Monday, May 31, 2010

Comparing time or money

On yesterday's thread discussing Warstorm, J. DangerouS said "I think it's safe to say people don't play games to compare who is richer. Someone who wants to impress people with spending tons on a game is both foolish and confused. The competitive nature of online games demands an even playing field, or whats the point?". Gordon from We Fly Spitfires got several similar answers to his suggestion that WoW introduce premium servers. Lots of people are strongly opposed to the idea that spending more on a game should give you some advantage in improved power or improved services. Sounds all very egalitarian, until you take the criticism and replace money with time.

I think it's safe to say people don't play games to compare who has more time. Someone who wants to impress people with spending tons of time on a game is both foolish and confused. The competitive nature of online games demands an even playing field, or whats the point?

Sounds equally logical and nicely egalitarian. Unfortunately we know that it is *not* safe to say people don't play games to compare who has more time. In most MMORPGs and some other games your progress strongly correlates with the amount of time you spend in the game. At the end of a playing session you are nearly always more powerful than at the start of it, as there are a lot of rewards, and relatively little punishments for failure. And players don't condemn the "foolish and confused" behavior of other players spending too much time in the game, they actually applaud it.

Having played Magic the Gathering for a decade I can also assure you that the same is true for spending money. Players are more than willing to spend money to get an advantage in the game, even if it is thousands of dollars, and an expensive deck doesn't even guarantee you a win. And if players wouldn't want to pay to get ahead in MMORPGs, then how do you explain the multi-million market of gold selling?

All this egalitarian talk is just claptrap. The truth is most players have nothing against spending time or money on a game to get ahead, as long as they have enough of the resource in question. Thus people with lots of time try to get ahead in games where time spent rewards them more, and condemn games in which spending money gets you an advantage. Meanwhile the people with lots of money complain about "no-lifers" having all the advantages in MMORPGs, and secretly buy gold to buy epics on the auction house.

There is no such thing as an even playing field for MMORPGs. Investing more time or money in them will always get you ahead in any of these games.

The neverending story

While I don’t mention it very often, I’m still regularly playing pen & paper roleplaying games, one evening every two weeks, for the last 10 years or so. That makes a bit less than 100 hours of roleplaying per year. In comparison to that I once added up the /played time of all my World of Warcraft characters, divided it by the number of years I’m playing WoW, and ended up at around 1,000 hours per year; ten times more than the comparable pen & paper roleplaying activity. Why does that matter? Have a look at the post from Chris at Game by Night on Bioware thinking that quests in current MMORPGs “have no point”, or the discussion in the last open Sunday thread on quests, with Pangoria’s follow-up post on how quests should be. We all want games with a great story and quests “that matter”, but how can you make a story which is both engaging and several thousand hours long?

A MMORPG is longer than War and Peace (whether as book or as movie), longer than the Harry Potter series, longer than Lost, and longer than any other form of entertainment with a coherent story. A MMORPG is much longer than any single-player game with a story, for example Mass Effect 2 can be played through completely with all side-quests in 40 hours, and even Japanese RPGs don’t last much longer than 100 hours. Thus, as Chris says, if every quest of Star Wars: The Old Republic would be part of the main narrative, the overall story would be unbearably long-winding and convoluted. MMORPGs are designed to be neverending, while a story needs a beginning, evolution, and an end. I like the approach on Pangoria to make the game a series of independent short stories of different lengths, but that is already the best we can hope for.

And even if the quests are interesting the first time you play them, they become less so if you play through the same quests again with an alt. Even if, as in a game like Dragon Age, you can solve some quests in different ways, the result still is somewhat repetitive. Ultimately MMORPGs are by necessity repetitive games. There is no limit to the number of hours which you can play Pong, or Tetris, or Space Invaders, or even complex games like Civilization, because they consist of a repetition with variations of the same game principles over and over. In a MMORPG running the same dungeon again with a different group is more interesting than doing the same quest twice solo. Even doing a quest in a MMORPG just once often already has repetitive elements, because you need to repeat the same fight against the same type of monster several times to solve the quest.

So why do we have quests at all? Because experience shows that without quests, MMORPGs become even *more* repetitive. If you don’t have quests sending you into the different corners of a zone to kill different monsters, players have a tendency to simply select one spot and kill monsters there until they level up. That is how the original Everquest worked. That sort of grind is even worse than doing quests with uninteresting stories.

To make a better MMORPG, developers need to answer the fundamental question of what players are supposed to do for those 1,000 hours a year. Good luck trying to fill all that time with pre-written stories that never repeat and never resemble each other. I think the Guild Wars 2 promised approach of making the game world more dynamic, so that the stories aren’t so much told than developing from the state the world is in, is better than trying to hire an army of people to create fixed dialogue with voice-overs. How many hours of voice-overs can you possibly pack into a game? Probably far less than what even an average player will consume.

The final nail in the coffin of pre-packed stories in MMORPGs is that many players don’t even care. If on opening Icecrown Citadel Blizzard had made a website with two links, one promising to reveal the grand finale of the story around Arthas the Lich King, while the other link would lead to his loot tables in the various modes, which link do you think most players would have clicked on first? If MMORPGs wanted to improve their story-telling, they would be well advised to improve the way in which each character’s personal story and development is told, because their own characters is what players really care about. The NPC for whom we just did half a dozen quests and who on clicking on him still greets us like a stranger is far less interesting. Why would we care about his story, when whatever we do doesn’t have any lasting influence on him anyway?

I think that unless you have an unlimited budget, developers’ time is better spent designing gameplay elements that hold up well to thousands of hours of repetition than writing stories and dialogue. Give us a dynamic, living world, with a consistent lore, and then let us discover the story of that lore while we experience the more important to us story of how our character grows in that world. Leave the overarching narrative to the single-player role-playing games and pen & paper RPGs, because a story of a thousand hours is no story at all.

[EDIT: Between the time I wrote this and the time it got published, a relevant post on the same subject appeared on the Common Sense Gamer blog.]

Status of the donation project

I haven't mentioned my donation project for a while, for the simple reason that there wasn't much to talk about. The status for the month of May is the following: I received 2 donations this month, for a grand total of $22. I don't think I should be quitting my day job just yet. :)

Although the generosity of some long-time readers last month surprised me, the result of this month is more in line with what I expected. A donation is like throwing money into the hat of a street performer. It is an expression of appreciation of the performance already given, with no expectation of any future return. And the streets of the internet are lined with performers, many of which don't even have a hat out. So why donate if you can get everything for free?

Note that while I spent the donations for game- and thus blog-related purposes, e.g. my WoW subscription, filling up my Playstation Network "wallet" to buy PS3/PSP games online, buying games on Steam, and today's Warstorm review, I would have spent exactly the same money on the same games if I hadn't received any donations. So while your donations are welcome as a token of your appreciation, you don't have to feel obliged to donate so I can afford to blog about games. The donation button stays up as a social experiment on blog monetization, not as a serious source of financing. It is a reminder to myself that in spite of some "how much is your blog worth" websites spouting great numbers, the true commercial value of a niche blog like this is just a handful of dollars. It saves me from taking myself too seriously. :)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Warstorm on Facebook

Those of you who are my friends on Facebook will have noticed that I was spamming a lot of Warstorm messages this weekend. I played this game for several hours, and spent too much money on it for *cough* testing purposes *cough*. The game also exists outside of Facebook, but I only played the Facebook version.

Warstorm is a collectible card game with a difference. Collectible card games in general consist of two parts: Building your deck, and playing with it. Normally building your deck is something you tend to do alone, while for playing you need another player to battle against. Warstorm uses the interesting approach to make playing the game fully automated, with no input whatsoever from the player. While that sounds a bit crazy, it actually has two advantages: You can play against other players while they are offline, and you can play against the computer without the computer being at too much of a disadvantage for not being as clever as you. Thus nearly the whole game of Warstorm is in the deckbuilding.

A deck in Warstorm consists of 1 to 4 squads, with each squad having exactly 7 cards, one of which is a hero. Each card has a ready value, which determines how many rounds after drawing a card it comes into play, and thus basically represents the card's "cost". Besides heroes, there are spells, artefacts, and units, with the hero card saying how many of each of these are in the squad, and most cards being units. Each unit has an attack value and a number of hitpoints, plus possibly some special abilities.

The completely automated gameplay consists of the two players taking turns. In each turn a player draws a card from his deck to his hand. If he already has cards in hand, every turn (his and opponents turn), the ready count on each of his cards in hand decreases by one. If the ready count is zero, the card comes into play. The playfield is two opposing rows, in which cards automatically take the left-most position possible, thus if the two players have an equal number of units in play, every unit faces an unit of the opponent. Every turn every of your units in play does an action, in its most simple case dealing its attack value in damage to the opposing unit. When a unit is down to zero hitpoints, it goes to the graveyard, and the units to the right of it slide over one spot to keep the row without gaps. Units which don't have an opposing unit deal their damage to the morale counter of the enemy. If one side either has all its cards in the graveyard, or runs out of morale, it loses and the other side wins.

Cards with lower ready cost are generally weaker than those with a higher value. So there are several possible strategies, either going for a zerg rush with low ready cost cards, or balancing the deck, or putting mainly expensive but powerful cards in. But that isn't all there is to deckbuilding: Many cards have special abilities, and are often vulnerable against one type of other card, but strong against another. For example archers deal double damage against infantry, but cavalry deals double damage against archers, while infantry with pikes deals double damage against cavalry. Unless you battle a random opponent, you can after a loss edit your deck to exploit the weaknesses of your opponent's deck and have a better chance to win on the next try.

