Sunday, February 28, 2010

World of Warcraft Authenticator hacked

Several readers in the open Sunday thread alerted me to a report that the WoW authenticator has been hacked, including confirmation by Blizzard. The virus intercepts your authenticator code, sends a wrong one onwards (causing you to get an error message), and sends the right one to the hackers, who then have to use it immediately to get into your account.

Well, no account security measure is ever perfect, and your account is still a lot safer with an authenticator than without one. But if you are worried, you should search your computer for the virus file called "emcor.dll".

Result of the free speech experiment

After letting run the free speech experiment with zero comment moderation for a week, it is time to look at the results, and draw a conclusion. Here are my observations on how the experiment went:
  • Comment spam: You didn't see any, I did. As I said, I did leave comment moderation on for posts older than 14 days. Automated comment spam bots apparently prefer older threads, which have a higher Google page rank, and are less watched by their owners. I got about a dozen spam comments, advertising everything from Farmville guides to hair straighteners, all of them posted by "anonymous".
  • Profanity: A lot of it, as expected, not even counting all the cussing people did just to show they could in the thread setting up the experiment. I was called "Tobold fag", and told to "shut the fuck up". One rather persistent commenter made multiple disparaging remarks on multiple threads about me having a bad gearscore, something that I found more puzzling than insulting. It was easy to ignore most of these remarks. But apparently I surprised someone by replying to the "shut the fuck up" guy with similar insults, and the thus insulted anonymous guy then complained that I shouldn't talk to him like that. Now that is a curious concept of free speech: Anonymous commenter thinks he is allowed to insult me, but I'm not allowed to insult him back.
  • Trolls: Fake Gev-i-on made an appearance and clearly managed to derail at least half the comments of one thread. I even got fake Tobo-i-d comments, but I'm afraid that even a fake parody of me isn't outrageous enough to provoke much of a response from other readers. It is easier to parody people with less moderate views. Several readers asked for trolls to be banned.
  • Anonymity: On Blogger the ability to post under a freely choosen name with or without URL and the ability to post as "anonymous" are unfortunately controlled by the same check box. Few people made use of the Name/URL option and I think a preference of not signing up for anything to leave a comment on this blog is valid. But most people having the added freedom to not sign up used the "anonymous" option. In the best of cases that made discussion difficult, because other commenters didn't know whether they were talking to the same anonymous guy in two different comments. But in general, as Serial Ganker sid67 remarked, the quality of the anonymous comments was significantly lower than the quality of comments from registered users. Nearly all the profanity and personal attacks were anonymous, as well as the spam.
  • Flow: I must agree with Klepsacovic that the flow of discussion is a lot smoother when comments appear immediately when written. It allows a back-and-forth between commenters even when I am offline. And much of that back-and-forth positively adds to the discussion.
An experiment serves to learn something, and hopefully to improve things by what is learned. I ran this experiment because I didn't have an answer to what the best form of comment moderation is, and because I wondered whether I could relax some moderation rules without doing too much harm. For me the lesson is relatively clear: Moderating comments before they appear is not necessary, as long as I turn off anonymous commenting.

Thus I declare this experiment as ended. I am turning anonymous commenting off again, with apologies to the tiny minority of people who can't or won't sign up for a free account with OpenID or Google or somewhere to comment. But unlike before the experiment, I'll leave comments to appear immediately when written. I *will* start deleting comments again, be that for trolling or ad hominem attacks. But I'll use the deletion option which replaces the comment with an "This post has been removed by a blog administrator", so there will be more transparency, and you'll see that I don't actually delete all that many comments. I think it is the existence of comment moderation by itself that keeps comments in line.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

I'm not really sure if an open Sunday thread makes *more* sense or *less* sense with no comment moderation. After all, you could have suggested topics and asked questions everywhere. But thanks for doing it in this thread.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Admit it, anonymously!

Did you ever buy gold in a MMORPG where that was forbidden by the ToS/EULA? Let's see if we can use the option of anonymous posting for something constructive, and get you to admit something you might not want to sign with your name!

Turning single-player games into MMORPGs

One last question from the open Sunday thread, then I think I answered them all. Void asked: "I would like to see you post about what MMOs could learn from single player games. Specifically, single player RPGs. With the recent release of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age Origins I really feel like MMOs have too much grind and not enough story. But, that is just my opinion. What do you think MMO game devs could learn from single player games?" I think this is a trap. And I think that SWTOR is well on its way to fall into this trap, so we'll be able to see whether my theory is right: You can't use game elements from single-player games with limited duration and turn them successfully into MMORPG games with unlimited duration.

Bioware is good at telling stories in single-player games, there is no doubt about it. But story-telling in a game like KOTOR (or Mass Effect, or Dragon Age Origins) works the same way as story has worked since the beginning of humankind, in a structure which has a beginning, a climax, and an end. But a MMORPG doesn't have an end (except for A Tale in the Desert), and so story-telling falls flat.

In an endless MMORPG, you have the choice of either creating one epic "main" story which develops in parallel to your character level, which is how Lord of the Rings Online does it. Or you provide thousands of short stories, like World of Warcraft. Neither option makes for great story-telling. One of the big draws of a MMORPG is that you can play them for years, for thousands of hours. One main story distributed over thousands of hours ends up being stretched far too thin. Most of the time in LotRO you are NOT advancing the epic main story, the main story ends up being something like an extra award for leveling.

Having recently made the transition from Outlands to Northrend with my paladin, I must say that Blizzard is getting better at telling stories. The WotLK quests are often more fun than the BC and vanilla WoW quests were. And I'm looking forward to Blizzard applying those improved story-telling skills to update the quests of level 1 to 60 in the Cataclysm expansion. But even at its best, storytelling by having a dozen quests or more at all times isn't very engaging. In fact the word "quest" in its original meaning doesn't describe well the quests in a MMORPG, they are more like "errands". Imagine you have a job as secretary or assistant, and your day goes like this "go, fetch me some coffee", "type this letter", "get me a flight to New York", "go for some office supplies"; does that sound like a great story to you? Even if the individual tasks were interesting, they don't combine into a greater whole.

Thus I think that trying to extrapolate story-telling from single-player RPGs into MMORPGs is doomed to failure. I'm hoping for improvement in telling the story of each quest, better grouping of errands into telling the story of one location better, and improved visuals. But that is the best it can get in a MMORPG. From there to the whole game feeling like one big story, like KOTOR or Dragon Age Origins does, there is still a huge gap, and one I don't think that can be bridged.

And therein lies the trap. By trying to learn from single-player games, you risk making a worse MMORPG. Instead of taking the structure of a different game and trying to force it around a MMORPG, game developers should look at the inherent structure of MMORPGs and improve the game around that. For example most players naturally care more about the development of their character than about the artificial story fragments the character went through; thus developers could add more game elements that chronicle the character's development. Instead of the Tome of Knowledge in WAR telling the story of some dwarf you met, in which you aren't interested at all, the chronicle should tell the story of your characters heroic acts in some location, or tell the story of how you found the magical sword of uberness. In a MMORPG the character *is* the story, and any good MMORPG story-telling has to work with that instead of trying to tell a story like a single-player game.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Will the future be an MMO?

Pangoria Fallstar sent me an interesting link to a video from DICE 2010, where Jesse Schell extrapolates from Facebook games to a future where every one of you actions comes with experience points: Brush your teeth in the morning, +10 points. Brush them for longer than 3 minutes for extra points, and of course further extra points if you brushed them all week. The action would be measured by a motion sensor in your toothbrush, transmitted via WiFi, financed by the company selling the toothbrush and toothpaste, and you could use the points for a rebate on toothpaste, or even on your dental plan.

I think this vision of the future as one big MMO with points everywhere is utopic. Just look how people complained here yesterday about having to be online to play Ubisoft single-player games; how would those people react to having to be online to brush your teeth? Jesse Schell mentions that because every one of our action in his utopia would be recorded, it would make us strive to become better people. But I'm afraid the whole thing smells too much like Orwell's Big Brother to most people.

Where I think he went wrong is in extrapolating too far, a common mistake in predictions. Because I think where he might have the right idea is that reward systems could be used more in real life. But I would guess that would be mostly limited to education and work. In the video there is an example of a game design professor already handing out xp instead of grades for homework. That is something which could work. And bonus systems at work tied to some point system could work too. But your shoes telling your health insurance how many miles you walked that day? Most people would find that too intrusive.

Ubisoft DRM

Like pretty much everybody I am not a big fan of the various ways of "digital rights management" and copyright protection schemes that companies add to games and other media. Not that I think that pirates have the right to steal stuff as they want, but because in my experience any form of copyright protection has a higher chance of hindering legitimate buyers than it has to stop pirates.

Having said that, I find some of the foaming from the mouth comments about Ubisoft's latest DRM scheme a bit over the top. Most of the games I play are either MMORPGs, or bought via Steam, thus I already have the situation that I can't play when I'm not connected to the internet.

If somebody would write a long rant about how unfair it is that he or specific other people in special situations can't play World of Warcraft when they aren't connected to the internet, we would laugh and tell the guy to choose a different game. I think our response to Ubisoft DRM should be exactly the same: We put these games on the long list of games that require the internet, and play something else when we don't have an online connection. And then we point out to Ubisoft that they just lost a bunch of legit customers, while the pirates published a cracked version of those games on Bittorrent before us legit guys could even buy them in the stores.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fake GevIon

So my blog in record time since dropping moderation has acquired a resident troll, the "Shitty Goblin" Gev-i-on, who because he uses an uppercase i in the middle of his name makes people confuse GevIon with Gevlon. In what I can only suppose is a form of protest against the real Gevlon, fake GevIon takes the objectionable sociopath tendencies of the original to the next level, and uses them for very effective trolling. As one commenter remarked, half of the comments in one thread were either by or about fake GevIon.

