Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rant: DK tanks suck

*Warning: Incoming rant*

My druid is now level 63, and got from 60 to there without doing any quests, just queueing up as a healer in the Dungeon Finder. Overall that worked not so bad, because while we remember the terribad pickup groups more, and discuss them more, there are actually more than half of pickup groups which are competent enough for the content the Dungeon Finder assigns them to.

But in those pickup groups I've been in that went pear-shaped, the tank was invariably a death knight. Usually a death knight with absolutely no defense gear, low stamina, and in some cases even somebody who had to be reminded to switch to frost presence. In two groups yesterday the dps warrior of similar level had *more* health than the DK tank.

With low health, low defense, and no shield, a death knight tank can go from full health to dead while having a full set of heals over time on him in less than the time it takes to cast a healing touch. Even more annoyingly I experienced several wipes where the DK tank had overpulled, I barely managed to keep him alive at the cost of all my mana, and then we wiped because the tank had ignored my "out of mana" announcement and went and pulled another three packs of mobs. And then of course everybody blames the healer and leaves the group.

Dear Death Knight: At this level you inherently suck at tanking. You don't even *want* to tank, you just signed up as tank because it meant less waiting time in the Dungeon Finder queue. So please, could you at least pull carefully and watch the healer's mana between fights? Once the healer runs out of mana, you are dead.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dying under a pile of money

Larísa has an interesting post up on the subject of "WoW is dying", where she concludes (correctly I think), that it is more a case of people thinking "I'm personally bored of WoW, and that means WoW must be dying" than anything to do with the actual state of the game. She links to a very interesting post by Gronthe on Blizzard's financials, which shows that the net revenue of Activision Blizzard is on a constant upward trend. And anyone who believes that Blizzard isn't going to make a profit with Cataclysm, Starcraft II, Diablo III, and their next MMO, needs to get his head checked.

But while the chance that Blizzard is going broke and having to shut down the World of Warcraft servers anytime soon is infinitesimally small, the subjective feeling of "WoW is dying" some people have is based on other, more personal, experiences. For example I am pretty certain that player activity this summer is going to be relatively subdued. That doesn't necessarily mean a lot of people unsubscribing, as a lot of people might just let their subscription keep running and just play less. But it does lead to less activity on the servers, more difficult time to get raids together, and associated guild drama with potential for some guilds folding due to being unable to raid.

The other major factor is burnout. The average player is playing World of Warcraft a thousand hours per year, and with WoW in its sixth year that adds up to a lot of hours. The truly astonishing thing is that people can play a game for several thousand hours, not that they are burned out at the end of that. We know that WoW is in the top 10 of PC games sales charts nearly every month, so as the game doesn't appear to be growing any more (no new servers, no press releases on new player number records), nor shows significant signs of shrinking (no server mergers), we must assume that there are about as many people leaving World of Warcraft every month as there are new game sales. Again, over the years that makes a lot of ex-WoW players.

So while "WoW is dying" certainly isn't true in any absolute sense of the term (unless you take John Maynard Keynes view that in the long run we are all dead), it is perfectly possible that *your* personal World of Warcraft is dying. Your guild imploded, your best friends left, you are stuck in pickup groups with clueless n00bs, and you are burned out and bored, until you quit and WoW is dead *for you*.

But objectively speaking World of Warcraft has quite a good survival strategy. Given that eventual burnout, especially of those who play a lot, is inevitable, designing the game with new players and casual players in mind is probably the best possible way. Of course that leaves the veterans furious: As they learned a lot about WoW in the past years, and optimized the performance of their characters, they would need the challenge level of WoW to constantly go up for the game to remain interesting. Instead the developers make many aspects of the game more accessible to new and casual players, and remove unnecessary complexity. Also the amount of content an expansion plus all patches adds to World of Warcraft is more suited to a leisurly pace of consumption than to hardcore playing. The more you play, the faster you just run out of things to do. From a business point of view that makes total sense, because a new and casual player pays as much money as a hardcore player. But of course for the hardcore players that can be frustrating, and as it is more often them who populate blogs and game forums, they vent their frustration in doomsaying. In reality World of Warcraft isn't dying, it is just moving away from the needs of that player group.

The financial brilliance behind that development strategy becomes apparent whenever the next expansion is released. If a large part of the ex-WoW players are people who got bored and burned out, an expansion promising new content and new challenges is likely to bring them back, at least for a while. Thus they spend money on the expansion box, plus some months of subscription, and Blizzard is making tons of money. It is pretty much certain that Cataclysm will again break all possible records for first-week sales, and that the subscription numbers will peak again. So is World of Warcraft dying? Not unless it suffocates under a pile of money.

Heroes of Gaia Review

*Disclaimer*: I received some “review items” in-game from Snail Games, which allowed me to speed up my development, and see more of the game faster.

Heroes of Gaia from Snail Games is a Free2Play massively multiplayer browser strategy game which heavily “borrows” gameplay elements from the King’s Bounty / Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) series of single-player games, and combines them with elements from other classic browser strategy games. That works surprisingly well: While other browser games, like Travian, or Lords of Ultima, suffer mightily from the problem that there is nothing to *do*, except building up your forces and hitting your neighbor over the head with them, Heroes of Gaia offers better opportunity for constant activity. And you *still* can build up your forces and hit your neighbor over the head with them. :)

You start the game with a castle, some resources, and one hero with an army. You can send out the hero to capture production sites, gather resources, find treasure, and beat monsters. All of that is done in fights which work like fights in HoMM, but somewhat more automated, so you can opt to just let them autoplay for the easier fights, or you can control the battles, give some general instructions to your troops, and use your hero’s spells and abilities. Doing that gains experience points for your hero, increasing his stats, which also increase by the gear he finds. You also gain resources, which can then be used to build up your castle, research spells, recruit troops, and hire more heroes with more armies.

In addition to the classic HoMM game elements, there are quests, called “tasks”, which give additional resources if you do them. While this gameplay can keep you and your hero busy in the short-term, there are also the typical long-term gameplay elements of browser strategy games: You can chat with other players, join a guild, wage wars, and conquer castles and resource buildings. Thus there is a mix of PvP and PvE, with considerably more PvE than most other browser strategy games offer.

The further you advance, the slower progress gets. Buildings have 10 levels, each taking longer to construct than the previous. Your heroes move over the map in real time, and not very fast, so reaching some far away point takes a while. Hiring troops takes time, so does researching hero and town spells. You can only construct one building, hire one troop type, and research one hero and one town spell at a time. Unless, of course, if you go to the item shop and speed things up by spending money on items that let you build two buildings at once, or hire two troops, or research two spells, or on items which accelerate movement speed, make building, hiring, or research faster, or give you more resources faster. And looking at the item shop I must say that the price level is rather elevated, you could spend a rather large amount of money on Heroes of Gaia if you wanted to. On the other hand I found that on a casual play schedule I never used up all of my action points, thus somebody with more time on his hand can use his heroes more than I do, and also get ahead by gathering more resources and treasures. Given that some people simply started earlier than you, and others either spend more time or more money than you, there is the eternal problem common to all browser strategy games that PvP isn’t very well balanced, and some player or alliance much more powerful than you can just crush you.

Technically Heroes of Gaia is nice enough, but not outstanding. I was a bit annoyed that while the graphics are pretty enough, they are fixed resolution (and a rather strange 1000 x 610 one), so on my high-resolution monitor I’m playing on a small window. The “full screen” button removes the border of your browser, but doesn’t increase the size of the playing area. Heroes of Gaia is originally a Chinese game, and there are some translation errors and strange grammar, but generally everything is understandable. The tutorial could be better, but if you played a HoMM game and a browser strategy game before, you’ll have no problem getting into the game quickly enough.

In summary, whether you think Heroes of Gaia is a good game probably depends on what you compare it with. If you are looking for a multiplayer browser strategy game, Heroes of Gaia is actually quite a good option, offering you more gameplay than the competition. But once you start using the item shop regularly, that can get ridiculously expensive: Most items cost several dollars. I gulped when I saw that the item shop currently has a “sale” giving you an extra-strong “purple” epic hero if you spend 2500 points, because at a cost of 10 cents per point that would set you back $250. If the single-player HoMM-like gameplay is what really interests you, the relatively new King’s Bounty games (“The Legend” and “Armored Princess”) are on sale on Steam and offer far better value for money.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

How much gear do you need?

