Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What are you playing?

I am currently playing mostly A Tale in the Desert, and occasionally a bit of World of Warcraft. I'll be playing Final Fantasy XIV next, and then Cataclysm. How about you? What are you currently playing, and what are your plans for the months to come?

Turning back time

Wolfshead is again posting a long rant on how everything was better in the past, or more specifically how the original Everquest was the best game ever, and all newer games are just shallow pieces of shit. Well, first of all somebody needs to tell Wolfshead that Everquest is in fact still running, so why does he waste his breath crying out for Everquest 3 (aka EQ Next) to be just like Everquest 1 instead of just playing EQ1? And then he has to realize that the understandable love we all feel for our first major MMORPG is due to the fact that it was our first major MMORPG. You can't turn back time, and the "sense of adventure" he remembers from EQ was *NOT* an inherent game feature, but simply due to the fact that playing such a game for the first time and being completely bewildered *IS* an adventure. People whose first MMORPG was World of Warcraft feel exactly the same way about WoW, remembering, quote: "Danger. Risk. Survival. Freedom. Mystery. Fantasy. Discovery. Camaraderie. Community. Escape. Defeat. Victory. Gain. Loss. Excellence. Skill. Excitement.", they had in World of Warcraft and somehow missing those elements in the games they played after that.

The only part where I agree with him, in parts, is where Wolfshead talks about why Everquest 2 was less good than the original Everquest. Quote: "With the original EQ I had 7 spell buttons, with EQ2 I had 52 buttons." I tried Everquest 2 not once, but twice, with a few years in between, and the above quote pretty much sums up that game for me. Everquest 2 is so full of features and options and buttons and collectibles and stuff that it ends up being completely unplayable for me. I completely agree with Wolfshead's advice that SOE should learn from Blizzard and make a game that is, quote: "Easy to Learn - Hard to Master".

What I absolutely don't agree with is his idea that you can take some features directly out of EQ1 and stuff them into EQ3, like "no instances", or "better community", which isn't a feature at all, but a consequence of both game design and a particular history. Some things only worked in Everquest 1 at the time because the community was smaller, more homogeneous, and of a different generation than it is now. Hoping that if you'd recreate EQ3 on exactly the same rules as EQ1, only with better graphics, and you'd get back that same community spirit and self-organization back is just foolish. Times have moved on. You can't just make a game where raid bosses aren't instanced and hope that guilds organize themselves into an orderly raid calendar any more.

Wolfhead's basic idea for EQ Next is to make that game so horribly unappealing for modern MMO players that only a handful of diehard EQ1 veterans would be willing to play it. What he forgets is the small detail that SOE probably wants to make money with EQ Next, and Wolfhead's concept is a recipe on how to lose millions of dollars on a MMORPG. Maybe he should read up on the economic concept of "utility", where it says that people spend money on things that have "utility" for them, therefore a product that makes more money is by definition better than a product that is less popular. If Wolfshead really thinks SOE is planning a game with naked corpse runs, xp losses, and forced grouping, he should really stop smoking whatever it is that causes those hallucinations. A time machine is more realistic than SOE trying to redo the original Everquest with those same features.

Monday, August 30, 2010

How price sensitive are you?

Gordon from We Fly Spitfires is wondering how it comes that some people are discovering EQ2 only now, that it went Free2Play, when in fact the game is older than WoW (by two weeks). He thinks that this is due to marketing, but an economist would give a very different explanation: The demand curve. Economic theory predicts that the demand for something goes up when its price goes down. That even works if the lower price is just an illusion, because once you buy this and that in the item shop of Everquest 2 Extended, you end up spending more money on it than if you had bought the regular version with the monthly subscription.

But that is the beauty of the Free2Play business model: Some people are reluctant to sign up for subscriptions. And most game companies are extremely stupid about it, demanding your credit card details before you get to play, in spite of you already having paid for the first month by buying the box. Behavioral economics are full of studies that show the difference between opt-in and opt-out plans. While opt-out plans can be profitable due to customers that keep paying because they failed to opt out, that almost invariably leads to some sort of resentment. Thus people who got tricked into some magazine subscription or similar which then ended up being very hard to cancel are understandably reluctant to sign up for future subscriptions to anything else. Opt-in plans don't force potential customers to commit, and thus have the attraction of greater freedom, even if effectively they are often more expensive. Some people buy every issue of their favorite magazine at the newsstand, in spite of a subscription obviously being less expensive.

The unresolved question regarding MMORPG pricing is how price sensitive MMORPG players really are. A monthly subscription MMORPG costs about $200 per year, including buying expansions. That sound expensive compared to a typical $50 computer game, but then that $50 computer game is not likely to entertain you for a year. Most people who moved from single-player games to MMORPGs report spending *less* on games now, because the $200 MMORPG eats up all of their available time, so they don't buy a new $50 game every month. Furthermore the $200 annual subscription is cheap compared with the cost of the computer and internet connection you need to play the game. Playing MMORPGs is also rather cheap if you compare it with other hobbies.

So maybe MMORPG players aren't so much price sensitive as they are committment-averse. That would explain the curious observation that several games reported earning going UP after changing from a monthly subscription to a Free2Play business model. But that suggests it could be possible to create a better monthly subscription model by simply taking out the "subscription" part from the model: You buy the game and get 30 days play-time for free. You aren't asked for your credit card details when you create your account, in fact creating that account might be as easy as just choosing a username and password. Only after 30 days you get a warning that your game time is running out, and given various options on how to buy game time in batches from 30 days to 180 days, from scratch-code game time cards, to PayPal, to buying game time with a credit card. That way people wouldn't feel trapped in a subscription, but the basic price and business model would be exactly the same as in the monthly subscription business model.

So how about you? Are you wary of subscriptions? Or are you rather price sensitive, and it is the actual price tag that prevents you from playing monthly subscription games?

Virtual marriage

I got married yesterday, but only in virtual life, and not to somebody else: I married my main character and my second character in A Tale in the Desert. ATitD probably has the most extreme implementation of marriage in any MMORPG: If you are married to somebody, you have complete access to all of his possessions, and you can even log on as him. That is great for mule characters, but requires a big amount of trust when marrying another person. Worst case scenario is a bad divorce where your angry spouse first takes all your belongings and destroys your house before hitting the divorce button.

Many MMORPGs do not have marriage features at all. The best my wife and me could do in World of Warcraft was found a guild together and share a guild bank. But even in games which don't have any marriage game functionality, it is often possible to role-play marriage. You can get a suit, flowers, and a wedding dress in WoW, and role-play a big marriage in the Stormwind cathedral.

A long time ago I was playing Dark Age of Camelot, I was leader of a guild, and I was playing a friar. So when two members of my guild wanted to marry, I searched the internet for a transcript of a marriage ceremony some people had held in a MUD, and role-played the priest doing the marriage ceremony. And that is as close as I ever got to role-playing marriage. Because virtual marriage has one serious downside: Your real-world significant other might object if you marry somebody else in a video game.

This is one of the curious instances in which the virtual world somewhat overlaps with the real world. We are reasonably confident that shooting another player in the head in the virtual world doesn't mean anything in the real world, "it's just part of the game". But online relationships, cybersex, and virtual marriage aren't 100% confined to the virtual world. If you have a stable relationship in real life, a virtual marriage with somebody else is posing some moral questions: Isn't a virtual romance as much infidelity as lets say a steamy exchange of e-mails would be? You wouldn't want you significant other to write love letters to somebody else.

What do you think about virtual marriage? Is that cheating on your significant other, or is it just a part of a game with no meaning for your real relationship?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why discuss APB?

The best number on APB players I could find was that All Points Bulletin has 130,000 "registered users". Note that this isn't "subscribers", but basically represents the box sales, each box coming with 50 hours of play time, and extra play time has to be bought and paid extra. While it was revealed that paying players spend on average $28 per month on APB, it wasn't said how many of the 130,000 buyers are "paying players". Free2Play games usually convert only 5% to 10% of players to "paying players", but as APB wasn't free to start with, the people who bought it might already have been more invested in the game, so maybe 10% to 20% of the buyers got converted into "paying players". So for all we know there aren't all that many people playing All Points Bulletin. So why does APB get so much discussion in the MMO blogosphere? Isn't that a waste of breath, talking about the failure of some insignificant game nobody plays?

The significance of the fate of All Points Bulletin comes from another leaked number: The development cost of $100 million. As much as we like seeing hyper-enthusiastic game developers giving interviews on how much their games are a labor of love, deep down we know that making games, and especially MMORPGs, is big business. Nobody invests $100 million because he loves games. Big investments are done in an expectation of big profits. And the great successes or catastrophic failures of previous games influence the expectations of investors. What games succeeded or failed determines not only how many, but also what games will be produced in the future.

Imagine you were the boss of a independant game development studio, and you were talking to investors, asking them to invest $100 million into that great MMOFPS you are planning. The investors will have done their research, and ask you questions on why you think that your game will be a success. What previous shooter MMOs have made their investors filthy rich? With a list of games like Hellgate London, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, and All Points Bulletin you are unlikely to persuade any investor to give you money. Even the shooter MMOs that are still up and running, like Fallen Earth or Global Agenda, don't look as they were extremely profitable. Global Agenda, which by all accounts is quite a good shooter MMO, went subscription-free this summer, and is sold for half the price of a regular PC game on Steam.

