Thursday, September 30, 2010

The danger of high rewards

I remember last year's Brewfest in World of Warcraft, mostly because of the Tankard O' Terror which dropped from the event boss Coren Direbrew. At the time I made a handsome profit, because I could buy them cheap while the event was going on, and sell them on for twice to three times the money once the event was over, and the Tankard was the only iLevel 226 boe weapon in the game. I haven't even bothered to do this event this year, because it is so pointless now, something Larísa laments.

Coren Direbrew is a prime example of the biggest flaw of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, a flaw usually and badly described as "Waaaaah! WoW is too easy!". And most certainly, for most players today the Brewfest event boss is "too easy", as in poses no fun challenge at all. But if we look at the situation closer we'll notice that Coren Direbrew in 2010 is EXACTLY as hard as he was in 2009. He hasn't been nerfed, and he still got exactly the same abilities and health. If you went there with a group with the kind of gear people had in 2009, you'd find Coren Direbrew a fun enough challenge. And the same is true for the rest of the game: Blizzard didn't nerf everything to make it too easy, and most of the content would be challenging enough to be fun if you'd go there with a group equipped in the kind of gear the content was designed for.

What went wrong was not that the content was made too easy, but that players were made too powerful. Again people tend to oversimplify that fact and blame "the Dungeon Finder", but to be precise the Dungeon Finder by itself didn't make the game much easier. The real culprit is the level of rewards given out for running heroics. Dungeons which were originally designed to for people to get iLevel 200 mostly blue gear, with a single iLevel 200 epic as end reward, should not have handed out emblems with which to buy iLevel 232 to 264 gear. WotLK would have been a better expansion if the emblems would only have given out iLevel 200 to 219 gear.

The too high reward level didn't serve any good purpose: Instead of making raiding more accessible, it made several raid dungeons instantly obsolete. And because the emblems gave too high rewards compared to the heroic dungeons they were found in, players were encouraged to run heroics completely overgeared. And of course Blizzard couldn't adjust the difficulty level of the heroic dungeons, because they were in fact quite challenging for a group wearing only the kind of gear a freshly dinged level 80 would wear. But for a group in emblem gear heroics are trivial to a point where many abilities became useless, and players just AoE'd everything down. Players always run after rewards, but with the rewards for running heroics being too high, that striving for rewards only ended up destroying the challenge and the fun.

I love the Dungeon Finder, and I so hope that in the next expansion the rewards handed out for running level 85 heroics are more appropriate to the difficulty level. There must be a sweet spot somewhere between Burning Crusade where everybody was stuck in the first progression raid dungeon, and Wrath of the Lich King where emblems made the first progression raid dungeon obsolete. Nobody wants to run the same raid dungeon for a year, but handing out rewards that allow people to completely skip it is not the solution. There should be some raid progression, albeit faster than in the Burning Crusade. And preferably a Raid Dungeon Finder functionality to save us from stupid and tyrannical PuG raid leaders. Heroics should equip people for the first raid dungeon, nothing more.

What Blizzard did in Wrath of the Lich King is equivalent of handing out more levels, without actually providing all that much more content for those higher levels. Not a good idea, that only makes people burn out fast.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do players choose MMORPGs rationally?

In my ongoing blog-to-blog discussion with Nils on what constitutes quality in a MMORPG, Nils argues that:
"Using entertainment value as a definition still has the same problem that sales numbers have. I.e. sales numbers can change without the game changing. Sales numbers are influenced by advertisement, prices, network effects, etc.
Sales numbers, as well as popularity are influenced by a lot of factors that are not inherent properties of the game. Now, in my opinion one property a good definition of “good game” should have is that it is not significantly influenced by factors that are outside of the game."
So lets look at these other factors influencing sales numbers. I totally agree on the strong influence of pricing. Free2Play games will inherently have more players than monthly subscription games. But if you look really, really careful, you'll notice that Nils performed a clever bait-and-switch trick here: In my post I specifically state that I am talking only about SUBSCRIBER numbers, not sales, and that I'm only considering games with a monthly subscriptions. I'd say the differences in subscription prices of most existing monthly subscription games are small enough not to hugely skew the measure. And with the most popular game being one of the most expensive, one can't really argue that people were drawn to this game by pricing.

The second factor is advertising. It has been repeatedly argued that World of Warcraft is more successful than other MMORPGs due to Mr. T Mohawk TV spots and other advertising. Now advertising certainly works in getting people to buy things, or in the case of MMORPGs with free trials to try those games. But that is all advertising can do. Once the player steps into the virtual world, the effect of advertising ends, and only the quality of the MMORPG determines whether the player stays or leaves. When Blizzard revealed that only 30 percent of players who do the free trial get past level 10, industry insiders admitted that 30% was actually a rather high number, and for other MMORPGs that number might well be below 10%. This is why I didn't argue with sales numbers, but with subscription numbers: If a players plays World of Warcraft for thousands of hours, and pays his subscription fee every month, we can be rather certain that advertising did not play a role in his decision to keep playing. Other games, e.g. WAR, had huge advertising budgets as well, and that only resulted in huge initial sales, and two thirds of players leaving after the first month.

The final item on Nils' list is network effects. That is a rather nebulous term which is used too often on the internet. For example it would be easy to claim that WoW has *less* network effect than EVE, because there are only 20k players on any given WoW server, while there are 350k players on the EVE server. Many MMORPGs have a large number of servers, and those are localized. I know a lot of people in the US via my blog, but I rarely meet them in a major game, because most games have completely separate US and EU servers. Apparently people rather have a few milliseconds lower ping than playing with their international friends. So do we really believe that "network effects" can make people play a game they hate for years, just because their friends play it? Furthermore I do not subscribe to the theory that network effects are not inherent to a game. Games can be good *because* they foster good networks.

This whole discussion would not be there if World of Warcraft wasn't such a huge success. Some people do not like World of Warcraft, and that is totally normal. An even larger number of people played World of Warcraft for several thousands of hours, and burned out, and that is totally normal too. What isn't normal is that many of these people are unable to talk in terms of personal choice: For some strange and twisted reason they feel the need to claim that World of Warcraft is a bad game, "dumbed down for morons", etc., to justify that they don't play WoW any more. As they can't admit that they quit WoW for personal reasons, they are constantly arguing against the fact that World of Warcraft is a very good MMORPG, and invent millions of reasons trying to disconnect it's evident success from it's quality.

I think that is quite disingeneous and unhelpful. What it leads to is a rather stupid tribal mentality in which fanbois of different games shout at each other and claim their game is "good", while the game of the other is "bad". It actually prevents us from helpful constructive criticism. It is only AFTER you admit that World of Warcraft is doing many things right that you gain credibility in discussing where WoW's flaws are. And World of Warcraft has many flaws, which are well worth discussing, in the hope that either WoW improves or a future MMORPG does better than that. The people who claim that World of Warcraft is nothing but "the lowest common denominator / dumbed down game for idiots / same as Farmville / only successful due to Mr. T Mohawk advertising / etc." are not any better than the other extreme of developers making bad WoW clones in the hope to make a quick buck. Praising or dismissing a successful game as a whole simply doesn't advance our understanding of what makes a good game. Anybody who believes that a game could earn a billion dollars a year without actually being a good game ultimately only supports those who are trying to make money with bad games.

What do I have in my pocket?

In The Hobbit Bilbo finds himself in a deadly serious riddle game with Gollum, which he wins by accidentally asking "What do I have in my pocket?", a question that Gollum can't answer. Even Bilbo privately admits that this wasn't a proper riddle, but consoles himself with the rules-lawyering interpretation that by accepting the question as a riddle, Gollum has only himself to blame.

