Thursday, December 31, 2009

What are you looking forward to in 2010?

The top three MMORPG releases I'm looking forward to in 2010 are Cataclysm, Star Trek Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. That is in order of preference, not release dates. Of course I'm prepared for the possibility that any of these, or even all, could end up being a disappointment. But then again Cataclysm could revive the lower levels of WoW, SWTOR could become the second game with over a million subscribers outside Asia, and Star Trek Online could surprise us with gameplay which is markedly different from the usual fare.

What MMORPG releases are you looking forward to in 2010? Anything you think could become a sleeper hit?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

This blog in 2009

As every year on this day, I'll talk about the number of visitors to my blog in this post. As you can see in the graph from Google Analytics below, I had just over 1 million visits this year.
The number held up pretty steady, and as half the visits are from search engines, even the summer break didn't cause a total fall in visitor numbers.

Actually more interesting are the numbers of people subscribing to, and interacting with, my RSS feed. Unfortunately Feedburner doesn't offer the option to display a year of data, so the image shows data starting in 2007.
As you can see, the number of feed subscribers has grown steadily. And the blue curve, of people clicking on a feed item, more accurately represents reader interest, and more clearly shows the dip during my summer break. This year the average number of subscribers grew from 2,500 to 3,500 per day, another million in total. But obviously the half of them who then clicked on a feed item were counted as visitors to my blog too, so the total of visits plus feed reads is probably around 1.5 million.

I'd like to thank all of you for the interest you showed in the blog, especially those who gave feedback and commented. Remember that if you want to tell me something where you think the comment section isn't the right place for, e.g. a question or suggestion for a post subject, the link e-mail me is in the upper right corner of the page. I wish you all a happy 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Better stats or leveling speed?

So I followed the advice of my readers, created a night elf warrior, and tested that yes, I could buy heirloom plate items with my Horde characters and mail them cross-faction. Then I leveled that elf to level 10 in 2 hours, and paid for a server transfer, so now the heirlooms are with my level 62 paladin, cross-server *and* cross-faction, for a single 20 bucks payment. And I got rid of the now useless emblems of conquest, valor, and heroism I still had.

Now the heirloom shoulders are just great for my paladin. About the same stats as the ones I was wearing, but now scaling up automatically, and giving +10% bonus to both killing and quest xp. But I'm still not so sure about the chest piece: It does have the same +10% xp bonus, but it has 3 gem slots less than the chest I was wearing. With me having put epic gems into those slots, the heirloom chest has only half the stats of the gemmed chest piece.

Now for soloing the choice is easy: You don't need great stats for solo questing, thus the xp bonus and higher leveling speed is certainly better. But for dungeon groups I'm not so sure. What if the added stats make the difference between a clean clear and a wipe? Wipes tend to lose you a lot of time, especially in PuGs, where some people leave groups after the first wipe and have to be replaced. Wearing the chest with the better stats would make me gain slightly less xp, but certainly improve my performance and success rate.

And then of course the question is whether the fastest leveling possible is automatically the best. I'm opposed to the idea some people have that World of Warcraft starts at level 80. I'm playing alts *because* I enjoy the leveling game too, enjoy visiting content which at the level cap would be too trivial to enjoy. Not to an extreme that I would turn off xp gain or something, but at least enough to make me think whether a 10% xp bonus is worth 30 strength and 45 stamina, which is a lot of stats at level 62.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts: If there were more items in World of Warcraft which had low stats but each gave some bonus to xp gained, would you try to maximize xp bonus, would you try to maximize stats, or would you go for some compromise?


MMORPGs becoming more and more mainstream, there is now also more and more academic research performed on them. Thus once in a while I get students asking me to post a link to a survey they made, so they get a more players to fill out the survey, and can use those data to write a paper or something. I used to post all of those, but nowadays I first go through the survey itself to see how biased it is. Some surveys, unfortunately, are so leading, and show so much bias, that you could basically write that paper by just reading the questions.

30 years ago, when I was a teenager, I was jobbing at a research institute which specialized in the research of how to do surveys. They did opinion polls using survey forms in different version, and showed how posing questions differently could lead to different survey results. There is a whole science to asking questions that are neutral, aren't "loaded", and don't try to lead the participant down a predefined path. Knowing that, I only link to surveys which are well done, and broadly neutral, without giving away the conclusion in the questions.

A student from the University of Hamburg sent me a link to such a well-done survey on MMORPGs, which has a range of general questions about what you play, and what aspects are important to you when playing MMORPGs. It isn't very long, so if you have 10 minutes to help out a student with his work, I encourage you to do this. I promise it is not one of those horrible polls which reek of a prejudice towards some sensationalist subject like "MMOs make you addicted".

Monday, December 28, 2009

Explaining comment moderation

Ah, christmas holidays, I love this time of the year. But of course not everybody does, and family reunions and giving each other presents is also a source of tension for some. At least that is what I figured when over the last few days I had to censor half a dozen or so angry and insulting comments, more than usual, especially surprising since I didn't even post much contentious stuff these days.

Nevertheless one guy felt the need to tell me how dumb I am, another called me a troll, and another guy called me a whiner. The latter posted the identical comment twice under different names, probably confused why his first comment was never posted. So I thought I might have to explain Blogger's comment moderation to some people.

It is really very simple: Every comment you post does *not* directly appear on the blog, but at first only on a comment moderation page. I visit that page several times a day, read the comments, and can then decide for each of them whether to publish or to reject them. In short, I have ultimate censorship powers, not just after the fact, but everything has to pass by me before it is posted. Thus if you post a comment saying "Tobold, u r so dumb", I will reject it, and it will never make it to the blog. Not just because I don't appreciate being called names on my own blog, duh! But also because thus comments tend to disrupt any other polite and intelligent discussion going on. How do you write an intelligent argument to counter a "u r dumb" comment?

Look at it that way: Imagine you think your neighbor is dumb. You certainly can mention that thought privately. But spraying a "U R DUMB" graffiti on your neighbor's house wall is already not covered by any freedom of speech rights you might think you have. And asking your neighbor for permission to allow you to spray "U R DUMB" on his house wall is obviously not a good idea. Not only will your neighbor certainly not permit it, but he will also conclude that it isn't him who is the dumb one in that story. Trying to call me names on my blog with comment moderation on is exactly the same thing, with exactly the same results. An intelligent person can find a way to disagree with my points of view without calling me anything, even without using the word "you" (or "u") at all.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Twinking through Burning Crusade

I am not a big fan of the Burning Crusade expansion of World of Warcraft. Especially Hellfire Peninsula is a bottleneck which is probably my least favorite zone in WoW. As a result I have a bunch of alts stuck at around level 60, stopped by a lack of desire to level through Outland. But now I'm leveling my paladin, who reached level 62 this weekend, and I found that because of various changes Outland is not so bad any more.

The one change I found is accelerating my leveling speed the most is the Dungeon Finder of patch 3.3. Starting from level 60 the random dungeon is a Burning Crusade one, which means I did miss some level 60 classic dungeons, but of course the Burning Crusade dungeons are far more PuG-friendly. Being short, even a PuG nearly always completes them. The loot is about 25 iLevels better than the loot of equally hard classic dungeons. And each completion ends you up with a Satchel of Helpful Goods, containing a blue item for your class on top of the loot you got from the bosses. For alts, who tend to accumulate rest xp, running dungeons is also a faster way to use that rest xp than doing quests, because quest xp aren't doubled by rest bonus.

The second big boost is that in the Burning Crusade you can get the first gear with gem slots. And gems aren't level-limited. Thus, given enough cash, you can put epic Wrath of the Lich King gems into your Burning Crusade gear. My paladin found a blue chest plate in Hellfire Ramparts with 3 gem slots, and putting in epic gems I basically doubled the stat bonuses on it.

Finally questing in Outlands has become a lot easier because you can now buy a flying mount cheap at level 60. Even Hellfire Peninsula gets a lot more pleasant and passes quicker if you can fly over it.

