance humanly possible, and your raid is still getting wiped repeatedly because the same few people repeatedly underperformed.

The natural reaction of guilds to this problem is to try to kick out the underperformers (or at least not give them a raid spot), and try as much as possible to gather a raid team of equal performance level. Unfortunately that often results in other problems: Groups naturally have a hacking order, with leaders and followers, and several levels in between. Social cohesion in a team of superstar prima donnas is often a problem, a fact well known in sports teams. Taking the best players from various soccer clubs for example to gather them in a national team isn't always resulting in the expected high level of performance.

So for a typical guild with some people more dedicated than others, more skilled, and often better geared due to more frequent raid attendance, and others less dedicated, less skilled, and less geared to varying degrees, type A or B raid encounters are probably preferable. Don't think of them as permitting leeching, think of them as preventing the weaker players from wiping your raid.

Aion faction balance

After shameless stealing his "Thought for the day" idea, I'm now morally obliged to make up for it by linking to Melmoth's better posts over at Killed in a Smiling Accident. ;) But seriously, his post on Aion's attempt to balance their two factions by simply forcing the players is excellent!

The fact that Aion's endgame is PvPvE, and not pure PvP, solves at least the problem for the stronger faction: They'll be able to do PvE in the endgame in absence of a real challenge from the weaker faction. The weaker faction is just plain out of luck, as they are basically permanently excluded from having any endgame at all, unless they like suicide missions.

Makes you wonder why developers still make PvP games with only two factions, when nobody has found a way yet to effectively balance them without some inconvenience to one side (not always the weaker side, in WoW the more numerous side is disadvantaged in terms of battleground queue waiting times). Games like EVE or Darkfall, where players form "factions" themselves, and these are constantly shifting, are ultimately more balanced.

But now that I said something nice about Darkfall, I have to balance that out by another quote from Killed in a Smiling Accident, this one by Zoso, who imagines how a cataclysm would look in other games:
Darkfall are also set to overhaul their starting area, finally introducing proper impact PvP. Unlike the original namby-pamby system put in to appease pathetic losers who can’t handle a real game, where death merely results in a bit of lost loot, Darkfall: Teh Ubahclysm introduces permadeath. Not some sort of rubbish pseudo-permadeath either; if you’re killed by another player then your character can’t be resurrected, your account is banned so you can’t create a new character, your credit cards are blacklisted so you can’t create a new account, and an Aventurine employee comes round your house and smashes your PC up with a baseball bat. Eurogamer’s re-review of the game awards it a score of 9/10.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Profiting from Tankard O' Terror design flaw

I don't know if it was because they had to hotfix it in, or whether somebody at Blizzard had been celebrating Brewfest too heavily in RL, but now the current holiday event boss has a serious design flaw: Among lots of bind-on-pickup trinkets, mounts, and a dagger, Coren Darkbrew now also drops a bind-on-equip iLevel 226 dps mace, the Tankard O'Terror. What's the flaw you ask? Well, it is the ONLY iLevel 226 bind-on-equip weapon in the game.

Now the only boe weapon with that kind of stats should be extremely valuable. Which it probably would, if it wasn't so dirt common. Whoever designed the drop rate made the Tankard O'Terror "rare" compared to a typical drop from a typical raid boss. But apparently forgot that any given player is looting a typical raid boss only once a week, but is looting Coren Darkbrew 35 times a week, because he resets daily, and can be summoned 5 times for every group. Even on my underpopulated Horde side I was able to pick up a tankard for just 4k gold, and then we went and bought one for my wife's Alliance shaman for a measly 1.5k gold on another server. That is cheaper than iLevel 200 crafted weapon!

I did spend the gold now because I was afraid Blizzard would hotfix the tankard again to be bind-on-pickup. If they don't do that, we'll probably see the price for the thing drop even further over the next 10 days. That opens up the possibility for serious and easy profit: Supply of Tankards O'Terror will stop when the Brewfest ends. Demand for the best boe weapon in the game should remain solid. Thus by just banking the tankard for a month, you'll probably be able to sell it for 10k gold or more easily. Unless of course Blizzard is planning a deluge of welfare epics, with the Headless Horseman dropping the next iLevel 226 boe weapon this year, and similar event bosses and epics getting added to more holiday events.

Squeezing more money out of your players

One of the complaints about Free2Play games is that developers would on purpose design the game mechanics in a way that makes buying stuff from the item shop more desirable. Like slowing down leveling and then selling you scrolls of faster leveling. That is indeed a possibility, but it isn't limited to Free2Play games. It is perfectly possible to imagine a monthly fee game in which game mechanics prevent you from leveling alts, so that people go out and buy a second account for dual-boxing.

You don't believe me? Well, EVE Online recently sent out a new Power of 2 offer, encouraging their existing players to open a second account for leveling alts, as their game mechanics have on purpose been designed to only let one character per account gain skills. And you could claim that the World of Warcraft Recruit-a-Friend triple xp deal isn't much different from buying a scroll of faster leveling in an item shop either. Many people rather recruit-an-alt than a friend.

So MMORPG companies squeezing more money of their players has been around for a lot longer than the Free2Play business model. And to some extent getting more value out of spending more money is certainly justified. How good or bad that becomes is then a matter of game design, of how much players feel that they *must* spend more money to get ahead. I've played Free2Play games which were quite well designed, where every purchase was completely optional, and I played others where just keeping you with the most necessary stuff would cost more per month than a monthly fee game. Dual-boxing in World of Warcraft isn't all that common, because the recruit-a-friend program doesn't help with the end game. In EVE I hear a larger percentage of players are dual-boxing, but I can't say how big of a "must have" advantage that really is.

How to get rich in World of Warcraft

So you want to get rich in World of Warcraft, maybe even reach the gold cap? There are hundreds of tips how to make gold in WoW, but the one way which has been shown to most reliably result in you making thousands of gold per week, every week, is inscription. The basic premise of that method is that on most servers a stack of a Northrend herb, like Adder's Tongue, costs 20 gold or less. Buy 200+ stacks, mill them into pigments, transform the pigments into inks, sell the rare inks or transform them into Darkmoon cards which you sell. Do the calculation of what you did spend minus what the rare inks got you back, and you'll see that you now have about a thousand Ink of the Sea which did cost you about 2 gold each. As you can trade in Ink of the Sea for every other ink in the game in Dalaran, you can now make any glyph you have the recipe for. And on average the cost for making a glyph, including parchments and auction house fees, is about 3 gold. On most servers glyphs sell for much more than that. So now you flood the market, ruthlessly undercutting the competition until they give up, trying to achieve a 100% market share. Even if you just make little profit per glyph, the fact that you'll sell a lot of them will result in a large income.

This has been proven to work pretty much on every server, as you can see in the interviews with players who reached the gold cap, although of course the absolute possible profit per week depends on how many players are playing on that side and server. And your market share depends on you being more perseverant and ruthless than your competitors, even willing to accept selling glyphs at a loss for some time until the other glyph sellers give up. Making several thousand gold per week is possible this way on nearly every server. But of course there is a catch: The reason not everybody is getting rich with inscription is that it isn't all that easy as the short description might make you think.

