Monday, November 30, 2009

Arthas is safe from me

Via Biobreak I found this this interesting blog post raging against elitism from the Screaming Monkeys blog. The author gets all excited about a comment on another blog, where some elitist players states his opinion that "casuals don’t deserve the same experience as people who devote more time and effort". I can understand where the anti-elitist rage of the casual player comes from, but I would say that what players "deserve" depends very much on your definition of what "same experience" is.

For example, in my case, I am nearly certain that Arthas is safe from me. I gave up raiding after having seen half of Ulduar, and never got any loot from there. As Ionomonkey writes: "Real life will dictate how much time I can give to WoW, not the other way around." That is true for me too, and an increase in real life workload meant raiding several nights a week until midnight became less and less feasible. Then I realized that I wasn't having all that much fun in the multiplayer "Simon says" gameplay of modern raiding, that raid healing was stressing me more than relaxing me, and that raiding mostly served to get the gear to allow more raiding. Nowadays I'm so far behind the curve, there is no chance for me to catch up, except by being carried by my guild mates, which is something that I want to avoid. So come patch 3.3, I will effectively be "excluded" from the raid part of Icecrown, and I will never participate in killing the Lich King. I will not have the "same experience" as the people who spent more time raiding. And you know what? That is okay with me! Because in reality I'm not excluded, I just opted out.

The big difference between Wrath of the Lich King and Burning Crusade is that in early Burning Crusade casual players couldn't even START raiding. In WotLK the barrier to entry has been significantly lowered, low enough to allow the majority of players, even casual ones, to at least make some progress in the entry level raid dungeons like Naxxramas. And that is all I have ever been asking for. Patch 3.3 even promises cross-server LFG pickup raid functionality, which if it works would eliminate the need to join a raiding guild and stick to a fixed raiding schedule with them.

Of course if you absolutely don't want to group, or if you absolutely never have a consecutive block of a few hours available, you are "excluded" from raiding. But it is silly to blame WoW or elitists for that. Many activities in real life, e.g. a party, require getting a group of people together for some time. Demanding that you can kill Arthas while soloing in short blocks of time is just as silly as asking to be able to celebrate a party alone and in half an hour.

In summary, casual players deserve access to raid content, and Wrath of the Lich King provides that access with a reasonably low barrier to entry. That is not the "same experience" as doing hard modes or beating the hardest raid dungeon in the game. But there is actually nothing unique about the harder modes of gameplay, they are just further along on the same path of raid progress. As long as everybody can get *onto* that path of raid progress, everything is fine. And it is totally okay that how far everybody progresses on that path depends on the amount of time and effort he spends.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

In favor of gradualism

To play a game like World of Warcraft a wide range of skills are used: tactical skills, skills of executing complicated maneuvers, and skills of knowledge of where to go and what to do. Now lets bundle all these skills up into one hypothetical skill score, and plot how much skill you need to advance vs. level. At level 1 you only have very few abilities, which limits tactical options, makes it easy to press the right button, and you can just follow the newbie zone quest lines and not worry where to go. From there the amount of skill needed goes up slowly. At level 79 you have a lot more possible buttons, spell rotations, and zones you could go to. But compared to the time it took you to get there, the amount of skill needed barely went up. You can still advance very well by soloing, and as long as you do, you can probably beat most encounters with one standard tactic. But as soon as you hit the level cap, the amount of skill needed to advance further goes up exponentially. Soloing only gets you so far, and slowly. To do groups you suddenly need a whole new set of skills. And if you want to raid, you need to know a lot of details on every boss fight.

Note that I could write the previous paragraph without saying anything highly contentious. While saying that something is "too easy" or "too hard" is subjectiv, and relative (too easy compared to what exactly?), the general shape of the skill curve vs. level is hard to dispute. But now I'll move from the objective observation to the highly subjective proposal for improvement by saying:

The shape of the skill vs. level curve is suboptimal. It should go up gradually with level instead of remaining flat for a long time and then shooting up in the end game.

My argument for this subjective proposal is based on the widely shared observation that new players reaching the level cap often lack the skills to properly perform there. Pickup groups, which were a positive feature of previous games, are now considered a bad thing, because of the risk of picking up a player who knows zilch about group play and causes repeated wipes, or lacks the basic social skills of working together with others. An extreme, but totally possible case is that of a warrior reaching level 80 soloing and never ever having used his taunt ability, nor knowing what a defense cap is.

What I think would be needed is that soloing should get relatively harder with level. And I don't mean "longer", having to kill more mobs to get up a level, I mean "harder" as in requiring more tactical skills, more skills of proper execution of maneuvers, more knowledge. If solo combat was a lot harder at the higher levels, two positive things would follow: People would learn how to play their class better, and they would automatically start looking for groups to make their life easier by cooperation. I'm not proposing "forced grouping", like in the original Everquest, but I think that the current state in which looking for a group below the level cap is basically a waste of time is not good game design. If you require cooperation in the endgame, you need to encourage people to cooperate earlier in their careers. That not only increases people's grouping skills, but also creates the social network of people making online friends through shared adventures.

Of course I don't think this sort of change could still be implemented into World of Warcraft. Patch 3.3 will introduce an improved LFG tool, and maybe Blizzard will one day improve the group xp bonus to make grouping while leveling more attractive. But I don't think they could completely rework the game to make soloing harder at higher levels. Nevertheless I do hope game designers do realize the inherent flaw of having a game that is easy to solo up to the level cap, and then suddenly requires a lot of cooperation and group skills. Maybe future games will make soloing require gradually more skill at higher levels, making both soloing more interesting, and grouping more popular.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Are you a pilgrim?

So the Pilgrim's Bounty holiday event in World of Warcraft is over, and yet again I only did half of the achievements which would have resulted in completing the big holiday event achievement, and get the "Pilgrim" title and turkey pet. After over a year of holiday achievements, I still haven't "achieved" a single of those titles. I'm simply not interested enough in them, not even with the promise of a super-fast epic flying mount after doing a whole year's worth of them.

It is not that I don't participate in holiday events. I do. I have a look at all the possible activities, do the quests, do the things that appear to be fun, try things out, and inevitably get a couple of the achievements without really pursueing them. But when I look at what would be needed to get the holiday title, their are always some activities involved which I don't really feel like doing. Usually I don't do the PvP parts, and anything which is just grindy with no effect except for the achievement.

So how about you? Did you get the pilgrim title in this holiday event? Do you regularly go hunting for those holiday event titles? Do you already have a violet proto-drake mount from all those achievements?

Friday, November 27, 2009

5,000 hours

I installed the AllPlayed addon in WoW yesterday, to get a better overview of all my alts. Although that isn't really a goal of mine, it turned out I'm already one third of the way to the gold cap, I think I need to waste some more money. :) But what struck me more was the realization that I had now /played WoW for over 200 days of online time, 5,000 hours in the game.

That was probably something which I should have mentioned more in my Dragon Age comparative review with World of Warcraft: Even with playing several origins you'll finish Dragon Age in 50 hours, and most people will leave it at this and not play it through again, at least not immediately. It is hard to imagine a single-player game which would entertain you for 5,000 hours.

As a consequence, good MMORPGs are also cheaper than single-player games. Over the years I spent less than $1,000 on WoW, for the game, expansions, and monthly fees. Thus I spent less than $0.20 per hour of World of Warcraft. I would need to play Dragon Age Origins for over 250 hours to get the same value out of it. And DA:O is still a relatively long game, other games are much shorter for the same money.

5,000 hours in business terms is 3 man-years. So if I had played WoW *instead* of working, I would have wasted 3 years of my life, and 3 annual salaries. But fortunately that is not the case, I played those 5,000 hours after work, and on weekends, and didn't even pull all-nighters or similar stunts which would have affected my work performance. Thus I consider those 5,000 hours well spent on something that relaxes me. If I hadn't played WoW, I would have played more other games, watched more TV, and read more, not worked more or earned more money.

Practising what you preach

Syncaine wrote a reply on his blog to yesterday's post on why WAR failed. In that post he argues that 60% of WAR players were WoW tourists, and bases that number on people leaving after only one month. He says: "Because unless you are a believer in the Eurogamer method of MMO evaluation, for most players a month or less is not enough time to fully evaluate a game, especially an MMO, and especially in it’s first month of release." I think that statement is total nonsense. According to Syncaine after playing a MMORPG for a month you are not yet able to say whether that game is fun to you or not? Ridiculous!

Players are not game reviewers. Syncaine cites Eurogamer for comparison, but you'd expect a game reviewer to play a game even if it wasn't much fun, in order to be able to write a complete review. And even a game reviewer will almost never play a game for over a month before writing his review, because he simply doesn't get that much time between receiving a review copy and his publishing deadline. According to Nick Yee the average MMORPG gamer plays over 20 hours per week, nearly 100 hours per month. You can't expect a reviewer to play a game for over 100 hours before forming an opinion and writing a review.