So all in all leveling through the Burning Crusade content is a lot less bad than I feared it would be. And of course Outlands also has its highlights, I always loved Nagrand for example. So I think that at least the paladin won't get stuck around level 60, and I'm looking forward to get him up all the way to the level cap. At level 61 he is already the highest level Alliance character I have, giving me the opportunity to do Alliance quests in zones where I have only done the Horde quests up to now. Fun!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Making WoW stats easier to understand

I must admit I don't fully understand all the stats in World of Warcraft. Yes, I know what each single one of them means. But then comes the point where I have to decide whether I should wear an item with +20 strength or rather one with +38 attack power, and I can't make that decision in my head. I need some sort of stat calculator program or addon for that. Obviously that hurts the "Oh! Shiny!" feeling if you first need to calculate whether that new item is actually better than the old one. Apparently Blizzard was thinking along similar lines, and decided to simplify WoW stats in the Cataclysm expansion. Via MMO Champion, here is a list:
  • MP5: This will be removed from items and replaced with Spirit. All healers will be given a meditation-like ability.
  • Spell Power: Spell Power is being removed from items as well. Don't panic, we'll be improving Intellect so that it provides mana and Spell Power.
  • Attack Power: We're removing Attack Power from items as well. Instead, we're allowing Agility to provide the necessary Attack Power for leather and mail wearers. Strength will provide the appropriate amount of Attack Power for plate wearers. This means leather and mail items will no longer be desirable for plate wearers.
  • Defense: The Defense statistic is also being removed from items so that players no longer have to worry about juggling around "the cap." Tanks will receive the necessary anti-crit from talents, like Survival of the Fittest.
  • Armor Penetration: This ability is too confusing and "mathy." It is being replaced with Mastery, a stat that makes you better at what you do. More on that later!
  • Haste: Will also increase the rate at which you gain energy, runes, and focus. Retribution paladins and Enhancement shaman will have a talent that allows them to take advantage of this benefit.
  • Block: Block Value is being removed. Blocking will now always mitigate a percentage of damage.
  • Stamina: Players will notice more Stamina on gear as Defense, Spell Power, Attack Power and Armor Penetration are removed.
So principally I think this is a good idea. But of course there is a catch: How do you transform the existing items into the new system? If you have less stats, you automatically have less options for variations. The place where I will feel that most is my jewelcrafting. I spent a fortune in gold and time to farm tokens to learn for example recipes for gems that give strength or agility and for gems that give attack power, and suddenly the latter will just disappear for being obsolete.

What remains are still some tactical choices. Depending on how you distribute your stats as a dps class for example, you could either go for a higher base dps, or for higher burst dps. Hit rating, and thus a "hit cap" still exists. But in the end players have a tendancy to lump all stats plus the skill of the player into a single score, the dps score on some damage meter. So what do you think about the stat changes in Cataclysm? Will there be too many stats, too few, or just the right number?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

A merry christmas to all of my readers and their families!

Tankadin and tank addons

Since patch 3.3 I'm playing more often as a tank in a group, both with my level 80 warrior and with my level 56 paladin. And up to now I don't have many addons that would be helpful for tanking. I do have Deadly Boss Mods and the Omen threat meter. I just downloaded Pally Power for my tankadin. But what I'd really need would be an addon that shows me if any of the other members in the party are being attacked, so I can quickly switch to target that mob and taunt it.

Do you have any recommendations for such an addon? Or any other addon you think a protection warrior or paladin should have to do his tanking job well?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

End of blog war

In the spirit of christmas, and after reading Genda's post about the issue, I decided to unilaterally end the blog war with Syncaine. My apologies for reacting so angrily to his posts, his way of stating "facts" I believe to be false got to me. You won't hear again about him here. I deleted his blog feed from my newsreader.

What is your favorite turn-based strategy game?

Thallian posted a list of his favorite turn-based strategy games. Some really good games on that list, unfortunately not any current one. And of course if you make a list of *classic* turn-based strategy games, then of course Master of Magic and the Warlords series belong on that list. Even further back I loved to play Empire.

But maybe you have a more up-to-date list of great turn-based strategy games. Which games would you recommend?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aion and Darkfall subscription numbers

One interesting result of the latest blog war is that one commenter posted a link to the subscription numbers of Darkfall, including a timeline. Darkfall had 18,656 subscribers on November 17th, and now has 20,378 five weeks later. That translates to a growth rate of about 15k subscribers per year. So even if this growth rate keeps up, it'll take over 5 more years before Darkfall even breaks the 100k subscriber barrier.

As we were comparing that to Aion, I tried to find Aion subscription numbers. I couldn't find any current ones. 450,000 people pre-ordered Aion, and Aion held the top sales spot on Steam for a while after release. But I know neither at how many subscribers in North America and Europe the game peaked, nor whether it really shrunk by all that much since. I'm pretty certain Aion still has several hundred thousand players, but I can't find solid data for that. And of course in addition to that Aion is said to have 3.5 million players in Asia.

So saying that based on subscription numbers Aion is a failure and Darkfall is a success is stretching the truth to its limits. Worst case estimate for Aion is to have "only" ten times as many subscribers than Darkfall, with twenty times more being a more likely guess. Aion is a mass-market product, where the box sales alone made tens of millions. Darkfall is a small extreme niche product, which isn't remotely likely to ever catch up with the big guys. It will never even come close to rivaling a successful PvP game like EVE, and not even a supposedly "failed" game like WAR. Kudos for a small independant game studio to have produced a game that found its niche, and might even be profitable at 20k subscribers. But in the greater scope of things that is still chicken feed, and a failure. There are Free2Play games that make more money than Darkfall. The only significant thing about Darkfall is how rabid its fans are, and that is more working *against* future growth than for it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Syncaine insults Lum - Pass the popcorn

Scott "Lum the Mad" Jennings invented MMO blogging before people knew what a blog was, and thus has my highest respect. This year he started writing for, and delivered a series of very insightful articles, the latest of which is about How PvP Can Break Your Game. In that article Lum mentions the long series of PvP games that were failures: Shadowbane, Fury, and Darkfall among them. Of course Syncaine immediately reacted, being the defender-in-chief of Darkfall. And because Syncaine is such a reasonable and calm person, he reacted by throwing a bunch of personal insults in Lum's direction.

I don't think that was a good idea. Not only are Syncaine's arguments somewhat ridiculous, as usual (Darkfall is a bigger success than Aion, according to Syncaine, because Aion lost some of it's hundreds of thousands of players, while Darkfall added some to it's thousands of players), but also he has chosen the wrong target. Syncaine's blogs lives only of his strong convictions and emotions, while Lum mastered wit and well-written riposte a decade ago. If Lum decides to answer, that could be very amusing. Pass the popcorn, please!

Thought for the day: Gold cap

I sold a Merlin's Robe for 7,500 gold today, the most expensive item I ever sold. While specific items in WoW tend to get cheaper from the moment they hit the game because they get more common with time, like Battered Hilts, and Primordial Saronite as recent examples, the overall price level and availability of gold goes up from one expansion to the next. Some items already sell for over 10k on the auction house. I wonder at which point Blizzard will either stop that inflation, or have to raise the gold cap from the current 214,748 gold.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Crafting self-sufficiency

Morvelaira started an interesting project on her blog: She is trying to find "the most efficient and profitable way to become self-sufficient in World of Warcraft crafting? (Self-sufficient, in this case, meaning having all professions maxed on one server.)" Starting on a server where she has no other character, from scratch, she is trying to assemble a set of characters who between them cover all the tradeskills of World of Warcraft.

I guess the main problem will be the gathering skills. Because the crafting skills you can max out as early as level 65. For the gathering skills you'll need to visit some Northrend zones which would be rather perilous for level 65 characters. In any case, even if it's all Death Knights, leveling at least 6 characters to 65 is already a project by itself.

So I'm wishing Morvelaira good luck, and hope she's keeping us updated on her progress via her blog.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Content and context

This week Syncaine made a remarkable comment on this blog, saying that "Aventurine has already released more content for Darkfall in it's first year than Blizzard has in 5". Having played both games (even if I obviously played Darkfall a lot less), I can say with certainty that this statement is completely untrue by any numerical measure of "content". For example in the first 20 minutes of your characters life in World of Warcraft you'll already see half a dozen different monster types, while in Darkfall you can play 20 hours and still not have seen anything else but goblins. But let's assume for a moment that Syncaine isn't just lying to increase the amount of money Aventurine pays him to promote Darkfall. Then the only logical conclusion is that Syncaine has a radically different definition of "content" than I have. What exactly is "content"?