Today Final Fantasy XIV comes out, and it will pose many improper riddles like "What do I have in my pocket?" to thousands of players. FFXIV is built on the principle of not telling the players anything, they have to find out everything for themselves, even if that often requires stumbling upon the answer by accident, or systematically trying all possible solutions. Only, of course, players won't do that. As everybody has the same problems finding out how everything works, and some people already did find out many things in the beta or Collector's Edition pre-play period, the answer to all these "riddles" can be found on the internet. Why would anyone for example try crafting by trial and error (or by writing down recipe information received as "reward" from crafting quests with pen & paper, as the game doesn't log them), when he can find the recipes in a database?

The irony is that if given a riddle that looks doable, many players would try to solve it by themselves, because that is part of the fun of the game. But FFXIV being deliberately hard and obscure, to the point of leaving players completely in the dark, most players will either give up completely and unsubscribe, or play the game with a browser in the second window. I seriously doubt that many people will play this game "as intended" through trial and error.

It is debatable whether letting players find out everything for themselves is good or bad game design. What isn't in doubt is that it simply doesn't work as long as your challenges to find out stuff are fixed. Among thousands of players some will usually arrive at the solution (well, FFXI had a mob nobody ever found out how to kill before it was nerfed), and then post it somewhere for other players to find.

The Hobbit, and therefore the Lord of the Ring which follows, would have been a very different story if Gollum would have used his smart phone to Google the answer to "what do I have in my pocket?". If devs want to puzzle their players, they need to invent riddles that have a different answer for every player.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Starting Final Fantasy XIV on day one?

Dragonchasers has some coverage of Final Fantasy XIV in which Pete fears tomorrow, day one of the official release for those who didn't buy the collectors edition. He says:
"The one thing I’m concerned about is the launch on Thursday. The hate is bad enough among CE buyers (who, one would suspect, are people that researched the game before buying). When stacks of boxes show up on retail shelves tempting impulse buyers looking for a break from WoW while they wait for Cataclysm…things are going to get UGLY.

The community is going to be vile for a month or so after launch.
...
If you’re thinking about trying FF XIV, I urge you not to. Instead, wait for a free trial or something. I think most people who try it are going to hate it, and the rest are going to LOVE it."
If that is what the *fans* are saying about the game, I think the advice to stay away until there is a free trial is a good one. I agree with the assessment that people are likely to either love or hate FFXIV, with the haters being in the majority, due to the game being so very different, and in many aspects old school. Maybe the perfect game for all of those who constantly moan that modern games are too easy with those newfangled inventions like symbols over the head of quest givers, who would prefer the old school gameplay of having to click on every single bloody NPC to find out where the quests are. But for most modern players, this is yet another unplayable game.

Nevertheless there will certainly be a rush of players trying to play the game on day one. Some people consider MMORPGs to be a race, and like to improve their chances to "win" by getting an early start. Only that of course you can't win a MMORPG, and a race in which people start at different times and spend different amount of time per day racing is an extremely strange one.

So why this unhealthy urge to play a MMORPG from day one, when we know that day one is probably the worst? Me, I'm going to wait Final Fantasy XIV out, and wait for more reviews, and then maybe try it again later when there is a free trial.

My narrow definition of "good game"

Nils and I have agreed that our lengthy exchanges on opinions are better handled blog-post to blog-post instead of totally overwhelming the comment section, and this already lead to a marked increase in the number of commenters here. Our current discussion is on the subject of what a good game is, sparked by a comment from Ben who said "Britney Spears isn't the greatest artist of all time, it's really not that hard to understand the discrepancy b/w sales and quality."

Now it is easy to get 100 people to agree to the statement that Britney Spears isn't the greatest artist of all time. I'd sign that too. The problem is that if you ask those 100 people who they think *is* the greatest artist of all time, you will get 100 different answers. And the people making statements like the one above are usually those who think that their own subjective answer of what is good is more valid than the subjective answers of the other 99 people. They also usually think that Britney Spears is a *bad* artist, or that the Harry Potter books are bad books, *just because* they are popular. I don't agree with that.

Any book, film, song, or game can be measured on two very different scales: The scale that measures their entertainment value, and the scale that measures their artistic value. Where Ben is totally right in saying is that the two are not correlated. But they aren't inversely correlated either. Something which has a high entertainment value will be very popular, but that doesn't tell you anything about the artistic value, neither that it is artistically good nor that it is artistically bad.

I am a scientist. I do not like judgement on artistic value, because that is so highly subjective. I'd claim that for the example the Harry Potter books have an artistic value, because of the way the language of the books matures with the age of the hero, which is both very subtly done and used to great effect. But that is my subjective opinion of the art of writing, and I'm sure many people would disagree.

Furthermore I would say that games, especially massively multiplayer games are not like books, films, or songs, in that games very rarely qualify as art at all. Yes, there are a few borderline cases like Myst or Ico, but the kind of game I'm discussing on this blog is not art in my opinion. MMORPGs are huge projects created by hundreds of people, and even an "art director" or anyone else on the team can hardly claim the whole game as a work of *his* art, not like the author of a book can, or the director of a movie (and lots of movies aren't art either for pretty much the same reason). Games are most of the time not created with any artistic aspiration in mind, but *only* for entertainment value.

Therefore if you hear me speaking about a game as being "good" or "bad", please keep in mind my narrow definition of what a "good game" is: As I assume that the fundamental purpose of a game is to entertain, I judge a game on it's ability to do exactly that. A good game for me is one that is entertaining to its players. If you personally think that to qualify for "good game" a game has to fulfil other criteria, be that some artistic value or something else, we simply risk to miscommunicate, because we are using so very different definitions.

I'm not saying that my definition of "good" is the only one possible, or the best, or anything. But I'm saying that this is the definition I use, and have always used on this blog. And as my definition of "good" only judges a game by its entertainment value, and entertainment value is highly correlated with popularity and ultimately sales, I do like to use subscriber numbers. Although I of course agree with Craig Morrison that "1 million registered users" and "1 million subscribers" are not the same thing, and you need to look at all numbers closely to avoid being misled by some marketing trickery. MMORPGs with monthly subscriptions are relatively easy to compare, because the pricing tends to be similar. And unlike listening to a song, which is most often free, or reading a book, which usually just requires a single payment which you might end up regretting, a game with a monthly subscription requires a continued statement from its players, who are effectively saying: "Yes, this game still entertains me enough for me to be willing to pay $15 for another month". That constitutes a valid measure of the entertainment value of a game, and that is what I like about these numbers. But remember, that is *my* definition of what a "good game" is, to which not necessarily everybody agrees. (/wave Wyrm, Ben, Nils, etc.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ghostcrawler joins the crusade against efficiency

Larísa and Gronthe are discussing recent remarks of Ghostcrawler on the World of Warcraft forums, in which he speaks out against efficiency:
"Posts like this make me very sad. You're portraying yourself to be at the mercy of uninformed yet tyrannical raid leaders who are quick to judge your performance based on perceived "tells." I know you need some basis to evaluate potential recruits or even pug members. But I do wish there was some way to turn around this virtual phobia of inefficiency -- this terror of being WRONG -- that we have managed to instill in our player base. I honestly think it's one of the greatest challenges facing the game.
...
the WoW community has evolved in a direction where being badly informed is worse than being a bad player. We're all very quick to judge each other based on litmus tests, such as gear scores, achievements, or proper talent builds, that likely don't measure performance half as well as we want them to.
...
How many attempts can you name in your lifetime as a WoW player where your doing 1% more dps would have made the difference between success and failure? And how many of those attempts could you have gotten 10% more dps if you had just totally nailed your rotations etc. on those fights instead of worrying about a theoretical 1% dps gain from a different talent?"
Or as Larísa summarizes it: "If you’re just following the EJ recommendation to 99 percent and not to 100 percent you’re per definition perceived as a moron and a slacker, if not by everyone, at least by most other players." I don't know if anyone ever calculated how many different talent builds there are for one class and role; it must be thousands, but if you don't have exactly the cookie cutter flavor of the month one, you're not getting a raid invite.