On any single game it is possible that other factors, e.g. the widely cited "bad management" is responsible for the game's lack of success. But if there are lots of similar games all in the range of failure to middling success, the question whether it is at all possible to make a game like that a success certainly pops up.

MMOFPS have some serious fundamental obstacles to overcome. One is competition from non-MMO first-person-shooter games: Nearly every shooter you can buy comes with some sort of multiplayer mode, and usually that multiplayer part of the game has no additional cost. What can you offer players in a MMOFPS that would make them want to pay more to play online? The usual answer to that is the same answer as for fantasy MMORPGs: You offer a persistent world with continuous character development. But that is jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire: There is a strong clash of cultures between the fundamental rules of a MMO and the fundamental rules of a multiplayer shooter game. People who buy shooter games are very much used to their success in the game being determined by their skill at aiming. People who play MMOs are very much used to their success in combat being determined by their level and stats. It would be *extremely* hard to create a MMOFPS in which these two are perfectly balanced, so that success is both determined by skill and by character progress, if that is even possible at all. While it might be possible to make a good MMOFPS PvE part of the game, the moment you make a PvP part you run into huge problems. And the more open and free-for-all the PvP part is, the more likely it is that a lack of balance between skill and time spent causes players to leave the game. You can always make a PvE game in which the player always wins, gets rewards, and is happy. But in PvP by definition half of the players must lose, and any cry of "not fair!" can have serious consequences on long-term profitability of the game.

So, some investors lost $100 million of their money on All Points Bulletin, creating a game with a Metacritic score of a measly 58%. It would be surprising if that doesn't give others investors reason to think twice when asked to invest in some "GTA Online" or other shooter MMO. So even if not many of us played APB, we will be affected by the repercussions of its failure. And the question of "will there ever be a highly profitable shooter MMO?" remains open.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ganking killed APB

Readers were asking me about what was so bad about All Points Bulletin as game that it failed so miserably, and I didn't have an answer. I never played the game, which shouldn't surprise anybody, given that APB is a PvP shooter game. But I kept an eye out on reports which could shine some lights on that question. And I found this interesting analysis at MMO Tidbits which basically says that ganking killed APB.

Apparently by playing the game hardcore you would get your "rating" level up, which would make you deal 30% more damage and withstand 30% more hits than a new player. And some players used various hacks to make themselves even stronger. And then APB paired new players against those hardcore players, who would just mercilessly gank them over and over. Thus the newer players gained rating levels only very slowly, and pretty much lost every fight. As a result the server the author was playing on went from 2,334 players on a Sunday evening to 1,221 players on the Sunday evening two weeks later.

It is extremely hard to get somebody to pay for the privilege of constantly losing in a PvP game. And especially new players that start a game and always lose will often give up very quickly. This is why successful PvP games have safe spaces in which new players are completely or at least mostly safe from being ganked. APB didn't have that. It died of the fundamental incompatibility of MMORPGs with free-for-all PvP, where the "making your character stronger" part of the MMORPG clashes with the "only fair PvP is fun" principle. If you set up a PvP MMORPG in which players are actually rewarded for ganking newbies, you are doomed.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Please be patient with comments

Blogger recently installed an automatic comment spam filter. Unfortunately it doesn't work all that well, and frequently puts a comment in quarantaine which isn't spam at all. The comment doesn't appear on the blog until I check the blog and mark the comment as "not spam". There isn't even a notification, neither to me or the commenter, that the comment got caught in the spam filter. And worst of all, the spam filter cannot be turned off.

Also the new system apparently still has a few bugs, giving out error messages when a comment is posted, making it look like the comment hasn't arrived, when in fact it has. As a result of the spam filter and the bugs I now frequently get double, triple, or quadruple comments from people frustrated they don't see their comment on my site right when they wrote it.

Please be patient, there isn't much I can do about it except for "teaching" the spam filter what comments are not spam. If you get an error message, refresh the site instead of reposting. And if you still created multiple posts, please delete the extra copies.

Is management the only one to blame?

MMO Fallout is reporting on bitter ex employees blaming their management for the failure of All Points Bulletin. I've seen that happening a lot, and always found that discussion a bit one-sided, as most managers not named Derek Smart either have the common sense or a legal obligation to not reveal internal company information about the development of a game. Mark Jacobs recently resurfaced and mentioned that he had been under legal obligation to keep his mouth shut for a year after being fired from EA Mythic.

There is absolutely no doubt that bad management can do great harm to any project, including the project of developing a game. But I always found the story of "management is to blame for everything" a bit too smooth and easy. If the game had been a big success, would the developers have said "oh, I didn't play any part in this, the success is all due to good management"? I find it more likely that in cases like these there is some blame to be shared among all participants, from investors, to management, to game developers, and even other employees. What do you think?

A mule in the desert

All MMORPGs have some sort of limitation of what a single character can do. That is useful in as far as it fosters cooperation between players. But it also enables a different solution: A single player opening several game accounts and controlling several characters, sometimes simultaneously. I reported on me "recruiting" myself as a "friend" for a rocket mount reward and triple xp in World of Warcraft. In some games you can only have one character per account, or only one character per account gets certain benefits, like skill training in EVE, so making a second account enables you to play alts. And in some Free2Play browser games having several accounts gives you so much of an advantage that it is actually forbidden by the rules. So this is the story of me trying out playing A Tale in the Desert with two accounts, where the only restriction is that you can't use more than one Free Trial account.

The reason I made the second account was actually a mistake I made: I had understood one of the tests in A Tale in the Desert wrong. I mentioned that there are seven disciplines in ATitD, each with 8 tests, of which one is the initiation. I had the initiation of 6 of those 7 disciplines, but was lacking the 7th initiation, to the discipline of Worship. The initiation to Worship test needs two players. They to a starting ceremony together at an altar, then one of the two players goes and performs a series of tasks, while the other player stays at the altar and recites a specific prayer after each of the tasks is performed. There is a 25-minute time limit, so the second player spends up to 25 minutes standing at that altar waiting for the first player to do his stuff, and gets to do nothing but type in a sentence into main chat 7 times during that time. What I got wrong was that I was convinced that only the first player, the one who does all the running and needs all the materials, would pass the initiation test. So I was reluctant to ask around for another player to help me with the test, and decided to create a mule character for that purpose. But once I finished the closing ceremony if the initiation to Worship with my two characters, they *both* got their test passed. Duh! Different story, instead of bothering somebody to stand around stupidly for half an hour I would actually have helped him pass his test without him needing any materials.

What else can one use a "mule" character for in A Tale in the Desert? As I mentioned, ATitD has a huge range of different activities to gather or transmute resources. Many of them are mini-games, or do in some other way require your full concentration, so doing them on two computers with two characters on two accounts isn't all that feasible. But there are some activities that are limited for example by your endurance stat: You can perform them a few times, usually 3 times, until you are tired and need to wait about a minute to fully recover and do the next 3 times. That is tedious to do with your main character, unless you manage to find another activity which you can do during a 3 clicks - wait 1 minute - 3 clicks - wait 1 minute cycle. But it is a perfect activity for a mule on a second computer, as you need only little input from time to time, while your main character is free to do more interesting stuff.

And then there is travel. In A Tale in the Desert you *can* move using the arrow keys if you set that up in the options, but the usual method of movement is to click on the place where you want to go to, and your character starts running there. While that is something that takes getting used to if you are more familiar with a classic WASD movement, there is actually one advantage to that click to move method: You can press F7 and zoom way out, then click once on the horizon, and your character will run for a while without needing any input from you, unless he runs into an obstacle on the way. The map of ATitD being so huge, using a mule to do some of your running works quite well, for example for hauling ore from a distant mine. Thus the term "mule" for a character mainly used to carry stuff for you. :) A variation of that theme is travel by teleport, which consumes "travel time" of which you only have limited amounts accumulated while offline. Using a second character effectively doubles your accumulated travel time. Or it can be used for other "offline chores", like gathering onions to feed your sheep.

So having a second character is helpful, but not to a degree where I would consider it necessary. Thus I paid for my mule for only 1 month, and won't use the second character after that. Note that this way I found out that one shouldn't use the "cancel account" function in the Billing menu for cancelling your subscription. "Cancel account" completely kicks you out of the game, and if you try to log back in you can only do it after answering affirmative to the question on whether you want to resubscribe. While that was a bit unsual and disconcerting, I didn't actually lose the rest of the month I paid for. By doing first "cancel" and than "resubscribe" I ended up back in the game, with the account still being paid for for the rest of the month, and my credit card details not on record any more, so the account will expire at the end of the month. That could have been programmed more elegantly, but the final outcome was the same as cancelling your subscription in any other game.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Limiting experience points per week

Final Fantasy XIV, to be released in a month, caused some furore among gamers by announcing their "fatigue" system: Any character gets full experience points only for 8 hours per week, plus diminished experience points for another 7 hours. If you play a character for more than 15 hours a week, you don't get any experience points at all any more.