So some other readers are shouting that I should ban fake GevIon from my blog. If only that was so easy. Banning him based on his IP not only isn't supported by Blogger, it also is extremely easy to circumvent. Software to mask or change your IP can be had anywhere, and in the worst case scenario you just go to a different computer. My IP changes every time I reset my router.

The second problem is that banning fake GevIon would just ban one of thousands of potential trolls. Even if I succeeded in banning one, another troll would take his place. And obviously many of the methods Blogger offers to battle comment spam would not work on fake GevIon or other trolls like him: Turning off anonymous commenting simply wouldn't do anything, as fake GevIon has a registered Google account and posts using that account. Turning on captchas wouldn't help either, I'm pretty certain that he is clever enough to enter a word into a form field if forced to.

Thus banning fake GevIon basically means turning comment moderation back on. I could either revert to the previous version, where I approve comments before they appear on the blog. That would completely stop GevIon and his fellow trolls, but then I get complaints about censorship and a lack of transparency, and comments would often wait in limbo for several hours while I for example sleep or work, before I get around to approve them, which is bad for the flow of discussion. The other option would be to use "after the fact" comment deletion, which in Blogger can either be done completely, or with leaving a "this comment was deleted by admin" message. The disadvantage of that is that I *still* have stretches of several hours in which I work or sleep, so a troll comment could be visible for hours and result in the thread being derailed. And of course in either form of comment moderation I would have to make judgement calls about who is and who isn't a troll, and that always results in some people complaining about censorship.

The internet is a terribly cynic place, and nobody accepts anything at face value. When I said that I moderate comments to keep the conversation polite and on topic, very few people believed me, and I was accused of all sorts of ulterior motives. People also complained that I was talking about comment moderation too often. But the simple fact is that I don't have a good answer to the question of how to best moderate comments on my blog. And I don't think my readers have either. I get a lot of unhelpful advice that I should "just find the sweet spot" and only moderate out exactly those comments that this particular reader finds objectionable. Don't you think that I would have done that long ago if I knew where the sweet spot was? No two moderators would delete exactly the same set of comments. Fake GevIon for example, while an effective troll and good at enraging my other readers, is actually keeping his language relatively polite, and would even under my previous strict moderation guidelines have been a borderline case of whether to delete his comments or not. I'm sure some people find him amusing.

But if you want me to end my free speech experiment, go ahead and tell me in the comment section how exactly you think I should moderate comments! Should I allow anonymous commenting, should keep anonymous commenting on but then delete comments from those who didn't type a name in the name field, or should I turn off anonymous commenting completely? Should I manually moderate comments? And if yes, should I moderate them before or after they appear on the blog? And if I moderate them after they appear, what should I do with the comments responding to the troll comments, should I delete those too? All these are extremely difficult questions, and I don't have a perfect answer for them. The only thing I'm sure of is that somebody will complain about whatever answer I choose in the end.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Soulbound games

Djinn sent me an e-mail with an interesting thought: Buying a game on Steam is the equivalent of a bind-on-pickup item in a MMORPG. Unlike a game you buy in a box with a disc, a Steam game can not be traded second-hand, it is "soulbound" to your account.

For the price-sensitive, Steam is not a good deal, especially over here in Europe. Steam fixed most games at an exchange rate of 1 Euro = 1 Dollar, so depending on the real exchange rate Europeans pay between one third and one half MORE than US players for exactly the same game and service. Also Steam games in many cases cost the same as the boxed version, so given that a game which you can't resell is obviously worth less than the same game which you can resell, Steam games are overpriced.

Fortunately for Steam I'm not very price sensitive. And I recognize the potential to save some money with Steam: By waiting. In the era where games only came in boxes from stores, finding last year's game was often difficult, so I had a tendency to buy games when they came out, and then keep them unopened in the shelf without playing them. That became significantly worse when I started playing MMORPGs, which tend to eat up a lot of time, so now I have an impressive collection of unplayed games waiting for the next WoW break. So nowadays I don't buy new games any more, unless I want to play them right now. Buying them when I feel like playing them not only saves me from buying games I never end up playing. Quite often Steam sells you last year's games at a considerable discount too. And for games you are sure you will play, you can always look out whether they appear in some weekend deal for half price.

So Steam and similar services have both good and bad sides. In the end everybody needs to judge how important it is for him to be able to sell his games second-hand. Is the added value of convenience enough to balance the effectively higher price for soulbound games? You decide!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Content distribution

I had a lot of fun in World of Warcraft this weekend, leveling up my paladin from 68 to 71. I found that the Dungeon Finder would let me do random Wrath of the Lich King normal dungeons starting from level 69, so I ended up getting my first emblem of triumph before even reaching level 70, which given the fact that you can't use them before level 80 is somewhat silly. But compared to the really, really bad loot Blizzard hands out as reward for the random Burning Crusade dungeons, the emblems are an improvement.

Anyway the reason I had so much fun was that I moved to Northrend at level 69, and found that in Wrath of the Lich King Alliance has a lot of quests that Horde doesn't have (and vice versa). Big improvement over Burning Crusade, where nearly every quest had a carbon copy on the other faction, or was a neutral quest for both sides. But landing in Howling Fjord as Alliance for the first time starts you right with a bunch of quests in an area Horde never goes to. And later, in Dragonblight, I even got a quest with a cutscene showing how Arthas found Frostmourne, a sequence that Horde doesn't get at all. So right now I'm highly motivated to visit all the Alliance-only places of Northrend and see a different side of that expansion.

Having said that, I did notice that I skipped a huge amount of content of the Burning Crusade while leveling past 70. And I realized that the same had happened at level 60. The thing is that content in World of Warcraft is not distributed evenly over the levels. Blizzard is very well aware of the fact that it takes them on average 2 years to release an expansion, while even slow players can reach the level cap in a few months. Thus a majority of players for the majority of the time of an expansion will find themselves at the level cap, and Blizzard needed to provide a lot more content at levels 60, 70, and 80 than at the other levels.

Only that once the next expansion comes out, people aren't stuck at 60, 70, or after Cataclysm 80 any more. When you reach a previous level cap, there is a huge amount of content for that level available. But unless you would lock your xp at that level for a while (and who would do that?) you're going to level past that content before you have seen even half of it. Or, due to every expansion bringing mudflation, with much better items in the new content for the same level as the previous level cap, people move to the next expansion before even having hit the level cap in the previous one.

Worst hit are raid dungeons. There simply aren't any regular level 60 or 70 raids any more, thus Molten Core at 60 or Karazhan at 70 just aren't going to happen. Also eliminated are heroic dungeons, because a normal level 70 WotLK dungeon gives better rewards than a heroic level 70 BC dungeon. Even the normal dungeons for levels near the level cap end up not all being visited, my paladin certainly missed half of the level 68-70 BC dungeons. Then of course there is all the non-dungeon level cap content, areas full of daily quests and reputation to gather, which aren't going to be used by somebody leveling past. I didn't visit Skettis or the Isle of Quel'Danas with my pally, and I doubt once the next expansion is coming out many people will do the Argent Tournament.

In short, by their slow expansion cycle Blizzard ends up producing a lot of content which isn't going to be used once the next expansion hits, not even by new players or alts leveling up. Maybe they should recycle more of the stuff, like they did with Naxxramas. Have all the old raids be available in a version in which the mobs are upgraded to the current level cap, but drop only emblems, or, even cooler, their old epics in a bind-on-account version.

Why non-consensual PvP will remain niche

In the open Sunday thread there was a question why some people, and me in specific, don't like PvP. Well, I can give you my reasons, and some general considerations. And while I don't claim to speak for everybody, it has to be remarked that all non-consensual PvP games have done extremely badly in the history of MMORPGs. Ultima Online was in free fall, and was only saved by introducing a PvP-free mirror image Trammel. Shadowbane died. Darkfall stagnates since months at just 20k players. The only remotely successful PvP game is EVE, and even there you can't count all players a PvPers, as 90% of them remain is safe space and only play PvE.

Many people, especially those who like PvP, misrepresent the reasons why others don't like PvP. If you look beyond the narrow area of MMORPGs, you will find that playing against other players is usually the preferred form for many genres, if available as an option. Be it shooters or strategy games, people love to play those against other real humans, not just some stupid AI. But the same person who loves a nice game of Counterstrike might well hate PvP in MMORPGs. Because the fundamentals of PvP are not compatible with the fundamentals of MMORPGs.

PvP is best when it is "fair", which usually means somehow symetrical. Equal number of players on each side, with equal power. From Warcraft 3 to Team Fortress 2, that is the basic formula of success for multiplayer games which pit players against players. MMORPGs on the other hand are built on the basic principle of "character development", that is your character getting stronger all the time as reward for playing. Thus fair PvP is only possible within strong limitations, for example in instanced arenas and battlegrounds. Any open world PvP is almost automatically unfair, because by definition it is the attacker who initiates PvP, and in an open world environment he only does so when he is confident that he will win.

Thus my strong dislike of non-consensual PvP. It nearly always leads to the attacker being superior in numbers or in level beating down some victim who never had a chance to start with. Where is the fun in that? The advantage of a human opponent playing better than an AI only works if that human opponent is bound by strict rules, otherwise he'll use his superior intelligence to gank you when you are defenseless. Non-consensual PvP is like sitting down for a game of chess with a human opponent and finding that your opponent brought a .45 revolver to win the game.