From Ghostcrawler's "virtual phobia of inefficiency ... that we have managed to instill in our player base" follows a discussion of whether the situation is Blizzard's fault or the fault of the players. I think that question answers itself easily if you zoom out a bit, look at other games, and ask yourself obvious questions like "why is there no perfect strategy for Rock, Paper, Scissors?".

Back when I was still playing Magic the Gathering and judged tournaments, people were discussing two games: The game of Magic the Gathering, and the so-called "meta-game". The meta-game discussion went like this: "Knowing that deck X is currently so popular, should I bring deck Y (which crushes X) to the tournament, or should I rather bring deck Z, which crushes deck Y and does well enough against X?" At no moment in the long history of Magic the Gathering was there ever an unbeatable deck.

The problem World of Warcraft has, and specifically for dps classes, is that there *is* that one perfect talent build and one perfect spell rotation which works for everything. It is just a matter of number crunching, and given a large enough player base that number crunching is already finished before a new patch or expansion leaves the beta. And given that there is only one best build, and that one build is easy enough to find on the internet, the judgement that anyone not using that one build is a "moron & slacker" is quickly done. Whether some other talent is more fun doesn't matter once it has been proven that taking this other talent would be 0.38% less efficient than the standard cookie cutter build. In that respect World of Warcraft is in the worst possible configuration, being "hard to learn, easy to master". Somebody who *gasp* actually tries out different talent builds to see which one works best for him will take a long time to learn, while any idiot can find the perfect build in less than 5 minutes on Google.

The only way out is to change the game in a way that the same talent build and same spell rotation is *not* optimal in every situation. What if any given raid boss over time was developing a resistance against the abilities most often used against him, while simultaneously developing a weakness against the abilities used the least? What if damage wouldn't be possible to condense to a single universal "damage per second" number, but would depend on various circumstances, like random elemental damage types and resistances? What if players actually had choices to make, for which there was no single best solution? What if exotic talents could be extremely powerful in the right situation?

I don't think World of Warcraft will ever get there, but maybe some future MMORPG will. But I can answer the question why everybody is playing that one best cookie cutter build: Because it exists! And that isn't the player's fault.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Minecraft

I can not play Minecraft. A certain style of first-person camera, usually in older games, but also in games using older 3D engines, causes me video game motion sickness. Yes, I can see that Minecraft is an incredibly creative sandbox game, but as I can't play it, I'm not really qualified to write a lot about it. Sorry.

There is excellent coverage of the game elsewhere, e.g. at Killed in a Smiling Accident.

Dungeon Finder coverage

As I don't like questing in Outlands that much, I leveled my druid in World of Warcraft from level 60 to now 69 only by doing dungeons. And then I found that at level 69 the Dungeon Finder already queues you up for the Northrend dungeons, which give nearly twice the xp per kill and better loot. So I looked through the list of Outland dungeons to check which ones I have missed, and was astonished to find out that I missed half of them. Basically the list of Outland dungeons was split evenly into those I did at least half a dozen times, and those I didn't visit at all. Obviously it would have been more fun to have a more even coverage, visiting every dungeon a few times.

At closer inspection the culprit appears to be World of Warcraft's "level fast - stay at level cap a long time" structure. Every expansion has a lot of dungeons which are for level capped characters, even in normal mode. But once the next expansion comes out, people leveling up just rush through the old level cap, often switching to the next expansion content before they even hit the old cap. Thus e.g. the dungeons in Netherstorm, which are for level 69 to 70, never show up in the Dungeon Finder. Not to mention the "extra hard" dungeons introduced later in an expansion, like Magister's Terrace for Burning Crusade.

Once Cataclysm strikes, the same will happen to Northrend Dungeons. Somebody new to the game and leveling through group content with the Dungeon Finder will never see certain Wrath of the Lich King dungeons, like the Icecrown ones. That is a shame, because there is an obvious interest for both Blizzard and the players to make *all* old content accessible to new players.

I think Blizzard should modify the Dungeon Finder so that it covers the old dungeons more evenly. Basically somebody who levels from 60 to 70 through dungeons should statistically see every Burning Crusade dungeon at least once or twice. And somebody who levels from 70 to 80 after Cataclysm should see all Wrath of the Lich King dungeons.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Civilization V first impressions

Civ 5 was finally available in Europe yesterday on Steam. In spite of being a Civ veteran, I first did the 5 small tutorial missions (the third one is tricky until you realize you need to build a palace in Rome), and the 1 player against 1 AI tutorial game. Now I'm on my first "real" game, with 6 players and 12 city states.

Up to now everything is running fine, and you quickly get sucked into the old "one more turn" flow. The new combat system takes getting used to, but is superior to the old system in my opinion. I also like the new hex-grid much better than the old square grids. I very much appreciate the mix of "this is still Civilization" and the various changes and new features.

Sometimes the game seems to slow down a bit, even on my relatively powerful PC. And I'm somewhat annoyed that the game setup menu doesn't appear to save settings, so every time you start a game you need to manually set all your favorite settings again. But apart from that I'm quite happy with the game. Recommended!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thread for personal criticism

If I write a post about some game, news, or game design theory or philosophy, and you post a comment in it calling me an idiot, or questioning my "journalistic integrity", I am going to delete your comment with a visible notice "this comment has been deleted by blog administrator". If you then complain about evil censorship, I'm goint to delete that comment as well.

The reason is not (just) that I don't like being personally criticized, but that personal attacks are the usual way on the internet to say "I don't agree with you, but I can't come up with any viable argument against what you said". Make an outrageous enough ad hominem attack, and any discussion thread will quickly derail into discussing that attack, and the arguments of the original post are forgotten. For this reason I am going to continue deleting personal criticism comments in other threads, and ask you in all those threads to try to formulate only comments which do not contain the words "Tobold" or "you".

But not in this thread. If you really feel the need to launch some personal criticism at me, whether that is about my level of intelligence, my "journalistic integrity", or some element of style (e.g. fake news) I use and that you find inappropriate, this is the place to do it. Just don't be surprised if I answer some insult in a similar manner (somehow people who insult others on the internet are always surprised to be insulted back and then complain that answering back in the same style is inappropriate).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sanity or Competence?

This week boatorious made a remarkable comment on this blog:
"It's absurd that playing WoW involves so much time out of game researching and watching youtube videos. And it's frustrating that most people don't do this and waste my time.

I don't hold anything against them -- they’re clearly the sane ones. I just wish I didn’t have to choose between sanity and competence."
While it is a bit extreme a sentiment, this is basically the opposite view from the elitist jerks who are constantly complaining about how dumb other players are. Sorry, knowing arcane details of theorycrafting or boss strategies has nothing to do with intelligence. Just like knowing how the capital of Mongolia is called has nothing to do with intelligence, it is information which you either learned or didn't learn.

Much of the information in World of Warcraft is not obvious. Everybody "knows" that spirit is good for priests but useless for paladins, but it would take an inordinate amount of time and effort to find that out just by playing the game. Instead there are theorycrafting sites and blogs giving class-specific advice, who'll tell you. It is essentially cheating.

If you only use in-game resources, the only way to find out what some boss mob has for abilities is to fight him. I fully plan to enter my first Cataclysm dungeons completely uninformed, although I'm sure that somebody will complain that I don't know all boss strategies by heart on the first day after release already, using Youtube videos and sites like Bosskillers with info from the beta.

