Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Play WoW on Facebook

You certainly already heard about the World of Warcraft Facebook Application (official Blizzard FAQ on that here). But it turns out that this was only the beginning of the WoW Facebook integration. Today it was announced that the upcoming WoW auction house for the iPhone app will also be ported to Facebook. And MMO Champion posted a rumor, and they only post those when they have a really reliable leak, that during the Blizzcon on October 22nd a 2D World of Warcraft client for Facebook will be presented. You will be able to play WoW directly in Facebook on an isometric view Flash client!

Of course functionality will be limited to simple questing, no PvP, no dungeons, no raids, you won't even be able to form a group, only solo. And there will be no addons possible, which will come as a shock to some people overly relying on those. Nevertheless this will allow some leveling during your lunch break at work, if your companies firewall isn't blocking Facebook. That is already quite a feat, no wonder it'll still take them a while to actually implement it.

I think a World of Warcraft integration with Facebook is a great idea. The social network features of WoW are definitively lacking, with you being limited to just one guild, and not able to communicate with friends on other servers. Meanwhile Facebook really needs some more engaging games, and street cred with the gamer crowd. Having WoW on Facebook will prove to everyone that Facebook can do a lot more for gaming than just Farmville.

How well does Blizzard defend its intellectual property?

Arkenor from Ark's Ark has an interesting post up on the new browser game World of LordCraft, which "borrows" artwork and design from Blizzard's World of Warcraft for a browser strategy game pitting Alliance vs. Horde. Or as they say themselves: "World of Lordcraft should be regarded as a fan game of WoW".

Arkenor thinks that the makers of World of Lordcraft are the same people who made Evony. And the makers of Evony are known for sueing bloggers. But I would guess that Activision Blizzard has a far bigger team of lawyers, and they might have objections against "fan games" making money based on Blizzard's intellectual property.

Thus we will see how well Blizzard is defending their intellectual property. Maybe they just don't care as long as the "fan game" is not a MMORPG, maybe they'll come down like a ton of bricks on them. Might be interesting to watch.

[EDIT: Today's news is that Evony dropped its libel case against blogger Bruce Everiss. Grats, Bruce!]

Games for the occasion

You might be wondering why I'm posting more about Facebook games lately. No, I didn't give up on MMORPGs and more complicated single-player games. It's just that I'm on holiday until Easter, visiting family. As family visits tend to go, I have very little time for myself, and spend a lot of time with others. Thus something like a 5-hour raid would be totally unthinkable, and even half an hour uninterrupted for an heroic is hard to find. I am completely aware of the various negative aspects of Facebook games, but the one advantage they have is that you can do things in them if you have just 10 minutes here and there.

For the exact same reason my blog posts have been shorter lately, simple lack of time. Isn't it strange that you end up having more time on work day than during holidays?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures

I haven't exactly given up on My Tribe yet, but after finally sailing to a new island and finding that playing there is exactly like on the first one, I am quickly growing bored with that game. So, following a recommendation from Spinks along the lines of "only Facebook game I don't totally hate" :), I started playing Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures (D&D:TA).

First big plus: D&D:TA is really, really free to play, as in even if you wanted there is no way whatsoever to give them any money or get anything in the game except by playing. There is also no need to spam your friends with invites and "here is a gift, send me one back" messages. All your friends that also play D&D:TA are automatically visible in your friends list. And you can buff them while they are adventuring, or heal them while they are resting, but that is only shown in game, with no extra messages being sent around. The game is "financed" by banner ads for Dungeons & Dragons products. So, by Facebook standards, D&D:TA is extremely unobstrusive.

The second big plus is that the game is relatively close to Dungeons & Dragons in gameplay. You create a character, go adventuring, beat encounters with various ability checks, find loot, gear up, gain xp, level up, and all that in a standard fantasy world with some rather good writing and a bit of humor.

The one thing that will keep most people away from Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures is the time-scale it plays on. Something happens only about every 10 minutes, so a typical adventure with 12 encounters takes 2 hours. That is perfect for logging on here and there, drinking a potion to help inside the adventure, buffing some friends, or going for the next adventure if the previous one is finished. But it isn't exactly action packed. During adventures there is next to nothing to do, except possibly drink a potion, and you can automate that. Between adventures you can buy and sell gear, equip it, and choose the potions to bring for the next adventure. Note that selecting potions isn't just random, there are hints in the FAQ which environment more often does which ability check, and the type of enviroment can always be guessed from the adventure description. And you can also swap around gear to meet the challenges of specific environments. But all in all that still doesn't leave a whole lot of things to do.

Nevertheless Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures is fun. I'm at level 10 with my first character, and once I hit level 11 I'll have to start over with a "generation 2" character, who can inherit one of my items. Further generations open up more character classes and give gameplay bonuses, so there is better long-term motivation than My Tribe has. D&D:TA is certainly not a game you can spend long hours on, but for a quick gaming fix here and there it is very nice. Recommended.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Cooldown-based crafting

Imagine a MMORPG in which the best-in-slot items are crafted from cheap, vendor-sold materials, by just a click of a mouse, without requiring hard-to-get recipes. It is easy to see that such a system would quickly ruin a MMORPG economy, and the other gameplay as well, as there would be less motivation to go adventuring if crafting was so easy. Crafting needs to have *some* limiting factor to prevent players from getting too good crafted items too easily. But you can think of different crafting systems each using a different limiting factor.

The system of World of Warcraft uses mostly resources, and to a limited extent access to recipes as limiting factors for crafting. As resources are needed not only for making the items you actually want, but also the items you just craft to skill up, this has led to an economy where the low- and mid-level resources are worth *more* than the items you can craft with them. Crafting is extremely unattractive for new players, they are better off just taking gathering professions and selling overpriced resources on the auction house. On the other end of the spectrum are twinks from characters with thousands of gold, which just buy tons of resources and level up a profession from zero to mastery in an hour. The act of crafting isn't valued at all, many players are outright angry when they bring the mats and the crafter demands a fee. As resources are tradeable, the whole WoW crafting system with resources as limiting factor doesn't scale very well.

At the level cap of WoW, people don't buy resources any more to skill up, so crafted items are worth at least as much as their resources. But if you look at the whole value chain, you quickly notice that the biggest crafting profits are done at the steps which have a cooldown. An alchemist for example can make 100 gold in 5 seconds every day, by transmuting rare gems into epic gems. Patch 3.3.3 removed the cooldowns for cloth and titansteel, and prices for those items dropped sharply. Items with cooldown are valuable because you can't make unlimited quantities of them, remove the cooldown and supply rises to meet demand, crushing profit on the way.

Thus I was thinking that a crafting system limited not by resources but through cooldowns would work a lot better than the World of Warcraft system. Instead of having 450 skill levels there could be just as many as there are levels, 80 now, capped at the character level, and every item would at least take 24 hours to craft. So new player or twink would both take at least 80 days to master a profession. Blue items and purple items could take longer to craft, lets say 2 days for a blue and a full week for an epic. There would be less items crafted just to skill up, and more that are actually useful. Crafting a really good item would have value beyond the cost of the resources. And as crafting was limited by those cooldowns, there could be more items along the level curve where crafting them would be a good alternative to hoping for a drop from a dungeon.

Basically cooldown-based crafting is fairer than resource-based crafting, because you can't just buy your way to the top. Players have vastly different amounts of gold and resources, but every player has exactly the same amount of time per day. By limiting the output, crafting could produce better items, making crafting more interesting, without killing the economy.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

In lieue of a forum, I have the open Sunday thread for readers to propose blog subjects, ask questions, or just discuss among each other.

Expert opinion on how to improve World of Warcraft

I spent 1 hour today in two sessions with my 4-year old nephew on my knees using World of Warcraft as a dragon flight simulator. According to my nephew that is "cool", but he was disappointed that the dragons you can fly in the game don't breathe fire. Would you please fix that, Blizzard?

Blog of War on RPG definition

The term "role-playing" suffers from meaning very different things to different people. On the one side very simple hack'n'slash games like Torchlight (only €4 on Steam this weekend) are generally called role-playing games, on the other side some people insist that only by speaking fake Elizabethean English in character can you really roleplay. That there is a clash of definitions can be seen in the fact that MMORPGs have RP servers, which implies that on the other servers no role-playing happens although we are in a role-playing game.

That old discussion flared up again this year when Mass Effect 2 came out, and did away with some staples of RPGs, for example the inventory. So people discussed whether ME2 was still a RPG or not. Reader Phantasmagoria sent me an interesting link to Blog of War, where GarethF reduces the definition to: "‘RPG’ is a communication shorthand term for a game which shares common features with the other games classified as ‘RPGs’.", but then presents his case very sensibly. Worth reading.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Some short answers

Being on holiday I didn't get around to answering all the questions and requests from the open Sunday thread, shame on me. So to make up for that, I'll answer them here in a shorter version:

Void rants that marketing video games with screenshots and trailers is insufficient, what we need is more info about gameplay, and preferably free trials and demos. I fully agree. But then of course the marketing hype often starts before the gameplay is fully finished, so I can understand the screenshots and trailers marketing in the early phase.

