Friday, October 30, 2009

How my wife got a new graphics card

In February this year I bought a new computer. High-end system, except for the graphics card, a Nvidia GeForce 9800 GTX (1 GB), which even at the time was more upper mid-range. So the idea was to replace it when I could find a better card without the ridiculous price tag of a GTX 285 or 295. So meanwhile Nvidia launched the GTX 275, and I was reading nice things about it.

At the same time my wife said she wanted a new screen for her computer, replacing a 17" 4:3 screen with a 22" wide screen. Great, one "find a present for the wife" problem solved. But her computer has a Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS (640 MB) graphics card, and I worried that this card wouldn't handle a 1680 x 1050 resolution all that well. So I came up with this brilliant plan: I buy a new GTX 275 for myself, and put my old 9800 GTX in my wife's computer, everybody happy.

I mail-ordered the card last week, and it arrived yesterday. First surprise was the box it came in, which was bigger than my computer. At that moment I was still laughing, because I correctly assumed that much of the content of the box was packing material. I unpacked the card, unplugged my computer, opened it up, removed the old graphics card and tried to put in the new graphics card. No luck! The Gainward GTX 275 is *really* bigger than my computer. Or rather, it's too long, having a full 9.5" length, and there being only about 8" of space for a graphics card in my Antec 900 mid tower case. Doh! They didn't mention card length in the system requirements!

My wife's computer however has a much longer case ...

So now my wife got a brand new GTX 275 graphics card. The jump in performance from a 8800 GTS to a GTX 275 is astounding, for example the Furmark score jumps by a factor of over 3. This solves the problem of her having a card able to handle a new screen with higher resolution. But I'm still stuck with my 9800 GTX. And I have no idea how to find a new graphics card which would be an upgrade, and actually fit in my Antec 900 case. The sites selling graphics cards don't even mention card length, and even most of the reviews you can find don't include physical measurement. Those I did find for other GTX 275 cards show that other brands are even longer, not shorter. I doubt that the GTX 275 even exists in a short version. :(

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Vanity lasts forever

I log on my level 80 characters in World of Warcraft every day, but most of the time only to do things like the daily jewelcrafting quest, or alchemy transmutes with 23 hours cooldown. The rest of the time is spent between working on my inscription business, and playing alts, with my paladin being level 36 now, and my druid level 29. The gear my level 80s are wearing hasn't changed for quite a while. I just haven't been motivated to gather things for them. With one exception: I did spend several hours getting two vanity mounts for my priest.

My warrior already had several vanity epic flying mounts, from doing daily quests at level 70. My priest, although technically my "main", and having much better gear, was still riding his racial epic mount, and flying the standard epic flying mount, because he didn't have anything else. So I was quite happy when during Brewfest the epic ram dropped for my priest. Then I decided I need a new epic flyer too, and started grinding Cenarion Expedition reputation until I was exalted and could buy the hippogryph.

Now why would I spend time and gold on a vanity mount, and not be interested in improving my epic gear? Two reasons: Acquiring epic gear by raiding is only useful for raiding, it is a self-contained cycle, you raid so you can raid more. Nobody needs epic gear to do daily quests, and for heroics I'm more than well enough geared. And the second reason is that vanity items have better lasting value.

Just look at the level 70 vanity epic flyers my warrior is riding, the Netherwing Drake and the Nether Ray. Yes, they required me to grind a lot of daily quests back at level 70. But I'm still using them at level 80, and I will still use them at level 85. My priest spent level 70 gathering raid epics, which I promptly ditched shortly after Wrath of the Lich King came out. And the level 80 epics I'm wearing now with my priest will again be replaced by new gear at level 85, while I'll still be riding the Brewfest ram, and the CE hippogryph mounts.

Yeah, so the vanity mounts are just fluff, and aren't actually any faster than the standard variety. And it seems the main use of some vanity mounts for some people is that they are so big that you can obstruct the access to flight masters with them. But I do like the option to ride something else than my standard horse or flyer, just to pretend that I'm individual. They are for vanity only, but vanity lasts forever, and so do vanity mounts. Epic gear by comparison has a rather short "best before" date.

What patch 3.3 really changes

World of Warcraft has been patched quite often in the last 5 years, and even big content patches aren't all that rare. Which is why generally patches aren't exciting me much any more. Sure, adding more dungeons and raid dungeons is nice, but ultimately the new dungeons will play pretty much like the old ones did, just with better rewards. And I'm way past getting all bothered because Blizzard "nerfs" this or that class by changing the effect of some talent from 4.3456% to 3.9876% bonus. Having said that, I'm extremely excited about patch 3.3, not because of all this usual stuff, but because of the major changes to social engineering that are in that patch. The big question is: Will patch 3.3 be the patch in which Blizzard after 5 years of countless attempts finally gets the looking for group functionality right?

To summarize the new system in a short feature list, this is what patch 3.3 does to the LFG system, according to MMO Champion:
  • Join as a Group or Solo
  • Cross-Realm Instances/Grouping
  • Instance Teleporting
  • Smarter Group Matching
  • Daily Random Dungeons
  • Repeat Random Dungeons
  • Choose Multiple Dungeons
  • Vote Kick system
  • Lovin’ the PUG Bonuses
  • Looking For Raid
  • Need Before Greed Updated
  • Group Disenchanting
Plus the LFG chat channel will again be disconnected from the LFG system, so maybe finally people will stop using the Trade chat channel to find groups. All this sounds extremely promising, and way more than I had initially hoped for when Blizzard announced cross-server dungeon functionality. These changes make *sense*, for example rewarding people for joining a PuG is the perfect response to PuGs being unpopular.

Of course we will still have to see how all this works out. But at the very least the changes should make finding a group at the level cap a lot easier, and more rewarding. And if I dare to hope, maybe I might even be able to find level-appropriate groups for level-appropriate dungeons for my lower level alts! As I said, Icecrown and all, nice, but ultimately that's just yet another content patch. But if the new LFG system works well, this will have a profound and long-lasting influence on how World of Warcraft is played. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good times for budget gaming

I had a short look at Torchlight yesterday, and it was a pleasant surprise. I could get it via Steam the day it came out (initial plans had been a Steam release 30 days later), and for once as a European I didn't have to overpay much: 15 Euro, which today is equivalent to $22.50, and thus not all that far from the $20 the US players pay. Torchlight is very much cloning the gameplay of Diablo 1:1, with a village and quest givers upstairs, and a random dungeon downstairs. Graphics are modern, and cartoonish, which I personally like very much. The big advantage of cartoonish graphics is that they run better than any attempts of photorealistic even on low spec machines, and they age a lot better too. Torchlight has system specs so low, it actually has a button for netbook settings in the graphical options.

Lots of other games have tried to clone Diablo, but none has come so close to the fun of the original than Torchlight. And they added some new features, like you having a pet which fights, helps to carry your inventory, and can even be sent to sell your loot and come back with the cash. There are three classes, with three talent trees each. And Runic plans to expand Torchlight into a Free2Play MMO in 18 months, although I'm not sure if that is just a fancy way of announcing the equivalent of Not bad for a budget game for 20 bucks.

If you can't even afford that, I'd recommend you to check out Dragon Age Journeys, a free browser RPG EA set up to promote Dragon Age Origins. For a Flash game it is surprisingly well done, nice combat system, and giving player a glimpse into the world of Dragon Age Origins. Which happens to be all I got right now, because after EA first asking me where to send a review copy and could I please write a review of Dragon Age Origins before release on November 3rd, the word now is "we should be getting word on review copies shortly. I’ll let you know asap when I hear if I’m able to reserve a copy for your site and when I anticipate it will be shipped." Dear EA, I'm happy to hear you haven't totally given up on me yet, but if you haven't even shipped your review copies on October 29th, you won't get your reviews before launch.

Generation conflict theory applied to MMORPGs

Once you checked out the video I linked to in my previous post, it is an interesting excercise to apply Clint Hocking's generation conflict theory of video games to the narrower field of MMORPGs. The original Dungeons & Dragons pen and paper roleplaying game, published in 1974, is very much a product of the baby boomer generation, being all about free interaction between players.

The generation X version of roleplaying was Everquest: punishing, and abusive, and all about achievement, and beating the fixed challenges of the game. But EQ had inherited a social component from D&D, almost involuntarily: If you create the Matrix in the generation X style as objective reality against which players bang their head, the real-life fact that doing something together is usually easier than doing something alone invariably sneeks in. The more punishing and abusive you make the virtual world, the more players are forced to play together, to cooperate. But generation X is a generation of lone wolfs cherishing their independance, and so they called this feature "forced grouping" and hated it.

World of Warcraft started out with a generation X base, but with the knowledge that players hate forced grouping. So the generation X loner's dream of a massively single-player online RPG was created. But of course if you have a game in which grouping is possible at all, and in which you want to enable soloing, this turns out to be incompatible with the generation X idea of games having to be punishing and abusive. You need to lower the bar for single players to be able to overcome the challenge, because the minute they can't get over a hurdle alone, they'll group up. In the end the only way Blizzard found to make content that was hard, was to create instances with a limit on group size. Note that in vanilla WoW group limits weren't totally fixed yet, you could still do Stratholme and Scholomance with 10 people, or UBRS with 15.

