Friday, April 30, 2010

EVE progression

As I mentioned before, the closest EVE has to linear progression is moving from very small combat ships to increasingly larger ones. I went from frigates to destroyers and cruisers, and am now training to fly battlecruisers and battleships. While a bigger ship isn't the solution to everything, especially not in PvP, it sure makes PvE missions a lot easier, and allows you to play higher level missions for better rewards. But if you look closer, bigger ships don't have all that many more slots for weapons and modules than cruisers. What they do have is a lot more CPU, and PowerGrid, which allows you to fit *bigger* weapons and better modules.

So far so good, but in EVE any new item comes with new skill requirements. So while in a few days I could theoretically buy a battlecruiser and fly it around, I could only put the same kind of weapons and modules on it that are now on my cruiser, which gives me a ship which is barely better than the cruiser I have. To use the battlecruiser effectively, I need a collection of skills to fit all those bigger guns and better modules. Helpfully there is a so-called "certificate" system, where one tab of the ship info lists the certificates you should have to effectively fly it, and the certificate planner tells you which skills you need to train up to have that certificate. That gets even easier if you use a program like EVEMon, where you can say which ship you want to fly, and the program designs the most efficient skill plan for you to get all the necessary skills. So I did that for the battlecruiser I wanted, and EVEMon gave me the list of skills I needed to train up: Total training time a bit over 92 days. 3 BLOODY MONTHS!!!! With nothing I could do in-game to speed the process up, except log on for 5 minutes every day to queue up the next skills.

At that point I remembered that I have a level 79 paladin in World of Warcraft, who will not advance at all when I don't play. But if I play I could get him to 80 quickly enough, finally use his smithing skill to craft some epic gear, do heroics for more gear, and follow the fundamental MMORPG formula of "you play, you advance your character". In EVE I can only wait and play "just for fun", only that the activities I found in EVE high security space up to now aren't all that much fun by themselves. Not even crafting and trading are much fun, because it turns out that it involves a lot of flying around to transport stuff, and flying around in high sec is rather boring. So I think I'd rather level my paladin this weekend.

Age of Conan introduces offline leveling

Age of Conan in an upcoming patch will get a new feature: Offline leveling, with you getting a level every 4 days even if you didn't play. Those levels go into a pool, from which you can distribute them to your characters. Syp from Bio Break thinks that this is a bad idea.

Given what I am playing at the moment, I couldn't help but compare AoC offline leveling to EVE offline skill training. On the one side AoC has the advantage that offline leveling is in addition to regular leveling, thus if you play more, you advance faster. On the other side I think that the EVE method works better, because skills in EVE aren't equivalent to levels. Only the skills of flying combat ships, which always have a high skill of the previous ship size as requirement, feel like linear advancement in EVE. Most other skills are more like specializations.

I still feel frustrated sometimes in EVE, when I want to do something, and the game tells me to wait X days before I can do it. But that doesn't necessarily make me want to not play, because even if I can't do what I want, I can do something else to have fun playing. The Age of Conan system sounds more like something which would actively encourage me to log off: Having trouble with some too hard enemies? Or being bored leveling in a zone you don't like? Log off, wait several days, and then skip the content. In comparison EVE is doing well, because waiting for a skill training doesn't make you skip content.

So I would agree with Syp that offline leveling in Age of Conan is a bad idea. And I share his concern when he wonders if this is "the future of MMORPGs". Offline leveling is a disguised method of selling players levels directly: Gaining X levels in a month for not playing means you paid your monthly subscription fee for those levels. Sooner or later some game will start selling levels directly, maybe as "character service" for leveling alts at first. But in a level-based game your level determines which content makes sense for you to play, and if you skip levels, you skip content. We end up with the ultimate perversion of paying a game company for the service of *not* having to play their game, getting *less* game the more we pay.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

You are not prepared!

Illidan, being unemployed for over a year now, allowed me to use his slogan. Otherwise I would have used the alternative title: "Is this still a game?". What I am talking about is the level of preparedness some players think other players should bring to a game. And it is getting silly. When I reported having gotten shot down in a level II mission in EVE, several readers informed me that the correct way to do a mission in EVE is the following:

1) You check the name of the random mission being offered.
2) You look up that name in an external mission database.
3) You refuse the mission if it is one of a handful real hard ones.
4) For the others you look up what type of damage the enemies use, and what type of damage they are especially vulnerable against.
5) You refit your ship to be resistant to the enemies damage, and to deal the damage the enemy is vulnerable against.
6) Only then do you accept the mission and start playing.

Am I the only one who thinks that this is just plain stupid? I would even call it cheating. And it isn't just EVE, there are websites explaining how to beat any given challenge in any given MMORPG, not just boss kill strategies, but also gold making guides, leveling guides, talent build guides, gear guides, bestiaries, everything, for every game. There is even a Farmville Strategy Guide, for heavens sake! How stupid have we become that we can't even play the simplest of games without a strategy guide? I can't find the link any more, but recently I read a guide on how to practice for the fight against the Lich King outside the dungeon, getting the movements towards and away from other players right, like a ballet, before going in and starting the fight. Apparently some people study harder for a session of evening entertainment than they ever studied for an exam at school or university. Is that still "playing", or is that just following a set of instructions?

Not only is that hardly a game any more, but it also serves as a giant pointer towards one of the real weak points of MMORPGs: They aren't adventures at all, they are only scripted, and therefore predictable encounters. Because the computer enemy is using a scripted set of moves, the best way to beat him for the player is to use a scripted set of countermoves. Gameplay then is reduced to rote learning that scripted set of countermoves. It is like if in Tetris the blocks would always fall in the same order, and to succeed you'd need to learn the optimal sequence of "right - right - turn - drop - left - turn - turn - drop - etc." Where is the fun in that? And as much as perfect execution of a fixed set of moves is to be admired in a ballet dancer, can we really call that "skill" in a game? If you were to suggest to those "skilled" players to try an encounter without studying it first, they'd tell you that you are crazy, and a n00b. Because hey, only a completely new player would have a silly idea like playing around with a game.

Just like Tetris is a better game for having random blocks falling down, MMORPGs would be better games if the challenges were less predictable. Because predictability is a vicious circle: The devs know that the players know that the encounter will always be the same, so the devs need to make the encounter harder to execute correctly. If the encounter had lots of random elements, there would be enough challenge in players having to think quickly, to react to what they see, to interact with the encounter, without having to demand split second reaction times. Virtual fantasy worlds have the potential to be world of wonder and exciting adventures. But instead lazy developers and minmaxing players reduced them to learning button sequences and moves by heart, with the only surprise left being the what epic from the loot table drops.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Running missions in EVE

A lot of players in EVE Online spend a large amount of time running missions. Missions are PvE content which is instanced. Now somebody is going to protest that there are no instance portals in EVE, but for all practical purposes missions are instances, that is only you and people you invite can reach them. Another player who by chance has the same quest in the same solar system will come out in a different instance, and not turn up in yours. Now there are 4 different types of missions, but mining and trading missions are very rare, so in over 95% of cases your mission will either be transporting something from A to B, or going somewhere and killing NPC ships. You can influence what type you get by what kind of agent you talk to. But the actual mission you get is a random one, out of a list of over 400 different ones.

Missions are rewarded with three things: ISK (money), standing (a reputation score with the faction you work for), and loyalty points, which can be used to buy things in a special loyalty points shop. How much you get depends on what agent gave you the mission, there are 4 levels of agents, and each agent has a quality from -20 to +20. The higher your standing with the faction, the better agents you get access to, and the more rewards you get.

Nevertheless there is a trap for new players, the difficulty of missions goes up enormously from level I to level II. While the level I missions were rather a bit too easy for me flying in my destroyer, my first level II mission Damsel in Distress turned out not so well. I warped in and was immediately surrounded by 8 frigates and a cruiser, all in range to shoot at me. I thought that if I could take out the cruiser I could warp out, repair, then come back for the easier enemies. What I didn't know was that killing the cruiser would spawn 10 more frigates, elite ones, and before I could warp out I was pulverized. I tried with a cruiser to recover the stuff from my wreck, but was forced to flee before losing that one as well. I'd need a better ship, which in EVE means waiting for the skills, to reliably do level II missions. Of course some people do them in smaller ships, but using much higher skills in everything relevant and tech 2 modules.