Chris wonders whether Cataclysm will last long enough. I do not consider that the previous two expansions lasted long enough, that is they didn't keep me playing WoW for the full 2 years until the next expansion, I took breaks. Thus assuming that Cataclysm will have the same problem is a safe bet. While the fact that Cataclsym only adds 5 new levels might offer the kind of player who only plays one main a shorter experience, the added races and revamp of old Azeroth will provide a longer experience for more casual players. Thus overall I don't consider Cataclysm to be any shorter than previous expansions. And who knows what will be added by patches before the 4th expansion.

Sid67 asks whether we will see full-fledged games on Facebook. I think there are technical hurdles preventing that. And ultimately we don't need the games to run *on* Facebook. Facebook offers a service called Facebook Connect with which you can link your full-fledged game to Facebook. For example the Settlers 7 I just started playing offered me to post my achievements on Facebook.

Pickly asked about the release date for Guild Wars 2, but I'm afraid I haven't got a clue when that will be, nor when we will get more information.

Azzur hopes that "next-gen MMORPG will be "Eve-like", and especially in scale (where it is one large virtual world". I'm not a tech expert, but it was my understanding that the main problem of making huge scale virtual worlds is what happens when many people gather at the same location. I don't know of any game, not even EVE, that doesn't have *some* lag problems reported when hundreds of players turn up at the same spot. I think however that the borders between servers will get more porous, with some games already having chat possible between servers, and there being cross-server battlegrounds and dungeons.

Klelith asks about the MMO itch, and whether I ever *not* play any MMO. Yes, that happens. I do have in-between-games periods, or nowadays more often in-between-WoW-expansions, where I play single-player games, or experiment with stuff like Facebook games.

Dell Studio XPS 1340

I bought my last laptop nearly 4 years ago, a Dell XPS M1210. That worked out quite okay to play World of Warcraft while traveling, but more graphically demanding games were out. But as laptop technology has advanced a lot in the last 4 years, and they got a lot cheaper too, I decided to have a look for a replacement. This time I didn't want to mail order a laptop, but just go into a shop and have a look.

I made myself a list of requirements: Mid-size around 12" to keep the weight down, decent graphics card, DVD drive to use it as DVD player while traveling, at least 4 GB memory, cost up to 1,000 €. Went into the shop, listed what I wanted, and the shop assistant said he had the perfect machine for me: A Dell Studio XPS 1340. 13" screen, two graphics cards (Nvidia Geforce 9400M G for playing, a G210M for working at lower energy consumption), DVD RW drive, 4 GB memory, cost 999 €. With all my requirements fulfilled, I spontaneously bought it.

At home I let the same 3DMark05 run on the new machine with which I tested the previous laptop. Result was that the graphics performance went up by a factor of 4, from 2096 to 8402. Good enough for the types of games I'm playing, I don't really need the kind of graphics performance that shooters need.

Reading reviews *after* buying the laptop (yeah, I know), I have to agree with this review saying that the Dell Studio XPS 1340 does get hot on the underside, and isn't super lightweight. But on the other hand I rarely ever use the laptop on my lap, and it still is lighter than the previous one. As some people reported their 1340 overheating, I ran a Furmark benchmark, where the processor temperature stabilized at a totally normal 70°C.

So up to now I'm quite happy with my new laptop. Next step: I bought The Settlers 7 on the same day, so I'll be able to test game performance with a just released game. World of Warcraft, of course, was running fine.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wonder and cynicism

Seems to be the day for thought experiments, as Syp kidnaps his younger self with a time machine and remarks "We complain way, way too much in comparison to the great amount of entertainment that’s put at our fingertips for obscenely low (or no) prices.". But while I agree that a teenager from the past would stare at wonder at the great amount of cheap entertainment on offer, the older and more cynical me, with a mind tuned to economics, thinks that this can't last.

In economic speak, "great amount of X for obscenely low or no prices" is typical for a classic boom, to be followed by a bust. There is simply too much supply for the business to be profitable. Add to that the current economic crisis, where people are bound to diminish discretionary spending, and there will be a lot more game companies laying off people or even closing down. The amount of new games released will diminish, and prices will go up, until game companies are profitable again. For any company to keep going, the total revenue must be higher than the total cost. There might be reserves somewhere to operate at a loss for some time, but that isn't something which can go on.

There is a market for video games, and presumably there will be a market for them for the foreseeable future. So video games won't disappear. But in the end the players somehow must pay for whatever it cost to produce those games.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A thought experiment for SWTOR

Dwism and Gordon asked my opinion in the open Sunday thread on how Star Wars: The Old Republic would be doing, as EA just announced they needed over 1 million players to break even, and were hoping for 2 million. I was going to write something eminently thoughtful and combine that with some back of the envelope calculations, but Scott "Lum" Jennings beat me to that. So instead I'll combine my thoughts on SWTOR with some other thoughts I had about WoW and Farmville into one big thought experiment:

In a parallel universe without World of Warcraft, how would all those other MMORPGs that came out in the last years have done?

I have a theory that in this parallel universe all the other MMORPGs would have done exactly as well as in this universe. There is no such thing a predefined market of a predefined size, of which every game gets a certain percentage, so if one game would drop out every other game would get more subscribers. No, every game creates its own market. The 11 million World of Warcraft players would not just have played WAR, or AoC, or Star Trek Online. Even if Blizzard would close down WoW tomorrow, these other games wouldn't see an influx of millions of players. Every game just gets the number of subscribers which is the number of people who really like that game, and that is independant of the number and size of all the other games.

One area where this is obvioulsy true is the much decried Farmville with its 80 million players. These Farmville players are NOT missing somewhere else, how could they? We would have noticed a drop of 80 million MMORPG players, if there are even that many. Thus the whole angst and anger thing which MMORPG players express against Farmville isn't really justified. Facebook games have not the same playerbase, nor the same pool of developers, and how well Farmville does has no influence whatsoever on the subscription numbers of your favorite MMORPG.

Now if you take that theory of independant subscription numbers and think of this parallel world without WoW, where no game has even 1 million subscribers in the western world, how would you react to the announcement that SWTOR needs over 1 million subscribers just to break even? You'd call EA batshit crazy. One just doesn't go and bet $150 million on a game being a spectacular success in this fickle market. Not if all previous attempts of EA to make a MMORPG failed to get even half a million players.

I will surely try to get into the beta, and if that isn't possible buy and play Star Wars: The Old Republic, on the chance that it will really become the next big thing and will actually be fun. But I'm not holding my breath here. What I've seen up to now doesn't look too promising. Polished, yes, and polish is good. But I'm doubtful about how fun the whole cut-scene based story-telling "pillar" is. Given that nobody reads quest texts, I'm not sure people want to watch long explanations before being sent off to kill 10 womp rats. So I wish EA Bioware the best of luck, and them *selling* 1 million boxes is actually pretty likely, but I'm not so sure those million players will still be there after 6 months. Would be nice if I were wrong.

Unnecessary click fest, Blizzard!

One of the changes in patch 3.3.3 is that the various battleground "mark of honor" have been phased out, and everything is bought by honor now. Good idea, lousy implementation! You need to exchange your marks for Commendations of Service at an NPC, and the stupid commendations are "Unique (10)", so you can only exchange 10 at a time. Then you need to leave the merchant screen, click 10 times to exchange the commendations for points, and then get the next 10 commendations. I didn't do much PvP in my life, but still I had over 150 marks of honor, taking far too much time, and far too many clicks to exchange. As a consequence there is a large group of players around that NPC spamming commendation exchanges and adding to the lag in Dalaran.

That could have been done better, Blizzard!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Active vs. interactive gameplay

Cuppy lists possible reasons why traditional gamers dislike Farmville or similar Facebook games. Spinks hates Farmville. Scopique thinks that is gamers being territorial. Darren thinks Farmville is not a game, but Cuppy thinks it is. And a lot of other people chime in with the usual straw man arguments, dismissing Facebook games entirely just because some have shady business practices, or are spammy. I'd like to add to that heated discussion of Facebook games by having a look at the gameplay. My theory is that a good part of the Farmville hate can be explained by traditional gamers simply not "getting" the interactive gameplay of casual social games, because they are too used to more active gameplay.

I tried a bunch of different Facebook games: Farmville, Mafia Wars, The Fellowship, My Tribe, and D&D Tiny Adventures. And I found one common factor in all these games, and in various browser games, which is different from most traditional games: The need to wait. The pace of the game is mostly set by the game itself, not by the player. I call that interactive gameplay, because you can only interact with game elements when they are ready, you can't continuously act. Now having to wait can be quite frustrating for the traditional gamer, who is more used to active gameplay, where the game only halts when the player stops acting. But for social games the forced breaks are necessary to allow *other* players to interact with your game as well. If you weren't forced to wait for your harvest to grow, then how would other players have time to fertilize your fields?

MMORPGs had more interactive gameplay elements too, but they were phased out or reduced due to player complaining about "downtime". In Everquest a raid boss was an interactive gameplay element, there was only one per server, and guilds needed to wait for him to respawn and organize who had the right to try to kill him when among each other. In World of Warcraft raid bosses are active gameplay elements, the guild entering the raid instance *causes* the raid boss to appear, no wait involved. WoW still has interactive gameplay elements, where players interact with each other and the open world, but wait times for boats are a lot shorter than in EQ, and open world mob respawn times are so fast you barely notice if some other player just was there on the same quest. Interaction between players is strongly diminished. Most traditional gamers prefer more active gameplay, where they are in the driving seat.