I did something strange this weekend, transforming 50 emblems of frost from my priest into lesser emblems, to buy heirloom gear with them. It is not as if I already had full emblem of frost gear on my priest, so why would I "waste" my frost emblems like that? Because frankly I have enough gear for what I want to do, including a bit of raiding in ICC, and the minor improvements I could buy after grinding hundreds of emblems of frost aren't really worth it for me. I'd rather concentrate on leveling up my druid before Cataclysm arrives, and as I had only bought "feral" leather heirlooms for him, and now switched to healing / boomkin dual spec, a set of caster leather heirlooms was the better investment.

This continues a trend where I already spent many of the emblems I collected on other characters to buy the heirlooms for the future characters I want to play in Cataclysm: A goblin hunter and a worgen warlock. My other characters suffer even more than the priest from not really needing any more gear, as I don't raid with them. I am a casual raider, one raid per week is enough for me, so as I have four level 80 characters, the other three don't really need raiding gear. I got them all up to the sort of gear which makes running heroics already trivial enough, so what would be the point of equipping them even better?

I like 5-man dungeons, so I'm not stopping to play these characters just because I don't need any gear for them any more. Between the level 80 priest and paladin, and the druid now at level 63 and leveling through dungeons, I have three different healers, and it is interesting to see the differences in healing styles between them. Besides heirlooms, I also spend my emblems on off-spec gear. For example my paladin has nearly the same gearscore in retribution as he has in holy, in spite of rarely ever queueing up as a dps. Having a great healing gear isn't exactly helpful when you want to solo something, except for the priest, whose shadow spec works well enough with healing gear.

But I wonder how many people simply stop playing when they have all the gear they want. I would say World of Warcraft is in a period of declining player activity right now, and not just because it is summer and people prefer the beach to a computer. How about you? Is there still any gear in World of Warcraft you are actively collecting emblems for?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Dungeon Finder reward afterthought

I mentioned this week that the Dungeon Finder hands out a bag with a useful reward until level 60, but only contains vendor trash from level 60 to 70, because Blizzard forgot to adjust the item level to the increased Burning Crusade standards. That got me thinking about the Dungeon Finder rewards will evolve when Cataclysm comes out.

I'm pretty certain that there will be new emblems, and the normal and heroic Cataclysm dungeons from level 80 to 85 will give emblem rewards in an identical or very similar system as we have now. Albeit obviously not on a "heroics give better emblem rewards than raid dungeon loot" scale like today.

But what about the Dungeon Finder rewards from level 70 to 80? It is unlikely that anyone will still want to run level 80 heroics instead of going for level 81+ content. But people leveling up will still use the Dungeon Finder to visit the Wrath of the Lich King dungeons on normal. And there is a potential problem, unless Blizzard changes the reward system: For a normal level 70 to 80 dungeon right now, the Dungeon Finder gives two emblems of triumph as reward. That is already not optimal today, because your level 75 character can do strictly nothing with that emblem of triumph, except hoarding them until he reaches level 80. In the current situation, once he reaches level 80, he already has a bunch of emblems, and can get himself a head start into heroics by buying one or more T9 pieces or equivalent non-set pieces.

But given the expected gear mudflation from Cataclysm, this Dungeon Finder reward for normal level 70 to 80 dungeons becomes totally unattractive when Cataclysm comes out. The emblems are still useless from level 70 to 79, and once you reach 80 all the emblems you hoarded over 10 levels only buy you an epic which you will replace 5 minutes later in the first Cataclysm quest? Doesn't look like an attractive reward system to me.

Thus my suggestion would be to change the Dungeon Finder rewards for both the 60 to 70, and the 70 to 80 normal dungeons: Make them like it is from level 15 to 60, hand out a bag with a random blue item for the class of the player, but adjust the iLevel of the item to the iLevel of blue drops in those dungeons.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Identity is relative on the internet

We tend to think of ourselves as "real". But once you question that notion, you'll find that you *were* real when you woke up that morning, but once you got online you probably assumed a different identity. And while your real identity might be reasonable well documented, your online identity is far for secure.

For example there are several Tobolds on the internet. The Tobold on Twitter isn't me (my fault, I had that name and stupidly deleted my Twitter account because I don't like Twitter). There is a Tobold posting stuff on the Boardgamegeeks forums, who isn't me. As I "borrowed" my name from Tolkien, there are references on the internet to Tolkien's Tobold Hornblower, who introduced pipeweed into the Shire. And apparently in the real world there was a doctor named Tobold, who invented a tongue depressor. Tobold the Hamburger King is a main character in the book Portrait of the Writer as a Domesticated Animal. And so on, and so on. By the way, that wouldn't change if I used my real name, somebody else has the same real name as I do, and has it registered as a domain.

So yesterday I kicked a troll who called himself AndruX from the blog, and then somebody else who also called himself AndruX turned up and complained. Well, sorry, I only banned the *troll* AndruX, not everybody else calling himself AndruX. Who am I to say who of the two is "real" and who is "fake"? Apparently faking other people is all the rage now in blog comments, we had fake Gevlon, fake Nils, fake AndruX, and for all I know there is a fake Tobold out there somewhere trolling syncaine's blog. It isn't really a problem for blog moderation, as comments are deleted one by one, and I can't really "ban" a specific name or IP address from commenting.

I find the subject of identity on the internet fascinating, and once stole Gevlon's identity as a joke to make a point. I really loved the people argueing that if I was also the author of Gevlon's blog, then they would stop reading what I wrote on this blog. That clearly demonstrated the unhealthy fascination people have with identity. Apparently many people are unable to read a text and form an opinion about it *just based on what is written*. They need to "know" the "identity" of the author, and would judge the exactly same text differently when it was written by me, than they would judge it when it was written by Gevlon. So when Paladin Schmaladin "Ferarro" turned out to be several persons using fake photographs and invented details of fake real lives, many readers went bonkers, as if the identity of Ferarro had any effect on the validity of the texts written under that name about paladins.

Basically the problem is that many people are too lazy to think, and take a shortcut called "trust". Hey, I trust that guy, so what he says must be right, and I don't have to engage my own little grey cells to ponder the question. That approach is already not great in the real world, and on the internet it is downright foolish. Why on earth should you trust a guy who calls himself after a hobbit from Tolkien, and who you never even met in real life? I deliberately post fake news sometimes, to get people to think, but there are always readers whose trust in me overcomes the unlikelyhood of the posted fake news, so they end up believing it. And even if I don't do it deliberately, I'm wrong often enough, e.g. I missed several details on RealID yesterday because I hadn't read the FAQ, and even misspelled RealID in the title (fixed now).

Trust is actually a problem for me. What I am trying to do in this blog is keeping up an intelligent discussion, and that requires all participants to think. It doesn't require everybody to be right all the time, or everybody agreeing, but it requires people to read what I (or other commenters) wrote, think about it, and post their own thoughts and opinions on the subject. If my readers have a completely false vision of me as infallible pope Tobold pontificating from his blogging throne on some subject, the intelligent discussion doesn't take place. And then I get nasty comments from people who had that vision, and got disappointed because they realized at some point that I'm only human, and make mistakes as often as the next guy. If you expect a blog to have the same resources for research and editorial staff as a professional newspaper or magazine, you're bound to get disappointed.

So I would ask all of you to mistrust me. I make mistakes, I sometimes deliberately post fake news as a means of making a point, and I mostly post opinions, not deeply researched facts. Engage your brain, think for yourself, and form your own opinions. Putting your trust into strangers you only know by their fake identity isn't safe. And if you disagree with that, well, you can use the donate button up there to the right to start bidding on that Golden Gate Bridge I have for sale.

RealID, privacy, and account security

When Blizzard switched World of Warcraft from using freely chosen account names to using e-mail addresses, I was worried that this could compromise account security. Before that change, somebody who wanted to hack my account would have had to guess both my account name and my password. But if I had used as account name, everybody could have easily guessed that part, and would only have to guess my password to hack me. Thus I used a different e-mail address, one I got from my ISP, which I rarely use for anything else. Account security problem solved.

Now Blizzard introduces RealID, and if I wanted to use it, I would have to reveal that non-public e-mail address to friends, from which it would spread to guild mates, their friends, and ultimately to who knows where. And I'd be back with that account security problem: You can't use RealID without revealing your account name, which is half of the information needed to hack you.

Of course you can add another layer of protection to your account by adding an authenticator (I did), but those have been reported to not provide 100% security either. And besides the security concerns, there are the obvious privacy concerns, like me not wanting to publish an e-mail address other than to be linked with games. Even my Facebook account is using that "fake" identity, because Facebook is the prime example of how you can think you are talking to your "friends" and end up publishing too private information to everybody, including potential employers.