Not looking up everything is not just a question of "sanity", as boatorious expresses it. It is also a question of *playing* a game. It is undoubted that playing lets say an adventure game or single-player role-playing game is faster and more efficient if you use a walkthrough guide. But what exactly would be the point of that? Isn't *not knowing* and finding out things part of the game, and part of the fun? For me the fact that a RPG is massively online multiplayer doesn't change that fundamental concept of discovery essentially *being* the game, or at least a big part of it.

Not that I have anything against competence, but it only really is competent if you find things out by yourself. Following written instructions by somebody else may make you *appear* competent, but doesn't actually require all that much intelligence. How hard is passing a test if you have all the answers written down by somebody else available? Most players would be completely unable to fight a boss mob with random abilities, because then there wouldn't be a YouTube video telling them what to do.

And where does that so-called "competence" get us? Strictly nowhere! It enables players to finish a dungeon in 20 minutes instead of one hour. Everybody chases speed, without considering for a moment where to the path leads that everybody is rushing down. You can't win a MMORPG, and the only prize for reaching the end faster is being bored earlier.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Estimating profitability

Hagu recently suggested an interesting topic to suggest, the profitability of MMORPGs. He writes:
"Topic suggestion: game profitability and why people quote subscribers. In particular, what do you game insiders/cognoscenti use to estimate profitability. In particular, how many subscribers does it take to support a developer.

Personally, I think a game with 20k subscribers with a nice profit margin is doing better than if SWTOR gets 999k subscribers and loses money.

Specifically, the 350k subscribers quoted for EvE. That is about $60m/year of gross income. Take off direct costs like credit card fees, servers, bandwidth, customer support and you get a much smaller number. I am used to California programmers being considerably above $200k/year in fully burdened ( salary, benefits, overhead ) cost. And there were supposedly >300 people working on the Apocrapha release and a considerable number still.

And if 75% of the WoW players don't make it through the trial, I can only imagine the % at EVE. 350k subscribers staying 6-8 months on average means you need 1-2 thousand new subscribers every day. How many Google ads do you need to put up in order to get enough people to click through, sign up, and survive the daunting EVE new player experience?

I may be overestimating direct costs or overestimating % developers vs lower paid people (SQA, tech pubs) or Iceland is much cheaper. But I can't see how CCP / EVE is doing that well financially on EVE. What do people who know the industry far better than I estimate?"
Well, I don't work in that industry, but I'm afraid there is no easy way to estimate profitability. That starts with released number often being very unprecise, or not telling the whole story. You are quoting over 300 people working on Apocrypha, but what exactly does "working on" mean? If that is 300 game developers, then you'd still need to pay a bunch of other people: Managers, secretaries, accountants, human resources, janitors, and so on. And that is just during the development phase, once the game goes live you need webmasters, community managers, and customer service representatives as well, plus a billing department.

An even bigger problem is that even if you knew the operating cost of a game and its revenue, you still don't know whether the game is actually "profitable" in the eyes of an investor. A game that makes one million dollars profit per year would be very profitable if it had only cost 1 million dollars to produce, but would be unprofitable if it had cost those fabled $100 million in development. Development cost depends a lot not just on the number of developers, but also how many years those developers worked to release a game, as they don't produce any income during that time. A MMORPG can take anything from 2 to 7 years to develop. And that development cost has somehow to be earned back over the years. What counts is not just how much money you make, but what your rate of return is. There is such a thing as "cost of capital", so if a $100 million game makes less profit than what those $100 million cost to borrow, the game is unprofitable.

This is why unprofitable games sometimes get sold: The original investors write off their losses, the game is sold for a song to another company, and as that company doesn't have the development cost to bear, their cost of capital is much lower, and the same number of subscribers can suddenly be profitable.

So in summary I don't think you can easily say "it takes 1,000 subscribers per developer" or any number like that. And I don't have enough specific information about how profitable EVE is, other than the fact that the game is still running and expanding, which suggests to me that is in fact profitable. As I mentioned in another thread, companies react to profit and losses in predictable ways, and it is often easier to deduct profitability from watching what the company does than from some back-of-an-envelope calculation.

Newbie at 80

We have discussed several times that in World of Warcraft there is a big difference between the level 1 to 80 leveling game, and the level 80 end game, with the end game requiring considerably more knowledge of the game to succeed. Thus writing a guide for players who are level 80 but in essence still "newbies" to the end game makes perfect sense. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised that of all people it was Gevlon who had the great idea to write a end game newbie guide, explaining basic concepts like enchants or spell rotations. Well done, Gevlon!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Starcraft 2 semantics

A friend gave me a guest pass key that came with his box of Starcraft 2, allowing me to play that game for 7 hours. So I spent part of my weekend battling my way through the human campaign, mostly fighting Zergs. The campaign is well done and entertaining, and Starcraft 2 is a solid RTS game. Too bad I don't really like RTS games.

My problem is that what I would really want to play is a completely different sort of strategy game. And the solid RTS gameplay Starcraft 2 delivers does not fulfil my personal needs. And while I was pondering that what I would want would be a lot slower, and more strategic, it struck me that "RTS" in fact is a mis-nomer: There is no real-time strategy in a RTS game.

Looking at the two parts of the term, the first is "real-time". But what the game delivers is more like "accelerated time". That is most visible in one of the Starcraft 2 missions which has a day/night cycle: A "day" or "night" passes in a few minutes. A RTS game is one of constant action, where the best players stand out by the speed in which they can click. During the Blizzard Invitational 2008 in Paris I had the opportunity to watch a competition of RTS players at the highest level, and it is a flurry of movement with never a second pause. That makes for exciting gameplay, but it isn't "real" time, a real battle or war is a lot slower.

The second part of the term is "strategy", and again RTS games rarely deliver on that term. Or as it says in the Wikipedia page on strategy: "In military usage strategy is distinct from tactics, which are concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked. How a battle is fought is a matter of tactics: the terms and conditions that it is fought on and whether it should be fought at all is a matter of strategy, which is part of the four levels of warfare: political goals or grand strategy, strategy, operations, and tactics." In a RTS game you very rarely have to take any strategic decision, but the majority of gameplay clearly happens on the tactical level, or at best on the operations level.

So if I wanted to insist on semantics, I'd call Starcraft 2 a "Accelerated Time Tactics" or ATT game, not a RTS game. But that would be no use at all. Most people aren't interested in semantics, they simply know the term real-time strategy or RTS game, and they know what to expect when a game is labeled like that. In fact if you'd offer them a semantically correct "real-time strategy" game in which playing WWII takes 6 years and you only take decisions on the strategic level, they would complain that this isn't a RTS game. They buy RTS games because they *want* fast, tactical decision taking.

And that is something to be aware of: Frequently used terms and acronyms take on a meaning of their own, which might well be detached from a strict semantic interpretation. Thus role-playing game or RPG has come to mean a game in which you play a character or characters with stats which increase during the game. Which has very little to do with "playing a role", and explains why an online RPG needs specifically labeled role-playing servers. Some people complain about that, but frankly, that makes about as much sense as me calling Starcraft 2 an ATT game.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rise of the indie game

I think I'm going to buy Delve Deeper when it comes out on Steam today, as I liked the demo, and it supposedly will cost only $5. My last three Steam purchases were Puzzle Quest 2 for €14.39, Recettear for €14.99, and Kings Bounty: Crossworlds for €14.99 with Kings Bounty: The Legend thrown in for free when I prepurchased it. Together that makes 4 great indie games for €50.

It used to be that games that cost $15 on release were hard to get, as many shops found their shelf space was too valuable to stock cheaper games, especially those not coming from big publishers. But the rise of the digital distribution platform was a boon for the indie games. Of course some people try to sell their games via their own website and collect payments by Paypal, but for example this weekend the Minecraft website went down, because there are now so many players that the servers couldn't support the load when people were trying to download the latest patch.