I would say that any MMORPG has two fundamental parts: A repetitive part, for which the base rules are always the same, for example combat. And the non-repetitive part which creates the conditions for all those combats, which I call "content". Content can be quests, landscapes, dungeons, scripted events like boss fights, monster models, loot tables, lore, and many other things. So if I say game A has more content than game B, I'm talking about it having more quests, more different landscapes, more dungeons, more boss fights, more different monster models, more different items, etc. What I don't count as content is the number of square miles of procedurally generated landscapes, or the near-infinite number of randomly generated dungeons in games like Diablo or City of Heroes. In such cases I only count for example the number of different tile sets used to create those dungeons, because it is that part where the developers actually created something. In short, I would define content as things which are different because they were *created* different. And the amount of created content in World of Warcraft is certainly and measurably much higher than the amount of created content in Darkfall.

Where Syncaine is right is that created content isn't everything. Football (that is soccer, not American Football) is being played by the same standardized rules since 1863, and didn't have a "content patch" added to its rather sparsely decorated playing field in 150 years. Nevertheless players experience every game as different. That is because soccer is full of player-generated content (borrowing the term from Dr. Richard Bartle as being not the same as player-created content). Although the soccer field is always the same, the other players on it change the environment, and make it look different every time. And of course in a game like Darkfall, where other players have a much bigger impact on your virtual existence than in a game like World of Warcraft, there are far more possibilities for such player-generated content. Even if Aventurine only provides a much smaller number of soccer fields than Blizzard, or procedurally generates random landscapes which are mostly empty or contain only goblins.

But what a player experiences as being new and exciting is very subjective. One player might consider the thousands of quests of WoW to be all different, because they all have different quest texts and lead to different objectives. Another player might dismiss them all as just so many variations of "kill ten foozles".

It is also remarkable how much a change of context changes your appreciation of content. What many players in World of Warcraft experience since patch 3.3 is a massive amount of what feels like new content. In reality that content was already there before, only it was either impossible to find a group for it, or you had to get a level 80 friend to "boost" you through. A low-level dungeon you visit as a tourist, being boosted by a level 80 to get some quests done and some loot is a very different experience than the same dungeon you do with a cross-server pickup group you joined via the Dungeon Finder.

Thus creating content is not enough, you also need to create the context for players to enjoy the content. Apparently Syncaine enjoys Darkfall's content, and finds it subjectively a richer experience than World of Warcraft's. That is great. But the experience being subjective, other players enjoy WoW and patch 3.3 very much, which is equally valid, even if Syncaine dismisses it. Everyone has the right to subjectively prefer one game or another. It is just when you make untrue statements about numerically verifiable facts that you'll be called out. What's next, "Darkfall has more players than WoW"?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Most embarrassing PuG ever

Statistically I knew it was bound to happen one day. But we are all so used to thinking of pickup groups as being us playing well and some other players underperforming and barely pulling their weight that we don't think that one day it might be the other way round. Last night I couldn't find a guild group for random heroics, it being raid night, so I just joined a random pickup group for heroics with my priest as a healer. First surprise was the random being the Pit of Saron, the second of the new 5-man dungeons, a rather tought place. The second surprise was the people I was randomly grouped with: All wearing full Ulduar/ToC epics, the warrior having 45k health, and the dps all doing over 4k dps.

I was determined to do my best, but I did have my difficulties to keep up. The saronite rocks the first boss throws cause line-of-sight problems to healing, and I was struggling to keep everyone alive. And then I died. Fortunately I'm actually a better healer dead than alive, with the holy priest ability to transform into an angel after death and keep on healing for some seconds without even needing mana. I threw a couple of longer lasting spells like Guardian Spirit and Prayer of Mending on the tank before that ran out. And miraculously the combat ended with everyone dead except the tank, and the boss down.

That encounter set the tone for the rest of the dungeon. I managed to die in every single boss fight, and in the hard fight up the ramp after the second boss. But the tank always survived, and we always beat the boss on the first try. So I ended the dungeon run with 2 Emblems of Frost, 3 Emblems of Triumph, and 2 iLevel 232 epics which were an upgrade for me. And all that reward for taking a dirt nap at every hard fight. Hugely embarrassing! And not a word of criticism from the others, except that the tank had his perky pug out to indicate he was kind of used to that.

So let that be a lesson to you: Don't complain about the other people in the PuG underperforming, because one day you'll be grouped with 4 people performing better than you.

Virtual identity theft

How many of you are going to make a goblin character in World of Warcraft and name him "Gevlon"? I'm pretty sure that if I make an armory search a month after Cataclysm releases, I'll find dozens of goblins named Gevlon. And that'll be just one of many forms of virtual identity theft the blogger Gevlon is suffering from. There is even somebody who calls himself "Gevion", but with a capital "i", because then in many fonts GevIon looks a lot like Gevlon, who leaves comments on Gevlon's and other blogs, trying to fool people. And of course if there is ever a large trend towards impersonating Gevlon, I might even have a claim to have started it.

Stealing somebody's virtual identity is easy. Many blogs and forums have no identity verification at all, thus posting as Dr. Richard Bartle, Raph Koster, Lum the Mad, Tobold, Gevlon, or whoever else is extremely easy. Writing an at least marginally believable parody of somebody is a bit harder, but in most cases a crude parody will suffice, especially if the target is known for specific strong opinions. If you wrote "WoW is shit, play Darkfall instead!" on a dozen WoW blogs, sign it with Syncaine, and add the hyperlink that gives the real Syncaine a share of Darkfall's profits, many people would believe that it was really him who posted that. Or the other way round, you could post a "Darkfall is dreck, play WoW instead!" post on the Aventurine forums, with a link to my blog which would be likely to result in lots of angry trolls trying to post here (that is what comment moderation is for).

Given that this is impossible to prevent, the question is whether it really matters. I find virtual identities a fascinating subject, because I think that people tend to trust them too much. Which then leads to things like the Ferarro debacle. Personally I think that it is sad if your interest in what I write depends on your beliefs of who I am, because I'd love for my opinions and writings to talk for themselves. But I'm well aware that this can't be helped, because our brains apparently aren't wired like that. They can't process an opinion without taking into account who said it. Thus the interest in virtual identity theft, because you can either enforce or ridicule a point of view by ascribing it to somebody else.

My advice to Gevlon: Turn on comment moderation, which will completely shut out fake Gevion from your comment section. It also makes your overzealous deletion of comments that disagree with you or point out your mistakes less obvious. You can't prevent fake Gevion from posting elsewhere, but do you really care? I'd advise my readers to not automatically believe anything supposedly written by me that doesn't appear on my own blog.

Thought for the day: Player Housing

Wolfshead makes a passionate argument for player housing in World of Warcraft. The problem I see with the idea is that Azeroth is a pretty tightly populated world, and there is no way it could support 10,000+ player houses distributed all over the existing world without looking utterly ridiculous. Thus player housing in WoW would necessarily be instanced. Which means nobody will see your house. So what would be the point of having player housing? What exactly would you want that house for, and what exactly would you want to do in it?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Making MMORPGs more social

Syncaine has two posts complaining about the new LFG tool in World of Warcraft, saying that it is not the kind of multiplayer he is looking for, and listing it as just another benefit for solo players. The really funny thing here is that Syncaine and me basically want the same thing, MMORPGs to be places in which people play together instead of alone, but we have extremely different opinions on how to get there.

Syncaine's main complaint is that "random grouping does not lead to any sort of social interaction", which I believe isn't true in the first place, and not a problem in the second place. Syncaine prefers what is commonly called "forced grouping", that is players should be given the choice of either to cooperate or leave the game. I think that MMORPG history has proven that this approach condemns the genre to a niche existence. That appears to be okay for Syncaine, who doesn't believe we will ever get another MMORPG with a million players anyhow, and obviously prefers to just kick out everybody who doesn't want to play his way. Me, with my interest in economics, I see that this approach isn't going to fly with game companies, who would obviously prefer a larger customer base to a more select one, especially given the fact that the niche players aren't willing to pay any more than the casual players.

So I would say that the problem is how to make MMORPGs more social *while accepting* both the reluctance and the time constraints of the casual player. Instead of forcing the casual player out, or forcing him to group, we need to create an environment in which he still maximizes his social interaction with other players, even if he is only online for an hour or so.