Warstorm has both PvP and PvE. PvP can be played against your friends, or a random opponent. PvE is played on a map, where each area of the map has a campaign consisting of several missions, and you can conquer the territory by finishing all the missions. The first areas are the tutorial, where you fight simple opponents, and get lots of hints what cards to use to counter the AI opponent's strategy. Winning battles gives you experience and silver. Owning territories gives you additional silver every day. And then you can use the silver to buy booster packs with new cards. But that is quite slow, and the "novice" boosters which you can buy for relatively little silver contain rather bad cards, which brings us to issue of money.

In Warstorm you can buy "Warstorm Cash" for real money, with one unit of cash costing between $0.20 and $0.25, and then use that warstorm cash to either buy access to new PvE areas with new campaigns, or to buy cards in various ways. You can buy random boosters of different types, or boosters in which the cards are random but all of the same faction, or you can buy of a small selection of single cards (with the selection available changing every 8 hours), or even some preconstructed decks. A 6-card booster ends up costing about $1, while a PvE campaign costs up to $5, but comes with generous silver and card rewards. While you can theoretically play completely for free, you will not have access to all cards that way, and also can access only half of the areas on the map.

But where Warstorm gets downright insidious is in the rarity of cards. To a larger degree than in other collectible card games rarer cards are better than more common cards. Many cards even exist in several rarities, with the rarer version having the same properties but a lower ready value, thus being strictly better than the common version. Thus if you repeatedly lose against an opponent in spite of having built your deck right, you'll notice that your opponents deck is full of very rare cards. That "encourages" you to buy more cards for cash. That way Warstorm can quickly reach the cost of a full triple-A PC or console game, which is probably too expensive for what it does. And you can't even trade cards with your friends, which is another big part of the attraction of most collectible card games.

Another problem is that the special abilities of cards aren't all that well balanced. For example flying and flaming are somewhat too powerful for the cost of their cards, which makes the preconstructed dragon deck (lots of flying and flaming dragons, expensive, full of rares) rather overpowered, and the few existing anti-dragon cards highly desirable.

If you ever spent some time studying deckbuilding in any collectible card game, you know that the more cards are in a deck, the less predictable it becomes. Thus in the early PvE campaigns on Warstorm you can still easily build a cohesive strategy and follow its outcome. In later campaigns, with up to 4 squads on each side, the outcome appears more determined by chance. On the one side that enables you to overcome opponents by simply battling them often enough until you get lucky and win, but on the other side it makes the game less interesting. If deckbuilding is the only thing you *can* do, you rather want it to have a big influence. You would need a lot of cards before you could build a multi-squad deck with a coherent strategy, as the different factions have different strengths and weaknesses.

In summary I found Warstorm a fun enough game, but you need to watch yourself and not fall into the typical trap of collectible card games that you end up spending too much money on them. Warstorm offers hours of fun, but probably not months. Nevertheless I recommend trying out at least the first, and completely free, part of the game.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

Do I need to say more than the title?

Storming the Citadel

Thanks to an excellent alt run my guild organized, I now have the famous Storming the Citadel achievement all those pickup raids are asking for. That is 4 out of 12 bosses in Icecrown Citadel killed, and two attempts on Festergut before we called it a night. Very nice result. And apart from the first boss not too much running around during the fights, so I could concentrate on playing my class. Given that I was one of only 2 healers, that was challenging enough for me.

Besides the fun, I got a Mag'hari Chieftain's Staff, and the ring for having reached friendly reputation with the Ashen Verdict. So quite a successful evening!

Why is WoW this big?

In the open Sunday thread the question was asked: "Is WoW's success based on its player base or its quality? There are other games that are very good, even some excellent, so why is WoW this big?"

I don't think there is an easy answer to this. That starts with the problem of how you define "quality". Most people are completely unable to separate gameplay design from quality of execution. Thus if they are playing a game in which the gameplay is fun for them, they will say it is an excellent game of high quality, even if there are obvious flaws in the execution, like lag, bugs, and a bad user interface.

I would say that yes, World of Warcraft has an excellent quality of execution. It does what it sets out to do very well. But of course that doesn't help you if you either don't like the guided approach to gameplay, or if you did like WoW and burned out after having played it for hundreds or even thousands of hours.

The second part of my answer is that World of Warcraft is big because of its accessibility. Some people laughed when Blizzard revealed that only 30% of players who are playing the free trial for WoW make it past level 10, but several industry veterans stated that this is far higher than the retention rate of other MMORPGs. How many 6-year old PC games do you know which still regularly hit the top ten of the PC games' sales charts? Apart from the problem in China, subscription numbers for World of Warcraft have held up steadily. Not because nobody ever quits WoW, but because there is still a steady stream of new players joining this game which balances the exodus of people who got bored with WoW. This is only possible because World of Warcraft is relatively newbie-friendly. Of course it is easy for the elitist jerks to paint accessibility as "WoW is dumb" or it "caters to the lowest common denominator". But actually the challenge level of the end game is completely independent from the ease of accessibility for new players. As some readers pointed out, very few players actually beat the Lich King on 25-man heroic.

Does the success of World of Warcraft have to do with its player base? You hear a lot of conflicting statements on that. On the one hand people claim that WoW is a completely anti-social game, in which everybody just soloes, and "pickup group" is a derogatory term. On the other hand some claim that people only play WoW because all of their friends are playing. Obviously both statements can't be true at the same time. I do think World of Warcraft is far more social than some people think, and the ability to play solo or in pickup groups does not actually destroy the social coherence of the game. That isn't to say that I wouldn't like WoW to introduce a bigger group XP bonus to get more people to play together, or that I'm not looking forward to the new guild functions in Cataclysm. But at the same time I'd like WoW to introduce pickup raids. Because I don't think you can create a social network if you only play with the handful of friends you already have, meeting new people, and making new friends is an important part too.

The fundamental problem of the discussion of why World of Warcraft is so successful is that everybody is aware that any statement of "WoW is successful because of its high quality" can be turned around and interpreted as "this other game is not so successful because it is of lesser quality". While I do believe that this is very often the case, very few players of other games would be willing to admit that. It's like if your favorite sports team loses horribly against another team, you'll never admit that your team just plain sucks, but rather invent stories of the referee not having been impartial, or some external condition favoring the other team. Thus in the discussion of World of Warcraft you will still find completely spurious arguments of how WoW is only so big because of marketing, or because it makes its players "addicted", or other such nonsense. Not because people actually believe that, but because they are defending their own favorite game with pseudo-religious favor, and have to explain away the success of World of Warcraft.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Perfect MMORPG: Challenge

What we think that we are doing and what we actually do when playing MMORPGs are two very different things. Imagine I had hacked into your computer, turned on your webcam, and filmed you during your last long play session. If I asked you what you have done during that session, you would tell me about how you have slain the princess, and rescued the dragon, or the other way around. But the video would show you more or less motionless sitting in a chair in front of your computer, with one hand on the keyboard and the other on the mouse performing constant but tiny movements. All the dragon-slaying is only happening in your head, with at best some facial expression on video to show it.

But because what we think we do is so different from what we actually do, we also tend to discuss subjects like challenge in the terms of the imaginary world. The discussion of challenge in games like World of Warcraft has been endless, but always revolving about things like boss abilities or the famous “moving out of the fire”. If you formulate it like that, you end up with simplistic but wrong conclusions: Why would anyone be so stupid to not move out of the fire he is standing in? But in reality the player is *not* standing in any fire, he is still sitting in his chair, hands on keyboard and mouse, eyes on the screen. If he doesn’t move out of the fire, it is most probably because he didn’t notice he was standing in the fire, because his eyes were glued to some other part of the user interface, e.g. the raid’s health bars for a healer. Which is why we have addons that play a warning sound if we stand in the fire.

So to discuss challenge for my perfect MMORPG, I will zoom out of the virtual world and into the real world, and discuss the subject in real world terms. What challenge *can* a MMORPG possibly have, given that you don’t even leave your chair while playing? Obviously the physical challenge is minor, beyond not getting carpal tunnel syndrome, and timing your bio breaks right.

Challenge in a MMORPG is limited to pressing the right key (or making the right mouse movement) in time in reaction to some visual or audio input from the game. Success or failure depends on both speed and you ability to choose the right reaction to the given input.

So let’s first talk about reaction times: Studies have found mean reaction times to simple inputs in people of college-age to be 190 ms for visual input and 160 ms for audio input. Women react slower than men (is it sexist to quote a scientific result?). Another study with people around the age of 56 found average reaction times of 360 ms, reaction time goes up with age after the teenage years. The same study showed that reaction time doubles if people have to make a decision what button to press, and that there is a correlation of that reaction time with IQ, but only a small one. Reaction time when measured on the same sort of machine goes down with practice, to a degree that in the context of video games means that practice has a bigger influence on reaction times than intelligence.