Some commenters pointed out that the same discussion took place before World of Warcraft was released, only that WoW cleverly transformed their planned "xp penalty after playing too much" into an "xp bonus if you haven't played a lot lately", with identical effect but better publicity. Unfortunately that won't work for Final Fantasy XIV: The WoW system has no hard cap at all; while you get *more* xp after resting, you always get the basic xp, even after playing for 100 hours in a week. In Final Fantasy XIV, even if you declare the first 8 hours to be "bonus double xp", you still run into the problem of the hard cap of xp being totally turned off after 15 hours.

Limiting experience points rewards per week might be a legal requirement in China, at least there were lots of news stories about that law some years ago. IANACL (I am not a Chinese lawyer), so I don't know if that law is actually in effect and enforced in China at the moment. What I do know is that Final Fantasy XI had international servers, where Asian players mingled with European and American players. So if FFXIV uses that same server setup, we might simply be affected by Chinese law here.

There are also some details still not clear about the fatigue system, with some sources saying that non-xp activities don't count. If that were true, you could easily be playing Final Fantasy XIV for 30 hours a week and still gain xp, if half of that time is spent out of combat. Such a solution would actually not be much of a penalty to the average player, who according to different surveys tends to spend around 20 hours per week in an MMO. And with a "per character" xp penalty one can always switch to an alt if one wants to play more.

I would say that there is *some* level at which playing a MMO can be considered unhealthy and obsessive. Media regularly have stories about players dropping dead from exhaustion after marathon playing sessions, or letting their baby starve while playing excessively. Frequently commenters put part of the blame on the game companies, for making "addictive" games that lead to that sort of unhealthy excessive playing. Thus if we hold game companies responsible for some players engaging in excessive gaming sessions, we can't complain if those game companies do something to prevent those excesses. Of course the other point of view is that players should be free to decide on their own what amount of time spent in a game is healthy, but then we must absolve game companies from blame if a player gets that decision wrong. We can't have it both, blame companies for "addictive" games, and complain if they introduce anti-addiction measures.

The final point to consider here is the hard to define notion of "fairness". MMORPGs are probably the least fair games that exist: Progress very much depends on time spent in game, and a player starting a MMORPG on release day and playing a lot will always be ahead of another player who starts much later and plays much less, regardless of "skill". That effect is somewhat dampened in games where players reach the level cap quickly, and gear is reset through expansions, but it exists even there. So it can be argued that the fatigue system makes Final Fantasy XIV "more fair", because now your progress per week depends on how efficient you play, and not on how much time you have. The downside of that is that "playing inefficiently" is often a lot of fun, and that a system that rewards players for efficiency in xp gathering risks to turn them into soulless automatons with no time for social interaction and an extreme dislike for grouping with strangers. Oh, wait, that already happened in games without an xp per week cap.

I reserve judgment on the Final Fantasy XIV fatigue system until I actually played it and can tell how much of an obstacle it is. But I would be interested in your opinions on systems that limit experience gain per week in general. Is that an idea which can have merit in some cases, if set up right? Or is a game without limits always better?

Elemental, my dear Wardell

Stardock is often cited as making games without copy protection, having even drafted a gamer's bill of rights. But then of course not every game is equally likely to get pirated in the first place, and with their rather complex strategy games Stardock isn't exactly the most exposed. Nevertheless they are used to quite positive reporting about them, and when they announced Elemental: War of Magic, a "4X" turn-based fantasy strategy / rpg game in the tradition of Master of Magic, a lot of people were interested, including me.

Then PC Gamer published the first review of Elemental, and it was titled: Elemental's disastrous launch: Stay well away!. Definitely not the kind of review Stardock CEO Brad Wardell was hoping to get. Already before that he went all Derek Smart and said on a forum: "Also, to anyone, like you Ben, saying the game is like an "early beta" then well, please stay away from our games in the future. I consider it ready for release and if others disagree, don’t buy our games." Then of course he had to backpedal later and apologized.

I didn't rush out to buy Elemental on the first day, mainly because it isn't available on Steam, but uses Stardock's own online game distribution platform Impulse. Now with reviews calling the game an unfinished beta I'm of course even less likely to buy it, and will wait for the demo version announced for next month. But for all that row over the quality at release of Elemental: War of Magic, a rather funny detail went completely unnoticed: Elemental uses the Stardock Impulse platform for multiplayer games, which effectively creates some sort of DRM / copy protection. The few people still willing to pirate a complicated turn-based strategy niche game will be limited to the single-player part.

Stardock says that it is entirely coincidental that at the same time they took down the Gamer's Bill of Rights from the Stardock site (it is still available on its own website), and has nothing to do with that bill of rights guaranteeing games released in a finished state and without copy protection. And they call the version PC Gamer reviewed a "pre-release" version, and rushed out a first-day patch. The game can still improve a lot, but I think they lost a lot of goodwill over this Elemental release scuffle.

The best mini-game in A Tale in the Desert

The strongest point of A Tale in the Desert is the huge number of different activities which actually have different gameplay, ranging from easy “click to gather” to extremely complex mini-games. I haven’t even seen all of the mini-games yet, as some are further down the tech tree. But from all the mini-games I do know, blacksmithing is my absolute favorite. It is not just a fun game, where player skill makes a huge difference to the result; it also is completely realistic / consistent / believable / immersive, or whatever your favorite term for that is: Blacksmithing in A Tale in the Desert consists of hammering a piece of metal into the right shape. That sounds like such a silly obvious thing to say, until you realize that there is no other MMORPG in which blacksmithing involves hammering a piece of metal into the right shape. Everybody else has some sort of abstract method to blacksmith, from just a simple click to playing a mini-game that has nothing to do with shaping metal. Only in ATitD does blacksmithing play like blacksmithing.

So I was quite happy that I finally got to the point in the game where I could swing a hammer again. The reason it took so long was that I started right at the beginning of the telling, and the technologies all had to be opened up first. But even if the tech is available, getting the skills, tools, and resources for blacksmithing together still isn’t trivial. You need a machine to transform wood into charcoal, another to transform charcoal and iron ore into iron. You need a casting box to make the various tools, and some of the tools require rarer metals, like tungsten and lead. And then you need to build an anvil. Once you got all this, work can begin.

Blacksmithing on an anvil produces various bladed tools, for example the hatchet for cutting wood that I started with. When you start, you have to choose what you want to make, and which metal you want to make it with. At the start you’re limited to either copper or iron, but other alloys become available later, and better metals allow you more hammer strikes before the piece becomes brittle. So I selected an iron hatchet, and on the anvil appeared a flat block of metal. Using the goal display shows how the final hatchet should ideally look at the end of the process. The game is to strike the metal with various hammers using various degrees of force to transform the initial shape into something most closely resembling the ideal shape. There is some (probably least square) algorithm which calculates the “quality” of your hatchet based on how close to the ideal shape it is. It is trivial to make a hatchet of the minimum quality of 3k, already tricky to make a better hatchet over 6k quality, and a true master can make a near-perfect 9k quality. The better the quality of your hatchet, for example, the more wood you get when using it to gather wood. If you make a carpentry blade the quality determines how many boards you can cut with it before it becomes dull, and so on.

You have 4 different hammers, each with a different size and effect when you strike the metal with it, and for each you can select a force level from 1 to 9. The total volume of your block of metal never changes. And in rather realistic physics, you can only hammer an area of your metal block down, which then causes the metal to move away from the spot you hit, and the areas around it to go up. The art is choosing the right tool with the right force. For example the wedge would create a large valley, the shaping mallet it great for moving metal from one area to another, and the ball pen hammer used at lesser force is good for the final touches. You have all the time in the world, but only a limited number of hits, for example 180 for an iron hatchet. If you run out of hits and you aren’t satisfied with the quality, you can start over without losing any metal. In practice you need to find a good compromise between wanting a good quality and not wanting to spend hours getting there, unless you enjoy that game for hours. There are usually some players who master that game very well and can make 9k quality tools, which are highly desirable items for trade.

Not having played this for several years, my first two attempts at making a hatchet were, well, a hatchet job :), and I scrapped them. But after having tried out the effect of the various tools, and looked up some advice on the Wiki, I made a hatchet with 6827 quality on the third attempt. I was quite satisfied with that for the start, although I’ll try to improve on that later. But first I’ll make other blades, like a carpentry blade, which holds up a lot better than the slate blades I’m currently using to make boards.

What I like the most about blacksmithing in A Tale in the Desert is that the result depends on the skill of the player, not some artificial skill value of his avatar. A player who is good at shaping objects in 3D can make great items in little time. An average player takes more time to make a not quite so good item. And the least talented are better off trading for the tools they need. That is very different from games like WoW, where you can smith an “epic” weapon with a single click and no player skill at all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Taxing blogs and hurting Google

The Paypal donation button on the top right of my blog is more a social experiment than a serious attempt to make money. I learned a lot about donations and blogs since I have it, for example that if I really wanted to make more money from it, I would have to write posts regularly that ask for money. I recently mentioned that I hadn't received any donation for months, and promptly got two donations. This post might also cause a few donations, although that is not the purpose. Instead I would like to discuss the future of the general idea of making money with a blog.

Last week the Philadelphia Citypaper reported that the city of Philadelphia slapped a $300 tax on all bloggers with any income, even if one of the taxed bloggers could prove that his total income over the last two years was $11. City officials squelched all protests with the advice to "hire an accountant", which of course isn't feasible, because it costs more than the tax. A blog with *any* form of income is considered a business, and thus has to pay $300 for a "business privilege license". It is easy to see how that idea could spread. Most places have some sort of business license, and could easily apply that to bloggers with some sort of income from ads or donations without even having to change any laws.