With better availability comes greater media coverage. Both Bastion and Skulls of the Shogun were mentioned in the Machinima Best of PAX 2010 video, although they aren't even released yet. Of course that is helped by PAX actually having indie game booths, those are rarer at the more expensive game expos.

Now of course a $15 game usually doesn't have quite the polish and graphical excellence that a $60 title has. But then most of the $60 titles are sequels nowadays, while in indie games you can find everything from remakes of forgotten great games to completely new ideas never seen before. Some games are very niche, but if you happen to like that particular niche you are now more likely to find a game that suits you. Often you can get a demo, and even if you end up not liking a game, you don't lose all that much money. So I'm quite happy with this current development, and I'm looking forward to discovering more great little games.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Board games philosophy

Once upon a time, a long time ago, people did not have multiplayer computer games, and the internet wasn't invented yet. Being sufficiently ancient to remember that time, I can tell you what multiplayer games we played back then: Board games. I still have fond memories of great classics, like Talisman, Titan, Railway Rivals, and others. As apparently I'm not the only one with memories, Rock, Paper, Shotgun started a board game column. Now I like neither the author's writing style, nor his prefered games, but the article discusses an important concept which has repercussions for MMORPGs: The Eurogames vs. Ameritrash difference in philosophy.

As RPS describes it, "Eurogames are the board games you can play in polite company" and "If you’ve ever rolled a dice to hit the guy sitting to your left with a poisoned lance, causing him to storm out of the door and march back to his mum’s house with tears in his eyes, you’ve played some prime Ameritrash."

I played both kinds at the time, and observed something: The guy who stormed out of the door and marched back to his mum's house with tears in his eyes might forgive you, but you can't get him to play that same game again. Having only a limited number of other kids around willing to play board games, Ameritrash games quite often ended up being a bad investment: You played them once or twice, and then you couldn't find people to play with you any more. Eurogames were a better investment, because even while losing the other player was still very much involved in the game, and having fun up to the last turn, and who got the most points in the end didn't matter all that much. So even the loser was eager to play again.

Fast forward 30 years, and while games look differently, human psychology hasn't changed a bit. Thus we have ganking games like APB either shutting down, or languishing at 20k subscribers like Darkfall. We have "successful" PvP games in which at closer look over 80% of the players don't PvP and stay in safe areas. And we have the most popular games offering mostly PvE, and the kind of "everybody wins" PvP which makes the losers not feel too bad about themselves. Maybe some developers of "impact PvP" games should go back and play some board games with kids before wasting another $100 million on a glorious Ameritrash PvP MMORPG.

Nothing to add

Read this!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

News?

The news are that APB shuts down its servers only 80 days after release. And Pirates of the Burning Sea goes Free2Play. And Tobold has the impression that none of his readers will actually care about these two bits of news.

Maybe I could generate interest by turning it into a contest: Predict the next MMORPG that either shuts down or goes Free2Play!

WoW on ice

As previously discussed I do believe that how much fun you have in any given game at any given moment not only depends on how good or bad the game itself is, but also on your personal history. Having said that, it is evident that the personal history of many players is rather similar in some cases. In the specific case of World of Warcraft today, it is clear that there is a large number of players who ran out of things to do in Wrath of the Lich King, and are all basically just waiting for the Cataclysm expansion.

I'm pretty much in the same situation, having run heroic dungeons often enough to equip 4 level 80 characters in full epic gear, and having seen (if not completed) all the raid dungeons in the game. I could still level my druid to 80, but from what I hear from the druid community that class has been seriously nerfed in Cataclysm, and anyway I never planned to use the druid as my "main", so it doesn't really matter whether he reaches level 80 before the expansion.

I am not in the Cataclysm beta, and even refuse to play patch 4.0 on the public test realms, as I predict that I'll run out of things to do in Cataclysm as well before Blizzard releases the expansion after that, so spoiling my fun early would not be a good idea. I'd just burn out faster. So right now World of Warcraft is pretty much on ice with me, playing only one or two hours per week nowadays.

The Cataclysm expansion is rumored to be released on November 2nd, but that doesn't mean nothing is happening before that. Already the first events in preparation of the Cataclysm happened, series of quests about how the gnomes and trolls are reconquering their homelands, in preparation of these classes in the future having their own starting zones instead of sharing a newbie zone with the dwarfs and orcs. There will be further events foreboding the actual Cataclysm. And of course we will get patch 4.0, already on the PTR, which will change many of the rules of the game, especially the talent trees for everybody, presumably in October.

One advice: If you still have emblems, consider exchanging them for heirloom items now. Patch 4.0 will transform your old emblems into the new token currency "justice points", or into gold for the older emblems. And you *can* still buy heirloom items for the new justice points, and you'll be able to gain justice points after patch 4.0, and before the Cataclysm expansion release. But from what I read the exchange rate is not very good, thus a heirloom item that costs lets say 40 emblems now will cost *more* than the justice points you get for 40 emblems in the future. Also justice points are capped at 4,000 on Cataclysm release day, so hoarding too many of them before the expansion won't be possible either.

Thus taking it slow right now, or taking a break from World of Warcraft, is probably a good idea if you ran out of things to do. If you are still having lots of fun, or started late, or are still working on something that is important to you, more power to you. But overall a certain lack of activity in World of Warcraft in the last months before the expansion is only to be expected. It's the calm before the storm, the expansion will probably bring news of new records in player numbers (aided by the recent release of WotLK in China), and phenomenal sales in the first week. WoW might be on ice right now, but it'll be a hot topic again by christmas.

Thou shalt not pay

Lord of the Rings Online did a brilliant promotional video for their switch to Free2Play mode, with an actor looking like Gandalf from the movies proclaiming "Thou shalt not pay". Fancy, but there is a hitch: LotRO only went Free2Play in the USA. The European release of the Free2Play version is "delayed" without even a release date announced, and we're being told that this isn't just a delay of a few days, but of weeks, if not months.

The inevitable consequence is that European players who want to try out the Free2Play version of LotRO don't wait, but play on the US servers. And once they started there, it isn't obvious whether they ever will switch to European servers. Moving back to European servers once those go Free2Play would gain them just a little lower ping, but would lose them their characters. And it is also likely that playing on the US servers will be cheaper, as game companies usually don't use a proper dollar to euro conversion rate, but instead use a 1:1 or close to that conversion which price-gouges the Europeans.

This is actually the first time where I regret having bought a lifetime subscription to LotRO, because it means I can't play on the US servers, but am bound to the underpopulated European servers.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The taxman cometh

My thought of the day from Monday about a scam in EVE lead to an interesting discussion whether ISK have a real-world value. And a request from a reader to discuss that further. So here is the issue:

On the one side it is against the terms of service to sell ISK for cash. If we consider the rules to be strict and impenetrable boundaries, we would need to conclude that ISK have no real-world value, because they are confined to inside the game. ISK are no real currency.

On the other side it is obvious that people attach real-world value to ISK: They buy ISK for real money, via PLEX. And then they exchange the ISK for something they want in the game. That turns ISK into some sort of alternative currency, Hagu compared it to a gift certificate, or we could say a ticket to an upcoming sports event. If you buy an expensive ticket to a sports event, you would consider that ticket to have value, in spite of there being rules that you can't sell it, and it spite of it ultimately being transformed only into entertainment value, and nothing physically real. Furthermore rules are NOT impenetrable barriers. Just like ticket scalpers are able to sell sports tickets against the rules of the event organizer, people are able to sell ISK on EBay or via other shady places on the internet.