From the science follows some conclusions about game design for our perfect MMORPG: Relying too much on reaction times is fraught with danger. One problem is that a given level of reaction time challenge is easier to overcome for a male teenager than for a middle-aged house wife. The other big problem is that the order of magnitude of human reaction times is similar to the order of magnitude of typical pings of online connections. The best possible connection you could have is about 30 ms, but a large percentage of players have to live with pings of around 200 ms, and some players are plagued with 500 ms of lag due to location (the famous “oceanic servers”) or a bad ISP. Thus if you design a MMORPG in which the challenge increases by requiring shorter and shorter reaction times, you will find that the people who killed the final boss are all male teenagers living close to the server and having a perfect internet connection. And they had to practice that fight a lot. Does that sound like a game you know? I would argue that while there is a market for fast reaction games for teenagers, there is a good argument for doing such games in single-player and LAN-multiplayer mode, where the population is more homogeneous, and lag doesn’t favor anyone.

Thus in my perfect MMORPG, the reaction time requirements would be generous enough throughout the game so that gender, age, or the quality of your internet connection don’t have a major influence on your chance of success. Which leaves us with the challenge of having to press the *right* button, or making the right mouse movement. “Aiming” like in a first-person shooter is out, because lag again gets in the way: One interesting observation of multi-boxing is that you’ll find that the relative positions of your characters on the two screens are not the same, due to predictive algorithms MMORPGs use to make lag less obvious.

So what is the “right” button to press, and how do players know which one it is? The classic method is to give the players a bunch of slightly different abilities, and let them figure out which ones to use. The problem with that is that classic combat systems are not very interactive, and the same ability button has the same result on many different monsters in many different situations. Thus which buttons is the right one to press is independent of the combat you are currently in, and can be calculated with some math. Thus you end up with a so-called “spell rotation”, which players get from some theorycrafting website, and which tells them which buttons to press in which order. The same problem prevents you from putting fixed puzzles in your game, some people will figure everything out and put the solution on the internet, where other players just look it up instead of thinking themselves.

The obvious solution for the perfect MMORPG is to design combat and other challenges in a way that the best solution isn’t known in advance. It is somewhat curious that some people are very much opposed to that idea, and think that “you can’t have randomness in a MMORPG, because then people would randomly win or lose”. That is nonsense. Just look at simple games like Tetris, where which block falls down next is completely random, but it is nevertheless your skill in reacting correctly and quickly to each block which determines your high score. Imagine how boring and bad a game Tetris would be if it was possible to beat the game by using a “122333 – 122333 – 122333 – etc.” keypress rotation. The fundamental reason why some people oppose having to react to unpredictable random events is the reaction time science quoted above: People are used to faster being better, and the science says that if you have to see what is happening, think about the right response, and then press a button you are much slower than if you don’t have to think, and can improve your reaction time with practicing the same button press sequence over and over.

Now a lot of people point to games like Farmville and proclaim that “players do not want to think”, which is based on some completely faulty logic. Other casual games also have millions of players, games like Solitaire or Bejeweled, and in all these games the challenge is to press the right button in a situation which is determined by random factors. People do like to think as long as the challenge is something that looks doable, and not solving differential equations in your head. Non-thinking Farmville “works” in the context of being a free game on the social network of Facebook, but it is extremely unlikely that anyone would actually want to pay $15 a month for a MMORPG based on the same principles.

Thus in my perfect MMORPG the main challenge would be having to see what is happening in the virtual world around you, e.g. what the monster you are fighting is doing, and having to react to that in a reasonable amount of time by pressing the button for the optimal response. The outcome should not be a simple yes/no one, where any fault means you don’t kill the enemy mob, but there should be a noticeable difference in efficiency between choosing the right response and random button mashing, even in solo play at low levels. The degree of efficiency needed to overcome a challenge can then slowly go up with level. There should *not* be a challenge-free leveling game up to the level cap, followed by an endgame with completely different and much harder requirements. Instead the leveling game should actually train players in the skills they would need for the endgame. Killing a giant at high levels *should* be harder than killing those boars at level 1. And if you can play your character well enough to do solo quests at the level cap, going from there to raiding should only be a small step up in challenge.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

When is an addon cheating?

I mentioned the Augmented Virtual Reality addon in a recent post on user interfaces. The addon allows players to communicate by "painting" the virtual world around them in World of Warcraft. Thus a raidleader can put green, red, and blue circles on the ground and tell his raid "healers in the green circle, melee dps red, ranged dps blue", and add an helpful arrow to that telling people which way to run when the boss does his special ability. Now Blizzard announced that they don't like this addon, and that they are making changes to WoW in patch 3.3.5 which are deliberately targeted at breaking AVR and making similar addons impossible.

Reactions are mixed. A commenter on Kill Ten Rats remarked that if the ability to point at a spot on the floor breaks raiding, there is something wrong with raiding. Others had already greeted the announcement of the addon as being somewhat of a cheat. But the most important question here is posed by dorfeater: Where exactly does Blizzard draw the line? It isn't as if other addons, like Healbot or Decursive, or DBM, aren't also making raids a lot easier for their users. So why break AVR and not the others?

Blizzard says "it removes too much player reaction and decision-making while facing dungeon and raid encounters. While some other mods also work to this end, we find that AVR and the act of visualizing strategy within the game world simply goes beyond what we’re willing to allow". But that is only their second reason. The first is: "The invasive nature of a mod altering and/or interacting with the game world (virtually or directly) is not intended and not something we will allow. World of Warcraft UI addons are never intended to interact with the game world itself." So the line appears to be somewhere between altering the user interface, and altering the game world, even if that is only by painting it with spots and arrows. If you want spots and arrows, you need to go to the animated guides of Bosskillers.

So what do you say? Is that line Blizzard draws right? Should they have allowed AVR? Or should they have banned even more addons?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

EVE Online: Tyrannis and player housing

Yesterday the latest free expansion of EVE Online, called Tyrannis, was released. The part of it which interests me most is planetary exploration and construction, allowing players to own structures on planets to harvest materials. Unfortunately the expansion wasn't feature-complete on release, right now you can only view planets, not build on them yet. That is presumably going to change in two weeks, on June 8th.

The reason I am interested in this is that planetary structures in EVE aren't unlike player housing in other MMORPGs. And player housing in MMORPGs is riddled with a lot of fundamental problems of time and space. Let me introduce some of those problems by telling you about my first experience with player housing in Ultima Online:

When I started playing Ultima Online, there wasn't any player housing where I was playing. I'm not quite sure whether it wasn't in the game yet, or just not on the server I was playing, but it was shortly after UO had been split up in PvE and PvP mirror halves, and I was playing on the PvE side with no house anywhere. I was working on my tailoring at that time, so I was killing walrus on a large icy wasteland, and had logged off my character there. The next day I logged on and found myself in the middle of a city, with the walrus still roaming the streets. Within hours after housing had been turned on, every single flat space in Trammel had been filled with houses. I had a deed to build a house, and spent the next two weeks in frustration searching for a flat space, but there simply weren't any available. In the end I bought a small house on EBay, RMT being legal in UO.

That experience showed me two possible major drawbacks of player housing: Virtual worlds often actually aren't all that big, and building houses in adventuring areas ends up looking quite strange. In an earlier post of mine, which happens to be the one most linked to on my blog, I calculated the size of Azeroth, and found that a "continent" in World of Warcraft is just twice the size of Manhattan. But with most of it not being flat and suitable for building a house on, and skyscrapers not likely to fit into a fantasy world, there isn't actually all that much space where you could possibly build player housing on. Imagine how the look of a zone like the Barrens would change if hundreds of houses would be build there!

That problem can be solved if you make the world bigger. For example Star Wars Galaxies had enough square miles for every player on a server to build houses, and thus allowed the construction of player towns. The downside of that is that really huge worlds are too big to have every corner hand-crafted, and are often created with fractal landscape algorithms. That allows virtually endless amounts of virtual world to be created, but the places often look a bit sameish and aren't all that much fun to explore. And then players complain if it takes too long to get from one place to another. But even if you optimize all this, you still run into the problem of who is actually living in those virtual player-run towns.

Virtual worlds have a problem of housing density that the real world doesn't have: Presence of inhabitants. As a rule of thumb in the industry, there are 5 to 10 times more players on a server than you can find online during prime time. For example EVE has 330,000 subscribers, with 50,000 online during prime time. We don't have really good numbers for WoW, but typical estimates are 3,000 players online during prime time out of 20,000 players per server. Because of this factor 5 to 10, player built cities in a virtual world are always looking rather empty. On a WoW server you would need to find space for 20,000 players, but with only a maximum of 3,000 players online, and those players presumably spending only a fraction of their time in their houses and the majority of time out adventuring, you'll end up with a house occupation rate of around 1%. Running around in a hypothetical player housing town in World of Warcraft and knocking on doors to see who is home would result in 99 out of 100 houses being found empty. Not exactly a lively place to live in.

Thus other games don't allow players to place houses and towns in the virtual world, but put the player housing in instances. Be that Anarchy Online, Everquest 2, or Final Fantasy XI, the player clicks on some entrance to player housing in a city, and finds himself in his house. There are no limits to how many houses can exist this way, as they don't occupy any space, and nobody notices if 99% of them are empty. But it also often reduces your house to an interior which only you can see, or at max some friends you invite in. As a status symbol that isn't quite as impressive as having a castle in the middle of the landscape where everybody can see it. Lord of the Rings Online tried a compromise, where the housing *zone* is instanced, but you can run around that zone and see the houses from inside an outside. But due to the population density problem mentioned above and the small number of houses in each zone, you rarely ever meet your neighbors, and often find yourself all alone in that housing zone.