Now making $300 with a blog is not easy, and the large majority of blogs with Google ads or a Paypal donation button is making less than that. Thus faced with the choice of either paying $300 or removing the ads / donation button most people would choose to "go out of business". I would. While in principle one could try to get out of paying such a tax by declaring ones blog a non-profit organization (hey, I spent my donations on the games I write about), the administrative effort and cost involved will probably again be higher than the potential income from the blog.

Now a blogger with $11 income being asked to pay a $300 business license sounds very much like a funny little fringe story with no further importance. It's not even a "freedom of speech" story, as nobody would be forced to stop blogging, they'd only have to remove their source of small income. But in the long term that means that the only sites with ads or donation buttons in the future will be those which are certain to make more money from that than the cost of the business license. And one company is going to lose millions of dollars over this: Google.

Google makes a lot of money with Google AdSense on all sorts of blogs and small website. Not only do they take a large cut from what the advertiser pays, they also only pay out money when the accumulated income exceeds $100. Which means there are a lot of sites out there which never saw a cent for their Google ads, while Google at least got a handful of dollars for each of those sites. To the owners of such unprofitable blogs, removing the ads will make no difference. To Google it is a threat to a major part of their business model. The internet advertising business is all about making a few bucks each from millions of websites, not making large amounts of money from a single website. Threatening each of those millions of websites with a $300 business tax will kill the internet advertising business as we know it. Depending on your political leaning you might consider that a good thing. But for Google and all those bloggers who made a small amount of money on the side this certainly isn't good news.

Is buying a used game as bad as piracy?

Tycho from Penny Arcade kicked off a heavy debate with the statement that "I honestly can't figure out how buying a used game was any better than piracy." His argument is that buying an original game gives money to the creators of that game, enabling them to produce more games in the future. Buying the game second hand or pirating it both don't make money for the game developers, thus don't contribute anything to the development of the next game. Therefore for the game developer it doesn't make a difference whether you buy games second-hand or pirate them, they lose out anyway. Thus THQ saying that people who buy their games second-hand are not their customers, so he doesn't care if these second-hand buyers are upset they can't use the online features, with the online code already being used up.

Well, lets start with some legal smalltalk (IANAL): There are laws against software piracy in most countries, although the details differ. There are no laws against buying used games. In fact, in Germany the customers have a legal *right* to sell games used, any attempts by companies to make their games only run for the first owner are illegal in Germany. With one exception: Online services. Which is exactly why having single-use codes for online services included in a game is all the latest rage with game companies. Second-hand buyers either get a crippled game, or in the case of EA they have to buy DLC from EA to get the same stuff as the original buyer. Thus from a legal point of view "buying used games is piracy" is obviously nonsense.

But Tycho has an obvious point when he considers second-hand buyers not to be "customers" of the game company. It is easy to see why the game company would consider second-hand buyers to be less deserving of lets say customer support. Or online services, which *do* cost the game company money. If you never gave your money to the game company, why should the game company give you online services for free? Thus I would say that the tactic to restrict online services to original buyers is a legit one. What I wouldn't like to see is if second-hand buyers can't even play offline. I think that calling second-hand buyers "as bad as pirates" is exaggerating it, but I don't think a game company should be required to give them the same services as original buyers, because second-hand buyers really aren't customers of the game company.

Immersion, realism, and flow

The Guardian Gamesblog has an interesting article about immersion in games, talking about the importance of getting the details right to make a virtual world believable. They quote an article by Toby Gard in Gamasutra, where he says: "When a player enters a temple that has no space for worship, or a tomb with no burial chamber nor rhyme nor reason behind its layout, he or she will not be convinced that they are exploring a real place. The worst starting point for a level is a series of featureless, functionless boxes joined by corridors into which gameplay is inserted from a list of gameplay goals." But they also quote a scientist working on immersion in video games saying "We have to be very careful with terms, because a game that's very immersive is Tetris, but there's no sense that you're IN the experience." So how come a game like Tetris is so immersive, if there is no realistic environment? And how come people get immersed in World of Warcraft dungeons, whose layout usually makes no sense at all?

What I think is that people are mixing up some very different terms: immersion, realism, and flow. Flow is defined as "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". Good games produce this mental state of flow, where the player is fully concentrated on the game. Tetris can produce flow. But it is easy to see how being in flow, and being "fully immersed" in a game, have very little to do with realism, and a lot to do with the quality of the gameplay.

I used to get into heated discussions with some friends about realism versus gameplay. That was in the 80's, and we were discussing whether pen & paper roleplaying rules should have complicated hit location tables, and other "realistic" rules like that being wounded would cause you to perform worse in fights, or even incapacitate you. If you look at both the more popular pen & paper roleplaying systems and MMORPGs, it is obvious that the gameplay camp "won" that war. I'm not sure I ever played any MMORPG in which a character low on hitpoints would fight significantly worse.

The reason why gameplay won over realism is that people play games to *escape* from reality. Real lifes are significantly more boring than virtual adventures. And combat in real life has a lot of rather unattractive features, which is why most people tend to avoid it. Being shot in real life just isn't fun. Thus the more realistic you make a game, the less fun it is. Taking certain liberties with reality is absolutely necessary for a game to succeed. Having somebody with 1 hitpoint left still fighting at full strength, then dying on the next tiny damage he receives, and later being resurrected and at full strength within minutes again is not realistic. But attempts to make it more realistic would probably make the game more tedious, and inhibit flow. Would you really want to play a more realistic MMORPG in which your character has to go the toilet from time to time?

Most roleplaying games have significant parts of gameplay taking place in dungeons. Monsters are placed in those dungeons, usually well within shouting or visible range from each other. The realistic thing to happen once a group of adventurers enters the dungeon and attacks the first monsters would be for them to shout out, and the WHOLE dungeon population to arrive at the entrance a short while later, slaughtering the adventurers. Why would a "boss" even have so many armed guards placed everywhere if their goal wasn't to drive out intruders? But in terms of making an enjoyable game, that realistic option gets you nowhere. Thus all those guards only serve a "trash mobs", as spacers between the "real" fights, the boss battles. A dungeon in which all monsters are at fixed locations and can be fought one by one isn't realistic at all, but it makes for an immersive and fun game.

Thus I'd challenge the idea that immersion has anything to do with realism. To become immersed fully into a game, you need to get into that flow state of mind, and that depends on gameplay being smooth. Realistic touches to the decoration are fine, but a level of realism which hinders smooth gameplay enough to break the flow is deadly. Thus game designers opt for smooth gameplay. They sometimes can explain away question of realism with "magic" or "advanced technology". But you only need to cross a continent from coast to coast on foot without any magic or technology in a virtual world to realize that you can do it in an evening in the virtual world, while in the real word it would take way longer. Realism in games is about getting the decorations right, not about be anywhere close to the real laws of physics and biology.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blizzard releases World of Warcraft expansion on August 31

In detail, the expansion is Wrath of the Lich King, which is finally going to be released in China, after 2 years of delays and troubles with the authorities.

Assuming that the Chinese players are at least as eager for a new expansion as we are, the double whammy of a spike in subscription numbers in China from WotLK and in America / Europe from Cataclysm (still tentatively scheduled for end of this year) is likely to produce new records in overall player numbers. Even if that is adding two very different things together, as World of Warcraft in China is paid for by the hour, is much cheaper, and Blizzard has to share the proceeds with NetEase, the Chinese distributor.

Cryptic's Neverwinter Nights

Cryptic Studios announced that their next MMORPG would be Neverwinter Nights, based on 4th edition Dungeon & Dragons rules, and using player-created content. I am having a hard time to understand why the MMO blogosphere exploded in a wave of posts expressing their disappointment.

I did play City of Heroes for a while, and I've played both Champions Online and Star Trek Online in the betas. I would say that Cryptic Studios' games are not among my favorites. But I *do* understand their basic design philosophy of "MMO Redux". Cryptic MMORPGs are developed in shorter time than the MMORPGs of other developers, and usually have a lower degree of complexity and polygon count than other games. But they do listen to what players always say they want in features, and then stick to a simple selection of features which work together reasonably well.

So while their games are often a bit short on content, which results in them being repetitive when played too much, and while their games aren't complex enough for my personal tastes, I would not say that Cryptic games are actually bad. They just target a different MMO demographic than I am in. For players who would be overwhelmed by the complexity of bigger MMORPGs, and who don't spend 20 hours a week in the same game every week, I can totally see the interest in playing a Cryptic game.

And I have to give them credit for experimenting with features, like player-created content. So from what I've seen from them in the past, I think I have a reasonable idea on how their Neverwinter Nights will be. I don't expect fancy graphics, nor a huge world, but we can expect a basic version of a fantasy MMORPG with the added bonus of having an editor for players to create dungeons for other players to run through. What's not to like? It seems to me that the basic complaint is that another company with a different design philosophy and bigger development budgets could have made a fancier and more complex game out of the same basic Neverwinter Nights premise. I would say that Cryptic making Neverwinter Nights *increases* the chance of us seeing a more complex fantasy MMO with player-created content in the future. Lets just play the basic version first and see how it goes. And Cryptic is pretty good at making basic versions of MMORPGs.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Player participation to game development

One thing which is unique to A Tale in the Desert is that the code can be changed while the game is running. There is no scheduled downtime for maintenance like in other games, the servers are basically always up. I was told that through the history of the game the servers have been down less than once per year. Now that is a feature I'd love other games to introduce!