In the EVE scam thread the discussion was whether stealing ISK was a crime. Obviously if you think ISK have no value, there is no crime. But if you think ISK have value, because somebody bought them for money, or because they can be exchanged back into money on a grey market, then acquiring ISK by fraud can be seen as a real-world crime. If somebody would organize an e-mail scam where he'd swindle you out of a gift certificate or sports ticket, a judge would probably consider the real-world value equivalent of these items, and not say that they are worthless because you can't legally change them back into cash, or because the scam happened on the internet and not face-to-face. I think most people would agree that if somebody hacks your WoW account and sells your gold, a crime has taken place.

Now as Oscar remarked, that is a slippery slope: Once you consider ISK (or EQ plat, or WoW gold, or whatever virtual currency) as having real-world value, what is there to prevent the taxman to come to the same conclusion, and tax you on your virtual earnings? Thus it is in the players best interest to keep that particular genie in his bottle, and demand a game design in which virtual currency is strictly confined in the game, with no means to either exchange real money for virtual currency, or virtual currency to real money.

The first half of that is easy, game companies need to stop selling virtual currency, whether that is directly or indirectly via PLEX. The second half is harder: You can't buy WoW gold from Blizzard, but Blizzard has been unable to stop third parties from selling WoW gold. To stop that sort of trade, the in-game economy would have to be completely rethought, and virtual currency would have to be transformed into something which is basically "bind on pickup", or at the very least "bind on account". That has enormous consequences on the virtual economy, not all of them pleasant. But if I had the choice between that and being taxed on my virtual earnings, I know what I would prefer.

My tribe

If you like the Lost series or if you like just the idea of group of people living on deserted island, then you might like this game. My tribe is made by Big Fish Games, this game has really high quality standards. This game has really good graphics and it is also quite complex. This game is very similar to all those games where you are something like God. Games like Settlers, Populous are similar to this game, but unfortunately as most facebook games, it is focused on casual players so it is definetely not as complex as these games. Ok so what this game is all about? You are on the deserted island and you have to take care of group of people living there - your tribe. Everyone who lives on your island has to something if the tribe wants to survive so you set task to everyone who is able to work. Only adult can work, but on the island lives kids also and they grows, so when they reach the age of fourteen you can set them tasks also. People on your island can be fishermen, scientists, builders, miners, farmers or woodcutters. In this game you have to gather resources of many kinds like wood, rocks, shells, guano but even some magic ones like strdust or moondust. In this game you will also have to solve mysteries and much more. I have played it for only few hours, but I really liked it. Your tribesmen are even earning experience so there are also some rpg features in this game so take a peek on this game.
Rating 7/10

Monday, September 13, 2010

Cataclysm improves World of Warcraft

This being the internet, discussion is frequently held by extreme simplification, and wilful misrepresentation. Thus when I said "MMORPGs have become better over the last decade", I got responses accusing me of wanting only Farmville-like games. That couldn't be further from the truth. So to illustrate my point, I'm telling you that while I did find that Wrath of the Lich King made World of Warcraft better than it was under Burning Crusade, I also have a strong impression from previews that Cataclysm also will make World of Warcraft a better game. And that is BY making WoW a bit harder again.

I totally agree that WotLK made World of Warcraft easier, and in some cases overdid it, like allowing people to skip most of the raid content and moving directly from heroics to Icecrown. But that is how balancing works: Nobody knows where the exact sweet spot is, and any changes risk either not going far enough, or overshooting the target. But if some change goes to far, the next change swings the pendulum back. The overall effect is continuous improvement, in spite of no game ever being perfectly balanced.

Cataclysm is offering some features I've been asking for for years: A slow increase of difficulty with level, instead of having the same easy solo mode up to the level cap and then a huge gap from there to the end game content. I am also looking forward to Cataclysm again making your skill in playing your character class well, especially for healers, more important than your jump & run platformer skills. I want to play a MMORPG, not Super Mario. And I do welcome the return of crowd control instead of simple AoEing everything down.

Having said that, I would say that Cataclysm clearly proves my point that World of Warcraft is continuously improving, and NOT always in the direction of making the game easier. Sometimes to achieve better balance developers must make a game easier, sometimes they must make it harder. I acknowledge that effort, not only of Blizzard, but of all the other developers out there as well.

The kind of rant I am complaining about is from those who make extreme, and untrue extrapolations. Just have one serious look at World of Warcraft and at Farmville and tell me whether these "are the same", as the deranged ranters claim. World of Warcraft, even today, at maybe its easiest point in history, still is an extremely complicated game. Just look at the gigabytes of databases and thousands of addons players have created to deal with that complexity. Those not only prove that WoW is a complex game, but that it is PLAYERS who strive to make the game easier, you can't just blame Blizzard for everything.

I am absolutely certain that most of those currently complaining about World of Warcraft being "as easy as Farmville" will nevertheless play Cataclysm, and like it for a year or so. And then they burn out again, and will again loudly complain what a shit game World of Warcraft is. Thus my comment that those rants only tell you something about the state of mind of the ranter, and nothing about the quality of World of Warcraft, or any other game.

Warstorm

Hi, do you remember that card game so many people wwre addicted to? Yeah Magic the gathering. If you like card games and especially fantasy card games then there are games on facebook you might do not know and you might like. My favourite card game on facebook is surprisingly not Zynga poker, because I like to play hold'em more for real money. My favourite card game on facebook is Warstorm and that is the reason why this article here on the best facebook games is going to be about this game. Some of my friends simply hates Warstorm, I don't know why because I really like it and I have to admit that I have spend many and many hours playing this game. Warstorm is game by Zynga and in this game your task is quite simple, but I think very amusing. In this game you are bulding squads from your cards and then fight again squads of random people, or squads of your friends or in campaign. You can build squads of four races. there a humans, elves, orcs, demons and undead. In this game there are many kind of cards like heroes, infantry, archery, flying units, spells and much more. That makes this game so great, because it is not very easy to make balanced pack and sometimes it is not even good idea. In some fight you need squad good against flying units, in another fight you need squad that is prepared to fight very quickly (every card has number and it must wait that number of turns until you can use it in fight, it very important part of game). Well enough of words, the battlefield is awaiting you so go on facebook, find Warstorm and kick some ass!
Rating 8/10

Nanostar siege

Hello fans of of the best facebook games, today I have found one really very promising looking game so I have decided to instantly write this review and share this game with everyone who likes this kind of games. The game Nanostar siege is surprisingly all about siege. In this game from Digital Chocolate. Your task is to build army of soldiers and heroes. Then you deploy soldiers on the vertical plane and the soldiers starts marching and fighting anything in their way until they reach eney castle or village. After destruction of the walls they start to destroy morale of your enemy until it reaches zero and you are winner of the fight. What is really amazing on this game that is is part of nanostar universe and decks of cards from other nanostar games you can use in this game also! These cards are heroes you can use in fight and that makes fighting in this game more amusing. You can also build your own defense, attack your friends, play campaing. Really very nice game and one of the best I have playd on FB so far.
Rating 8/10

Epic Goal

Epic goal is another football game that will like football fans. Even I like Bola more (review you can find here) I still think that Epic goal is is really great game. I don't like how the gameplay of football match is controlled in this game, but in this game you can have as players your friends and you can also train them what is something I really miss in Bola. you can train players in speed, shooting etc. and it is really funny.
Rating 6/10

Social city

Do you remember Sim City? Back in the 90's it's been without any doubt one of the best pc games with huge number of fans. Sim city had lot of successors and it has been just matter of time when there will be some city building games on facebook. Social city is not the only city buliding game on the facebook, but because this is blog about just the best facebook games I've decided add to this blog just this one, unless there will be other game at least same good as this one. Social city is game by playfish and your task in this game is to build city, make money from factories and taking care of happiness of your population. In every game city buliding game is your task to have big city. If you want to have big city in social city than you need of course people. If you need peaople you need money fo their houses, but also you need to keep them happy, because without happines the city cannot grow. The game is really funny at least in the beginning and it has one of the best graphics I have seen in facebook games. Graphics is really quality and cute. It is game that is without a doubt worth a try.
Rating 7/10