The annoying thing is that I did the missions for the standing, and the standing only increases at snail pace from level I missions, even with the relevant social and connections skills. I would need a standing of 8.00 to enable the use of jump clones (hearth stones), but each level I mission only raises my standing by 0.01 or 0.02. In fact I lost several missions worth of standing for not being able to complete that level II mission. So right now I'd either have to grind a huge lot of level I missions (and I'll certainly do some to learn to fly my new cruiser), or I'll need to wait for the skills for a bigger ship and do level II missions. Or I could join a group from my corp, but they usually do level IV missions, and I would be just leeching.

In summary, missions in EVE are where the game most closely resembles classic MMORPGs with quests. And curiously enough the instanced nature of the combat mission targets makes the missions feel more like a single-player game than doing quests in World of Warcraft in an open world where you might see other players on the same quest killing the same quest mobs.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The future of raiding in Cataclysm

Yesterday's question was somewhat leading, because I knew some people would reply with "there are no pure raiding games because people only raid for the gear". Which I don't think is true, I'd even say it *cannot* be true. Because the gear you get from raiding is only good for raiding, if you don't raid there is absolutely no need for the stuff: You can't use raid gear for PvP because it doesn't have resilience, and you don't need it for daily quests or heroic dungeons, because it is overpowered for that. So somehow players must find raiding inherently fun. Which makes it interesting to see how the fun changes when the basic rules of raiding change.

Blizzard just announced their vision of raiding in Cataclysm, and Spinks doesn't like it. She of course is totally correct in stating that a regular 25-man raid is logistically harder to organize than a 10-man raid. I don't agree with her assumption that a 25-man raid is also inherently more difficult; she says "25 people have to execute the fight correctly, as opposed to just 10", which just isn't true. If you did 40-man raids in vanilla WoW you know that depending on the encounter only 25 to 35 people in the raid needed to execute the fight correctly, while the rest could be tourists. Which had its own advantages for teaching new guild members how to raid. So if Blizzard, as they say, make 25-man raids as easy as 10-man raids, the larger number of people means that a few overperformers will again make a few underperformers possible, which unless your name is Gevlon is a good thing. Any restriction to group content where all participants need to be at exactly the same power and skill level makes organizing more difficult and causes problems of social cohesion.

So I would think that for guilds that *can* get 25 people together, it will be in Cataclysm even more advantageous to actually do so, because if it works like advertised, the 25-man raid will give more item drops per player, at identical difficulty level. The alternative of running 2 or 3 10-man raids in big guilds is far trickier, as there is a very real risk of an A-Team and a B-Team forming which progress at different speeds and end up splitting the guild.

It is quite possible that this announcement of changes to raiding is actually of far lesser consequence than the changes to the speed of raiding which were hinted at in various class announcements. Supposedly raiding in Cataclysm will be somewhat less button mashing twitchy, and give somewhat more opportunity to play your class well. Larger health pools compared to incoming damage and outgoing heals will result in less "lets spam the fastest heal all the time" healing, especially since mana efficiency will also make a comeback. I'm not sure if the average raider nowadays is actually able to play his class really well, or whether the last two expansions just taught him fast reaction skills without having to spend much thought on what button would be best to hit. If raiding goes back to be more similar to raiding in vanilla WoW, some people are in for a surprise, because with just the set of twitch skills they acquired in WotLK raiding they wouldn't have gotten past Razorgore. If Cataclysm raiding turns out to be like the devs said, I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Thought for the day: Pure raiding games

Whether you want to solo quests, explore fantasy lands, or do various versions of PvP, you always have the choice between MMORPGs and other games. From games like Dragon Age: Origins to Team Fortress 2, the various different gameplay modes of MMORPGs also exist in smaller games, which focus on just one pure aspect. If you just like one mode of gameplay, you can play such a specialized game and avoid monthly fees. All except for raiding: There is no game that offers raiding that isn't a MMORPG, which means you not only have to pay monthly fees, you also have to level up through modes of gameplay you might not like so much only to get access to the raid endgame.

Why is that so? Why is there no pure raiding game without a persistent world?

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

How would Blizzard make a game like EVE?

EVE Online and World of Warcraft are obviously very different MMORPGs. But they are both MMORPGs, belong to the same genre of games, and share quite a lot of features. From the various people speculating how Blizzard's next MMORPG is going to look like, several proposed some sort of space game, because Blizzard said they wanted to make something different. So what if Mike Morhaime is secretly playing EVE Online and decided he wants to make a Blizzard version of it? How would an EVE-like game look if Blizzard would make it? I mean, copy and refine is the usual Blizzard style, so why not copy and refine EVE? I'm not saying that this is extremely likely, but it is an interesting thought experiment.

Obviously if Blizzard made an EVE-like game, they would want it to have far more players, preferably several million of them. Which means the game has to be more accessible than the CCP version. On the other hand they can't just make some sort of "WoW in space", because that would clash with their idea of making something very different to not canibalize WoW subscription numbers. So our task here is to look which are the core features of EVE which should be kept, and which other features need work to make the game a multi-million player hit.

The core of EVE gameplay would remain, with minor variations. Blizzard's version of EVE would still be a sandbox game, that means no levels and no reward structure leading players down a linear path to max level. There would still be a lawless part of space with free-for-all PvP and the ability for guilds and alliances to conquer the stars. But players would start in the very inner part of the galaxy, where life would be even safer than it is in EVE's high security space, with absolutely no PvP, stealing, or ganking possible. Instead of a 1.0 to 0.0 security level, there would just be 4 steps, from safest to least safe, with the second being about equivalent to current high sec, the third to low sec, and the fourth to null sec. New players would get a warning before entering a less safe sector. Blizzard's EVE would have trading, mining, scanning, exploration of wormholes, and all the other various features of the current EVE.

The first thing to improve would definitely be the user interface. But apart from the easy to say and hard to do "make a better standard user interface", Blizzard's EVE should have a LUA-based user interface with the ability of players to modify it with addons. WoW's original user interface was okay, but it was by letting players modify it, and then adopting the most popular modifications, that WoW's user interface got to where it is now. The continuous improvement to the user interface through player-created addons is something that the Blizzard EVE would need.

The next thing to tackle would be EVE's famous vertical difficulty curve. "Difficulty" in EVE has nothing to do with lets say the difficulty of raiding ICC on heroic, fast reflexes are very little in demand. The vertical nature of the EVE difficulty curve comes from the game doing a lousy job of teaching you how to play it. The game is very complex, which is good, but often the player is left alone with that complexity, which is bad. To make matters even less user friendly, sometimes there are layers of unnecessary fluff which only confuse, e.g. there are 13 different mining lasers, many of which are just minor variations. Thus in the Blizzard version of EVE, there would be somewhat less items, but better structured, and it would be easier to follow the relations between stats, skills, and items. It should be easy to find *in game* what skills you could learn or what modules you could install if you want to increase lets say your CPU value.

A big part of the better accessibility would be the mission (quest) system. As we want to remain true to the basic sandbox design, in which players don't run after rewards all the time, Blizzard's EVE would have a very different basic gameplay from WoW. To quote one of my favorite characters from WoW, the troll Drakkuru, "For your efforts, you be gettin' da greatest of rewards.... Revelation!": Besides making a little money, and improving your faction standing, missions would mainly be there to teach you the game. Instead of just having relatively few career missions and lots of random missions, basically all of the low level missions would be teaching players about the many aspects of the game. Every sort of gameplay the game offers would be covered by several quests, which from basic to advanced explain everything there is to know. And once done, these explanations would remain in a sort of tome of knowledge for future reference.

What probably needs some minor adjustment is the skill system. The "learning" skills, which only speed up the other skills' learning would have to go. Instead there could be learning speed bonuses for people who did all the missions related to a particular skill, including a system to enable people to find those missions easily. So the advantages of the EVE skill system could be kept, while making the system somewhat more encouraging for players to actually play the game.