Players form an opinion considerably faster, as they only need to decide whether a game is fun or not. You'd need to be quite a masochist to keep playing a game over 100 hours while hating every minute of it, on the off-chance that there is some redeeming feature at the end of the tunnel. While obviously you can't evaluate a MMORPGs endgame in the first hours you play it, you most certainly can evaluate its basic features, like user interface, graphics, basic gameplay like quests and combat. And if you hate those, even a well designed endgame won't make the overall experience fun to you.

Finally there is the issue of hypocrisy. Syncaine's blog is full of negative comments about games he never played for over 100 hours. I doubt he ever played Wrath of the Lich King, unless he is hiding things from us he hasn't played WoW for years, but still feels qualified to disparage it in every second post. He wrote his Dragon Age review after 5 hours of gameplay, and then boasted that he made the first page of Google with that. He gleefully writes about Aion bleeding out, without having played that game for 100 hours. And the list goes on and on.

I do think that players are completely justified to dismiss a game as bad if they played it for even just 2 hours and didn't have fun. And if those players are bloggers (as opposed to paid journalists), why shouldn't they write a blog post saying that they tried this or that game and hated it? Saying that every player and commenter needs to have played any game for over one month before he is entitled to a valid opinion is just a strawmen argument to belittle the opinions of others. "You don't agree with me? Then I declare you unqualified to have an opinion!"

And as Syncaine doesn't practice what he preaches, I hereby challenge him to mend his ways: Syncaine should play World of Warcraft in it's current Wrath of the Lich King incarnation (or preferably in the upcoming patch 3.3 incarnation) for over one month, over 100 hours actively played, trying out a maximum number of possible different features, before he ever makes another comment on WoW.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Destroying challenge

Syncaine finished Dragon Age, and had a very insightful comment:
"You can actual ruin a good part of the game if you ‘game’ it too much. By that I mean it’s easy to destroy most of the challenge if you stack your party with Cone of Cold-tossing mages, kite mobs around, or save/reload to make sure you get the ‘perfect’ dialog responses every time. Once I shut the gamer part of my brain off, and just played the game as it was meant to be played, it was a far more enjoyable ride that still remained a good challenge."
Saving and reloading is a general problem of single-player RPGs: Unless you play the game armed with a complete walkthrough guide, warning you of everything, a good part of the challenge of fights, especially boss fights, is the unexpected. Like the boss appears to be alone, you attack, and adds spawn behind you, ruining your standard "mages in the back" strategy. You wipe, reload, and on the next attempt you *know* there will be adds from behind, so you adjust your strategy and win next time. The learning process is actually part of the fun, even wiping from something unexpected is more fun than every fight being predictable and won on the first attempt.

Dragon Age has some specific other problems, in that the character classes aren't balanced, and mages have a couple of spells which basically break the game in some situations. Thus choosing a mage as your main and choosing one or two of your three companions to be mages too makes the game a lot easier than playing with a mage-free group. Syncaine mentions the cone of cold, which is an excellent area crowd control spell, but there is worse: In some situations you can cast AoE damage spells on the enemy before the combat even officially begins, and in some situations the combat doesn't even start after you cast the AoE, and you can kill some mobs before they ever react.

And as I already mentioned, you can bypass a lot of the reputation system of Dragon Age by saving before critical dialogues, reloading when a dialogue option ruins your reputation with one of your companions, and then either choosing a different option, or changing out companions in your group. The dog is great here, he never complains about you being too good or too evil in your dialogues.

Now once you know all these methods to destroy the challenge of Dragon Age, you have two options: You can do like syncaine, declare that there is way to "play the game as it was meant to be played", and just stop to use all the possible tricks. Or you crank up the difficulty level to the highest possible, and try whether you can beat the game after using every dirty trick and previous knowledge in the book. The disadvantage of the latter method is that it ends up being more work, because you need to learn all the dirty tricks, and you need to replay everything from combats to dialogues several times until you hit the optimum.

So what is somewhat surprising is that in a MMORPG only the second method is every used. If you were to propose to tackle a new dungeon, especially raid dungeon, without having watched all the strategy videos on YouTube and studied all the boss abilities and their counter-strategies in detail, your guild mates would laugh at you, or even kick you out of the guild. The idea that being surprised by a boss ability could be fun, that working out a strategy for yourself instead of following a guide could be fun, is totally foreign to MMORPGs. And if I were to repeat syncaine's statement that not using all the tricks is the way to "play the game as it was meant to be played" and say this about MMORPGs on my blog, I'd get hundreds of angry responses telling me that I don't have a clue how to raid. The worst example of this attitude that everybody absolutely has to know every little detail about a dungeon before going there are the famous pickup groups which demand that you have the achievement of having finished a dungeon before inviting you to go there. You not only need to know everything, you even have to have done everything already, otherwise you are worthless and won't be invited into groups.

If, according to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, the fun is in learning how to play, why do we do our utmost to banish learning from MMORPGs? Why is a good raiding guild considered to be one in which strategy is never discussed, because everybody already knows everything? Why do people rarely try alternative strategies? Why do we first need to destroy all the tactical challenge of the game, to then complain that the game is too easy, or to go looking for encounters in which the challenge is simply one of execution?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is the MMO market rational?

Massively had the news this week that Warhammer Online is shutting down two more servers. I remember we all speculated how many copies WAR would sell, and the safest bet was between 1 and 2 million. The problem was that these sales didn't result in subscriptions beyond the first free month, and in early 2009 the subscription numbers were already down to 300,000. Which isn't all that low a number, but obviously failed to meet expectations, leading to EA laying off a lot of people at Mythic.

Now that the discussion around WAR has pretty much cooled down, I'm still wondering *why* WAR failed to hold onto the players who had already bought the game. Basically there are two mutually exclusive theories: In the first theory, players made rational decisions. They bought the game based on all the good things they heard about WAR on the internet, found out they weren't actually having all that much fun when they tried it, and made the rational decision to unsubscribe. In this theory, the drop in numbers is a result of game design: If the game had been designed to be more fun, with less flaws (whatever you think those flaws are), it would have held on to far more players.

The second theory is that the drop in WAR subscription numbers was preordained, and nobody could have prevented it, not even with a perfect game. The million or so people who bought WAR were just bored "WoW tourists", who promptly went back to WoW when Wrath of the Lich King was released. Some versions of this theory even claim that WAR is a far better game than WoW, and that the hundreds of thousands of players who quit WAR for WotLK were stupid lemmings who simply couldn't tell a good game from a bad game, and just went with the flow.

As I strongly believe in the impact of game design, I naturally tend towards believing the first theory. Which, of course, is just a personal belief, and doesn't prove anything. And I really don't know how we could possibly find out. I'd love to hear from people like Paul Barnett about what they think (although there is a risk that people who worked on WAR favor the second theory, which makes them look less bad), but while last year you couldn't open any video on the internet without Paul popping up and promoting WAR, he has been rather silent this year.

So instead I'm asking you for your opinion: Do you believe that subscription numbers are based on customers making rational decisions, influenced by what economics tells us should influence them, like personal preferences and price? Or are MMORPG players completely irrational and just go for whatever everybody else is playing? It is easy to see that the answer to that question might have important implications for the future of MMORPGs. So what killed WAR? Wrath of the disappointed players, or Wrath of the Lich King?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blog financing

Syncaine is now admittedly paid by Aventurine to promote Darkfall. Basically he has a "Buy Darkfall" add on his blog, and if people use that to buy Darkfall, he gets 20%, which I think is rather generous. Apart from being a perfect opportunity to make jokes about him as a corporate sellout, I think that this is quite a nice option of blog financing. Sure beats Google ads, which often end up selling gold, or other dubious wares. Syncaine at least knows what he is promoting.

The other side of the coin of course is that now the world's only blog speaking nicely about Darkfall having a "material relationship" with the makers of Darkfall, and thus losing credibility. I don't really think it matters in this case, Syncaine was already notoriously unable to even remotely consider the possibility that not every feature of Darkfall was absolutely perfect. But people who don't know him will see the add, see his Darkfall posts, and make a wrong but understandable conclusion.

Furthermore it is unlikely that this will end up as standard model for MMORPG blog financing, because very few games will ever offer it. Can you imagine the fight which would break out if World of Warcraft offered such a community promotion program, and people started WoW blogs just to get a slice of the pie?

I'd be interested in hearing your opinion about MMORPG bloggers being paid to sell MMORPGs on their blogs. Great way of financing, or end of independant journalism, what do you think?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The value of friends

... on Facebook appears to be less than 10 cents, according to Australian company USocial, who will happily sell you thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers for that price. Or used to, because now Facebook threatened USocial with legal action, and USocial at least temporarily suspended their Facebook activities. You can still buy Twitter followers in bundles up to 100,000. USocial also started this month to sell YouTube video views. As I recently had another blogger bragging here about his higher visitor numbers, I now wonder if USocial is also selling blog visitors and RSS feed subscribers. If not, I'm sure that service is just around the corner.