A free speech experiment

Klepsacovic believes that comment moderation makes blogs worse, because "Supposedly blogs are about conversation." I'm not even sure whether that starting statement is valid, my first blog entries probably had zero readers at the time, and at that time Blogger didn't even have a commenting functionality. A blog *can* be about conversation, but it also can be a monologue, a diary, a showcase, or one of many other things. A blog is never as much a conversation as lets say a forum, where other people than the blogger can start a thread.

But even if we just look at blogs for conversation, we are still left with two widely diverging theories. One is the idealistic theory of Klepsacovic, that conversation is best served if there are no restrictions to it whatsoever. Free speech absolute! The second theory is that the potential for anonymity and lack of repercussion will cause antisocial behavior, a theory best known as John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle: Completely free conversation is bad because it gets disrupted by trolls, but too strongly moderated conversation is bad because some people who would have a valid input are excluded by barriers like having to sign up somewhere for an identity, or captchas not working properly on their machine. So how can we find the truth? As a scientist, my obvious answer is to set up an experiment:

Starting from now, all comment moderation is removed from this blog, except for posts that are older than 14 days. You can now post anonymously, your comment will appear on the blog immediately, and I will not delete anything, even if it is personal attacks or gold farming spam. Note that in the spirit of fairness I will not even "moderate" my own responses, it would be kind of a one-sided fight if I let people insult me here while remaining polite myself. So don't be surprised if my comment responses are somewhat harsher than usual.

I'll let the blog run for some time like that to monitor the outcome. And then I'll ask you again for your opinion: Was the conversation better *with* or *without* comment moderation? And I'll be happy to listen to your input on what level of moderation you find ideal.

What do you think about this experiment? And what are your predictions on how it will go? Will we get a higher volume of intelligent discussion, or will the conversation quickly become unreadable?

A short comment on Allods Online

Several of the posts in the open Sunday thread were about the rather high prices in the Allods Online item shop, and all over the blogosphere people are reversing their previously good opinion about Allods for that reason. Which is something that I find extremely strange: If the game was good *without* the item shop, and now the item shop is so expensive that nobody will buy anything there, isn't that exactly the same situation as we were in before?

Basically, if Blizzard announced tomorrow that World of Warcraft goes Free2Play, and opens an item shop in which you can buy a complete set of T10 armor for $1,000, doesn't that mean that you just saved yourself a $15 monthly fee? Why would the ridiculously high price for a virtual good have any effect on you, given that you're not going to spend that much?

Patch 3.3.3 projections

Blizzard is currently working on patch 3.3.3 for World of Warcraft, and while nothing is definitive yet, there are already some patchnotes on the test realms which caused two commenters to ask about the patch in yesterday's open Sunday thread.

One change is to the kickout vote system of the random Dungeon Finder group, with the commenter here fearing he'd be kicked out of every group due to low gearscore. I don't think that is going to happen. First of all the Dungeon Finder is obviously not completely random, but actively tries to mix people with good and with bad gear. Thus kicking out somebody with bad gear only gets you an equally bad replacement. Note that the vote kick system also apparently gets another addition: You can't just click to start a vote, you'll have to give a reason like "DC since 5 minutes" or "he's afk following". So if the reason is "low gearscore", then maybe not everyone will automatically agree to kick that person out.

Another series of changes affects the economy of World of Warcraft. There will be a vendor introduced who accepts Frozen Orbs in exchange 1:1 for Eternals, or 6:1 for Crusader Orbs. As Frozen Orbs have dropped to near vendor prices in value, this will lift their value back up to around 20 gold, and lower the price of eternals to about that number too. Also being changed is that the cooldown for making Spellweave, Ebonweave, Moonshroud, and Titansteel is being removed, which should make those crafting materials much cheaper, and in consequence the crafted iLevel 245 epics will become much cheaper too. And there will be new recipes for crafted epic belts and shoes, which is interesting as these slots aren't covered by the available T9+ emblem gear.

One nice change is that seasonal bosses will now be accessible via the Dungeon Finder, which for anyone who trecked on foot to Shadowfang Keep for the recent Love is in the Air event bosses is good news. And there will be a new Battleground Finder, instead of the previous daily BG quest. Some data-mining revealed first glimpses of the pre-Cataclysm world events, including the retaking of Gnomeregan, and a doomsday cult leading to achievements like "Wear a large board emblazoned with a message about the impending end of the world." But those probably aren't in patch 3.3.3, but rather in a later patch. Likewise the new raid encounter, Ruby Sanctum, will only be in patch 3.3.5.

A commenter also remarked Blizzard was looking into creating a Dungeon Finder for raids, but I didn't see that announcement on MMO Champion, and thus have no confirmation. So in absence of that, I'd say that patch 3.3.3 firmly falls into the "yet another patch" category, which isn't likely to change much.

MMORPG currencies

In yesterday's open Sunday thread Lujanera asked:
"I would be very interested in seeing something about the various currency systems in games. In WoW, this would include badges of frost/triumph/etc, honor, arena points, and gold. Some of these are easier to exchange for other things (loot, other currencies, etc). Do the differences in the different currencies reflect the differences between the parts of the game that each serves? In other words, why not make everything gold-based?"
I think the starting point for that discussion has to be to define what exactly a currency is. A currency is something which might not have any value in itself, but gains value by being accepted as medium for exchange of goods. Thus $100 in a shopping mall are worth more than a million dollars on a deserted island. Trade and currencies are one of the great inventions of mankind, allowing people to specialize in one activity, and exchanging the value of what they produce against the value of what other people produced.

The same principle holds for many MMORPG currencies. If you want a specific item in a MMORPG, in most cases it only drops at one specific place. Add a low drop chance and Murphy's law, and you'll be running the same dungeon 20 times before you find the item you were looking for. Items that can be bought with some currency have a wider flexibility of what you can do to gain the currency. So instead of running always the same dungeon for some item, you run a wide variety of random dungeons to get the emblems to buy some item. Or you do a wide variety of PvP activities to gain the honor to buy some item. Or you farm gold, craft, buy & sell on the auction house to earn the gold to buy some item.

That neatly explains why there are different currencies: The different currencies have different rules on how to acquire them, and sometimes the game developers want to exclude certain pathways to certain items. For example they might want that only PvP results in the currency to buy PvP items with. One big issue here is that many games have introduced currencies that cannot be traded, to avoid these currencies being trades for real money. If everything in the game could be bought for the same gold currency, people could buy that gold from gold farmers and buy themselves the rewards without having done the activity that is supposed to be rewarded. Thus they'd "skip" the content of the game, and end up quitting earlier, paying less monthly fees to the game company.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

Time for your questions and suggestions again. I could swear the last week was considerably shorter than normal. :)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Is the Buzz killing Twitter?

I don't use Twitter, so I can't say how active it is right now. But Scarybooster reports the tweets of the people he follows on Twitter having halved in number. Meanwhile, in my own experience, Buzz is growing quite fast. Was the 140 character limit of Twitter a mistake?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Some short answers

Time flies, it's already Friday and I haven't answered all the questions from the open Sunday thread yet, plus I got some mails I haven't blogged about. So to clear my to do list, I'll bunch all the short stuff in this one thread:

Void from A Green Mushroom asked about unfinished games, which are the rule rather than the exception in the MMORPG business. I think the answer as to why that happens too often is in Scott "Lum" Jennings' post on MMORPG legendary failures: Scope. If you don't define very well from the start of the project what exactly you want in the project and what not, you'll never be able to "finish" it. Case in point: Blizzard is still answering questions about when they'll add the housing they promised in 2004. If they had more clearly defined their scope early on, people wouldn't expect that part to still "get finished".

Nefastos comments on tanks having the hardest job in PuGs, because not only do they have to play their own role well, they are also expected to lead the whole group, know the instance, and set the pace. So he wants extra rewards for tanks. Blizzard was considering extra rewards for group leaders for the Dungeon Finder (another announced feature that never made it into the final scope), but dropped the idea because they couldn't guarantee or measure whether whoever signed up for that extra reward was actually a good leader. Extra rewards for tanks pose the same problem: While the tank being the leader might be the general rule in pickup groups, I did play in groups where the leader giving the instructions was somebody else. Then the tank getting an extra reward for a job he didn't do is somewhat unfair.

Bernard asked about my views on the "limited attempts" system, but I kind of answered that in yesterday's post: The current raid circuit is defined by having to learn generic tasks, not by having to play your class very well. Thus the difficulty increase from one raid dungeon to the next is going up by not very much, and people can go directly from heroics to the hardest raid dungeon in the game. Limited attempts was an artificial crutch to prevent people from beating the last dungeon too fast. Didn't work, and Blizzard removed them from normal mode.

Gravitiy sent me a link to his Allods Online review, plus a link to screenshots at Keen and Graev showing players lining up in an orderly queue to stand in line to do quest objectives. Hmmm, I think I better wait before starting to play this. While queueing is obviously superior to killstealing, it still points to some fundamental flaws in population distribution.

Finally Solidfaith already some time ago sent me a link to an article in a Korean newspaper about the Korean supreme court ruling that exchanging the virtual currency of Lineage for real money is legit, because that currency is earned by skill, and not by gambling. That is in line with other courts in Asia ruling on virtual property rights. American and European courts on the other hand seem to consider virtual property to not exist, and follow the opinion of the game companies that any virtual property belongs to them, not the players, due to copyright. While that sounds somewhat less enlightened, it also means that I don't have to pay taxes on my glyph business (now sadly defunct anyway), so I'm not sure I'd actually want virtual property rights.