I get "Cataclysm beta invite" and "WoW account banning notification" phishing mails in my blog e-mail every day, and know that they aren't real because that blog e-mail is not the one I told Blizzard about. Our guild bank has been hacked in the past several times, so now only a few people have access to it (which renders it a lot less useful). I am not at all confident that if I reveal my RealID even to real friends, that ID isn't going to leak out, for example through a friend of a friend's account getting hacked, and my real e-mail ending up on the list of potential targets of some professional WoW hacker, or at least on their spam mailing list, making their phishing mails look more real because they have better information about me.

So for reasons of both privacy and account security, I'm opting out of Blizzard's RealID system. The very concept of RealID, which is basically to link your real identity to your virtual identity more visibly, is not a good idea in my opinion.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Healer : Tank : DPS ratio

Triggered by recent discussion here on the eternal "healer shortage" problem many MMORPGs have, Ben wrote me with an interesting proposal: If groups had 7 members instead of 5, there would be more spots for dps classes, and only 14% of players would need to play tanks, and another 14% healers. Problem solved? Not so fast, I'd say.

In my opinion the number of people interested in playing healers or tanks depends on many things, not just small group content. Consider a typical "career" in World of Warcraft, where you start out playing solo, then do 5-man dungeons, later 10-man raids, and maybe one day 25-man raids. The problem is making tanking and healing equally attractive in *all* of these situations. Blizzard already started that process by addressing the first issue, that damage mitigation and healing isn't very effective in solo gameplay, by giving every tank and healer a dps talent tree.

But when you consider the progress from 5 to 10 to 25 man content, you will see that the tank : healer : dps ratio isn't constant. In principle a simple tank and spank boss would just need 1 tank, even in 10- or 25-man raids. Thus Blizzard already had to give most bosses some special abilities which forces a 10-man raid to invite 2 tanks, like some debuff which forces a tank switch. But it is difficult to set up encounters in a way that they require 5 tanks. On the other side, a 10-man raid will often rather take 3 healers than 2, and a 25-man raid also needs more than 5 healers. Thus the bigger the group, the less players are needed as tanks, and the more players are needed as healers.

This is why I, as a casual raider, play a healer as my "raiding character". It isn't as if I wouldn't want to try tanking or dps in raids. But the increased demand for healers when going from solo to 5-man to raiding means there is always an open raid slot for a healer, and I don't feel as if I'm leeching, even if I don't raid on a hardcore schedule. My tank and dps don't have that advantage, and the tank is further hindered by the fact that tank performance more than that of other roles is gear-dependant. Thus a casual raid tank is a badly equipped raid tank, which makes him a bad tank.

So if we made small groups have 7 members, we would need to create 14-man raid groups in which the optimum composition was 2 tanks, 2 healers, and 10 dps. And 28-man raids in which 4 tanks and 4 healers were needed. So how do you design raid boss encounters like that? In a way that comes back to a previous proposition of mine, where I proposed that raid bosses should drop more loot when killed faster; if timing doesn't play a role, but survival is crucial, people will always tend to bring more healers.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Triple 60

Last weekend my multi-boxing experiment ended, when with the help of my wife, who ran my two characters through some dungeons like Scholomance and Stratholme, the duo reached level 60. Now the purpose of the experiment, besides getting the rocket, was to boost my druid to level 60 fast, which I achieved in less than 100 hours. Compared to my very first level 60, who took 500 hours for that, this is quite an acceleration, although even without multiboxing you can get to level 60 easily in under 200 hours. But then of course the rogue on the "recruited" account gained the ability to grant levels to characters with less levels than him, which enabled me to boost a level 40ish bank alt shaman to level 60. And then I just couldn't just delete the rogue, but paid 20 bucks to get him transfered to my main account. So there I am, with three new level 60 characters on that account.

At least the druid has a plan where to go from there: He's healing his way through random Burning Crusade dungeons, because I just can't stand questing in Hellfire Peninsula any more. With a healing spec getting into random groups is fast enough, for the dps characters using the Dungeon Finder as sole method of xp gain would be significantly lower.

Once again I'm slightly cursing a minor design flaw in the Dungeon Finder: From level 15 to level 70 the first dungeon of the day hands out a satchel of helpful goods, which contains a blue item with an iLevel corresponding to the dungeon's level. That is actually helpful in the old Azeroth dungeons, because the item is always of a type you can wear, albeit not necessarily for your talent spec. But in Burning Crusade the item levels got a significant boost. So the blue items of lets say iLevel 62 you'll find in the satchel of helpful goods are much worse than the green iLevel 87 items the trash drops. So basically the extra reward is guaranteed vendor trash, which in my opinion isn't optimal design.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bioware solves the healer / tank shortage

I finally got around to watch the E3 videos about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Looks solid, but very much like every other MMORPG out there: I watched a Sith go on a quest to kill 12 troopers, plus a second quest which involved killing the trooper's officer and clicking on some container behind him. Combat involved targeting enemies and clicking on buttons on a hotkey bar. How exciting! Wait, no, that's what I've been doing the last 10 years already.

But the videos also talk about classes, and that reminded me of a remark a friend of mine once made about SWTOR: This will be the only game out there in which everybody wants to play a tank or healer, while there is a shortage of dps. Of the 8 classes announced, the 4 non-force users are the dps classes, while each side has one Jedi / Sith tank and one Jedi / Sith healer. I think it is safe to assume that more people want to play lets say a Sith than a Stormtrooper, which ends us up with more tanks and healers than damage dealers. Well, maybe Bounty Hunters and Smugglers will end up being popular too and everything balances out, but I can't really imagine SWTOR having a tank / healer shortage. Very nice social engineering there, Bioware!

Now how are you going to prevent everybody choosing the Dark Side of the Force and your PvP being completely unbalanced?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blog switching to summer schedule

Summer is here! People are outside, enjoying the sun, and play less video games. And the video game industry is releasing all the good stuff in the last quarter of the year anyway. Thus there is less to discuss on a MMORPG blog, and less people to discuss it with. Furthermore, at least over here in Europe, there is high stress period before the holidays, where people are trying to get everything done before everybody leaves for 3 weeks or so of relaxation. Meaning I'm rather busy with work-related stuff right now, and then will be on holiday myself, with my internet access reduced to visits to some cyber cafe.

Thus, starting today, I will be blogging less. There will not be blog posts every day, and the open Sunday thread is cancelled as well. The blog will be back to a regular daily schedule after the summer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Magic The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers

This week Magic The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers for the PC was released via Steam. I had preordered it, so I got the first expansion for free. I played only a few games yet, at medium difficulty level, and the AI is playing okay. As you can't really build killer decks (only modify pre-constructed decks with cards you unlock by winning games), the AI even wins often enough to be a challenge.

Of course DotP is only "Magic Light", and has a couple of flaws, like the limited deckbuilding, and the Co-Op campaign not available online. But you can play against your Steam friends. And overall the game is good value for money, at just $10 or €9. As somebody on the Steam forums remarked, the game comes with a voucher for a deck of Magic cards from your local store plus one promo card (that would be paper cards, an ancient technology used in the previous millenium), which are worth more than the purchase price of DotP. So after you sell those to one of the bearded geeks in said local store, you might even be richer than before you bought the game.

I'm not sure I'll play a lot, I kind of burned out of Magic a decade ago. But given the price, I can only recommend Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

FFXIV benchmark

Keen is a bit disappointed by his low score of 1307 on the official FFXIV benchmark. My computer is only slightly better, at 1890 in high resolution (1920 x 1080) mode, but gets up to a reasonable 3522 in low resolution (1280x720) mode. Too bad the demo doesn't support my main screen's native 1680x1050 resolution. With anything under 2,000 being officially declared as "low performance", it is worrying how many people report that sort benchmark score.

I wonder if Square Enix didn't enter into a bad alliance with Nvidia, from whose site you can download the benchmark. Spreading the word that "your computer is too slow to run this upcoming game" is obviously good for Nvidia, but bad for Square Enix. Unfortunately I have only Nvidia graphics cards, because I'd like to test the theory that the benchmark is optimized for Nvidia cards, and will show a lower score on an ATI card of similar power.

My computer is neither very old, nor was it cheap, so I'd wager that the number of people getting a "high performance" score (4500+) at high resolution is tiny. That is not a good base for a MMORPG, which lives of having a lot of players. World of Warcraft runs on anything, including netbooks, which automatically gives it a far larger potential player base. Keen already says about the benchmark: "this thing has done me a favor by allowing me to know early that I won’t be able to play", and who knows how many people will come to the same conclusion. That can hardly be what Square Enix had in mind when they published that benchmark.

What would you be willing to risk in a MMORPG?

Larísa has a very nice post up about Wolfshead's latest rant about there not being enough death penalties. So lets talk about death penalties a bit.