I woke up this morning to the 1973 Roberta Flack version of the song "Killing me softly with his song", which tells the story of her feeling that a young boy is "killing her softly" with a song text that too closely resembles her innermost feelings. How did we get from that notion of innermost thoughts being very private to the idea that innermost thoughts should be posted on the internet, and buying in people to read them if not enough of them show up on their own?

Ultimately I hope that companies like USocial will help to destroy the cult of "eyeballs", which is an artifact from the era. The more people realize that for anything which is free the number of visitors can be manipulated by various techniques, like "search engine optimization", or buying followers from USocial, the more sceptical everybody will hopefully become of those empty numbers. I do think that people vote honestly with their wallets, but for anything where you can sign up for free, a visitor is worth not even the pocket change that USocial will sell them to you for, even if technically those visitors are called "friends" or "followers".

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Welfare cooking skill

Pretty regularly Blizzard nerfs some challenge in World of Warcraft and makes something which was previously hard to get a lot easier. That usually makes the people who couldn't do the hard achievement happy, but those who already did it on hard mode unhappy. And I must admit I'm not quite happy with the way Blizzard nerfed acquiring cooking skill in the current Pilgrim's Bounty holiday event.

Basically there is a "quest line" for the holiday event which requires you to cook various Thanksgiving types of food in various cities. And the recipes are of increasing difficulty and stay orange/yellow for a wider than usual skill range. So if you start out with zero cooking skill and just follow the quest line, making 60 food of each type plus spice bread, you'll end up with 350 cooking skill, at which point you can make a Bountyful Feast which is better than the currently best food, Fish Feast.

I used this quest line to get my paladin up to 350 cooking from zero, and it was extremely cheap, and took very little time. Well, except for the part where I absolutely wanted to have the Turkinator achievement for killing 40 turkeys with less than 30 seconds between each two turkeys killed, which is a very annoying achievement, as it fails every time you cross path with another player. I recommend Ridgepoint Tower in Elwynn Forest, as by the time you make the tour around, the first turkeys have respawned. The achievement gets slightly easier if you first do all the Pilgrim's Bounty quests, leading to you receiving the Turkey Caller.

But compared to previous methods of leveling cooking to 350, which either involved lots of farming meat, or fishing, or spending a fortune on the AH, the Pilgrim's Bounty event is giving cooking skill away far too easily. Where is the fun in leveling a tradeskill when you can level it for a handful of silver in an hour? Even if the event, and the food, only lasts for a week, the cooking skill lasts forever.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gravity on the tank ratio

Gravity from pwnwear, a Death Knight tanking blog, asked on my input on the ratio of tanks to other classes in a guild. Basically the problem is that in a 25-man raid encounters require only 2 tanks (8% of players in the raid), or at maximum 3 tanks (12%). But in a 10-man raid or 5-man heroic, you would always take 20% of tanks in the group.

So a guild which has 20% of tanks and was doing fine gearing up in heroics and 10-man raids will have a tank surplus the moment they start tackling 25-man raids, and will have to bench half of their tanks. But a guild with only 12% of tanks which is perfect for 25-man raids will not have enough tanks to do many 5-man and 10-man expeditions.

While I would agree with Gravity that this can be a problem, I think the solution is a simple one, especially for Death Knights: The guild just needs to always invite 5 characters with tank potential to 25-man raids, and then let them organize a rotation in which half of them are doing dps with the help of dual spec.

So while the tank ratio is contributing to the general tank shortage problem, I don't think it is the main culprit. The two main tank problems are:
  • Tanking is a high-stress job with significantly more responsability than dps.
  • Gearing up a tank to the same level of "acceptable" gear as a dps is a lot harder, due to the relative scarcity of tanking gear.
Now of course some players enjoy the added challenge of raiding with a tank. But in general it boils down to some roles carrying more responsability in a raid than others, and the combination of higher responsability with lower probability of an epic reward is not a good one. Adding another "tank class" in WotLK hasn't helped, or even just increased the competition for plate gear. You don't need to be much of a prophet to predict that one of the weak points of the upcoming new LFG system will be lots of groups waiting around for a tank. Or a healer, who do share the "high responsability" problem, although they usually are better off than tanks for gear.

Thought for the day: Persistence part 2

Even a MMORPG ends one day, either by us quitting or by the servers shutting down. If we don't play to enjoy the moment, but play to achieve a certain level and quality of gear, what exactly remains from all of our efforts the day the servers shut down?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Phishing alert: Jade Tiger e-mails

Please be warned that today somebody swamped the internet with an extremely well made phishing mail, which looks very much like a genuine mail from Blizzard, and promises you a Jade Tiger in-game pet if you just fill out a survey. Of course to do so you'll have to type your login and password on the fake website And the next time you log in after that, instead of finding a Jade Tiger, you'll find your characters naked and all your gold and possessions gone.

Braving the dark corners of the internet I gave a fake userid and password to the phishing website, which led me to the survey (note that if the website wasn't fake, I wouldn't have been able to "log on" with the fake userid). I was surprised how extremely professional this phishing side was, it looked exactly like a Blizzard site, even the survey looked real, and after thanking you for participation you get forwarded to the real World of Warcraft site. Scary stuff, this.

Now excuse me while I run a virus check on my computer.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins - Review

FTC disclaimer: I do have a material relationship with EA Bioware insofar as they did send me a free review copy of Dragon Age: Origins. Nevertheless the copy of the game that I actually played was a “Digital Deluxe” version bought via a Steam pre-order, thus including all existing additional downloadable content. I'd claim my opinion isn't influenced by a second free copy, but I'm disclosing this information so you can decide that for yourself.

This review of Dragon Age: Origins will include several comparisons of DAO to MMORPGs in general, and specifically World of Warcraft. That might seem a strange comparison to some of you, as obviously these are different genres of games. But there are common problems and solutions in single-player and massively multiplayer role-playing games; and by comparing them I hope to show up some inherent limitations of the two genres.

Dragon Age: Origins is the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. Although DAO isn’t based on a D&D license like Baldur’s Gate, the game system used is quite similar to D&D, with some clever additions adapted from MMORPGs, e.g. warriors having a taunt command. So like Baldur’s Gate you start out the game alone, but quickly pick up various colorful companions. It’s not quite “go for the eyes, Boo, go for the eyes”, but your companions do have a mind of their own, leading to sometimes funny interactions between them and you, or each other.

A RPG consists of two building blocks: Combat, and a story which happens between combats. In Dragon Age: Origins combat happens in real time, but by hitting space you can at any time pause the game and give commands to your characters. You can control one character directly in real time, and give a series of tactical instructions to the other characters. Note that even on “normal” difficulty, the second lowest of 4 difficulty settings, doing combat only in real time will get you killed in any harder fights, and every boss fight. Thus pausing and working in pseudo turn-based mode is pretty much required.

In comparison to World of Warcraft, combat in Dragon Age: Origins is generally harder, and far more tactical. Some basic principles are the same: You put a heavily armored tank in front, taunting the enemy to attack him; heal said tank with a healer or potions; and use the remaining party members to deal damage. There is aggro management, crowd control, and the necessity to watch both health and mana of your characters. Only that in WoW you only play one character (unless you multi-box), and you can’t pause to give commands. As in DAO you can save before the combat and then replay any failed attempts, and as you can pause in combat to have time to think and give commands, combat can be harder and still be doable. As you control all characters, there is also the possibility of friendly fire, which as a concept in a MMORPG would cause all sorts of problems.

The story that happens between combats in Dragon Age: Origins is mostly told in the form of dialogues, plus a few cutscenes. In the dialogues you have several options, which do have some influence on how the story unfolds. But much of that choice is an illusion, as the main storyline will progress with only minor variations regardless of which options you chose. DAO has a rather dark story, and the choices you have aren’t of a simple good or evil nature. For example a recurring choice is dealing with children possessed by demons, where you are given the options of letting the evil demon loose, or killing him by killing the child, neither choice being very pleasant. In other cases the dialogue has much simpler choices to make, which basically boil down to “do the quest” or “refuse the quest”, with doing the quest being the obviously better choice, to get more xp and rewards. The world of DAO features orcs, ogres, dragons, and many other mainstays of fantasy RPGs, only that for some reason the orcs are called hurlocks or genlocks, the ogres look like horned demons, and the dragons are referred to as archdemons. That is the sort of “creativity” I could have done without.

In comparison with WoW, the main difference is that as a single-player game DAO has a beginning, middle, and an end. That is the classic structure of storytelling in general, and thus the story of DAO follows a classic narrative structure, with you starting out as an unknown, and ending up saving the world. World of Warcraft doesn’t have an end, nor a story per se, but has “lore” instead, which is told in non-coherent bits and pieces through quest texts and books you find on your journeys. One consequence of that is that the world of WoW is relatively static and only changes with patches, or through tricks like phasing. In Dragon Age: Origins the world is changed by your actions, so that a village isn’t the same before and after you saved it from an evil undead invasion.