Who has the biggest brain

Who has the biggest brain is one of the first games I have played on facebook and I still think that it is one of the best games on facebook. Why? Well I think that it is simply because of that it is not so "dumb" like most facebook games. In this game you are competing with your friends in series of games that is focused on your abilities like logic, counting, visual inteligence etc. It is something like IQ test, but more funny. If you have never played this game before than you really should give it a try. This blog is about best facebook games and this game really is one of the best facebook games.
Rating 8/10

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Comforting Larísa

Larísa is somewhat worried about the generation gap between veteran players and people who started playing MMORPGs somewhat later. She sees many veteran players full of nostalgia for the old days saying that the games are now much worse, and feels like an outsider in that company. She says, "What good does it make me, a fairly new player, to hear that the game I love is complete rubbish and that it was much better a few years ago?" and compares it to having missed a party. Well, Larísa, I have good news for you: There never was anything to miss. You are currently living the party the veterans had years ago, and objectively spoken it is you who got the better deal.

The fundamental problem here is that those complaining veterans suffer from one of the oldest fallacies ever: Externalization. People change, but they don't realize they have changed, and attribute their changed experience with the world to the world around them having changed. One relatively well-known example is very old people, whose taste buds have deteriorated over the decades, swearing that "sugar was sweeter when I was young". No, it wasn't, it just tasted sweeter to that person when his taste buds were still in better shape.

The same is true for MMORPGs. When you first enter into the world of MMORPGs, you experience a world of wonder, of surprise, of excitement. Some years later the wonder has gone, our heads instead having been filled with theorycrafting and optimization strategies. That is universal, and does not depend when you started playing these games.

The very complaints of the veterans give you an insight that it is them who changed for the worse, not the games around them. If we would believe them, we would have to assume that EVERY game company, and EVERY developer working on MMORPGs has been busy for the last decade with nothing but making all games WORSE. How could that possibly be true? Even if you'd believe this or that company making deliberately bad games for a quick buck, it is impossible that ALL game companies entered into a huge conspiracy to make games worse. There are always people, who either because they identified making good games as a source of reliable income, or because they just love good games, will strive to make games better, not worse.

That the whiney veteran's brigade isn't completely honest is also evident by the fact that while they will always tell you that the old games are much better than the new games, you will always find them playing the new games, not the old ones. Wolfhead's latest rant? He is upset that he didn't get a Cataclysm beta invite. For somebody who will assure you that World of Warcraft is utter shit, and every single expansion made it worse, he sure is eager to get into the next one.

The truth is that games like Ultima Online or Everquest were rather horrible games measured by the standards of today. What happened in the last decade was a continuous improvement of MMORPGs, and anyone who started later is fortunate to have missed the horrors those games inflicted regularly on their players. But the improvement of MMORPGs is a slow process, and many flaws of lets say Everquest, like static spawns, are still present in games of 2010. So players burn out faster from MMORPGs than the games improve.

It is likely that in a few years you yourself will look back in nostalgia on whatever your first experiences with World of Warcraft were, and feel that the WoW you are playing then doesn't live up to the sense of adventure you had in the early days. But just like with a medieval castle that people look at today with a sense of romance and adventure, but which was in fact a drafty, cold, and pretty lousy place to live in, there is no truth in nostalgia. Games today ARE better than they were before, because of developers who just love games, and companies investing many millions of dollars into making games better. It is us who are getting older, and more cynic with experience, who lost our sense of wonder, and blame the games for that.

Thought for the day: Scams

Why am I the only one who thinks that having $45,000 scams possible in your game is NOT an awesome feature?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Monetizing the 7 deadly sins

Gamasutra has an article about GDC Europe, where Teut Weidemann from Ubisoft talked about "exploiting human weakness" to monetize Free2Play games. He lists those weaknesses in the form of the 7 deadly sins (which by the way are NOT in the bible, but have been invented by the catholic church in later centuries), and how they can be monetized:

Vanity: Selling player items used to show off.

Envy: Selling players items that allow them to catch up or overtake other players.

Gluttony: Selling consumables.

Lust: Selling instant gratification to bypass a wait.

Anger: Selling items making the player stronger for PvP.

Greed: Selling player resources or buff for faster resource gains. Teut recommends not selling currency directly, not not trigger player's sense of unfairness.

Sloth: Selling stuff that saves the player some clicks.

While this is strong stuff in a frank talk, of course all of these tactics to exploit human weaknesses are instantly recognizable as being already implemented in various Free2Play games. This isn't a devious new tactic, but more of an inventory of what is already out there. So I'd say Teut is doing us a favor by spelling out the deadly sins we are probably not admitting to ourselves when we buy stuff in some item shop of a game.

Friday, September 10, 2010

US appeals court makes selling used software illegal

It appears the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agrees with Penny Arcade: You really can't sell used software legally. More specifically the court said yesterday that the first-sale doctrine, which e.g. allows you to sell used books, doesn't apply to "those who are only licensed to use their copies of copyrighted works". The judges upheld the legality of shrink-wrap and click-wrap software licenses, so if it says you can't transfer or resell that video game in the legal text you clicked through without reading while installing the game, that is legally binding.

Basically the court's opinion is that just because you are holding a physical copy of a copyrighted material in your hands, you aren't the legal "owner" of it. You only paid for a license to use that copyrighted material, and the company which licensed that software to you has the right to limit what you can do with that copy.

Interesting idea - Bad headline

CNN has an article with a headline asking whether video game piracy is good for business. Fortunately the article has nothing to do with the headline, but instead presents an interesting idea: Why don't we go and make single-player games "Free2Play"? Nobody pirates Farmville, so why not do the same business model for single-player games?

Basically the proposal is that games would all come as free downloads, with minimal content, just enough to see whether you like the game or not. For everything else you need to open an online account and buy various downloadable content (DLC).

While the idea sounds interesting, I don't think the solution is all that easy. First of all it doesn't solve the problem of offline gaming. If you need to be connected to the internet to validate that you are allowed to use that DLC, that is equivalent to Ubisoft's hated copy protection scheme, and people can't play while offline. If you don't need to be connected, because you already have that DCL downloaded and installed, then what is to prevent you from copying the DLC and putting it on Bittorrent?

The other problem is that if the free version of the game has only minimal content, players will feel that they are nickled and dimed for everything. And people who don't play a game much will also not buy a lot of DLC, so the game company needs to make people who want everything pay more than they used to pay for a full game to get the average back up to the previous business model. Suddenly hardcore gamers will have to pay $100 or more if they want to have access to all the content of a game.

I like the idea of using online registration as a copyright protection scheme, but I think that is better handled in different ways. For example only being able to access the online multiplayer part of the game after registering the game. As you can't play online multiplayer offline anyways, nobody can complain that this keeps him from playing offline. And the registration could be "free" with a code that comes with the box. Lots of games are already working like that, e.g. Starcraft 2. Going further and making single-player games completely "Free2Play" is probably not going to work all that well.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Were Facebook games just a fad?

PopCap's chief creative officer Jason Kapalka recently said in an interview that the golden era for Facebook games was over. Not that Facebook gaming would suddenly disappear, but that there would be so much competition, so many new companies rushing very similar games to the market, that the genre would become less and less profitable.

I can believe that. I recently got an "invitation" to review a Facebook game that I'm not even going to name here, which anyone here could have designed on a napkin in 5 minutes. It was a different setting than Mafia Wars / Farmville / Frontierville, but otherwise played EXACTLY like those. You advance by mindless clicks. You advance FASTER by buying stuff in the item shop or lassoing in your friends. You can spend more money on decoration. And that's all there is. There are hundreds of Facebook games like that now, and it is likely that sooner or later market saturation sets in, if it hasn't already happened.