The first problem is that getting into the inscription business requires a lot of time and gold in advance for preparation. Assuming you do have a level 80 character, it will still take several thousand gold for him to learn and max out his inscription skill, and to learn all the recipes. The faster you want to do this, the more it will cost you, as buying large quantities of low-level herbs or Books of Glyph Mastery for the recipes will drive the prices up. Apart from that you will also have to set up at least one alt loaded with inscription bags, who will do all the glyph selling. There are around 300 different glyphs in the game, so you need hundreds of inventory slots to handle them efficiently.

The second problem is time. Just imagine buying 200 stacks of herbs, doing 800 times milling, turning the resulting pigments into over a thousand inks, creating a thousand glyphs, and putting all those glyphs on the auction house. And that not once, but regularly. Of course you will use various macros and addons, so many of these activities can be automated. But even then you will have to be logged in, in front of your computer for the occasional input, and unable to do any adventuring during that time, for at least an hour per day. The simple act of getting hundreds of glyphs back unsold, having to empty your mailbox several times because it can only hold 50 mails at a time, and then turning around and putting the glyphs back on the auction house after an auctioneer scan, will already consume a lot of your time. Especially if you log on during prime time and have mailbox and AH lag.

This brings us to the third problem, unpredictability of sales. To get a 100% market share you will want to have every single glyph in the game for sale. But some of them sell fast, some of them sell very slow, and it will take you quite some time and addons like Beancounter to find out which glyphs sell how many per day. Unless you sit in front of the computer all day long, you'll need to flood the market with enough glyphs of every kind to be sure that they don't sell out before you come back. This means having usually over a thousand glyphs on the AH for sale, and thus thousands of gold locked up in your glyph inventory.

After all the time and gold spent or tied up in your inventory, you'll find that you biggest long-term obstacle is the competition from other players. Glyph selling is a consumer business, that is you are selling to individuals who each just make a small purchase. Customers have no problem paying 10 gold or more, in extreme cases even 100 gold for a single glyph which did cost you 3 gold to make. But if you post all your glyphs for 10 gold, you'll find somebody else posting the same glyphs for 9.95 an hour later, preventing you from selling anything. Then you either have to cancel a thousand auctions and repost them all, or you need to wait until the glyphs come back unsold. In general if you want to keep a high market share, you'll need to aggressively undercut and post glyphs at prices where you barely make a profit, or even at a loss for some time, until the competition gives up. Then you can slowly raise prices, trying to find the point where you still make a good profit, but the other players with inscription aren't tempted to make glyphs and sell them for less than you do.

Failure in the inscription business is usually due to not trying hard enough. Just making a handful of glyphs from time to time and posting them at high prices is likely to not net you much, as more determined business men will constantly undercut you. Note that if on your server herbs are very expensive, and glyphs are very cheap, that is an indication that there are already several players battling over the glyph market. If, for example, you find that Northrend herbs cost 50 gold a stack, while glyphs sell for less than 3 gold, breaking into the glyph market will be extremely hard. You might be better off learning herbalism and farming herbs at these prices.

You can see that inscription isn't a "get rich quick" method. You'll need several thousand gold to launch the business, and then keep it up for many weeks before you make a steady good profit every week. And you'll need to log on every day and spend several hours per week just to keep your glyph business up and running. In the end, getting rich in World of Warcraft works exactly like getting rich in the real world: You need a venture capital to start up a business, hard work, and perseverance. And this is exactly why getting rich with inscription works so reliably in World of Warcraft: It is hard work, there isn't all that much you can actually do with an income of thousands of gold per week, and thus the large majority of players simply can't be bothered doing it. But if you enjoy this sort of gameplay, and you are determined to reach the level cap, trying to build an inscription monopoly is the way to go.

Monday, September 21, 2009

I want a wardrobe for World of Warcraft

Having somehow missed the previous incarnations of the Brewfest in World of Warcraft, I did the various quests and activities related to that holiday event this weekend. That netted me a bunch of tokens, leading me to the "token redeemer", where I could buy rewards for those tokens. And I noticed that, like many holiday events, some of the rewards wear items of clothing without stats, just for the looks of it. And I don't know what you do with your holiday event clothing, but apart from a rare christmas hat, I always destroy all of the clothes at the end of the event because they take up too much valuable inventory space.

I used to also delete non-combat pets for exactly the same reason. But nowadays pets don't take inventory space any more. So I spent my brewfest tokens on a pink elephant. Which made me think that the fluff clothing in World of Warcraft could be much improved with two changes:
  • A wardrobe tab on your character sheet, which works exactly like the pets and mount tab, and stores all your non-stat items of clothing you collect from various events.
  • An option to *display* your character as wearing that sort of non-stat clothing, without having to actually remove your gear that gives stats. Just like you can use a hallowed wand or Noggenfogger elixir disguise and look like a skeleton or pirate without actually having to remove your armor, that functionality would let you display your holiday clothing without you having to change clothes when you want to fight.
Without that sort of functionality, I'm not all that interested in the various event clothing rewards. By blocking inventory space they end up feeling more like a burden than a reward. After removing keys and mounts and pets from our inventories, a wardrobe for World of Warcraft non-stat clothing would just be the logical next step.

Is the MMORPG market saturated?

When I was young, people used to wear buttons saying "What if there was a war and nobody went?". Today I feel more like "What if there was a new MMORPG coming out and nobody cared?". This month is one with lots of new MMORPGs coming out, Aion, Champions Online, Fallen Earth, but apart from the usual suspects who get excited about everything new, the reception in the MMO blogosphere appears to be muted. Personally I checked all three of them out in beta, and they all failed to evoke much emotional response from me. The only one I actually disliked was Fallen Earth, where the controls were even more post-apocalyptic than the rest of the game.

What I found much worse was my personal reaction to Aion and Champions Online. I could clearly see that both of these games are quite good, but I simply felt no desire whatsoever to play them. And it isn't as if I was too busy with any other game to be interested in new games: I do play a bit of World of Warcraft at the moment, but at low intensity, no raiding, no PvP, and only the occasional group.

Compared to the hype and disappointment cycle from last year for Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, maybe the muted reaction of MMORPG players this year is a more reasonable one. But I get a certain vibe that the MMORPG market is so saturated now, that nothing much excites players any more. Maybe the real big releases, like SWTOR and the next Blizzard MMO will bring back the hype. And personally I'm very much interested in Star Trek Online. But I also got a bunch of press releases in my inbox about games nobody is waiting for. On the one side there appears to be nearly too much choice when selecting a MMORPG, with most of the old games still around and a bunch of newcomers. On the other side the majority of these choices are all very similar to each other, with a basic game design around quests and levels and solo combat without challenge.

What do you think? Are there too many MMORPGs around now? And are they too similar to each other? Is the MMORPG market too saturated for yet another level-based, quest-guided, standard MMORPG design? What would it take for a game to break out of this circle of apathy and really get people excited?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thought for the day: Meaningful PvP

Doesn't "meaningful PvP" automatically mean a form of PvP where you really hurt other players' progress in some way? If every form of PvP which constantly resets and doesn't hurt players all that much is considered meaningless, but people will quit games where losing PvP really hurts, how could meaningful PvP possibly work?