While you do interact with NPCs, and especially with your companions, this interaction of course is much simplified in DAO compared to the interaction with real other players in WoW. While you might do an action that displeases one of your companions in DAO, you often have the option to reload a previous save game, do the same action again with a different group composition, and thus keep everyone happy. Your companions in DAO are also suspiciously fond of gifts, so if you committed a heinous act in the presence of a good character, you can just bribe him with a trinket to completely compensate for the loss of esteem. I haven’t played the game through yet, but it is reported that if you do enough positive actions and gifts to a companion, you can even have cybersex with them. Not sure if that applies only to members of the opposite sex, not to mention the dog. Given the sex and copious amounts of blood splatter, I wonder why the game is only rated M. Your characters in dialogues and cutscenes after a combat are often covered in lots of blood, and there doesn’t appear to be an option to switch that off.

Character development in Dragon Age: Origins works by gaining xp and leveling up. While I would recommend to always have a healer, a tank, and two dps in your group, you will with time get enough different companions to choose from so that your main can be any class and specialization. However taking a mage character with a healing spell as your starting character will make your first game go a lot smoother. Characters have a kind of a talent tree, but as the tree is very wide and only 4 talents deep, you can quite well mix various specializations, and for example have a mage who heals, deals area damage, and does crowd control to boot. The rogue and warrior talent trees are somewhat less varied, but still interesting.

Depending on what version of Dragon Age: Origins you buy, different methods of “digital rights management” (DRM) will apply, that is either Steam DRM, or a simple disc check. EA did not put a more invasive DRM like SecuROM in Dragon Age: Origins. However every version of the game comes with at least some codes for downloadable content and these codes can only be used for one account to be created on the Bioware website. Thus if you buy a second-hand copy of DAO (or pirate one), you will miss out on at least part of the game, or you will have to buy the missing downloadable content. So in a way the DRM of Dragon Age: Origins is rather similar to the DRM of World of Warcraft, where you need a valid account too to enjoy the totality of the game. Of course Dragon Age: Origins has no monthly subscription fee, but Bioware will sell you additional content for the game in the future, with the first DLC called Return to Ostagar just having been announced to cost around $5.

In summary, in my very personal opinion, I do enjoy Dragon Age: Origins for its very tactical combat. Other people like the epic story of DAO, but I found the story to be rather stereotypical, linear, and cliché-ridden. I did however appreciate the “origins” part of DAO, which results in the first hour or two of your game being different depending on which origin you chose for your character. I’m not a huge fan of DAO’s dialogues, which are often long, and ultimately have only a small effect on the main story. But I must admit the story is well told, and not limited to simple good vs. evil choices. And you could always click through dialogue fast and get right back into the next fun tactical combat. So overall I do recommend Dragon Age: Origins.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thought for the day: Persistence

It is claimed that a MMORPG is fundamentally different from a single-player RPG in that the MMO game has a persistent world: When you log off, the world continues to exist and things happen while you are away. In a single-player game the world freezes when you save it, and starts exactly there when you load that game. But is that really true? When you log back into a MMORPG, has the world really changed in your absence? Or isn't the change limited to other players having gained a level while you were gone, and the content of the auction house having changed?

In the current common model of eternal respawns, where it doesn't matter if somebody else killed the monsters you need for your quests while you were gone, because they came right back 5 minutes later, can we really talk of a persistent world? Or is a stupid Facebook game like Farmville, where somebody fertilized your crops while you were away, ultimately more persistent than a classic MMORPG?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mirkwood vs. Cataclysm

Technically I am subscribed to both Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft, only that the LotRO subscription is the "lifetime" deal. So I should be playing both games, and I should be equally interested in both both upcoming expansions, LotRO's Siege of Mirkwood coming out in two weeks, and WoW's Cataclysm coming out next year. But in reality I'm highly excited about Cataclysm, while Mirkwood leaves me cold.

Now you could think that this is because I'm actively playing WoW, but haven't played LotRO at all this year. But there is more to it than that. Imagine my situation was reversed, that I had high-level LotRO characters, but only low-level characters in WoW. In that case the Cataclysm expansion for WoW would still be quite interesting for me: I could start a new Worgen or Goblin, or I could use my existing low-level characters to explore all the massive changes to Azeroth. But for my low-level LotRO characters, the Mirkwood expansion offers nearly nothing, certainly not enough to encourage me to come back to LotRO.

In short, Cataclysm is an expansion which is quite interesting for ex-WoW players, regardless of when they stopped and how far they got into the game. Mirkwood is an expansion which is only interesting to players who already have a LotRO character at the level cap.

I do think that Blizzard is onto something here. We talk a lot about the number of WoW subscribers, are there 11 million, or should you just count the 5 million players who pay a monthly fee, and so on. We talk very little about the number of ex-WoW subscribers. If you look at PC games sales charts over the last 5 years, you'll find that World of Warcraft continues to outsell quite a lot of other PC games. But as the subscriber numbers have stopped growing, that influx of new players must be balanced by an outflow of burned out and bored players. I am pretty certain that by now there are more people with an expired WoW account than people with an active one. And a solid number of those ex-WoW players never made it to level 80, so they wouldn't be all that interested in an expansion which only offered post-80 content.

If you want to be extremely cynical (and hey, I know you want to, this is the internet after all) you could interpret it like this: The active World of Warcraft players are going to buy the expansion anyway, so it is better to design an expansion for ex-players, and even completely new players, than to just concentrate on your existing customers.

And I think that would work on other games than just World of Warcraft. Siege of Mirkwood? No, thanks! If I came back to LotRO for Mirkwood, with my highest level character being under level 30, I'd be stuck all alone, without a guild, without friends, without even a pickup group to be found, with only the announced change of making previous group content somewhat soloable so I could do the epic quest line to comfort me. But if LotRO had a Cataclysm-like expansion which added lots of low-level content, and thus breathed life into the low-level zones, I'd be back.

Do not buy gold guides!

Earlier this year a fellow blogger named Markco asked me to have a look at his WoW economics blog, and whether I would allow him to do a guest post on this blog. I had a look at his blog, which looked interesting enough, and allowed his guest post, which created a lot of traffic on his blog. Once he was well established and got lots of visitors, Markco transformed his blog: It was now not only offering WoW economics advice, but was also selling Markco's gold guide. Markco then repeatedly pestered me to promote his gold guide, promising I would make a lot of money. I refused. I do consider gold guides to be the very worst deal you can make on the internet, as you are basically paying for information which you can easily get for free at many places. Buying a gold guide is actually more stupid than buying gold. I am not promoting gold guides, and I considered Markco's bait-and-switch blog to be a clever, but shady and underhand way to quickly attract lots of visitors.

Now you would never again have heard of Markco on this blog, if it wasn't for Gevlon. Markco approached Gevlon with several shady offers designed to promote Markco's gold guide. And Gevlon, while probably not considered the most upstanding citizen of the MMO blogosphere, is intelligent enough to see through scams like that. Actually being anti-social makes scam detection easier, as they are based on social engineering, which is something which simply doesn't work on Gevlon. Gevlon posted his experience with Markco here, and called me as a witness, after Markco mentioned my refusal to cooperate in a mail to Gevlon. I am happy to comply. Selling gold guides is bad enough by itself, but using various underhand ways to promote them, and promising affiliates unrealistic sums they'll never receive is downright repugnant.

Do not buy gold guides! There are dozens of WoW economics blogs which are considerably more up to date, and give better information for free than you are likely to find in any gold guide you had to pay $20 for.

How big is the US market for MMORPGs?

Bigeyez alerted me to a Gamasutra article quoting a NPD study saying: "14 percent of U.S. consumers have a subscription to an online game like World of Warcraft." The US has about 308 million citizens, so if this study counted each of them as a possible "consumer", there would be over 42 million people with "a subscription to an online game like World of Warcraft". I have a hard time believing that.

I really wonder what exactly their definition of consumer is, and what their definiton of a subscription is. The report talks about consumer spending on these subscriptions, so did they count only active subscriptions with a monthly fee? Or did they count anyone with a free account to any Free2Play or "social space" online game too?

If there are between 2 and 3 million World of Warcraft subscribers in the US, then what exactly are the other 40 million subscribed to?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Spice of variety

Let me tell you how a typical play session of mine goes: Usually I first log on those of my World of Warcraft characters with a daily cooldown, like the alchemist transforming a rare gem into an epic gem once a day. Send the epic gem to my jewel crafter, who not only cuts the gem and sends it on to the bank alt, but also does his daily jewelcrafting quest, to get the tokens to buy new recipes. Then comes the general bank alt, followed by the glyph bank alt. The glyph bank alt can take up to one hour, as even with addons, getting 1,000 mails with either sold or expired glyph auctions from the mailbox and reposting those that expired will take a while. Then comes the inscription alt, who will now buy herbs, mill them to pigments, make inks, and then make those glyphs which sold out.