Allods Online thoughts

Allods Online is in "open beta", but as there will be no character wipe between "open beta" and "release", you might as well say the game already launched. The reception is somewhat mixed, which is mostly due to Allods' strong resemblance to World of Warcraft. So people who hate WoW now hate Allods, while others launch the usual complaints about "WoW clones". On the other side the people who like Allods remark that having a game like WoW for free isn't such a bad deal, especially since WoW itself is running out of fresh content.

I played Allods Online a bit in the closed beta, and now deleted the US beta client to install the EU client instead. I created some Gibberlings, but am not in a hurry to play the game, as there are still a lot of other games I'd like to play first. What I liked about Allods was that in spite of a strong resemblance, the game isn't really a clone of WoW. The character classes are quite different, and have some unique combat mechanics: For example the scout has a spell to fill his quiver with a limited number of magical arrows, and as long as there are such arrows in his quiver he'll use those in combat instead of the normal ones. Mages can "pre-cast" spells to have them ready to be cast as instants.

Once the game officially launches, I'll have to have a look at the item shop to decide whether I like it or not. That is always a critical point for Free2Play games, some are well done, others are ripping their players off and destroy the game balance with their item shops. But in any case I don't think I will play Allods very long, because the endgame is one of free-for-all PvP, which is not the kind of game I like. But creating a couple of characters and playing around a bit with them for free, why not?

The second death of Naxxramas

If you measure the success of a dungeon by how many people are visiting it, the first incarnation of Naxxramas was a failure. Introduced late in vanilla WoW with patch 1.11 it was the last dungeon to be added before the Burning Crusade expansion, the difficulty was so high, that only an estimated 1% of players ever got to see it. That was one of the reasons why Blizzard decided to recycle Naxxramas for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. When WotLK was released, Naxxramas was the only raid dungeon with more than one boss, and its difficulty level was tuned in a way that even average guilds would have a good shot at going there. So for some time the place was a huge success and rather crowded. But 15 months later Naxxramas is deserted again. In this article I will argue that the second death of Naxxramas was caused by a divergence between how raids are structured nowadays, and how the reward system is structured, in the hope that the same mistake will be avoided with the design of the Cataclysm raids.

To my personal WoW status report coldheat commented that modern raids are full of what he calls “generic tasks”. That means that the difficulty of many raid boss encounters is caused by people having to learn to move or react in specific ways, which is completely independent of their class, build, or gear. Thus to use some Naxxramas examples, the dance at Heigan the Unclean, or the polarity shift at Thaddius poses a challenge, a set of moves to be learned, which will be exactly the same for let’s say a mage, a hunter, or a priest. Putting that mage, hunter, and priest into much better gear will not help them much for such a generic task, as the penalty for not doing “the dance” correctly is designed to be so extremely harsh that you can’t ignore it even if you are extremely overgeared for the encounter.

This design around generic tasks fundamentally changes the structure of the raid circuit. In vanilla WoW, if you were geared enough for Naxxramas, doing Molten Core would have been extremely easy. In Wrath of the Lich King, being geared enough for Icecrown Citadel doesn’t make Naxxramas that much easier. I participated in two Naxxramas raids in the last weeks, one with a pickup raid group which in spite of being overgeared wiped twice at Anub’Rekhan before falling apart; the second with my guild, which just having successfully beaten ToC with the same raid compositions then managed to wipe more often on Instructor Razuvious (for the weekly raid quest) than on any of the ToC bosses. People simply forget how to do those generic tasks if they didn’t try them for several months, and suddenly Naxxramas ends up being “harder” than Trial of the Crusader. The difficulty is mostly a function of practice with generic tasks, and not so much a function of how well your raid group can deal damage, withstand damage, or heal.

In vanilla WoW the structure of the raid circuit was very different. Most encounters were testing the overall power level of the raid group. Many called that a “gear check”, but of course gear was only a part of the equation. Two characters of the same class in the same gear do not necessarily have the same performance. Instead that “gear check” structure resulted in the better players advancing faster than the less good players, because they needed to farm less gear to be able to beat the next encounter. The design wasn’t always optimal, because too many players couldn’t advance any more at all, not even after gearing up to the max in whatever content they were able to beat. But the basic structure was a healthy one, with the raid circuit progressing from 5-man dungeons to easier raids to harder raids.

Right now that idea of raid progress is in shambles. People laugh at the idea that after finishing with heroics they should do Naxxramas next, then Ulduar, then ToC, then Icecrown. I suspect that part of the problem is that Blizzard wasn’t all that sure whether their 4th attempt at designing a looking-for-group functionality would finally work, and therefore decided to sweeten the deal by giving out a too high level of emblems as reward for the Dungeon Finder random heroics. But the other part of the problem is the design around generic tasks, so that learning how to move let’s say in the encounter in ToC with Icehowl isn’t really any more difficult than learning the dance at Heigan. Knowing how to squeeze out the last bit of performance of your class matters a lot less than knowing the specific encounter.

In vanilla WoW, somebody having geared up in 5-man dungeons would have no way to bypass Molten Core. Molten Core would not only be necessary for him to gear up for Blackwing Lair, but would also teach him how to play his class optimally in a raid environment. In WotLK, somebody having geared up in 5-man heroics simply has no reason to visit Naxxramas anymore. His gear is already much better than the Naxxramas drops, and what he could learn about raiding in Naxxramas would be mostly specific generic tasks of Naxxramas, which won’t help for the next raid dungeon at all. Thus even pickup raids in trade chat never organize raids to Naxxramas and Ulduar (except for weekly raid quest), but instead go directly to ToC and ICC. But at the same time the person organizing that ToC / ICC raid will ask for you to link the achievement proving that you already mastered the generic tasks of that specific dungeon.

Thus now we have a raid structure where one raid doesn’t really lead to the next one anymore. Several commenters advised me to go directly from heroics to raiding Icecrown Citadel, the last raid dungeon. Access to raid dungeons isn’t determined any more by whether the raid group has the power, the skill, and the gear to overcome the next challenge, but simply by when Blizzard opens the door to the next dungeon. But while the raid circuit structure changed, the structure of raid rewards is still the same. Naxxramas is standing empty because of that divergence: It isn’t easier to master Naxxramas than to master ToC, but the rewards of Naxxramas are less good than what you can get in heroics, while ToC still might give you some upgrades.

So where does that lead us to for Cataclysm? The Dungeon Finder is now well established as idea and tool, and it won’t be necessary to hand out extreme rewards for doing level 85 heroics. I’d assume that we get a similar structure: 2 emblems of a higher type for the first random heroic, 2 emblems of a one lower type for further heroics, plus one of these lower type emblems per boss killed. But the lower type emblem should buy gear that has the same item level than what you can get in the first level 85 raid dungeon, so visiting that first raid dungeon should still be interesting. The tricky part will be how to design the raid dungeons to form a clear sequence again. Blizzard could go back to the old system of making the harder dungeons have more checks of character power instead of just checking mastery of specific generic tasks. Or they could modify the reward structure of the raid dungeons, so that the rewards from the first raid dungeon aren’t obsolete as soon as you visit the second one. If the gear requirements from one dungeon to the next are less steep, then the reward structure has to be less steep as well. Then Blizzard just needs to add a working looking-for-raid functionality, and maybe in Cataclysm we can avoid the situation that some raid dungeons are simply skipped.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Buzz privacy solution

If you look at my Buzz profile, you will find that there isn't much personal information in there. And I didn't have the problems some other Buzz users had that Buzz automatically linked frequent e-mail contacts as "followers", and thus made those visible to other people. Not only did I manage to turn display of followers off, there also weren't any people on the list which weren't supposed to see each other. Because long before Buzz I decided that I needed TWO GMail accounts: One for the people who know me by my real name, and one for the people who know me as Tobold.

And now that Buzz has arrived, I can only recommend that setup to everybody. If you haven't done so yet, think of a name under which you want to be known in the MMO community, and then create a GMail account specifically for that name. Then use that account to join Buzz, which is taking of rather quickly. There is a nice MMO community Buzz developing, with somewhat longer comments and more brains than Twitter. As an added bonus you can use that Google account to comment on blogs that require identification, like mine.

I am well aware that it is far from impossible to find out my real name by various ways. Nevertheless having a separate "internet personality" works out great for me. I don't want the people who are looking for my patents or scientific publications to find my game writing, nor the other way around. Anyone looking for a job probably doesn't want his future employer to know how much time he spends on video games, unless that employer is a game company. And you might want to keep your family and your game friends on separate social nets. A "" account does all that. If you already have a "" account, you can even invite yourself to GMail, and then link the two accounts together, so you receive all mails in one inbox, and can choose the sender name when sending mails out (with the default for replies obviously being the address the incoming mail was sent to).

World of Warcraft personal status report

This post is not to make any particular point. I’ll just list the current status of my World of Warcraft characters, and what my plans are for them. I like to do that from time to time, because it serves as a record, a diary of my virtual existence.

I still have three level 80 characters, a priest, a warrior, and a mage. The priest is technically my “main”, and the only character that ever raids, but I do play my “alts” a lot too. So this priest spent a lot of time in random heroics, although not necessarily with random groups. I frequently find a group in guild chat, where “we need a healer” is the reason I end up playing the priest so often, and then we just join a random heroic as a guild group, or as a partial group, picking up just one or two players. That gives us all the advantages of the Dungeon Finder system, while avoiding the worst disadvantages of pickup groups.