But active gameplay has its disadvantages: As players set their own pace of advancement, some players spend inordinate amounts of time to get ahead of other players. That not only can be unhealthy, it also prevents players from actually playing with each other in a multi-player game. You can only play with other players of similar level, and only if they are online at the same time as you are. The more these multi-player games are becoming instanced, the more they feel like single-player games with a monthly fee, which ultimately isn't a promising business model.

Interactive gameplay, in which many players interact with each other not only directly, but also by interacting on the same game world area, over come a lot of these restrictions. I don't have to be online at the same time as you are to fertilize your Farmville farm, or to buff you for your next D&D Tiny Adventure. Forced breaks and wait times might feel frustrating to the traditional gamer, but might suit a casual gaming schedule just fine. And if progress is based on real time and the decisions players makes, and not just on played time, game progress reflects skill more than time spent.

And of course there is a future in games which combine the two gameplay elements better. I already joked about World of Farmcraft, but I do think that a MMORPG with more interactive world gameplay elements, where players interact more indirectly by each affecting the game world, could be hugely successful. But such interaction would have to be positive, repeated experiments showed that "sandbox" gameplay in which players are busy destroying each other's creations only appeal to a tiny number of players. Most people tend to object to their virtual keep being burned down by other players at 3 am while they are sleeping, but they sure wouldn't mind somebody fertilizing their fields at that time.

So I don't think we should see Farmville and similar games as a threat, but as an opportunity to learn more about gameplay elements which could work well in MMORPGs too. The latest generation of MMORPGs has often been criticized for being too instanced, not interactive enough, and here are models of how we could get back more interactivity into our games.

Patch 3.3.3 this week

"This week" means today for Americans, "tomorrow" for Europeans, as we don't get patched on the same day. The main changes are the introduction of the random Battleground Finder, some changes to the random Dungeon Finder, and the introduction of an NPC and cooldown changes which will lower the market price for most crafted high-level items by up to half. Obviously everyone with an interest in the WoW economy is most excited about that last point in my list. So let's have a look at it.

Frozo the Renowned is the NPC that patch 3.3.3 will place in the Dalaran Magus Commerce Exchange. He sells various high-level crafting trade goods like Crusaders Orbs, Eternals, or Frost Lotus, in exchange for Frozen Orbs. As before these changes were announced Frozen Orbs sometimes sold as low as their vendor price, 5 gold, and Frost Lotus sold as high as 75 gold, being able to exchange one Frozen Orb for one Frost Lotus makes those two prices approach each other. Already before the patch, with most traders being aware of the changes, Frozen Orbs went up to 20 to 30 gold, and Frost Lotus crashed down to around 35 gold. After the patch the Frost Lotus market price can never be significantly abouve the Frozen Orbs market price. So, Frost Lotus drops in price by half, and in consequence flasks will drop significantly in price as well.

The other half of the changes is the removal of cooldowns for the creation of Titansteel and the three types of cloth, Ebonweave, Spellweave, and Moonshroud. Now given that most of the components for crafted epics are price-capped due them being available for Frozen Orbs, and there is no limit to how many you can make by transmutes any more, crafted epics are going to become a lot cheaper. There was talk of some iLevel 245 crafted epics dropping from 4,000 gold down to 2,000 gold.

Now crafters are probably not going to be hurt much by these changes. There wares are getting cheaper, but so are their materials. And 2k gold epics probably sell better than 4k ones. With prices moving slower on crafted goods than on materials, there is even a chance that profit margins will be higher than usual for a while. On the server I'm on making flasks appears to be more profitable than it was, although that might not last long.

But who is really going to suffer a big drop in income are the farmers, whether they were farming Frost Lotus or the various Eternals. And I wonder if that isn't fully intentional: Farming stuff isn't the most interesting activity in a MMORPG, so diminishing the necessity of it for regular players, and killing the profitability of it for gold farmers, is a double win for Blizzard.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A simple measure of success

How do you know if a MMORPG is a success? Easy! Check your spam folder and look for phishing mails telling you to log onto some fake website with the threat of your account getting banned otherwise. I now get several of those per day for World of Warcraft, and at least one per week for Aion.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I do not think it means what you think it means

After giving you a second to think what movie I was quoting in the title, I would like to talk to you about the word "friend" (and not the word "inconceivable", as you might have thought). I believe that over the last decade or so, the internet has changed what people talk about when they use the word "friend". The definition changed so much, we even had to invent new words that didn't exist before, like "to unfriend". It used to be that most people had very few real friends, but now we all have lots of them on various social networks, in guilds, and other virtual places. Friends have gone from being something precious to being an utility.

I blame social networks like Facebook. Social networks want you to have lots of friends, because their primary function is having everybody advertise various goods and services to their friends. Recommendations from friends are much better advertising than paid-for publicity. But if everybody just has a few precious friends, you never get a big network running in which one guy's recommendation snowballs through thousands of people. So Facebook is trying to "help" you to "find" friends. As I said, I followed one of these helpful links and ended up spamming 288 people from my mail contacts with Facebook friend invites. Ooops.

Leveraging the power of my blog, I have tons of friends on Facebook. But obviously I don't have hundreds of true friends. According to Robin Dunbar my neocortex is actually too small to possibly have more than 150 friends or other stable social relationships, and I need a lot of those 150 slots for work-related social relationships. But then, I gained a lot of "Facebook friends" when I blogged about My Tribe. We fertilize each other's farms, and collect stork feathers and shells on each other's islands, because the game is set up in a way that helping your friends is advantageous to yourself. Having "friends" is how these games work, no matter if the relationship with those friends is totally superficial.

In World of Warcraft I am still in the same guild I signed the guild charter of 5 years ago, on the day the server opened. And there are people in that guild I would call my friends, as much as that is possible in an online social relationship. But I also observed in that guild and in other guilds the phenomenom of guild hopping, people using a guild to advance to a point where switching to a different guild is better for them. Such behavior resembles the utilitarian thinking about Facebook friends a lot more than it resembles true friendship. "You're my friend if you play a healer in our guild raids" isn't much different from "You're my friend if you play My Tribe too".

I do not think "friend" means what this new generation think it means. We might be connected to a lot more people now that nominally are our "friends". But in reality these are often just "people I temporarily share a common interest with", and the word "friend" in its original meaning is far too strong to describe that relationship. Can you think of a better word?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

While I'll be spending the day on the road, this thread is for you to leave comments, asks questions, or make suggestions. Have a nice Sunday!

Social network spam

I was playing around with Facebook/Google integration and ended up sending a friend request to everyone in my mail contacts who has a Facebook account. Feel free to ignore that social network spam. I'm still experimenting with the concept and use of social networks.

The end of the Ultima brand

Once upon a time, in a previous millenium, there was a great series of single-player roleplaying games called Ultima. They were relatively open world compared to their competitors, and so it is not surprising that the series culminated in one of the first mass market MMORPGs, Ultima Online. Unfortunately once they acquired the brand, EA didn't treat it all that well. Ultima Online has the dubious honor of being the only MMORPG for which sequels were announced and cancelled TWICE, in spite of the announcements having caused a lot of hype. But the final nail in the coffin of the Ultima brand is EA's latest use of it: Lord of Ultima.

Lord of Ultima is a Free2Play browser strategy game, which plays exactly like thousands of other Free2Play browser strategy games, for example Travian. You build up a city, collect resources like wood, rock, and iron, build an army, and send those armies out to fight the other cities on the map. Lord of Ultima isn't a bad version of that principle, it is pretty enough, and even has some minor new features like the ability to send out your army to plunder a dungeon for a few resources. But it is far from original, and far from being a triple A game. And it suffers from the same problems that all those browser strategy games suffer from: As you become stronger with time, arriving later in the game means you'll never catch up; and a lot of the strategy revolves around repeatedly plundering players that just gave up. There isn't actually much you can do if a superior army decides to attack your city, they'll destroy stuff faster than you can build it up, and unless you are part of an alliance that can bail you out, you just get wiped out.

I was playing Lord of Ultima in the closed beta, with some success. I had a pesky neighbor who kept sending out small armies to attack me, but they didn't cause enough harm to stop me from building up my city. So once I was far ahead in resource production, I built up a far bigger army, did strike back, and even managed to conquer my neighbors city. That sounds dramatic when told in one paragraph, but in reality the whole story took several weeks. And I suspect the reason I won was that my neighbor got so bored that he just gave up. I haven't seen any action from him since I attacked him back.

Now the closed beta ended, and officially the game is in open beta now. The big change from closed to open beta is that there is now a shop. What EA did was to significantly shorten the build queue, so that you can only have 6 build orders queued up, which for most people means long stretches in which they don't build anything, because they are offline at work or sleeping. But for €1.10 per week, or €2.80 per month you can extend that build queue to 16 slots, and even queue up build orders you don't have the resources for yet, which will make your city grow a lot faster. A similar system exists for the army build queue. And you can buy resources directly from the shop.