Being able to change code while the game is running, and there being not many players, also means that the developers can discuss changes to the game with players, and implement them on the spot, or run tests with the participation of the players.

So last night Pharaoh announced that they were working on a new event, which consisted of a mining competition. And to test that out, he ran a test event with us, with around a hundred players participating. There were several different categories, rewarding players for the amount of ore produced, the number of puzzles solved, the number of players they grouped with while mining, and a combined score, plus a lottery for all participants. While the real event will take place on the weekend and have major prices, we still received useful resources as rewards for participating.

But the really interesting part was that before, during, and after the event there was a moderated chat channel to discuss the event with the developer. We first discussed what prices to give out for the test event, and some rules. During the event the way how the combined score was calculated was modified, taking into account player input on what was perceived to be most fair. And after the event further rules modifications were openly discussed between players and Pharaoh, for example on how to exclude sand mines, not built on a vein, or whether it was fair to have a "owner of the most productive mine" category when so many mines were public or guild owned.

While participating in game development and seeing the results implemented while the game is running is extremely cool, that of course is something that is only feasible for small games. A Tale in the Desert has only one server running the 5th telling right now, with a few hundred concurrent users, while World of Warcraft has over a thousand servers, and over a million people playing at any given moment. It would be kind of ridiculous to even imagine Ghostcrawler popping up on WoW general chat and asking all players simultaneously on how they think some WoW holiday event should be modified to be more fair.

Gathering ore and herbs

Through discussion with readers I realized that sometimes it is hard to explain what you are actually doing in a MMORPG, because we tend to take descriptive shortcuts. For example you might say that you spent an hour gathering ore and herbs in a MMORPG. But unless the person you talk with knows that specific MMORPG, he doesn't know what gathering ore and herbs entails. And the same activity might be very different in different MMORPGs. Thus for demonstration I'm going to compare gathering ore and herbs in World of Warcraft and in A Tale in the Desert.

In World of Warcraft both ore and herbs spawn in nodes. There is a fixed and limited number of such nodes in every zone, but even if left well alone not all of these nodes spawn a resource. There is some maximum number of resource spawns. Gathering ore and herbs in World of Warcraft is exactly the same activity: You turn on the search with a button on your mini-map, move through the zone, and see the nodes with spawns as golden dots on your mini-map. You then go to that location, click on the node, and receive your ore or herb in your inventory. Sometimes you also find secondary resources, like stones or gems in ore nodes, or a second herb in a herb node.

In A Tale in the Desert ore and herbs are two very different things. Ore doesn't spawn in nodes, but runs in veins under ground. You find those veins by dowsing, based on your perception score, and then can build a mine on top of the vein. In the 5th telling mines and veins don't deteriorate from use, thus people often put their mine to be useable by anyone. So if you don't want to go through all of the trouble of dowsing a vein and building a rather expensive mine, you use a public mine. In front of a mine you will find 7 curious stones of different colors, with different shapes, different decorations, and different crystals growing out of them. That is a mini-game with which ore is produced. Each mine has a different game, even two iron mines can have different stones in front of them. First you need to figure out which attribute of the stones is important; it might be the color and the shape of the decorations, or it might be two other attributes, like the shape of the stone and the shape of the crystals. Lets say in our case it is color and shape. Then to produce ore you need to select 3 stones which all have the same color or all have different colors, and which all have the same shape or all have different shapes. Thus three blue stones with different shapes would work. Two blue stones and a red stone will not work, regardless of shape. Sometimes you can even find a combo with 4 stones all being the same or all different in shape and color, and that gives you a much better ore yield. You can use each combination only once, but one stone can be part of several different combinations. And if you use the same stone several times, the stone can crumble and release additional resources like coal and gems. As several people working the same mine use the same stone more often (each player can use the same combinations once), the chance to crumble stones and get gems is higher if you mine with others. Once you run out of combinations, you click on the mine and get a new set of stones.

Herbs in A Tale in the Desert are more similar to how they are in World of Warcraft, in as far as they grow in the wild and you need to run around and find them. Only there is not helpful radar to see them from a distance. And they don't glow with sparkles, so unless you come close enough to click on them you can easily confuse herbs with regular plants. Herbs in A Tale in the Desert aren't sorted by zones, and there are over a hundred different herbs. Once you find one, you get two options: Eat or forage. Eating the herb destroys it, and gives you some stat modification. The same herb always has the same stats, but there are negative stats as well as positive. Thus you'd better know what you are eating. But herbs aren't labeled with names, you need to identify them by their color, shape, stems, and leaves. Pretty much impossible to remember all, so players organized herb-identification websites. Identification is also important if you want to forage the herb, for later use in cooking or smoking. The forage window has a dozen or so different options from cutting the leaves to digging out the roots, with only one being the correct one for each herb. Choose the right option and you get a small number of those herbs in your inventory.

As you can see, saying "I gathered ore and herbs" in two different games can be a very different gameplay. By design World of Warcraft is made for maximum accessibility, so activities like gathering or crafting are not very complex. A Tale in the Desert is an extremely complex game, and comes with little in-built explanations. Explanations or data from other players, in-game or via the Wiki, are frequently necessary to do an activity, and there is a much larger selection of different gameplay activities. But while blogging about it, of course I'd rather say stuff like "I made charcoal", than to explain every time the (quite fun) mini-game you need to play in ATitD to turn wood into charcoal.

UK to ban all multiplayer games

The UK defence secretary, whose ministry of defence apparently is in charge of regulating video games with military in it, finally realized that in a multiplayer game somebody has to play the bad guys. As he finds that unacceptable, he calls for a ban of Medal of Honor, no doubt followed by a ban of all other multiplayer games in which one side can play the bad guys. If it is not okay for players to play the Taliban, then of course you can't allow them to play terrorists in Counterstrike, or Germans/Japanese in World War II multiplayer games. I hope they make an exception for playing Horde against Alliance.

Possible solutions include modified multiplayer games in which both sides see themselves as playing the good guys, and the other players as the bad guys. Although I have trouble imagining that WWII shooter in which you play the heroic British soldiers defending the beaches in Normandy against the evil German invasion. Or the modified Medal of Honor where it is the British soldiers that set off bombs with a mobile phone remote control. I'm afraid the British will have to stick to single-player games.

Curiously enough we have here a politician who apparently isn't worried about video game violence in general. As long as a game shows only British and American soldiers killing various enemies, or even civilians, that appears to be okay with the UK ministry of defence. It is only games where players can play the bad guys and shoot down British and American soldiers which the UK defence secretary wants banned. He says: "It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban. At the hands of the Taliban, children have lost fathers and wives have lost husbands. I am disgusted and angry. It's hard to believe any citizen of our country would wish to buy such a thoroughly un-British game. I would urge retailers to show their support for our armed forces and ban this tasteless product." Isn't it good to know that through the acts of the British army no children ever lost a father nor a wive lost a husband? I'm not quite sure how the British army manages that feat, maybe they have special ammo that automatically swerves around enemies with wives and children.

And the man just *got* elected, so he doesn't even have the excuse of deliberately spouting nonsense likely increase votes. He really means it! Poor Britain!

A random bunch of thoughts

Title says it all, I have a bunch of random thoughts on MMORPGs in my head, and don't really want to write a separate post for each of them. So instead I post my incoherent ramblings in this post.

Scott Jennings reports on insider information from the crash of All Points Bulletin, in which it is said that investors lost $100 million on that game. I am somewhat stunned by that number. Not that I don't believe that a MMORPG can't cost that much. But because I estimate that a man-year in game development costs between $100,000 and $200,000; that's not just the salaries, but includes all the additional costs that employing somebody entails, like his office and computer, or taxes and contributions. So if APB cost $100 million, and we can assume there were no large capital investments involved, we end up with between 500 and 1,000 man-years spent on making that game. Lets go for a higher cost and lower man-year estimate, 600 man-years to make the game: That means for example 200 people busy making APB for 3 years. And then they come up with THIS? How badly must a project be mismanaged to turn 600 man-years into a game which has so little content and so many technical flaws?

Yesterday Teppy, the "Pharaoh" and man behind A Tale of the Desert, announced that he was happy about having a high number of concurrent users playing the game: 389 of them. There is a function in-game where you can check the number of subscribers on the server, and it is currently about twice that. Then there are players in the free trial, but even all together that adds up to something like 2,000 players. Even if all of those subscribe, you end up with a gross revenue of just $300,000 a year. It is safe to assume that ATitD didn't cost $100 million to develop. In fact you have to wonder how they manage to even just meet the operating costs and salaries. And while it isn't the prettiest game, it still manages to offer a huge world, and more different modes of gameplay than most triple-A MMORPGs. And it has been running for many years, with new additions all the time. How come we get such good low-budget games on the one side, and huge costly failures on the other?