Now if we look back at WoW 1.0, with 40-man raids to Molten Core and BWL, it is easy to see how that sort of gameplay and guild structure that followed from it were not exactly fostering social interaction for the more casual player. This created an environment where people got kicked out of guilds for not turning up frequently enough for raids. Guilds did cooperate towards a common goal, but that goal was very narrow in scope, and not social at all. Even the nicer guilds, and I am in one of the nicest, had regular guild drama about which raid dungeons to go to ("progression" or "gear up"?), who to give raid spots to, and how to distribute the loot. Those ended invariably with the people who wanted to progress faster than the rest simply quitting the guild and joining the next more advanced guild. The whole raid and guild system promoted anti-social behavior more than it promoted friendship and guild loyalty.

Now compare this to WoW 3.3, and with some imagination to WoW 4.0. The direct link between gear progression and guilds has been broken. And yes, as Syncaine complains, there are now people who feel they don't really need guilds any more at all. But if I look at my guild, I'd say we are in a better state than ever. People who quit are rejoining us. We are using the Dungeon Finder to run guild groups, leading to more guild groups than ever before. And we are a lot more inclusive, with people switching freely between alts instead of being forced to stick to one raiding main. We are all having fun, and more importantly, we are having fun together. Now add the future guild features of WoW 4.0 to the mix, with guild achievements, and guilds having common goals outside of just raiding, and the future is looking even brighter. Those who want can still organize 4 to 6-hour raid nights several times per week, but it isn't mandatory any more to participate in those to be of any use to the guild. Everybody can contribute at his own pace and abilities. And I think that is a much better approach than kicking everyone who isn't "pulling his weight", and turning MMORPGs into ivory towers for a self-proclaimed elite.

And economically it makes sense too, both for the game companies and for the players. Having a more inclusive social system instead of a more elite one means that the game company is making far more money, a part of which is then reinvested into more and better content for the players, or into the next big MMORPG. The only way an elitist MMORPG can compete with that is by either spending a lot less money on creating content (which is what we see now) or by creating elite luxury MMORPGs with much higher cost (which most elitist players simply couldn't afford or would be unwilling to pay for).

I'm quite happy about the new and improved World of Warcraft, and the expansion next year certainly won't hurt either. I think the game is on a good way to become more social, not by kicking out solo players, but by offering them alternatives of cooperation that don't require everybody to be hardcore. Random grouping *does* lead to social interaction, it just takes longer, and it works in more indirect ways. In any case, the new WoW is a huge improvement over one with a small elite cooperating in raids, and a large majority of players in "forced soloing".

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is raiding becoming obsolete?

My warrior, who never got into raiding, picked up his first T9 iLevel 232 epic last night, a helmet paid for with 50 emblems of triumph. I could have waited and gotten the iLevel 245 helmet for 75 emblems, but I figured I'd rather get more pieces upgraded from the current iLevel 200 to 232 than fewer pieces to 245. To top all that off, if I keep doing the daily random dungeon for three weeks, I'll get my first iLevel 264 epic from emblems of frost. And all that without raiding.

My level 73 mage, being dps only, has more trouble finding dungeon groups, even with the new Dungeon Finder. But I did notice that the reward from doing a daily normal dungeon is 2 emblems of triumph as well. Thus theoretically I could collect these emblems before even reaching the level cap, and once I ding 80 I immediatedly get up to iLevel 245 gear for them. Is raiding becoming obsolete?

Of course "obsolete" is somewhat provocative. But what I do think is happening is that raiding is becoming optional. Between 5-man dungeons, battlegrounds, arena, daily quests, and other events, raiding is slowly turning into one of many optional endgame activities. Great if you like it, but not mandatory if you have trouble with the organizational effort or time committment. It is far from being the one and only pathway to better gear nowadays. And that is good.

I'd like to visit Naxxramas with my warrior. I think my best chance to do so is to wait until Naxxramas is the target for the weekly raid quest (which gives 5 emblems of triumph and 5 emblems of frost), and then either get a guild group going, or use the /lfr looking for raid functionality. But that plan is based on me *wanting* to go there, for the fun of it, not because that is the only way I could gear up. And that is cool with me. I love having lots of options without being forced into anything.

Running a guild without social skills

Science has tried with mixed success to measure the mental capabilities of people. From that research we got the IQ, intelligence quotient, as unit of measure of logical, analytical, and numerical mental capabilities. Lesser known is the EQ, the emotional quotient, defined as measuring your capability "to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one's self, of others, and of groups." The two are not correlated, in fact cases of people with high IQ and low EQ are quite common. Being more intelligent than others makes you "different", and being different is a handicap in social situations. That rejection can evoke a response of the intelligent person isolating himself socially ("I don't need the help of these morons, I'm better than them."), and over time withering the social skills.

Now obviously it is hard, if not impossible, to judge a person over the internet, as you only see a small part of him. Nevertheless, if you read enough of what a person writes on the internet, and assume that he is writing from the heart (and brain), and not faking a personality, you can make an educated guess of that persons IQ and EQ.

Based on his writings, I believe that Gevlon has a high IQ and low EQ. Thus I couldn't help but wonder about Gevlon's latest scheme, in which he wants to become the guild leader of a new raiding guild for raiding in blue gear. It is not that I don't believe that a guild consisting of 25 Gevlons in blue gear couldn't raid Naxxramas. Rather the problem is that running any guild requires quite some social skills. Cold, hard logic only gets you so far. Ayn Rand would pretty much suck as a guild leader. Thus, even if Gevlon manages to get the guild together by leveraging the advertising power of his blog (which is a good plan in itself), I do expect the whole thing to spectacularly explode after a short while.

I'd nearly be tempted to join his guild just to see that, but I haven't got the time. But if you are playing on European servers and are interested in Gevlon's concept of a blue gear raiding guild, you are invited to see for yourself. What do you think about Gevlon's plan to become a guild leader?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Trust and guilds

While a lot of people who either don't play World of Warcraft, or never group are still wondering what all the fuzz is about, others are beginning to realize the profound changes to the social interactions of WoW that the Dungeon Finder brings. Tipa says: "With patch 3.3, WoW has finally managed to get rid of any need for friends to do dungeons.", and resubscribed to WoW. Spinks comments on that: "I don’t see this as a sign that guilds will die out in the game or that people will stop playing with their friends. ... But I do think that the success of the new dungeon tool will make people ask themselves what they want out of a guild. Guilds are not actually gatekeepers to 5 man instance runs in WoW, although it can seem like that if you run solo.", and concludes: "Unshackling the social side of guilds from the group game may be one of the most long sighted advances any MMO of this generation has accomplished.".

As I mentioned before, the underlying issue here is one of trust. Joining a group requires trust, as either the incompetence or malevolence of the other players in that group could potentially ruin the dungeon run for you. It is easier to trust somebody you know, so a guild group has less trust issues than a group with random strangers. Having guild tag <A> or <B> obviously doesn't make a player smarter or nicer. So why would the player with guild tag <A> be considered a bigger asset by other players with guild tag <A>, but considered a menace in a pickup group by somebody with guild tag <B>? It is just trust that makes us consider our guild mates to be better players than strangers. And as a consequence people preferably group with guild mates, and it is harder for unguilded players to access group content.

As spinks so correctly remarks, that over time weakened the social function of guilds. Especially in World of Warcraft people join guilds for the express purpose of getting access to specific content. Thus a number of guilds evolved which weren't social at all, but only acted as gates to group content. One typical consequence of that is that guilds don't recruit people, they recruit avatars. Your chance of getting accepted into a guild depends on your class and gear, not on whether you are a good or nice player. Another consequence is the death of guild loyalty: While changing guilds was considered a major breach of etiquette in the original Everquest, now people hop from one guild to the next, using the previous guild to gear up to the requirements of the next further advanced guild. If guilds are just the necessary means to access group content, especially raid content, then it becomes easier to see your guild mates as tools towards that purpose, and not as friends.