Friday, September 18, 2009

I agree with Syncaine on WAR

Syncaine is an angry young man, whose semi-permanent rage and inbred hatred of World of Warcraft often prevents him from making reasonable blog posts. But in the rare cases when he doesn't blame WoW for everything which is wrong with every other game, I find myself agreeing with him. His post of what is wrong with Warhammer is spot on:
"Everything in the game is designed to prepare or filter you into RvR, ESPECIALLY the end-game city RvR, and despite almost everyone agreeing that it’s the weakest part of the game, it does not make the list of issues with WAR? When people think of WAR, they think RvR. When the RvR is broken, is it any wonder your game is struggling?"
The whole game of Warhammer Online is designed around the idea that people will love doing RvR as endgame, and that simply isn't the case. Now I better stop this post, because otherwise we'll come to the point where I say that for mass market appeal you don't want any form of PvP as endgame, and Syncaine says that people would love an PvP endgame if it was just meaningful enough. Lets agree to disagree on that one.

Twinking and the economy

Gordon from We Fly Spitfires claims that twinking is a form of cheating, because it doesn't really matter whether your alt is equipped with gear financed with gold from a Chinese gold farmer, or whether he is equipped with gear financed with gold from your own main character. Spinks discusses the effect of heirloom items in that context, and also mentions morality. But even if you tried to apply somewhat silly "moral" standards and not use gold, items, or heirlooms from your main to equip your alt, or even create an alt on a completely different server, I'd argue that this alt would still end up having a lot of gold and being equipped like a twink.

The problem is that the economy of a server evolves with time, and with the average level of the characters playing on that server. The economy as a whole gets much richer, and even low-level characters can easily earn huge amounts of virtual currency by farming low-level resources, because somewhere there is a max-level character buying those low-level resources. In level-based games typically a high-level monster or quest rewards you with several magnitudes more virtual currency than a level 1 monster or quest. In World of Warcraft for example, where I recently made a low-level paladin on a different server, and thus have no heirloom items, I found that I could either do quests for 1 silver reward, or gather a stack of copper ore and sell it for 8 gold. Thus even without twinking, the trickle-down-economy of an older server automatically makes even low-level character rich. Of course prices for magic items on the auction house will also be affected by that inflation, but things like training costs or cost of a mount will not. And as Spinks remarked, because the other low-level characters around you will often have heirloom items, the previously very expensive twink gear items are now somewhat less expensive.

I always wondered why high-level mobs and quests had to give higher rewards. As discussed in the last thread, they aren't actually harder to do. If a level 80 character can kill a level 80 mob as easily as a level 1 character kills a level 1 mob, shouldn't the monetary loot drop and quest reward be the same?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grouping kills you

Back in the early days of this millenium, when I was playing the original Everquest, I started out like any other level-based MMORPG: With a level 1 character killing level 1 monsters. But while my characters became stronger with every level, the strength of the monsters per level grew faster. Soon I wasn't able to kill even level mobs any more, and in the mid-levels many character classes were even unable to kill the weakest green mob still giving experience points. Fortunately I was playing a druid, and could still do some soloing, with a rather complicated technique called quad-kiting: You would cast a spell on yourself which speeded you up, and cast spells on 4 monsters that slowed them down. Then you'd run in a big circle or square, and would cast an AoE on the mobs every time you had gained enough distance to them. 4 mobs, because AoE spells were limited to hitting no more than 4. Necromancers were soloing using fear kiting. But many other classes could only gain experience points by banding together in a group. People called it "forced grouping", and it wasn't all that popular, but at least there was a certain logic to it: Adventurers where facing a given challenge, and only by banding together were they able to overcome it. A group much increased your chance of survival.

Fast forward to nearly a decade later, and games like World of Warcraft. What has changed? At level 1 you still kill level 1 monsters. But now your gain of power per level is equal or greater than the gain of power per level of the monster. A level 80 character of any class can easily kill a single level 80 monster, even in green gear. You need to be really, really careless to die while soloing. And you don't even need tactics like kiting to solo. Only large groups of enemies or elite mobs have a chance to kill you. That changes the minute you join a group. Even a pickup group for a dungeon is more likely to get you killed than if you would solo. And if you start raiding, getting killed repeatedly is actually expected. A group much decreases your chance of survival.

I think that neither forced grouping nor guaranteed survival soloing are good game design. Players enjoy a certain degree of challenge. As the leveling game in WoW and similar games does not offer that challenge, it is dismissed as "grind", as obstacle on the way to the level cap, where "the real game begins". That is a huge missed opportunity. A better compromise would be a variable challenge during the leveling game: People could solo mobs slightly lower in level than themselves easily without any fear of dying. Even level mobs would be doable, but require people playing their character well enough. And higher level mobs would be killed either using advanced soloing tactics like kiting, or in a group.

Now what is keeping a level 20 character in WoW from attacking level 25 to 30 monsters using advanced tactics or a group? Well, first of all there aren't all that many advanced tactics available for most classes. And second killing higher level mobs solo or in a group gives you LESS experience points per hour than farming green mobs. In World of Warcraft both the bonus for taking on a harder challenge and the so-called "group bonus" (which actually is a penalty, you get less xp per mob in a group than solo) are too small. Killing a monster somewhat higher in level than you either solo or in a group takes much more time, for little more xp when soloing, or less xp when in a group.

Bah, you say, lets just forget about the leveling game, it isn't important. But then I hear you complaining about people who can't do more than X dps with their character, or who can't grasp the simple concept of not standing in the fire. Why can't they? Because of the training they had. Why bother learning even a half-decent spell rotation if that is total overkill for the challenge the leveling game poses? And there are no fires not to stand in during the leveling game either. Thus while we are at it, improving the leveling game, we could add more solo encounters which train skills like not standing in the fire, as well as training better spell rotations and other ways to play your character well. And ideally we would balance the group bonus in the leveling game in a way that grouping isn't forced, but is at least a viable option for leveling.

Everybody loves to level faster. What could be better than to teach players that if they would play better or cooperate, they would level faster? Instead the current leveling game teaches them to avoid any challenge and all groups like the plague, because grouping kills you, challenge kills you, and neither hands out enough rewards to be really worth it. MMORPGs need to offer a path of advancement for even the most incompetent and anti-social soloer to attract a mass audience. But that doesn't mean they can't reward better gameplay and cooperation!


Reader Luka is going through my archives from 2003 to now, and sent me a comment about one of my posts I had long forgotten about. It is from October 16, 2008, with comments on WoW patch 3.0 and ends with this paragraph:
MMORPGs are multiplayer games, and much of their attraction comes from the interaction with other players. As the players moved on, a huge part of World of Warcraft just ceased to exist. What is left behind is just an empty stage, and faint memories of the plays that were enacted on that stage. To populate that part of the world again, we'd need a completely different type of expansion: Not 10 more levels added to the endgame, but a cataclysm striking the old world, and changing it. New classes, maybe even new races, and most of the quests and zones of old Azeroth being changed to breathe new life into them. I wonder if we'll ever get such an expansion.
That was long before Blizzard even reserved the name Cataclysm for their expansion. I'm not saying that Blizzard is listening to me, but at the very least that paragraph was prophetic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taking the fun out of making video games

Activision Blizzard CEO Robert Kotick likes to see his name and his words reported all over the internet. To achieve that he uses the same old tactics as every other internet troll, making deliberately outrageous statements designed to make everybody angry enough to comment. Works like a charm, after every interview he gives his words are quoted on every major gaming site, many blogs, he even quite often gets a dedicated Penny Arcade cartoon, the works. The problem with that is again one common to every other internet troll: Everybody reports the outrageous statements, but nobody actually discusses them. They are outrageous! We all agree that there isn't a bit of truth in them! Or don't we?