I'll leave it to the guys from Blizzard to improve mining, there must be a way to make it more interesting, but I'm not quite sure how. Turn it into an interactive mini-game? There must be something that can be done to make the most basic economic activity somewhat more interesting. I'm also not quite sure whether to leave the legal RMT in. At least legal RMT somewhat limits the illicit version, and it might be more acceptable in a game where you can lose whatever you bought. The system where only one character per account can skill up can also remain, it seems to be the most acceptable of the business models which makes people who play more pay more.

Of course that is only one example of how such a game could look. But what I hope to have made clear is that with some minor changes any MMORPG can be made more accessible. Throw enough money and design skill at the project, and you can get an accessible and polished game out of any core gameplay. I don't really think Blizzard is planning a version of EVE, but I wouldn't be surprised if their next game was a bit more open world, sandbox type of game, to attract a different kind of player than World of Warcraft does.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

I'm not promising I answer all of them, but this is the place where you can post your questions to me, make suggestions about what I should blog, or just discuss off-topic stuff among readers.

EVE has a login queue?

Hmmm, I just wanted to log into EVE, and got a message that my "cluster" was full, and that I was #12 in the queue to log in. I didn't know EVE had a login queue. Isn't this game supposed to run all on one server able to hold everyone at once? Curious!

Friday, April 23, 2010

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Maximizing viewer numbers?

In the open Sunday thread a reader asked: "Hey I am brand new to blogging, and I was just wonder what advice you could give to someone who was just starting out. It looks like you get alot of Views". Meanwhile at Kill Ten Rats Ravious wrote about unsubscribing from blogs, saying "The blogs that begin with a purview and an aim to acquire an audience become disingenuous, possibly even disloyal, when all of the sudden the blogger decides that the blog article topics were really up to the whim of the blogger in the first place." There is a general impression in the blogosphere that bloggers blog to "acquire an audience", "get alot of Views", and maybe ultimately monetize viewer numbers. I think that idea is nonsense, an artifact of the dot.com boom which survived the bust, and where you measured your success in "eyeballs". Yuck!

Lets deal with the monetization issue first: Most successful bloggers are intelligent and articulate people, which doesn't fit at all with the idea that they are in it for the money, because making money with blogging is one of the worst possible business ideas, ranking right next to selling fridges at the north pole. I have the donation button for you to be able to express your appreciation, and for me to be vain and bask in the glow of that appreciation, but as a money-making scheme this pays considerably less than minimum wages. I'd make more money if I started selling my WoW gold. And from the limited information available it seem that putting up ads from lets say Google Adsense on a typical blog also only results in a laughable income stream which isn't worth the bother. If you wanted to make money from a blog, you'd need to scam people, that is first get your reader numbers up and then persuade them to buy something completely useless, like a gold-making or leveling guide you compiled from information available for free. I recently saw an advertisement on Facebook for a PC software which would allow you to watch thousands of TV channels in HD on your computer. It looked fishy, so I googled it, and found the first page of Google full of blogs praising that product. Only those blogs were all fake, containing nothing than those entries praising this one single product, and then having been boosted in Google pagerank by various methods of "search engine optimization" (SEO). Only the YouTube entry on the product was real, and showed that the software was a scam, had only a fraction of the number of TV channels advertised, only a few of which actually worked, and those were in low resolution. That is the way to make money with a blog if you wanted to. Sad as it is, intelligently written comments on something are worth considerably less on the internet than such scams.

So apart from money, why do bloggers like to have lots of viewers? I think most of us write because we are passionate about something, and want to make our opinions heard. The more people read what we write, the better. The flaw in that reasoning is that spreading the word is not something that only depends on pure numbers. A reader who just reads your post title, considers it as "tl;dr" and moves on might show up on whatever counter you installed to count visitor numbers, but isn't really helping you to "spread the word". The much, much smaller number of visitors who comment on your blog, or even write about your post on their blog, are much more valuable in that respect. Thus applying search engine optimization methods to boost your blog isn't really helping all that much.

For the same reason, a reader who lost interest in what you are writing isn't really a loss when he "unsubscribes". Already the term "unsubscribe" is somewhat inaccurate, because our readers never subscribed, at least not in the sense of a paid subscription. They might have added us to their newsreader or list of favorites, but that is all. The blogger probably doesn't even notice the "loss" of that reader.

If the purpose of your blog is to spread your opinion on something you feel passionate about, then it is only logical that the content of the blog changes with the passions of the blogger. Just because somebody started a blog about, lets say, tanking with a Death Knight in World of Warcraft, it doesn't mean that he is for eternity condemned to write about that. What if he decides to play his Death Knight as dps? What if he decides to switch to a different class? What if he decides to switch to a different game? After all, of course a reader of this blog with a Death Knight tank would probably "unsubscribe" the moment this happened to him, because he wouldn't be interested in the subject any more. So why shouldn't the blogger have the right to change the subject matter of his blog? I would say it is better to continue to write passionately about a new subject that now interests you more, than to stick to the old subject out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, and inevitably lose the quality and passion of your writing.

The last thing I would like to mention is the example Ravious mentioned of a blog which changed not just subject, but tone. He didn't say which blog, apart from specifying that he didn't mean me switching from WoW to EVE when he mentioned a blog "plunging in to some dark abyss" :). I would guess that the blogger in question is going through some personal difficult phase, which is why his writing changed. Blogs written by a single person are inevitably reflecting the mood of that person, and moods change with the circumstances. I'd compare that with somebody outgoing who is throwing a lot of parties and having a lot of "friends": The day he has personal problems and isn't the guy throwing all the parties any more, he is going to lose a lot of those "friends". But those who remain and help him get on his feet again are his true friends, and not just the fair weather variety. Following a blog through various moods and phases is a bit like that, and the readers who are willing to listen to and discuss with a blogger regardless of subject and mood are of much higher value to the blogger than those who "unsubscribe" the second something changes, or the discussion drifts into more personal subjects.

So in summary the only advice I can give the person on how to blog is to remain true to yourself, and don't worry about maximizing viewer numbers. It is the quality of your readers that count. The quantity is something that can quite easily be manipulated, and isn't actually useful for anything more than serving as epeen meter.

Tell me what you think about EVE skills

I was browsing my newsreader and stumbled upon this blog post from the Nomadic Gamer. I'll quote the main part of her post here:
My 2nd account has been training Hull Upgrades V for the last 12 days and today I finally have a smidgen of free time in the Queue. Once this skill is completed it’s back to training for the Dominix which should take seven days. I’m excited about flying this ship, as my second account has been doing nothing but training for the last few months and hauling for my main account. My main account also has free time in her queue this morning, after finishing up Gallentean Starship Engineering IV which will allow me to work with a L4 R&D agent (for those specific cores at least) as well as granting me a much higher amount of RP a day. I should be able to purchase an entire core a day, which really pleases me. Another day or two and I’ll be able to purchase enough for another hulk blueprint attempt. I’ve been putting off finishing up training for the hulk because it’s a 23d training skill and that seems like such an incredibly long time to go without seeing the message that makes me so happy. I keep reminding myself that I’m in this for the long haul, and that flying the hulk instead of the retriever will be well worth it. Some how, that hasn’t been enough to convince me to put Mining Barge V into the queue. Maybe today will be the day.
When reading this, two thoughts shot through my head. One was that hey, I already understand enough of EVE and terms used to discuss it to completely understand the meaning of this paragraph. The other thought was that while intellectually understanding what she says, concepts like "my second account has been doing nothing but training for the last few months" or learning a skill for 23 days of waiting feel still extremely foreign and weird to me.

I had the impression that it was mostly EVE players who commented on my previous EVE posts. But what I would like is to launch a discussion between people who play EVE and those who don't about what you all think about the quoted paragraph describing a typical player's interaction with the EVE skill queue. Am I the only one who thinks it is weird to have a second account on which you *don't* play for several months and just train skills? Or would you say I got infected by the attention deficit disorder culture of instant gratification, and EVE is the more Zen way to play MMORPGs? Whether you play EVE or not, I would like to hear what you think!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

If you make me think, I quit!