In summary, Lord of Ultima is a blatant milking of a once-great brand for a mediocre Free2Play browser game with bad RMT. You wonder whether EA really thinks they will make money with that, or whether they just did it to spite Richard Garriott.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I got Gevlon worried

I must admit that I always thought that Gevlon, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, had no heart. When last year I pulled the stunt of claiming to be somebody else (to make a point about identity on the internet), I choose Gevlon for the simple reason that he was the least likely to get upset about somebody stealing his identity. I thought Gevlon was intelligent, but was completely lacking what is called "Emotional Intelligence". I thought he simply doesn't understand people, what makes them tick, and is thus stuck in an endless rant about why the emotional things people do aren't rational. So it was touching to read Gevlon blogging that he is worried about me. Gee, thanks Gevlon, that is awfully nice of you! I didn't realize you cared so much!

But don't worry, Gevlon, you and the other people worrying about me are just operating under a completely false premise. You think that a "normal" blogger does not show any emotions, and that showing any emotions is a sign of the blogger being close to emotional breakdown. I assume that train of thought is a projection of what you'd expect from a professional publication; if an editor of the Wall Street Journal started going all emotional on the front page, people would justifiably be worried, and the editor out of a job.

But a blog is not the Wall Street Journal. A blog is closer to let's say Twitter, where somebody writing "Dammit, my cornflakes were soggy this morning" is a completely normal (and boring) outbreak of emotion. Me posting "Dammit, somebody called me an asshole on his blog" is equally normal, and I'd even say equally boring, although some other blogs apparently operate like tabloids and like to report on which blogger said what about which other blogger.

I'd contest your idea that words can't hurt anyone. If that was the case, why can you sue somebody for emotional damage, or harassment, even if that was only done by words? If the law considers that people can be hurt by words, enough to award them compensation, the hurt must be real enough.

But how much somebody is hurt by words varies a lot from person to person. And so does his reaction to those hurt feelings. Some people are easily hurt, but bottle all that emotional damage up until they explode. Me, being called names annoys me a bit, comparably in annoyance to those soggy cornflakes, or the guy who took the last coffee from the office coffee machine without brewing a new pot. Only I am unusually chatty, as over 3,000 blog posts should be ample proof of, and so I'm likely to post about such minor annoyances. Other people, when finding that you can't change the country field on your Playstation Network registration just grumble a bit into their beard, me I write a full page of rant about it. That doesn't mean that minor annoyances hurt me more than anyone else, it only means that I'm posting every little thought that goes through my head. And I'd even claim that in the end I am *more* mentally stable than somebody who eats up all those little annoyances, because by airing mine, I deal with them, and then can forget them without losing any sleep.

So, Gevlon, thank you again for being so worried about me, but it is really not necessary. I'm fine. The only thing I'm suffering from is verbosity. ;)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII - First Impressions

I'm 14 hours into Final Fantasy XIII, which curiously enough means I haven't even left the "tutorial" part yet, which lasts for about 20 hours before you are given basic functionalities like choosing your group members or choosing where to go. So I'm not calling this a review. But as I'll be away from my PS3 for the coming two weeks, that means I won't write a review anytime soon. So I write this first impression piece.

I personally believe that Square Enix beats every other game company in the field of storytelling. Even Bioware, while good at storytelling, still produces games like Dragon Age Origins, where the plot is rather generic, and the world is a generic fantasy world with elves and wizards. The Final Fantasy games on the other hand each have a completely unique world, with unique laws of magic, and unique strange creatures. Only a handful of fixtures (chocobos, spell names) connect the different Final Fantasy games. Thus Final Fantasy XIII is a great experience from the story point of view, enhanced by very pretty graphics, with an interesting plot, believable characters, and a fantastic and unique world.

Unfortunately the gameplay of FF13 isn't quite as good as that of previous Final Fantasy games, at least not in the first 14 hours. My main gripe is how extremely linear the first hours are. You work your way through chapters, with each chapter having a tubular map, where you start at one end and the other end is helpfully marked with a big arrow as being the endpoint. The only options you have is either march forward, or if you want to farm a specific monster for loot or xp (called cp) march back and forth. For 20+ hours at least, and as far as I've seen maps from the later part of the game, they aren't any better. The tubular levels have little side arms in which treasure is "hidden", but that is the extent of it. All very pretty, but as somebody said I was chatting with, it's like walking through a movie. You move forward and fight monsters, to get to the next checkpoint, at which you get some cutscene which advances the story. Your influence on the story in FF13 is nonexistant. Thus, to come back to the comparison, while in Dragon Age the story might be more generic and less fantastic, at least you play a role in it, and have some influence on the outcome.

The second problem of Final Fantasy XIII is that combat is less interesting. Square Enix obviously tried to make turn-based combat as fast as humanly possible, and succeeded. But in the process they eliminated most decision-making from the process, thus making combat a lot less interesting. You only control one character in your group of up to 3 characters, the other two characters are on automatic. And even your main character you can just hit X repeatedly to let him choose his spells and abilities on automatic. As there aren't all that many abilities, and the automatic function already chooses the clever ones, like fire spells against mobs weak against fire, the first few hours you can play with spamming just a single button repeatedly. You can choose to select your spells and abilities manually, but that just gives you the same outcome somewhat slower.

Once you get "paradigms" combat becomes slightly more tactical, because you can now assign roles to your characters: For example you start combat with a paradigm that has one character debuff the enemies, then switch to a tank-heal-dps paradigm, and finally switch to an all out attack paradigm. Unfortunately every combat is timed, that is the time you took to kill the mobs is compared to the time a group of your level is supposed to take to kill the mobs, and the loot is adjusted in function of that. Thus choosing any defensive paradigm is shooting yourself in the foot, and you end up doing most fights in all out attack mode, with an occasional switch to healing mode if necessary.

Character development is rather linear at the start of the game too. You gain points called cp, with which you can buy your way through something which looks like a 3D talent tree. Only most "talents" aren't new abilities but stat increases like "+10 hit points" or "+5 strength". And at least in the part of the game I'm in the talent trees are capped as a function of the story, and you get enough cp to buy ALL talents up to the cap before the cap is lifted at the next story point. Thus what looks like a talent tree is in reality just checking boxes, without any decisions to make. Just take everything, it doesn't even matter much in which order.

Besides character development, you can also upgrade your gear. *SPOILER ALERT* There are two sorts of mob drops, animal parts and machine parts. Using animal parts on your gear on the upgrade screen adds a small amount of xp to the item plus increases the xp multiplier for future additions. Using machine parts adds a large amount of xp, but diminishes the xp multiplier. Thus the most effective upgrade method is to first feed animal parts to your gear until the xp modifier is at its cap of 3x, and then use one BIG stack of machine parts, which will kill your modifier, but you get the triple xp bonus on all the xp from big machine part stack. Thus loading up your gear with xp increases the level of the gear, and thus its stats. Unfortunately you also find new gear throughout the game. So given a system in which using big stacks of upgrades is the most efficient, and using a newly found piece of gear means you wasted all the materials used to upgrade your previous gear, the obvious strategy is to not use gear upgrading at all in the first half of the game, collect lots of animal and machine parts, and then use those once you found the gear you want to use for the rest of the game. That is not a very interesting system. And if you don't read the spoiler, you are likely to get frustrated, because you wasted the animal and machine parts you found on upgrading gear which you then have to replace because the old gear got stuck at the gear level cap. Furthermore upgrading is strictly linear too, there are no decisions to take which would influence what kind of stats your gear gets better in.

So right now I'm struggling a bit with my motivation to continue playing Final Fantasy XIII, and don't mind it at all that I can't play for the next two weeks. I still hope it gets better, less linear, and offering more choices later. But right now FF13 looks suspiciously much like a very dumbed down incarnation of a game, compared with previous games in the series. Do I really want to spam X for 100 hours to get to the end of the story, even if that story is a good one? Good gameplay consists of having to make interesting decisions, and at least in the first 20 hours those are seriously missing in Final Fantasy 13.

Consoles vs. PC for MMORPG

Nils suggested in the open Sunday thread that I talk about the advantages and disadvantages of consoles vs. PC when it comes to playing MMORPGs. Now this is a case where platform choice is usually made extremely quickly, given the fact that there are only a small number of console MMORPGs, and lots of them on the PC. But I just signed up for the Final Fantasy XIV beta (after a guild mate told me that you get a code for the beta when you register you FF13 game), and when asked whether I wanted to test and ultimately play FF14 on the console or on the PC, I chose the console.

Now that choice was made from my experience with FF11, which also existed on either console or PC, and which I played on the PC. It turned out that the UI and controls were designed with the console in mind, and were not all that user-friendly for a keyboard and mouse. So I ended up playing FF11 on the PC using a gamepad, which made controls much smoother. But once you go for console-like controls, you might as well play the whole game on the console.

The main problem with playing a MMORPG on a console is chat, if you don't have a keyboard installed. Typing with a gamepad is annoying. But then FF11 had this wonderful chat system where you could string words together by choosing them from a menu. That is obviously more limited than free form chat, but a surprising amount of chat in a MMORPG is rather predictable, like "looking for group" or "WTS this item". What made the chat system of FF11 so great was that it was automatically translated to whatever language the guy on the other end was having his client in. That made it possible to group with Japanese players even if they didn't speak English.