Now the Dungeon Finder will certainly not eliminate the hardcore raiding guild. But on a lesser level, it is now much easier finding a group for 5-man content, and even raids, outside a guild structure. That eliminates the need to join a guild just for the group content access; and it frees you to join a guild of people you actually like, consider to be friends, and like to hang out with in game. So the Dungeon Finder will in the long run have an effect on guilds, and hopefully make them more social, and less purpose-driven.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dungeon Finder and ninja-looting

I've been doing basically nothing but dungeons since patch 3.3 came out, and the experience was mostly positive. Yes, people still leave in the middle of a long run, but replacing them is a lot easier now, and if it is a dps who left the group is back up and running within minutes. Hint: If the group needs to gather the new arrival at the entrance of the instance, using the eye icon next to your mini-map to first teleport out of dungeon and than back in is the fastest way to get everyone together at the entrance. Yesterday I did BRD several times with my paladin, as tank, and in one case the healer I was originally grouped with stayed with me, while replacing dps several times, until we had completely cleared BRD, and killed every single boss in that huge place. Who would have thought you could clear BRD in a pickup group?

I don't know if lower-level people are just nicer, or whether different servers have different moral standards, but one reader wrote me to tell me he had serious problems with people ninja-looting on the last boss in level 80 heroics. Basically the idea is that the ninja-looter counts on you never seeing him again, so he is safe to roll need to an item he can't even use for his class, and get a few more gold pieces out of the run. Hasn't happened to me yet, so I can't say how frequent that is, but it certainly is possible.

Blizzard *did* think of countermeasures to ninja-looting though: You ignore list now holds up to 50 people, you can set people from other servers on ignore, and the Dungeon Finder won't group you with people you have on ignore. Thus if everyone in the group sets the ninja-looter on ignore, especially the tank and healer, he still might run into problems finding a group in the future. Not a huge threat, but then, ninja-looting doesn't really result in a huge gain.

Did you have problems with ninja-looters in patch 3.3?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thought for the day: Just a feature?

Ravious from Kill Ten Rats thinks that the new LFG system in World of Warcraft is just a feature, and thus inherently inferior to added new content. But isn't a feature that changes the way the average player plays a MMORPG far more powerful than an added new zone or dungeon?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ranting about patch 3.3 thread

Overall I find patch 3.3 great, maybe even the best Blizzard ever did. Which doesn't mean there aren't some small annoyances caused by bugs, changes, or just collateral damage. As it is good to get these things of your chest by ranting about them, I'm offering you all this thread to tell us what annoys you about patch 3.3. I'll start:
  • I'm not sure whether it is a bug or a feature, but my camera controls in WoW changed. You can't fix the tilt of the camera any more, when you move the camera automatically tilts towards some angle depending on the slope of the ground you stand on. Most of the time the angle chosen is stupid, especially if the ground is sloped. I hate it. And selecting or unselecting various options in the camera option in the interface menu doesn't appear to be able to stop it.
  • Additional instances cannot be launched. Grrrrr! WotLK had this problem before, Blizzard had claimed to have fixed it, but making instances a lot more popular only made the matter much worse. Last night a guild group I was in disbanded, because we simply couldn't get into the Halls of Reflection on normal. Please, Blizzard, give us more instance servers!
  • Collateral damage to some addons: I was using QuestGuru to display the level of quests and improve the quest interface. Apparently QuestGuru is incompatible with patch 3.3, and nobody is updating it. Anyone know a working addon to display the numerical level of quests? I'm going to miss the feature that keeps track of the quests I already did though.
I already mentioned auctioneer not working any more when tabbed out in the previous thread. So how about you? Everything running perfectly fine, or are there changes that annoy you?

[EDIT: The camera issue can in fact be fixed with a dropdown menu in the interface / camera options. And QuestGuru is available as version 2.0 on WoWUI, and is compatible with patch 3.3 there. Thanks to the readers who helped with advice!]

Semi-afk in patch 3.3

We have been discussing recently that for some activities in World of Warcraft, like scanning the auction house, posting hundreds of glyphs, or emptying your mailbox, you don't need to watch your screen. You can do it semi-afk. You can wander off and do something else, read a book, watch TV. Or you could alt-tab into a web browser. Not any more. I noticed yesterday that patch 3.3 had changed the way addons like Postal or Auctioneer work: They now stop working if you alt-tab out of WoW.

You can still go semi-afk and leave WoW on top of your screen. But if you want to anything else with your computer, and get another application into the foreground, your semi-afk business will grind to a halt. Makes me think that Blizzard wasn't all that happy about semi-afk gameplay.

I would have proposed a better solution: Limit the number of auctions a character can have to 100. That is large enough to not hinder any normal playing activity, but would put a stop to the "posting 2,000 glyphs" businesses. That is, if these changes were actually meant to stop the mass-production business. Maybe they were aimed at other activities, like botting? I don't know. But not being able to alt-tab out while scanning the AH is a bit annoying.

Paladin tanking in 3.3?

I'm all fired up by the prospects of the new WoW LFG system, and hearing how much fun other people have with it. My own experiences were likewise good, finding a random heroics group with my level 80 tank instantly, and completing it quickly with no problems. But when I tried to join a random group with my paladin, I didn't have much luck. He's only level 51, and on the first days I guess people are rather playing their level 80 characters in Icecrown than their alts. But more importantly the paladin is obviously specced retribution for soloing, and the queue showed 3 dps and a healer waiting for a tank that never came.

Now having recently made a small fortune with thorium (thorium ore sold for 20 gold per stack less than thorium bars), I decided to buy dual spec for my paladin. And as all my gear is with strength and stamina, with no spellpower anywhere, I think I'd rather use the second spec for a tank role than for a healer role.

Only problem is I never played a paladin tank, which presumably is different than playing a warrior tank. Can anyone here direct me to a good site with tanking tips for paladins? A first Google search resulted in finding lots of outdated information. What build, glyphs, and rotation would a paladin tank use in patch 3.3?

The big boost to healers and tanks

Patch 3.3 is a huge paradigm change for World of Warcraft, reversing a long trend away from groups. By making groups easier to find and more rewarding, without diminishing the attractiveness of solo content, the developers made WoW better for all play style preferences. One consequence of this change is that the roles of healers and tanks are made more popular, and given a huge boost. Healers and tanks being inherently disadvantaged in solo content, as many of their spells and abilities for healing and aggro management are useless there, automatically profit more from a rise in popularity of group content. But part of the boost to healers and tanks comes from particular details of the current situation of WoW and the new LFG system.

One important aspect is simple statistics. With solo content having been so predominant and dps classes doing so much better there, the demographics of World of Warcraft have shifted towards dps. Thus if the average player joins a pickup group with the new LFG system and hovers his mouse over the little icon next to the mini-map, he’ll most likely see an incomplete group, with the three dps slots being taken, but waiting for either a healer, a tank, or both. A healer or tank using the same LFG system is more likely to take the last slot, and instantly find a group without having to wait around. This already should increase the popularity of playing a healer or tank role. Many of the current dps players actually have a hybrid class, and with the help of dual spec could change roles to healer or tank. Or they might have an alt. It has often been said that the only real currency in a MMORPG is time, and avoiding waiting queues could be a powerful motivator of moving towards a healing or tanking role.

The other big advantage of a healer or tank in a pickup group is a lot trickier, because it is based on trust. People inherently mistrust pickup groups, for obvious reasons: The rewards of doing a random heroic with random strangers are very much concentrated at the end; you get your emblems and the best loot from killing the last boss. If your pickup group wipes due to the incompetence of another player, it is likely to disintegrate, and you’ll have wasted your time without ever getting the big reward. A pickup group requires trust, but the tricky part is that the trust requirement isn’t equal for all participants: A tank or a healer who is inattentive for 5 seconds is far more likely to cause a wipe than a dps player. The healer and tank each have a unique role, which makes them carry more individual responsibility, while the dps players have a shared responsibility between the three of them to provide the required damage output. A single underequipped or slacking dps player is less of a risk to a pickup group than an underequipped or slacking tank or healer. Now most players are confident in them not messing up, but have trust issues with the other 4 players in a pickup group, particularly the tank and healer, due to those roles higher risk as explained above. So if you play a dps, you need to trust two players very much; but if you play a tank or healer, you only need to trust one other player very much, as you have the other important role covered.