Muqq from Ensidia wrote a long "I quit" piece on Ensidia's blog section, which contained one really curious phrase: "Not only did the limited attempts force progress guilds to create alt raids to try out the encounters beforehand, we also had to cherish each attempt, inducing long tactical playthroughs and discussions before actually making an actual attempt. We spent much more time playing the game less, a strange paradox indeed." (Emphasis mine) Maybe he should have tried sleeping on it instead. I knew that most guilds coming after the server firsts use canned tactics from YouTube or other boss killing strategy sites. I wasn't aware that even Ensidia complains if they have to actually sit down and think and discuss strategy to kill a new boss, instead of just rushing in and "actually playing".

I found Larisa's view of battling the Lich King far more interesting, because it confirms my fear that Icecrown is yet another rather twitchy raid, where fast reaction time decides whether you live and die. She says "You need the reaction time of a teenager brought up on Nintendo and FPS games as well as a very good, lag free internet connection, or you’re screwed.", and I simply don't have that reaction time, being neither a teenager any more, nor a player of FPS games.

Combine the two posts and you get a pretty accurate description of why I don't raid any more: The world's top guilds are dominated by people who hate having to discuss strategy, and the non twitchy demographic is left wiping 38 times because they are lacking some fraction of a second in reaction time. Now Blizzard promised us that with Cataclysm activities like raid healing would become less twitchy and more strategic, but of course that only helps if the encounter itself doesn't force you to react very fast or die. I would rather see raid encounters becoming less predictable, thus forcing raids to discuss strategy more, while at the same time becoming less twitchy.

Funnily enough I agree with a lot of what Muqq is saying in the rest of his "I quit" post: Like him I'd prefer if there was a middle ground, or better a continuous increase in difficulty from the easiest to the hardest difficulty level of content. And I would prefer if you had slow and steady character progression, instead of farming easy heroics to a point where the epic rewards make most of the existing raid dungeons obsolete. I'm happy I did at least Naxxramas when I still had the chance, because now I can't go there with alts, because everybody figured out that from a "gear score requirement difficulty" point of view it is easier to just bypass Naxx and Ulduar by running heroics. Can't Blizzard see that a trade chat full of "LFM ICC PuG raid, 6k gearscore", with not a single raid to Naxxramas or Ulduar being organized is not the kind of character progression curve this game should have?

The perfect raid end game in my opinion has a very easy first starting dungeon, and then gets gradually harder. But the "harder" challenges are designed in a way that it takes a mix of better gear and faster reflexes to overcome them, with a possibility for people who don't have the latter to still advance by gathering more of the former. Thus the top guilds with the players with the fastest reflexes still get the server firsts. But the regular people just advance slower, having to run dungeon X more often before being able to succeed in dungeon X+1. I don't know whether that was the original plan for Wrath of the Lich King, but I do know that heroics giving rewards better than Ulduar killed that progression. And if Larisa's description is right, not even a 6k gearscore from grinding emblems of frost would suffice for me to Icecrown Citadel, because the twitch requirements aren't such that they can be overcome with better gear. I find it ironic that Blizzard first does the right move by making an accessible entry level raid dungeon, and then kills it by making its rewards obsolete. Great, the content I can do, heroics, is getting too easy and repetitive, and the next available step is already too twitchy for me. Why is there no middle ground?

Strange new business model

Via Syp I found Stylish Corpse's blog entry on the new EQ2 Pass, a new business model from SOE. It allows existing players who have cancelled their subscription to jump back into the game for 3 consecutive days for $5. The ad suggests this would be great for "game update events, bonus xp weekends, multiboxing, special promotions, and Station Cash sales". Me, I'm rather doubtful whether this is a good idea, and whether it will have many takers.

One problem is the complexity of MMORPGs. I had the experience several times where I came back to a game I previously played and had left for some time, and that invariably ends with me feeling a bit lost. Meanwhile you got used to the control scheme of whatever game you were playing in your break, you forgot where the quest giver was who gave you that quest a year ago, and you don't necessarily remember what you wanted with all those strange items in your backpack. And of course the people who stayed have moved on too, and the game developed with patches and expansion while you were gone. Imagine you logged out in Shattrath two years ago, which was fully crowded then, and you log back in today and find yourself alone there, with your talent build reset, and lots of other game changes you aren't aware of. Playing a game after a long break for just three days will is barely enough to get you reaquainted and up to date with the game.

The other problem is the fundamental motivation why people play MMORPGs. I would say that in most cases the motivation for playing a MMORPG is relatively long term. Character development is the cornerstone of MMORPG gameplay. Another important motivational factor is social interaction, with the online friends you made. Logging back into a game for three days isn't going to do much for your character development, and depending on the length of your absence your friends might or might not be there any more. I once found myself guildkicked after a 7-months break from WoW, and in another case when I looked back into LotRO I was presented with a rather funny button asking me whether I wanted to "usurp" the guild leadership, as the guild leader and all the other members hadn't been online for months either.

In summary, I could imagine somebody wanting to play a single-player game, anything from Tetris to Call of Duty, once in a while for a three-day gaming binge. But MMORPGs don't really lend themselves to that sort of short burst playing periods. And if its just to see the game again, you could save yourself $5 and just sign up for a 10-day or 14-day free trial that most subscription MMORPGs offer nowadays.

What do you think? Is there any game you left where you would like to pay $5 to play for a weekend, gain a level, and then not touch the game again for several months until the next short 3-day gaming session?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hopes and fears for exploration in Cataclysm

Among the various new features promised for the upcoming Cataclysm expansion of World of Warcraft, one that interests me a lot is the new archaeology secondary profession. This works supposedly by you searching through ruins and finding "notes" , which then can be combined into "ancient glyphs", which are used to give your character further bonuses independant of the inscription glyph system.

Now according to the Bartle Test, I'm an explorer. So I have high hopes for this new system leading to some real opportunity to explore the lands of Azeroth. Ideally these ruins would pop up randomly all over the world, thus by you running around and looking under every bush and stone, visiting the most remote and least populated places you'd have the best chances to find those notes and artifacts.

But what I'm afraid of is that there will be only a handful of ruin "spawn" points, always at the same locations, and before the expansion is even released we'll have all the coordinates of all possible ruins listed on some website. Or that you don't need to explore to find them, because with the archaeology skill they will show up as golden spots on your minimap, just like herb or ore nodes. Even worse, if there are in the early days far more people interested in ruins than there are ruin spawn points, we'll see half a dozen people standing around the same spot, seeing who can click fastest when the ruin finally pops.

As you can see there is a huge span between my highest hopes and my deepest fears. How can that be? Because if you look at it closer, you will find that feature announcements not really tell you very much. In a press release even a game like Tabula Rasa sounds great, and then it shuts down because in reality it wasn't all that great. Often players think they know what a feature means, but if you look at various implementations of the same feature, lets say "player housing" in Ultima Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Final Fantasy XI and Star Wars Galaxies, you'll have 4 completely different systems which have very little in common. A few lines of text on the official site, like "Archaeology: Master a new secondary profession to unearth valuable artifacts and earn unique rewards." plus some developer words in a blue post or pronounced on some panel during Blizzcon isn't really telling us much about how the new feature will actually work.

And this example is why my blog talks very little about upcoming games and expansions, maybe mentioning various announcements without going too deep into analysis of what was said. I *am* looking forward to various future games, from Cataclysm to Star Wars: The Old Republic. But I don't feel comfortable of saying too much about a game before I haven't even played the beta. Remember the vast network of Warhammer Online blogs which were created before the game was even in beta? Most of them shut down a few months after release, because reality didn't live up to what people had imagined based on feature announcements and developer videos. I can imagine a dozen different systems for archeology in Cataclysm, and still never get the guess exactly right. So why bother with speculation? Safer to wait and see, at least until the beta.

Why there ain't no sparkly ponies in EVE

After the first wave of outrage against Blizzard selling $25 horses, some people started wondering how we got there. How did we arrive at a situation where Blizzard not only has the idea to sell a mount for $25, but also gets hundreds of thousands of players buying one? The reason why people are asking that question is that deep in their heart they know the answer, and they don't like that answer at all, because it doesn't reflect nicely upon us as players:

We started out with a game in which people played and were rewarded with virtual goods for playing. That over time evolved into a situation where we valued the virtual rewards more than the gameplay leading to it. People began to minmax, to "optimize the fun out of playing", trying to get to the reward in the fastest possible way, regardless of whether that way was fun to play or not. And the developers saw that, and said: "Well, if you want only the virtual reward and not the gameplay, we are quite willing to sell you that directly!". In short, the players are as much to blame for this than the developers or "greedy" managers.