So now I'm kind of interested to see how EVE Online is handling these planetary structures. There is a large, but limited number of planets in EVE, especially if you consider that most players would want to remain in safe empire space. So the question is for how many players each planet has space. Is that "instanced", that is you don't even see the planet structures of other players, and can go wherever you want? Or are there only a few spots per planet and every viable spot will be taken a day after building structures is allowed? And given that this is EVE, can a corporation wardec another corporation over planetary resources, carpet bomb their planetary structures and build their own structures on that spot?

As for World of Warcraft, I understand why Blizzard never got around to introduce player housing. This is one of these features where everybody says he wants it, but ends up being dispointed by every possible implementation of it. How exactly would YOU design player housing in World of Warcraft in a way that every player can build a house, but those houses not being invisible to everybody else?

Is the Magic back?

A reader sent me a mail with some good news, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers will be released via Steam to the PC. While DOTP is in a way a "Magic light" game, I am nevertheless highly interested in this. The other option to play Magic on the PC, Magic the Gathering Online, did about everything wrong you can imagine, switched developer in mid-game, had huge delays and bugs on version 3.0, and is currently quite hopeful to reintroduce in 2011 features like leagues which were already up and running in version 1.0 in 2002.

I don't mention it very often, but I spent the decade preceding this blog playing Magic the Gathering, first with physical cards, then online. I spent a huge fortune on cards and never recovered the money. And I even got a sort of diploma which certified me as "judge", an expert in the incredibly complex rule system of Magic, and allowed me to participate as judge in a World Championship.

It is this extensive background in Magic the Gathering that led to some of my beliefs about games in general, and are applicable to MMORPGs, contrary to conventional wisdom. While MMORPG players are still discussing RMT and item shops, I already know that if a game is good enough, millions of players are willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on game items that are worth absolutely nothing outside the game. And while some elitist jerks loudly proclaim that mass market games have to cater to the lowest common denominator and be dumb, I know that an extremely complicated game like Magic the Gathering can have millions of players. A Usenet discussion group like regularly had discussions that were so arcane that it would make a MMO theorycrafters head explode. Magic also taught me that randomness is a powerful tool when creating strategy games, because only randomness can make a game unpredictable enough so that people have to think while playing, instead of following a predetermined strategy.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is a simpler, but much cheaper version of Magic the Gathering, which was previously only available on XBOX Live. I'm looking forward to trying this out on Steamworks on the PC.

Console and PC gaming

In the open Sunday thread there was a question about console versus PC gaming, and where I see the trends in gaming platforms. Not something I would have blogged about without prodding, because it is somewhat of a dead horse which has been beaten on since the early days of the internet. But I would say that the discussion is a bit silly, and based on a common misconception: People think the gaming market has a fixed size, and any success of one platform or genre comes to the detriment of another, in some kind of giant zero sum game. But that simply isn't true, which removes much of the need of these kinds of turf wars.

I've been around for a while, so I know computer and console games from the days of the ZX81 and Pong. And since then the market for games has nearly constantly been growing, admittedly with some ups and downs. And while of course there has always been some movement and competition between various platforms, the general rule has always been one of synergy: A new game or platform evolves and attracts people that have not been playing before, the market grows, and once people tried one form of gaming they are more willing to also try another.

Thus if you compare lets say World of Warcraft, Halo 3, the Wii Fit, and Farmville, there aren't actually all that many people who would be attracted by all of these games. And it isn't as if the over 80 million players of Farmville are somehow "missing" on the other platforms and games.

Different platforms often lead to different controls. The "lean backward" style of slouching on a couch with a console gamepad in hand is different from the "lean forward" style of gaming on a PC with keyboard and mouse. And different genres of games work more or less well with different control schemes. For example the few companies that made cross-platform multiplayer shooters had to artificially handicap the PC players, because otherwise they would have had too much of an advantage, aiming with a mouse being so much faster and easier than with a gamepad. MMORPGs on consoles suffer from the problem of text input, and a gamepad not having the over 100 keys that a PC keyboard has. But 3D PC games lack the ease of controlling the camera with one thumbstick and the character with another, ofter leading to camera positioning problems.

Much has been discussed about the comparative costs of different gaming platforms. A top notch gaming PC costs significantly more than a console. On the other hand a household without games might already have a PC for surfing the internet, and you don't need a Geforce 480 to play Farmville. If the family bought a computer with enough graphics power and memory to handle daddy's home video editing hobby, the machine will also run World of Warcraft without a problem. In those cases the marginal cost for playing games on the PC can be as low as zero. Meanwhile console makers discovered how price sensitive their customers are, with the Wii being considered to have "won" the last round of console wars not just by offering different games and controls, but also by simply being a lot cheaper than the competition. As a consequence the Playstation 3 today only costs half of what it cost on release, in spite of coming with more features and hard disk space. Not to mention people playing games on iPhones, which is probably the worst cost to benefit ratio for gaming you can imagine.

But all that shows that people choose their gaming platform for many different reasons. While you are waiting in an airport lounge that iPhone is a lot more convenient than an XBox 360 game. If you hang out on Facebook anyway all day to chat with your friends, playing a bit of Farmville while waiting for somebody to reply to your wall post comes easy. When you're tired in the evening after a long day at work, a quick match on some console game might be better suited than a complicated strategy game on a PC. But if you have lots of hours to burn, a PC MMORPG offers the biggest number of hours of entertainment.

Thus I don't see a big trend towards one form of gaming becoming extinct to the benefit of the growth of another. I am pretty sure that in a decade from now there will be more gamers than today, and potentially more platforms as well.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Perfect MMORPG: PvP

Very short and simple chapter in the description of my hypothetical MMORPG which is perfect for me: My perfect MMORPG would not have any PvP at all.

That is not just personal dislike of PvP, but also the consequence of a deeply held belief that the same MMORPG can not have both perfect PvE and perfect PvP. Many of the features that I would like to have for PvE, e.g. levels and gear, conflict with my idea of perfect PvP, which would be based on skill, not differences in level or gear.

Furthermore I think that we have overwhelming evidence of how designing player abilities is made a lot more difficult when the game has both PvE and PvP. You end up with the same ability either doing very different things in the two different environments, or you have to compromise and create abilities that are perfect for neither environment. Simple example: A tank's taunt ability, which is basically defining who he is in PvE, but does strictly nothing in PvP. Not "very little", but "strictly nothing". Other examples would be crowd control, where transforming somebody into a sheep for 1 minute might be something you want to have in PvE, but certainly not in PvP.

Thus instead of having to compromise on my perfect PvE game, I'll just leave PvP totally out of my perfect MMORPG. Like Everquest did, with great success. Better to design a second, perfect PvP MMORPG, instead of failing to make one game which does everything perfectly. There is a decade of history and evidence on PvP in MMORPGs in the western market, and it turns out that in spite of all the hype, PvP only contributes marginally to the sucess of a MMORPG over here. The Asian MMORPG market is different in that respect.

Blizzard and McDonalds

While I just shot off a first thought yesterday, I think Wolfshead's well written, but utterly illogic rant on how World of Warcraft is a disease which ruins the MMORPG genre deserves a longer rebuttal. To do that, I'm going to start by assuming that what he says is right, and using a stereotype comparison beloved by all WoW bashers: McDonalds.

What Wolfshead says is that over 5 years ago this big McDonalds opened up in his town. It was a huge success, and the McDonalds has been packed every day every since. He himself ate there for years, until he didn't like burgers and fries any more. Now he is looking around for a nice French restaurant offering Filet Mignon, and finds all the other restaurants are also just offering burgers and fries, only the other restaurants are smaller, less well lit, less clean, and there are some cockroaches scurrying around. Now he is blaming McDonalds, who made very little innovation in the last years, just offering occasionally slightly different burgers, for the decline of the restaurant industry in his town. He says McDonalds strived to make their burgers "addictive", refused to offer radically different stuff like Sushi, and is destroying the social connections people used to have while sitting around a table waiting for the food to arrive by offering fast service at their counter.

Now look at the same situation from the point of view of the McDonalds: They spent over 5 years listening to what their customers said they wanted, and giving it to them. They keep their restaurant clean and free of cockroaches. They sped up their service, because that was what the customers asked for. They stick to the kind of food they are good at making. And of course they are trying to make burgers that taste good, in an iterative process of continues stepwise improvement, that has absolutely nothing to do with "addiction". So when Wolfshead comes and blames McDonald for his woes, McDonalds will simply reply that they are doing their best to cater to their customers and market. And they are not at all responsible for the state of cleanliness or the menu of the other restaurants. They aren't doing anything, nor *could* they do anything, to prevent a good restaurant opening up and offering Sushi or Filet Mignon.

And while World of Warcraft in reality isn't quite as "junk food" as its distractors say, that changes nothing in that the same argument is true for them: They don't stop, nor could they possibly stop, another company from making a better game. They simply found out what a large number of customers wanted, and gave that to them. They don't even try to radically change that, because changing their game radically would be downright stupid. Remember Star Wars Galaxies and their radical change with the NGE? Instead Blizzard is going along a path of iterative improvement to the product they have. That product is far from perfect, and it only covers a part of what people could possibly want from a MMORPG. But if anything we should applaud Blizzard for sticking to that small part, and trying to improve it. Wolfshead is blaming them for "fooling us with Holywood polish", but what exactly is wrong with making a game polished? Sticking to a part of the MMORPG space and improving it iteratively is bound to create something which is polished to the finest detail. And that is what you'd be reading in any book giving management advice to companies: Stick to your core competencies, and rather further improve that at which you are already good at, instead of recklessly expanding into areas that you don't understand.