My first big 3D MMORPG was Everquest. If you died in Everquest, you lost xp, and even could level down because of it. Your complete gear stayed on your corpse, while you respawned naked at your bind point, potentially very far away from your corpse, and had to do a "corpse run" to recover it. If, for example, your death occured deep down in a dungeon, with dungeons not being instanced and the mobs having respawned, there was a potential for not being able to recover your corpse inside the time limit; at which point your corpse with all your gear would evaporate, leaving you naked and poor. I especially remember the Erudin having a newbie zone with a cliff, falling off which would result in your corpse falling into a high-level zone and dying, from which there was no chance to recover your corpse. Do I need to mention that this system wasn't very popular?

Now Wolfshead would argue that you should take that sort of losses like a man and not be a crybaby. But having played EQ long enough, I noticed that the corpse loss system also had serious repercussions on player behavior: Nobody wants to lose their corpse, thus players avoid situations in which such a loss could happen. As a consequence, dungeons in Everquest were notoriously empty. And they were especially empty of players of the levels for which they were designed. Instead of players going to level-appropriate dungeons, you had players of much higher level going to those dungeons, and "camping" the final boss. Thus for example the Frenzied Ghoul at the end of the Lower Guk dungeon, a level 42 to 44 mob, was rarely hunted by a group of level 45 to 50 players, who would have gotten xp from him. Instead level 65+ players who didn't have any risk dying there camped the Frenzied Ghoul for the Flowing Black Silk Sash, a rare magic item, which could then be sold to the lower level players for a lot of platinum. Everquest developers repeatedly failed to get players interested in dungeons with various rewards like "zone xp bonuses". Moral: If your death penalty is too high, players will become risk averse and just play it safe, neglecting the dangerous content.

But there is also the other extreme. When Star Trek Online launched, the death penalty was too low. Thus if you got shot down in an instanced mission, you came back at full strength, while the enemies were still damaged. Thus you could beat anything if you were just persistent enough and didn't mind dying a lot. (A bit like me going fishing in Northrend with a level 7 character). But I read that Cryptic realized that was a mistake, and increased the death penalty, and even added a difficulty slider. In Star Wars Galaxies the death penalty was having to hang out in a town for a while, but traveling could take longer than that, so players regularly committed virtual suicide to respawn in town and get a free teleport out of that. Moral: A MMORPG needs to have *some* death penalty to avoid players zerging or dying on purpose.

A further problem of death penalties is that in older games the penalty was in some form linked to experience points. You lost xp, or you would earn future xp at a slower rate. Now how do you do that in a game like World of Warcraft, where the majority of players is at the level cap and couldn't care less about experience points? Obviously it is unthinkable that a level 80 raider after a wipe loses xp, falls down to level 79, and suddenly can't wear all his level 80 epics any more, forcing him to grind mobs until he is back up to 80. And if you hit a player with some time-out death penalty, and that player happens to be just one player in a raid who made a mistake, you'd force all the other raid members to wait for that one guy to be back up, or kick him out and find a replacement. And of course a harsh death penalty in a group situation only increases the tension between players, as they might feel that "not dying" isn't completely their responsability, but that it is up to the healers to keep them alive. Moral: Death penalties have to hurt the individual, to give him appropriate feedback that he made a mistake, without hurting the group he was with.

That would bring us to solutions like repair bills, but those have obvious disadvantages as well: If a player needs a lot of gold to pay for his wipes, and find farming gold to be boring, he will be tempted to pay somebody else to do that gold farming for him, and further increase illegit RMT from gold sellers.

So I would like to hear from you what you would be willing to risk in a MMORPG. What kind of death penalty would appear harsh enough for you to make you want to avoid silly deaths, without keeping you from seeking out adventure and danger? How would you design a death penalty that doesn't hurt group play, and doesn't encourage players to buy gold?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Variable raid boss challenge

Did you ever have that conversation where you ask somebody about his raid progress, and he answers “not bad, we got that boss down to X%”? That is a more positive way of saying that they wiped all evening on that raid boss. In World of Warcraft and most other games which have raids, the challenge of each raid boss is binary: Either you are able to kill him, or you wipe. Wiping has become such a standard part of raiding that people actually complained when Blizzard tried to limit how often a raid could wipe per week in Icecrown. And I have to wonder why that is so, and whether we could have a more variable system of raid boss challenge.

Now the same raid boss already exists in different difficulty levels, as 10- or 25-man raid, as normal or heroic. That isn’t quite optimal, as whether you have 9 or 24 friends isn’t all that strongly correlated with your raiding skill, and heroic mode you’d have to choose in advance. So let’s have a look at that “we got the boss down to X%” phrase: It tells us that while the game only knows binary yes or no, the players are looking for a way to measure progress on a sliding scale. Couldn’t the game provide that? And what exactly happened when the boss was at X% and the raid wiped? In some cases the end of the raid combat is given by an enrage timer: If you haven’t beaten the boss after 10 minutes, he suddenly becomes super-powerful and wipes the raid. Time is part of the challenge, and killing a boss faster is obviously better. So why not make that part of the raid boss challenge design?

A very simple way to redesign raid bosses as a more variable challenge would be to remove the enrage timers, and instead have a timer which determines how much loot the raid gets from a boss. There would still be the possibility to wipe without killing the boss, but now not every kill is equal. If it takes your raid forever to bring that boss down, you’d only get a single epic, and only 1 emblem per player. And then there are two or three steps on the timer (preferably well indicated on the UI), where if you kill the boss inside this many minutes, you’ll get more rewards in the form of more epics and emblems, with possibly an achievement and title for the fastest step.

Such a design would help both the casual and the hardcore: The casual would get further into the raid dungeon, killing more bosses, but getting only minimal rewards for each. The hardcore wouldn’t be completely bored about having to kill the early bosses of a raid dungeon every week, but would have an additional challenge to try and do better. Another advantage would be that putting an emphasis on time as success criterion would somewhat increase the responsibility of the damage dealing classes, while in a binary kill or wipe system it is usually the healers or tanks that carry the most responsibility (or at least the blame if things go wrong). And best of all, the raid would not have to choose the challenge level before the fight starts, but would see how good they were at the end of the fight.

So what do you think? Should a raid boss give out better rewards if killed faster?

Gevlon says PvP can't be fun

I find Gevlon, and especially his various projects with which he proves World of Warcraft to be a sandbox game by veering of the ordained themepark path, to be interesting, even if I find many of his opinions abhorrent. So on the one side I'm sad he cancelled his ganking project in what looks very much like a hissy fit, but on the other side he has some interesting arguments on PvP, if you arrive to sort them out from the rest of his rant. Gevlon says:
I think I figured out why there are no successful PvP MMOs. I mean I can prove that such game not only have not been made, but theoretically cannot be made. PvP MMOs will always be a small niche.
Flow is the "proper" way of fun. It is "the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."
The flow needs, among other factors:
  • Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  • Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  • A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
And then explains why it is easier to give adequate feedback for PvE than for PvP, and concludes that because you can't have adequate feedback for PvP, you can't get into the "flow", and can't have fun. That leaves, in Gevlon's opinion, only three "small minorities" of types of players who enjoy PvP: Casuals who just want to batter the wall of Wintergrasp with a catapult from time to time (that would be me), Killers who enjoy ganking others, and a tiny "elite" who play PvP for the challenge they can't get from AI opponents.

As I said, some interesting arguments in there, although I found parts of them being contradictory. For example if the key to mass market success is the fun from "flow", and flow requires "balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult)", then why would the number of people seeking challenge in PvP be "a very small group by definition"? Why would only the tiny elite enjoy it? That is like saying the only people having fun playing football (soccer) are the teams currently involved the world cup, while everybody who is kicking a ball around in a local league on the weekend doesn't enjoy the challenge of it.

So I find myself in the unusual position of being *more* positive on PvP than another blogger. Now that must be a first. I think that Gevlon has a point on PvP remaining niche *only* for the case of free-for-all unbalanced hardcore PvP. I do think PvP games could be more successful if they would do a better job of pairing people with similar skills and abilities against each other. Gevlon's "balance between ability level and challenge" can work in PvP, as centuries of football leagues and chess clubs and ladder systems in other games people play against each other clearly show. So while I do agree that games in which lets say one side is allowed to capture a barely defended keep at 3 am in the morning, or a larger number of stronger players is allowed to beat up a smaller number of less strong players, can't create the "flow" Gevlon is talking of, I do think that it isn't "theoretically impossible" to create this flow in a PvP game. You just need to put up some restrictions and advancement systems which encourage players to play against equal numbers of players of similar strength.