I think it is best to see World of Warcraft as a game between generation X and generation Y. The lowering of the bar necessary for generation X to solo it, simultaneously fulfilled the generation Y condition of a game having to be more accessible and forgiving. If you compare other features from Everquest and WoW, you'll find more generation Y influences: The death penalty has been lowered significantly, and gameplay is guided by handing out a steady stream of rewards from quests. World of Warcraft being a game with both generation X and generation Y influences makes it both successful, because all generations want to play it, and a battlefield of the generation conflict. As Clint Hocking predicts with his demographics, generation Y appears to be winning that conflict, with WoW definitively moving towards ever more forgiving gameplay, and handing our rewards to everyone for participation, not just top performance. The increase in social features, like the patch 3.3 new group finding system and the Cataclysm guild cooperative features are pure generation Y.

Nevertheless, the generation X roots of World of Warcraft are too strong to ever turn it into a pure generation Y game. Which is where Blizzard's next generation MMORPG comes in. People often wonder how Blizzard is planning to make a next generation MMORPG without canibalizing the WoW user base. I think part of the answer is that the next generation MMORPG will be very much a generation Y game, with little generation X influence left over. I expect the next Blizzard MMORPG to be a lot more cooperative, with a lot more social networking than WoW has, and with a lot less of the generation X aspects of players trying to overcome static challenges. Of course generation X players will hate that game, and deride it, but by the time it comes out generation X will be past its prime anyway, especially in the teen to young adult age group most likely spending their time in virtual worlds. The next generation Blizzard MMORPG might resemble A Tale in the Desert and Facebook more than it resembles Everquest.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Generation conflict

If I could have one hour of your time, I'd propose you spend that hour watching Clint Hocking talking about gamer generations on Teut's blog. Clint Hocking is Creative Director of Ubisoft Montreal, responsible for games like Splinter Cell and Far Cry 2, and talked at the International Game Developers Association meet in Montreal last February. While the video is long, and gets off to a slow start, it then explains brilliantly Clint's theory of gamer generations.

While the very first video games were made by the generation of baby boomers (which happens to be my generation) born between 1946 and 1964, the exponential growth of the video game industry, and its tendency to hire young people, means that in 2000 80% of game developers were members of generation X, born between 1965 and 1981. But there is a generational change ahead, with generation Y, born between 1982 and 2001, about to take over by 2015.

Clint says that generation X "doesn't play nice with other people", but they prefer abusive, punishing, single-player games, or multiplayer games in which they dominate the other players. Generation Y is a lot more social oriented (not unlike baby boomers), cooperative, and prefer games that hand out rewards left and right, and are very forgiving. That kind of relabels the hardcore vs. casual conflict into a generational X vs. Y conflict, but gives it an inevitable demographic shift direction towards generation Y. But Clint expresses some hope that generation Y learns how to handle handing out rewards better than just giving everyone the same, and that they can solve the hard problem of immersion in the context of games, especially multi-player games. "Generation X always imagined that the Matrix was an objective reality, created by machines, and given meaning by our senses. Generation Y is going to discover that the Matrix is an aggregate subjective reality, created by players, and given meaning by our hearts."

Being a baby boomer, I agree with generation Y that kicking other people's ass cannot be the ultimate meaning and purpose of games. But when I look at the strong effect of trivial rewards on people's behavior, I have to agree with generation X that it doesn't make sense to just hand them out to everyone, regardless of performance and behavior. Having discovered how powerful rewards are, we must now use them to encourage positive behavior. Too bad that generation X and generation Y will never be able to agree what exactly "positive behavior" is. So here I'm with generation Y again, hoping that it will mean cooperation and social interaction, and not just striving to perform well in an artificial, abusive, and punishing virtual reality.

WoW hunter changed to shooter gameplay

When Blizzard announced Cataclysm, they also announced that the hunter class in World of Warcraft would undergo significant changes, not using mana any more. At the time that bit of news went unnoticed, due to all the other significant changes to the game. But now Blizzard revealed more about the changes to hunter gameplay, and the changes are more significant than we originally thought: Instead of using hotkey abilities with mana, hunters in combat will now change into "aiming mode", with a crosshair in the middle of their screen. Using the mouse wheel they can change between first-person and third-person view. The keyboard selects what kind of shot they want to fire, but the actual firing is done by targeting the enemy with the crosshair and clicking the mouse. The WoW hunter class is being changed to classic shooter gameplay. Apparently lots of people complained that the standard auto-attack plus hotkey combat was too slow, and not really appropriate for the hunter class. So in future a big part of the damage calculation for hunters will depend on how well you aim your crosshair. This is an attempt to modernize World of Warcraft, shooter gameplay apparently is more popular with the younger crowd.

If this piece of fake news fooled you, you're too gullible for the internet. I would have saved it for April fools' day, but we'll probably know too much about Cataclysm already at that date for any fake news about the expansion to be believable.

The reason I wrote this, is to get you thinking about gameplay changes in World of Warcraft and the MMORPG genre in general. You might think changing WoW hunter gameplay to mimic first-person shooters is an outlandish idea. But if we'd find somebody who has played Everquest in 2000, hasn't seen any MMORPG since, and we show him a typical WoW raid combat, he'll probably find the current combat gameplay as outlandishly strange as a FPS hunter. MMORPG combat in general, and World of Warcraft combat in particular, has become a lot faster. Having to make decisions faster and to press buttons quicker than before makes combat harder. So to balance that, tactical aspects of combat have been made easier: Aggro management is a lot easier now than in vanilla WoW, and mana management has become downright trivial for many classes.

Not only don't I like the change towards faster, less tactical gameplay, but also I have a sad feeling of déjà vu. Once upon a time I was happily playing turn-based strategy games, enjoying the gameplay based on interesting tactical decision making. Then real-time strategy games came along, removing a lot of tactical decision making and replacing it by speeding up gameplay. That was a lot more popular with the mass market, and turn-based strategy games disappeared from the main stream. Nowadays they are niche products, made for a small community of grognards, with titles like Europa Universalis or Heart of Iron, which are pretty much inaccessible for the average gamer. Or there is a small turn-based part leading to big real-time battles, like in the Total War series. The best turn-based games nowadays are remakes like King's Bounty, or indie games like Fantasy Wars. The big games from big companies with big budgets are all real-time strategy games now.

So MMORPGs getting faster and less tactical is something that worries me, because I don't know where it will end. Is the future FPS-RPGs like Borderlands transformed into massively multiplayer games? Do you agree that MMORPGs have become faster and faster over this decade, and is this something you like or dislike?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eldergoth Alganon Review

Carson 63000 from Eldergoth has posted a great review of Alganon, to which I have not much to add, except some personal history:

In March 2009 I was asked by Quest Online whether I would be willing to play the closed Alganon beta and give them some feedback, basically unpaid consulting work. I agreed, played the closed beta for a while and came back with exactly the same conclusions that Carson lists in his review: Alganon is a badly done clone of WoW, with very few unique selling points, and lots of bugs. There are other games, notably Runes of Magic, who do a better job of copying World of Warcraft, and which are Free2Play. I can't imagine anyone wanting to pay a monthly fee for Alganon if even just playing the completely free part of RoM is much better. I advised the guys from Quest Online to make some radical changes, for example making the combat system much different from WoW's, to have some distinguishing feature. Apparently they didn't listen.

I have the greatest respect for small game companies trying to survive in a harsh world of corporate giants. But making inferior clones of the games from corporate giants and then charging the same monthly fee for it is a strategy that is doomed to failure. The role of the small game company is to make games like Brice or World of Goo, which are innovative, even if they weren't made with a multi-million dollar budget. In MMORPGs their role is to provide niche games that do things radically different than the mainstream games. Look at A Tale in the Desert from eGenesis, Puzzle Pirates from Three Rings Design, or even at Darkfall from Aventurine (if you are into S&M and PvP) if you want to see how a small game company can make a successful MMORPG. Alganon is just plain bad.

Facebook games: Scam or useful tool?

While I am present on Facebook as Tobold Stoutfoot, I wasn't actually using Facebook all that much up to about a week ago. Then I read somebody claiming that the future of gaming was Facebook apps, some of which already have millions of players, and I decided to see for myself what the fuzz was about. I tried out several different Facebook games, and quickly realized certain commonalities. These games all work along the same simple lines:

1) Gameplay is extremely simple, and does not require a whole lot of tactical or strategic thought. Basically you click on something, and you get a reward. The next reward is never more than a few clicks away. And it is very obvious what to do to get the next reward, so your chance of failure is small. Facebook games are simple Skinner boxes.

2) All these apps have some important elements based on real time. As you are rewarded for a few simple clicks, the game basically needs to stop you from doing those simple clicks for hours repeatedly and rise to the top too fast. Real time elements are the answer to that, in different forms. Either your click starts a process for which you can gather the reward only hours later, or you have a maximum number of activity you can do before your pool of energy / stamina / whatever runs out, and you need to wait hours for it to refill. In consequence you are encouraged to play Facebook games in short spurts, not taking more than a few minutes, but to come back every day, or even several times per day.