The way the new LFG system works is important here. Previously dps players were able to get around trust issues by only inviting other players which were overgeared and already had the achievement for beating the dungeon, proving they knew the place and could do it. The new system doesn’t allow for such cherry-picking. This is great for let’s say the tank who wants to do a heroic for the first time, and needs some gear from there, because previously he simply wouldn’t have been invited, even if he was perfectly capable of doing the job. But for the dps player it requires a bigger leap of faith, because he now needs to trust a stranger, potentially even from a different server, without being able to check his gear and achievements first. If that dps player has an alt, or plays a hybrid class, he has the option to overcome half of his trust problem by taking over the role of tank or healer himself, which is another reason why more people might be willing to do so now.

I have a mental image of a significant number of my readers suffering from such trust issues and now making a distinctly unhappy face at the thought of pickup groups playing a larger role in World of Warcraft in the future. But in reality the reputation of pickup groups suffers from selective memory: If you do 10 pickup groups, you’ll remember the one which went horribly wrong, and forget the 9 who succeeded. And of course pickup groups in the past also suffered from being mostly endgame heroics groups, with some players trying them having soloed all the way to the level cap, and simply not proficient in group play. By making lower level groups easier to find and more rewarding, in the future it will be more likely that a freshly minted level 80 player will already have some group experience, and perform less badly. WoW players all tend to think of themselves as being good players, and everybody else outside their circle of friends being incompetent slackers and idiots. A quick reality check should allow you see that this simply can’t be true, and that you are statistically most likely to be an average player, with most random strangers being similarly skilled as you are. If you keep an open mind, pickup groups offer you the possibility to see how other people really play, potentially learn from them, and even make new friends.

I think the new patch 3.3 system is well designed to entice people into groups, and overcome these trust issues, and both the reputation and success rate of pickup groups will improve with time. And by doing so the popularity of healer and tank roles will improve, so that one day we might overcome the long-standing shortage of healers and tanks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Self-defeating success

Living in Europe, it is only today that World of Warcraft is patched to 3.3 for me. But apparently the patch day in the US went roughly like this: Blizzard patches exciting new dungeons and a tool designed to make dungeons more popular into WoW. Lots of people want to try out the new dungeons and LFG tool. Instance servers break down. Film at 11.

As spinks so correctly remarks, there are advantages to patching a day later. Nevertheless I wouldn't be surprised if I won't be able to do an instance tonight, and get stuck with "additional instances can not be opened" and similar errors instead.

Creating popular content for MMOs isn't easy to begin with. But it must be frustrating to know that if you are *too* successful in this, the success becomes self-defeating. My programming skills are basic, and I haven't got a clue about network protocols and such; but as a player I do know that if a significant part of the population of a server is trying to do the same thing, the server bugs out or crashes, even if I can't explain the technical details behind it. The opening of the gates of Ahn'Qiraj was more a slide-show for me than a world event, which is probably why world events are distributed over many zones nowadays.

But while that is annoying for world events, which only last a very limited time, I won't be all that annoyed if patch 3.3 isn't working today, because it will be around for much longer. The new Icecrown dungeons will remain relevant content until Cataclysm comes out, which is probably still many months ahead. The new LFG system will remain with us even after that. So as predictable as instances not working on patch day is, it is likewise predictable that they will start working soon, after the first rush towards them has subsided, and Blizzard fixed a few more bugs that became evident by the "stress test" that is a patch day.

I just wonder whether we will ever have the technology to create really massive events in our massively multiplayer online games.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

WoW viral marketing

The Mr. T TV ads and in-game mohawk grenades not having a big success, Blizzard apparently is now trying a much cleverer bit of viral marketing: America’s Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry declared on Twitter that she likes to play World of Warcraft "butt naked & stoned". The reason you can be sure that this is a marketing trick is that she included a photo of her doing just that, which just happens to be on the right side of "naughty but not obscene", wearing only a headset, but being cut off at exactly the right height for an "M" rating.

This being viral, of course Blizzard will deny all involvement, and we will be spared the Adrianne Curry NPC in WoW handing out "butt naked stoning grenades". Nevertheless as far as marketing pull goes, a naked top model from 2009 sure beats a fully dressed grumpy TV star from the 80's, especially for a target audience which is predominantly male and young. The news is spreading quickly over various gaming sites and blogs. And besides what they paid the model and the photographer, Blizzard doesn't even have to pay to spread the news. Very clever, Blizzard, well done!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The fairest business model

As No Prisoners No Mercy points out (in a post that first quotes me, then completely misinterprets what I said), both the monthly subscription model and the Free2Play model are based on "letting the other guy pay". In the monthly subscription model the players playing the least subsidize the heavier drain on resources of the players playing the most. In the Free2Play model the few percent of players spending money in the item shop finance the game for everybody else. Obviously neither model is fair.

Funnily enough, it is possible to play World of Warcraft with a business model which is extremely fair, in which every player pays proportionally to the cost and drain on resources he causes. You just need to move to China for that. The Chinese WoW business model is extremely simple: You buy a time-card with X hours on it, every hour costing around 5 cents, and every minute you are online is deducted from this amount of time you paid for. Nobody subsidizes another player, every player pays exactly what he is consuming, and the whole thing is fairest business model for MMORPGs possible.

Obviously it will be impossible to implement that business model in the western world. Nobody *wants* fair. "Letting the other guy pay" is a far more attractive business model. And whenever somebody points out the unfairness of it all, and how a pay-per-hour business model would be much better, he is shouted down with examples from ancient history, in which AOL charged people $9.95 per hour to play online games. That is of course completely irrelevant, a modern triple A MMORPG on a pay-per-hour business model would probably cost around 20 cents per hour to make the same profit as a $15 per month subscription fee. But as people arguing against pay-per-hour can hardly say that they are against fairness and for letting the other guy pay for them, they still use AOL as an example why "pay-per-hour doesn't work".

Nevertheless I have to wonder if we won't see a pay-per-hour MMORPG in the USA and Europe in a few years. As I described in the previous post, the "letting the other guy pay" business model leads to players moving to the game where they *aren't* the other guy. That leads to there being no other guy left to pay, which leads to games either shutting down, or changing the rules on who is paying.

Personally I would love a "pay 20 cents per hour" option for World of Warcraft. I do not have a constant interest in World of Warcraft, sometimes I play a lot, at other times I don't play for months. So I cancel my account when I burn out, and resubscribe later, which is a hassle. A pay-per-hour deal which would cost me roughly the same per year would be much more convenient, as I could stop and start playing without any administrative burden. But of course the people who profit the most from the unfairness of the monthly subscription model happen to be those that are also most active on game forums and blogs, and so a suggestion to make paying for WoW fairer will never be popular.

Infinite competition theory

Imagine a world with an infinite number of MMORPGs (and ignore the tricky infinity math telling you that each of them would have zero players). For every possible preference of play style and feature list there would be lots of games to choose from (actually infinite games to choose from, but didn't I tell you to ignore the tricky math?). So as you could find very similar games with different business models, your best strategy in such a world would be to choose the game with the business model that works out cheapest for you. If you play a lot, a game with a monthly subscription business model would probably be best for you, as you have access to all content for one fixed price. If you play very little, you might be able to play much cheaper, or even free, if you play a Free2Play game with microtransactions. Monthly fee games aren't as good for people playing not very much, as you end up paying the same as the people playing a lot, but only use a small part of the content. Free2Play games aren't as good for people playing a lot, as they would want to have access to more content, and that usually is only possible by paying by microtransactions; if you play a lot, you pay more than a typical monthly fee of a subscription game.

Now we move back to the real world, and check in how far the same optimization strategy is still valid. Obviously a lot of players choose their game by its features, quality considerations, or simply by what their friends play. Optimizing cost plays not such a big role for many players. But then, times are hard, and some people *do* need to watch their gaming budget. And the number of MMORPGs, if you include all those various Free2Play games is getting constantly larger. There is more and more choice to be had. Especially if you like World of Warcraft, there are quite a number of clones around, both with monthly subscription and Free2Play business models. I still have played neither Runes of Magic nor Allods Online, but I hear a lot of good things about both of them.

So what if in the real world there are trends similar to what happened in our infinite competition hypothetical world? A number of players would choose whatever game is cheaper for his personal playstyle. Heavy users would preferably play monthly subscription games, where they end up being the heaviest drain on the resources of the game company, while not paying any more than a light user. Light users would move to Free2Play games, where they could play quite a lot of the game without ever paying anything. Both the monthly fee subscription game company and the Free2Play game company are worse off from that separation, which is a direct consequence of players having minimized their costs. The monthly subscription game actually needs the light users to cross-subsidize the heavy users. The Free2Play game needs the heavy users who are also the heavy spenders in the microtransaction shop.