Now I'm certainly not immune to the draw of virtual rewards. For example I ran heroic dungeons with my level 80 characters until they were fully or nearly fully equipped with emblem of triumph gear, and then stopped when the only thing to look forward to was minor upgrades or long grinds of emblems of frost. But in other situations I'm quite capable of heading down the least efficient route, trying to have more fun at the expense of getting less rewards. I'm generally a slow leveler because of that.

Knowing well the two paths, I quickly realized when playing EVE that the "playing for rewards" path is not the EVE way. In fact, if EVE teaches you anything, it is to be not too attached to your virtual goods, because you are quite likely to lose them. Seen like that, the real time skill advancement system of EVE makes more sense: There is deliberately no link between gameplay and advancement, so you don't play for the rewards. Of course that design philosophy has different problems, like people not being so motivated to play if there are no character advancement rewards connected to it (aka the "EVE Offline" problem). But it does have the advantage that people are less obsessed with the rewards, and more interested in the gameplay. Thus no sparkly pony in EVE: It would be difficult to imagine CCP selling virtual items, like an extra sparkly space ship which is then just going to be a prime target for gankers.

The fact that "having" something isn't as important as how to get there also changes the perspective on RMT. It matters surprisingly little how many million ISK you have. It is how many million ISK you *make* that confers a certain status towards your fellow players. Many EVE players are quite generous towards new players, handing out advice and items or cash. Of course you quickly learn not to depend on that, that container flying in space labeled "free newbie items" might well be a trap, and have a cloaked ship close to it, shooting you down for "stealing" from a can that doesn't belong to you when you dare to take something. But ultimately opportunities to make money are more than plentiful, and if you don't constantly get shot down in low sec space you are likely to always have enough money.

And if you have enough money, you also have all the items you could possibly use. There is no such thing as bind-on-pickup rewards in EVE Online. Yes, you can shoot down a pirate and find a useful module in his wreck. But you'll find the same module on the market, and as long as you don't have exotic skills at high level, every module you can actually use is something mass produced and relatively cheap. Thus when you get shot down and lose all your modules, none of them is irreplaceable, and you don't need to kill raid boss X again and be lucky with the random loot drop to get the item you want, you can simply buy everything in the auction house somewhere. Thus EVE rule number 1: Never use anything you can't afford to replace when you lose it.

One consequence of that is that people in EVE are less attached to their virtual belongings. Spinks asked in a comment whether veteran EVE players were "hardcore" and looked down on newbies. I didn't get the impression. You are far more likely to meet an elitist jerk in the trade chat in WoW, where recently I observed somebody organizing a raid with a 5128 gearscore minimum; why such an exact number? Because that was exactly the gearscore he had, and everybody having even 1 point less was obviously a clueless n00b. EVE players tend to be less boastful about their "gear", because who knows whether they still have it tomorrow.

While it is interesting to play a game with such a very different basic design philosophy, I'm not ready to declare the EVE model as "better" or "worse" than the reward model. Maybe some people who are currently sprouting doomsday scenarios of how we are all going to have games with no gameplay and only rewards for cash should play EVE for a while to see how the other extreme looks. Because the "getting rewards for playing" model has some huge advantages, and is easier accessible for most people. And even in a reward-based game, rewards for cash aren't likely to take over and displace gameplay. Just imagine Blizzard had not released one $25 mount, but a dozen of them simultaneously; would they have made a dozen times more money? Most probably they would just barely have made more than with the single mount. The "buying rewards" business isn't all that scaleable, and it requires there being a big game that people actually have fun playing behind it to work at all.

Monday, April 19, 2010

EVE mining

Mining in EVE Online is a relatively simple affair. You fly out to one of the many asteroid belts, target a rock, start your mining laser, and wait. Every minute (or every 3 minutes if you have a specialized mining barge with a strip mining laser) a load of ore is delivered to your cargo hold. Voila, instant wealth! Only of course the amount of ore you can mine in a minute in a totally safe space isn't worth very much.

Once you move away from the sectors with the highest security level, you will find NPC pirates in the asteroid belts. They don't respawn very fast, thus you can go to the asteroid belt with a combat ship, shoot down the pirates ("rats"), go back to the station, switch to your mining ship, and go back to the asteroid belt to mine for a while until the rats are back. But once you enter space with a security level of less than 0.5, your problem will mostly be player pirates, against whom that method obviously won't work.

The other problem of mining is cargo hold. Except for specialized mining barges (If I wanted to fly one, I'd need to spend over 10 days of skill training for the minimum required skills), ships in EVE Online come in two types: Ships with large cargo hold which have zero or one turrets on which to install a mining laser, or ships with several turrets which have a small cargo hold. If you take the former, you'll get very little ore per minute, but in a safe spot you can mine afk for an hour until your hold is full. Not efficient, but on my dual screen setup I can put EVE on the second screen and do something else on the main screen. The more common method is to use a ship with several mining lasers, in which case your cargo hold will be full after a few minutes. Then you have two options: The slower, but safer method is to fly back to the station, unload, fly back out, and restart mining. The more risky method is to "jettison" your ore into space, which will create a cargo container or "can" floating next to you in space which has a huge volume. So you mine, and every couple of minutes you shift your ore from your cargo hold into the can. Once the can is full, you fly back to the station, switch to a ship with a big cargo hold, fly back to the can, and get the ore. But cans aren't safe, anyone can come and steal your ore, if he doesn't mind that this flags him as being attackable by you and your corporation (guild) for 15 minutes.

Ideally you'd have a combat ship, a mining ship, and a ship to transport the ore with. Lots of EVE players have multiple accounts, and run such an operation by multiboxing. But at a larger scale many corporations organize mining events, a "raid" on an asteroid belt so to say. Some players mine, others transport the ore, and a third group is in combat ships keeping everyone safe. Corporate mining is pretty much the only way one can mine in low sec space.

I participated in a corporate mining operation Sunday evening, for four-and-a-half hours. Due to me new to the game I only had a small frigate to mine with, with two mining lasers, and a cargo hold that couldn't even hold three minutes worth of mining (and that with modules to increase cargo hold). So every two minutes I shifted my ore from the cargo hold to the can. When the rock I had targeted was empty, I shifted to the next rock, and when the asteroid belt we mined was empty, we shifted to the next belt. That was all. 4.5 hours of clicking every two minutes to move ore from the hold to the can. Incredibly boring as a gameplay activity. Of course pretty much everyone in the mining operation was bored, so we had lots of time to chat. It reminded me a bit of Everquest, where the developers deliberately forced groups to "meditate" for minutes between combats to regenerate mana, to encourage groups to chat. I understand the idea, but already back in EQ that sort of downtime to enforce social interaction wasn't really popular. And personally while I do like to chat sometimes, over 4 hours of chatting is a bit too much for me. So in case you noticed yesterday had two rather long blog entries: Those were written while mining Sunday night.

The one redeeming feature of mining in EVE is that whatever you do, you produce something useful. Even if you are in your newbie ship on the tutorial mission to mine Veldspar and refine it to Tritanium, the Tritanium is not just used for "low level" items, like mining copper in World of Warcraft would be. While not extremely valuable, Tritanium is used for manufacturing pretty much everything, so there is a solid market for it. The further you advance in mining, to rarer ores, the more advanced metals you get, but Tritanium is usually still a part of the mix of metals refining advanced ores gives you. Thus unlike WoW you don't have a situation where low level resource gathering only produces material for low level crafting of items for low level characters. Much better economic integration of new players is a good thing. But mining in EVE is still boring.

An inconvenient truth

What do you call a middle-aged geek?

Rich!

While of course bad jokes aren't accurate pictures of the truth, there is an obvious link between geekiness and earning potential. Not every geek ends up as a quant in investment banking, but there are a whole lot of average geeks out there with a degree in engineering or science, and job prospects and salaries are good in that area. Why do I talk about that on a MMORPG blog? Because middle-aged geeks are an increasingly important demographic for MMORPGs. The people who played Dungeons & Dragons or the first computer games on the C64 during the 80's at college are now playing World of Warcraft. And nowadays they have a lot more money.