Unfortunately playing that way a lot results in two things that diminish motivation: You get to know every single heroic dungeon very well, and at some points you have all the emblems you ever wanted. My priest is at the point where there is not a single item which he could buy with emblems of triumph which would be an upgrade for him. And he also has all reasonably priced emblem of frost items already bought. So while theoretically I could continue collecting 2 emblems of frost every day, in practice I’d need 95 of them for a minor upgrade to one piece of armor, and I’m not very excited about that prospect.

I recently participated in a raid to Trial of the Crusader with my priest, but didn’t like it very much. As previously mentioned I am not a big fan of modern raiding, which reminds me more of playing a platformer game than of a MMORPG. Thus I’m more a “tourist” raider, trundling along with my guild when they do non-progression raids for which they are short a healer. However I follow with interest various comments from Ghostcrawler, who promised to make healing slower but more interesting again in Cataclysm. That would be exactly what I’m looking for.

The warrior and the mage are both slightly less well equipped than the priest, but still in full T9 gear, and just missing a ring here and a trinket there to reach that same “emblem complete” state. I’m still having a lot of fun with the mage, but the warrior is, as he has frequently been, my least happy character. I never really know what I should do with him. He is fun enough to play as a tank in guild groups, but in pickup groups he has constant problems with dps players who don’t know the first thing about aggro management, or who are in a terrible hurry to do things fast instead of doing things well.

Greatly contributing to the warrior unhappiness is the direct comparison with my other tank, my paladin, who is on another server, other faction, and just reached level 68. Since the Dungeon Finder came out, he spent most of his time as tank spec in dungeons, and it has been a blast. I always feel like my paladin is pointing a finger at my warrior and laughing at him, because the paladin is so much better in every aspect than the warrior is. The paladin taunt deals a ton of damage, the warrior taunt deals no damage at all. The paladin self-heal is an instant to full health, the warrior version only retrieves 30% of health as heal-over-time. And the list goes on and on. My warrior tank is always fourth on the dps meter, just above the healer, my paladin tank is quite often first or second on the dps meter. Unsurprisingly the paladin being so much better in comparison, plus the fact that the pally is still leveling, while the warrior is well into the diminishing returns rewards of the endgame, makes the paladin a whole lot more fun to play than the warrior right now.

So right now I’m concentrating on playing the paladin, and plan to level him up all the way to 80. As he is Alliance and my existing three level 80s are Horde, the paladin has the added bonus of getting Alliance quests that I never did before. Albeit I must say that up to now, in the Burning Crusade content that has been a disappointment. The Alliance quests of BC are nearly always carbon copies of the Horde quests, just with a different quest text and reward. So doing Alliance quests I often ended up visiting exactly the same locations and chasing exactly the same monsters as my Horde characters already did. I do hope there is more of a difference once I reach Northrend and the Wrath of the Lich King quests.

The original plan was that the paladin should have an equivalent on the Horde side, my Tauren druid, and that I would level both characters mainly through the 1-60 content of the old world as a last “best of” visit tour before Cataclysm totally changes those areas. But the druid somehow got stuck at level 29, and I haven’t played him for months. Yet another character suffering from comparison with the paladin, the paladin in retribution spec was far more pleasant to solo than the feral druid, and I suspect that the druid is also worse as a tank, although I haven’t really tried tanking with him much yet. That is the eternal game design problem of class balance: One completely overpowered class diminishes the interest in every other class with a similar role. Maybe once the paladin reaches level 80 I’ll get around to play the druid some more.

Still part of the plan is the phase that’ll have to wait for Cataclysm to come out: Playing level 1-60 again with one Horde and one Alliance character to explore how the world has changed. I’ll go for a goblin hunter and a worgen warlock, this being classes I haven’t played all that much. Thinking about Cataclysm also gets us full circle back to my priest: With every new expansion I have to decide which one of my level capped characters to level up to the new cap first. And unless there are some major unforeseen changes, I think I’ll play my priest as “main” again. The priest ended up profiting most from dual spec: Without even changing gear I can go from raid healing to doing over 3k dps. The warrior would need two completely different sets of gear to switch from decent tanking to decent dps, and the mage only has the choice between different flavors of dps. The paladin, even if he is level 80 by the time the expansion comes out, is disqualified from becoming my “main” by the fact that he is on the wrong server and wrong faction, and I’d rather play with my guild when the expansion is coming out.

As you can see, my plan for World of Warcraft has a rather obvious big hole: The things I want to do before Cataclysm comes out probably won’t fill out all the months until the expansion actually arrives. There is a suspicious lack of new information about Cataclysm, I find it hard to believe that Cataclysm could come out early summer and it is so silent mid-February. With SWTOR having been pushed back to spring 2011 at the earliest, Blizzard might well think that releasing Cataclysm in November for the holiday season is the better marketing strategy. They have never been the fastest at creating new content and releasing expansions. Thus I started to play more single-player games, and I might check out some other MMORPGs during summer as well.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Do gold farmers hurt the economy?

RMT is a very emotional subject, and people have a tendency to jump from one argument to another totally unrelated one. Thus whenever I mention gold farmers, somebody immediately starts shouting about hackers, which is *not* the same. While everybody knows somebody who know someone who has been hacked, few people bother to count that they also know 99 other people who *never* got hacked. Simple back-of-an-envelope calculations of the amount of gold stolen by hackers compared to the amount of gold sold every day in World of Warcraft shows that the large majority of sold gold is produced by farming and botting, not by hacking and stealing. So in this post I'm focusing on the effect of gold farming and botting on the economy of World of Warcraft (although many of my considerations will be true for other games as well).

So lets take the fabled Chinese sweatshop where a dozen young Chinese men make a living by playing World of Warcraft, because it pays better and is more pleasant work than working in the factory next door. First thing to note is that obviously they are playing on US and European servers, because that is where their customers are; thus reported problems Blizzard has with Chinese authorities do not affect the gold farming business. Second thing to note is that much of what these gold farmers are doing is done manually. If it was possible to completely automate the farming of gold in an efficient way and without Blizzard shutting you down fast, there wouldn't be a Chinese sweatshop. The desire to make easy money is not unique to poorer countries, only cheap labor is.

So what are gold farmers actually doing? The main difference between a gold farmer and a regular player is motivation. A regular player wants to make his character as powerful as possible, wants to have lots of items, both fluff and gear, and wants to have fun. Much of what a regular player does is destruction of economic value through the use of money sinks. Besides the money sinks (repair costs, buying special mounts, etc.), there is also the destruction of economic value by "item sinks", that is by equipping bind-on-equip items, which effectively removes those items from the economy. A gold farmer at the start of his career is often indistinguishable from a regular player, because he'll want to level up his character to the level cap and equip him with reasonable gear just like the regular player does. But once he reached the cap and okay gear, a gold farmer plays differently than a regular player. He isn't interested in activities like raiding or PvP, and he certainly won't spend money on a mammoth or a motorcycle. Instead the gold farmer will seek the most effective way to make gold, so he can pass that gold to his boss, who'll sell it for real money.

Now a game like World of Warcraft has lots of different ways to make gold. Gold drops from monsters you kill, or is handed out as reward for quests and daily quests. But for the gold farmer these direct gold-making ways aren't optimal: For reasons of efficiency several gold farmers share one account, playing that account 24/7. With only 25 daily quests, and a thousand or so high-level quests that give good gold rewards, this avenue of gold farming is quickly exhausted. And the amount of gold you can make per hour by doing quests and getting coin drops from monsters is actually not all that big. Various WoW blogs frequently express a certain disdain for players who try to make gold that way. Being better motivated than the average player to be efficient in making gold, we must assume that the gold farmers know all the tricks that WoW bloggers know, and more.

There is however one big difference between a gold farmer and regular player with an interest in WoW economics: Gold farmers have to make a regular living, thus they prefer steady incomes over risky deals. Activities like buying low and selling high on the auction house, or making thousands of glyphs to sell them, are profitable for the regular players, but not something you can profitably do 24 hours per day. So typical activities of gold farmers would be gathering herbs and ores, or killing monsters that drop valuable trade goods like eternals, then selling these goods on the auction house. This hypothesis is easily verified, just check your auction house for lets say Northrend herbs, and you'll often see the same seller offering several hundred of the same type of herb, the obvious result of hours of farming.

So what is the effect of this gold farming activity on the World of Warcraft economy? The most surprising result, to many people, is that this doesn't cause rampant inflation. Take any given item, like a crafted epic Merlin's Robe, or a Frostweave Bag, and you'll see that its price today is *lower* than its price a month ago. Inflation and prices in any economy, virtual or real, depend on the relative levels of money supply and the supply of goods. As the gold farmers aren't actually farming gold, but goods that they sell for gold, they do not increase the supply of money. They do however increase the supply of whatever item they are farming, which is why the various trade goods and items crafted from these trade goods are getting cheaper. A secondary effect of gold farmers is to cause a predictable price fluctuation of trade goods during the week. The gold farmer who is lets say gathering herbs will supply about the same quantity of herbs every day. Sharing his account with other gold farmers, he can't wait to sell his goods. But the regular players who buy those herbs will be more active during the weekends, simply because they play more during the weekends than during the week. With supply and demand regulating price, prices for trade goods are higher on weekends than during the week.