Think of that when you watch the world cup, which apparently works quite well. You might argue that lets say North Korea doesn't have much of a chance against Brazil, but as they only lost 2:1 their "PvP" was still close enough to being balanced. Most current MMORPGs more resemble a system in which Manchester United is allowed with 11 players to play against a 5-man local Futsal junior team. It isn't "theoretically impossible" for PvP to have "flow", it only is impossible inside the game design most MMORPGs have now.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The joys of crafting

I can't really explain why, but crafting has always been one of the most fun things for me to do in most MMORPGs. So now my multi-boxing couple of characters has reached level 50, I've spent a big amount of gold and time to level up my druids enchanting from 300 to 375, and I'll do the same with his engineering next.

Well, at least the enchanting I can justify with the easier access to enchants for my other characters, now that you can cast enchantments on scrolls and send them to your alts. But engineering isn't really all that useful. I mostly took that one because I never had a character with maxed out engineering. Once I reach that, the only other craft I never had at 450 is leatherworking, and that one I'm currently leveling up on the rogue, the other character of the multiboxing pair.

Now crafting in World of Warcraft isn't exactly challenging. The only difficulty lies in getting the materials, and often you can just buy those. But I'm having fun optimizing that, especially in interaction of several characters. So instead of buying expensive enchanting dust on the auction house, I check which of my other crafters can make items that would disenchant into that dust the cheapest. That usually turns out to be the tailor. But what works changes with patches and the market, some players got rich by a combination of prospecting, jewelcrafting, and enchanting. And then of course many players sell green items for less than the value of the dusts they disenchant to, so buying stuff to disenchant is also a possible future source of income.

Funnily enough I enjoy "playing the markets" only when there is a crafting step involved. Buying underpriced things and simply reselling them for more isn't as much fun as profitable transformations. Not that I would need the gold for anything, I still have over 70k of it, it is really the *playing* aspect of playing the markets I enjoy.

I'd love if crafting was a bit more involved than just clicking one button in World of Warcraft, but even as it is I'm having quite a lot of fun with it.

Why is there no loss in PvE games?

In Monday's short EVE post, a reader commented that he'd play EVE if there was no PVP, and got several replies how EVE would be impossible without PvP, because PvP basically was the reason for the rest of the game. I do agree insofar as that if you simply took out PvP from EVE, it wouldn't work. But I do think that an economy in a virtual world could work without PvP, as long as there is another form of gear loss.

Sometimes I even wonder whether some of the fans of PvP are not actually fans of the design which has the possibility of losses more than they are fans of PvP itself, because usually they disdain the kind of positive sum PvP games like WAR or WoW have. Somehow the MMORPG market has evolved in a way where the losing your stuff nearly exclusively happens in hardcore PvP games. I don't really understand why that is so. Why would losing gear due to death from another player be any more acceptable than losing the same gear due to death from an AI monster?

Thought for the day: How smart is consumption?

Reading tech sites I can't help noticing all the buzz around smart phones, like Google's Android system, or the new iPhone 4. And then I look at them, and wonder what is so smart about them? These machines are very well suited for content consumption: Reading texts, watching videos, listening to music. But they are rather lousy at content creation, even writing a text on an iPhone is difficult. Developers write apps *for* the iPhone, not *on* the iPhone. Aren't those "smart" phones ultimately not just as passively dumb as lets say a TV?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Realizing achievements

In the open Sunday thread Void proposed his theory that "we are turning more and more to virtual worlds for our sense of advancement because it's so hard to find in the real world". I think he got the reason right, but the underlying problem wrong. In my opinion we are turning more and more to virtual worlds of our sense of achievement because we are so bloody bad at realizing our achievements in the real world.

Our real lives are full of amazing achievements: We learn how the world works during our education, then create value every day in our jobs. We make friends, we love, we build families, and participate in communities. And we collect ample rewards, living a life of unprecedented luxury, with houses, cars, entertainment electronics, and other "leet gear". Only most of us have trouble realizing all these achievements for what they are, because there isn't a "+100 reputation" sign popping up after we were nice to somebody, and no achievement title when did a task well in our jobs. In spite of the fact that there is somebody who values what we do in our jobs so much that he even pays us for doing it, we often believe our daily jobs to be meaningless. And with many of the achievements of our private lives being long term, we lose sight of their importance.

So we turn to virtual worlds, where rewards, achievements, and a sense of advancement are so much more visible, and so much faster. Woohoo, I gained another level! Woot, I gained a title! Yay, more purple pixels for me! And all in the space of a single evening!

Thus we tend to value these virtual achievements too much, and our real achievements too little. In the greater scheme of things, your boring day at work created a lot more value for humanity than your exciting and successful raid night. Your day out with the family created more meaningful "reputation gains" than your grinding Timbermaws. Not only are the achievements in virtual worlds not worth very much, they can even lead us to do negative things. For example WAR had achievements for doing battlegrounds naked. Woohoo, another achievement for you! And you just caused the rest of your team to lose because that achievement was more important to you than putting on your gear and doing your bit to actually win that battle. And don't get me started on all those games where you advance by griefing other players.

Some people have realized these deficiencies of the video game generation, who are unable to realize their real achievements unless they receive points and titles for them. So there are proposals on how to reward students with experience points, or how bosses should hand out achievement titles and similar video game-like rewards. But I don't even think that will work. Because if you look at it closely, those rewards and titles already exist: Schools hand out grades, and companies reward us with salaries and bonuses. You'll say money isn't everything, but the money you receive for doing your job *is* a good indicator for the value your daily work created. If you did the same job for free, the created value would still be there, which is why voluntary work isn't any less valuable.

So I would encourage you to look at your real life, job and family, and try to realize the real achievements you made, how you advanced in your life from cradle to where you are now. Modern value creation is often extremely complex, so your job might look like just a tiny cog in a huge machine. But that machine is creating something of value, and you played your part in that value creation. And the things created in real life often *are* real. Most of the achievements in virtual worlds would cease to exist the moment the servers shut down. But the car or whatever your company makes will be around for quite a while, and if you succeed in the real world achievement of raising children, they will be around even after you die. That isn't to say that having fun in virtual world is a bad thing, but we all need to be careful to get our priorities right, and not end up neglecting the real world for some hollow achievement of a virtual one.

Ending with a whimper, not a bang

My EVE experiment officially ended yesterday, when I tried to log in and found my subscription had run out. Fortunately I had tried out the new planetary features the day before, which looked nice enough, but not game-changing. As I had been playing "EVE Offline" for the last month, logging on only to train up skills (partially caused by an "we were wardec'd - do not undock" policy of my corp), I didn't really feel that I was using that subscription enough to justify resubscribing.

In spite of not being a PvP fan, in the end the real-time skill training system was what killed EVE for me, not the PvP. I simply need a connection between playing the game and my character's powers advancing, otherwise I'm too detached from my character's progress.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Balancing the holy trinity

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Adam Smith
A great many MMORPG, especially those with a fantasy setting, have group combat which works with some variation of the holy trinity of roles: Tanks, healers, and damage dealers (often abbreviated as "dps" for damage per second). That is a system which only exists in computer RPGs, because it is based on the artificial stupidity of monsters, which by means of taunt abilities can be persuaded to hit the target where their attacks are the least efficient on. Then you just need a healer to keep that tank alive, and the rest of the group can get down to the real business of dealing enough damage to kill the monster.

In nearly every of the games using such a system, there are too many players choosing a dps class, and too few people choosing a tank or healer class / build to play. Thus getting a group or raid together quite often ends up with too many candidates for the dps spots, and too few candidate for the tank and healer spots, in spite of there being more dps spots. Players and bloggers, as the armchair developers that we are, have often proposed various ideas to break up that holy trinity, for example by adding a buffer role, or by creating a new set of roles. But I think the solution could be much simpler. We just need to apply the Adam Smith quote above, and modify it a bit.
It is not from the benevolence of the tank, the healer, or the damage dealer that we expect our group, but from their regard to their own interest.
The quote easily explains WHY there is a lack of tank and healers: In the current system it is *against* the self-interest of a player to play a tank or a healer. A MMORPG consists not only of group combat, but usually also has a lot of solo combat. And the way solo combat is currently designed, the ability to deal damage is more important than the ability to mitigate damage.