Look at his latest comments about creating a "culture of thrift" and his goal "to take all the fun out of making video games", talking of "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" obviously sounds just like the place nobody would want to work at, and so a lot of game developers are bringing out the torches and pitchforks. But as a player I have to ask myself: Is the ultimate goal of a video game company that the DEVELOPERS are having fun making video games?

How often you as a player ended up angry with a video game, because the developers had too much fun making that game, and forgot the decidedly unfun activities of quality control and bug fixing? How many players complain about MMORPGs because some developer was allowed too much freedom, and favored his preferred class or mode of gameplay, making the game unbalanced for everyone else?

If Robert Kotick had a better sense of public relations, he might have expressed the same sentiments in far better words, which probably wouldn't have been reported that much, but would have found more people agreeing with them. Instead of "taking the fun out of making video games" he could have talked about the importance of being professional when making video games, having a good overall project management, business process, and quality control. Instead of saying "We are very good at keeping people focused on the deep depression", he could have explained how important it is for a video game company to still be around tomorrow, which only works if money isn't wasted, and quality games are produced.

In the end the video game industry isn't any different than any other industry. Companies need to make a profit, and for that they need to produce quality goods which people are willing to buy. If the *customers* are having fun *playing* video games, the video game company will be a success, and will be able to offer stable and well-paid job to game developers. That way everybody wins, players, developers, CEOs, and shareholders.

Aion: Up or Down?

Two years ago Raph Koster posted a classic article on How Open Big Virtual Worlds Grow, with a curve which slopes upward quickly, plateaus, and then slowly declines. He said: "This curve is so regular that you can predict the peak from just a handful of datapoints. Assuming that the title is equally available everywhere, you can predict the peak from literally three data points, which you can get literally in the first few hours of launch." It is undoubtedly with such a curve in mind that the makers of Aion said that they already sold 300,000 pre-orders of Aion. So will we quickly see a million or more Aion subscribers?

Not so fast! It turns out that this curve is not quite as universal as Raph thought. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online announced huge box sale numbers, but then lost up to three quarters of their subscribers in the first month! Warhammer Online for example sold over a million copies, but quickly ended up with under 300,000 subscribers. And as spinks so correctly remarks, it is very easy to pre-order Aion just to get into the beta, and then cancel the pre-order before actually having to pay anything. Ardwulf's World's Shortest Aion Review just says "Uninstalled", and that is well before the game is even out.

Whether you blame World of Warcraft for every game that isn't doing well, or whether you think there are simply too many MMORPGs out now, it appears that an alternative MMO subscriber number curve now exists: Lots of people who already played some MMO, but are currently bored, buy a new game, find it isn't to their liking, and unsubscribe after the free month that comes with the box, or shortly after.

So what is it going to be for Aion? Is 300,000 pre-orders the starting point to millions of long-term subscribers? Or is it the start of a straw fire, with over a million boxes sold this month, and less than 300,000 players by christmas? And is it just the quality of Aion which determines the success, or is it a reflection of the whole MMORPG market?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Thought for the day: Banning Need for Speed

If we accept the notion that video games can alter the behavior of teenagers, shouldn't the first games to be banned be racing games? It seems unlikely that playing Counterstrike would cause school shootings, but playing Need for Speed would not result in reckless driving, which is ultimately much more frequent and thus more deadly. After all, people have easier access to cars than to guns and samurai swords.

Does size matter?

The Ancient Gaming Noob, Wilhelm2451, says about blog stats: "Comparing blog stats is like comparing penis size. My stats will look big to some people, and then a porn-star like Tobold will come along and make us all cry. Okay, do I get a prize or something for comparing Tobold to a porn-star? Is that a first?" Yeah, that *is* a first. I usually only get comments on having an oversized ego, not oversized parts of my anatomy. But apart from remarking that "adult" and mature language are two very different things, I have to say that his remark is a pertinent one: Do blog stats really matter all that much?

People usually assume that whenever I mention blog stats, it is to brag about mine. To my defense I have to say that I'm chronicling my blog stats since 2004, a year in which said visitor stats went up from practically zero to 1,400 visitors *a month*. I had a grand total of about 8,000 blog visits in the whole year of 2004. I have continued that blog visitors annual statistic every year on the 31st of December, and numbers have grown and then flattened out to about 1 million visits per year plus the same in RSS feed reads. I am certainly not denying that this is something that makes me proud, an achievement so to say. But I don't think that it makes my opinions more important or valid than those of any other blogger or commenter.

What it does do is to allow me to get my opinion heard by more people. With both good and bad results. Recently I read a comment from somebody somewhere complaining why I would put even my worst posts on VirginWorlds. Doh! I'm not putting my posts anywhere else than this blog, which does have an RSS feed for the convenience of those readers who can only access a feed reader, but not gaming sites, at work. That there are a range of sites from "MMO news" sites to blatant gold-selling fake MMO blogs who copy my content, is out of my control. I do not have link-sharing agreements with anyone, in fact as you can see I prefer linking to individual entries on other people's blogs instead of having a permanent side-bar with a blogroll. I am not trying to maximize my blog stats. But of course I wouldn't write my opinions down on a public blog if I didn't want people to read them, so I don't mind being copied, as it helps to spread my word.

I think the whole obsession with visitor numbers and blog stats is a relic from the boom. People think that if they could create a site attracting lots of visitors, they could monetize these visitor numbers by putting up advertising, and get rich quick. In practice that is not that easy. Google Ads apparently has specific clauses in their contracts that prohibit people from reporting how much money they make with their Google Adwords, but the few reports I read from people who posted their numbers anyway suggest that even a popular blog would only earn a handful of dollars per month. It isn't even as if I was completely against advertising, if a major game company would write me and offer me a fixed sum every month for putting up a banner ad promoting some big MMORPG, I would be tempted. But if you look at MMO blogs with Google Ads you'll quickly realize that nearly all the ads are for gold sellers or gold making guides. I'm not interested in promoting those. And I wasn't planning to put up Evony ads either, or to earn $5 a month for a banner ad to some website you never heard of. When was the last time you saw an ad on a website and were really interested, instead of annoyed or bored by it? The little serious advertising there is, is furthermore more and more not based on visitor numbers at all, but only offering "affiliate" deals, where the website only earns something when the ad leads directly to a sale. So I think getting rich from blogging, while still keeping some integrity, is a pipe dream.

And even in the context of getting the word out, visitor statistics aren't always what they seem. Google Analytics not only tells me how many visitors I have, but also informs me that over half of them just popped in due to having found one of my posts via a search engine. And the average time my visitors stay is just over 1 minute. Given my verbosity, that means that they haven't even read one of my posts.