One thing A Tale in the Desert has a lot is events, either organized by players or by the developers. This weekend I participated in two "digs", one organized by a player, the other being part of a contest from the developers. Now during the dig somebody mentioned that it was something which would be difficult to explain to an outsider, as it appears to be extremely boring: For one hour a bunch of players stand around a hole in the ground, and click on it a few times per minute. But of course just looking at the core activity really doesn't describe what a dig is very well. MMORPGs often have simple click activities, like fishing in WoW, which are nevertheless often quite popular. There are a lot of aspects *around* the core activity, which make a seemingly simple and boring task more interesting. One aspect is the rewards you get from the activity, in the case of the dig the medium and cuttable stones. In the second dig, the one with the contest from the developers, I even managed to get into the top 21 diggers, and also luckily won one of the 7 lottery prizes, plus the prize every participant got; so I went home with the stones I dug, a medium diamond, 49 papyrus, and 49 slate. Another aspect is meeting people in game: In A Tale in the Desert there are several "tests" you need to meet other people for, and at the digs there were quite a lot of people who made a level by that. And the first dig ended in another player event being organized on the spot, an "acro line" where people were training acrobatics with each other for yet another test.

What is remarkable when you switch from a big game like WoW to a small game like ATitD is the change in the quality of the community. Although of course World of Warcraft *does* have mature and friendly players, the general atmosphere is much spoilt by the less well-behaved people. Thus the WoW community has a rather bad reputation, the official forums are considered a cesspit, and on many blogs you find constant laments on how everybody else is an idiot or an elitist jerk. Compared to that, the high level of civilized behavior in A Tale in the Desert is stunning. For example all the stones gathered in a dig are collected in one huge chest, and at the end of the dig all participants form an orderly queue, and the dig organizer hands each player an even share of the stones collected. It is hard to imagine players of World of Warcraft forming an orderly queue with their avatars while loot is being handed out, and there being no fighting. Even chat in ATitD is helpful and polite, in spite of covering a whole region.

Now one theory is that smaller communities are always better than larger communities. But I'd say that is only a small part of the answer. Game design also has an influence on player demographics and behavior. Although I don't have any hard data on that, I'm convinced that the ATitD community on average is older, and has more women. Larísa recently made several posts on how it is to be a woman and over 40 in World of Warcraft, and hardcore PvP games have an even younger and more male demographic than WoW has. But a game which is more tranquil, and is more about building than about killing (except for the occasional sheep), is likely to attract a demographic which is less dominated by testosterone.

There is an idea floating around gaming blogs that young men are playing hardcore games, while the fabled "middle-aged housewife" is playing idiotic Farmville. Playing A Tale in the Desert helps to dispel that notion. A Tale in the Desert is hugely complex, much more so than any hardcore MMORPG you might think off. And some players, which are definitely *not* male teenagers, are playing in an extreme hardcore way. And that is not even for personal advancement, but often for the communal gain, as gathering resources for unlocking new technologies is a huge task. There are guilds formed especially for that (in ATitD you can be member of several guilds with different purposes), and last night in the Sterope research guild chat somebody mentioned stopping work on a research project for the day after 8 straight hours, because "I am not THAT hardcore". To which I replied that 8 straight hours seemed very hardcore to me. I rarely do anything for more than one hour in this game, there are so many different activities, and I like to switch between them.

Meanwhile my World of Warcraft activity is dwindling. As I set up parental controls to opt out of RealID, I now get a weekly report on how much time I spent in WoW, and last week it was only 90 minutes. That time was mostly spent running the occasional random dungeon with my druid, who is level 67; or doing the "Tamagotchi mode" of WoW, that is doing transmutes with a daily cooldown and looking after a few auctions. Even the WoW blogosphere has a "waiting for Cataclysm" stance, with more people discussing future changes than what is actually going on in the game. While I do like discussing the effects of major changes to a game, and how they affect player behavior, I'm not all that interested in discussing details like abilities in future talent trees which anyway might still change from beta to release. So its a bad time to blog about WoW for me. Fortunately there are other games worthy of my attention, until everybody goes back to WoW in November.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Downleveling is half a solution

Larísa from the Pink Pigtail Inn reports on Blizzard's plans to allow players of World of Warcraft to voluntarily play at a lower level, for example to be able to better play together with friends of lower level. Systems like that are well known in other games, and especially City of Heroes makes good use of it all the time. But just because a feature works well in one game, it isn't necessarily a good fit for another game. And in this case I would say that the ability to downlevel is only half a solution: The missing half is making people to *want* to downlevel.

Levels in World of Warcraft are an illusion. They make players think that content which is higher level than they are is harder, and content which is lower level than they are is easier. But once players downgrade their level, they will find that the Deadmines aren't any easier than today's so-called "heroics". And some of the dungeons of the past, for example Blackrock Depths, were huge and complicated. But the rewards you can gain in these older dungeons are mostly useless for level-capped playerd, and I doubt that Blizzard plans to "uplevel" the items you find while playing as downleveled character.

So while there will certainly be a few people wanting to group with lower level friends, I don't see this feature being all that popular. Unless of course if Blizzard gets the incentives right: Once we admit that the Deadmines aren't easier than level-cap heroics, we must conclude that level-capped characters should get the same sort of emblems for playing downleveled in the Deadmines as they get for level-cap heroics.

And that would actually be a huge opportunity for Blizzard to revive old content. The emblems made running heroics very popular, and if running older dungeons gives the same reward under the condition that you play them at the appropriately downranked level, the older dungeons would become equally popular. Maybe not all of them, as some are too big like BRD, or too boring like the Stockades. But it sure would be more fun to have a wider choice than just a dozen or so heroics at the level cap for getting your daily emblems. Some older dungeons are quite fun, and some players missed out on them, or at least didn't see them very often.

So I do hope that Blizzard implements both halves of the solution: Downranking levels and getting emblem rewards for it. Of course this is all still rather far away, and only planned for possibly a later patch in Cataclysm, not at release. But as Ghostcrawler said, heirloom items already scale, and Cataclysm makes spells scale with level, so downleveling isn't all that difficult. You'd keep you gear, and it would just decrease in stats. Visiting classic dungeons could be fun, but knowing WoW players I think they need some incentives to go there.

Tamagotchi in A Tale in the Desert

Technology in A Tale in the Desert is making good progress, having recently reached the metal age. So I'm busy playing the mining mini-game, the charcoal mini-game, and then smelting iron and copper ore into metal, to then transform into various metal tools. The tools then give access to new technologies, or make older technologies less work intensive. So for example I already built a hackling rake to replace my flax comb, and am working on a hand loom to replace my student's loom. With those tools I'll still make the same flax products, but I'll lose less twine in the process, and won't have to replace the tools so frequently.

So the part of the game where I discover new things to do, and new modes of gameplay open up to me, is still ongoing. In fact, it will still go on for a long time, we are still early in the tech tree. The amount of different activities and mini-games in A Tale in the Desert is huge, and only opens up slowly over time. Fortunately, because I have already difficulties to try out the new stuff as fast as it appears. And to try everything, I'm building more tools in my house than the strict minimum. So tools aren't used all that often, so you can get away with not building your own and using public ones. But although it is more work, sometimes I'd rather have my own version of a public tool, to explore all the requirements of the tech tree for myself.

But besides the "new stuff" part, A Tale in the Desert also has something which I would call the Tamagotchi mode: Some parts of the game require constant upkeep, day by day. Your beehives take about half a day to produce 10 honey and 10 beeswax, but then they are full and stop. So if you don't check them twice a day, you lose production. Worse, your sheep not only stop breeding once their pen is full, they also eat a lot of onions, and will starve when they run out. Camels need feeding too, but I haven't got any yet. So this Tamagotchi part of the game creates some daily chores to do. Not really a big workload, especially since you can set the growing of onions as offline chore. But enough to not make me want more than one sheep pen.

I think these feeding requirements are in to balance the game, so people don't build hundreds of sheep pens for example. But they also help to make the virtual world feel more real. And it creates a sense of having to take care of your virtual property. Lots of browser games work like this, making you think "oh, I need to log on and look after my stuff". And the original Tamagotchi also worked like that, and there wasn't even much "game" involved in that. MMORPGs with static worlds full of constantly respawning mobs are missing that. It doesn't matter if I don't log into World of Warcraft for a week, the world will remain unchanged whether I play or don't, and nothing bad happens if I stay away. Who said you couldn't possibly make these games more addictive?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Clone Wars Adventures

Like Tipa I have been trying out Clone Wars Adventures, SOE's latest game. In many ways CWA resembles Free Realms, being a game designed mostly for children, full of mini-games, and running from a browser. But somewhere between Free Realms and Clone Wars Adventures lies a hard to define border of whether a game is still a MMORPG. In my opinion Clone Wars Adventures is not a MMORPG any more.

While Free Realms still has a persistent world, Clone Wars Adventures just has a lobby. You can walk around in that lobby, or in your house, but you can't even turn the camera. While you can dress your character up, there is no sense of character development. No world, no character development, that isn't a MMORPG for me.