The more games are released, the more likely any given player is to be able to find a game which suits him, and which ends up being cheaper for him than the game that he currently plays. Competition drives down company profits, not just overall profits from less players, but profit per player, because some players choose the cheaper available option for them. Now competition driving down profits is not something which would surprise an economist, but in a business where prices appear to be more or less fixed the notion isn't quite so obvious.

Now the monthly subscription games will survive this better, even if they end up with a higher percentage of heavy duty users. But for the Free2Play games such a trend would not be sustainable. If there are a lot of games, there is a good chance that a significant number of players will develop a nomad mentality, frequently changing games, and always just using the content that is available for free, without ever paying. As mentioned yesterday, both Battlefield Heroes and Free Realms obviously already had problems with too many free players, and not enough earnings per player. My "infinite competition theory" predicts that on current trends this will get more and more of a problem for Free2Play games. They will increasingly have to reduce the amount of free content on offer, but of course that decreases a significant part of their attraction. We aren't quite yet at the situation of an infinite number of games with zero players each, but I do have the impression that the number of games is growing faster than the number of players. Except for a few big games, which are so attractive as to overcome price considerations, we are heading for an increasingly fragmented market with decreasing profits.

Free2Play gone bad

Any moderate opinion risks getting misrepresented by those who have extreme views on the same issue. That is why some people believe I am a proponent of the Free2Play and micropayment business model, when in fact I'm broadly neutral on it, and have repeatedly stated that are both good and bad microtransactions, and that I don't play Free Realms any more because I found their microtransaction system to be bad for gameplay. But as I also pointed out that there is a general trend towards this business model, and some people hate that trend with all their heart, I tend to get a lot of angry comments when writing anything not completely condemning microtransactions.

Having said that, I do agree with Ancient Gaming Noob Wilhelm2451 that there is a risk with Free2Play games in that they can be changed by a patch from a good microtransaction system to a bad one. I only played very little of Battlefield Heroes, the game Wilhelm2451 is talking about, so I can't talk from own experience. But the Ars Technica article he cites sounds pretty dire. What is clear in any case is that if you were previously playing without paying any money to EA, you will in future be a lot less competitive if you continue playing on the same schedule. You'd either need to grind a lot more to earn victory points, or start paying money to stay at the same level of performance. It is easy to see how that would make players upset.

Something similar happened to Free Realms as well. SOE found that apparently too many players were happily playing that game without paying, by sticking to the Free2Play classes and not using the premium classes. So they patched the game and now you can play any class for free, but only until level 5, and you need to pay if you want to play any class beyond that level. I'd say its a case of turning an already bad micropayment system into a worse one, but the principle of a patch changing the business deal remains the same.

In more general terms, the issue is that this are basically stealth price increases. Assuming that at least some players will want to keep up with the Joneses without increasing the grind, EA will make more money out of Battlefield Heroes in the future, which is obviously the idea behind the patch. More players are likely to pay SOE for keeping their characters beyond level 5. So even if a game has a balanced and good system of micropayments, a patch can at any time turn this into a bad system, by simply changing some parameters on how hard it is to achieve something in game which otherwise has to be bought, or by changing the pricing model. It would be a lot harder to do such a stealth price hike for a subscription based game. Monthly subscriptions could be raised, but that is a pretty obvious change, and not a stealth hike. The only way a game company could deliver less value for money in a subscription based game would be to slow down or stop the addition of content by patches.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to tell you the latest joke about EA and their Battlefield series of games: EA originally wanted to call their latest release in this series Battlefield: Electronic Arts. But then somebody in marketing told them that this was too obvious a self-promotion, and so they called it Battlefield: Bad Company instead. :)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Making 500 gold per hour in WoW

I always suspected that some of the claims of Gevlon on how easily he was making thousands of gold were exaggerated. But being a man of science, I set out to test it. I followed his instructions on how to get filthy rich in WoW by selling glyphs for several weeks now, and here are the results:

On the positive side I made a lot of gold, my total wealth is up from 30k before to 70k after, and in addition to that plus of 40k gold wealth, I also spent about 10k on various things, like tradeskills for alts. So I'm counting 50k gold made with glyphs.

On the negative side, making those 50k gold took longer than you'd have expected from Gevlon's description. For example my glyph selling alt alone, who does nothing but empty his mailbox, scans the AH, and then posts the glyphs using Gevlon's undercutting strategy, has already 70 hours of /played time, and is still level 1. I don't have an exact count of how many hours my inscription toon spent, but I'd say it was at least another 30 hours.

So that is it, I made 50k gold in about 100 hours, a rate of 500 gold per hour. That isn't counting the time and money I needed to get the inscription skill to maximum and learn every single glyph recipe in the game. Now many of the hours spent lets say scanning the AH or posting hundreds of glyphs were semi-afk. But doing that still prevented me from using those hours for other activities, like leveling alts, or doing heroics and raids.

Now 500 gold per hour is not a bad wage in WoW. But inscription isn't the only activity that nets you that much. For example farming mats, that is either gathering herbs or ore, in Northrend can easily also make you 500 gold per hour. You might have some bad days, where you find very little frost lotus or titanium ore, but on average 500 gold per hour from farming is quite doable.

Now Gevlon despises farming, but I'd say it has its charms. Flying around and gathering materials is somewhat more active than standing in front of the AH or mailbox. And it is more sustainable: You will make less if other players are gathering at exactly the same time as you, but demand is high enough to support a large number of farmers gathering materials at different times. The glyph market is far more sensitive to competition, it only takes 2 or 3 greedy goblins to drive down the prices. MMO-Champion having published a glyph-selling guide while my experiment was running certainly didn't help my profits.

I am currently winding down my ink and glyph inventory. I found the experiment fun, but only as long I was figuring out all the details and tricks of the inscription business and AH "PvP". But I'm not really motivated to spend another 100 hours making another 50k gold the same way. What would I want that gold for? There is nothing I could spend it on. Ultimately I gain more if I spend those 100 hours on lets say leveling one of my alts to level 80. If I see glyph prices going up a lot, I might just jump back into the market again. But right now, with 5,000 out of 15,000 auctions on my server being glyphs, there is too much supply and too little demand.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Anonymous commenting turned temporarily off

I don't know whether it is an effect of the holiday season or what, but in the last weeks the amount of anonymous comment spam has exploded. For example one identical comment spam mail was posted 46 times this week on different blog posts. Comment spam increases my blog administration workload considerably. In addition Blogger seems to have a technical problem with comment moderation at the moment, so that when I decide to publish or reject a comment, half of the time the comment is still in the list of comments to moderate, and I have to repeat the moderation several times before it goes away.

As I am quite busy with other things, I therefore decided to temporarily turn off anonymous commenting, probably until the end of the year. That should put a stop to much of the comment spam. This means that in the coming weeks you will need either a Google account or an OpenID to post a comment on my blog. As getting such an ID is free, and still largely anonymous, I think that this is not too much of a restriction.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I might keep my main in Cataclysm

As much as I applauded many changes to raiding in Wrath of the Lich King, personally WotLK wasn't really a good raid experience for me. Basically I felt I had made the wrong decision at the start of the expansion to level my holy priest first, and use him as my "raiding main". It turned out that I found raid healing in WotLK a lot less fun than raid healing in vanilla WoW and BC. Raid healing had become too fast for me, and I hated the fact that I couldn't use slower healing spells any more, or the fact that it didn't matter that those slower spells were more mana effective, because mana never ran out anyway. I did enjoy the tactical challenge of healing in the slower vanilla WoW environment more.

So I was toying with the idea of using a different character class as my main in Cataclysm. If I'm just spamming a fast spell anyway, I might as well play a dps, and avoid the added stress and unjust blame laid on healers. But now I'm reading news about Cataclysm that make me rethink that idea. Maybe healing is going to become good again in Cataclysm, and I might keep my healer as main in Cataclysm. Via MMO-Champion:
"Quote from Blizzard staff
Health Pools in Cataclysm
Health pools will be much larger in Cataclysm and healing will be lower. That should help address some of the overly binary feel of PvP and PvE encounters.