3) With the real time elements braking you out, it is likely that you feel an urge to advance faster than the game will let you. But, lo and behold, the Facebook app also offers a way out from that dilemma: Microtransactions. You can buy yourself more clicks, leading to more rewards per time unit. Or you can even buy the rewards themselves, for cash. I begin to see why some people are so rabidly opposed to microtransactions, because with Facebook apps you really see just the worst kind of them. For those who don't want to spend money on game advantages directly, there are also lots of indirect ways: The game company has commercial partners, who will give you whatever reward points the game uses in exchange for you signing up for something like ring-tones, or at least for agreeing to be bombarded with advertising.

4) Facebook apps are using the power of social networks. If you and your friends are playing the same game, you can help each other, even if you aren't online at the same time. There is always some mechanism which allows you to recruit your friends, and get some in-game advantage from that. The further you advance in the game, the more often you will actually *need* friends to do certain things. The Facebook app will also encourage you to plaster your "wall" with announcements of your progress, and even offer your friends rewards if they click on those announcements to join the game.

And that is it, the general principle of Facebook games. The purpose is rather obvious: Get people hooked with easy rewards, then block them from gaining those rewards as fast as they want, make them pay you money directly or via another company, and encourage them to invite all their friends to participate. It is an extremely effective way to make money with games, because much of the game is in the interaction of the players with his friends, and doesn't cost the game company anything to produce.

My apologies to those of you who have me as friend of Facebook, and who had to endure a lot of Facebook spam being caused by me trying out the various functionalities of different Facebook games!

Now we could just judge this to be an elaborate scam, and be done with it. But I'm not in the business of judging games, I'm in the business of analyzing them. While I find these Facebook apps to be somewhat distasteful, I do recognize that they "work". Which makes me think that instead of using the working part to squeeze out the maximum amount of money from players, and entice them to get their friends hooked as well, for a minimum amount of game actually delivered, we could use the same principles to make good games even better.

One thing these Facebook games do really well is to allow players to cooperate even if they are not online at the same time. That is an element which is often missing in MMORPGs. The requirement to be online at the same time, and in some cases the additional requirement to stay online together for consecutive blocks of hours, is a strong limitation to classic MMORPGs. Even communication in-game between friends and guild-mates is often quite limited, which is why pretty much every guild in every game has a website *outside* the game. MMORPGs could learn a lot here from Facebook apps: Guilds could have cooperative in-game projects to which every guild member can contribute at his own pace and timing. MMORPGs could be integrated with social network websites, where your character info would always automatically be up to date, and you'd automatically be part of the social group representing your guild. Guild forums and raid calendars could be part of that social network group functionality, and be accessible both from inside the game and from outside, via a browser or even via a smart phone.

In short, Facebook apps are using some quite powerful social engineering tools. And just like most tools, they can be used for different purposes, good or bad. Just like a hammer can be used for bashing somebody's head in, or for something constructive, these social engineering tools can be used for fleecing suckers on Facebook, or to create the next generation of MMORPGs.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Write your own Alganon review!

This is an experiment. Today the NDA for Alganon drops, in preparation for the game launch on the 31st. I haven't played Alganon long enough to write a really qualified review, so I have decided not to write one at all. But as I did hand out 10 Alganon beta keys to readers, and I know some other readers got into the beta by other ways, I'm leaving the floor to you guys on this one: Write a "user-created" Alganon review in the comment section of this post!

You don't have to be a great writer, or write a long review covering everything. Just write what comes naturally, to be part of what will hopefully become a greater whole, a quilt patch review so to say.

Friday, October 23, 2009

New York Times on hardcore vs. casual

Thanks to Changed for pointing this out to me: The New York Times posted a very intersting article on the hardcore vs. casual issue. They interviewed hardcores saying that casuals being able to participate at their own plodding pace "is a joke", and complain that "It used to be that it was worth something — there used to be a pride saying that you did it, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’".

The casuals were interviewed too, and are quoted as saying: "The complainers are just a bunch of ornery, grumpy people who want it all to themselves and don’t want the slower. But too bad. The whole is fueled and funded by people like me."

Before we start the same old discussion here all over again, please go and read that post in the New York Times, before coming back here to comment.

What Windows 7 version for gamers?

So Windows 7 was released yesterday worldwide, to replace the much maligned Windows Vista. Now you might innocently walk into a shop to buy a copy of Windows 7, at which point the shop assistant will ask you "Which version?". Your options include Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, and Ultimate. Each of these might or might not be available in both 32-bit and 64-bit, and might be available as either upgrade or full install version. On some markets there are alternative versions, like the European "N" version replacing the previously planned "E" version, not containing additional Microsoft programs like the Internet Explorer or Media Player for anti-trust reasons. At this point the average computer user is seen running screaming from the store, suffering from being unable to decide due to information overload. So, if you are an average PC gamer, which version of Windows 7 should you buy?

My choice would be Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit full install.

You certainly shouldn't get less than the Home Premium version (and actually in many countries you can't get less if you want the full install and not an OEM version). You might be tempted by the Windows XP virtual machine compatibility mode of the Professional edition, but I doubt you really need that one. Enterprise and Ultimate are just overkill for a home computer. You should definitely take the 64-bit version, because the 32-bit version would limit you to 3 GB of RAM, which might still be sufficient today, but will certainly be not enough in a year or two. Given how often I did complete re-installs of previous Windows versions, I'd recomment the full install, because that will be a lot easier to apply after you formatted your hard drive.

The full install version of Windows 7 Home Premium is sold in a pack that contains both the 32-bit and the 64-bit version, and costs $200, or £115, or €120 on Amazon.

So of course the big question is whether you actually need Windows 7 right now. I'm not convinced. While Vista was a catastrophe at launch, it actually runs well enough now, with service pack 2. To get the full advantages of Windows 7, I would need to go and buy 2 copies, one to replace my Vista, the other for my wife's computer to replace Windows XP. That would make creating a home network very easy, but do I really want to spend 400 bucks on that? The alternative is to keep using what you are currently using, and get a copy of Windows 7 included the next time you buy a new computer. That also saves you the hassle of reinstalling your games after having changed operating systems.

Are you going to buy Windows 7 now, or only later with a new computer? Do you agree with my choice of version for gamers, and if not, what version would you have picked?

(And as we recently discussed comment moderation policy, I think it is obvious that your "Windows sucks, buy a Mac / Linux" comment will go straight to /dev/null.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How is your guild doing these days?

Most people, me certainly included, are not constant in how actively they are playing MMORPGs. One is more likely to play at high intensity levels just after new content came out, and there are dips in activity at other times. Of course not everybody is on exactly the same schedule, but there is some correlation. In a mature guild in which the overall number of members isn't moving very much any more, any such decrease in general activity results in less people being online at any given moment.

In World of Warcraft and games with a similar raid endgame, this causes a particular problem: When activity drops too far, the number of guild members online can drop under the fixed minimum number of players needed for a raid. If normally 10 to 12 people turn up for raiding, but now its just 7 to 9, raids get cancelled, and suddenly nobody can raid any more. That puts some strain on guilds, often resulting in players leaving to join another guild, where the number of raiders is still high enough. Which isn't really a good solution, because once activity goes up again, the initial guild still hasn't got enough people to form a raid, while the other guild now suddenly has 15 people fighting for 10 raid slots.

I'm writing this because I detect a lull in activity in my own guild, where some of the regular raiders have gone to play DDO instead or, like me, reduced their raiding activity. Reading through various World of Warcraft blogs, I see quite a number of the typical "my guild is imploding" blog posts, so I was wondering if the decreased activity and resulting guild problem was widespread. How is your guild doing these days? Would you say there are less people around? Did that lead to any problems?

Of course the more interesting question would be whether we could come up with a system to solve the problem, but Wolfshead already beat me to that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What audience do I write for?

Gevlon blogs about me not being harsh enough to comment trolls. His policy is that when on his blog a commenter points out a mistake, the comment gets deleted, and the mistake fixed without any record of the edit. Like the party fixing historical records in 1984, that makes Gevlon look omniscient and always correct, because he leaves no trace of ever having been wrong. And he has an interesting justification for it. Gevlon says:
My most disliked action is "sneak editing", aka fixing an error in the post and delete the referring comment. I'm writing it for the readers. See it from this perspective. He is not interested in old incorrect versions and their incremental fixation, nor the comments that pointed out the errors. He wants to read an error-free post.

Exactly like Blizzard I won't make content for only 1-10% of my subscriber base. While I personally like intelligent commenters more than a random guy who spends 2:15 on the site, my personal feelings does not matter. Business is business, cost effectiveness above all!
Now statistically speaking, Gevlon has a point. There are 3,000 people visiting my blog every day, plus another 3,000 reading the RSS feed, which is a lot compared to the 25 comments the average post gets. But the comparison with Blizzard is dead wrong: Outside Asia, Blizzard is dealing with customers who are all paying about the same monthly fee, thus they have a good reason to try to make content for all of them, and not just some 1-10% subgroup. But what if WoW was Free2Play, and only that 1-10% subgroup was paying, while the other 90-99% were playing for free? It would still make sense to not totally neglect the majority, as they could always decide to move into the paying subgroup. But you'd want to favor the payers over the non-payers, to make paying more attractive. In such a model, not everyone in your audience is equal.