I played a few mini-games of varying quality. The blaster training was incredibly boring. The starfighter mini-game made me smile insofar as it is exactly the same game that Bioware will use for space combat in Star Wars: The Old Republic. There was a "daily" wheel of fortune which consisted of spinning a wheel once and getting some virtual currency based on the result, which wasn't exciting at all. So I gave up for the evening and decided to try the other games another day.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with mini-game collections for children playable in a browser on a low-end PC. But I can't see myself spending any money on this. Parents might want to be aware that the SOE marketing people cleverly named the option to subscribe to Clone Wars Adventures "becoming a Jedi", in the obvious hope that children would want to "become a Jedi", even if the actual entertainment value in bang for bucks of such a subscription is doubtful. Too bad all the clever people at SOE work in marketing, and not in game design.

What this blog is about

In the English language, as well as in several other languages, the Genitive case gets somewhat imprecise when used for a compound noun. Thus “Tobold's MMORPG Blog” can be read as “Tobold's Blog about MMORPGs” or as “The Blog about Tobold's MMORPG”, as one of my readers pointed out when I was discussing my ideas of a perfect MMORPG. “Tobold’s MMORPG” technically doesn’t exist and would just be a hypothetical utopia, but I do like that reading of my blog’s title, because it might be a better description of what my blog is really about.

While my posts often are about specific existing MMORPGs, the underlying interest is in the larger general theory of MMORPGs, and the hypothetical "Tobold's Perfect MMORPG". When I for example use World of Warcraft as an example of what I don’t like about “kill 10 foozles” so-called quests and say I’d rather have large epic quest and no small errands to run, I am not actually suggesting that Blizzard change their game. Rather the discussion of something that works or doesn’t work in a specific game gives me ideas of what I would like to see in future games, or would consider as part of the utopian perfect MMORPG. The discussion of a specific perceived flaw, e.g. “paladins are overpowered”, should not only lead to a specific “nerf paladins!” battle cry, but hopefully to a more profound discussion on how to balance hybrid classes against single-role classes in general.

Talking about specific games and specific features in these games has the advantage that it helps us realize that often a design decision from a developer is a solution to a specific problem, and already an iteration and improvement over a feature from a previous game. If we want to further improve that towards perfection, we need to be aware of what problem the developer was addressing with his feature, and see whether our proposed better solution would solve the same problem as well as the new problems the feature created. If we don’t do that, the discussion necessarily becomes very limited, with the suggestions often being to keep things like they are, or a nostalgic “let’s go back to way things were in older games” alternative. Neither is likely to advance us anywhere.

Using World of Warcraft as an example in such cases has the advantage that I can assume that most of my readers have played World of Warcraft at some point, and thus are familiar with the examples I’m giving. The disadvantage is that of course World of Warcraft covers only a small fraction of the possibility space of what a MMORPG can be. Thus there is also merit in discussing a game like A Tale in the Desert, which is niche, and not many readers know it, but which is so radically different from WoW while still obviously being a MMORPG, that knowing it very much expands the possibility space for MMORPGs. WoW unfortunately is a kind of gravity hole in the possibility space of MMORPGs, and very often I get comments from people whose imagination can’t escape that gravity pull, so that their arguments tend to be “if it isn’t in World of Warcraft, it must be impossible to do, or at least impossible to sell”. As even developers suffer from that gravity pull having captured their imagination, it is helpful to describe games that do things differently than WoW and nevertheless work quite well.

So I’d like to encourage my readers to let their imagination fly, and not to approach every subject with the narrow vision of why any proposed change to MMORPGs can’t work, because it would mess up the class balance or something similarly specific in World of Warcraft or whatever other game I mention. Rather ask yourself whether you really think that the game already has the perfect solution to any given problem of game design; or whether by thinking outside the box of practical restrictions to game design one couldn’t possibly come up with a better solution. Even just admitting that a feature has drawbacks is a good first step, even if we can’t always come up with a better solution. But if we stop dreaming about the perfect MMORPG, we will not only never see it made, but also are unlikely to see future games at least approaching our ideals. We can afford to be dreamers here in the MMO blogosphere; we don’t have the constraints of budgets and timelines. And maybe by spreading our dreams some of our ideas get picked up and we’ll be able to play them in a future game.

MMORPG business models and fundamental player decisions

I first found David Edery’s interesting post on aggressive Free2Play monetization via an entry from spinks on Buzz, but then Ravious from Kill Ten Rats also discussed it. And I couldn’t help but think that both posts were full of common misconceptions, which people tend to repeat whenever Free2Play is mentioned, without ever making a reality check on whether these are likely to be true.

The most profound misconception is that Free2Play are deliberately designed to be not fun, so as to force players to pay for items in the item shop. I pity the developers who would believe in that balderdash, because their games will mercilessly flounder. *All* MMORPGs have to be fun to start with, and that is independent from their business model. In fact there is very little difference between the developers of a monthly subscription game having to persuade you to keep playing to make their game profitable, and the requirements for developers of a Free2Play game. If players don’t like your game in the first place, you will not make money with it, regardless of your business model.

Another misconception is to believe that Free2Play games will automatically attract more players than paid-for games. This assumes mythical players who have a lot of time on their hands, very little money, and no alternatives what to do with their time. It is obvious that this isn’t the case in the real world. If you include Free2Play games, there are now hundreds of different MMORPGs around. And each of them requires a serious time commitment. Thus regardless of how their finances look, time constraints affect all players. They can’t play all games at once, and thus must at one point make a conscious decision to play a specific game.

Thus I believe the matter of business models for MMORPGs is best approached by looking at the fundamental decisions a player has to make for him to become a “customer” and generate profit for the MMORPG company: The player has to decide to try out a game, the player has to decide to stick with the game for a certain duration, and the player has to decide to pay for the game. These three decisions are universal for every type of MMORPG and business model, but the business model affects how these decisions are linked.

Consider for example a major MMORPG release of a game with a monthly subscription, e.g. Final Fantasy XIV releasing next month. Unless a player got into the beta, he will have to make the three decisions at the same point in time: By deciding to buy the game he automatically also decides to pay for the game, and the decision for how long to stick with the game already is partially answered by having automatically already paid for the first month. Thus in this case buying Final Fantasy XIV requires a certain commitment of time and money from the player, which is a leap of faith if that player hasn’t had the opportunity to test the game before. An open beta, or later in the life-cycle of a game a free trial, separates the decision of trying the game from the decisions to pay for it, and to stick with it.

Note that the decision to try a game usually has to be taken only once. The decisions to keep playing and to pay or keep paying recur regularly. If I buy Final Fantasy XIV and play it for two weeks, and find out I hate it, I will make a conscious decision not to keep playing, and not to keep paying, and will cancel my subscription. In a monthly subscription MMORPG I might make the decision whether to play every day, but the decision whether to pay only pops up once a month. Multi-month subscriptions are priced cheaper, because the company is interested in you *not* having to take the decision on whether to keep paying. If you paid for 6 months and stop playing after one, it is your loss and the game companies gain. Nevertheless the company of course would prefer if you continued to make the decision to keep playing every time you think about it, and in consequence would decide to keep playing not just for one subscription period, but for years to come.

In a Free2Play game the decisions are even more separated. First a player decides to try the game, but the barrier to entry is low, his required commitment is low, he just needs to download the game and create a free account, and play. Then he must like the game enough to make the decision to keep playing. And once he is thoroughly into the game, he must make the decision that it would be even more fun if he only had this or that item from the item shop. While the decisions to keep playing or to buy something from the item shop recur, the payment decision is not a regular as in the monthly subscription model. But the decision to pay *depends* upon the decision to keep playing, as nobody planning to stop with a game would still want to buy virtual stuff in it. If the free part of the game is not fun at all, the decision to stop playing will be done long before the player considers giving any money to the game company. Thus the idea that you just need to make a horrible Free2Play game in which all the fun can only be had by paying enormous amounts of money and you’d make lots of profit is rather ridiculous. Players pay only for what they like, and the Free2Play game company needs to design a game with the idea to keep the players in the game for a very long time exactly like the monthly subscription game company does.

On the matter of how “aggressive” you should monetize your Free2Play game, which David Edery defines as how much items with an actual in-game use you sell to your players, as opposed to just selling fluff, we also need to look at the same player decisions on whether to keep playing, and whether to keep paying. The often quoted problem is that of Player A spending top dollars on items that give him an advantage in the game, and Player B stopping to play because he feels he can’t keep up. That sounds very much like a problem unique to the Free2Play business model, but in fact it isn’t. You can have *exactly* the same situation in a classic MMORPG with a monthly subscription: Player A has already subscribed for a year, thus paid the game company more money, while Player B just started, sees how far ahead of him Player A is, and decides to quit, because he can’t catch up with him. The solution is the same for monthly subscription and Free2Play games, namely to have diminishing returns, so that the latecomer B always has the impression of catching up with Player A who spent more time or money. And to shield Player B from Player A in as far there is a direct competition between them. Allowing Player A with either more time or more money to mercilessly one-shot and corpse camp Player B to the point where Player B can’t progress in the game anymore is a design mistake, regardless of business model.