In general I prefer to rather look at feedback received than visitor numbers. And as discussed previously, even that isn't really a good measure. Not everybody who reads a post of mine, likes it, and agrees, is going to leave a comment. I'm much more likely to get comments when people disagree. And certain posts, like asking simple questions, or making overly generalized outrageous statements like "Darkfall sucks!" will of course result in far more feedback than a detailed two page analysis of some aspect of game design.

Of course a blogger can dream of having some influence on game design. Maybe Blizzard adopts my idea of in-game databases and calls the NPC sage who tells people where to go to upgrade their gear "Tobold"? But of course we all know it doesn't work like that. The best one could possibly hope for is some game designer picking up an idea or concept from a blog post, and repeating that idea in some internal meeting in the game company, where it might get picked up, disected, digested, and ultimately finding its way into some game in a barely recognizable form. The funny thing is that there are consultants out there whose ideas aren't any better than those of many bloggers, but who not only will get paid for repeating those ideas to some game company, but also end up being more likely to have their ideas implemented. An idea you had to pay for is valued higher than one offered freely, regardless of the quality of the idea.

I don't even believe that visitor numbers or any other measurable stat reflect how much readers value the opinions of the blogger. Quantity and quality of the writing also has a huge influence on the success of a blog, not just whether the blog offers new or especially great ideas and opinions. And curiously being constantly outraging and insulting can also result in lots of net fame.

So in summary, while blog stats can be interesting, especially for the blogger himself, they don't really say all that much. In the end, the only person who really needs to be happy with the blog is the blogger himself. Stats, feedback, or even advertising revenue can help to motivate the blogger. But in the greater scheme of things we are talking about a tiny amount of net fame in an obscure corner of the internet here, not something which is really likely to make you rich and famous. The bloggers that keep writing are invariably those who have a personal need to express themselves.

Monday, September 14, 2009

To Patrick Swayze, Thanks for Everything! Wong Foo

Maybe this weekend you and your significant other are heading over to the video rental store to rent a Patrick Swayze movie, in memoriam. You'll argue whether to take a chick flick like Dirty Dancing or Ghost, or a guy movie like Point Break. And you'll find that all of these are already gone, because everybody has the same idea when an actor dies. So maybe I can recommend you what I think is the best Patrick Swayze movie: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. It is an intelligent and funny movie, which makes you think. Maybe not everybody *wants* to think when going to the movies, especially not about difficult things like gender issues and tolerance, but I'd say that forcing you to think generally makes for better films.

The opening scene with Patrick Swayze is a classic: He comes out of the shower, a perfect image of masculinity, and then step by step through clothes and makeup transforms into a drag queen. The film then evolves into a road movie, a fish out of the water story, with the drag queens stuck in a small town, chased by a homophobic sheriff. The movie teaches us about the difference between just looking away and true tolerance, and that alone makes it worth watching. Add some superb acting from actors you wouldn't expect in those kind of roles, and you get a truly superb movie. Recommended!

The inefficient market hypothesis

Getting rich in a game like World of Warcraft or getting rich in the real world are two very different things. In the real world buying something and then reselling it for twice the money is incredibly hard, for the simple reason that there are quite a lot of people jumping on every opportunity to make a profit, and if that profit can be made by simple buying and selling with little barrier to entry, then there is a lot of competition, driving the profits down. There is an economic theory, the efficient market hypothesis, which basically says that in financial markets there are enough people buying and selling everything that prices reflect all known information about a financial product. Thus traders are forced to use increasingly complex methods, like milli-second trades, to make tiny profits, leveraged with lots of debt, to end up with annual profits of a few percent.

In World of Warcraft you can make thousands of percents of profit per year if you are inclined to do so. It is completely feasible to start the year with 1 gold piece, and end the year at the gold cap of 214,748 gold, only by trading and crafting, without farming anything. To an economist it is clear that this implies that the market of World of Warcraft is inefficient. Players constantly sell goods for less than market value, and constantly buy goods for more than market value. Thus both simple buying and selling, and the only slightly more complicated way of buying, transforming, and selling, can result in huge profits every week.

If you check out the various WoW economy blogs, you'll always find the same set of tips: Transforming ores into gems, transforming herbs into inks and glyphs. People who reached the gold cap nearly all used inscription to get there, and report how they made hundreds of percents of profit every week by posting 1,000 to 2,000 glyphs at any given time. That is a great example of the inefficient market hypothesis: It is obvious that having over 1,000 glyphs on the AH all the time only works against minimal competition. Imagine just 10 players on the same server and side all trying to pull this off at the same time, and the market would be completely flooded with glyphs way beyond demand, with profits crumbling in consequence.

So why, out of thousands of players on each server and side, is there only so few trying to get rich quick? Why are markets so inefficient? The answer is simply that money doesn't have any intrinsic value, but that its value is defined by what you can buy with it. In the real world there is no money cap, and even if you have billions there is always something you could buy with it, whether that is a company or the cure to malaria. In World of Warcraft it is quite difficult to imagine what to do with 214,748 gold. A part of the economy is "price controlled", that is run by NPCs with fixed prices, only changed occasionally with patches. The other part of the economy is operating at a price level which is basically determined by what a level 80 character can make in gold without farming, buying, or selling, just by regular playing, looting, and daily quest rewards. Thus even a stack of copper bars on most servers is worth several gold now. And the level 5 character who can gather copper ore and transform it into bars and sell those thus is able to earn several gold pieces per hour, making both the fixed costs of lets say training or flying, and the fixed monetary rewards from loot and quests at that level comparatively tiny and irrelevant. If somebody is just playing normally, selling the boe loot he finds in the process on the AH, and maybe doing a bit of herb or ore gathering just for fun, he'll have enough money to pay for everything he needs.

Thus compared to the effort of crafting thousands of glyphs, needing several dedicated alts just to handle the inventory, the huge profits of inscriptions are simply not interesting to the average player. Why spend so much time and effort to make money you can't spend, because you already have everything you need? In fact most people have *more* gold than they need, thus they don't mind overpaying for those glyphs somebody else made. And if they ever plan to buy something more expensive, like an epic flying mount for 5,000 gold, and don't have the money immediately, they still prefer to earn that gold in ways which more closely resemble their regular play patterns. This weekend, just for the fun of exploring, I spent one hour mining, and ended up with one stack of titanium ore, and five stacks of saronite ore, about 500 gold after prospecting. I make 100 gold a day in the 10 seconds it takes me to log on my alchemist and transmute a rare gem into an epic one. And when I do daily quests for the Argent Tournament, I get over 13 gold per quest as extra to the token or reputation I was actually after. If a player who just plays whatever he fancies in a casual way already makes over 1,000 gold a week, it is no wonder that you can easily sell a glyph for 20 gold, although the materials only cost you 2 gold. Players spend their gold in inefficient ways on the auction house, because there is no need to be frugal. Using these market inefficiencies to make a virtual fortune is easy enough, as long as there aren't too many people around with the same idea.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hand of Reckoning

My paladin reached level 16, and got the Hand of Reckoning spell. 30 yards range, which is three times his previous longest pull range, instant, and dealing awesome damage when used for pulling. Probably one of the best pulling spells in World of Warcraft. And that completely transforms the paladin at level 16 from a somewhat boring, zero-button fighter, to an insane killing machine. Hand of Reckoning at 30 yards, Judgement of Light at 10 yards, hit the mob with a huge hammer at close range, dead, next pull.