Last week I started writing about what the perfect MMORPG would be for me, and that perfect MMORPG would be in many ways different from World of Warcraft. But whenever I mentioned that I would want a MMORPG in which decisions are interesting, and people would need to think more instead of just mashing buttons, the inevitable reply came that "this would be a niche game, people don't want to think". While I don't believe that is true, it points us towards the real culprits here: A lack of imagination and enterprise, in part from the players, but more importantly from the other game companies.

Again: Nobody prevents another game company to make a game that is better than World of Warcraft. And in fact there are a number of small games which in spite of low budgets stuck to what they are good at, and didn't try to clone WoW. Games like Puzzle Pirates or A Tale in the Desert are highly enjoyable, and offer a lot of what people are saying is missing in WoW. The one announcement of the Guild Wars 2 dynamic event system has more innovation in it than one year of press releases about Star Wars: The Old Republic. So I would agree with Chris from Game by Night, that if the industry is stagnant, don't blame Blizzard for it, but rather blame companies like EA Mythic, EA Bioware, Cryptic, Square Enix, Funcom, and whoever else you can name. Companies who spent a lot of money making games that ended up being neither fish nor fowl, trying to outdo Blizzard by copying WoW and tacking something onto that, and shoddily executed to boot.

There is nothing wrong to want something different from World of Warcraft. But you can't blame Blizzard for not changing WoW to a completely different game, because it is the *other* companies who need to innovate and find a new model of MMORPG which people are willing to play and pay for. It would be highly ironic if Blizzard, with their glacial development pace and need to keep their old game running, still managed to be the first company to realize that World of Warcraft is not the only possible model for a game getting over a million subscribers in the USA and Europe, and produced just such a game with their next generation MMO.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Challenge and gear reset

Imagine the guy who logs of the day before Cataclysm is released at level 79, with 99% of the xp for the next level already done. On release day he steps into a new zone, receives some exploration xp, and dings 80. This guy, and everybody who reaches level 80 after him, has a reasonable expectation that his character will be strong enough to do quests in the new zones and level up to 85.

But look at the same guy, freshly minted 80, from the point of view of many of the people currently playing World of Warcraft: The new 80 has a gearscore around 2k, and might deal as little as 1k damage per second. Meanwhile even average players (e.g. me on several alts) have a gearscore of 5k, and deal over 3k of damage. With some top raiders having more than 6k gearscore and over 10k dps. We don't need to get into an endless discussion how much of the difference is caused by gear and how much is caused by skill, but obvious truth is that there is a huge difference in power between different level 80 characters. I'd even say the difference now is larger than it was at level 60 when Burning Crusade came out, or at 70 when Wrath of the Lich King came out.

That huge difference in power levels has consequences. With the challenge of the level 81 quests being designed for the new level 80, it isn't just the top players who will feel these quests are too easy. Even the average players in their gear from heroics will deal basically three times too much damage. It is simply impossible to design a solo quest which is an interesting challenge to both the new level 80 and the veteran.

And then of course over just 5 levels Blizzard has to get everybody to the same level of gear. You really don't want people at level 85 still wearing their level 80 epics they bought with emblems of triumph and frost. And the lowest of the Cataclysm emblems from level 85 heroics has to buy gear which is better than the best Wrath of the Lich King gear. We already have some indication that Blizzard plans to hugely increase stamina, at least tripling the health of average characters from level 80 to level 85, while healing and damage will not go up by that much. It is going to be the biggest gear reset in the history of World of Warcraft. And everybody knows that.

What is interesting to me is how we players on the one side react strongly to incentives based on gear rewards, and on the other side aren't bothered all that much about those gear resets. Even players who never were there before refuse to go to Naxxramas and Ulduar because the gear rewards are worse than what they get from heroics. Which looks as if rewards are more important to us than experiencing fresh content. But then a new expansion comes out and we happily abandon all our old gear to rush into the new content.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thought for the day: WoW bashing

It has become somewhat fashionable in some blogging circles to complain about World of Warcraft players being stupid, mindless, and whatever else. Invariably those comments come from people who have played World of Warcraft themselves for hundreds of hours; and I don't think they admit being stupid themselves. Why is it that if somebody burns out from a game after playing a long time, it must be that the game is bad and its players dumb? Why is it to hard to say "I played WoW, I liked it, but then I grew bored and stopped"? Why would stopping to play a game cause shame and anger?

Don't you think that all this WoW bashing is telling us a lot more about the inferiority complex of the people doing the bashing than about World of Warcraft itself?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

As every Sunday I get a day off from blogging, and you get the opportunity to ask me questions, discuss, or propose subjects for future blog posts.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Perfect MMORPG: Stats

As you might have glimpsed from my first "Perfect MMORPG" post yesterday, the basic motto of this hypothetic MMORPG which would be perfect for me is an old Sid Meier quote: "A good game is a series of interesting decisions". (I never found a source for that quote, although on the GDC 2010 Sid mentioned having coined the phrase "interesting decisions".)

In another post this week I asked for which enchant to put on the boots of a holy paladin. I was really interested in the answer, albeit more the "why" than the "what", but I also had an ulterior motive: Being well aware that the choice would only make a tiny difference, I also wanted to see how sure people were of the right answer, how authorative it was, or whether anyone would say "well, it's your choice".

Which brings me to the stats of my hypothetical perfect MMORPG: I believe in a perfect MMORPG there should be a lot of valid choices for what stats to choose. That is to say the stats should be designed in a way that there are very few completely useless stats for any class, and several "best" stats, which are all completely valid choices, depending on playstyle. Thus instead of having a simple formula telling you that for your class strength is better than agility, the two should be equivalent, and both be useful in different situations, so you could make an interesting decision.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Browsing my archives

Due to changes Blogger made last week to their code, it now happens that if you select a month to browse in my archives, you don't see all the posts of that month, with the first posts of the month often gone missing. To overcome that problem they provided code which I added to my template which lets you select "Older" and "Newer" posts at the bottom of the page. Thus if for example you want to read my April 1st fool's post, you need to select April from the dropdown list at the right, and then select "Older" at the bottom of the page to reach April 1st.

Note that you can also find specific posts by using the search function in the upper left corner of this blog.

Perfect MMORPG: Raiding

When I mentioned that I’m looking at various MMORPGs with the idea to assemble the perfect MMORPG from the various ideas and features of various games, several people asked me to describe that perfect MMORPG. I’m afraid I can’t give you a full description, because that would be a hundred-page design document. But I can describe parts of it. In this post I want to describe how I think a perfect raiding end game would look like. The thoughts on that are based on the one side on the recent discussions we had here about raiding in World of Warcraft, and on the other side on a recent post by Keen, and a follow-up by Muckbeast on how guilds have become too important in MMORPGs.

So before describing my proposal for a solution, I am going to analyze the problem: I believe that the root of the problem is the fundamental structure of raids, with their lockouts, multiple bosses separated by trash, and what one of my readers called “generic environment-related tasks like moving out of the fire instead of class-related skills”, which require each and every encounter to be trained several times before a raid group succeeds in downing a boss. What follows from that is the huge amount of organization it takes for a guild to set up a good raid, and in consequence the much lower quality of a badly set-up pickup raid. When Keen and Muckbeast complain about guilds being too important, they are talking about guilds being too important as gatekeepers to access raid content. Not in the right guild means you are not getting into the good raids, and then you are missing the achievements that you’d need to get into a PUG raid. And that is just the tip of the iceberg: There are also a lot of players who will never be able to raid simply because they don’t have multi-hour blocks of time available during typical guild raid times.

Trying to design the perfect raid brings us to a deceptively simple question with a lot of hidden depth: What exactly *is* raiding? I would define raiding as a large group of players fighting against a boss mob with unusual abilities. Everything else, lockouts, epic drops, trash mobs, and so on, is not essential to raiding, and is just a specific part of the implementation of raiding by Blizzard in World of Warcraft. And there lies the trap in discussing raiding in a perfect MMORPG: Whatever I describe, somebody will think I’m talking about changing how raids work in World of Warcraft, and will come up with a counter-argument which is specific to WoW, but doesn’t apply at all to the perfect MMORPG I’m talking about.

In a recent reply to a comment I stated a brief outline of what I would want from a raid encounter: What I want is raid encounters in which A) I need to think which button to press. B) My decision which button I press matters. And C) what the best button to press is depends on what class I play. To this I now add point D) which is that I would like raid encounters to *not* require a huge amount of encounter-specific practice, which is basically a consequence of points A to C. If a raid encounter follows a totally predictable script, the best way to beat the raid encounter is to follow a totally predictable anti-script, and training that script into muscle memory, which reduces the need to think, and thus eliminates the possibility to make a wrong decision. If we eliminate the predictable script, we eliminate the possibility of training specific encounters, and thus we eliminate the necessity of complicated organization in which guilds strive to learn an encounter before being able to beat it. Instead of all that we get the requirement for raiders to be able to think quickly, react to unforeseen events, and play their class so well that they are able to choose the right ability for every given situation.