So are gold farmers hurting the economy? That depends on which side of the economy you are. If you are a seller, then a bunch of gold farmers playing 24/7 is something you'll find hard to compete with. But if you are a buyer, and the majority of players is, the gold farming activity actually lowers the prices of the things you buy, which is good for you. Gold farmers will adjust to prices in the economy, so if some item dropping from some kind of monsters becomes especially valuable for some reason, they will go and farm that, keeping the supply up and the prices low. Ultimately a Chinese gold farmer isn't fundamentally different from a Chinese manufacturer of cheap toasters. If you happen to be a US manufacturer of toasters, he is a threat, but for the general population he just means cheaper toasters available at Walmart.

A different way to look at it is to look at what the gold buyer is actually buying. He doesn't buy gold because he likes to have a large amount of gold unused on his account. He buys gold to buy that crafted epic, those flasks for raiding, or whatever else. Thus the economy is a full circle: The gold farmer gathers trade goods, sells those for gold, sells the gold for real money to the gold buyer, and the gold buyer spends that gold for trade goods or items made from them. For the economy as a whole it doesn't matter who is doing the gathering, whether the regular player spends hours to gather all those trade goods himself or whether he "hires" a gold farmer to do it for him ends up being the same.

Now imagine Blizzard would start selling gold they create out of nothing to eliminate third-party gold sellers. Or some bug would allow widespread duping of gold or have gold fall out of the sky. The effect of that on the economy would be much worse than gold farmers. These events would dramatically increase the money supply, leading to inflation. If enough gold fell out of the sky, the value of gold would crash to zero, and the economy would break down. People would be reduced to bartering, or using alternative currencies.

Now it is totally reasonable to be opposed to RMT and gold selling because the basic concept of it is somewhat perverse: You could gain everything in the game by playing the game, thus buying gold is equivalent of paying somebody else to play the game for you. If you would for example buy enough gold to buy all the best bind-on-equip epics in the game, you would make large parts of the game which consist of collecting bind-on-pickup gear or tokens for such gear obsolete. You would "finish" World of Warcraft faster, get bored, and quit. It's like bribing the guy at the projector in the cinema to press the fast forward button, it simply doesn't make much sense if you consider hours spend in a game as entertainment and fun, not work. But to blame gold farmers for destroying the economy isn't really justified: They've been doing this for over 5 years now, you'd think that if their activity really destroyed the economy, that economy would be gone by now. The fact that the World of Warcraft economy is humming along nicely in spite of gold farmers disproves the argument that gold farming destroys the economy. Buying gold certainly is cheating in a video game, and some gold sellers use more harmful techniques like phishing, scamming, and hacking to get gold to sell, but the basic act of gold farming isn't all that harmful to the virtual economy.

Does Blizzard support goldsellers?

Gevlon posted an article in which he argues that Blizzard secretly supports goldselling, "proof" being that they haven't eliminated the practice yet. People who disagree have their comments deleted, so Azzur asked me to post his reply on my blog. While I can hear you snickering in the back about Tobold the defender of free speech, I think you'll find that my comment section is full of people who disagree with my point of view, and I never censor them as long as they do it politely. Thus here is Azzur's letter:
Hi Tobold

I tried to respond to Gevlon's blog directly but looks like his comments moderation has silenced all of his critics. I come to you because I believe that your blog is a neutral place to post arguments. I am hoping that you can post this on your blog.

This is my response to Gevlon's post:

A short summary: Gevlon claims that Blizzard supports gold-selling because they have not done 'all they could' to stop it. This is all despite Blizzard banning accounts, having detection measures (e.g. Warden), etc. But Gevlon ignores all of these evidence and are instead claims Blizzard are lying. Several commentators (including myself), question his theory and propose that gold-selling exists because stopping it completely is impossible - for it would lead to unacceptable server performance.

The problem with so many Gevlon posts is that he frequently makes a wrong assumption (in this case, Blizzard supports gold-selling and that it is possible to stop it). Even with this wrong premise, he continues adamantly claim that he is right. The commentators who question his base assumption are all silenced (in his view, we are 'trolls')! In this case, how is there recourse for sensible argument?

In fact, in the comments section of his post is this from Gevlon himself:
"The debate is about WHY Blizzard tolerates goldselling and you are welcome to come up with answers conflicting mine.

Denying the obvious fact that they do it is either trolling or being retarded."

When some commentators question his logic, Gevlon responds with: "Server load: come on! The server can handle 2*120 players spamming spells in WG, but can't handle text chat? Are you computer illiterates or trolls?"

If you read all the comments, there are computer programmers (me included, but I was silenced!) who question him on this statement. Gevlon is wrong, for text filters will impose an unacceptable server load. Of course Gevlon is too stubborn to see this. And note his use of 'strong language' of 'computer illiterates or trolls'. Many people will be swayed simple because of this. But don't be fooled: If you know better, real-time filter of text will lead to unacceptable server performance.

Of course, rather than admit wrong, he goes on with this one about licensing from Google: "@Drew: that's why LICENSING exists. They don't have to develop tools. They can license tools, for example from google. Or from the guys who made the "free speach filter" for the Chinese.".

This is all nonsense. Firstly, it's no guarantee that Google will even licence their technology. Secondly, Google queries and performs string matching on an existing database. World of Warcraft relies on real-time input from other people. They are totally different things! The latency that will result from string matching will result in unacceptable performance.

Gevlon also comes up with ridiculous suggestions like capchas for killing 'non-quest monsters' (so that bot farming can be identified), banning low-level ppl from trade, etc. I suppose he doesn't understand that gold-sellers and bots can easily circumvent this and measures like this will harm innocents instead. He doesn't even understand the basic tenets of freedom (lucky Blizzard does!). He thinks that it's alright to have the majority constrained due to the actions of a minority. Bank alts? Low-level newbies? They're all acceptable collateral damage!

An article ( shows that Blizzard already puts restrictions on trial accounts to stop goldselling spam. Why would they do so if they tolerated gold-selling?

Gevlon is living in a fantasy land where he imagines all these bizzare conspiracy theories. His imagination is so vivid that "Blizzard tolerating gold-selling is an obvious fact" (slightly paraphrased from Gevlon). Obvious to himself only, despite having no evidence whatsoever. Perhaps he'll like to live in a land where people are guilty until proven otherwise!

I do believe that goldseller cause economic harm to Blizzard. Not because they wreck the economy, because for WoW goldselling the same is true what some people used at defense for legal RMT in EVE: Goldselling does not create additional gold for the economy, it only transfers gold from one player to another. But goldsellers cause harm because they are often unscrupulous in how they acquire the gold they sell, and their illegal activities of botting and hacking result in customer service cost for Blizzard. A single call to customer service because of some bot or hacker costs Blizzard more money than what they earn from that customer in several months. Thus I'm pretty certain that Blizzard would like to eliminate goldselling.

But when I say "Blizzard would like to eliminate goldselling" that is like saying "The WHO would like to eliminate Malaria": The goal is clear and laudable, but the way to reach it isn't all that obvious, and you wouldn't want to do it at any cost. As I stated in the past, it is actually extremely easy from a game design point of view to eliminate goldselling: You just make all items bind-on-pickup. That is easy to prove: For any WoW player it is obvious that alternative currencies like lets say Emblems of Frost are *far* more valuable than gold. But there are no "emblem of frost sellers", because the emblems and most of the items you can buy with them are bind-on-pickup. Problem solved! But of course if you do the same to gold in World of Warcraft, you just eliminated the player-to-player economy, plus some ways of players to help other players. Thus making gold bind-on-pickup would work, but it would have a serious cost. A cost that Blizzard thinks is too high.

And the same cost-benefit analysis could be done for any possible way to block goldselling: Would it work? And if yes, what would the cost be? Gevlon for example has a point in that removing the ability for goldsellers to advertise websites by forming words with level 1 corpses in cities would work, and wouldn't inconvenience other players too much. On the technical point of how much lag an anti-gold spam filter would produce, I have not enough knowledge to offer an opinion. But any filter is a cost per se; for example I sometimes talk German with German friends on an English-language server, and some completely harmless words of the German language like "weniger" (less) are blocked by the chat filter as potential racial slurs. And software to catch goldselling behavior, like sending money from one player to another, will always have a "false positive" rate, e.g. I once sent several thousand gold to the account of my wife, for her to buy an epic mount.

So I think we can't make a blanket statement whether Blizzard is too weak or lenient to eliminate goldselling. We would have to examine every single proposed way to do so, and carefully consider the possible up- and downsides, as well as how the goldsellers would circumvent it. If Gevlon were right and it was just Blizzard who was deliberately inactive against goldsellers, then how come every other major MMORPG has exactly the same problems? Do you know any MMORPG with over 100k subscribers in which you can't buy gold?

My un-Flattr-ing opinion

Reader GG asked in the open Sunday thread whether I would consider using a service like Flattr for this blog. Flattr is a new thing, now in beta, from one of the founders of Pirate Bay, which would allow readers to pay for content on the internet. It is a word play on both "to flatter", and "flatrate": Users pay a flat rate to Flattr every month. During the month they click on Flattr button on various other websites, blogs or other content, for everything they like. Then at the end of the month their monthly contribution (minus a 10% cut) is distributed evenly among all the sites they flattr-ed. So if they paid a $2 monthly fee and clicked on Flattr buttons for 9 pieces of content they liked, each of the content creators would receive 20 cents.