All in all, the newbie paladin experience not only has changed significantly from vanilla WoW to today, but it is also somewhat incongruous, with the new spells being noticeably different from the old. Furthermore the paladin plays like a jack of all trades, master of all. Easily outdamages both warrior and priest, while keeping the advantages of both classes. Fun? Yes! Balanced? I don't think so. Definitely not during the leveling phase.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thought for the day: Memory

Why is it that I sometimes forget important real life stuff, but can still remember exactly where at the satyrs in Ashenvale to find the Warsong Oil for some quest I haven't done for over a year? A good memory is lowering the replay value of a MMORPG.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Where do you want that database?

It is perfectly possible to play a MMORPG without looking up where to find what item or monster. But if you're just following a random path of quests and fights, chances are you'll end up with some of your gear being a lot weaker than the rest, because by pure chance you didn't find for example some new boots. So what many players do is to look up what gear to get, and where, in some database.

World of Warcraft, having so many players, has a lot of third party databases all over the internet. Places like Thottbot, WoWDB, WoWHead, or Allakhazam. Map sites like MapWoW, wikis like WoWWiki, crafting sites like Crafter's Tome, loot sites like WoW-Loot, the list goes on and on. Any data you could possibly imagine about WoW is available in a database somewhere. Only it's not always easy to find. And it's not always accurate, for example not having been updated after a patch. And of course you'll have to break immersion, and either alt-tab out of the game, or look at the database on a second computer.

So when I was playing Luminary for a while, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was an official database, and it was integrated into the game. Need a new sword? The database shows you what ingredients the sword is crafted from, which mobs drop those ingredients, and where to find those mobs. Then I played Atlantica Online, and they had a similar system, but you needed to fight mobs to unlock their database entries on basic stats, location, and loot tables. And of course Warhammer Online has the Tome of Knowledge, which also has unlockable entries, although not really detailed enough to serve as a good database.

I like the idea of the database being *in* the game, not run by a third party on some website. Not only because an in-game database would always be accurate and up to date, and easier to access. But also because you could actually turn it into a gameplay element: Imagine an NPC in game, a sage, who for a small fee looks at your gear, identifies the weakest piece, and gives you advice on how to upgrade it. Basically you'd get a personalized quest sending you to some quest NPC, or dungeon, where you could get the gear you need. Which would be a lot more fun than getting yet another quest with a quest reward you can't possibly use.

What do you think? Should games have more ways to look up game data inside the game, or do you prefer to rely on outside sources?

PS3 questions: Region free? Backward compatible?

Sometimes I think there is too much information on the internet. So much that getting a straight answer to simple questions is very hard. Since the new Playstation 3 Slim came out, with a much lower price, I'm wondering whether I should buy one. But as there aren't all that many PS3 games that would interest me, whether I buy a PS3 or not also depends on other factors:

1) Is it possible to watch DVDs from different regions on the same PS3? On the PS2 I'm using a program called DVD Region X, but that doesn't appear to exist for the PS3. And while apparently *games* on the PS3 are region free, DVD and Blue-ray discs are not. If there is no solution, and I couldn't watch my collection of US DVDs on the PS3, I would be a lot less interested in buying one.

2) Do *any* PS2 games run on the PS3 Slim? I know the full backward compatibility promised for the first versions of the PS3 never really worked, and was abandoned in the latter versions. But I did read something about that while hardware emulation is out, *some* PS2 games would be supported by software emulation. Now I read everywhere that the PS3 Slim is "not backward compatible". But does that mean "not at all", or is backward compatibility at least partial?

An hour on Google produced hundreds of links, but none really answering my question. Bing (Microsoft's new search engine, the acronym meaning "But Its Not Google!"), which is supposed to work more like an expert system, doesn't give clear answers either. Many links I found were to forums, where people were asking exactly these questions, and then got half a dozen conflicting answers. So, does anyone of you know whether I can watch foreign DVDs and play PS2 games on a PS3 Slim?

Pax Pox

In what is quickly becoming known as the Pax Pox, it turns out that visiting the Penny Arcade Expo 2009 could get you infected with the swine flu. Gabe had to publish a public health warning with a list of outgoing flights and trains where the flu might have spread further.

Apart from making those of us who couldn't attend feel less sad about missing PAX, the Pax Pox is bad news. It links together with similar reports and medical forecasts saying that an epidemic of Influenza A(H1N1) in the northern hemisphere this winter is pretty much assured. The only good news is that as far as we know now, this strain of flu isn't any more deadly than the regular flu, and most people affected will just feel sick for a few days before getting better even without treatment.

But of course if you can, you'd want to avoid catching the Pax Pox. Apart from general flu avoidance measures, most prominently frequently washing your hands, for gamers the message might be to stay away from big gaming conventions and similar mass events this fall and winter.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The art of discussion

Nils commented in yesterday's threat that "As soon as you mention UO in the title people will respond that UO was either much better than WoW or that you should go play UO. If I were you I'd ban such people from the blog. They obviously don't even read the topic before commenting." Unfortunately that isn't a problem limited to UO. Pretty much mentioning any game results in several comments that are just about how the commenter loves game A and hates game B, without having any relevance to the actual topic of my post. Sometimes I deliberately try to keep names of games totally out of my posts to avoid that, but without examples theory is always a bit dry.

I was thinking about this earlier this week, when I was reading the news about the uproar over Obama's school speech. Because actually the phenomenon is pretty much the same. Some people just hate Obama and everything he stands for, so they are rather pulling their children from school as to let them hear something Obama says. That what he says is "study hard to succeed in life", which is hardly a controversial matter, doesn't matter at all. That presidents Reagan and Bush did similar broadcasts doesn't matter at all. Even the ridicule that sort of discussion causes in the rest of the world doesn't matter. People aren't even remotely interested in discussing actual topics. All that counts is gut feelings of unconditional love or hate for some cause.

So whenever I mention games like WoW, EVE, or Darkfall on this blog, I get predictable comments from always the same predictable people along the lines of: "WoW bad, EVE and Darkfall good, and the fact that WoW has millions more players than EVE and Darkfall together just proves that 95% of MMORPG players are idiots anyway".

Personally I would be interested in an intelligent discussion of how it would be possible to combine the good parts of many different MMORPG into one perfect MMORPG, if that is possible at all. But you can't have that discussion if you can't admit that World of Warcraft might actually have done some things right, or that EVE or Darkfall might actually have some flaws, or vice versa. Instead we have lots of defeatists bleating about how games can only be popular if they are "dumbed down", and claiming that good games are only accessible to a small elite, which then of course causes the game to be either shut down or have to make do with low production quality due to lack of financial success. I don't think that is true. I believe one could take a game like EVE, fix its flaws, and create a great game with many of EVE's strong points and millions of subscribers, without creating a "dumbed down WoW-in-space clone". And I believe there is a wide open space for many intelligent, good MMORPGs with millions of players, if only we dared to explore that space.