You'll still be able to kill people as well as be able to heal them. The pace will just be a little slower and both healing and killing should require more than 1-2 buttons.

Tanking and Healing in Cataclysm
You missed the part where I said health pools will be higher. Imagine a boss that takes say 3-4 hits to kill a tank, but it also takes a healer 3-4 heals to top her back off. Now efficiency of a healing spell can be as much of a consideration as direct throughput, since the tank is unlikely to die in your next GCD. Now coordination among healers can be a bigger deal since efficiency will matter. Now maximum health on the tank classes will matter less because the question of how long you can survive without a heal landing is largely academic. Now avoidance on a tank can matter a little more because saving healer mana becomes as important as being table to take the next hit.

As an aside, healers will actually need enough healing tools and enough distinction among them so that they are really choosing the big, expensive heal vs. the small, cheap heal vs. the fast, expensive heal, to name just a few examples.

Classes balance in Cataclysm and burst damage
The gear scaling is "easy" to fix, meaning we know what to do and it just requires a lot of work. We are prepared for players to be sad when their ratings convert less favorably, but most would agree it's good for the game in the long run.

I already addressed the burst issue above. If the bathtub is bigger, then the rate of health pouring in and going down the drain don't affect the volume as severely."
Higher health pools, leading to the return of tactical decisions of what speed vs. efficiency of healing spell to use? Count me in! This seems like an excellent idea to me. And as the devs mentioned, the same solution will also fix the issue of some classes being overly powerful in PvP due to burst damage.

I'm just wondering what form exactly these higher health pools will take. Will a naked level 80 character have more health after Cataclysm then before? Or will it go up dramatically with every level increase from 80 to 85? Or will the health pool only be increased via more stamina in gear, enchants, and gems, so that stamina suddenly becomes the most important stat for all character classes? And what about the size of the health pool of regular mobs outside dungeons, will those increase as well, making combat overall slower? Personally I'm all for slowing down WoW a bit, it had become a bit hectic over the last expansions. But I'm sure some other player will resent reducing the pace of the game.

The other consideration is that if I still hate healing, I now have a backup plan, even if I used my priest as my main: I now have dual spec in shadow, and I'm actually dealing an above average amount of damage when I join a group in a dps role. So leveling the priest first makes more sense than lets say leveling my mage first, because with the mage I have no choice at all which role I want to take.

What do you think about the announced changes to the health pools in Cataclysm?

Keen on soloing

Seems to be the subject of the week, or I'm hearing echoes. Keen found some new information on SWTOR, namely that it will have companion characters which will allow you to solo everything, and thinks it is a horrible idea. Great minds think alike. ;)

Of course it is too early to say how big the influence of companion characters on Star Wars the Old Republic gameplay will be. But if it is all that is promised, it will be a nice test of my hypothesis that people will first love it, then leave it. Great test case actually, because if anyone can start the massively single-player online role-playing game genre, it is Bioware. SWTOR could prove that eliminating player cooperation from a MMORPG is a bad idea, if they drive the companions concept far enough, and it ends up becoming the dominant gameplay mode to the detriment of grouping with actual players.

[EDIT: P.S.: Oh my god! Now even Syncaine agrees!]

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keep it polite!

As I had had to delete several comments, some of them extremely insulting personal attacks, on my previous post, here are some necessary reminders:
  • Comments on this blog are moderated. If you use words like "fuck" in your comment and make disparaging remarks about my intelligence, your comment will simply disappear without ever having been seen by anyone but me.
  • Thus if you actually have a point to make, keep it polite, and your comment will be posted
  • I am not the pope. Therefore I am fallible. Pointing out when I make a mistake is good. Attacking me for making mistakes is not.
  • I have the right to rant on my own blog, even if by definition a rant isn't terribly rational. Who doesn't rant if a specific piece of software can't be installed on a specific computer? That it runs well on other computers under other conditions isn't really relevant for such a rant.
  • If in a rant I say something negative about your favorite company, I have the right to that opinion, and you have the right to disagree with that opinion, and to post that you disagree.
  • If you feel the need to criticize me, you should read carefully what I actually wrote. If you only read my posts diagonally, pick up a vaguely negative tenor, and react by complaining about things I never said, I will not take you seriously at all.
  • If a large enough number of you try hard enough to keep me from expressing my opinions by shouting me down, you might succeed in that. Have you considered the various possible consequences of that?
  • In summary: I think it is best for everyone involved to keep the discussion polite.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

/wave Google

Google sent me an invitation to try out Google Wave. I tried it. It didn't work, telling me that it won't run correctly on Internet Explorer, and I should change my browser, preferably to Google's Chrome.

Dear Google! You might want to revisit your mission statement. What you are doing here strongly reminds me of exactly the sort of "evil" anti-competitive practices which got Microsoft into so much trouble with the DoJ and other competition authorities.

My Google Analytics tell me that 25% of my readers use Internet Explorer. Among people on office computers as opposed to private home computers the percentage of users with Internet Explorer is even greater. And on office computers usually you can't just install a different browser, your IT services will have blocked that. So given that Google Wave is probably more useful as a business tool than as a private tool, excluding people with Internet Explorer from using it is an extremely bad idea.

Of course Google will claim it isn't their fault. But if everybody else can get their applications up and running on all different browser systems, I don't think the Department of Justice will buy that excuse. You simply can't develop the "next big thing" in business communication and then use it to beat down a major competitor by making it incompatible with their products. What's next? Google applications that don't run on Windows but only on Chrome OS?

Over the edge

Spinks is excited about the Mirkwood expansion for LotRO, specifically the solo dungeons called skirmishes. She dreams of a MMORPG future in which people have soloable, scaling dungeons, with NPC henchmen fixing the obvious problems of class balance. You'd never have to rely on another player again to advance in the game! I think that would be an absolute nightmare, a step too far in progressing solofication of MMORPGs. A step too far and over the edge into a completely different genre, the MSORPG, massively single-player online role-playing game, and into ultimate failure.

Jean-Paul Sartre in the existentialist play "No Exit" says that "Hell is other people", and apparently a large number of MMO players agree. Other players are constantly being blamed for everything anyone thinks is wrong with MMORPGs. Players are blamed for ganking in PvP, wiping raids in PvE, being morons in the player-based economy, and even for ruining other MMORPGs and game companies by not adequately valueing them. So why would remove player interaction not be a good idea? Because suddenly we wouldn't have all these stories, neither the positive ones of challenges overcome with the help of our friends, nor the negative ones cited above, and our games would quickly become boring. A rant about a ninja-looting scumbag makes a good story, but who would be interested in how you beat some dungeon with the help of NPCs?

Why do you think players are willing to run the same dungeons many times in a game like World of Warcraft, but consider to be done with a single-player RPG after having played it through once? People consider it perfectly normal to do the same raid several nights a week for several weeks in a MMORPG, but I do not think that there would be many people interested to play single-player dungeons with NPC support at that rhythm. The participation of other people in a raid makes all the difference, even if that participation sometimes leads to a less than optimal outcome.

Personally I think that already World of Warcraft, in the leveling part, overdoes soloing, and makes forming groups not sufficiently attractive. Apparently Blizzard agrees to some extent, which explains the upcoming cross-server dungeons and improved LFG features of patch 3.3 (rumored for a planned release next week). I believe that players not always really know what they want, and can end up severely disappointed when getting exactly what they asked for. And I do think that even greater soloability in MMORPGs is exactly such a case. People would rejoice when such a game came out, buy it, play it for a month, and quit it. It has always been said that people keep playing a MMORPG even past the point where they enjoy it because of "their friends". A MSORPG, a game in which meeting strangers and turning them into new friends is completely unnecessary, would implode within weeks.

In a time and age where companies can make millions with cheap games extremely lacking in gameplay features, but being rich in social interaction on Facebook, it would be ironic if on the other side the MMO genre abandoned its roots and removed social interactions. I can't see people paying a monthly fee for a MSORPG very long.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thought for the day: Soloing

If you only want to play solo, and not cooperate in group content, nor interact with other players in other ways, why play a MMORPG in the first place? Wouldn't a single-player game be a lot cheaper and more convenient?