My blog isn't much different. Not everyone in my audience is of equal importance to me. Google Analytics tells me that over the last 30 days I got 68 visitors who found me by typing the search words "Age of Conan sex" into Google. Most of my visitors only stay between 1 and 2 minutes on my site. So why should I value those visitors as much as I value the readers who come here regularly, especially those who leave feedback?

I consider those of my readers who leave comments to be "paying" customers, while the others are Free2Read customers. :) And as my commenters are important to me, I take their feelings into account in my comment moderation policy. I do agree with Gevlon that I should have deleted the troll comments which derailed my "transferring a character is cheaper than buying gold" thread earlier. But even when I finally deleted those comments, I still left a note of why I did that. And whenever somebody points out a mistake I made, I do *not* delete the comment pointing out the mistake, and I *do* leave either a comment or a note in the post that I edited it to fix the mistake.

That is not to say that I allow every comment on my blog. I regularly reject comments (and with the new system you actually never see them), either because they are comment spam, or because they add nothing to the discussion, or because they contain personal attacks. Unfortunately we live in a world where you can't mention the possibility that some game might possibly have some flaw without somebody shooting off a "you are just a WoW fanboi" (or "you are just a WoW hater" in case I'm talking about WoW) one-liner comment. Also I get those stupid "you shouldn't write about this subject" comments Gevlons mentions and delete them. Comments which don't use the word "you" are usually of higher quality. But I think I sufficiently explained my comment moderation rules and reader rights in my Terms of Service.

The point is that I am not afraid to admit that I'm just human. I make mistakes, I get hurt, I get angry, I react, just like everybody else does. And I do have a social relationship with my "community", however you want to define it. There are rules, but there is also respect, and mutual appreciation. My blog is not "business", it is far more personal than that. And the funny thing is that if Gevlon would be honest to himself, he'd realize that writing a not-for-profit blog is an extremely social act, as the only rewards for it are of the social kind.

Buying gold makes baby murlocs cry

Blizzard explained this week that buying gold not only made baby murlocs cry, but also had a range of other negative consequences, as much of the gold being sold would come from hacked accounts or bots "which can cause realm performance and stability issues". Blizzard says: "The negative effects these companies create depend directly on people using their services. Without them, the companies have no way to continue their unethical actions." So if you'd please just stop buying gold, hacking and server instability would magically disappear!

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)'s Uniform Crime Reports, a motor vehicle is stolen in the United States every 26.4 seconds. So I want to urge my readers never to buy a used car again, as that would obviously encourage car theft.

You most likely balked at the flawed logic of the second paragraph. So why didn't you balk at the identical flawed logic of the first paragraph?

I am not saying that account hacking isn't happening. What I do say is that it is a lousy argument against gold buying. If this was the main problem of gold buying, then why not make the Authenticator mandatory and end hacking forever (and power leveling at the same time)? What if Gevlon offered to sell his 214k gold, which he acquired without hacking or botting, would that be okay?

The fundamental question when prohibiting something is whether the activity *by itself* is bad, or whether it just is connected to something else criminal. Take drugs, or prostitution: The Netherlands for example decided that cannabis and prostitution by itself weren't all that bad, but the related drug crimes and white slavery were, so they ended up legalizing both cannabis and prostitution. If Blizzard says that gold-selling related crimes are far worse than gold-selling itself, then they open the door to future legalized gold exchanges, like SOE already did, or even to selling gold themselves. "Buy our legal gold, because not only won't we ban you for it, but also you don't cause hacking and server instabilities!"

Attacking gold-selling just for the related crimes of hacking and botting is as weak as the reason that it makes baby murlocs cry. If EVE Online can hire an economist, then World of Warcraft could easily finance an economist as well. I'd love to see a well founded and researched argument against gold selling based on hard economic data, not murloc tears or playing on the customer's darkest fears. But what Blizzard does here reminds me very much of right-wing parties arguing against immigration by saying that immigration makes crime rates go up. By using such weak arguments, they are actually weakening the case against gold-selling, not strengthening it.

Honeymoon over already?

Muckbeast definitely hates Bill Roper. While I can't say who is responsible, I must say the stats and abilities of Champions Online confuse me, and seeing that a respec costs $12.50 from the Champion Online item shop makes me think that this might be deliberate. Spinks asks whether Champions Online is on the ropes. Bootae can't stand leveling in Aion. Keen doesn't like crafting in Aion. Syncaine warns that by buying Aion you support clones over innovation. And everybody complains about the chat in Aion, which is full of gold spam.

And I'm sitting here thinking "Boy, that went fast!". While Raph Koster probably would say that his universal curve of MMO growth technically still fits, the timescale of that curve obviously has changed a lot this decade. Games like Everquest or World of Warcraft took years before they peaked, the games of 2008 and 2009 peaked after a few weaks, and then often declined rapidly. It has become so bad that companies nowadays only release the number of beta applicants, and then you'll never hear subscription numbers. Anyone know how many people play Aion and Champions Online (not counting Asia)?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

FarmVille in a MMORPG?

FarmVille is a flash game ("application") on Facebook. It has over 60 million "monthly active users", which is 5 times as much as World of Warcraft, but as you can play the game for free the average revenue per player is probably a lot lower than WoW's. But then FarmVille was a lot faster and cheaper to make than WoW, so it is certainly extremely profitable. Gameplay of FarmVille is primitive: You plow land, plant seeds, and come back X hours/days later to harvest for a profit. That's it. But of course you can spend Farm Cash and Farm Coins on decoration to make yourself a prettier farm. And as especially the Farm Cash is hard to get just by playing, you'll be tempted to buy it for real money, or "earn" it by signing up for something you didn't need in the first place. That selling so little gameplay for so much money works at all is due not just to the Tamagotchi-like aspect of tending your farm, but mostly to the social aspects of the game. You invite your Facebook friends to be your neighbors of your farm, and the more neighbors you have, the bigger you can make your farm. You can visit your friend's farms and help them rake leaves or chase away pets, and you can send each other gifts.

There are a lot of similar Facebook applications, many from the same company, using social networks, and having very little actual gameplay, many of them with millions of users. That contrasts sharply with the world of MMORPGs, most of which are much stronger on gameplay, but comparatively low on social networking. The only MMORPG I can think off which is even remotely similar to FarmVille would be A Tale in the Desert.

But the success of games like FarmVille makes me think whether there isn't a way to integrate such low-intensity gameplay, high social networking, into a MMORPG. People often remark that everybody in a MMORPG is a hero, apart from some alts for crafting and banking. The game is in the foreground, the virtual world just a background. So what if we expanded the virtual world aspects of a MMORPG by introducing farmers?

Imagine a virtual world with enough space for players to build farms in designated, relatively peaceful areas. Farms could be used to grow both food, which adventurer characters would need, and alchemy ingredients. Playing a farmer would be low-intensity gameplay, logging on for half an hour each day to tend your farm, and should cost a lot less than a full adventurer account. A farmer would be completely helpless against occasionally appearing menaces likes orcs or wolves threating his sheep, but he would be able to offer rewards to adventurer players to rid him of these menaces. You'd basically replace static quest NPCs by real players giving quests. Adventurers could also be hired to bodyguard the farmer transporting his goods to the city.

Well, that's just a couple of ideas, but I think the basic concept is clear: A virtual world in which there are both peaceful professions and heroes interacting with each other, making the virtual world feel a lot more alive. Moving away from directed gameplay where every player experience is scripted, to more player created content through social interactions. I think that even those who would never want to play a farmer would gain a lot from adventuring in a virtual world where they aren't just questing for NPCs but interacting with farmer players. And then of course there could be pure crafter players, etc., etc., until you have a virtual world that feels truly alive.

Wipe/gear quota

Larisa has an interesting observation about people who say that World of Warcraft is too easy: Only 0.13% of them actually beat the hardest content in the game. The other 99.87% are complaining that WoW is too easy, without having been able to beat it themselves. A good part of those 99.87% who didn't actually beat the game did however beat all or nearly all of it in normal mode, and gave up at that point. Larisa says they didn't continue because the "wipe/gear quota" of hard mode wasn't favorable enough. I think that is an interesting statement, with a lot of player psychology behind it.

Once upon a time in World of Warcraft running around in full epic gear was something special. It meant that you were part of a relatively small elite of raiders who got far enough into raid dungeons to fully equip themselves. That made you stand out in comparison to the average player, who couldn't get into a raid, or couldn't get past the first or second boss in the first raid dungeon, and who didn't have other means to acquiring epics. Fast forward to now, and I'm looking at my warrior who is just one piece away from being full epic, without ever having set a foot into Naxxramas or Ulduar. Nevertheless a given raider with a given skill is probably exactly as far away from having beaten the hardest challenge in the game in Wrath of the Lich King than he was with the same skill in vanilla WoW or The Burning Crusade.

So what has changed is not that there suddenly is no more challenge. What has changed is that the difference in rewards between somebody beating the hardest challenge and the average player has shrunk considerably. Especially in people's minds, due the "color psychology" I recently mentioned: Even if beating hard mode gives better rewards in terms of iLevel and stats, the hard mode epics aren't all that distinguishable from the iLevel 200 epics that are handed out like candy nowadays. If you haven't got epic iLevel 200 rings for example, you can do the Headless Horseman event tonight, and get at least one, if not two epic rings, for a fight that even a pickup group has trouble wiping on.