So, curiously enough, one way to balance the holy trinity is to make the tanks and healers the best damage dealers in the game. World of Warcraft is going down that road, by making every tank or healing class a hybrid with a dps role, and making the damage output of the tank/dps, heal/dps, and tank/heal/dps classes at least as good if not better than that of the pure dps classes. Of course that design has other flaws: It makes pure dps classes rather unattractive. For example warlocks and rogues have become rare in WoW, but everybody plays a paladin. And that still doesn't solve the healer / tank shortage problem, I've been in groups with 5 hybrids in which everybody claimed to not have the gear / spec to be able to tank or heal. And the raids in my guild often start with an uncomfortable squirming session in which there is much discussion about who is switching to his healer alt/spec this week. The announced Cataclysm changes in which defense is removed as a stat are presumably addressing just this issue, enabling tank hybrids to switch to a tank role without having spent hundreds of hours collecting specialized gear which is useless for other roles.

So I would propose a different solution to balance the holy trinity: Make damage mitigation more important in solo combat. Instead of giving tanks and healers a second dps role to switch to, combat should be balanced in a way that the ability to absorb or heal damage is as advantageous as the ability to dish out damage. Thus no needs for dual spec or hybrids, a character playing a class able to tank or heal should in his tanking or healing role be able to kill monsters solo as efficiently and fast as somebody who is in a damage dealing role. Which means making the dps classes feel more like the proverbial glass cannon, and forcing them to spend part of each combat with evasive maneuvers, which then effectively dial down their damage output. The rest is basic economics: If it is in the self-interest of players to be a tank or healer, people will automatically choose those roles too, and the numbers will balance themselves out towards what is needed, just like the number of butchers, brewers, and bakers balances itself out according to demand.

Short comment on Cataclysm changes

Blizzard held a press event and gave out a ton of new information about Cataclysm. Some part of it reversing previous announcements, e.g. The Path of the Titans is being scrapped, and so are guild talents. This immediately led to some big discussion and complaints on some blogs. Me, I'm not complaining, because I didn't take the various announcements for granted before they were implemented. Or as I said in April: "I can imagine a dozen different systems for archeology in Cataclysm, and still never get the guess exactly right. So why bother with speculation? Safer to wait and see, at least until the beta."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

As every Sunday, this is the thread without a fixed subject. You discuss, ask questions, or make suggestions for future blog posts. Enjoy!

Facebook games evolve

I'm currently playing FrontierVille on Facebook. As the name suggests, this is from Zynga, the same company that makes FarmVille. And to me it is a sign of hope against the doomsaying pessimism some people have towards Facebook games. You see, Zynga is losing players on FarmVille, they are down 20% from 82 million to 67 million, and in response they make a game which is *more complicated* than FarmVille. So much for the continuous dumbing down to the lowest common denominator theory.

Now don't get me wrong, FrontierVille is still far from being a full game. But compared to FarmVille it is a huge step up. There is actually some gameplay! It reminds me a bit of Harvest Moon, just with a Wild West theme. You still just click on stuff and things happen, but there is more of a "working towards a goal" feel to it. And in full screen mode it actually is pretty enough.

Like all Zynga games, FrontierVille is also rather spammy. But it is far more collaborative than FarmVille. There are big advantages to helping your friends and receiving help in return, because now the gifts aren't just decoration, but might be useful for solving your quests or constructing a building.

So the trend I see is that Facebook games are getting more interesting, more complex, having more gameplay now than the very first generation. And that is an encouraging sign.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Married or just fooling around?

What is your relationship to your favorite MMORPG? Are you married to one, or are you just fooling around and carry on with several of them?

What I observe more and more, is a culture in which the dedication you show towards a single game and character gives you status in the eyes of other players. Everything players in MMORPGs are so proud about is stuff they acquired because they spent more time and effort on achieving it. Thus they concentrate on a single game and a single character and advance him as much as possible.

For me that way of playing isn't all that much fun. I believe that you can not actually "achieve" anything in a video game. Even if you had the highest gearscore on your server and had killed the last boss in the game before everybody else, that all counts for absolutely nothing in the real world.

In my opinion games are for entertainment, not to "work" towards some virtual achievement. And to maximize entertainment value, it makes more sense to play several characters in one game, and sometimes even change games and try something new. There is nothing wrong with just wanting to log on and play a bit, that is actually what games are for. If you get a virtual reward for that playing, that can be fun. But in the end those virtual rewards are just pixels that count for nothing, and they are certainly not worth neglecting other parts of your life for.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What if WoW had an expansion every year?

The release date of Cataclysm isn't even announced yet, but it seems many people already have their head deeper in the next World of Warcraft expansion than in the current one. On MMO Champion there is the first Cataclysm talent calculator, and I'm certain that Elitist Jerk will have worked out all the optimum talents, stats, and spell rotations, before the expansion is even released. I find that somewhat sad, but I think it is a consequence of World of Warcraft's biggest flaw: A too long delay between expansions.

I'm not buying all that bullshit about it being impossible to release expansions faster. Previous major MMORPGs had no problem to release expansions once a year or faster. And while certainly twice as many people don't advance a project twice as fast, three times as many people should certainly get the job done twice as fast. With Blizzard having a 50% profit margin, which is indecently much higher than that of even banks or other industries accused of price gouging, the money to speed up development would certainly be there.

And for Blizzard there would be a payout too: For many players a 2-year wait is too long between expansions, thus people regularly quit World of Warcraft, and might or might not resubscribe when the next expansion finally comes out. Add all those lost months of subscriptions together with being able to sell many millions of copies of twice as many expansions, and you get quite a nice heap of money, more than enough to pay for the faster development.

More expansions would not only mean adding more levels to the game with every expansion, but it would also mean more features. Whether that is player housing, or more hero classes, or other features that have been for a long time been discussed for World of Warcraft, with a bigger development team and an expansion every year, we would certainly have seen more features than we have now.

With more expansions World of Warcraft would also be more balanced. Currently major changes, like the Dungeon Finder, are patched into the middle of an expansion, and often unbalance the existing content of the current expansion. Thus the emblem gear from the Dungeon Finder resulted in WoW currently only having a single viable raid dungeon, less than it had at any point in its history. If the Dungeon Finder had been part of a new expansion, the gear reset you always get from raising the level cap would have made it easier to give out rewards for random groups without making the rewards for the existing game unattractive.

Blizzard should really think about speeding up their expansion production in the future. World of Warcraft stopped growing a while ago, and is getting a bit long in the tooth. With more and more other MMORPGs coming out in the coming years, including Blizzard's second MMORPG, World of Warcraft will have to fight harder to keep subscribers. And making an expansion once per year could be just the ticket for that.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Perfect MMORPG: Design fundamentals

In the open Sunday thread there was a discussion whether a developer should design a MMORPG by following his vision, or whether he should make what the players want. Well, I have a rather healthy distrust of both of these methods. When I think of developers with a vision, I think of Paul Barnett and the famous Bears, Bears, Bears story: I think the developers being very public about their great vision for Warhammer Online, and the actual game not living up to that vision, has hurt WAR far more than it helped.

Doing what the players want is downright impossible. What they players *say* they want, what they *really* enjoy, and what they end up doing in an actual game are three very different things. Half of what everybody thinks that players want is simply not true, and based on observation of players who by various in-game rewards got persuaded to act against their own best interest. For example a great number of people, including professional developers, think that "players want to solo". I'm pretty sure that players enjoy the *option* to solo, and a few lone wolfs solo all the time. But given half a chance, most players would group a lot more, if the incentive structure and logistics for that work out. Just look at World of Warcraft pre-Dungeon Finder and post-Dungeon Finder: The number of people spending time in a group has increased dramatically, both while leveling and at the level cap.

So I think the way a game should be designed is from the bottom up, with solid engineering instead of nebulous visions and misconceptions about what players want. A developer needs to be able to answer questions like: The game has launched 6 months ago, it is 8 pm, prime time, there are 3,000 players on the server; where exactly are these players, why are they there, and what exactly are they doing?

To answer such questions a developer needs to "map" his game. Instead of having just a list of features, there needs to be a diagram showing how these features relate to each other, and what the flow of gameplay through these features looks like. A MMORPG has "basic repeating units", like combat, which are the core of the game, and which most of players will spend most of their time doing. These basic repeating units are held together and motivated by the next layer, e.g. quests that tell you to kill 10 monsters and give you some reward for that. And in the outermost layer there is the virtual world with its zones, quest hub locations, dungeons, and lore.

Every possible feature has to fit into that map. You can't just take a developers "vision" of "I want player housing", or follow some players' demand for such a feature. You need to be able to answer questions like what players are supposed to actually do in their houses, whether there is a basic repeating unit of gameplay like crafting or redecorating involved, and whether lots of players sitting in instanced houses will not make the open world look deserted.

And while in my examples I used descriptions of that map which correspond to many current MMORPGs including World of Warcraft, I do think that to make a really successful game, the gameplay map of it has to look significantly different from World of Warcraft and similar games. That starts with the most used basic repeating unit, combat, having to be noticeably different from "target mob, hit the same sequence of hotkeys over and over". On the next layer there should be motivation different from "kill 10 foozles" quests, and so on.