For the rest of the controls, it all depends on game design. If you have a game design requiring 50 different buttons, a gamepad is not always optimal. But if you design the game around the controls, it is perfectly possible to create an interesting combat system which is controlled very well with a gamepad. And I always liked having one thumbstick to move my character and a second thumbstick to move the camera, a control scheme which I consider superior to mouse/keyboard controls of characters through 3D worlds.

So in summary, I think that the current obstacles to playing MMORPGs on a console can be overcome, if the game is designed right. Just don't expect a game designed for the PC to be easily ported to a console.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How broadband is like healthcare

A reader sent me a link to a NY Times article on the US National Broadband Plan, suggesting that this might be a "possible topic from someone with a world view". So I'm going to talk about that, and will explain how a national broadband plan is similar to healthcare in being a form of redistribution. My apologies if that'll sometimes sound a bit like Gevlon, only that I of course would be for redistribution, and he would be against.

Any government action is a form of redistribution of wealth. The government takes money in the form of taxes, and inevitably those who have money are taxed higher than those who don't have any. Then the government spends those taxes, usually with some sort of plan that is designed to benefit everybody. The national broadband plan is one such plan. 200 million Americans already have broadband, while the remaining 100 million don't have broadband. As up to now who has broadband was handled by private companies, everybody who you could sell broadband to profitably is already served. Now the government steps in to give people a *right* to broadband, so that by a mix of applying tax dollars and regulatory force the remaining 100 million will get broadband access too. As a lofty goal, at the end of that plan everybody in the US should have a 100 Mbit broadband connection at home. That is great news for those who live in rural areas, or are too poor to afford broadband now. But as the money to pay for all this has to come from somewhere, you can bet that those who currently have both money and broadband will end up paying taxes for that plan, and higher broadband fees as well.

One part of the news about this US National Broadband Plan is that the USA is only on place 18 of an international rank of broadband access by country. Why is that? Because the 17 nations ahead of the USA in that table are less capitalist than the USA. If you live in one of the rich countries where the government is more autocratic, or there is more of a welfare state, chances are that you'll also have better broadband. And better healthcare than the USA. Because universal healthcare, just like universal broadband access, is one of these things a strong government will push through, for the benefit of the less fortunate, against the wishes of their richer citizens.

Now some people like to paint this in black and white, with the capitalist USA in one corner, and the "socialist" Europe in the other. That is nonsense. There is a huge grey scale, on which the two aren't actually all that far apart. Paying taxes to finance schools, even if you don't have children, or to finance roads, even if you don't have a car, is redistribution too, and it happens on both sides. There is welfare and unemployment benefits on both sides of the Atlantic too, only in differing degrees. But in other areas there are stronger differences: Bismarck, who certainly wasn't a socialist, introduced universal health care in Germany in 1883; the USA is still discussing the idea in 2010. Some European countries, especially those in which the state had or still has a telecom monopoly, already have universal, affordable broadband, sometimes aided by geography, as connecting everybody is easier in small, densely populated countries.

It isn't all that easy to draw a line and say what government redistributive action is good, and what is bad. Those saying they would want to stop all of it probably haven't thought of how they would live without roads, schools, and hospitals. Me, personally, I think universal healthcare is a good idea. I even think welfare is a good idea if you don't overdo it. In general I approach those sort of questions with the thought of what happens if we don't give out healthcare or welfare. And seeing how much more likely Americans are to die early than Europeans, or seeing how much more of their population the USA has to put into prison, I prefer the European model, in spite of it obviously having flaws of its own. It turns out that social housing plus enough welfare to buy a TV and junk food is considerably cheaper and thus more effective than a prison cell. I'm not so sure that universal broadband access is a right every citizen should be entitled to, but that could change if more vital services are only reachable via the internet. In any case, as a matter of setting priorities, I think it would be better to stop people without healthcare from dying in emergency rooms first, before making sure they have something faster than dial-up to watch YouTube on. Call me a socialist, me and my friend Bismarck.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Whiny Post Day

Klepsacovic invented Whiny Post Day, and it's today! So I have to come up with a subject to whine about, something that will annoy at least some of my readers. Fortunately Klepsacovic provided a helpful guide, stating that "The primary indicator of a whine instead a legitimate complaint is that someone else disagrees that there is a problem." Oh, wait, no, that would mean that every blog post in the world is a whine, because there is always some else who disagrees that there is a problem. But to take this definition in a narrower sense, I'll talk about something that I know will annoy some readers, because I have in fact already received comments telling me to "shut the fuck up" about that subject: Posting about my personal state of mind.

I am not a robot. I am an average guy, with normal human feelings. Some days I'm happy, some days I'm sad. And sometimes I get angry about rather insignificant stuff, like things that happened to me in a video game or in the blogosphere. That is a completely normal behavior. If you turned round a corner in your office and caught two of your colleagues bad-mouthing you at the water cooler, you would probably be upset. Most people would. So if I turn round a corner in the internet and catch people bad-mouthing me on their blog, or on Twitter, I get upset too.

And then I tend to air me being annoyed on my blog, at which point invariably some asshole turns up and threatens to "unsubscribe" if I don't stop posting personal stuff on my blog.

That is the kind of people I'd really like to punch in the nose. In fact they usually annoy me far more than whatever made me upset in the first place. How dare anyone tell me what I am allowed to write or not write on my own personal blog? This is MY personal space, the place where I post MY thoughts on various things. As apparently some people are interested in some of my thoughts on gaming, I'm generously allowing anyone to read those thoughts if they want. For free. And then some pimply teenager living in his mother's basement and amounting to nothing much in live comes and tells me that this or that post isn't what he wanted to read on my blog. Bloody hell, how about rubbing those two braincells together to produce the brilliant spark of an idea to just skip the posts he doesn't want to read?

Look, I'm quite willing to set up a subscription-only site if people prefer that. They pay me $15 a month for my blog posts and THEN we can discuss terms of contract on what subjects they want or don't want to have covered. But as long as people are just leeching free content from me, they have no right whatsoever to feel entitled to dictate to me what I can write about. And what kind of a threat is that to "unsubscribe" from a free site? I'd rather have a lot less readers and complete freedom than having a lot of readers who all try to control what I'm doing here. This blog isn't a democracry, it is mostly a monologue, with some opportunity for dialogue in the comment section. If anyone feels the need to control the content of a blog, they should write their own, where they can do just that!

If I'm upset about something, I reserve myself the right to post about it. And not just on Whiny Post Day!

Business model middle ground

In the open Sunday thread Void expressed his opinion that most MMORPGs either cost $15 a month, or are Free2Play, and wondered why there was no middle ground. That seems to be a common enough thought, Syp from Bio Break just posted about Cryptic games not being worth $15 per month and suggested they go Free2Play instead. Of course there are some games that have a monthly fee which is lower than $15, but it is obvious that there isn't much price differentiation in MMORPGs.

Let's have a look at some basic economic considerations. Of course game companies aren't all that willing to let everybody know the details of their cost structure, but publicly traded companies are legally obliged to give some financial information, for example to the SEC, and so we aren't totally in the dark. We know for example from Blizzard that they have revenues of about $1 billion per year from World of Warcraft, and a profit of about $500 million. Or in short: Of the $15 you pay each month to Blizzard, $7.50 is profit for them, and the other $7.50 cover various costs, from hardware cost, to bandwith cost, to paying the salaries of the developers and customer service.

Now lets have a look at a hypothetical MMORPG company X. How do their costs look like? Of course if the game is less big than WoW, they will need less servers, less staff, etc.; but if you calculate cost per user, their costs are likely to be similar or even higher than those of Blizzard. World of Warcraft reaps economies of scale that smaller companies don't have. Thus offering a game for $7.50 per month would only be profitable if the costs were significantly reduced. That usually means cutting customer service to the bare bone minimum, and people already complain about WoW how long it takes a GM to respond to a ticket. Cost per user for hardware and bandwith are normally already not so high, which is why a one-man MMORPG development like Love can exist.

So what about Free2Play as alternative? Everybody knows that Free2Play isn't free, but it is interesting to hear that average revenue per user (ARPU) per month is in the $5 to $50 range for typical Free2Play MMORPGs, while being in the $1 to $2 range for ultra casual games and social spaces like Club Penguin or Habbo Hotel. Of course on the basis of individual users the range is much wider, there are some people who really play for free, while others pay a lot of money. Again, at the lower end of the scale, that can only be profitable by cutting staff cost to a minimum, which is why those Free2Play games are often less elaborate than games with monthly fees, and you can never get any decent customer support in them. Which works for them, because due to the "free" label players also expect less customer service. At the higher end of the scale Free2Play games can be *more* profitable, bringing in more average revenue per player per month than a monthly subscription model. Dungeon & Dragons Online revenues went up 500% after going Free2Play, while only doubling player numbers, thus revenue per player tripled. So the high-end Free2Play games can afford to be as polished as monthly fee games, and offer the same degree of customer support.