As several of these characters are guilded, and I'm watching guild chat, it is possible that I join a guild group doing some heroic dungeon or other activity. If not, I'll play one of my leveling alts, for example my paladin. But I'm usually just playing him an hour or two, and never past his rest xp. On other days I play other games instead of leveling a character, for example Dragon Age at the moment. Again I'm just playing an hour or two, finishing one chapter or section and then stop.

As you can see, I'm playing a *lot* of different characters and sometimes even different games in the same play session. The direct result of that is that I'm leveling quite slowly. I started that paladin when Cataclysm was announced, and today I'm only level 41. Measured in "level per week" that is rather slow, although I'm probably not faring that badly in "level per hour /played", given that I'm always on double xp from resting. My level capped characters are also developing either slowly or not at all. My "raiding" priest is only used as jewelcrafter or for helping out a guild group as healer, but as I don't raid for the moment he's not likely to get much in gear upgrades. In Dragon Age I'm also advancing quite slowly, I only reached Denerim this weekend, being less than 20% through the game (not counting having tried several starting "Origins").

Now I know that some people play games, especially MMORPG, to *arrive* somewhere. Some people even say that leveling a character in World of Warcraft is just a tedious obstacle towards the true goal of having a level capped character for the "true" game of raiding. If somebody who thinks like that looks at the way I play, he'd probably tell me that I'm playing it wrong. By dispersing myself among different characters and even games I'm not progressing very fast or very far with any character. But, as so often, the "you're playing it wrong" comments are based on a faulty assumption of us all having the same goal. But I'm not standing here scratching my head and wondering why my pally levels so slowly, and what I'm doing wrong. Rather I'd say that I'm playing it perfectly right, only my goals are diametrically opposed to the goals of the achievers.

Basically I'm working 8 to 5 every day, and when I come home I play games to relax. My goal is maximum entertainment, preferably with not too much stress and effort. My periods of low raiding activity for example coincide with my periods of higher job stress. As I put a strong priority on real life over virtual life, I'm rather reducing my game progress when I need my energy for my job, or my family, instead of the other way round. Playing a lot of different things in one play session for me has a higher entertainment value, as doing the same thing for several hours tends to bore me. Thus splitting my time up between different characters is perfectly rational and wanted. I actually enjoy the leveling game, in many cases more than the end game. And playing different areas of the game, leveling different characters, trying different tradeskills, and exploring different activities from playing the auction house to running low-level dungeons brings the spice of variety to my gaming sessions.

Now I'm certainly not telling the people with different goals that it is them who are playing it wrong. Yes, I sometimes wonder why people try to "win" a game which by definition is unwinnable, spending a lot of effort on getting gear which the next expansion will make obsolete. But I just assume that this is what is most fun to *them*. For me a MMORPG is not just *one* game, with a defined set of rules and a victory condition; for me a MMORPG is *many* games, and even has some aspects which are more correctly described as "toy" than as "game". So just as there is no way to play LEGO wrong, you can't really play World of Warcraft wrong either. As long as your activities are in line with your personal goals, you are playing it right.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Paladin charger

My paladin reached level 40 today. As I had read that epic mounts are available at level 40 since patch 3.2, I looked around for the quest that would give my paladin his epic charger. Turns out Blizzard has been lazy: You can *buy* epic riding skill at level 40 as paladin. But if you want to do the quest, you need to do the old quest line, which is level 60. I love epic quest lines, but I'm not riding slowly for 20 more levels, just because there is no level-appropriate quest line for this.

Thus, being human, I followed the instructions in the letter the riding skill trainer Randal Hunter helpfully sent me, and traveled to the Eastvale Logging Camp in Elwynn Forest. There I bought the Journeyman Riding skill for 42 gold 50 silver. Then I went to the paladin trainer, and bought the Charger spell for 1 gold 80 silver. Alternatively I could have bought an epic horse for 8 gold 50 silver, but that doesn't make much sense for a human paladin: The charger and the epic horse have very similar models, with the charger looking better and costing less. For paladins of other races there is a choice to be made between a racial mount and the charger.

Man, I remember an epic mount being 1,000 gold, now it only costs 50. Times have changed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thought for the day: Entitlement

Game by Night Chris asks whether players are wrong to feel entitlement to easy gameplay, fast leveling without grind, and other luxury features we didn't have when we played Everquest a decade ago. But is that really the only entitlement players feel, and is it only the noobs as Chris says that feel it? What about the sense of entitlement of those who play the most, and who think they are entitled to special treatment by the game company, to exclusive content, to the fanciest outfits?

Friday, November 13, 2009

WoW in space

Massively has an interesting video preview of Allods Online, a game that looks remarkably similar to World of Warcraft, but with more SciFi elements and space ships. What is remarkable about that game is that it looks pretty good, and will be Free2Play, which would make it basically the second good, free WoW clone after Runes of Magic. In a market where some companies still try to let you pay $15 per month for a *bad* WoW clone, getting a *good* WoW clone for free is a sweet deal, even if you then end up paying $10 for a mount or such things.

I just hope that raises the bar on monthly subscription MMORPGs. Surely game companies must see that if decent quality, even combined with a lack of originality, is available for free, they'll have to offer far more than that if they hope to get $15 per month out of a large number of players for a considerable time.

New MMORPG will come out in February 2010

The headline is deliberately obscure, because I'd like to make a point about expectations. What do you think if you hear that there will be a new MMORPG coming out in February of next year? Normally the reaction to such news is rather positive, and the hype starts spinning into overdrive. But in this case the new MMORPG is Star Trek Online, and there are lots of bloggers who responded to the announcement quite negatively, believing it won't be ready for launch. Cryptic Studios currently appears to have not a good name in the community, and thus people project their negative expectations on their next game.

Star Trek Online is a game I am certain to check out. I'm not really a "Trekkie", and only like the original Star Trek series with Captain Kirk (yeah, showing my age here). But I'm hoping that Star Trek Online will offer a somewhat different gameplay than the current MMORPGs. There are far too many fantasy MMORPGs, too few of other genres, and even games like Champions Online which supposedly aren't fantasy play pretty much exactly like the fantasy MMORPGs.

Will Star Trek Online be any good? I can't tell before I played it. I'm keeping an open mind. As far as I know it wasn't the same team that made Champions Online and Star Trek Online, so the quality of the two games doesn't necessarily correlate. And as I have zero information about how far advanced the development of Star Trek Online really is, I'm not joining the chorus claiming STO is rushed out of the door quite yet. I am pretty certain that there will be some open beta period where I can test the game for free and be able to decide for myself whether the game is good or not.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

My material relationship with EA Bioware

Okay, I'm nearly 3 weeks early, as the Federal Trade Commission guidelines on disclosure of material relationships between bloggers and companies only kick in December 1st. Nevertheless I wanted to let you, and the FTC, know that my review copy of Dragon Age: Origins just arrived by mail. This is a first: While I got free access to some online games in the past, this is the first free physical copy of a game I received. Which is nice, notwithstanding the fact that getting a review copy a week *after* release is a bit late, and I already bought Dragon Age via Steam while I was still unsure whether I'd get a review copy.

I'm already past the Zitron number of 9 hours played. I will probably publish a review of Dragon Age: Origins next week, after having played it a bit more. As this will be way too late for a classical standard review, I was thinking of doing a comparative review between Dragon Age and World of Warcraft. Not because these two games are similar, but because they are so different. By comparing them I hope to explore the question of where the inherent limitations of MMORPGs and single-player RPGs are.

Modern publicity warfare

According to user reviews in various places, like Metacritic, IGN, or Amazon, Modern Warfare 2 is one of the worst games in history, with a user review score hovering very close to the absolute bottom. At the same time press reviews regularly score the game above 90%, as one of the best games of the year. What's happening?

What is happening is that the press in most cases reviews the game just on the merits of its gameplay, and apparently MW2 is a fun game to play. The players meanwhile are very upset about issues not directly connected to gameplay: The campaign is too short (and downloadable additions will probably cost extra), the game is priced more expensively than comparable games, and the multiplayer mode is too restrictive. Thus large groups of unhappy players are trying to send a message by voting down the user review scores of MW2 on various sites. Something similar happened in the past to games like Spore, which were downvoted for their DRM, but with MW2 the practice of lodging a "political" protest against a game by giving it a bad user review appears to be expanding.

I've never been a fan of any review scores, but the more different issues you try to express with a review score, the less useful it becomes. I am not saying that the protests aren't valid: $60 for less than 10 hours of gameplay is expensive by any measure (and 30 times more per hour than I pay for MMORPGs). But by mixing measures of gameplay quality, price, DRM, and customer service into one single number, you end up with a number that isn't expressing anything at all. Different players have different degrees of sensitivity to things like price, game length, or DRM, so a score expressing everything is even theoretically impossible.

What will protest review score lead to? Amazon already got into trouble during one of the previous protests when they sneakily tried to remove the protest reviews from one game. If protest reviews become more widespread, people trying to find out about a game will learn to ignore user review scores. And sooner or later the sites now offering the possibility for users to review things will stop doing so. Sites like Amazon will decide that the protesters are hurting sales. Sites like Metacritic and IGN will decide that offering infrastructure for user reviews that are then ignored by the regular users, because they are held hostage by some protesters, isn't worth it.