Thus raiding in my perfect MMORPG would basically work via an interface not unlike the Dungeon Finder in World of Warcraft: You could sign up alone or in a group, everybody needs to say which role he is going to perform, and the computer matches your group randomly with a challenge which is appropriate to the power level of the group, taking gear into account. But that challenge would not be a dungeon with trash and several raid bosses, it would be just a single raid boss encounter. And that single raid boss encounter would be random, that is to say based on a random selection of different possible boss abilities, of which there would be enough to make it extremely unlikely to meet the exactly same mix twice.

At this point I probably need to calm down the screaming WoW players suffering from a lack of imagination, who are right now thinking that bosses with random abilities you can’t train the steps for can’t be beat. Of course you can: It is just a question of tuning the power of those abilities, and of giving enough pointers to players. That starts with how the raid boss looks: There will by technical necessity only be a limited number of boss models, let’s say 50. And the shape of the boss will be linked to some basic abilities: You can count on a dragon having a breath weapon and a tail spike, a huge giant is going to hit hard and cleave, while a lich is certainly casting spells, etc. Beyond the abilities given by the basic shape, there would be a random selection of additional special abilities. Of course the developers would need to balance these somehow, for example by attaching point values to them, so you don’t get one boss with a few harmless abilities and another with several total killer abilities. And every special ability launched by a boss would have visible and audible warnings: Think Ick & Krick in the Pits of Saron, with their shouts of “Quickly! Poison them all while they're still close!” telling you that it would probably be a good idea to run away now to avoid a poison nova.

A raid group that wipes on such a random boss would find themselves respawning at the entrance of the instance, with the same boss still around and fully healed. Thus if some combination of abilities took them by surprise, they will be better prepared for the next fight. But as soon as either they give up, or the boss is dead, there would be no way to get the same boss again. Even if they signed up for the next raid encounter directly afterwards and by chance got a boss with the same shape again, he would most probably have a different set of random abilities, thus the fight would be different. And as the raid bosses are each in their own instance, with no trash, groups can change in composition between doing different bosses, and there is no requirement for anyone to stay with the raid groups for a consecutive block of hours.

Rewards for such raid encounters would work along similar lines as rewards for heroics work now: There is some random loot, which is distributed by some need/greed roll system (and if you are in a guild group you can still design loot rules on who is allowed to press the need button). But more importantly every participant gets tokens, which can be saved up to buy gear, making loot distribution less of an all or nothing affair. And where is raid progression in all that? Simple, as a difficulty selection slider on the random raid finder interface. With possibly some requirements like gear level or a number of raids of the easier levels done before being able to select the higher difficulties. The easiest difficulty could be easy enough so that people who frankly don't play very well can still "raid", while the higher difficulty levels are for increasingly more skilled players, and give out better rewards to encourage people to go for that higher challenge.

Note that while such a random raid boss system could theoretically be implemented in World of Warcraft, that is not only unlikely to happen, but also sub-optimal due to the design of how combat works in World of Warcraft. The perfect raid encounter I am describing here is based on players making meaningful decisions based on being able to play their class well, and reacting to the unforeseeable events of a boss with a mix of random abilities. That works a lot better if your spells and abilities are more different from each other in different situations. Imagine your spells would do different amounts of damage depending on how far you are from the target, and also depending on whether you hit the target from the front or the back. Now add a boss who isn’t standing still in front of the tank, but is circle-strafing him, add a couple of boss abilities that force players to move, and suddenly you are forced to constantly decide which spell is the best based on where you are standing in relation to the position of the boss, instead of just using the same spell rotation all the time. In addition to that, the combat system could have multi-player combos, similar to those of LotRO, where your spells could have extra effects if you coordinate them right with your fellow players.

The overall goal of raiding in the perfect MMORPG should be to have a fun challenge for a larger group of players. Much of what went wrong with raiding in other games is due to the unfortunate tendency of players to optimize the fun out of games. Thus I believe that randomized single boss encounters, combined with challenges that are based on class-related skills, come closer to a perfect raid experience than multi-hour predictable sequences for which everybody has to learn the specific moves for. And a random raid finder interface would relieve guilds from their role as gate-keepers to raid content, thus decreasing the organizational burden and potential for unnecessary drama. Raiding with your guild should be possible, but not be the major function of a guild. A random raid finder with random raid bosses provides a better challenge, and a better measure of “skill”, than learning a tactic from a YouTube video and then practicing the steps until the boss goes down. With different difficulty levels tuned right, there could be an appropriate challenge with an appropriate reward for everybody who wants to raid.

Spirit for holy paladins

Yesterday my holy paladin was in a PUG with "that guy", you know, the type who inspects your gear and enjoys pointing out even minor deviations from the perceived optimum, even if they have zero impact on the success of the group in that particular heroic. In my case his only complaint was that I had enchanted my boots with a +spirit enchant, instead of a +stamina enchant. I would have ignored that, but then I followed a link from MMO-Champion to a new application Elitist Armory, which promptly proceeded to tell me that my holy paladin was fine except for that +spirit enchant on his boots.

Now I'm used to playing a priest as healer. My paladin already has better stamina and better armor than my better geared priest. And as I'm only doing heroics, as a healer I shouldn't really get hit all that often. So I considered a +stamina enchant to be downright useless for me. Now I'm well aware that the effect of spirit on a paladin healer is much, much smaller than on a priest. But at least there is a tiny, positive effect on mana regeneration.

So why does everybody think that stamina would be a better enchant for my boots than spirit? Is the case so clear cut that stamina is the only viable alternative? Or is there at least a degree of choice, in which I just happened to choose the less conventional one?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

WoW remote AH application on the iPhone

I was going to write some terribly intelligent thoughts about the new remote AH application for WoW, but Ixobelle beat me to them. Just like him I don't think it will be possible to combine the new application with an addon like auctioneer, whether you use the app on the iPhone or a browser. There are limits to how many auctions you can do per day, 25 at the start, maybe 200 after the beta. And while you can buy and sell and bid, you can't craft, so that typical AH sessions of mine (buy herbs, make pigments, make inks, craft glyphs, sell glyphs) will be impossible.

In consequence I don't think the introduction of the new app will have a huge impact on AH prices. Who is going to post 200 items from his iPhone, one by one, entering all prices manually, and having to remember or written down typical market prices?

Interestingly I would say that the inefficiencies of the new remote AH application are good for people who like to trade on the AH. The reason for that is the efficient market theory, which in spite of having been badly mauled by the economic crisis still has some grains of truth in it: If there were enough people using the auction house, and they would have efficient enough tools, profits from trading would disappear. The reason why you can make a profit by buying something and then reselling it more expensively is that the market in WoW is inefficient. With a lot of competition, sellers would underbid each other until the profit margins would be too low to be worth the effort. In the end every single item in a game like World of Warcraft has an inherent value which is proportional to the time it takes to gain this item for yourself instead of buying it. With enough people trading, the market value of all items on the AH converges towards this inherent value, because the buyers think "I'm not paying more than that, I'll go gather the stuff myself", and the sellers think "I'm not selling for less than that, because otherwise I could earn more gold doing something else like running dailies". The fun of AH trading lies in making a profit, and that only works if the market is inefficient. So fortunately the remote AH app isn't going to change that.

Apologies to my guild

The first request in last Sunday's open thread was "you should tell us how your guild is doing this expansion compared to the last one". I would say they are doing great, they have downed 9 out of 12 bosses in Icecrown Citadel. [EDIT: I miscounted. In reality it is 10 out of 12.] Unfortunately that has very little to do with me. I raided with my guild through Naxxramas and at the start of Ulduar, but then didn't like WotLK raiding all that much, took a break, and now my guild is too far advanced for me. I never got to finish Ulduar, and now my guild's raid calendar is full of ICC runs with the occasional ToC thrown in. I still don't like WotLK raiding, and I'm not a huge fan of leeching as a tourist in a guild raid, so I don't sign up for guild raids any more.

I also played my paladin a lot this year, which is on a different faction and server than my guild. So I just occasionally log on a character who is guilded, and if the opportunity arises, I do a guild run to some heroic with them. Thus my interaction with my guild isn't very strong, and I would like to apologize for that to them. I still love you, guys! :) It is just that the interests and activities of the guild have diverged from mine.

I don't think that is anybody's fault, except maybe the fault of game design. Organizing raids is a heavy organizational burden, and thus practically every guild only organizes raids to the place where *most* people want to go, which is more often than not the highest place the guild has "progressed" to. It is simply not possible to accomodate the preferences of every single guild member who might have fallen behind. World of Warcraft doesn't really have much opportunity for players to interact with their guild beyond chat, raiding, and running heroics.

I do have hopes that my situation with my guild improves with Cataclysm. If all the announcements about the changes to raid healing come true, I should like raiding in Cataclysm much better than I liked WotLK raiding. And raid progress will "reset", so we'll all be interested in visiting the same raid dungeon. Thus I might be raiding with my guild again in the next expansion. Fortunately for me they are a rather generous and forgiving lot. Which is why I'm with them since the day I signed the guild charter on release day, over 5 years ago, with some breaks. And who knows, maybe the new guild progress system in Cataclysm will enable better interaction between players and their guilds even if they aren't at the same point of raid progress.