Some Free2Play games having revenues of up to $50 per player shows that there would be a market for games with a subscription fee of more than $15 per month. But while a Free2Play game can make lots of money without too many people noticing, the monthly subscription rate is highly visible. You'd first need to persuade potential customers that your game is significantly better than all those other games they could play for $15 a month before you could get away with charging them $20 or more. But I'm sure that is something that will come, forced by inflation. Hey, when I started playing MMORPGs a decade ago, the standard monthly subscription was $9.99. But until the monthly subscription rate for triple A MMORPGs goes up, it is often more profitable for smaller games to go Free2Play than to offer a monthly subscription plan which is significantly cheaper.

Stockholm syndrome and Hecker's nightmare

I recently came across a player in World of Warcraft who was wearing a guild tag of <Stockholm Syndrome>. Now the Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people held hostage develop positive feeling for their captors. As guild tag in a MMORPG it is a rather clever commentary on the psychological reactions of players towards the game they are playing. We all know situations in which players became extremely defensive towards their favorite game, or towards a specific activity in their game. Are we being held hostage by MMORPGs, and developed positive feelings towards our captors, or are we playing because we are really having fun?

Obviously nobody is forcing us at gunpoint to play MMORPGs, so how could we be held hostage? The most likely culprit here is loss aversion: Losing something hurts more than the pleasure you had by gaining it. As MMORPGs work by showering us with constant rewards to release dopamine in our brains, we end up being unable to quit out of fear to lose all these "rewards" and "achievements". That purple sword of uberness is downright useless if you don't play the MMORPG any more in which you gained it. You can't take it with you when you leave the game. The only thing that remains once you quit is the fond memories of the fun you had while playing. But are we still playing for fun, or are we just playing for the rewards?

In the recent GDC game developer Chris Hecker gave a talk which was widely reported as Hecker's nightmare: He was afraid that developers were "designing shitty games that you have to pay people to play", the pay being virtual rewards. Basically he found that players are willing to do quite dull tasks in a game if given enough virtual rewards for it. But as the reward structure determines what players will do in a game, you can't just observe players' behavior to see what they like, and what game activity is actually fun to them. Just the opposite: Players will flock to the activity with the best reward, while simultaneously losing interest more and more in the gameplay itself. In the end it is difficult to say whether players for example actually like raiding, or are just there for the epics. It is certainly true that *which* raid dungeon is popular depends on where the best achievable rewards are, which is why for example Naxxramas stands empty now.

Another example is the often quoted trend that "players prefer to solo in a MMORPG". Do they? Some certainly do, but we actually haven't got a clue what percentage of players would rather level up in group play, if the additional reward for getting a group together would compensate for the effort of doing so. World of Warcraft was often shown as prime example of how players prefer solo play over group play, but since the introduction of additional group rewards and lowering the barrier of entry to finding a group with the Dungeon Finder, the number of people forming groups while leveling up has certainly increased dramatically. Thus virtual rewards not only hold us hostage to the games we are playing, but also to the way in which we play these games. We follow the rewards instead of just playing the game in the way which is most intrinsically fun to us.

That makes you wonder what people would do in a MMORPG if there were no rewards at all, no levels, no gear, no skill increases, no virtual currency. It is hard to imagine people grinding mobs if there is no rewards. But to what extent would they do quests? Would they PvP? Would they be willing to wipe all night at some raid boss? Or would they just not play at all if it wasn't for the virtual rewards holding them hostage?

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Tribe - Next generation Facebook games?

Following a recommendation from Cuppycake, I reactivated my dormant Facebook account and started playing My Tribe. As I said in my previous discussion of Facebook games, I recognize the power of the social engineering tools used for games like Farmville, but didn't like that these games were so lacking in actual gameplay. There isn't really much gameplay involved in apps like Farmville or Mafia Wars, it is just clicking to get rewards, plus incentives to give money to the game company and to invite your friends into the game. While obviously targeting the lowest common denominator is a valid business plan for a Facebook game, I don't actually think that the lowest common denominator is THAT low. After all, casual games like The Sims are far more complex, and sell millions too.

My Tribe can be described as a next generation Facebook game, very different from something like Farmville. It is an actual game. You control a tribe stranded on an island, and start building a civilization. The game is part "The Settlers", part "The Sims", as you give tasks to the individual members of your tribe to build things, to gather wood and rock, to fish, to do agriculture (basically there is a mini-Farmville as sub-game inside of My Tribe), or do do scientific discoveries. You need to feed and house your tribe, and you can create clothing and dyes to outfit them. They level up, and you can specialize them in specific careers. And they can have children, which grow up, making your tribe grow.

Part of the game is to set up everything in a way that your tribe lives well while you are offline, so that when you come back online your planned buildings have been constructed or upgraded, you collected science points for the next discovery, and everybody is still well fed and happy. But once you are online, there is also a lot of opportunity to just play, manually collect sea-shells, crates, and other goodies, harvest fields, level up your tribe, or craft clothing items for them. The game is cleverly set up in that there are events happening every couple of minutes, something new popping up to click on to collect. The whole thing is still casual player friendly, but immensely more complex than a simple Farmville or similar game.

My Tribe is fun to play, and combines the attractive power of "leveling up" your tribe and receiving a constant stream of rewards with a basic version of a typical civilization-building strategy game. There are even quests! But of course it uses all the same tricks as the previous generation of Facebook games, offering you a slow progress for free or a speeded-up progress if either you give them money or invite your friends to play. If you don't mind that sort of business model, feel free to send me a friend invite on Facebook and in My Tribe, as you'll need a "friend" in My Tribe for some of the quests.

I do think that games which are actually fun to play will have a bigger future on Facebook. And Facebook-like social tools will have a bigger future in various online games that aren't on that platform, including MMORPGs.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The internet is getting less "inter"

Ultra-nationalism, having lead to two world wars, isn't everybody's favorite philosophy. Except, it appears, for media companies. On the one side you hear a lot on how the internet is propelling us into a bright new future, where broadband access allows us to access all sorts of media anywhere and how we like. But once you leave your country of birth, you'll quickly realize that this bright new future has strict national borders, which are totally artificial, and errected by media companies to protect their profits.

My experiences with the PS3 are one example: To use various internet features of the PS3, like downloading games, or participating in PS3 social networks, you need to create a Playstation Network account. But the country you enter when setting up that account is linked to the language option you have. Me, living in Belgium, I would have the choice between Dutch and French when putting Belgium as my country of residence. Bloody hell, I don't want games and media in Dutch or French, I want them in German or English, for games usually English because the German translation isn't always that good. So I sneakily put United Kingdom as my country of residence, so I would have access to English games and media. But when I wanted to buy a game, United Kingdom was fixed unchangeably on the billing address form, and thus my credit card was refused.

Even worse, you can't even change your country in the Playstation Network account. In the end I had to buy a prepaid Playstation Network Card with £20 on it via the internet, fill up my virtual wallet with that, and now I can finally buy UK games on my PS3 in Belgium. I still can't use the Media Server functionality of the PS3, or the BBC iPlayer functionality, because those detect from my IP address that I'm outside the UK and block all media access for me.

On the PC it's the same thing. If you are in the United States, you can use Hulu to view various TV shows on your PC. If you live outside the United States (regardless of whether you have a US passport or not) you are excluded from Hulu, and they even set up protection systems to prevent people using fake IP addresses to pretend they are in the US. And there are lots and lots of other examples: If you want to consume media from your home country in your home country, there are more and more possibilities. If you want, oh horror, to work as an expatriate in another country, or, even worse, watch media from a different country and culture, you're out of luck.

When asked for a reason, the media companies will mutter something about "rights management". But the reason behind it is really that it is more profitable for those countries to be able to control the ways how people in other countries can have access to media content. For example a TV show from the US is usually first shown in the US before being sold to TV networks in other countries, so the network producing the show does not want foreigners to be able to already see the episodes on Hulu, which could diminish the sale value to the other countries TV network. And of course it is more profitable to sell Europeans region-code protected overpriced DVDs of some TV show instead of either letting them watch that show via the internet or letting them buy US DVDs. Or to sell them games on Steam for 50% more than the US price.

I think that the internet being international is a major force for good, for democracy, for cultural exchange, and ultimately for peace. I object to media companies splitting up the internet into national sub-nets for the purpose of profit maximization. And I don't even think the nationalization of media content is good for business, because the very idea of services like Hulu is that bringing people into contact with media content will make them spend money on more of such content later on. If some TV series is never shown in Belgium, and media companies block all my access via the internet to it, why would I be interested in that TV show enough to buy the DVD and the T-shirt? If some game is available by download only, and for some phoney "rights management" reason isn't being sold in Europe, how would I ever be able to give money to the game company? Blocking access to internet content based on where you live is bad!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

This is the thread where you can leave your questions and proposals for subjects for me to blog about without having to stay on-topic to anything.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bought a PS3

I'm over 3 years late to the party, but I finally bought a "next generation" console, a Playstation 3. My reason for not buying one earlier was that I couldn't think of any "must have" games, and that reason evaporated with Final Fantasy XIII coming out. I don't regret having waited so long, because the very first generation of the PS3 came with as little as 20 GB of hard disk, no WiFi, and cost $499 for the small HD version, $599 for the 60 GB version. Now I paid €324 for a 250 GB version which came with a game (Ratchet & Clank). And of course this "4th generation" or "slim" version comes without the leap year bug. Things I'm not so happy about is that the new PS3 isn't downward compatible at all any more, and can't be made region-free. But I'll just keep my old PS2 for that.