Thus if handled right you can very well sell players items that give them some advantage in the game, without that having too much of a negative effect *on other players*. What you need to avoid, and where a Free2Play item shop can really err and destroy a game, is to sell items to players which negatively affect their decision to keep playing. My favorite example there was the sword I bought in Free Realms, which was significantly better than the best sword I could create after having leveled mining and blacksmithing to the maximum. The problem is not some other player having a mightier sword than me (I’m quite used to that from every other MMORPG I play), but the fact that buying the sword makes a part of the gameplay I enjoyed obsolete. Thus, selling players access to a new dungeon where they can earn a new treasure is a good idea. Having that dungeon in the game for free but selling the new treasure directly to them, so the players don’t need to do the dungeon any more, is a bad idea. If my decision to pay the game company for an item leads to that the next time I have to make the decision on whether I want to keep playing I decide not to, that is a bad item shop design. You can sell players items that accelerate their progress in the game, to enable players with more money and less time to catch up with the others. But you can’t sell them items that *replace* that progress completely, because then there is no game left to play, and the player leaves.

And again that basic concept, while looking like it was specific to Free2Play games, also applies in slightly modified form to monthly subscription games. Handing out easy to get epics from heroics and thus making several raid dungeons obsolete is exactly the same design error as selling those epics in an item shop and making raid dungeons obsolete. It touches the fundamental design problem of progress-based games: Any progress you make is likely to reduce the attractiveness of the content which is now too easy to contribute to your further progress. Whether that initial progress comes from spending time or from spending money doesn’t make that much of a difference. The question is in how far the progress made makes it likely that a player decides to stop playing, because “there is nothing fun left to do”.

In summary, when designing a game, the developers have to take into consideration the three basic player decisions and ask themselves: Why would players decide to try out my game? Why would players keep playing it for a long time? And why would they give me money? And as these questions are not independent from each other, developers also must consider how the answers to these questions affect each other. Will players want to play your game so much they won’t mind paying for it every month? Or will the forced regular payment discourage them from even trying out your game? Different business models have different answers to these questions.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

MMO vocabulary inflation

The Oxford dictionary defines a quest as "a long or arduous search for something; (in medieval romance) an expedition made by a knight to accomplish a prescribed task". They define heroic as "admirably brave or determined; grand or grandiose in scale or intention" and epic as "heroic or grand in scale or character". Somehow all these definitions don't really fit with a typical description of a World of Warcraft play session like

"I first did some daily quests, then ran a couple of heroics, but only found epics to vendor".

If we'd use a less inflated vocabulary for the same actions, it would become

"I first did some daily errands, then ran a couple of instances, but only found vendor trash".

Ferrel from Epic Slant is complaining about quests, and also remarks that they are just "chores". So he suggests to get rid of quest hubs and "stop making it inefficient to level by slaughtering monsters", going back to how it was in the original Everquest. Been there, done that, doesn't work.

Whatever you call them, quests, errands, or chores, they do fulfill one fundamental function in a MMORPG: They distribute players. If you can level just as fast by killing any monster without a quest, there will *always* be optimal spots to level. Whether those are monsters that are relatively easy to kill for the xp they give, or whether the spawn is just conveniently timed, or whether the monster camp is just closest to the next village, there will be *some* reason why it is better to kill a specific group monsters over and over and over and over and over and over and well you get the idea.

That doesn't mean that quests are "necessary", or that they are the only way to achieve that goal. It just means you can't simply go back to the time before quest hubs, because it would mean going back to the time where people entered the Commonlands zone and would shout out "Camp check", and get shouts back which of the most favored monster spawn locations were already camped.

So how do we design a game without quests? That is incredibly easy: Use diminishing returns. As we already call them "experience points", it makes perfect sense that the experience you gain from killing your hundreth orc is less than that you gain from killing your first orc. Then people can roam the virtual world freely to kill monsters, without the game turning back into Evercamp. Thus we get rid of stupid NPCs with golden symbols floating over their head giving us stupid errands to kill ten foozles with a stupid justification in a quest text nobody reads.

Afterwards we just need to rename the current "heroics" as "group content", and the current "epics" as "gear", and then we can think about how to add content in which player *really* go on a long and arduous quest full of heroic deeds and with an epic reward. I hear Blizzard is already thinking of making epics less common in Cataclysm.

Casual and hardcore in A Tale in the Desert

I tend to play around 20 hours per week, and that is rather constant and does not much depend on what game I’m playing at the moment, because my gaming hours depend on what goes on in my real life, and not the other way around. On the one side that is only half of what the average American spends watching TV, on the other side it is equivalent to a half-time job. So I prefer not to think in judgmental terms like “too much” or “too little”, to not fall into the trap of considering everybody who plays less than me “a slacker”, and everybody who plays more than me “a no-lifer”. Having said that, I am somewhat surprised of how much “behind the curve” I appear to be in A Tale in the Desert after playing for 10 days. Regional chat is full of talk about researching technologies using resources I’m still far from getting to, and when I visit other player’s houses they are often full of structures I don’t know how to build yet.

Now the amount of hours played is probably just one factor in this. In a building game like A Tale in the Desert progress is more visible than in a static world like Azeroth, which remains unchanged regardless of what the players do. And while I am exploring ATitD and have fun learning a lot of new activities (the Test of the Oyster Catcher has an interesting puzzle sub-game), the game world is full of veteran players who know the game already very well, and who are working hard to reach certain key technologies like mining. As in real life, technology in ATitD makes life easier in many cases, so the veterans got used to doing the same stuff in easier ways in the end-game of the last telling, and want to go back to that situation as fast as possible. Better to research chariot repair quickly than to walk through Egypt all the time, and better to get to nails and mining than to use flax structures based on thorns which constantly break. By working together in dedicated research guilds they can advance much quicker than other players could solo or in small, casual guilds.

Although I understand the veteran’s motivation, I nevertheless observe that it leads to the same splitting up of the community that games like World of Warcraft have between the “hardcore” and the “casual”. I’m not hugely motivated to contribute to the regional research while I’m still having a hard time finding out what the already researched technology does. And even if I was, many of the materials that people are collecting to open up the next research are things I’m not able to make yet. By the time I learned to make lime, the others had already finished the research for glassblowing for which the lime was needed.

On the positive side it is perfectly possible to play A Tale in the Desert in a casual way and not worry how to keep up with the latest technology, just doing your own thing. It is actually easier, because you profit from the technologies others have researched by donating materials, or because things that were very difficult at the start of the game have become much easier as certain technologies became widely available. For example one thing I do to help new players out is having public pottery wheels in my compound. So while I and other early players had to struggle with flax and clay using only the single jug we received, new players can use my pottery wheels to make a dozen jugs and have an easier time.

On the negative side the casual gameplay means you are missing out on the “Civilization”-like kind of game of pushing the regional tech tree forwards. And while using public structures makes sense for some activities, in the end you will want to build structures in your own house, and not constantly hang out at other people’s places.

So personally I am trying to follow my own private tech tree, learn skills one by one, and build structures for myself. In spite of the “half-time job” time investment, I’m still keeping the casual player mindset, and automatically do the things that spinks recommends to avoid burnout. If there is one thing a decade of playing MMORPGs has taught me, it is how to avoid the social pressure to keep up with the Joneses. I still do my bit for the regional research, e.g. participating in a dig of which the unearthed stones went towards research. But if some other players want to press ahead beyond what I am able to follow, I'll just let them go on with it; I am not going to change my play hours or play-style because of them. Now there is a skill you can learn from gaming which is useful in Real Life.

Assessing the damage from pirates

It is certainly true that in many cases the exact amount of damage done by video game piracy is difficult or even impossible to determine. Fortunately in the case of Blizzard winning the lawsuit against Scape Gaming, who ran a "private" pirate server for WoW, we do have some extremely solid facts that help to assess the damage. Because Scape Gaming wasn't letting play WoW for free, but ran their WoW servers on a Free2Play business model, taking money from players for everything from $1 for 2 levels to $300 for a set of epics. And they got that money via PayPal. So all Blizzard had to do was get an injunction persuading PayPal to tell them how much money Scape Gaming received. The result was an astonishing $3,052,339 in gross revenues. There were 427,000 users in the Scape Gaming community, which made Scott Jenning remark that it is kind of humbling if World of Warcraft thieves get more users than most MMORPGs.

Now some people on this blog made comments comparing video game piracy to a starving man stealing bread to feed his family, or similar arguments on the line of "poor people can't afford those video games, so they have to steal them". But even if we would accept those arguments, I don't see how they could possibly apply in this case. This isn't some poor kids downloading a game from Bittorrent. This is a criminal organization which stole intellectual property from Blizzard and then sold it for $3 million. How can any defender of piracy possibly justify that?

With Captain Kirk and Mr. T making TV spots for World of Warcraft it is extremely unlikely that Scape Gaming and their users made any noticeable positive "word of mouth" contribution to the success of World of Warcraft. And while again we could argue endlessly how much money would have made from the 427,000 players if those had played on official servers instead of pirate servers, *at the very least* we can say that the $3 million Scape Gaming made from running WoW belong rightfully to Blizzard. It is very hard to argue that the people playing on Scape Gaming servers were too poor to afford the real game, when obviously they had up to $300 to spend on virtual WoW items.

So I am quite happy that Scape Gaming got shut down, has to pay Blizzard the $3 million plus another $85 million in statutory damages, which should guarantee that they stay out of business and discourage other pirate server owners as well. As to the 427,000 players of Scape Gaming, I'd say they are sufficiently punished by losing their characters including all the virtual items they bought for them. Maybe they should try the real WoW: You can't buy levels and epics there, but at least the servers aren't likely to shut down anytime soon.