Ogres picking daisies

I never played much of the original Guild Wars, which probably comes to no surprise to you, given the game's PvP focus and my dislike of PvP. So Guild Wars 2 wasn't high up on my list of games I'm waiting for. But in the open Sunday thread several readers asked about my opinion about the announced Guild Wars 2 Dynamic Events System. So I looked it up, and I really liked what I saw. Not just the announced feature, but also the writing about the feature, which reads a lot more like a blog than like some marketing hype. Quote:
For example, in a traditional MMO, the character who gives you a quest will tell you ogres are coming to destroy the character's home, and you need to kill them. You then get a quest which says, "Kill 0/10 ogres" and you proceed to kill a bunch of ogres standing around in a field picking daisies. Since every player in the game needs to be able to do this quest, the ogres will never actually threaten the character's home - they will just eternally pick daisies in the field. The ogres aren't actually doing what the quest says they are - the game is lying to you!

At ArenaNet, we believe this is NOT good enough. In Guild Wars 2, if a character tells you ogres are coming to destroy a house, they will really come and smash down the house if you don't stop them!
Now several people said that this is just like the public quests in Warhammer Online, but to me it doesn't sound like that. I rather have the impression that any situation has several possible "states", and it is the player's actions that influence what state the situation is in. Look at this quote:
If an enemy dredge army is marching out of their main base, players will be asked to mobilize with their allies and help destroy the army. If the dredge army is defeated, other events will cascade out from there. Players will be able battle their way inside the dredge base, face off against their commander, rescue captured friendly troops being held in the dredge prisons, and even hold the captured base while fighting waves of dredge, who arrive from deep underground to try and take back their home.

If, on the other hand, players fail to destroy the army, it will establish a fort in friendly player territory. From there, the dredge will send shipments of troops and supplies to the fort from the main base while building up walls, turrets, and siege engines to help defend it. Enemy dredge forces will then begin to move out from their newly established fort to attack friendly player locations in the area, sending snipers out into the hills, sending assault team forces to capture friendly player villages, and trying to smash down friendly fortifications with massive dredge walkers. All of these events continue to cascade out into further chains of events where cause and effect is directly related to the player's actions.
That sounds a whole lot like what I've been asking for nearly a year ago. Not that I believe ArenaNet got the idea from me, but players have been asking for more dynamic virtual worlds for ages. How many million times have players told Mankrik that his wife is dead? And he *still* keeps asking every passerby to look for her. The current generation of MMORPGs is static, with most things resetting within minutes, and nothing ever changing unless the change is part of a patch.

And I believe that it is because of the fundamental truth of the above quoted "the game is lying to you!" that players stopped reading quests and just look at the reward and click accept. Why should I be interested in the long story how the dragon kidnapped the princess, if I know that 5 minutes after I slay the dragon and rescue the princess, the dragon will be alive again and the princess back in captivity? Rescueing the princess has no impact on the world around me, so I concentrate on that what *has* an impact: The 10,000 xp and Sword of Uberness quest reward. The quest text being, well, text doesn't help, but I don't think that is main reason players just aren't interested. Which is why I believe Guild Wars 2 has the better idea here, with the dynamic event system, than Bioware has with their "4th pillar of storytelling" for Star Wars: The Old Republic. If the stories of SWTOR don't have any impact and everything resets 5 minutes later, players will click through voiceovers as fast as they clicked through text to get to the list of rewards and the accept button.

Having said that, a dynamic virtual world also has obvious pitfalls. The player population in any given zone goes up and down with time: There are more players online during prime time than at night, and newbie zones are full shortly after release, and then get progressively emptier, with a bulk of players moving through the various zones as they level up. That was one of the problems the public quests of Warhammer had, a public quest or dynamic event with a big invasion isn't much use to you if you are alone in that zone. And when the zone is crowded, the event becomes too easy, which also isn't all that much fun.

Nevertheless now I started looking forward to Guild Wars 2, even if it won't be out before next year. I would really like to see how they actually implement those ideas about a dynamic virtual world. Because if they do it right, this could easily become the next big thing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Should we stop blogging until Cataclysm?

While I share Larísa's opinion that the MMO blogosphere is in a bit of a rut, I find her suggestion that both bloggers and blog readers should take a break until Cataclysm comes out a bit strange. Yes, World of Warcraft is definitively in a phase of "between expansions boredom", where many players basically finished Wrath of the Lich King and are waiting for Cataclysm to come out. And there is also a conspicous lack of other great new games coming out this summer, unless you count Mortal Online. But does that mean we can't read and write about games any more?

If I understood her correctly, Larísa thinks that if you can't write anything nice about a game, you shouldn't write about it at all. But as she labeled her link to me as "the clashes", she obviously thinks that I have a very different opinion about that. Nevertheless I don't think she really understands what I am blogging about, nor do quite a number of my readers, judging by the comments I get.

The thing is that I am not really blogging about World of Warcraft, about EVE, or about any other specific game. I am not promoting this game, or bashing that one, even if some people obviously think I do. What I am really blogging about is the perfect MMORPG. Perfect for me, that is, obviously different people have different preferences. I am blogging about the perfect MMORPG by looking at existing MMORPGs, and writing about my personal impressions on what features work for me and what features don't.

Thus if I'm writing about lets say real-time offline skill training, that isn't a post about "bashing EVE Online". It is a post about the disconnect I feel between me playing a game and my character advancing in the game if character advancement is in real-time and also works offline. And the same is true when I write about the fast reaction times required in raiding: That isn't me "bashing WoW", nor is it, quote Larísa, the "seasonal Curse of Boredom, Burn-out, Bitterness, Lost faith and Godknowswhat that strikes again". Instead it is me pondering that in the perfect MMORPG the end game should use game mechanics which are similar to (and advanced from) what the game taught you during leveling, and not simply make the skills and abilities of the characters we spent hundreds of hours leveling up secondary to a newly introduced jump & run game mechanic.

I simply have no interest at all in promoting any specific game, or discouraging people from playing another. First of all, I don't even think my blog matters that much; I can get a hundred people to play a Facebook game, but as MMORPG subscription numbers are often discussed in terms of how many hundreds of thousands players a game needs to be a success or failure, I don't think anything I say about MMORPGs is going to have a measurable influence.

Having said that, I also insist on my right to state what I think. Some games simply aren't for me, and in other cases I don't like what some players do in games. I don't see why I would be required to not say anything about the things I dislike. I sometimes get accused of being too sensitive, but that accusation more often than not comes from people who apparently got terribly hurt by some random blogger saying something not nice about their favorite game. Who is the emo if some fanboi starts frothing at the mouth and calling me names because I said I don't like his favorite game or game mechanic, and I delete that comment?

I don't write deliberately controversial stuff just to get comments. Actually I don't even like the sort of comments I get when I write controversial stuff, because most of them aren't about perfect game design, and only deal with stupid turf wars and pointing fingers at the "blasphemers". But getting a good conversation about game design going is rather hard. A typical post of "I did this and that in this or that game, and I liked it" barely gets any comments at all. To get anyone even remotely interested, it appears that instead of writing about a feature that works for me in one game, I have to write about the opposite feature not working for me in another game.

Thus while I do agree that it might be a good idea to play less World of Warcraft until the next expansion (or at least pre-expansion patch) comes out, and I do exactly that, I don't think that this means we have to stop blogging or reading blogs until Cataclysm. Instead there is an opportunity here to play some other games, something radically different, and write about that. Because even if we end up liking that radically different game a lot less, it is by comparison that we learn what we think is missing. And there is a chance that we get acquainted with some feature that the radically different game has, and end up wishing our favorite game had that.

So if I may make a suggestion to Larísa and everybody else who is struck by the "Curse of Boredom": Why don't you go and try out A Tale in the Desert? It is a great game, radically different from most games you know, and it is a true sandbox. It even *has* sand! What it doesn't have is PvP, nor does it have PvE, not in the traditional sense of the terms, so it might challenge your notions about what a MMORPG is. And that can only be a good thing.

EVE newbie guide

Via the always so extremely nice and helpful people of comes the link to EVE newbie guide from the kind folks of the Goonwaffe. Part of the info is Goon-specific, but there are helpful hints and lists of skills to learn that are useful for any EVE newbie.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I don't think Gearscore is the culprit here

Professor Beej has a very interesting post up in which he blames Gearscore for making him want to quit World of Warcraft. Now I'm not a fan of Gearscore, and on my server the trade chat is full of people discriminating against others based on their gearscore. It works like this: The player checks his own Gearscore, lets say it is 4793. And then he shouts that he is inviting everyone with a minimum Gearscore of 4793, because obviously somebody with a Gearscore of only 4792 is a clueless n00b. Thus Gearscore is used to establish a pecking order to an extremely fine degree. Stupid elitism in action.

But as bad as that is, it actually has nothing to do with Professor Beej's problem. He says:
A 5000 GearScore should mean that the player is ready for a 10-player Icecrown Citadel (ICC), not that he or she has been raiding it for months and does not need any more upgrades. Unfortunately, PuG leaders want higher than that to facilitate guaranteed success. They also demand that players already have their ICC Achievements before they can get into the group, which eliminates anyone who has not already cleared the dungeons at least partially.