I do believe that the success of World of Warcraft is due to the solid engineering of their gameplay map. But the answer how to make an equally successful game is not to do reverse engineering and then using a copy of that same gameplay map for your own game. It has to be designing a *new* gameplay map, from the ground up.

Monday, June 7, 2010

When devs do guild drama

I get sent press releases all the time, and usually just ignore them, as this isn't a news site. But this Alganon press release has a certain inherent entertainment value:
Phoenix, AZ (PRWEB) June 4, 2010 -- Quest Online responds to and files counter-suit against David Allen.

In early March of this year, Quest Online officially announced the hiring of industry veteran Derek Smart to head the company as President Pro Tempore and to lead the Alganon team toward the completion of the game.

Allen was subsequently removed from his position as independent contractor (a position for which he received a generous monthly fee since the formation of the company) to the company. Shortly after, in two unanimous votes by the members and investors, Allen was later removed first as a Managing Member and later as a Voting Member of the LLC, thus leaving Gregory Wexler (also an investor and co-founder of the company) as the sole Managing Member.

In response to the above actions, this past March, Allen filed what the LLC members, partners and investors believe to be a frivolous lawsuit (Case # CV2010-010391) in Arizona against Quest Online, 3000AD and several other parties.

Alganon, the company's flagship product, is a game that the investors had originally invested almost $4M to develop and which ended up being released in an incomplete and exceptionally faulty state in December 2009 under Allen's leadership. That action resulted in the game and company generating a lot of bad press for the company as well as the game.

Since appointing Smart as President Pro Tempore of QOL, Smart has helped the company obtain new funding, reduce overhead, streamline operations, revitalized the team's efforts and focus as well as - through transparency - provided the investors with renewed confidence in the company and indeed their investment. In addition, Smart led the team to the successful completion and release of the Alganon game in late April.

Smart also put into effect a plan that saw the company refund back to gamers 100% of the thousands of dollars in paid subscriptions which were bought in good faith prior to the game's fateful December 2009 launch.

In recognition of Smart's efforts and leadership, the investors and owners of the company recently voted him in as one of two Managers of the LLC. This appointment further establishes Smart as the President of Quest Online going forward.

As to Allen's lawsuit, all parties involved have now filed responses to same and an extensive counter-suit (Case # CV2010-010391) has also been filed against him in the Maricopa County Court in Arizona.

The full court document containing the company's response and counter-claim (starts on p31) can be found on the company's website:
It is rare that a company admits "our game was so bad, we had to refund our customers". And I found it interesting that it costs $4 million to develop a game like that. Can't really say anything about the validity of the rest of the claims, I'm sure David Allen's version of the story sounds different. But I'm not quite sure how this public bickering, which reminds me of some guild leadership drama, is going to make people want to play Alganon, even assuming that the new leaders somehow manage to improve it.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Virtual expropriation

A reader asked in yesterday's open Sunday thread: "If all World of Warcraft servers were suddenly unplugged and permanently terminated, with people being unable to ever access their online avatars, would this be considered genocide?" Good question, badly formulated, because everybody immediately realizes that avatars aren't alive, and thus genocide is the completely wrong term here. But replace the term genocide by expropriation, and suddenly the question makes sense.

Now Blizzard is a healthy business and there is no reason to believe that they are going to unplug the World of Warcraft servers in the next years. But of course that is not true for every MMORPG out there. Games *do* get shut down, like Tabula Rasa, Hellgate, Earth & Beyond, or Auto Assault. Others remain online, but undergo significant changes, like Star Wars Galaxies' ill-fated NGE, or the recently announced change of Lord of the Rings Online to a Free2Play game. And even a regular patch or expansion can significantly affect the value of your virtual property: A 6k gearscore character in World of Warcraft is presumably worth a lot now, but will lose most of his value when Cataclysm strikes.

Virtual property rights are a subject which tends to pop up again and again, for the simple reason that what people *think* their rights are, and what their actual rights are, differ by so much. The fundamental gameplay mechanism of MMORPGs is acquiring more power in various forms for your character. That makes players think that they own their characters with all that gear they so painstakingly collected. But at least in North America and Europe that is not at all the case: Players do not have any virtual property rights whatsoever. MMORPG companies not only have the right to shut down their servers, they also have all other possible rights to expropriate you of your virtual possessions, delete them, change them, make them worthless, or even ban you from the game in spite of you having paid a subscription (Which they won't even refund).

The only good news is that in most cases game companies do their utmost to avoid expropriating you. Not because they think players have any rights, but because they are well aware how much players care about their virtual possessions. The one inmutable right players have is to stop subscribing or paying for a game in other ways, and companies want to avoid that happening. If for example some voluntary or involuntary action of the company deleted all characters in a MMORPG, a significant percentage of players would stop playing (See the link in the previous post on the endowment effect for a psychological explanation of why that is so).

But it is important to understand that game companies protect your virtual possessions only out of their own commercial interest in your future business with them. The more profitable a game is, the safer your virtual property in it becomes. Think of that before you complain the next time about some move of the company which you describe as "money grabbing". Grabbing money is the ultimate purpose of any company which isn't a not-for-profit organization. And the better a game company succeeds in that, the higher the chances that your virtual possessions are safe with them.

Battered Hilt

I did the Icecrown 5-man dungeons so often and with so many of my characters, and never saw a single Battered Hilt drop. Then finally yesterday I see it dropping for the first time with my paladin. Everybody rolls need, somebody else wins. Well, that was to be expected, everybody rolls need on that one. We continue and ON THE VERY NEXT MOB PACK there is another Battered Hilt drop. And this time I win it! Woot! Randomness creates strange events.

Now the most rational thing would be to sell the hilt. It still easily sells for 8k gold or more, and I already have iLevel 232 weapons on my pally. With the upcoming gear reset, the utility I'd get from the iLevel 251 weapon reward for the hilt will be small. I have over 12k gold on that server, and I would never have bought a Battered Hilt, which to an economist means that I value 8k gold more than I value a Battered Hilt.

But people aren't entirely rational. There is something called the endowment effect, which means that you value something you have more than something you don't. And while buying a Battered Hilt would have gotten me from a comfortable 12k gold to a meagre 4k, selling the Battered Hilt I found would get me from the comfortable 12k gold to equally comfortable 20k gold, a chance I would barely notice.

So I decided to use the Battered Hilt instead of selling it, and started the quest line which I would otherwise never see. Even if the final reward sword ends up as a souvenir collecting dust in my bank after only a few months of use, I think that is worth it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Open Sunday Thread

Post your thoughts, questions, or suggestions here!

I can be a mean bastard when provoked

I just had one of those really annoying players in a pickup group. He was tank, I was healer, and he was complaining about me all the time, in spite of me doing perfectly fine in keeping everybody alive. Second boss dropped a dps item, on which I rolled need for offspec, and he called me a ninja while pulling the third boss. So I left the group and let him die. :)

Moral: Before you complain too much about somebody else, make sure you don't actually need him.

Friday, June 4, 2010

LotRO goes Free2Play

I used to have a "lifetime subscription" to Lord of the Rings Online. But starting this fall, I will be a VIP instead. Lord of the Rings Online is going Free2Play in North America and Europe, with the same business model like Dungeons & Dragons Online, which tells me that Turbine makes a lot more money from DDO since it went Free2Play. But as that business model still allows people to "subscribe" if they want, I don't completely lose all benefits from having paid for that lifetime subscription. I get full access to the least restricted version of the game, plus 500 Turbine Points per month. I hope there is only one flavor of Turbine Points, so I can use them for all possible Turbine Free2Play games [EDIT: It turns out you can't use LotRO Turbine Points for DDO or vice versa. Bleh!], in which case the deal is actually better for me than the lifetime subscription I'm not really using. I might even get access to the content of the expansions I never bought!

My personal problem with Lord of the Rings Online is that it is not sufficiently different from World of Warcraft. That is to say if I want to play a MMO where I level by moving from one quest hub to the next, and fight fantasy monsters by targeting them and using various hotkeys, I usually play World of Warcraft. When I am in one of the phases where I am burned out from World of Warcraft, I generally prefer playing something completely different. For me Lord of the Rings Online is definitely the best MMORPG after World of Warcraft using this type of gameplay, but that puts it in a bad place in my playing schedule.

Nevertheless I can very much recommend to try Lord of the Rings Online out when it goes Free2Play. You absolutely need to play at least one hobbit through all the Shire quests, there is great fun to be had there.