So when people say "World of Warcraft is too easy nowadays", they don't actually mean that there is no challenge left, or that the hardest challenge in the game is too easy to beat. What they are saying is that it is too easy to get rewards that are remarkably similar to those handed out for the hardest challenge. Or to say it somewhat acerbically: What good is raiding if other people aren't jealous of you?

By simply listening to who isn't complaining and who is, you can now distinguish between those who *really* raid for the challenge, and those who are just elitist. If somebody is really playing for the challenge, it wouldn't matter at all to him how easily other players could get the same or similar rewards. If the main motivation for raiding is trying to appear better than your fellow man, the rewards other players get is suddenly of the utmost importance.

And then, of course, there are people like me, who believe neither that modern WoW raids are really a challenge nor in "achievements" in a video game actually meaning anything. My main reasons for raiding have always been a) hanging out with the guys, and b) epics being the key that gives you access to further content. The latter is less and less the case. Better gear makes raiding easier, but the kind of epic gear you can already get rather easily is good enough to enable you to see all content in normal mode.

What I kind of miss from the "good old times" of raiding with my priest was that the challenge at that time was about how well you played your character, at least in the case of my healer. In Molten Core and Blackwing Lair I constantly had to make intelligent decisions which were not only based on speed, but also on mana efficiency. Anyone remember "healing rotations", with one healer not casting for some time to regain mana, while another healer was taking over his role? Somewhere on the way mana efficiency was removed from the equation. Nowadays I often just spam healing spells as fast as the cooldown allows, while simultaneously playing some sort of jump'n'run platformer game, not unlike Super Mario Brothers, in which the "challenge" consists of performing this much simplified healing strategy while having to constantly move around for some artificial reason. One the one side each of these particular jump'n'run mini-games isn't all that hard to do, on the other side success very much depends on how much training you had on that particular boss, while how well you play your character class and how well you are geared has become a lot less important. So if I'm not raiding any more it isn't because raiding is too hard, too easy, too many wipes per gear, or not enough boasting potential. It is because I find the jump'n'run kind of challenge a lot less interesting than the more tactical challenge of vanilla WoW raids.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is every MMORPG worth $15 per month?

Syp from Bio Break, who is probably the only MMO blogger beating my post count per week, wonders what whether the $15 per month standard subscription fee is appropriate for smaller MMORPGs. He says: "While free to play games are all the rage these days, and quite possibly the future of the industry, there’s still a lot to be said about the stability and full-featured goodness of the subscription model. That said, I think that Fallen Earth is asking a bit too much of consumers to swallow both a $50 initial price tag and the industry standard $15 a month subscription." I totally agree.

Dungeons and Dragons Online reported a 40% increase in subscriptions since going Free2Play, with Turbine reporting some players now spending considerable more than $15 per month. Which is pretty much exactly what the opponents of the Free2Play model complain about. But what would be the alternative? Can small game companies survive on monthly fees significantly lower than $15?

The problem here is something economists call "marginal costs". And no, that doesn't mean a cost that is so low that you'd consider it "marginal". "Marginal cost" in economics speak is what it costs to produce 1 more unit, or in the case of MMORPGs serve 1 more customer. It is easy to see that when going from 0 players to 1 player, the marginal cost is huge, basically the whole cost of development and enough infrastructure to run the game for 1 player. Going from there, the marginal cost for every further player decreases by a lot. Adding one more player to World of Warcraft is very close to zero cost to Blizzard. So while the cost per player goes down with the number of players, the income per player is fixed. Meaning that to have the same profit margin a smaller game would need to ask a *higher* monthly fee from its players than a bigger game. The economy of scale in the MMORPG business very much favors the big boys.

That is something which is nearly impossible to explain to your customers. Smaller games, like Fallen Earth or Alganon, can be an interesting alternative for people who prefer niche games to mass market games, or who are simply burnt out from the mass market fare. But the average customer is going to look at the mass market game and the indie game side by side, and notice that the smaller game has less content, and is less polished, while still asking for the same price. There is a serious lack of price differentiation with the monthly fee model.

In the classic post on price differentiation, Camels and Rubber Duckies, the author shows how to calculate the maximum total profit given how many people would buy an item at a given price. I am not sure that World of Warcraft is at that optimum, I have a faint suspicion that they would make more money if they priced themselves at $20 per month, as they would get a third more revenue, but probably not lose a third of their players. So the conspiracy theorist in me is asking whether that is deliberate, because by deliberately underpricing your high quality good, you effectively keep competitors out of the market.

But the same post of price differentiation also explains why the Free2Play model is becoming so popular: By not going for one optimal fixed price, but by letting everybody pay as much as he wants, the profit is a lot higher. And in the case of Free2Play MMORPGs, the model gives smaller games a chance to escape an unfavorable price comparison with World of Warcraft. I still haven't tried Runes of Magic, but I hear it is very similar to World of Warcraft and nearly as good. At $15 per month the "nearly as good" part would kill it. But as Free2Play the "nearly as good and you can play for free" makes a much better marketing pitch.

So, how do you think smaller niche games should finance themselves? Should we just be paying $15 for every game, regardless of amount and quality of content? Or is the monthly fee business model dead? And if yes, did World of Warcraft kill it, or was it Colonel Mustard in the library with the wrench?

Fire! A WoW Halloween event

Halloween started already yesterday in World of Warcraft. Many people were most interested in the Headless Horseman event boss in Scarlet Monastery, as he has been upgraded to level 80, and drops iLevel 200 epic loot, mostly rings. I was lucky enough to get his mount, a broom, but unlike last year's version, the 2009 version of the broom isn't permanent any more. It doesn't go onto your mount page, has an "requires Halloween" label, and will most probably disappear at the end of the event. The broom does however fly at epic flying mount speed of 280%, if you have the epic flying mount skill, and rides at epic ground mount speed in zones you can't fly in. Well, at least its a lot better than the Rickety Magic Broom you can get from other even quests, because that one apparently moves only at walking speed.

But for me the most interesting part of the WoW Halloween event is the one that happens in villages like Brill or Goldshire, where the Headless Horseman rides over the village and sets fire to several buildings. Players need to grab water buckets and extinguish the fire. The interesting aspect of that is most visible when there aren't all that many players doing the event: The fire uses a very life-like 3D simulation of heat transfer, making the fire spread in a very realistic way, and react in a physically accurate manner to the buckets of water. There is an extremely sophisticated virtual world physics simulation on display here.

Of course from a game design point of view the fire is a dud, because it is too realistic, and doesn't scale. Thus success or failure in extinguishing the fire is very much a question of how many players are throwing buckets of water at it. If you try this event in the early morning hours with few people around, it simply can't be done. Do it during prime time, and the fire is out before you even noticed. There aren't all that many cases in which the number of players is just right to extinguish the fire only if they play well, which is probably better this way, as players tend to not communicate and plan at all during that event.

But I do think that extinguishing a fire could make for an interesting raid encounter, as there the number of players is fixed. With some fine-tuning the fire could be made in a way that it would take planning and skill to extinguish it within a certain time-limit. As the physics engine for it already exists, that shouldn't be much of a problem to implement. And it would be, in the words of Monthy Python, something completely different.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Finding a mature guild

Reader Ostirean wrote me because he has a problem finding a suitable mature guild in World of Warcraft. He says:
"For me, an ideal guild is a place with anything between 15 and 30 regular members. I'm not very prejudiced age-wise, but as a middle-aged man I have become more and more uncomfortable sharing a guild with children young enough to be my own. Call me conservative, but there it is. So I'd like to see most of the members occupying the 25+ age bracket. And perhaps most importantly: the guild would be based around the idea that the members were playing the game for enjoyment, not out of duty. Raids can be massively fun, but they would be run under the "organised chaos" principle: set a raid time and see who turns up. If more than 10 or 25 people are online and ready to raid then it's first come, first served. If you can't go to a raid one night, it's not the end of the world, basically.

Anyway, the guilds I have been in or started have all been one of two types: One is big with lots of kids and childish adults, organised and with little room for flexibility. The other is more or less of the type I have described above, but with one huge shortcoming: size. It seems impossible to grow a casual guild like this to a size of above 8-9 regulars. That means no raiding without pugs (which is fraught with problems), which is of course a huge drawback.

Your readership, at least most of those that take time to comment on your posts, appear to be of the of the grown-up flexibility-seeking type. Are they in guilds they like, or do they know how to find them? Should there be a place on the internet where one could match up, like a guild dating service? Given a good enough group of people, I think many people would happily pay for server transfers of even many toons. Perhaps there is a service like that."
The only principal problem I see with his request is that his math is off. To have a reasonable chance that 10 to 25 people for raiding are online, even if raiding isn't mandatory, you'll need far more than 15 to 30 regular members.

Apart from that, Ostirean correctly identified a principal problem of WoW guild recruiting: Very often guilds recruit characters ("Guild looking for new members, need 2 healers and a tank, no huntards please"), and not people ("Guild looking for mature and loyal people willing to raid two nights a week").