But compared to other hobbies that well-off people tend to pursue, like skiing or golf, playing a MMORPG is incredibly cheap. For the price of a single high-end golf club, you can play World of Warcraft for a year, and buy an expansion to boot. Computer games are still priced like children's toys, but the people playing them often aren't children any more, and have much more disposable income.

Game companies are waking up to this, and their answer is an obvious one: Price differentiation. Price the game in a way that children, teenagers, and the less fortunate still can afford the basic version. And sell luxury to those players that have too much money (and often not enough time) on their hands.

And that works! Hundreds of thousands of people bought the sparkly pony for $25. And sometimes you don't even need to sell something. To my great surprise one person donated $100 to my blog. As much as some people might rail against the "unfairness" of expensive extras, the money and the demand is clearly there, just waiting for game companies to cash in. That doesn't mean there won't be any affordable games in the future, price differentiation works by offering something for everyone. But we will see more additional offers. The sparkly pony isn't much good as a status symbol, because too many people have one, so how about a $100 sparkly dragon? And there might be additional services as well, like premium accounts with better customer service. That is about as "unfair" as 5-star hotels and Rolex watches are "unfair".

As much as we enjoy the escape into virtual world, the inconvenient truth is that the real world isn't egalitarian at all, and even virtual worlds run on real world servers that cost money, and require real world people to run them who want salaries. The economic realities of the real world swap over into the virtual world, and this is a trend that will only become stronger. More merchandising, more virtual goods, more premium services, that is the future of MMORPGs. Because companies are under a moral obligation to maximize profits to the benefit of their shareholders, they are not welfare organizations for the benefit of those with no money and too much time. And game designers who want to express themselves artistically will make indie games, because, frankly, expressing yourself artistically while spending the $50 million of an investor to make a game that flops isn't exactly moral either.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Game time card adventures

Thanks to the generosity of my readers, I can now pay for my MMO subscriptions with donations. Which means paying for them with Paypal, preferably. Now some games, including EVE Online, accept Paypal as payment method. World of Warcraft in the US does. But curiously enough, World of Warcraft in Europe does not accept Paypal. So I started looking into buying a WoW game card.

Now some time ago I received a mail from Yolto, a company that developed a "robot" which you can put on your blog or website to sell game cards and earn a share of the profits. I declined that offer, but got into a nice chat with them about the game card business, which is a tricky business, because there are both honest merchants and scammers. The reason why we discussed that was that I was surprised that a 60-day gamecard for World of Warcraft at Yolto cost *less* than two months subscription paid by credit card. Old internet saying, if something looks too good to be true, it usually isn't. But then I explored game cards a bit more, and found out that even at Amazon.de a World of Warcraft EU game card only costs €20.90, which is about 20% less than paying 2 times €12.99. It is even cheaper to buy three EU game cards than to buy one six-month subscription for €65.94.

Now Amazon is selling you a physical game card, which you have to scratch off to get your code and your added game time. Safe, but not fast, because it arrives by snail mail. Most online game card sellers do the scratching for you and send you the code by e-mail. Faster, but not as safe, because Paypal doesn't refund money for items not received if that item was a virtual good. Thus you need to find a trusted site to buy game cards via e-mail. So, to give them some free advertising, I can confirm that my WoW 60-day EU game card code I bought from Yolto for $28.25 did arrive fast, with no problem except for a short delay for verification, sent by SMS on my mobile phone. But I'm still not interested to put that game card selling application on my blog. :) Once I got the code, I applied it to my World of Warcraft Battle.net account. Note that you can "insert" a game time card into a regular subscription without having to cancel your credit card subscription. You just need to remove the "Cancel Recurring Subscription Plan" checkmark on the page after you applied the code to your account.

Meanwhile in EVE I finished all the career agent missions, so I had a couple of millions of ISK and enough knowledge of the game to know how to make more. So I wasn't that afraid any more that buying ISK would mean I would skip content. CCP is selling 60-day EVE game cards in physical form. But they do have a list of official EVE game card resellers, which makes finding a honest merchant easier. Cheapest price I could find was $32.99, thus EVE is more expensive than WoW.

CCP is offering a helpful guide on how to use EVE time cards. You convert your 60-day game card code into two 30-day Pilot's License Extension (PLEX) virtual in-game items. These can either be applied to extend your subscription, or they can be sold on the market. They can NOT be transported, thus if you want to sell them you FIRST need to move to where you get a good price and THEN enter the code. This restriction on transport is done so you can't get shot down and robbed with a PLEX in your cargo hold. So I converted my EVE time card into 2 PLEX, sold one for 286 million ISK, and applied the other to extend my subscription until June. Which shows that I'm having fun playing EVE and want to play some more, at least during the pre-Cataclysm lull in World of Warcraft.

Well, so now I know a bit more about game time cards, and the experience was generally a good one. I didn't get scammed, and never had to wait more than half a day to get my codes. And I even saved money by switching my regular World of Warcraft subscription to game card mode.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

The thread for everything off topic, including questions to me, suggestions what to blog about, or games you think I should look at.

Friday, April 16, 2010

MMO Future Shock documentary

Gamersfilm sent me a link to their first episode of MMO Future Shock, a documentary about the MMO market. They claim that there are 180 million MMO players, the MMO market is worth $5 billion out of the $40 billion video games market, and that it has a 17% annual growth rate, which will bring it up to $16 billion per year out of a $60 billion video game market in 2012. The video then goes on to explore how the trend changes from subscription games to Free2Play games.

It is an interesting video, with the only caveat that it also kind of advertises the games from the people that were interviewed, and these games aren't necessarily all that outstanding or representative of trends as their makers claim.

Volunteer needed to update EVE guide

Gravity from pwnwear, a World of Warcraft Death Knight tanking blog, also has a site with an EVE newbie guide, targeted specifically at WoW players, to help them over the culture shock. But as he isn't playing EVE any more, he asked me to spread the word that he is looking for a volunteer to update and maintain it. If that would be something you'd like to do, you can contact him at gravity@pwnwear.com.

Personal EVE news

I have news about my EVE playing, a good one and a bad one. The good one is that I joined a medium-sized corporation, after being invited by one of my readers. The bad news is that me playing EVE caused an unexpected amount of angry rage among some bloggers. Basically I'm being accused to play EVE only to be more convincingly able to badmouth it. Yeah, sure, as if I hadn't anything better to do than to explicitely try not to have fun in a game, just to spite the people who like that game.

Fact is that I do have fun, which is why I still keep playing. Learning how a game works is often fun, and there is a lot to learn in EVE Online. But that doesn't turn me into a mindless drone fanboi. Every game has good sides and bad sides, and sometimes things are neither good nor bad, but just different. I observe, I analyze, and I write about my experiences. If I make some statement about EVE like "mining is boring", you need to read that as "I tried mining and found it to be boring for me personally". Now I tend to have rather middle-of-the-road tastes in gaming, so you could also read it as "some new players trying mining in EVE find it boring". What you should definitely not read it as is "MMORPG guru Tobold made a final judgement about EVE and declared it is a bad game". I'm simply not as authorative as that, and never wanted to be. Even subscriptions numbers, flawed as they are as a measure of how good a game is, are a better indicator of whether a game is good or bad than any single blogger's opinion, reviews, and other posts, mine included.

I sometimes wonder whether video games are the new religion of our secular age. Some people really behave just like religious nutters about their favorite game, treating any open discussion about it as "blasphemy".

I do believe that by playing very different games and writing about them, I can give a larger view of the MMORPG genre and all its possible features in general. Not just a narrow question of whether game X is good or bad. But for example the discussion of whether a real time based advancement system is a good idea or a bad idea for any MMORPG, the disconnect some people feel when their advancement is independant of their actions vs. the freedom that not having to do anything specific to advance grants you. Or the question why for some people buying in-game currency with game time cards is acceptable, while buying a sparkly pony is evil. There has been some excellent discussion about questions like these on this blog this week, for which I want to thank all participants.