And the effect of these protests on Modern Warfare 2? Apparently none, MW2 is said to have broken all first-day sales records, netting $310 million on the first day alone, with sales for the first week projected as being 10 million copies. Not bad for a game that score 1 out of 10 on average in user reviews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What can we expect from RPG storytelling?

Bigeyez sent me a funny chart he found at Hellforge, which shows how much the stories of Bioware RPGs are similar to each other. Somebody posted that chart on the Mass Effect 2 forums, and got an angry response from a Bioware writer, defending the classic story structure.

Actually that discussion is far from new. In Joseph Campbell's book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, from 1949, already discussed the idea of the monomyth, the idea that numerous myths from disparate times and regions share fundamental structures and stages. Bioware games conform to that monomyth structure, as do fiction works from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars.

What I think is that requirements of RPG gameplay limit the freedom of writers. The monomyth structure works well in role-playing games. The structure of the hero's journey perfectly fits the RPG structure of character development. It is easy to transform fiction with the structure of the monomyth into a RPG. Which is why there are lots of games based on Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but no games based on, lets say, Jane Austen novels. A story like Pride and Prejudice simply doesn't have the structure and the setting which would make a good RPG.

MMORPG storytelling suffers from the game having no end. That clashes with the basic narrative structure of stories, which normally have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Seen as a whole, MMORPGs have a short beginning, an infinite middle, and no end. Thus storytelling in MMORPGs usually works by not telling one story, but thousands. Each story is short, has a beginning (quest giver dialogue), middle (you go and kill ten foozles), and end (you return and get a reward). The inherent repetitiveness of that approach isn't very engaging. And often gameplay is more efficient if instead of doing these stories sequentially, you do them in parallel, accepting all quests at a quest hub at once, then doing all the tasks, and then returning to the quest hub getting all the rewards, which further dilutes the impact of the story. You easily do a dozen or more quests in a single play session, so none of the stories is memorable, and would be better described as "errands" than "quests".

The *real* story of a MMORPG, the one the player is interested in, is a personal one. It is the story of how his character developed, how he interacted with other players, how he overcame major challenges. Very few games offer the tools to chronicle this sort of life story: You get tools like the armory showing where your character is now, but not a history of how he got there, except for the dates in small print in the achievement list. Everquest 2 had some web-based tools, but for World of Warcraft you'd need to use a third party application like Path of a Hero to chronicle your virtual life story. And of course even automatic chronicles would only tell the predictable story how you leveled up, and would need room for manual additions to tell the stories of your encounters with other players.

Single-player RPGs have an end, thus they can have an overarching story of the player vanquishing a greater evil at the end of the story. Nevertheless that larger story is often subdivided into chapters, main quests, and sub-quests, so often you end up doing exactly the same as you do in a MMORPG: Talk with an NPC to get a quest, go and kill some mobs for the quest, return and get a reward. The dialogue with the NPC might have several options, but sooner or later you realize that most of the time these options boil down to "accept quest", "don't accept quest", and "get more information". That isn't really much different to WoW's quest dialogue window, where you can accept, cancel, or scroll down to read more. You don't even really have the option to play the unhelpful guy, because if the NPC asks you to save his farm for him, and you say "no", you simply miss out on the quest and the attached reward. Which is why in MMORPGs with a "good" and an "evil" side the evil guys end up being exactly as helpful and nice to NPCs as the good guys.

In summary, I would say that storytelling in RPGs can be improved, but mainly in terms of delivery and pacing. There is little hope that these games ever will be able to tell a wider range of stories, which are significantly different from the monomyth structure of the hero's journey. Pride and Prejudice Online isn't going to happen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Kudos to Blizzard for honesty

Via MMO-Champion I saw this Blizzard "blue post" on pugging in 3.3:
Just a couple of observations from our point of view:

1) Players who don't pug dramatically underestimate the number of people who do.
2) Players often assume every realm has the same dynamics that their realm has.

Pugging is something an awful lot of players do and our (frankly inadequate) tool didn't facilitate that experience very well. The new tool is pretty fast and simple. If you enjoy pugging (or don't enjoy it but do it anyway) the new tool should let you spend less time organizing and more time killing (or wiping).

If pugging isn't your thing, that's cool. We're not trying to push you into it... unless you really like pugs (by which I mean the pooch). The tool will also benefit premades.
Emphasis is mine. It is refreshing to see that Blizzard is well aware that their LFG tools, in spite of several iterations, are still "frankly inadequate". And I do believe that the patch 3.3 approach of making pickup groups more common by A) making them easier to find, and B) rewarding people for pugging is the right one.

It is said that Blizzard's "A team" moved away from World of Warcraft to create the next-gen MMO, and left the "B team" behind to take care of WoW. Usually people use these designations to indicate that the people now working on WoW are less qualified than the people who built WoW originally. But to me it appears that at least in the field of social competencies the "B team" is way ahead of the "A team". It would be ironic if patch 3.3 made WoW blossom into a far more cooperative game, and the next-gen Blizzard MMO would turn out to be another massively soloplayer online RPG.

Thought for the day: EA layoffs

EA is usually the first company mentioned when people complain about game developers making unimaginative bad sequels instead of innovative good games. EA, due to sheer size, is also the company whose games are getting pirated the most. Now EA is laying off 1500 people, and there is an outrage among gamers. What did people think would happen to a company making bad games and being constantly robbed, in the middle of an economic crisis? If you wanted to save an EA programmer's job, all you had to do was buy some EA games legitimately.

Monday, November 9, 2009

World of Microtransactions, and how we got there

If you consider what the most likely business model for future MMORPGs is, you might be surprised to realize that the most likely scenario is that you will pay for that future MMORPG three times: Once for buying the game, a second time in the form of a monthly subscription fee, and a third time in the form of microtransactions, buying virtual items for cash. At this point most people either just shrug, or start ranting with foam on their mouths. But what I want to do is to explore how we got into this situation, and why microtransactions in subscription MMORPGs are a logical consequence of our own behavior.

We start this journey with classical board games, games like Chess, Monopoly, or Risk. The outcome of these games is determined either by just skill, or by a mix of skill and luck. These are games of equal opportunity: The participating players all have exactly the same opportunities in the game. A player very much determined to win can try to increase his skill by playing the game a lot, or even studying tactics in books. But unless he cheats, he can not do extra turns while his buddy is getting a coke from the fridge, or buy extra play money for real dollars.

MMORPGs are different, they have never been games of equal opportunity. While some people might want to argue that MMORPGs are open the same number of hours per week to everybody, it is obvious that due to real life not every player can spend the same number of hours in the game. And as MMORPGs are games of continuous progress, the player who spends more hours in the game progresses further than the player who spends less. In addition to the direct effects of more playing hours, there is also an indirect effect: If you can play the consecutive blocks of hours, usually at prime time, required to participate in raiding, you will get extra epic rewards unattainable to people whose schedule doesn't allow raiding. Of course skill also plays a role in your raiding success, but a player with time to raid and lack of skill has a better chance to still leech some raid epics than a player with lots of skill and no time to raid. And raiding is not the only way to get rewards in the end game: There are alternative ways to get epics, and there are alternative rewards, like achievements, and many of these depend nearly exclusively on the number of hours played.

The influence of time spent on rewards and thus social status in MMORPGs has led to a curious reversal of how people regard time spent: In other forms of entertainment the time spent in the entertainment activity is a gain, in a MMORPG time spent is often considered a loss, a cost. If you paid $15 for a movie ticket, you'd be seriously annoyed if the movie lasted only 5 minutes, because you counted on having paid for something like 90 minutes of entertainment. In MMORPGs, if it would take 90 minutes of killing monsters to do a quest and get a reward instead of just 5 minutes, you'd complain about "the grind". Any time spent in a MMORPG in an activity that doesn't give a reward is considered pointless, and any addition of a reward even as silly as an "achievement" to a previously pointless activity will make players pursue it.

Thus people spend time playing Chess either to pass time in a fun way, or to get better at playing Chess. But they spend time in a MMORPG to get rewards in the fastest way possible. If time spent in game is a "cost", it not only makes sense to minimize time and maximize rewards, but it also suddenly makes sense to outsource the activity. Nobody pays somebody else to play Monopoly for him, because it just doesn't make sense. But people do pay others for powerleveling in MMORPGs, and they also pay others to farm gold for them. People tend to blame the gold farmers, but those only respond to a market demand. And it was always just a question of time when the game companies would respond to the same demand. The game companies can create unlimited amounts of virtual goods out of thin air, so they are at a natural advantage over gold farmers, who have to work (or steal) to get virtual goods. Plus game companies make the rules, and thus can sell items that can't be traded between players, another big advantage.