And age definitely is a problem. While of course there are exceptions, generally speaking older players, with a job, family, and plenty of other responsabilities, will take playing a game and going raiding somewhat less seriously than teenagers and young adults. People of the same age group also tend to have more in common, more to talk about in guild chat. If you consider a guild to be more than an organization to get raids done, choosing your guild mates to be socially compatible makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately World of Warcraft is missing a lot of useful tools which would make a casual guild of mature people playing for fun, not achievement, more practical. Not only is it hard to find people in the first place, but once you found them, it isn't always easy to play together. Casual players are more likely to want to play on alts, and with the lack of a mentor/sidekick system, and now 80 levels in the game, finding enough people in the same level range in a small to medium-sized guild is nearly impossible. You basically need 5 friends reserving 1 character each to play together to get regular low-level groups going, not a guild.

Anyway, Ostirean was asking whether anyone of you knew of a "guild dating service" or some place similar where a player could find a mature guild compatible with his play style. Can you help the man out?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Alganon beta now open for all

Little-known fantasy MMORPG Alganon, for which I recently handed out closed beta keys, is now going into open beta. You can sign up via Fileplanet. Alganon will launch October 31st, which gives you two weeks to try it out for free from now, if you didn't get one of those closed beta keys.

Thought for the day: Challenging yourself

People often say that MMORPGs have a variable difficulty level, because you can always challenge yourself by tackling more difficult content or play in a sub-optimal way. So why do people laugh at me when I tell them that I leveled my priest with holy spec and my warrior with protection spec?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dragon Age: Faces & Facebooks

What would you say if you logged into the MMORPG of your choice and found that your character's nose had grown by 1 cm due to a bug? Probably nothing, in fact you'd be likely to not even notice. In third-person view the camera is behind your character most of the time, and even if you turn it around, it's probably too far away for you to notice minor facial detail. In first-person view theoretically your nose should be displayed at the bottom of the screen, but in reality isn't, so you can't see it at all. So why does the Dragon Age Character Creator, which Bioware just released ahead of the game, would need *nine* sliders just for the nose of your character?

The answer to the question is that in fact the program isn't a character creator at all, it is a thinly disguised face generator. And as face generator it is an excellent one. You have far more face generation options in Dragon Age Origins than you have in The Sims 3, or any other character generator I remember.

But as a character generator, the program is a disappointment. Not just because it doesn't deliver on it's ESRB label promising "Blood, Intense Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content". But because outside of face creation, the character generator is extremely weak. For example you can't modify your character's body at all, not it's height, not it's stature, not even the ever popular boob size of female characters.

Of your 79 attribute points you can only distribute 5, the other 74 are preset according to your class. On the bright side the attribute system is very intuitive, borrowing heavily from D&D, so at least you have a good idea how to distribute the points. There are screens for skills and talents, but you can't set anything at all on those. Probably the nicest feature of the character creator is the "portrait", where you can determine the camera angle, position, background, and even facial expression of your character in his portrait.

And then you can upload your character's face to Bioware's new social network, a facebook for game avatars so to say. I haven't quite understood what the purpose of that would be. Unlike the real Facebook, you are unlikely to be able to find your friends on the Bioware social network, as they will be present only under some character name, not their real name. I couldn't even choose "Tobold" as by Bioware social network name, so nobody will ever find *me* there. But well, I don't really "get" social networks anyway, I'm probably the wrong generation for that.

So all in all, as long as you regard it purely as a face generator, and if maybe you are interested in the social network for the game, the Dragon Age Origins character generator is okay. People looking for something to rival a costume creator in a superhero MMORPG are in for a disappointment. I sure hope the game itself uses your created face heavily in various cutscenes, because otherwise I don't see the use of it. Spinks thinks that choices about your character are better taken somewhat later in the game, and not before you get to play it, and maybe she has a point there.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Creative responsibility

Sometimes I get asked what this blog is about. This being blog post #2,870, there is no easy answer to this question, as I have covered a very wide range of subjects over the last 6 years. But if there is one recurring theme that is reflected in the majority of posts, it is my belief in the importance of game design, because game design has a very strong influence on player behavior. I believe that the answer to many questions about MMORPGs to lie in game design, for problems ranging from RMT to the financial success of a game. I believe that if more than a handful of players in a game engage in an activity which was unforeseen and undesirable in the eyes of the game developers, the reason is some flaw in game design. I believe that while other factors can't be neglected, ultimately a game with better game design will be financially more successful than one with a similar budget and less good design.

As a consequence of this belief, I tend to hold game developers responsible for what is happening with and in their games. They do not have the sole responsibility, but I do think that the creative responsibility they have is a major part in the overall shared responsibility of the whole team. Especially if they end up with their name in the title of the game. Remember "Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa"?

Creative responsibility is not something that is generally acknowledged, least of all by the developers themselves. While they are only too willing to be lauded for successes, any failure is always the fault of somebody else. Management is the preferred scapegoat when things go wrong, apparently management contributes nothing to success but is 100% responsible for any failure. That myth probably has a lot to do with the fact that game developers are quite well represented in blogs and forums, while managers are usually prevented by company rules from blabbing out their opinion.

Now I'm not saying that the standard excuse of "management forced us to release the game unfinished" is never true. Just to take one example, the Mythic developers recently listed what was wrong with WAR in their opinion, and said that the economy and auction house was badly done. That is a typical example of a rush job, the auction house wasn't even in the game as late as a month before release, and the whole crafting system smacks of good ideas in half-baked execution. But then, who decided to put the game economy so low on the list of priorities? And was it really just that which made players unhappy?

MMORPG players are remarkably willing to overlook minor flaws caused by rush jobs, and even server instability at the launch of a game, as long as the core of the game is fun. If, as it happened to several games, over half of the players who bought the game at release decide not to continue playing after the first free month, you can't just blame minor flaws made in a hurry, or external factors. These players were willing to spend 50 bucks because they believed the game would be good, and as a player to admit that you were mistaken takes more than some minor inconveniences. It is only if the game isn't fun, if the game design has fundamental flaws, that a mass exodus occurs.

And even if the fundamentals are right, and the game is a success, that doesn't mean that there won't be undesirable outcomes caused by bad game design. For example many veteran players in World of Warcraft complain about newer players, aka n00bs, not having a clue on how to beat harder content. But if a warrior in WoW can reach the level cap without ever having used the taunt ability once, is it the player who is "a moron", or is this a direct consequence of game design?

Game developers have godlike powers, they have a much stronger influence over their virtual worlds than any real world dictator. In the real world a government can make a law against people killing each other, in the virtual world the game developers can make killing each other technically impossible, if they want to. Yet we have to endure panels of game developers on game design conferences collectively whining about problems like gold sellers, instead of discussing how to design games in a way that either gold selling wasn't technically possible, or in a way that gold buying wasn't attractive at all. Players follow extremely predictable patterns, based on the incentives given by the game. There is no such thing as "players doing it wrong", there is only bad game design leading players in the wrong direction.

Ultimately game developers will have to accept this creative responsibility. Because if they were really helpless, had no creative freedom, and were just victims to management, external circumstances, and mischievous players, then they wouldn't be game developers at all. They would only be game programmers.

Search engine optimization via blogs

If you were wondering whether the recent FTC ruling on bloggers having to disclose material relationships wasn't unnecessary, I just received an offer making me think that maybe they are onto something. I received an invitation to make money for writing reviews of other websites who want to do something called SEO, search engine optimization. For the blogger the process is explained in a helpful little graph:

For the buyer the advantages are listed on the website:
Blog Reviews are the most effective way to increase your SEO rankings:

  • They look very natural to Google
  • You get a FULL PAGE with a FULL ARTICLE about the topic of your site
  • You get 3 links to your site with the keywords you want to your site
We understand you want those reviews for SEO - we don't talk about "honest reviews", we don't force bloggers to mention it's sponsored, etc... It's 100% clear to us you want those reviews for SEO
Apparently there is no such thing as bad publicity, businesses are willing to pay bloggers just for "natural looking" links to their website to increase Google page rank, regardless what the actual review says. So maybe it is good that the "we don't force bloggers to mention it's sponsored" part will become illegal December 1st.

P.S.: I hope you noticed my own little "search engine optimization" in this post: While you can see the name of the service on the image, I do not actually mention or link to it in the text, producing absolutely zero Google page rank for the site in question.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thought for the day: Color psychology

Why does it feel better to replace a blue item by a purple item than to replace one purple item by another purple item, even if the difference in iLevel and effect is about the same? Should World of Warcraft extend its color scale?

Fair distribution of profits

A man finds a map on which a hidden treasure is marked. He'd like to lift that treasure, but the land on which the treasure is burried belongs to somebody else. Also our treasure hunter hasn't got a shovel, and he has a bad back and doesn't feel up to digging himself. So he gets several people together: Himself, the landowner, a guy lending the shovel, and a digger. The venture is a success, and they find a treasure chest with 1,000 old gold coins. How should these gold coins be fairly distributed between the 4 people involved?

Of course this is a trick question. The 4 people represent the 4 classic pillars of capitalism: enterprise, land, capital, and labor. And in several centuries of economics no one has come up yet with a system where everybody agrees that the distribution of profits from a venture is completely fair.

Furthermore there are some trends, and changes in what is generally accepted practice, so typical distributions change over centuries and are different between countries and industries. For example landowners used to get the biggest piece of the pie, centuries ago when agriculture was still the predominant business. After the industrialization, land became less and less important, and nowadays it is usually considered just part of the capital.