So right now I have two games, Ratchet & Clank and Final Fantasy 13. Other games I'd be interested in would be Eye of Judgement, Valkyria Chronicles, Disgaea 3, Cross Edge, and Civilization Revolution. I don't think I will buy Heavy Rain, I'm not into the serial killer scenario. Anyone know any more good turn-based strategy and role-playing games for the PS3?

Gold, entitlement, and morality

As I mentioned in the previous post, Tobold the tauren shaman of Single Abstract Noun is now level 20. What I didn't mention is that he has 851 gold pieces in his pocket, having earned 1,092 gold over his live already, starting from nothing, and with no outside help. That is something I *am* proud of. But I also realize that this is just me having unusual goals in World of Warcraft. Some people care for fast leveling, others care for achievements, I like to earn gold. And one of the reason why I'm planning on earning some more gold with that character is that I plan to go dual spec at level 40, plus buy an epic mount, so by then I need to have over 1,000 gold on hand.

Suzina from Kill Ten Rats started playing World of Warcraft in a more conventional way. She reached level 40. She wanted to have dual spec. She didn't have 1,000 gold, nor the experience with the WoW economy to know how to make 1,000 gold fast. So she bought those 1,000 gold for $10. And I can totally understand her. The *less* you know about the WoW economy, the more seducing the idea of buying 1,000 gold at level 40 for your dual spec becomes. Hey, it's just 10 bucks. Hey, I really should have dual spec at this level to have one spec for soloing and one for groups. Hey, you can't expect me to grind lots of green mobs to earn that gold. Hey, you can't expect me to wait another 20 levels for the dual spec while I get the gold together.

But of course the other players in the game don't see it like that. A friend of hers put Suzina on ignore after she told him about her purchase, and not all of the comments on her blog entry are sympathetic either. Other players are likely to make a connection between gold buying and their accounts being hacked, although nobody actually has good data on how much of the sold gold is from hacking, and how much is from farming. It is obvious that there *is* farming going on, which proves that *not all* sold gold is from hacking, but I don't have any idea about the percentages, whether it is 10% hacked and 90% farmed or the other way around. Would you say that buying a used watch is evil, just because there is a chance that the watch might have been stolen? But in any case, bought gold is tainted by that association with such dubious business practices like hacking or scams.

Other players also see buying gold as cheating. Now a Google search on "cheat codes" gets you 26 million results, which tells you that cheating in video games is very widespread. But while most people think it is okay to cheat in a single-player game, cheating in multiplayer games is frowned upon. Even in a game like World of Warcraft, where players are not in direct competition against each other, buying gold to get ahead of other players isn't acceptable to everyone. There is a clash between two different senses of entitlement, the new player who thinks he should be entitled to everything the game offers at his level, and the veteran player who thinks he should be entitled to more than the "n00bs".

In the end there is no easy answer. There are a lot of good arguments why you shouldn't buy gold in a MMORPG, but there are also a lot of good arguments why that action could be regarded as relatively harmless video game cheating. The kind of people who are talking about RMT in morality absolutes are all veterans of the game, whose view is influenced by knowing people with hacked accounts, and whose idea on how difficult it would be to earn 1,000 gold on your own is necessarily different than those of a new player. If we could remove the strawman argument of "all gold is from hacking" from the discussion, and I can only advise everyone to contribute and install an authenticator, we could maybe feel a bit more sympathy towards people like Suzina.

The real purpose of end-game

So Ferrel wants to bring back the grind and make leveling slower again, while Chris thinks leveling should be slowed down by giving less xp for quests. Both talk about how much better life was in Everquest, where most players never even reached the level cap (I didn't), and how MMORPGs should be about the journey, not about the destination. But I think both of them simply missed the real purpose of the end-game: It enables people to play together.

Take for example the blogging community guild Single Abstract Noun. We had a lot of fun when we started, posting "guild first" screenshots of Ragefire Chasm. But the longer the guild goes on, the thinner we are stretched over the level range. Some people already had level 80 on that server, some created level 55 Death Knights, and all the others that made new characters are now already covering a wide range from level 1 to 30. I logged on last night to see if I could find a guild group, but while there were a lot of people online, there weren't 4 others around my level (20) with whom I could have gone to the Deadmines or Wailing Caverns.

Take any group of friends, and chances are they have the same problem. Unless they create specific characters who only ever play when doing things together, people tend to drift apart in levels, because they play different amounts of time and at different levels of efficiency. But given how long one expansion lasts in World of Warcraft, and how fast you can reach the level cap, the group of friends is likely to find themselves back together at the level cap. Doing heroics together at level 80, even at different levels of gear, makes a lot more sense than a level 60 player grouping with a level 30 player.

Thus, if you want to change World of Warcraft or another MMORPG to slower leveling, it isn't sufficient to just reduce the leveling speed. You also need to enable people to play together in spite of level differences. Systems like in City of Heroes, where people can temporarily lower or increase their level to that of their friends in a group could work here. If you don't have such a system, slowing down leveling only prevents people from playing with their friends for a longer time, and that is never going to be popular.

Alganon shake-up

As I mentioned before, last year I received a special invitation to play Alganon in beta, and to tell the developers my opinion about that game. I told them that they were copying WoW too closely, which would never work with the budget they had, and that they would have to do something to differentiate themselves from WoW, either in the business model or the gameplay. You just can't make an inferior WoW clone and try to sell it for the same price as WoW. The developers promptly ignored my advice, which wasn't unexpected. I refused to write a review on Alganon, but instead handed out beta keys and let my readers write the review, which unsurprisingly came to similarly negative conclusion.

Now, a few months after release, reality has finally dawned on Alganon, and there has been a big shake-up. Dave Allen was fired, and has been replaced by Derek Smart. Now I don't know Derek Smart, apart from him having a reputation for being overly frank on game forums. But I must say I don't quite get what Lum is complaining about. Particularly these Derek Smart quotes:
The Dec 1st launch of the game should never have happened. It was a mistake that has not only cost the company money but has also cost people their jobs and put an otherwise exceptional product at risk. As a game developer, I know all too well that if your game is not finished and you release it, thats just asking for trouble. No matter how great the game and technology are, it can and will fail. Especially in this industry climate. The average gamer is as finnicky as a hummingbird on acid, with a very short attention span and a penchant for being largely unforgiving. In other words, pulling a stunt like that is the death knell for many a game and company.

This whole “WoW look-a-like” rubbish, is gone. I’ve essentially asked them to throw it all out and for the artists to come up with the game’s own unique look and feel for for both the web UI as well as the game UI itself. You don’t go competiting with WoW when you don’t have a WoW sized budget or the manpower to match. But thats what David wanted to do and I’ve pretty much tossed it all. The team was unable to actually do this previously due to David wanting it that way, even though they knew it was a terrible decision.

We’re also getting rid of the monthly subscriptions. They are currently suspended, but will be gone for good. I put that plan into place since Dec 2009 with a view to making the game “subscription free” but supported via sales (I was the one who had the client price reduced to $19.95 as well btw) of the client as well as micro-transactions. It is not a traditional F2P game, but if thats what we have to do in the long run, then so be it. For now, we’re taking baby steps.
Okay, maybe calling your customers "as finnicky as a hummingbird on acid" isn't usual PR style. But everything Derek Smart says in the above paragraphs sounds extremely reasonable to me. Early releases *are* bad. The WoW look-a-like *was* rubbish (they even copied the part of the WoW interface where there is a keyring next to the bags, but without having keys in the game). And going "subscription free" for a game where nobody in his right mind would pay for a subscription is obviously a good idea too. So, judging the man by what he does now, and not by what controversial stuff he might have done previously, I don't see why people are condemning this move.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Icecrown Citadel buff

As I'm not currently raiding, I didn't mention the Icecrown Citadel buff up to now. Blizzard had already in previous expansions made characters stronger and nerfed raid dungeons with time, so that at the end of an expansion people could visit raid dungeons they had been previously been unable to beat. But the ICC buff is the first time this mechanism is formalized. It started as a 5% buff on just about anything (health, healing, damage), and with time will grow to a 30% buff. Rahana from Blueberry Totem has a thoughtful post with a more detailed description and comments.

What I found most interesting is Rahana's report on the discussion going on in her guild about whether or not to use the buff. It is another of these cases where on the one hand people are complaining that the buff makes the raid too easy, but on the other hand raid groups don't want to turn the buff off (which they could), because it feels like raiding with one hand tied behind your back.