But in my case, I can’t get the Achievement because I have to PuG raids. My schedule doesn’t line up with my guild’s raid nights, so I am left high and dry on being able to get my achievement that way. So on the occasions I can play WoW for any lengthy period of time, I have to PuG; it is the my only real way of seeing end-game content. But to get into those raids, I have to already have done the instance.

Bam! Catch-22: PuG leaders don’t want players who have never been in the Instance.
Now imagine Gearscore would miraculously vanish, and look at Prof. Beej's situation again: Nothing has changed. The reason why he can't get into a raid isn't his Gearscore, which is high enough, but the fact that he hasn't done Icecrown before, and thus doesn't have the achievement. No achievement that proves you already did the dungeon, no invite. Thus simple solution: Use one of those addons that fake achievements to get into that PUG.

If I look at this situation, I see two factors here that are the problem: The first is that people only consider raiding fun if it is successful, and fast at that. That is a development of the video game age, affecting younger players far more than those over 40, like me. I grew up on board games and pen & paper roleplaying games, which worked on very different basic premises: In most board games only one out of several players wins, which teaches you to enjoy the act of playing the game, because you simply can't win all the time. And in pen & paper role-playing games you don't really win at all, and again do it for the fun of playing. It is only single-player video games which ended up teaching people that it is possible to win every game, and even necessary to win every stage to advance to the next one. With that video game mindset, it is obvious why somebody assembling a pickup group insists of only chosing those players which have the biggest chance of success.

The second factor is the nature of Wrath of the Lich King raiding, which I already discussed last week: Whether you play your character well, and even your gear, are not good predictors for the success of a raid encounter. The real difficulty of a WotLK raid encounter is "learning the dance", practicing a fixed set of moves requiring sub-second reaction times. Which is why Gearscore in this case isn't the culprit: Every PUG raid leader with half a brain will rather invite somebody with the Kingslayer achievement and slightly less Gearscore, than somebody with a few hundred more Gearscore and no ICC achievement at all.

In reality Gearscore matters very little, because World of Warcraft in this expansion has developed into a game in which gear itself matters very little. Somewhere along the way somebody used a bait and switch scam on us, and replaced the classic role-playing game we were playing with a version of a Super Mario jump & run game, in which your character and his gear don't matter any more. If you practiced all the moves and are a good Super Mario player, you can raid undergeared. That sure is fun to some people, but it isn't the game I have signed up for, and not the game I want to play.

Now World of Warcraft is a game of many layers, and just because I don't like modern raiding doesn't mean I don't like the rest of it. But of course if I opt out of raiding, there is a lot less content for me to play through. So I basically have two hopes for Cataclysm and beyond: The first is that the announced changes to raiding will make playing your character well more important again. And the second is that Blizzard introduces the Raid Finder functionality, so that raid organizers can't discrimininate against other players based on Gearscore or achievements.

The Guild Leader's Handbook

Ah, the joys of transatlantic postal service! Today I received a review copy of The Guild Leader's Handbook from writer Scott F. Andrews, published by No Starch Press, and mailed to me three weeks ago. Leading a guild in a MMORPG is a rather specialized subject area, thus No Starch Press wisely decided to market their book there where the small circle of potential customers was likely to hang out: On MMORPG blogs. By handing out free review copies left and right.

There is a detailed review on Blessing of Kings.

Another review at World of Matticus.

A medium sized review at Kill Ten Rats.

A short praise at Hardcore Casual.

A short look at We Fly Spitfires.

Larísa from the Pink Pigtail Inn opted out of a review.

And probably a lot of other sites I missed or didn't list because they weren't MMO blogs.

So what could possibly be left for me to write? Well, nothing soon, that is for sure, as I first have to read the book, and I'm currently rather busy with a lot of other stuff. But when I do, I'll probably have some thoughts to write down. Not a review, because that has already been sufficiently covered, but just some personal thoughts on where I agree or disagree with the author. I do find the subject of guild management an interesting one. And I don't mind promoting a book which would otherwise get very little attention if just placed in the window of a bookstore.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dual-boxing part II

My World of Warcraft dual-boxing experiment reached phase 2. In phase 1 I set up a refer-a-friend account, created a rogue on it, and leveled him together with a level 1 warrior bank alt from my original account to level 29. In phase 2 I'm getting to the real purpose of it all, grouping the rogue with level 29 druid I had on the old account, to level that druid faster.

On the technical side I have advanced a bit as well: I bought Keyclone for $20, so now when I press a key on my keyboard, the command goes to BOTH windows of World of Warcraft. That was still a bit fiddly while I was using the warrior / rogue combo, because it is tricky to get both characters in melee range. But with some practice I even managed to get the reliably lined up so that the warrior was tanking from the front, while the rogue was backstabbing from behind. Now that I'm on rogue / druid, it is the rogue who is doing the tanking, while the druid is in the back, healing and casting damage spells. That is a lot easier to control, I just had to write a bunch of macros with all the spells, either targeting my rogue or his target first.

With both of these setups it turns out that the damage output of the second character isn't great, less than half of what the main character dishes out. So I'm happy that I'm past the warrior / rogue combo, because there the second character really didn't add all that much. The rogue / druid combo is a lot more interesting, because the rogue is by itself quite good at dealing damage, and with a dedicated healer as backup is nearly impossible to kill. The druid buffs don't hurt either. In principle I could even stealth both characters, the druid in cat form, but in practice I just don't bother and rather fight my way through the mobs for the xp.

So how much faster is leveling at triple xp? The obvious answer, "three times as fast", is wrong. The triple xp is not cumulative with rest xp, so for killing mobs you get triple xp instead of double xp, only 50% more. But the triple xp bonus also counts for quest xp, and doesn't run out until level 60. So overall I'd say I'm leveling at about twice the usual speed. Which is still rather fast: When my rogue got to level 29 and switched teams he had less than 1 day of /played time, thus less than 1 hour per level.

Teamed up with my druid a new problem turned up: The druid is wearing heirloom chest and shoulders for 20% xp bonus, and it turns out that this *is* cumulative with the triple xp, so he is at 360% of normal xp, while the rogue is at 300%, and is slowly falling behind. I'm solving that problem by occasionally accepting "collect ten foozle ears" quests, and only doing the quest with the rogue. Normally collect quests aren't good for dual-boxing, because you'll need to kill twice as many mobs to get the parts for both characters and looting with the second character is slow. So I'm mostly doing kill quests, and only do the occasional collect quest with the rogue for him to keep up with the druid's heirloom xp bonus.

Getting to level 60 before the summer holidays should be no problem at this speed. I'm just not totally sure what to do then. Even without triple xp, a rogue with a druid healing him is obviously superior to just a rogue. So I might keep the team together beyond level 60, at least until level 65, which is currently the level needed to learn crafting skills to the maximum. Alts with maxed out tradeskills are nice to have. But then of course if I want to keep the rogue, I'll need to pay for a transfer from the second account to the main one. Well, I'll see how it goes and whether I like him so much that I'm willing to pay to keep him.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

This is a placeholder post, so my readers can use the comment section to ask questions, make suggestions, or discuss among themselves.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Let's discuss user interfaces

In the open Sunday thread several readers suggested I start a thread about graphical user interfaces (GUI), and how important they are for games, so here it is. The GUI is what connects us to our games, which is why it is very important to be done right. But there are a lot of pitfalls how it could go wrong.

One major problem is information overload. Too much information displayed, and you end up not noticing any of it, because even important displays get burried in a mountain of data. Especially single-player games nowadays have a strong tendency to minimize user interfaces, for example displaying your health by the image becoming red instead of having a health bar you might overlook. While I haven't played it, I saw videos of the new Splinter Cell: Conviction, where even the mission goals are projected onto the walls instead of being shown in a window, way cool!

One technical difficulty for graphical user interfaces is scaling. You can play games in lots of different resolutions, with screen widths ranging from 800 pixels to 5700 pixels. But user interfaces in many cases don't scale very well, because they use a fixed number of pixels, not a fixed percentage of the screen width. Thus if for example a game is using a 10 point font, that looks large on a 800 pixel wide screen, but tiny on a 24" 1900 pixel wide screen. In the early days of World of Warcraft I played on a 17" screen with 4:3 aspect ratio, and the various UI addons for raid healers took so much space, that I only ever saw Molten Core through a small window in the middle. My current 22" wide screen is a lot better there.

The biggest impact on the user interface of a MMORPG is the developers decision on how much modification to allow by the users. The user interface of World of Warcraft improved a lot over the years, because Blizzard not only allowed addons, but then also integrated the functionality of the most popular addons in the standard user interface. Can you believe that when WoW came out, there was only one single hotkey button bar, with no possibility to show more than 12 buttons at a time? It's true, and addons changed that.

The downside of user-created GUI addons is that they have an impact on the difficulty of the game. For example I have Deadly Boss Mods running, and whenever a dungeon or raid boss targets me with an ability from which I am supposed to run away, the "run away little girl" from the Big Bad Wolf event in the Karazhan opera plays, making it harder for me to fail to notice what I should do. One extreme example was recently shown on MMO Champion, where the Augmented Virtual Reality AVR addon makes it possible for a raid leader to mark the ground with circles and symbols as in "healers stand in the blue circle, ranged dps in the green one, and when boss ability X triggers, run in the direction of the big red arrow!".

So, tell me about your experiences with user interfaces in various games! What game has an exceptionally good GUI, which one an exceptionally bad one? How important are GUI addons for you? Discuss!