The smallest part of the pie usually goes to the workers, especially if they can easily be replaced. On the other hand workers sometimes do better than the other participants when times are bad. In our treasure hunt example the digger might well have gotten paid even if the treasure chest had proven to be empty.

But while what a fair distribution is remains disputed, a lot of people can spot extremely unfair distributions. The Wall Street Journal today posted an interesting table of payments to bankers compared to revenues. Translated to our treasure hunt, if the digger had worked for one of these banks, he would have received more than half of the gold found, on average, with in one extreme case the bonus payments being 4 times higher than revenues. Notice that this are revenues, not profits, we are talking here. The average S&P 500 company this year had half a million dollar of revenue per employee. I think it is safe to say that the average employee of an S&P 500 company didn't get paid $250,000 this year.

Now the argument of bankers is that they need these high bonus payments to attract the best talent. This first of all assumes that profits of banks are proportional to the talent of their employees, which is not undisputed. And then of course the big question is why the same would not be true for many other professions: People like surgeons or engineers certainly have good salaries, but way lower than bankers. Why would investing money need much more talent than a bypass operation or building a bridge?

But what really makes many people angry is that while bankers get so much more money than other employees, a lot of other people actually lost a lot of money to the banks. If you bought bank shares in early 2007, you probably lost most if not all of your investment. And then many banks got propped up with taxpayer money. That all looks like paying somebody else to play in a casino for you, with him keeping a good part of the winnings if he wins, and you still having to pay him a lot if he loses.

So while there is a lot to be said against the state dictating how much people should earn, I do think that both minimum wages and maximum wages have some justification as long as they aren't too restrictive, and are just designed to prevent the worst cases of excess.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Guess the Cataclysm release date

It wasn't me! Elnia, second bartender of the Pink Pigtail Inn started it! She lists her arguments why she thinks that the third expansion for World of Warcraft, Cataclysm, will be released on February 1st 2010. Me, I think that is a bit too optimistic.

What is pretty much certain is that Cataclysm will be released in 2010. I do agree that there is a high probability that Blizzard manages to speed up their development process and needs less than 24 months between Wrath of the Lich King (released November 2008) and Cataclysm. The main argument for that hope is that patch 3.3 is already on the public test realms, and it has been said to be the last big content patch. It would be strange if we had to wait a full year between the last content patch and Cataclysm.

But February 1st? No way! I would think that we will get patch 3.3 between mid-November and mid-December, patch 4.0 in spring 2010, and Cataclysm in early summer 2010. And I think the key hurdle is patch 4.0: Unless Blizzard is changing their policy, the actual "cataclysm" will *not* happen on the release date of the Cataclysm expansion, but on the day patch 4.0 is released. Patches 2.0 and 3.0 both introduced all the changes that a player who would *not* buy the next expansion would experience. Thus there is a good chance that the zone changes to the old world will happen in patch 4.0, with the Cataclysm expansion then adding the new levels, new races, and new zones. Either way, as the changes to the existing content are major, I do think it will take Blizzard half a year between patch 3.3 and the Cataclysm release date.

So how about your best guess? When do you think the Cataclysm expansion will be released? And what arguments do you have to support your guess? accounts now with TWICE the downtime - for free!

In a previously undisclosed special offer, Blizzard decided to reward those players who merged their World of Warcraft account into a account with TWICE the downtime than before: If you are an European player with a account, you are now unable to log into World of Warcraft BOTH during US maintenance on Tuesday AND during Euro maintenance on Wednesday. Yes, you heard it right, TWICE the downtime for the same price! Fantastic!

We'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out whether the same offer is true in reverse, and US accounts will be unable to login during Euro maintenance.

Chris interviews me

Chris from Game by Night did an interview with me recently, which he just posted. Chris only started his blog this summer, but he is already keeping up a good pace of a post nearly every day, covering many different MMORPGs. So check it out and see whether you like his blog and the interview.

Does new content outdate too fast?

A reader wrote me with a question about World of Warcraft raid content:
It's hard for the casual player (or just me) to keep up with the new raids that have come out. The guild I was in never really finished Uldaar 10 let alone 25 then TOC came out. Now everyone wants to run that and not ULD. Then Onxyia re-release 10 - 25 has come out making ULD less appealing…and what was that other dungeon Naxx something? And looking at WoW Insider today I see they have a new raid coming out next patch.

All this said: is the release of new content great for everyone in the game or just the sub-set of users that clear it in 10 days? (I guess the root of this question is the same raider vs casual argument…)
Well, my first comment here must be how great it is if the casual player's problem nowadays is that he couldn't finish Ulduar. This is already a huge improvement over the situation in the previous expansion.

Having said that, there nevertheless remains a problem: The reason why my reader can't finish Ulduar isn't because it is too hard for him, but because he can't find a group to do it, because everybody else moved on to the newer raid dungeons. And that is something I can sympathize with, as I have a similar problem: I'd love to raid with alts, but can't, because nobody is doing Naxxramas any more. Even pickup raids go to Onyxia or ToC, and only invite people with [Epic] or similar achievements.

The simple truth is that organizing a raid, regardless of destination, is already pretty hardcore in itself. While some casual players, or alts, probably wouldn't have huge problems beating Naxxramas, they do have a problem getting a raid started in the first place. Which is why Blizzard is talking about (but hasn't finished developing yet) a system which would give rewards for organizing groups as part of the new looking-for-group system. I sure hope that extends to raids as well, not just 5-man groups. I am pretty sure that there are enough players around who still would like to do Naxxramas and Ulduar, it is just the organizational barrier to entry that is hard to pass.

I hope that the new LFG system has a high priority for Blizzard, because it tackles exactly the problem the reader mentioned: From day 1 of an expansion there is a "wave" moving through the content, with many players being interested in the same content at the same time. As long as you ride that wave and develop your character at exactly the speed of everyone else, things are fine. If you fall behind for any reason, you run into problems.

Part of that is psychological: Other players assume that if you aren't in full Ulduar gear by now, you are a moron and a slacker. If you say you want to go to Naxxramas now, people conclude that you don't know how to play Naxxramas, and aren't geared enough for it. Which for example for my warrior alt isn't true at all, I'm geared up well enough for entry level raiding, and I know Naxxramas inside out because I've been there with my priest main. The other part of the problem is incentives: Not only is running Naxxramas again rather boring for somebody who already spent months there, but it also gives only useless loot drops, and barely useful emblems. It is counterproductive that today running Naxxramas nets you less than doing a mix of heroics and daily quests.

As I said before, the situation for casual players has much improved since early Burning Crusade. Raids are more accessible now, and emblems added some incentive to redo older content. But we aren't quite there yet. And my reader is right to pose the question whether new content is only great for the subset of players that clears that content fast, even if that subset isn't quite as small any more. Would you agree that lets say Naxxramas is already outdated? And what do you think could be done to keep content alive for longer?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Separating the sheep from the wolves

One fundamental problem of the idea of a game with impact PvP, in which the strong could dominate the weak, is that nobody wants to play the weak. If we really could manage to separate the sheep from the wolves, who would pay $15 a month to play a sheep?

Unless of course if you made playing a sheep vastly more comfortable than playing a wolf. So how about this set of PvP rules: At character creation, players permanently flag themselves as being either PvP (wolf) or not PvP (sheep). Sheep can't attack or hurt other sheep in any way, but they can attack wolves. Wolves can attack whoever they want. Sheep that win a PvP fight get nothing for it. Wolves that win a PvP fight get points and some loot from the loser. Sheep that get killed lose that loot, but respawn at a safe point. Wolves that get killed in PvP are permadead.

Note that the result would probably be very close to the outcome of what happens in the real world: People don't commit murder, because it is actually rather dangerous. The sheep would band together to keep themselves safe from the wolves. So as getting killed is rare for a sheep, and apart from losing some loot not so punishing, a lot of players would probably prefer that safer mode of gameplay. As long as the PvE was good, they would be willing to pay to play the sheep. You just better not call it that way.

Blizzard sabotages WoW account security

Currently you can't possibly know my World of Warcraft account name (Hint: It is *not* Tobold). The WoW account name is something that doesn't appear anywhere in your public information, and so to hack somebody's account you would need to guess *both* his account name and his password. As this is tedious for hackers, Blizzard decided to help them out: Your WoW account name will become invalid on November 12th. You will be forced to merge your WoW account into a account. And the account name, wait for it, will be your e-mail address. I don't know about you, but there are a *lot* of people who have my e-mail address. It is a lot easier to get hold of somebody's e-mail address than to find out his secret WoW account name. Thus in future hackers will only need to guess passwords, a massive decline in account security. I'm pretty sure Blizzard will regret that soon, and then force us all to use authenticators.

If you are worried about account security, I'd recommend creating a new e-mail account on one of the many free webmail services. Don't tell anyone that e-mail address and use it exclusively to create a account to merge your World of Warcraft account with. That's what I will do.

Even if Blizzard hands out penguin pets as reward for merging, I don't think the enforced account is a good idea. Apart from the danger to account security, there will certainly be hundreds of thousands of players, if not millions, who'll fail to notice that they have to merge their accounts, and who'll find themselves locked out on November 12th. Then they'll all bombard Blizzard customer service with "Waaaaagh! My WoW account isn't working any more!" complaints. And then they'll all try to get a account on the same day, which with a 87.3% probability will happen to crash on November 12th.