I guess I don't have the right achiever mindset, because that sort of discussion is completely incomprehensible to me. I would think that having selectable difficulty options is always a good thing. Want challenge? Play without buff! Want a tourist raid to just say hi to Arthas? Play with a 30% buff in a few months! But that personal view of challenge comes from me not caring at all what other guilds on the server are doing. Meanwhile the discussion in Rahana's guild is about whether they should "gimp our progress relative to other guilds" or the danger that "it leaks out we did it without the buff, we are definitely going to be called names and dragged through trade channel for being elitist epeen no-lifers who have to brag about their pixel achievements". Because they care so much what the other players in other guilds think about them, guilds feel obliged to use the buff, while simultaneously complaining about it all the time. Or they are just using that as an excuse, because they are secretly relieved to not have to wipe so much to beat Icecrown.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not a solution to RMT

Rohan from Blessing of Kings posted a reaction to a proposal that Blizzard should start selling gold to ruin third-party gold sellers, and thinks that this would be okay, if the money went to charity. Through the charity solution he wants to avoid Blizzard having incentives to tune the game that it can only be played smoothly when buying gold. Interesting thought, but I think Rohan missed a far more serious problem of Blizzard starting to sell gold: Blizzard would produce the gold out of nothing, while third party gold sellers only circulate gold around in the economy.

Gold farmers, in spite of their name, do not farm gold. They farm herbs, orbs, or various items dropped from monsters and sell those to players for gold, then sell back that gold to other players for real money. In macroeconomic terms gold farmers do not increase the overall supply of gold. This is why since the release of Wrath of the Lich King most prices for items on the auction house have either kept stable, or slowly decreased with more of those items becoming available. Remember Crusader Orbs for 1,000 gold? Well, they are 100 gold now.

If Blizzard would sell gold, that gold would be "freshly minted", created out of nothing by a keystroke. If enough players buy that sort of gold, overall money supply goes up, causing inflation. The price for a stack of herbs or ore or eternals would go up significantly. That is not only bad for people who want to buy things from the auction house and didn't buy gold. It also is counterproductive to the goal of eliminating third party gold sellers. Because as prices for herbs and ores go up, gold farmers can stay in business, because now with the same amount of work they make more gold, and can undercut Blizzard's official prices. And the more gold players have, the more profitable it becomes to hack their accounts and steal their gold. Of course then Blizzard could undercut them again, because it doesn't cost Blizzard anything to create gold, but that obviously leads to an undercutting death spiral in which the economy is flooded with cheap gold and inflation is rampant.

So, charity or not, Blizzard selling gold would not work to eliminate third party gold sellers, and would only cause harm to the virtual economy. Furthermore we would lose the argument that buying gold is bad because it is cheating, and not allowed by the rules of the game. A rule of "you can only buy gold from us" is morally a lot weaker than a rule of "you can't buy gold".

Interactive is not necessarily twitchy

Yesterday's discussion on the future Blizzard MMORPG evolved into a discussion of possible changes to MMORPG combat. While various games have fiddled with the system in different ways over the last decade, MMORPG combat is still remarkably similar in various games. Very many games have systems in which you target an enemy, and then use hotkey bar buttons with various spells and abilities to hit that enemy, with your stats determining whether and for how much you hit him. The abilities have some sort of cooldown, ranging from 1 second to several minutes, and there is no aiming involved. Why is that so?

A very impressive experiment you can do at home to illustrate the fundamental problem behind MMORPG combat needs two computers running two different accounts of World of Warcraft. Move the two characters to the same spot, somewhere where there is an elevator, get on the elevator, and observe your two screens: The big surprise is that the two screens are NOT synchroneous. Far from it. You can easily have a situation where the elevator on the one computer is down, while you see the exactly same elevator in the same world on the other computer as being up. And you can continue that experiment by setting one of the two characters to follow the other, and just run somewhere and observe the distance between the two characters on the two screens: It will not be the same. In other words:

Your character in a MMORPG does not have a one completely determined location.

Instead, in our example, your character has 3 locations: The one where YOU see him, the location where the server thinks your character is, and the location where your character is shown to be to the observer. When standing still, these three locations will eventually merge into one. But while there is movement, the mix of lag and predictive algorithms means that your characters location cannot 100% accurately be determined. Obviously that makes a combat mechanism which relies on aiming impossible. You would need to remove the predictive algorithms, and sync servers and clients much better than is currently the case. And if for some reason there is lag (e.g. Dalaran), you have a huge problem.

Apart from the technical problems of making a MMORPG with a aiming-based combat, there is also an even bigger problem of what people would be interested in playing that game. The demographics for a shooter game and the demographics for a MMORPG are not the same. Multiplayer shooters rely on split-second reaction times, which favors younger players, and these games is predominantely played by male players. Your average middle-aged housewife would not only not stand a chance in that sort of game, she wouldn't even dream of buying it. And that will be true for all changes to MMORPG combat which make it far more twitchy: While a minority of players will certainly enjoy that, a large demographic will feel excluded and not interested very much in that sort of game.

So what could be done? Fortunately making combat faster and more twitchy is not the only possible improvement. A better option would be to make MMORPG combat more interactive *without* making it much faster. The curse of the current MMORPG combat system is the "spell rotation", that is you can look up on a website for a given character class and level the optimal sequence of buttons to press for best damage output, *independant from* what the enemy is or does. Fighting a wolf, an ogre, or a bandit is exactly the same, with only a few spellcasters or mobs with special abilities requiring small modifications to your spell rotation. The obvious disadvantage of that system is that very soon players don't really care any more what monster they are fighting, and get quickly bored because every combat is the same anyway. The solution would be a combat system in which the best button to press would strongly depend on what enemy you are fighting, and what the current situation is. And that is independant from the time frame you give the player to react.

So here is my prediction: Some future MMORPG will introduce a much more interactive, but not too twitchy, combat system, and it will be a huge success.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


There was a time when I played the German version of A Tale in the Desert, and Teppy, the main developer, gathered all the players online on the server at one spot to hold a council. He replied to questions, and offered solutions to problems mentioned by the players. He even coded in one of these solutions while the event was going on, without bringing the server down, and changed the rules of the game on the spot, based on player input. That was pretty awesome. Only that there were only 25 players on the server. The US version has more players, usually around 1,100 subscribers, which probably works out to just over 100 online on average. So when Pangoria Fallstar asked me about my opinion on Love, I couldn't help but think that there will be some similarities in structure to ATITD: Small player base, niche gameplay, but extremely powerful possibilities for the developer to interact with the players.

If you look at the gameplay video of Love, you might understand what I mean. The tools given to the player to shape the world are obviously hugely superior to what players usually get in the usual, rather static MMORPGs. That in itself will draw some players towards the game. But then you see that the "enemy" you have to beat is an AI controlled city, which you beat by figuring out how its infrastructure works, and then sabotage it by application of logic to find its weak spot. That is going to be way to brainy (and the graphics way too grainy) for the average video gamer. Just like the cooperative social experiment without monsters to kill in ATITD is only attractive for a small number of players, interacting with a procedurally created world will only be attractive for a small number of players. Which is all the better, as the servers can only handle about 400, and the single person developing the game probably doesn't have the means to put up lots of servers.

Love is impressive for a one-man show, it is innovative, different, and new. Thus it is likely to once more prove that players, regardless of what they say, do not want innovative, different, and new, they want the same old with better graphics. It'll haunt us in the blogosphere for years as an example how innovative multiplayer online games can be, but there is no chance that this develops into the next big thing. Most people simply won't get Love.

Monday, March 8, 2010

An orc by any other name would smell as sweet

In the open Sunday thread Nils asked "Would you like to speculate on the nature of Blizzards new MMO?". The correct answer to that is "No, I don't like speculating.", but I'm afraid that wouldn't make for a very good blog post. So here are my thoughts on the next Blizzard MMO:

A friend of mine is in the Starcraft 2 beta (no NDA), and finds it is solid, graphically much improved, and plays exactly like Starcraft 1. I watched several Diablo 3 gameplay videos, and I think Diablo 3 is solid, graphically much improved, and will play exactly like Diable 2. So my prediction about the next Blizzard MMO is that it will be solid, graphically much improved, and will play exactly like World of Warcraft. And I'm not excited about the idea.

That is not to say that the next Blizzard MMO will be WoW 2, and have orcs and elves and wizards in a fantasy world. But as the bard said, "What's in a name? That which we call an orc by any other name would smell as sweet." The next Blizzard MMO could well be Steampunk or any other genre. And it wouldn't be beyond the means of Blizzard to create a completely new brand, not based on any existing intellectual property. But I fully expect to have to create a character by choosing a race and a class in that game, and pop into the world as level 1 in front of an NPC with a glowing symbol floating over his head, which indicates that I should click on him to be told to go and kill 10 foozles.

Sadly at this point there are some people among my readers who think "But what Tobold just listed is the definition of a MMORPG". No, it isn't. Having a MMORPG based on classes and levels and quests is not the only possible way, otherwise you'd need to label a huge number of games like Ultima Online, A Tale in the Desert, or Puzzle Pirates as being "not a MMORPG". The class/level/quest model of MMORPGs is just the historically most successful way to create a MMORPG, which is why it is widely copied.

What I would wish is that Blizzard would create a radical new vision of a MMORPG, which combines Blizzard's attention to detail and ability to create huge amounts of content with the will to differentiate the new game from World of Warcraft in terms of gameplay. Unfortunately there is nothing in the history of Blizzard which would indicate that they are able to do that. They are the masters of perfecting existing ideas, not of coming up with new ones. I fully expect the next Blizzard MMORPG to be a great game, and I already bet that it will get more than 1 million subscribers. But I'm afraid they will get there by playing it safe, and producing a solid, graphically improved game with more or less the same gameplay as World of Warcraft.