At first microtransactions were just used as an alternative business model for smaller games. Instead of paying an advance sum for the game, plus signing up for a monthly subscription, the game company offers you the game to download for free, and you can play for free as well. But then you'll encounter some obstacles to progress, and are offered a way out by buying virtual stuff from the item shop. If you consider time spent without virtual rewards in a game to be a loss, then it makes sense to buy a scroll that doubles your rate of advancement. It makes even more sense to buy the reward you could get by playing directly, even if that reward is just a mount or a pet. Then somebody noticed that the two business models of monthly subscriptions and microtransactions aren't mutually exclusive. Now games like Champions Online, and since recently even World of Warcraft, have both. This leads to the bizarre situation that at the same time you pay the game company money to be allowed to play their game, *plus* you pay them money so you don't have to play all that much, but get the reward without the "grind" of playing. It's like first paying to enter a movie theatre, and then paying a second time to see the movie in fast forward instead of at normal speed, so you get to the end faster.

There is no equivalent for this in board games, you can't pay to advance faster in Monopoly or Risk or Chess. Not only would the fun of playing very obviously be destroyed if people could pay to win, but also by paying to win players would cut short the entertainment time, and the opportunity to get better at the game, which was the purpose of playing these games in the first place. We need to ask ourselves why this is different in MMORPGs. If a game isn't fun, why don't we just stop playing, instead of paying a second or third time to make it through faster?

Many people have pointed out the negative consequence for game design: If the game company earns more money because you pay them to bypass tedious content, they are more likely to put in tedious content into the game to make you pay. What you end up with in the end are stupid Facebook games, which aren't fun at all to play, but offer you rewards for mindless clicks, and then let you pay money to avoid the mindless clicks. Is this how we want the future of MMORPGs to look? Now everybody blames the greedy game companies for this, but as RMT in games without microtransaction shows, the demand was there before the game companies responded to it. The fundamental flaw isn't company greed, but the attitude of the players who value the virtual rewards more than being entertained for some time, or getting better at playing. And the truly casual players, who just play for fun without running after various rewards and achievements, are actually less likely to buy virtual goods than those who believe that these virtual rewards mean something. If you never stepped onto the treadmill of virtual progress, you aren't paying to advance faster. The day we don't believe any more that the player with the shinier gear and more glamorous fluff is superior, both RMT and microtransactions will just wither and die. It is the relentless pursuit of rewards, the idolatry of purple pixels that got us here, not just company greed. As long as we value virtual rewards more than gameplay, game companies will happily sell us those rewards.

Frost Lotus

The number of people trying to make money with inscription has increased a lot since MMO-Champion posted a guide on how to get rich quick with glyphs. Basic economics tells us that this should cause the price of glyphs to go down, and the price of herbs to go up. While the former is certainly the case, the herb price has remained remarkably stable. Why is that?

It turns out that the Northrend herbs most often used for making pigments and inks for inscription are actually a byproduct of herb gathering. The main source of income for somebody farming herbs is frost lotus, which is needed for all level 80 flasks. With raiding now being accessible to far more people, the demand for raid flasks has gone up, and so has the price for frost lotus. While pretty much everything else in Wrath of the Lich King has suffered from deflation, the price of frost lotus went up from around 25 gold to around 75 gold. As there are very, very few pure frost lotus nodes, the only way to get more frost lotus is to gather lots of various high-level herbs, because each gathering has a small chance to net you some frost lotus as well. That is somewhat annoying, because getting frost lotus that way is so random, and on some days you get a lot, while going empty on other days. But the consequence is lots of Northrend herbs being gathered and being sold for around 1 gold per herb. Basically those herbs are just a side-product, who cares for the price of the 1-gold herbs when he is trying to get the 75-gold herbs?

Right now this is more or less balanced, as the excess herbs are being used for inscription. When the glyph market cools down, there is a risk that the continued search for frost lotus will make the prices for other Northrend herbs crash. Already now some mid-level herbs sell for more than most Northrend herbs. Will be interesting to watch how this develops further. It's the law of unintended consequences that tells you that linking different production chains together isn't really a good idea, because it is unlikely that demand for both productions will always remain balanced.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Thought for the day: Story

While Dragon Age offers choices in dialogue which will lead to minor variations in the story, ultimately all these variations lead back to one main story line, which never changes. If I were to play through the game a second time, the same major plot elements would happen, and there would be nothing I could do about lets say getting betrayed a second time. While better storytelling especially in MMORPGs would be nice, it all ends up with us being trapped inescapably in stories we already know. Is story the death of replayability?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some random WoW pet store thoughts

  • I'm not buying either of the two pets on offer. I expect them to be fun for about 5 minutes, and most of that fun you can experience by watching somebody else's pet, and save your money.
  • The $5 to charity deal (limited time offer, and only valid for one of the two pets) is a scam. If you disagree, I have an offer for you: Send me $10, and I promise to send $5 of it to charity.
  • Blizzard used to be one of the few game companies with a basic understanding of exchange rates. Playing WoW in Europe is more expensive than in the US, but not by a stupid factor of 1.5 from an $1 = €1 calculation used by other companies, like Steam. But this isn't true for the pet shop, a pet costs €10 in Europe, £9 in the UK. That makes the UK pet more expensive than the cheapest monthly subscription rate! Europeans pay $15 for the exactly same pet that Americans pay $10 for.
  • Dragon Age: Origins has microtransactions too. I understand the part where you buy additional playable content. But instead of buying items that make the game easier, you could just change the game's difficulty level. And why would you pay for vanity items in a single-player game?
  • I don't care if you think that $10 or $15 isn't "micro" any more. I'm still using the term "microtransaction" for buying virtual items from the game company for real money. I'm using RMT for buying virtual currency *from other players and companies*, just to have two different terms for two very different things.
  • Do microtransactions make baby murlocs cry?

Dragon Age: Murphy's Law

In an extremely predictable sequence of events dictated by Murphy's Law, I first bought Dragon Age: Origins via Steam, and promptly got an e-mail from EA's marketing people saying that they decided to send me a review copy after all, and that it's in the mail. In hindsight of course I should have waited, but at least by buying the game a few hours before it came out I got some pre-purchase bonus in-game items.

Well, I started playing, and did both a dwarf commoner warrior, and an elf mage, playing them until their stories converge. First impression is that the mage is overpowered, having ranged magic dps, crowd control, and healing. As it is a lot easier to pick up various melee types for your party, playing a mage as your main guarantees you always have a healer around, plus excellent dps, which is a great tactical advantage. I'm enjoying Dragon Age: Origins very much up to now, due to combat being a lot more tactical than most MMORPGs. Even at normal difficulty setting you can't just storm into every fight on automatic settings and expect to come out alive.

I'll play this a good deal more, before I write a review of the game.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Blizzard introduces microtransactions

A lot of people have previously argued that while Blizzard will take extra money from you for services like server moves or race changes, they aren't selling you any virtual items for real money. That isn't true any more. Via MMO-Champion and comes the news that Blizzard now officially launched a microtransaction shop for their game, the Pet Store. For $10 you will be able to buy an in-game pet for World of Warcraft.

Right now there are only 2 of them available, a pandaren monk and a miniature Kel’Thuzad. Others will undoubtedly follow. Then maybe other fluff items (armor dyes would sell well, Blizzard!). And later this could be expanded to classics of microtransaction shops like double XP scrolls, mounts, and various other things.

I think I just won an argument with one of my readers who swore that no AAA MMORPG like World of Warcraft would ever add microtransactions. Wake up and smell the coffee, people! Microtransactions are now officially arrived on the list of possible features for every MMORPG. Once World of Warcraft does it, many other games that don't have microtransactions will copy them.

Dragon Age: Absence

So Dragon Age: Origins is all over the internet today, having been released in the USA yesterday. Europe only gets the game this Friday, which is one reason why I'm not yet playing it. The other reason is more complicated:

Since some time somebody working for a public relations agency emloyed by EA to promote Dragon Age: Origins sends me regular e-mails with news about the game, and links to where I can download publicity materials. And they offered me a review copy of Dragon Age: Origins weeks ago, asking me to preferably write a review before the release date. That review copy never arrived. Yesterday, the day of the release, I got a mail instead, saying "I should hear back from EA later this week about whether I'm able to secure a review copy for your site. I'll keep you posted."

This has the somewhat perverse effect of me being reluctant to buy Dragon Age: Origins and to review it. If EA ends up sending me a free copy, it would be stupid to pay for the game as well. But as they apparently aren't really sure about whether they want to send me that free copy, I'm a bit stuck. If I didn't have this half-promise of a free game, I'd certainly buy Dragon Age: Origins. But the way EA handles their public relations ends up with me hesitating to buy the game, and in consequence not writing a review. That can't be what EA had planned when they wrote me.

[P.S. I'm just seeing that Rohan from Blessing of Kings has exactly the same problem]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thought for the day: Ignorance

How come that every time an outage of Blizzard's servers in mainland China is reported, some people reply with comments about the effect that has on Chinese gold farmers? Isn't it blindingly obvious that if you wanted to shut out gold farmers of whatever nationality, you'd need to close down the US/Euro servers, not the Chinese ones? How do people imagine that gold is transferred from Chinese servers to US/Euro buyers?