Why I don't post about my private life

If I posted something like this, even if it is probably meant as a joke, my wife would kill me. And get away with justifiable homicide. Too much information, Gordon!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

What comes after the endgame?

Verilazic recently wrote me with an interesting question about goals: "In your perfect MMORPG, what is the intended motivating factor, and does it change as you play?". I'm not so sure whether that is a question which can have just one answer, whether that is for the perfect MMORPG or any existing one. Goals *do* change with time, and a good MMORPG offers many different motivating factors and goals. Because whatever you goal is, the risk is actually reaching it and being disappointed. For example I'd like to quote (with his permission) the story Brian sent me about his career in World of Warcraft:
"I started playing WoW in 2005, not long after release. I've played on and off since then, in spurts of a few months either way, generally. I was playing alliance on Suramar server. I had friends and family who played as well.

On a good weekend day, you'd find myself (a good old holy/ret paladin), my brother in law (a full holy priest) and two good family friends (a frost mage and a protection warrior) doing dungeons with just the 4 of us, seeing what cool fights we could pull off without a 5th person. At the same time, you'd find my sister in law and my sister both hanging out around the AH playing dress up with their hunters and talking about which vanity pets went best with their hunter pets, the whole while letting the kids sit on their laps and point at the fun stuff. My uncle would show up online and sit at the AH trying to find good deals to buy and resell at a higher price, and jump into teamspeak with us to talk about his latest thoughts on being a warrior.

I call those the good old days, and I yearn for them now. Nowadays you'd call me a "hardcore raider." I run a 6300 GS Kingslayer Death Knight in a top end raiding guild, and spend hours running through theorycrafting, and discussing optimal raid composition for LK25 Heroic, and answering the random whispers I get from players who want to know where I got this item, and what high end raiding is like...

It's funny though, because being at the top... where so many players spend countless hours trying to get to... I realize that I've lost the part of the game I enjoyed the most. The simplicity.

I truly miss the days when I wasn't so completely absorbed in the math... and I could just take the drops as they came, and enjoy the game for what it was. I miss the times when people wouldn't get mad if I wasn't running the penultimate optimal spec for my level 22 priest, because in truth it wasn't so clear cut. I miss being able to just get on and do some quests, do a dungeon or two with my family... actually have to coordinate our skills, use crowd control, rather than just an all out nuclear war AoE style fight where the only hard part is making sure you are the one on top of the damage meter... all the things that made me fall in love with this game.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to love about end game raiding... I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it. It's a level of teamwork and dedication that most players will never understand, or experience. It's a lot of work, responsibility, and fun. But every now and then, when I log on in the early morning or afternoon, when the guild isn't on... when I decide to dust off and level that old alt I've been neglecting... when I go back to the zones I remember loving... it all seems somewhat corrupted by the fact that nowadays, I know exactly where all the time and effort is leading to, and I know the best spec/questing/playstyle path to get there, and anything else simply feels like a waste of time.

I see so many people playing nowadays, pushing the limits and fighting tooth and nail to be the best, and get there the fastest... buying thousands of gold on the black market... being just plain rude to people who try to play the game casually...

They want to whisper me for advice? My best advice is that WoW is not just a destination to shoot for as fast as you can... its a journey, and one which you should spend every minute of every level enjoying as much as you can."
I think this is good advice. Regular readers will have heard me advocating a more casual style of MMORPG gaming. Newer readers sometimes assume that is because I don't know anything about raiding or am prevented from doing so, but that isn't true. I've been raiding on and off in every expansion, and during a time of guild drama in my regular guild even for some months was member of a hardcore raiding guild in vanilla WoW, and raided BWL up to Nefarian, which still meant something at that time. But like Brian I feel that reaching the top of the game often means spoiling other parts of it. Push too hard for the endgame, and a MMORPG stops being playing a game, and starts feeling like a job. In recent days I noticed how many people use the word "work" when describing what they are doing in a MMORPG, working on this, or working towards that, or deserving something because of all the work they put in. And I have to question whether that is healthy. Do we really want a second job, and one *we* have to pay for instead of getting paid?

So, what are your goals in your favorite MMORPG, and are you happy with the time you spend pursuing those goals? Or do you feel as if you are working hard on unpleasant stuff just to reach some purple pixels? What do you think you will do once you reached those purple pixels? What comes after the endgame?

Fighting over the sandbox

Are you into free-for-all fantasy PvP MMORPGs with a sandbox game design? Then this could be quite an interesting month for you: Darkfall announced it's first free 14-day trial offer, previously the trial did cost $1. In the other corner of the ring Mortal Online's counter to release day is at less than 6 days now. While Darkfall is more established, being already a year old, Mortal Online brings some new elements to the genre. Like rare mobs that don't respawn. Quote:
Is your goal to face a legendary monster? Well, that is usually suicide – if you can find one. But if your guild would actually manage to kill one, it’s dead. Gone. Rare monsters and quests do not resurrect or come again, whether it’s an ancient beast, a crumbling temple, an island rising out of the sea or a great ritual that fails or succeeds.

You might get away with an item never seen before, or the unique scar that tells about the experience. There are not many of these opportunities but they are usually important enough to affect the whole world and its history. All you have to do is be at the right place at the right time.
Makes you wonder whether the Darkfall free trial timing has anything to do with the Mortal Online release date. :) As Darkfall seems to be stuck at 20k subscribers for a while now, it will be interesting to watch how the release of Mortal Online with a rather similar design concept affects the popularity of Darkfall. Which one would you bet on?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Your voice counts more if heard rarely

Blizzard announced some interesting changes to the vote kick system of WoW's Dungeon Finder: Players who rarely abandon groups or try to vote kick others will have the cooldown on the vote kick function removed, while it remains in place for people who initiate vote kicks often or desert often.

I think that this is a good idea. Patience is a virtue, and if you are a generally patient person and don't immediately leave a group because the random dungeon you entered isn't your favorite, or try to vote kick the tank because he doesn't wear full ICC gear, you probably have a good reason when one day you really want to use that vote kick.

Do video games reduce crime?

Recessions lead to unemployment, which tends to disproportionally fall on the young. Thus in previous recessions there was a strong correlation between unemployment and crime: Angry young men with nothing else to do hanging out at street corners usually leads to no good. Not so in this recession. Although unemployment is up, crime is down, by around 5 percent. How come? Economist Lawrence Katz suspects video games.

Basically angry young man living out there aggression in a video game not only keeps them too busy to commit crimes in real life, it also gives them an outlet for their anger. Better they play GTA than break into real cars.

Who would have thought that video games would get such nice press?

Star Wars MMO releases this year!

... but maybe not the game you have been waiting for. SOE announced Clone Wars Adventures, a Star Wars Free2Play MMO in the Free Realms style.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The different faces of dual-spec

I've been playing my latest level 80 in World of Warcraft, the paladin, doing heroics to gear him up. I'm not quite sure what for, but anyway. I spent his first emblems of triumph not on items for him, but on heirlooms for the worgen warlock I'm planning to create in Cataclysm. So by the time he had enough emblems to buy something for himself, I had already found several nice pieces for my healing set as loot drops in places like ToC5 or the Icecrown normal and heroic dungeons. So the plan now is to spend the emblems I earned as a healer for retribution gear instead, because my retribution set is worse than my healing set.

My most advanced character, the priest (gearscore of 5.1k after that ICC raid, if you must know), never had that problem. I took the occasional loot drop "for off spec" when nobody else wanted it, but I don't really need them. Yes, at the same item level the perfect item for a holy priest is slightly different from an item for a shadow priest. But it isn't as if the healing items were actually useless for dps. And in several cases the healing item I have is iLevel 251 or 264, and if I switch those out for a dps caster item of iLevel 200 to 219, I'm actually worse off. Spell hit is "optimal" for a dps caster, but not if you have to give up too much spellpower to get it. So for my priest I can switch spec without switching gear, and still get quite a good result.

My warrior and my paladin both couldn't possibly switch spec without switching gear. When my warrior switches from protection spec to arms spec, he needs to switch gear, because all the defense, evasion, and the tons of stamina, aren't helpful for melee dps. And the spellpower and int plate of my healing paladin is downright useless in retribution spec.

My mage can keep his gear when switching spec, but then he can never switch to a different role, all his possible builds are ranged dps, and need basically the same stats.

That is just the four classes I have level 80 characters in, but those already show that dual-spec doesn't mean the same thing for every possible character class. Some classes only have one role to choose from, some have two, and some have three. And some classes need to collect several sets of gear if they want to switch specs, while others can live with a single set. I'm not sure Blizzard understands the term "class balance" the same way I do.