Nevertheless, as some rabid EVE players are out there, I had to decide not to make my character name nor the name of the corporation I joined public. The last thing I want is thanking the friendly people that invited me by getting them war dec'd by somebody who didn't like me writing anything else but glowing praise about EVE Online. It is worrying how much hate some people can produce over a completely unimportant issue like some feature in some video game.

Sparkly Pony

So after non-combat pets Blizzard started selling mounts for $25, and immediately finds a hundred thousand buyers on the first day, or more, because those 90,000 people queue observed was only for the US version of World of Warcraft. Note that unlike mounts sold by several Free2Play games, the Celestial Steed of World of Warcraft is pure fluff. It is just a sparkly pony, looking cool, but it moves in exactly the same way and same speed as your existing mounts. That is if you already have the epic flying riding skill, your sparkly pony will move at epic flyer speed. But if you are at an earlier stage and due to level or lack of gold have less riding skill, the sparkly pony will be slower. In other words, you are paying $25 for something that has no real game advantage at all.

And in my eyes that makes this "good RMT". The sparkly pony does not make any game content obsolete, nor does pretend that the buyer reached some epic achievement. If you see somebody on a sparkly pony, you know he spent $25 on it (or €20). Is that an excessive amount of money for something nobody really needs? Most certainly! But does that make selling it, or buying it for that matter, wrong? I don't think so. Buying something excessively expensive that doesn't do anything more than a much cheaper regular version is called luxury, and most people like luxury if they can afford it. Actually people like luxury so much that they are even willing to fake it, thus fake Rolex watches and fake Louis Vuitton handbags.

Does wanting a luxury item which isn't even real, but just virtual, make any sense? Well, I'd say it doesn't make less sense than grinding something in game for many hours to get a similar item. Some of my characters do have "special" epic flying mounts like the Nether Drake mount. I wouldn't call a reputation grind an "achievement", so whether I spend X hours on getting a special mount or I spend X dollars is pretty much the same to me. Some people would do neither, some value their time more than their money, and for some it's vice versa.

Blizzard is going to make millions of dollars with this. Which will prompt them to offer more and similar items in the future. And as long as these items remain fluff, like mounts and combat pets, that is fine by me. I believe Blizzard is clever enough to know that lets say selling epic gear would be a huge mistake, so I don't see this as a slippery slope. I don't think lots of people will cancel their WoW accounts just because they are jealous of somebody else flying around on a sparkly pony. I just hope that Blizzard is using some of that extra money to speed up their expansion development cycle, because *that* is where they are losing customers from right now. The sparkly pony is not a big deal.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Is EVE Online a sandbox game?

Simple people like simple classifications. Thus they will explain to you how EVE Online is a sandbox game, meaning non-linear, open world, unlimited freedom to find your own adventure. As opposed to World of Warcraft, which is labeled a themepark game, only one linear path to the top, with the game taking you by the hand and leading you from ride to ride. So everything is nicely classified, put into a drawer, and we can stop thinking. Can we? The reality, like always, is a lot more complex than this simple black and white classification into sandbox and themepark suggests.

The trouble starts if you want to sort more than two games into those drawers, lets say in addition to EVE and WoW we also want Final Fantasy XIII and Second Life. Now instead of drawers we have an axis that goes from extreme linearity to extreme freedom, with FFXI and SL occupying spots near the extremes, while WoW and EVE are suddenly finding themselves much closer together in the middle.

Yes, World of Warcraft is more linear and offers less freedom than EVE Online. But I recently reported how I made over 1,000 gold with a ultra low-level character in World of Warcraft by fishing in Northrend, which certainly was a "sandbox episode" of playing WoW. And if you find yourself in the rookie or help channel of EVE Online and ask "Hi, I'm new and a bit lost, what should I do?" you will generally get the answer "run missions", which isn't all that different from the "do quests" answer you'd get for the same question in World of Warcraft. Funnily enough it is those simple people with their simple classifications which on the one hand will violently defend the superiority of the freedom of EVE Online, while on the other hand being totally unable to find that freedom in World of Warcraft. It exists, you just need to ignore those "go this way for fastest leveling" neon signs the game offers as help.

And those "this way" signs are there for good reasons, which is why even EVE Online added them. You don't want new players to be lost right from the start and get the same impression of EVE Online which Ixobelle linked in a previous EVE comment. When I first played EVE back in 2003, there were no helpful career missions explaining you the basics of the various EVE career paths. Now, 7 years later, EVE's famous learning curve is a bit less vertical, and the game makes a greater effort to take the new player by the hand and guide him towards the content. Which is exactly what the principle of a themepark game is.

Ultimately this is a problem of willpower and imagination. There are players in EVE which get hooked on the mission systems and who are running missions all day long, basically playing EVE like a themepark game. The freedom to do whatever you want is a scary thing, because it requires you to decide what you want, and take the risks involved with that decision. Following the neon signs that point you towards a reasonably safe way of linear progression is the more comfortable option. And that is okay. Doing whatever you want *includes* following the beaten path. It is better for EVE Online to offer that possibility to take the guided tour. It is up to the players to decide whether they want to stay on or stray from the path. Whatever the game is.

Better at games than at life?

A reader sent me a link to the TED talk of Jane McGonigal about Gaming can make a better world, in which she observes that gamers show "blissful productivity" and "urgent optimism" when playing games, and thinks that we could solve real world problems if we applied those traits to real world problems. I do agree with some of her observations: The same kid who gave up on his math problem for homework after the second attempt and fail will then cheerfully wipe a dozen times on the next raid boss and still keep going. By showing greater persistance and being better motivated he ends up being better at games than at life. But I'm not so sure that is always transferable into real life. If the kid kills the boss mob on the thirteenth attempt, will that motivate him to persist on his math homework, or will it motivate him to avoid homework and stick to games where he can achieve greater success?

This talk is a more optimistic version of a story you usually hear the other way around, in versions like how playing violent video games will make kids violent. I don't really believe either version fully. I think the people looking at the influence of video games on real life underestimate the players' ability to make a sharp distinction between virtual and real. There is a real difference between the real world and the virtual world in terms of risk and uncertainty, and that difference has a strong influence on how people react in these different worlds.

That is not to say that you can't learn soft skill while playing video games, especially social multiplayer online games. For example it would be perfectly feasible for somebody to pick up some basic management skills while leading a guild in a MMORPG, and then later apply those skills in real life after having been promoted to a supervisor position. But that is more about learning a few tricks about what works and what doesn't work, and not so much about acquiring some attitude in a video game and then carrying it over into real life.

Video games are safe environments, and players are aware of that, and react to that absence of risk accordingly. Jane McGonigal's observation of optimism in gamers stems from the gamer *knowing* that there is no risk. You *know* that dying in World of Warcraft is just a minor inconvenience, thus persisting after several deaths isn't all that much of a burden. In the real world there is more risk, and even more importantly there is more uncertainty. This is why Jane McGonigal observes that when facing real world failure we are more likely to feel overcome, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, frustrated, or cynical. Not knowing about the potential consequences makes us even feel even more anxious and fearful.

Let me give you an example: My parents are both over 70, and while I grew up with computers from as far back as the ZX81, they only bought home computers for themselves after they retired. So now every time I visit them, I spend several hours solving their computer problems, and those problems are trivial for anyone who is comfortable around computers. Like they start the computer, and a little window pops up from Windows or some application like Java or their Antivirus telling them there is an update available, and whether they want to download and install that now or later. And my parents are terrified, don't know what this is about, can't decide whether to click OKAY or CANCEL, and end up telephoning me for help. They aren't sure if that popup is supposed to be there, have read stories about how accepting all such invitations to download and install stuff can lead to you installing viruses and trojans, and are afraid of the consequences they don't understand of making that decision. Me, and most of you probably, aren't so afraid of computer applications, because we know more about the possible consequences. If I have a problem in lets say Excel, I'm not afraid to click through various options I don't understand until I find the one that does what I want. If that fails I can always reload the backup file. It is understanding the risks that enables me to treat that real life problem like a game, in a playful, optimistic, and ultimatively productive way. But that doesn't mean I can apply that same attitude to the rest of my life, like lets say my tax declaration, where I'm much less aware of how that is supposed to work, and more fearful of the consequences of messing up.