If that doesn't happen, we only have ourselves to blame. If we can even get an intelligent discussion going on what parts of a game are good or bad, but always insist on religiously claiming that the game we play is already perfect, and the game we don't play is absolute garbage with not a single good point, then how can we let the developers know what works and what doesn't? No wonder they end up making endless clones of the most successful games!

And the MMO blogosphere risks descending into being the equivalent of different versions of FOX News. Boring sites praising a single game and condemning everything else. When somebody dares to mention that game X has both good and bad points, he'll get hate mail/comments from both the game X haters and the game X fanbois. I've been frequently accused of BOTH being a WoW hater and a WoW fanboi, just because I strive to see both good and bad in that game. With nobody noticing that I can't possibly be both.

The religions of the world are already there. Politics are approaching the point fast. And now even game design is moving towards the point where there is no more discussion possible, but only people shouting at each other, endlessly repeating their fixed and unmovable believes. Is the art of discussion dead?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is Ultima Online a MMORPG?

Those of you who actually played UO will consider this a silly question. Ultima Online not only definitely is a MMORPG, it also is one of the more important milestones of MMORPG history. So why the question? Because every time a new game comes out nowadays, me or other commenters can't help but notice similarities between the new game and World of Warcraft: Combat is auto-attack plus abilities on a hotkey bar, gameplay is directed by quests given by NPCs with glowing symbols over their heads, there are classes, levels, and experience points, etc., etc. So sooner or later somebody is saying the words "WoW clone", and inevitably somebody else responds with "That is not cloning WoW, these features are all genre defining standards". Well, if these features define the MMORPG genre, then how come Ultima Online doesn't have them? How come A Tale in the Desert doesn't have them? How come Puzzle Pirates doesn't have them? How come that there are dozens of other games which are all recognizable MMORPGs, but which don't have that same list of WoW features?

The truth is that a MMORPG is a huge bundle of features, quality of execution, social factors, marketing, and so on, all playing a big role in the ultimate success of that game. And nobody, not even the game developers themselves, can tell you exactly which factors were important for the success of any given game, and which weren't. Thus while a good argument could be made that Everquest was more successful than Ultima Online because EQ had 3D graphics, the developers making the next generation of games weren't absolutely sure about that. So instead of trying to find the best possible feature of every existing game and improving on that, they simply copied most of the Everquest formula of auto-attack plus hotkey bar, quests, classes, levels, and experience points. Some year laters World of Warcraft came along, copied those EQ features, expanded on quest-directed gameplay and easy soloing, and factually became the new standard.

A game does not have to have auto-attack plus hotkey combat to be a MMORPG. It does not have to have classes and levels. And just because other games ended up with less subscribers, it doesn't mean that some of their features aren't actually superior to those of World of Warcraft. Some features of MMORPGs, especially combat, have become rather stagnant by repeated copying and cloning, with the majority of games still playing like Everquest, only faster. Game developers are missing the analytical skills to see which of the features of a successful game actually caused the success, and they are missing the creativity to innovate features that are still sub-optimal or getting old. Instead the "new features" we get are gimmicks like flight or voice-overs, which are supposed to make us forget that we are *still* taking that kill 10 foozles quest, targeting the foozle, and pressing hotkeys to launch various spells and abilities to combat it.

As long as game developers fail to either innovate, or to at least combine features from other games than just World of Warcraft, they will be open to charges of producing WoW clones. We can't just pretend that the features of World of Warcraft define the limits of the MMORPG genre. Remember Ultima Online!

Learning from MMORPGs for real life success

Like in our discussion about the success in virtual worlds, real life has millions of different possible goals and definitions of success. But if you look at success defined by "recognition by others", the list of success criteria narrows down, and contains such staples as money, family, and a good job. MMORPGs are often suspected to be detrimental to real life success, with exaggerated reports of people spending so much time in a game that they neglect their job and family. While the famous "gamer in mama's basement" probably does exist, he is an extreme, not the general rule. Nevertheless it can be asked whether playing a MMORPG is a pure waste of time, or whether playing these games can teach us something which is good for real life success. So lets have a look at what we could learn from MMORPGs:

Hand-eye-coordination: Ronald Reagan famously suggested that playing video games would make good jet pilots. Unfortunately examples of jobs in which the hand-eye-coordination acquired in video games would come in handy are few and far between. Most jobs don't have anything remotely resembling a video game controller, and in the few jobs that have something like a joystick to control a machine, the machine is usually rather slow, and controlling it doesn't require milli-second reflexes.

Typing: The introduction of the PC into modern office life lead to the extinction of the typist. If you have an office job nowadays, you are supposed to type your e-mails, letters, memos, and reports yourself. Thus if due to chatting in an MMORPG you learned how to type faster, this is something that will come in handy in quite a lot of jobs. Fast typing is something you're likely to learn in a MMORPG, because unless you have voice chat, faster typing means faster communication. The only downside is that in a professional environment you'd have not only to type fast, but also spell correctly, and MMORPGs aren't exactly good at teaching that one.

Communication: Communication is a key factor of success both in MMORPGs and in real life, whether private or professional. Of course MMORPGs are full of examples of bad communication. But by being massively multiplayer there is a lot more chance of people learning to communicate in a MMORPG than if they played just single-player games. The same communication skills that make teamwork in a dungeon group a success can help a lot with teamwork in a professional environment.

Managing: Leading a successful guild, or even just a successful pickup group, requires management skills. People who do this regularly in MMORPGs will come out with a better understanding on how to motivate people, resolve conflicts, and handle limited resources (like raid slots and loot drops). All this can be very helpful both in a professional environment, and in managing your own private life.

So as you can see, there are a lot of useful skills that can be picked up by playing MMORPG, and which will help with real life success. Unfortunately that doesn't mean it is a good idea to put your guild leadership position in your CV, unless you apply for a job in the gaming industry. The skills I listed here are rather what is called "soft skills", skills which are useful, but which you normally don't have a diploma for. You'd have to demonstrate communication and managing skills in your job interview, or once you got the job just apply them. And obviously you'll have to find the right balance between spending time in the real world and in virtual worlds if you want real life success.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thought for the day: Success

Blatantly stealing a frequently used headling from Killed in a Smiling Accident, I'll experiment with a for me unusual form of writing: Just throwing out a single thought, without writing several paragraphs about it.

The thought for the day is about success, triggered by a comment from a reader who said that people who concentrate on playing a single avatar are more successful than those with alts. Yes, but only if you define success as linear progress in the end game. If the purpose of a game is to entertain, isn't the guy who is completely happy with a dozen alts more successful than the guy who has a single avatar and who is starting to burn out?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The power of social structures

World of Warcraft is a great anthropological example of why people tend to organize themselves into social structures like families, tribes, or nations: The social structure is more powerful than the sum of its parts. Everybody in WoW knows that a guild group is more likely to succeed at any given dungeon or raid than a pickup group. Some people think that this is because in pickup groups there is a higher concentration of exceptionally bad players. But if you have a look, you'll find that almost always everybody in the pickup group has a guild tag, and they'd all succeed if they were in a group with their guild mates. If you take 10 successful 10-man Naxxramas guild raids groups, and reorganize them into 10 pickup raids with one guy from each of the 10 guilds in each raid, you'd get 10 far less successful groups. In spite of that being exactly the same pool of people.