I do not think this will work. From the side of the content creators, this is basically the equivalent of them going round with a tin can to collect alms. And for the content consumers it gives them the choice of either consuming content for free, or signing up to pay in advance for content they haven't even seen yet. I would say it is rather predictable which of the two options they would choose. I'd have more luck with a Paypal donation button, and even that one wouldn't pay for more than a cup of coffee. Basic market economy: A price of something is determined by supply and demand, and if there are enough people offering written content on the internet for free, the price you can ask for that approaches zero.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Too much anonymity?

In what is probably the most famous quote from Penny Arcade, the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory" from John Gabriel states that a normal person turns into a "total fuckwad" if given anonymity and an audience. Epiny from Sprites are Fun wonders whether the World of Warcraft Dungeon Finder isn't providing exactly that: Anonymity and a captive audience of 4 other players in your group.

Now I love small group content more than anything else in MMORPGs, and the Dungeon Finder enabled me in the last months to play a lot more of that than before, which is great. But I do have to admit that not every group was pleasant. Curiously I get very little negativity when I play a dps class or build, even if I'm completely undergeared and on the bottom of the damage meter table nobody ever complains. The healer has few problems, because he is the best geared of my characters, and healing in heroics isn't really hard unless it's Halls of Reflection. But my tank gets comments from fuckwads more frequently. Basically whenever I do anything which is in the big book of "good tanking", somebody complains. Wait for the healer to have mana? Somebody shouts "gogogo". Used line-of-sight to pull a single mob or small group instead of the whole room? Some fuckwad complains that I should "go fasta, pull moar". So next time I pull a bigger group, some overgeared dps launches a huge AoE before my charge even connects with the first mob, and the group complains that I can't keep the aggro of all the mobs all the time. What happened to "wait for 3 sunder with dps?". Today my best group with my tank was one in which all 3 dps were undergeared and doing under 2k of damage per second. Run went perfectly smoothly. But due to the way aggro works, and because some people have zero patience and want to be on top of the damage meter, tanking gets harder the more damage the three dps deal. Maybe I should go dps with my warrior. :)

But people have been complaining about pickup groups long before the Dungeon Finder was invented. Do you know everybody on your server? Extremely unlikely. So whether you are grouped with an anonymous stranger from your own server or with somebody cross-server makes very little difference to the degree of anonymity. In either case the other players think they won't see you again, so have no inhibition to be total jerks. I think the major difference is that now we are running so many more dungeons. So even if the chance to meet a specimen fitting John Gabriel's description is still the same, we are almost certain to meet somebody unpleasant if we run ten dungeons in a row.

So while I don't think the anonymity of the cross-server Dungeon Finder is to blame, I do think that speed runs are making everybody less nice. The pickup group jerk I hate the most is the "gogogo" guy. It is due to him that pickup groups still manage sometime to wipe in "easy" heroics, just because they were playing sloppily. And you can bet that sloppy gogogo guy is then the first to leave the group without a word.

Open Sunday Thread

On specific request by a commenter, here is an open Sunday thread for you to ask questions or suggest topics. But remember, you can also do that by e-mail!


I'm on Buzz, and you can find my profile here. That doesn't help you much if you haven't got a Google account, but if you have, you can use Buzz as a kind of Twitter replacement with slightly more features. The downside is that Buzz isn't great on privacy, and unless you find a bunch of hidden settings other people might be able to see who you are exchanging e-mails with. Not a secret in my case, but I do understand how that annoys some people.

For me Buzz is mainly one more amusing step of Google on the way towards becoming the next "evil empire" in the public opinion, like Microsoft. Besides privacy concerns other people are complaining how Google uses "bundling" with GMail to promote Buzz, an unfair competitive practice against Twitter. Now where did I hear that one before?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Would you play WoW on a hard server?

I picked up the original Bioshock for cheap one day on Steam, and just started playing it this weekend. Being a slow, old codger, and not used to playing shooters, I can still play that game perfectly well by choosing the easy difficulty setting. Meanwhile younger, and faster shooter veterans play the game on medium or hard. Why does everybody assume that this wouldn't work for MMORPGs?

With so many people complaining that "WoW is too easy", there should be a market for having a few "hard" servers, where all mobs have twice the health, and hit harder, while the players have exactly the same stats as normally. On a Bioshock forum the veterans discussing the game are "of course" playing it on hard. Why does everybody assume that for a MMORPG everybody would play on easy, while continuing to complain about lack of challenge? Maybe it is just a historical fluke, that the first MMORPGs didn't have difficulty levels, and now everybody assumes they wouldn't work, just because nobody ever tried them.

What about you? Would you play World of Warcraft on a hard server? If not, why? And what do think is the difference to a single-player game, where difficulty levels work perfectly well?


A reader sent me this handy link that the folks from offer for bloggers to be able to comply with FTC guidelines on endorsement from bloggers. There are several different "labels" available to mark exactly what your material connection to the product discussed it, ranging from the above "No Connection, Unpaid, My Own Opinions", to to disclose an "Affiliate marketing link".

Unfortunately the labels don't come as pictures (yet), so you can't easily make a graphic label link. But it can't hurt to put a text link like this to the appropriate disclosure label into a review on a blog.

[EDIT: Some comply labels as funny pictures can be found here.]

Friday, February 12, 2010

Degrees of annoyance

One thing I learned this week is how difficult it is to express degrees of annoyance through blogging. What annoyed me most this week was not being able to play WoW for several evenings due to unplayable lag (fortunately fixed now). But my rant about that came over as far too tame. The other story was just a minor annoyance of mine, but apparently came over far too strong. Well at least I got a brilliant parody from Tipa and Syp out of it.

Sometimes you just have to leech

I was scratching my head at a comment from Syp over at Bio Break, who hit level 80 in World of Warcraft a couple weeks ago, and felt stuck there because "I couldn’t run heroics because my gear was too poor, but I couldn’t get better gear unless I somehow cracked the heroics barrier." I swear there is no heroics barrier in World of Warcraft. A situation in which you are level 80 but "not geared enough" to run heroics simply doesn't exist any more, due to the Dungeon Finder.

The Dungeon Finder will, if he can, mix people with vastly different gear levels. In terms of Gearscore I've seen anything from as low as 2k to as high as 6k in heroics. And as this is automatic, people can't even vote kick somebody out for having bad gear, because the automatically invited replacement will have equally bad gear. Thus most players realize that having a guy in green gear doing 1k dps in the group is still better than running the thing undermanned. And as some other player is doing 4k dps, the overall damage is largely sufficient to succeed the heroic anyway.

Thus World of Warcraft right now is a paradise for undergeared fresh level 80 characters. They not only get the same emblems as everybody else, but will also be the only ones in the group rolling need for the iLevel 200 blue and epic gear. If you play a tank, you just sign up as dps until you got enough gear to actually do some tanking. If you are a healer, well, healing an overgeared tank is rather easy, and can be done perfectly well with green gear.

Of course it isn't very pleasant to always come last on the damage meter, and feeling like a leech. But look at Syp, who overcame his imaginary "heroics barrier" by being carried by his guild through a raid and getting some epics there. Isn't that leeching as well? Then I'd rather leech from a bunch of strangers, who anyway are so used to somebody undergeared in their group that they don't even complain about it any more.

I don't think there is anything dishonorable about signing up for heroics when you are freshly arrived at level 80. That is after all the place you are *supposed* to go to gear up for raids. And it isn't your fault that there are a lot of completely overgeared people running the same heroics, and that the Dungeon Finder tends to group you with them. If anyone would complain to me for being "undergeared for heroics", I'd reply: You are right, one of us is wearing the completely wrong gear for heroics, only it isn't me.

Last night I was running an undergeared alt through heroics and by some random twist of fate got grouped with other badly geared people, some of them obviously even inexperienced with heroics. We weren't doing all that well, and wiped a few times, sometimes due to stupid mistakes. But nobody left, everybody was extremely nice and polite, apologized for mistakes, got told that no worry, it's just a game, and finally we beat the dungeon. That was the most fun run of the evening, the others were the usual speed runs with conversation limited to "gogogo". I'd say the undergeared players are suffering from the presence of overgeared players in heroics at least as much as the overgeared players are suffering from the "leeches".

The really, really casual players

News of the day is from a Activision Blizzard investor conference, where it was revealed that only 30% of players in World of Warcraft make it beyond level 10. Or, in other words, 70% of players don't get past the free trial. Elder Game points out that losing only 70% of players in the free trial for a 5-year old game is actually amazing, because in most games with downloadable trials those 70% of players don't even get to level 2. Nevertheless, and I guess that was why the number was mentioned in the investors conference, this means that there is some untapped potential for World of Warcraft to attract even more players.

Subscription numbers can be highly deceptive. Look at the following bit of news from the same source: "Current subscription numbers for World of Warcraft are holding steady at 11.5 million." What does that suggest to you? You probably think of stagnation, this being the same number than half a year ago. But actually that number is higly dynamic. The only thing it tells us is that the number of new players starting World of Warcraft is exactly as high as the number of old players leaving WoW. We also know from WoW regularly popping up every week in top 10 PC games sales charts that the number of new players is quite high. More players *started* playing WoW in 2009 than most other MMORPGs have overall subscribers. We just don't know how many exactly.