Thus I believe that in real world situations where the *real* risk is low, the application of methods from gaming can work, for example by setting up a better structure for motivation and rewards. Lee Sheldon at Indiana University set up his courses to give experience points instead of grades, and has students leveling up instead of graduating. The consequences of getting less xp for your paper, and thus needing more for the next level, are actually more transparent than the consequences of getting your paper graded 'F'. By making the system easier to understand, the fear and uncertainty are diminished, enabling people to approach the real world problem of studying with a more playful attitude.

But that isn't a catch all solution. Poverty, hunger, war, global warming, and other problems that Jane McGonigal mentions aren't easily tackled with the same approach, because the risk and uncertainty are real, and can't easily be dispelled. We can't just go like she says and turn 11 million World of Warcraft players each playing on average over 20 hours per week into the equivalent of 5.5 million real full time jobs and solve all the worlds problems with that manpower and gaming enthusiasm. Just because somebody is fearless and optimistic when facing the Lich King doesn't mean he will be fearless and optimistic when tackling real world problems. It is more likely that this fearless leader who killed Arthas last night through much persistence will feel overwhelmed today by some minor real world problem like his car not starting in the morning, his kid having a fever, or him having problems setting up a shelf from an IKEA flat pack.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First donation status report

It turns out that at least with one of my arguments when discussing whether to set up a donation button I wasn't completely wrong: There are significantly less donations than comments, so that on a typical day I either get zero or one donation. What caught me by surprise was two things I hadn't counted on: There apparently was pent up demand to give me money, so on the first two days I got more than a dozen donations. And it turned out that my readers are more generous than I would have thought. The median donation was $10, and several people even donated $20. Thus overall I received more money than I had expected, and more than I would have made with Adsense or similar advertising schemes.

Thank you all very much for your donations. They are much appreciated. Some commenters were discussing donations in terms of "need". No, I don't "need" this money to live, you don't "need" to donate anything, and the donations aren't "needed" to keep me writing. But that lack of need makes them only more valuable in my eyes, as I consider them as the most sincere tokens of appreciation you could hope to get on the internet. Of course the money is nice to have, and I'll try to finance interesting things for the blog with it, but it is the appreciation that counts the most for me.

An EVE newbie moment

So I'm doing the missions for the first group of career agents, concentrating on the Industry career agent. The missions are generally quite good as added tutorial, leading you through various steps of a career. I learn to mine ore, to refine it, and how to manufacture items from the ore with a blueprint. Then I get a new mission to manufacture things, one that needs other metals than Tritanium, which means I need to find asteroids other than Veldspar.

I find out that I need Pyroxeres ore, which can be found in 0.8 to 0.9 security space. Easy enough, I think. I fly to such a sector, fly to the next asteroid belt, and check my overview for asteroids other than Veldspar. Hmmm, nothing. Next asteroid belt, get in a fight with some pirates, but still only Veldspar asteroids on the overview. Third asteroid belt, still only Veldspar on the overview, I'm starting to wonder why I can't find that Pyroxeres.

So I ask in the help channel, and some more experienced player enlightens me: By default for a new player the only type of asteroid shown are Veldspar. You need to click on the tiny triangle in front of the word Overview on top of the Overview window to find the Overview Settings, where you can select other Asteroids to show. Doh! None of that is explained in any of the tutorials up to that point, if you don't find another player explaining you how it works, or click through the asteroids manually instead of using the Overview, you're unlikely to ever find anything but Veldspar.

Questions about joining a player corporation in EVE

As lots of people advised me in the previous EVE threads to join a player corporation, and I even got a mail from a reader with an invite, I'd like to bundle the discussion of player corporations in one thread, that is HERE.

Status: The game put me in the "Royal Amarr" newbie corporation by default. I followed the advice of several readers and applied to EVE University, but other readers mentioned it could take weeks before they accept me. I got an offer to join a corporation from a Canadian player, but given the time zone difference I either need a very big internation corporation or a smaller European one if I ever want to actually meet somebody from my corporation.

And then there is the big question: For WHAT should I join a corporation? Last time is was in one was back in 2003, and at the time the only activity of corporations were joint mining operations (boooooring) and PvP. So why exactly would I be better off in a corporation than without one? Just as a point of comparison, I wouldn't necessarily advise a new player of World of Warcraft to join a guild right away, because guilds aren't all that useful for learning the game and leveling up, as they are mainly occupied with the end game. Is that different in EVE Online?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Trying to understand the EVE skill system

I really have a hard time to wrap my head around the design of "progress" in EVE Online, especially with the skill system. A classic MMORPG works by pitting you against obstacles, lets say monsters you have to fight for a quest, and showing you at the same time how to progress to overcome those monsters easier: You find gear, you gain levels that come with new spells and abilities. So anyone who starts out as a new player in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft will have understood after a short while that gear and levels are the way to go, and that he should play more, do more quests, kill more monsters to progress.

Not so in EVE Online. For example I started out with a frigate that came equipped with a small laser for combat and a small mining laser. Then I find an abandoned container with a small laser. Great, I think, if I install two small lasers and put the mining laser in the hold when not mining, I should do better in combat. But when trying to equip the second laser, the game tells me that I don't have enough power for two lasers. I'd need just a tiny bit more, which I could get by equipping a cheap module that increases power or by learning a skill that decreases power requirements. Only that installing the module also requires learning a skill. And if I wanted for example to fly a ship bigger than a frigate, I'd need quite a lot of new skills. Plus the skills I need for the modules to equip the ship with. And then everybody advises me to first learn the "learning" skills, which make learning the other skills faster. So what my first days in EVE taught me is that the way to progress is by learning skills. Which are learned in real time, while offline. Actually playing EVE doesn't help all that much with skill progression, except for earning you the ISK you need to buy skill books (if I don't RMT those).

As Zubon from Kill Ten Rats once remarked, the net effect of that is that it feels like you'd be better of playing EVE Offline. The most efficient way to play EVE for me would be to buy a PLEX, exchange it legally for ISK, buy all the skill books I need plus possibly some implants, and then use an addon or website to make a list of the optimum skill sequence to get to a given point. Then for several weeks I would just log on once a day for 5 minutes to queue up the next skills. I would never have to actually play, or leave the docking station. Of course some people pointed out that while I could get to a Battlecruiser that way, I would lack the understanding of the game to use it effectively, and would just get shot down in PvP. But as I'm not very interested in PvP anyway, and even learning about EVE is faster *outside* the game by reading various websites than by playing, that "EVE Offline" strategy would work perfectly well for starting an economic career in EVE. And even for a military PvE career it would obviously be an advantage if I spent the first month offline and did missions after getting a fully fitted better ship.

I'm not into conspiracy theory, but when discussing Free2Play games many of my readers frequently mention their concern that game companies could design game features not to maximize the fun of the players, but to maximize their income. Seen in that light, the game design of EVE is suspicious. Playing in the more efficient "EVE Offline" way, I'd pay for a subscription, plus pay for a PLEX to finance the skill books and implants, but I'd not be online very much, so I cause very little cost to CCP Games.

Now I'm not planning to play EVE that way. I matured well past the point in my MMORPG career where I think that progress is actually important. Having fun with gameplay is. So what I will be doing is running missions, explore the universe, learn the various complex game mechanics of the different careers, and be hellishly inefficient in accumulating a completely unfocused set of skills, based solely on what I want to do next, without a larger plan or long-term goal. I am pretty certain that A) this is how most newbies would play EVE (as opposed to a second character of an EVE veteran) and B) this is more fun than first spending a month offline accumulating learning skills.

But I must say the design principle behind this EVE progress system bugs me. The game constantly reminds you that you'd be better off waiting for better skills than actually playing. For example I already found out one thing that one of my readers also advised me in the comment section: If you want to refine ore as a new player, you do *not* use the ore processing button like the tutorial tells you. You sell the raw ore, and use the money to buy the refined metal, as that will net you more metal than your low skill in refining gets you. I fully expect a new MMORPG to frequently point a finger at me and say "ha, ha, you n00b, get better before you try this". But when the only way to get better is to wait, that gets somewhat annoying.