The little bit of extra trust the common guild tag gives everyone, the knowledge that you'll probably play together with the same people again, makes everyone in a guild group perform better, and be a lot less likely to give up. Being in a guild group makes people succeed in dungeons and raids which they couldn't have done in a pickup group.

The only disadvantage is that the added power of a guild is usually quite focused on whatever step of the raid circuit the guild is at. There are theories that the number of stable social relationships an individual can have is limited by the size of the neocortex in that species, and that this Dunbar's number for humans is about 150, which has been linked to the maximum size of guilds in MMORPGs. Whether that is true, or whether guilds simply tend towards a size at which during prime time there are enough people online to form one raid, fact is that guilds rarely get to a size where they would be able to organize several raids to different locations in parallel. My guild is doing Ulduar raids, with 10 or 25 raiders depending on numbers present, but Naxxramas raids aren't on the official schedule any more. They sometimes form spontaneously on off-raid nights, but they don't benefit from the same degree of scheduling and organization than the Ulduar raids. Which is why my warrior is pretty much stuck where he is, at pre-raid gear level, with not much hope of getting into a good Naxxramas raid. I once tried to get into a pickup raid, but was asked to link the [Epic] achievement to get an invite. Listen, buddy, if I had the complete set of Naxxramas gear I'd need for the [Epic] achievement, I wouldn't be asking for a group to go there!

So I was wondering if MMORPGs will one day evolve to offer more than the simple social structure of the guild. Wouldn't it be great to have some social structures that would allow a similar degree of cooperation and success as a guild, but also for alts? Some people suggested allowing people to have multiple guild tags, which would be one step. Another idea would be to have one main guild, but an optional additional membership to some other social structure for alts, for example a club of alts who want to do Naxxramas or heroics. How can we harness the power of social structures for our alts, instead of exposing them to the horrors of the pickup raid?

How much for that Blizzard all access pass?

Gordon from We Fly Spitfires doubts many people will subscribe to both World of Warcraft and Blizzard's next MMO at the same time. I think that if these two subscriptions are strictly separate, Gordon is probably right. But he also mentions the possibility of a SOE "station access" like deal, and says it would have to be at a "reasonable price point". And I think that this is the key to the issue.

The SOE station access currently costs $29.99 per month, plus taxes. Which means that you basically need to play THREE SOE games for that to become a good deal. I have no data on how many people took that offer from SOE, but I would be surprised if it was a large percentage of their players. And that is with SOE offering 8 games to choose from. Unless they'd threw in some Diablo III or Starcraft II goodies, Blizzard would only have two games on offer, and "play 2 games for the price of 2" doesn't make for good marketing.

You'd need to be seriously weird to play two MMORPGs on two computer simultaneously, unless at least one of them is an Asian AFK grinder. With whatever your favorite MMORPG is at the moment taking up a significant amount of your time, a more likely scenario for multiple subscriptions is having one main game, and playing the other just minimally, like checking the auction house daily. Or playing WoW on raid nights, and the other Blizzard MMO on the other nights. One could also imagine people playing one game intensively for some time, e.g. after a content patch, and then switching to the other game, back and forth, after some weeks.

In any case, having two subscription is extremely unlikely to result in you playing twice as much. Thus most players would be reluctant to pay twice as much for that. A clever offer will take that into account. If, for example, the Blizzard all access pass were to cost $19.99, a good number of people would go for it, as you basically pay $5 per month for the convenience of switching between games without the hassle of subscribing and unsubscribing, or for playing a second game at low intensity.

If your favorite MMORPG company had two games, each costing $15 per month, what would you be willing to pay to play the both?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Illusion of Impact

World of Warcraft is a highly strategic game, in which players have to figure out what the best strategy is to beat a raid boss. Guilds in World of Warcraft become so famous that they get sponsoring contracts from international companies, and appear on TV. World of Warcraft is also a highly creative game, in which players make videos about how they and their friends play WoW, get millions of hits on YouTube, and end up making music videos starring themselves.

Does this sound like a representative description of World of Warcraft to you? Obviously it is not. While everything I listed there is documented and true, this is not how World of Warcraft plays for the average player. Only a handful of players figure out raid boss strategies, everybody else just follows them. Guilds with sponsoring contracts like Ensidia are few and far between. And, thank God, there aren't all that many Felicia Days making Do You Want to Date my Avatar music videos.

EVE Online is a game of high intrigue, politics, and treachery. Guilds get toppled by assassins setting up a clever trap. The universe's most powerful alliances break up when a highly placed member turns traitor. Players pull of clever scams and bank heists, and get away with stealing virtual currency they can legally sell for thousands of dollars.

Does this sound like a representative description of EVE Online to you? Obviously it is not. While everything I listed there is documented and true, this is not how EVE Online plays for the average player. Only a handful of players is engaged in high politics or intergalactic bank scams. The average EVE player logs on, does a couple of missions, gets into a couple of space fights, mines a little, transports some goods, and logs off again.

Why, oh why, are we letting the fans and makers of EVE Online get away with presenting their game as something which it isn't for the huge majority of players, and do not apply the same logic to other games, be it World of Warcraft or anything else? Every game has a few outstanding players that have a huge impact on how the rest of the players play the game. If you happen to be the first to kill a boss in World of Warcraft, and post the strategy on YouTube and elsewhere, *millions* of players will follow your instructions to the letter, or die trying. If you subvert a powerful alliance in EVE, you'll make headlines on various gaming sites. But that is not what these games are about for the regular player. Whether you could become the next Felicia Day or the next Haargoth Agamar is about as relevant for your daily life as whether you could become the next president of the United States. That isn't to say it is impossible, it just is so extremely unlikely that it doesn't really matter.

It is certainly true that World of Warcraft raid gameplay is more scripted than gameplay in more sandboxy virtual worlds. Two different raid groups killing Onyxia back in vanilla WoW did so in very, very similar ways, because the scripted behavior of the raid boss determines the players strategy. But then, if you play for example Warhammer Online and participate in several keep raids in different locations, you'll notice that there will also be huge similarities between the different events. There is nothing scripted, but the layout of the keep, plus the way the game works, ends up determining player strategy just the same way.

The whole idea that the behavior of a single player will impact the whole virtual world is a carefully crafted and marketed illusion. Just like the illusion that *you* could become president, or win the lottery. It isn't strictly false, and as there are obviously presidents and lottery winners and players influencing virtual worlds, it is easy to keep up the illusion. But you can do statistics, and see that out of 300 million Americans only 1 is president, that the chance to win the lottery is 1 in X million, and that out of 300,000 EVE players only a handful ever had a major impact on the world. To know what a game is really about, you have to look at what the average player is doing in it, not what a few exceptional personalities do.

P.S. As I had to moderate one comment on this subject in yesterday's thread, I'd like to remind you that you do have the right to strongly disagree with what I say here, but only as long as you manage to do that without name calling. Insulting me or your fellow commenters is not only not helping your argument, it will also result in your argument not getting posted in the first place.