Now presumably Blizzard wants even more World of Warcraft subscribers. So what could they do? They could either stop the outflow, or increase the inflow. The traditional method is to try to stop the outflow, by adding an expansion with content at the high end of the game, keeping existing players busy. But, as remarks about Cataclysm and the investors conference news above reveal, Blizzard will deviate from that model in the next expansion. They will try to go for BOTH less outflow and more inflow, by not adding content at the top, but also redesigning the new player experience. After all, if you start a level 1 human character in WoW today, your experience of the first 10 levels is still fundamentally the same as it was 5 years ago. All the expansions and patches and changes of the game had only minimal effect on the game below level 10 up to now. But the "cataclysm" could change all those newbie zones. And the streamlining of the stats system could help as well. It is totally possible that Blizzard completely reworks the new player tutorial at the same time.

The potential of making changes to the new player experience, as compared to the current discussion of whether maybe the top guilds killed Arthas too fast and Icecrown is too easy, is staggering. You're not going to gain another million subscribers by fiddling with the difficulty level of Icecrown. But you could well get that million if you manage to capture the 70% of players who never make it past level 10.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Thought for the day: Internet drama

My readers overwhelmingly are in favor of ignoring internet drama, which is what I will do. Nevertheless I can't help but notice how the internet drama thread got more attention in the form of links and comments than three game-related threads posted on the same day together. Are you sure you actually want to read about games on this blog? :)

A question of internet etiquette

Ignoring people on the internet is harder than you would think. I stopped reading syncaine's blog a while ago, but unfortunately he hasn't stopped reading mine. So every time I make some blog post about some PvP game, like "I don't like legal RMT in EVE", syncaine goes and makes a blog post with my name in the title, full of personal attacks and lies about me and my blog. And because people on the internet just love blog wars, his posts then get linked to and commented on elsewhere. So I'm just surfing the blogosphere and I stumble upon posts by somebody quoting syncaine having said that I am getting paid by Blizzard to promote World of Warcraft, or similar lies and ad hominem attacks. I even get mails from other people telling me "hey, did you see what syncaine is saying about you now?". How does one ignore that?

So I'm really at a loss about what I could do, what I should do, to stop somebody from slandering me all over the internet. Never write another post about anything remotely connected to PvP any more? Defend myself and correct all the lies he is telling about me? Write attack posts against syncaine on this blog full of reciprocal slander? Take a lawyer and sue him? Remove all blogs that ever link to syncaine from my reader? Stop blogging? Report him to the IRS for not declaring his income from Darkfall? I don't think any of these solutions are feasible. I'm afraid syncaine will just continue writing anti-Tobold and anti-WoW rants. Such posts drive traffic, and direct traffic is important if you finance yourself with an affiliate program.

So what do you think is the correct internet etiquette to deal with repeated personal attacks and slander? What would you do if some blogger repeatedly dragged your name through the mud for no reason other than you liking a different style of games than him? I could really use some help here.

Lenient or just resigned?

Syp asks the interesting question of why new games are judged more harshly for technical issues than old games. Specifically he is completely right that World of Warcraft is in a terrible technical state this week. Blizzard added a Valentine event, as part of which people get extra "Lovely Charm" items automatically spawned in their inventory with a certain chance every time they kill a mob that is at least green to them. You then turn ten charms into a bracelet, which you can hand in to the 4 faction chiefs of your side every day to get "Love Tokens", with which you can buy various fluff needed for various achievements. Apparently having to check at every kill whether you get a Lovely Charm as additional loot is putting some serious strain on the system. This makes all sorts of other activities, like regular looting, opening your mail, even loging in, incredibly slow. The more other people are online killing mobs, the slower it gets, so at prime time World of Warcraft is nearly unplayable right now on some servers, especially the older ones. Apparently other servers have better hardware which deal better with the added loot traffic load.

So why not more angry rant posts about this technical issue, foam coming out of our mouths complaining, and all that? And why would we complain so much louder if exactly the same happens to a new game? I think part of the answer is simply resignation. Playing a game for a long time creates a barrier to exit, you are more reluctant to abandon a character you built up with a lot of effort than to abandon a new game. Thus we are resigned to the fact that in any case we aren't likely to rage-quit WoW because of temporary lag. It's not as if we hadn't been there before. We *know* what is going to happen, Blizzard will pretend for a while that nothing is wrong, never publicly admit any fault, and will fix the problem in a week or two. Worst case scenario is the issue going away without intervention when the Valentine event ends. At which point we will all be back happily playing, having completely forgotten about the technical issue. A new game is disadvantaged by not having such track record. Players are more worried because they don't know how fast such problems are getting fixed in the new game, nor how frequent those problems are.

Don't mistake this as an excuse. Of course World of Warcraft being hardly playable during prime time for several days on many servers is not acceptable. Given the huge profits World of Warcraft makes, players also definitively have a point when demanding from Blizzard to upgrade the older servers that show those problems more often. But I'm pretty certain that Blizzard has a far more pragmatic view of what the definition of "acceptable" is: If hundreds of thousands of players would quit World of Warcraft citing "lag" as reason for leaving in their exit interviews, the problem would get fixed a lot faster. But with the players being resigned to sit that one out, Blizzard is taking their sweet time fixing the problem.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blessing of Kings: Was BWL boring?

Rohan from Blessing of Kings has a very interesting question on his blog, which relates to my previous post: Was Blackwing Lair boring? He was watching a raid video of Blackwing Lair and noticed that it seems a lot less dynamic, with people moving a lot less than in current raids. Thus as a "spectator sport", old school raiding certainly was more boring than modern raiding.

But I was in Blackwing Lair, even got up to the end boss Nefarian, and it wasn't boring at all. And the difference lies in what I described in my previous post as the difference between learning to play your class, and learning to react to specific encounter events. If you read old strategy discussion on Blackwing Lair you will encounter concepts that are foreign to modern raiding: mana efficiency, downranking spells, healing rotations. The very idea that you would have to set up a healing rotation, in which one healer is healing, while the other is standing still to regenerate mana during the fight, is completely unknown to somebody who only knows today's raids.

This is actually one reason why I don't raid regularly any more. I'm in the somewhat curious situation that I find raiding both "too easy" AND "too stressful". Overall it is certainly challenging, but the challenge often lies not in playing your class well, but in reacting quickly to various events. There are no choices to make, no decisions to take. You get a message (which you can make more obvious with addons like Deadly Boss Mods) that event X is happening, and you need to press button Y inside of Z seconds to counter that effect. "Boss casts buff on himself. Dispel!". "Boss casts fire spot on you. Move away!". "Boss makes everybody deal damage to his neighbors. Stand at a distance to everyone!"

In Blackwing Lair I wasn't running around so much. There were a lot less scripted events for which I knew that when they happened I had to push a specific button fast enough. In Blackwing Lair I was actually still busy playing my healer. I had to watch health bars and make a decision of whether to cast a fast heal which wasted a lot of mana, or a more mana efficient slow heal. If I would make the wrong decision, either somebody died because I casted too slow heals, or we wiped because the healers had cast too many fast heals and ran out of mana before the boss was down. Or as my favorite Sid Meier quote says: "A game is a series of interesting decisions.": Having to decide what spell to cast and that decision making a difference is interesting and thus fun. Having to move out of the fire is *not* an interesting decision, only your reflexes are tested. I find "we wiped because I moved half a second late" frustrating (especially if that half second was caused by lag). I find "we wiped because I made the wrong decision which spell to cast" much more motivating to go back and try again. Only decision making is a process which is hard to capture on video, while moving out of the fire is more visibly dynamic.

How many hours to competence?

I can already see the snarky remarks from some elitists saying that most players never reach competence level, but I'd be interested in hearing your estimates of how many hours a new player has to spend before being basically competent with his class. The reason I'm asking is that in yesterday's discussion about people buying their way to the top the old myth popped up again, of the player who spent a fortune on buying a character and then didn't know how to use him. I do think this is a caricature, and conveniently forgets to mention some important facts.

If I look at any given character at the very top of any given MMORPG, and consider how he did spend his time in game, I would say there are three distinctive types of time spent: 1) Time actually learning to play your character. 2) Time spent learning a specific environment, like a raid boss encounter. 3) Time spent not learning anything. And I have a strong suspicion that the third category takes up the majority of our time.

Face it, playing a MMORPG is not rocket science. You don't need thousands of hours of training before being able to play a character, or being able to control a ship in a virtual world. Even a commercial airline pilot only needs 1,200 flight hours to be allowed to steer an airplane full of people, it is silly to assume that doing anything in a MMORPG could be more complicated than that. MMORPGs sometimes have issues on how to get your training, like for example the fact that you can't train healing and tanking roles if you aren't in a group. But in general I would say that you can learn to do anything to reasonable competence level in a MMORPG given a few hundred hours of training, and the motivation to do so. Some people are missing that motivation, and aren't even trying, but that isn't a problem of the activity itself being too complex to understand.

As learning is presumably fun, MMORPGs can get around the problem of people getting bored after having fully understood their class by creating specific situations, like raid boss encounters, which require players to learn specific moves to beat that encounter. Thus "raiding is hard", not necessarily because a player can't play his class, but because he has to learn playing his class while hopping on his left leg, jumping between platforms, or out of a fire every two seconds.

But more importantly players are being motivated by rewards, so to get to the next level, or the next shiny piece of gear, they are willing to kill the same monster a hundred times or more, even if that obviously isn't a learning experience at all any more, a.k.a. the grind. Games that don't have quests or xp forcing you to kill all those monsters have other repetitive grind elements for rewards. Because we want our MMORPGs to keep us busy for thousands of hours, but no game is *that* complicated that all of these hours could be spent learning.

So, for whatever game you are currently playing, and not counting time spent grinding while "leveling up", how many hours did it take you to become competent in playing whatever you are?