If you happen to be an employee of Blizzard's customer service, may I recommend taking holiday on the week of November 12th? It'll be hell at work!

How to get your players to reactivate

Graphical MMORPGs with monthly subscription fees have been around for a decade already, and many a player has started and stopped playing multiple of them. So it isn't surprising that veteran players frequently get all sorts of offers sent by e-mail from game companies that want ex-players to reactivate their accounts. Usually you are being offered just some free playtime, but with the competition heating up, game companies are even willing to offer you other in-game goodies if you just would resubscribe. World of Warcraft even offers you free playtime if you can persuade a friend to reactivate his account, if he subscribes for 3 months you get one month for free. But the most interesting and effective way to get your players to resubscribe has been found by CCP, makers of EVE: Just plain lying!

Potshot received an offer, that if he were to resubscribe, he would find his account credited with 3.4 trillion ISK. Now that is an extremely high amount of ingame currency. So he resubscribed, looked at his character, and what he found was 340 million ISK. Still enough to buy a one-month subscription via PLEX, but only one thousandth of the promised amount. Response by CCP: "This was actually a typo on the mail sent out". The inofficial version is "ha, ha, we fooled you into resubscribing", but they couldn't possibly admit that publicly. Somehow I don't think this method is going to result in many lasting resubscriptions.

Skill-point systems vs. class / level systems

Theodorus the mage approached the clearing from the south. There he was, standing right in the middle of the clearing, the big grey wolf which had caused Farmer Brown so much trouble with his sheep. Theodorus was just at the limit of the range of his fireball spell, perfect. He mumbled the arcane incantations, the fireball zipped from his fingertips towards the wolf, and then …

Then what exactly?

At this point in any fantasy role-playing game, be that pen & paper, single-player video game, or MMORPG, a set of calculations starts. Does the fireball hit the wolf or miss it? If it hits, how much damage does it deal? And while in a shooter game hits and damage might be based on aiming, in a RPG they are solely or at least predominantly determined by the stats of our mage Theo and the stats of the wolf. From the stats, probabilities and damage numbers are calculated.

In a class and level-based game like World of Warcraft, the relative level of Theo and the wolf will already tell you a lot about the probably outcome. If Theo is much lower in level than the wolf, then the fireball will miss or just singe the wolf, and then the wolf will eat Theo. If Theo is much higher in level than the wolf, the fireball will one-shot the beast. In the most common case, with the mage and the wolf being of similar level, the wolf will lose a part of his hit points to the fireball, start sprinting towards the mage, and Theo will keep spamming fireballs on him until the wolf is dead, taking some damage himself in the process. How many fireballs Theo will need will depend on secondary things influencing stats: Gear, buffs, talents. But it is definitely the class and level of Theo which have the most influence on the fight.

Now some people dislike this sort of level- and class-based gaming, and prefer an approach based on skill-points. In a skill-point based game, Theo would not be "a mage", at least not written on his character sheet. But he would have a number of skill-points available to distribute between various game skills, and in this case would have put a number of points into either a general "magic" skill, or a specific "fireball" skill. It is obvious that ultimately the result is exactly the same as in a level-based game: Just instead of level and talents being used to calculate the probability to hit and the damage, we now calculate the same numbers using skill points as input.

The difference for the players is what options he gets in combining various skills. Our mage Theo, in most class/level-based games, would be able to throw fireballs, but he wouldn't be able to heal, and he wouldn't be able to wear plate mail armor. His class basically determines the "template" of his skills. In a game based on skill-points, he can choose that template himself. And some players like that choice.

Unfortunately having a higher degree of choice also has its disadvantages. Because as we said, in the end any template results in probabilities and numbers calculated. That is a mathematical problem, which can be solved for any given set of parameters. So after every patch changing the calculations, theorycrafters come and solve the mathematical problem, and calculate the optimal templates for every given role. That then becomes the "flavor of the month" template, until some developer realizes that something is overpowered, nerfs some ability, and changes the parameters in the next patch, resulting in new calculations finding new optimal templates. "Choice" for the player is an illusion, the best informed players will all "choose" the same optimum template. And the less well informed players who actually make choices themselves are referred to as "gimps", because they "gimped themselves" by making suboptimal choices. The well-informed meanwhile have chosen the optimum "tank-mage" template in which they are practically invulnerable while dealing maximum damage, or they specialized into one role for group play, either pure damage dealing, pure healing, or pure tanking.

Furthermore skill-point based games frequently have problems with how exactly you earn your skill-points. The basic idea is usually that you gain skill-points in the activity that you do. But often games have difficulty to determine whether what a player does makes sense or not. So Theo might be able to raise his fireball skill by launching fireballs at trees and rocks. Or a player might increase his running skill by putting a weight on the "W" key of his keyboard, have his character "run" against a wall, while he is afk to watch a movie.

Games with classes and levels basically provide players with fixed templates for skill-point distribution, and link the increase of those skills to a simple unified number, the character level, increased by experience points. Choice is limited to talent systems or to systems where you can specialize your class into some sub-class. On the surface it looks as if a player had more choice in a skill-point based game than in a class-based game. But in reality curiously the class-based games end up with having more variety. For example World of Warcraft has 30 different basic choices, plus variations thereof, in the form of 10 character classes with 3 talent trees each. Skill-point based games usually have a lot less, because there is just one optimum template for damage dealing, one for healing, and one for tanking. Extreme specialization usually is an optimum for any skill-point based system, which is why for example in Ultima Online everybody distributed his 700 skill-points into the maximum of 100 points into 7 different skills at "grandmaster" level. Putting 50 points here, and 50 points there was sub-optimal, so while mathematically there was a lot of choice, practically there wasn't all that much. Games with classes can offer choices like a healer still able to deal enough damage for soloing when he isn't in a group, which would be sub-optimal and thus not chosen if the players distributed the skill-points themselves. And they can make classes that are lets say sub-optimal for damage dealing attractive by adding other advantages and unique class skills.

So in summary I'd say that having some degree of choice is nice, and I certainly do like most sorts of specialization and talent systems. But I have yet to see a totally free skill-distribution system which didn't lead to flavor-of-the-month templates and ultimately less choice. Skill-point systems just disfavor the casual players who just want to play without first engaging in long theorycrafting and research of optimum templates.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rather doing it the legal way

I am playing World of Warcraft on two different servers, due to having more alts than are allowed on a single server. Most of my Horde characters are on one server, most of my Alliance characters on the other. My wife also has characters on both servers, which allows me to transfer gold or items from Horde to Alliance or vice versa. On my Horde server I'm rich, as I have two level 80 characters, and my glyph business there. On my Alliance server I'm poor, with my highest character being level 60.

This morning, in the early hours where the server wasn't very populated, and my wife was still sleeping, I borrowed my wife's level 80 shaman, who happens to be a miner and jewelcrafter, to mine saronite and titanium ore to get some gold for my paladin. The paladin is trying to level mining and blacksmithing, and is currently level 25. That means he can smith mithril items, but in the zones where he can go at his level he'll only find tin. Having the somewhat irrational desire to max my blacksmithing skill I therefore need to level mining and smithing with ore from the AH, which is expensive, or with ore gathered with my wife's high-level character.

So while I was trying to farm some gold via mining, I got a tell from a level 1 character asking me whether I wanted to buy some gold. Now usually I put such characters on ignore immediately, but as I was in the process of gold farming myself, I at least checked out the website the guy spammed me. Not sure what the going rate is, but on that site the gold appeared to be expensive, over $100 for 4,000 gold. And I didn't really want to buy gold in WoW, because I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to rules and laws. Hey, I don't even fileshare, so while I wouldn't have problems buying gold in a game where it was allowed, I didn't want to do it in WoW, where it isn't allowed, and I theoretically could even get my account banned for doing so. Or the gold seller could scam me, which is probably the bigger risk.

Then I started thinking of whether I couldn't find a cheaper, safe and legal method of getting a lot of gold for my paladin. After all, the reason why the gold from the gold seller seemed expensive to me was that I had tons of gold on my Horde characters. And then I remembered that I had recently done a business deal I regretted: I had bought 5 Crusader Orbs for 5,000 gold with a Horde bank alt, because my auctioneer had told me that the regular price would be nearly twice that. Only I hadn't realized that since the last patch you can buy Crusader Orbs for Emblems of Triumph, and in spite of predictions that prices would rise again, I only managed to sell one orb for 1,600 gold, before the prices on the AH crashed to around the 1k mark, and I was sitting on 4 unsold orbs.

So, still using the fact that it was early morning hours and quiet, I used the neutral auction house to transfer the 4 Crusader Orbs and 500 gold to an unused Alliance toon on my Horde server via one of wife's characters (you can't buy from yourself, not even on the neutral AH). And then I paid Blizzard 20 bucks for transferring that character to the server where my paladin is. Crusader Orbs also just cost around 1k there, but at least the orbs got me past restriction on the amount of cash a low-level character can carry when changing servers. And assuming I can sell the orbs quickly at that price, I effectively got my paladin 4,000 gold for just 20 bucks. Completely legal, safe, and cheaper than buying gold.