Blizzard's Chinese adventure

Reuters reports that Blizzard's troubles in China aren't over yet. The General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) regulator ordered the Chinese distributor of WoW to "suspend charging users to play the game, and disallow new account registrations". Activision shares promptly dropped 4.3% yesterday. But analysts said that "the Chinese market for World of Warcraft accounts for 5 to 6 cents a year of Activision's earnings", which is less than 10 percent.

This is a good opportunity to clarify something about numbers: It isn't the number of players that counts, but the amount of revenue from these players. Thus, if WoW China is shut down again, and World of Warcraft player numbers drop from 11 million to around 5 million again, this might look like a big drop. But as the 5 million players are contributing 90% of the revenue, while the 6 million Chinese players only contribute the remaining 10%, the actual impact is a lot smaller.

You have to be very careful with the numbers that companies announce. Champions Online recently announced 1 million ... characters created, not active subscribers. As this counts all the people who bought the game and quit since release, and also counts every player who created several characters multiple times, the "1 million" number gives a completely inaccurate picture of the success of Champions Online. The same thing is true with free Facebook games, like FarmVille having 60 million players: This counts everyone who ever signed up, played 5 minutes and left. And even from those who actively play, only a small minority pays anything. The company running these games is making millions in revenue, but compared to the billion dollar revenue of World of Warcraft that still isn't that impressive.

If you disagree, and think that big numbers automatically mean big bucks, I have a blog with 3 million visitors to sell for you.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Magic: The Gathering - Tactics

Freixa alerted me to the announcement of Magic: The Gathering - Tactics, which is an online 3D turn-based strategy game developed by Wizards of the Coast and SOE, to be released in early 2010. Now my heart should be jumping for joy, because I was a big fan of Magic, and I love turn-based strategy games. But unfortunately there are several alarm bells ringing in my head when I read the announcement:

Announcement in late 2009 for a game that is to come out in early 2010? The website and teaser trailer are so extremely void of any useful information about this game that I can't help but wonder how far they are in the development, and what the budget was. Right now this all looks extremely half-baked to me.

Unfortunately the people making it don't inspire much confidence in me either. The previous online version of Magic, called Magic the Gathering Online (MtGO) suffered from countless technical problems and design flaws. Version 3.0 of MtGO was announced and postponed for years, until it finally came out and disappointed.

So, considering that the last good computer game based on Magic the Gathering came out in 1997, I'm somewhat sceptical. I really, really hope this game is going to be good, but I'm not holding my breath.

Getting over fear of digital rejection

CNN Tech has an interesting article about the fear of digital rejection, with people reacting strongly to seemingly trivial acts, like being defriended by somebody on Facebook. I personally once got extremely annoyed about having been kicked out of a pickup group; silly, because I knew I was the third healer they kicked out, and they never realized the "we can't seem to find a good healer" might not have been the actual problem, but hurting nevertheless.

And of course the fear of digital rejection is something that bloggers have to live with. You post this absolutely brilliant idea, and get 20 comments on how it'll never work, and that's just the polite ones. Quite often your qualification to discuss the subject is put into question, for all sorts of strange reasons. Gothie sent me a post by some science blogger who was very annoyed for having been rejected on another science site just because he didn't give his real name. While that digital rejection certainly hurt him, the reason for the rejection can point us in the right direction how to get over the fear of digital rejection: We need to realize that we are not our digital personae.

My passport doesn't say "Tobold", technically "Tobold" doesn't exist. There is me, a flesh and blood real human, with a real life, who chose to create the "Tobold" persona for my writing about MMO games and other subjects. The decision to use an online persona and hiding my real name has consequences on the amount of trust other people put into "Tobold". Somebody using his real name on the internet for MMO blogging (Raph Koster, Dr. Richard Bartle) or being known both under a pseudonym PLUS his real name (Scott "Lum the Mad" Jennings, Brian "Psychochild" Green) automatically evokes more trust. In the other direction, somebody commenting on my blog as "Anonymous", is less trusted than somebody always using the same pseudonym. Trust is simply based on an impression of knowing somebody. I know him well, I trust him. No, he is a stranger, I don't trust him.

On the internet most of this "knowing" each other is an illusion. You don't know me, we never met, and you wouldn't recognize my face if you saw me (I admit, that photo ID in the upper right corner of the blog is fake too :) ). You might trust me because you think you know me, because you read my blog for a long time, and thus know some of my beliefs and preferences. But my evil "I am Gevlon" joke this year was a perfect demonstration on how easily that trust is shattered. In a perfect world the validity of any argument I make in a blog post does not depend on who I am. But because people's brains process information based on how trusted the source of the information is, suddenly the illusion of knowing me matters a lot.

Once you apply a reality check to your online relations, you'll realize that you don't know many of your online friends all that well. At best you'll have an accurate picture of some aspect of somebody, like if you read all my blog, you'd get a pretty good idea how I think about MMORPGs. At worst the hot avatar you were cybering turns out to be a fat, middle-aged guy.

As we don't really know each other if we only meet online, the digital rejection is also never more than partial, and often based on partial or even incorrect information. People jump to conclusions, often wrong ones, and then react on that false conclusion with rejection. I can easily see that when I moderate comments: I regularly get negative comments based on the commenters conclusion that I'm either a fanboi or hater of this or that game, when in fact I'm neither, I see good and bad in every game. If somebody doesn't know me, and obviously doesn't understand what I'm saying, why should I feel disappointed about his digital rejection of me? In fact people threatening to "unsubscribe" from my blog always make me chuckle.

But I admit that this isn't always that easy. The sting of rejection is felt accutely by most people, even if on closer inspection the relationship that was rejected was far from being a close one. Only the most anti-social among us are immune, or at least pretend to be so. Probably our brains are hardwired for social interactions which are very different from the online social interactions we experience nowadays. Rejection by your Neanderthal tribe was a big thing, and could affect your survival. Being defriended by a friend of a friend on Facebook isn't. We just need to adjust to the new reality.

Getting tired of Facebook games

My excursion into the world of Facebook games was a short one, I'm already quickly losing interest. While Teut let me know that social network farming games are all the rage in China, I still have problems understanding what the fun is supposed to be. I click once to plow my field, once to plant, and once again to harvest, and that is where the gameplay ends. Multiply that with 200 fields on a 14x14 farm, and you'll get a big click-fest, but still not much fun. And the only "strategy" consists in choosing what to plant, with me having a preference for slow crops, because then I need to do those 600 clicks only every 3 or 4 days.

If I continue that for a while, I'll be able to afford a tractor, which presumably will save me some clicking. But the fuel for the tractor can apparently only be bought with "Farm Cash", which you can only get with real money, or by signing up for "free" FarmCash from advertisers. Surprise, surprise, mbp warns me that many of these "free" offers are scams, with users involuntarily signing up for some subscription they didn't want, and ending up paying more for the "free" Farm Cash than if they had just bought it.

No wonder people are increasingly suspicious of the microtransaction business model. While there are lot of good examples of microtransactions being used in a transparent way to buy access to more content in a good game, the frequent use of microtransactions in opaque scams for "games" that don't really have much gameplay, and where you are basically just wasting time and money to advance in a meaningless social competition makes people wary. But then of course a lot of people think that monthly subscription MMORPGs are also just a waste of time and money to advance in a meaningless social competition. So maybe I'm biased when I say that interesting gameplay is the minimum I expect from a game. Apparently for some people it is sufficient if they just get virtual rewards, even if the game doesn't amount to anything much.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Two economies

When playing a lower level character in World of Warcraft, one thing that constantly surprises me is how separated the fixed, NPC-based economy has become from the variable, player-based economy. Looting a level 30ish mob gives my character around 1 silver worth of cash and vendor loot. But finding just one mining node, even copper, already nets me around 1 gold. And recently I was lucky to have a blue random world drop, Feet of the Lynx, a highly desirable twink item, and it sold for over 100 gold.

The reason for this disparity is the level-based inflation that all level-based games share. Basically the only real unit of currency in a MMORPG is time. Thus the amount of copper you can mine in one hour is "worth" 1 hour. And how much that corresponds to in gold depends on what the highest level character can easily make in gold in 1 hour. As long as high-level characters buy low-level materials and items for their twinks, the price of these materials and items depend on the income of the high-level characters, not on those of the low-level characters.

As long as the low-level character never visits the auction house, he'll be stuck in the low-level economy, where you look silver, and your training costs, repair costs, and flying fees are also in silver. As soon as he hits the auction house, everything is priced in gold. We won't be able to buy anything useful with the silver he looted. But on the bright side, if he has something to sell, he'll sell it for gold, and can then use that gold to participate in the other economy.

The downside for the developers is that they lost control over the low-level economy. Nobody really cares any more how much silver a low-level mob drops, or how much it costs to train a low-level spell or ability, it's all just rounding errors in the price level of the high-level economy. I can't think of a good solution for that, can you?