Frankly I'm not overly worried if some new game companies making shoddy Facebook games flounder. It would be good if the message arrives in some places that casual games are NOT the future of gaming. They are a *part* of the gaming market, and a part that was underdeveloped. But the gold rush is over, and now normal economic rules will prevail: If you want to make money in a competitive market, you need to offer a better product than your competitors, or the same quality at a cheaper price. The latter is difficult, with the price being already misleadingly advertised as "free", so companies will be forced to make better games.

Another factor here is the evolution of gamers. There will always be some people who really don't want more from a game than what Farmville can offer. But there are others who start out with a game like Farmville, and then want something a bit more challenging. I think that this is a good thing, to have "introductory" games. You can't just shove people into the deep end of a hardcore game and expect them to like it. Market segmentation ultimately helps everybody, as it creates a larger overall market. And when investors realize that the "make easy money with Facebook games" phase is over, maybe we'll get more investment in the kind of games we would like.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Grind

There has been a lot of talk about grinding lately. Beta players found Final Fantasy XIV grindy. People talked about grinding heroics in World of Warcraft. And Larísa even found progression raiding in WoW a grind. But what exactly is The Grind? And why do we play that way?

I don't know if there is a generally accepted definition of The Grind, but my version would look something like this: "The Grind is doing an unfun activity in a game repeatedly, in order to get a reward which allows access to fun content". That has been parodied by South Park in their Make Love Not Warcraft episode in the kids killing 65,340,285 level 1 boars. Killing the same mob over and over is one of the most typical forms of grinding. It often is a possible way to level up (although killing 65 million level 1 boars usually won't work), but games in which this is the most effective way to level will often be described as grindy.

And there we stumble upon an important truth: Grinding is very often by choice, because The Grind happens to be the most efficient way to advance your character. In most cases it is not that there are no other activities in the game, often there are even other ways to advance. But one activity is often more efficient than another activity, so players follow the most efficient path, which leads them to repeat the same activity over and over, instead of seeking out a variety of different activities, which would advance them slower, but be more fun.

Imagine you play a MMORPG for a year, about 20 hours per week, for a total of 1,000 hours, and then stop playing. Does it really matter what you "achieved" in the game during that time? Given that there is no win condition, does it matter how far exactly you got, how efficient you were in advancing your character? I would rather say the premise is that you'll spend 1,000 hours of unproductive activity, for your personal entertainment. As levels or epics aren't worth anything outside of the confines of the game, being more efficient in gaining them has no value. It's like trying to be more efficient in watching TV by recording everything and then watching it in fast forward. You get through content faster, but that only diminishes the entertainment value of the content and serves no purpose whatsoever. Isn't game activity A which amuses you but isn't very effective in gaining levels/gold/gear better than activity B which is effective but not fun?

If you can do whatever you want, there is no grind. The promise of fun later if you grind now is an illusion. The joy of the reward lasts only for a very short time, while you wasted hours of your valuable free time with unfun grinding. That gold making guide telling you what is the best method for making gold in World of Warcraft is misleading you. The *best* method for making gold is the one that is most fun to you. And that might well be doing many different things, from daily quests, to fishing, to gathering herbs, to running dungeons, to playing the auction house, each for as long as your having fun, and then switching to something else. And the same is true for the best way to level up in this or that MMORPG: Most of the time you have various options, and its better to try everything, and switch between activities, than to do the same activity for hours on end.

The Grind is a consequence of the false worship of the cult of efficiency. Once you realize that it is by definition impossible to win a MMORPG, and efficiency gets you nowhere, you are set free to play whatever way is fun for you, and The Grind just disappears in a puff of smoke. If there is no fun activity in the game, why would you even want to play it in the first place?

Nightclub city

Nightclub city, the name of this game can be little bit confusing, because it might look like it is game when you are building some city with night clubs, but that is not the purpose of this game. I Really liked this game for some time so I added it here to Best Facebook Games. In this game you are building your own night club. You can choose how your club will look, you can choose from lot of decorations, lights, walls, bars, floors, dancefloors etc.. You can even choose who will work in your club so your friends can work there as bartenders or bouncers. You can also invite in your club some famous celebrities, well with quite strange names. I think that this game is really great fun in the beginning, because it has one thing almost no other games use that much and that is music. Of course, you are at the club, so music is very important part of it. This game changes a lot in time and so the music, so the songs that are in this game now are some completely different songs that you could play in this game few months before and it is developing all the time. You can choose if you want to play hip hop, electro, pop, house, disco or indie rock now. Unfortunately there is not big variety of tracks in each style and you cannot choose exact track you want to play. That is I think big minus of this game. If you make game with music you should add to it huge amount of music so everyone can choose what he or her likes.
Rating:7/10

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sensational news: World of Warcraft NOT going Free2Play this year!

In a stunning news announcement Blizzard just declared that they weren't changing World of Warcraft to a Free2Play business model this year. They said: "Are you crazy, guys? We already rent half of Silicon Valley for our servers, if we went Free2Play we'd grow to a 100 million players and wouldn't know how to handle the hardware!"

Coincidentally CCP also announced that EVE Online wasn't going Free2Play anytime soon: "We have a solid business model charging people for the priviledge of waiting for their characters to gain skills while offline. If people could do that while not only not playing, but also not paying, we'd be ruined!"

Meanwhile Square Enix denied that Final Fantasy XIV would be released with a monthly subscription model, but change to Free2Play before Christmas. "We can't admit being scared by all those negative beta reviews. And anyway we are so bad at designing account management and billing systems that a change like that would never work for us!"

Coming up: The competition in which YOU get to guess which game isn't going Free2Play next!

Thought for the day: No, we're not!

Am I the only one who finds it strange that the first announcement in the August 2010 Producer's Letter of Warhammer Online is that WAR is *NOT* going Free2Play? Stay tuned for a series of exciting news announcements, I might reveal tomorrow that WoW isn't going Free2Play either!

Monday, September 6, 2010

MMO Melting Pot interviews Tobold

Rebecca Judd from MMO Melting Pot recently mailed me and asked me for an interview. I replied with a challenge, asking her to Google the existing interviews with me, and come up with some questions I haven't already answered before. She rose to that challenge admirably, thus her interview with me goes beyond the usual "how did you start blogging?" fare.

Hmmm, and now that she posted that, I should finish and publish that blog post about The Grind® I mentioned in the interview.

Does Mea Culpa work?

Imagine I wrote phrases like the following about a newly released game: "But the game wasn’t released early. The game was released poorly. Head in the sand syndrome imo." and "The point is, the issue here is far far worse than many of you think it is. I wish it was an issue of the game being released too early. That’s an easy thing for a company to “fix”. Elemental’s launch is the result of catastrophic poor judgment". You'd conclude that I was writing a hate review, ripping the game to shreds. But these harsh remarks in fact aren't from me, but from Stardock CEO Brad Wardell. And the last quote continues as "Elemental’s launch is the result of catastrophic poor judgment on my part."

After having been blasted by Stardock fans for saying much less harsh things about that game, the admission by Stardock's CEO that Elemental *really* was bad at launch has a certain gratification for me. Even self-described Elemental fanboi Darren, who gives an excellent description of the game says at the end: "Don’t get the game yet unless you are of the patient type who wants to help Stardock make the game better. I can’t recommend it for gamers who are not use to the Stardock beta process, cause we’re still in beta, IMHO. Wait until after Christmas to get the game if you want to “play it when it’s done”…cause it ain’t done yet. Get Civ 5 when it comes out…play some other games…but wait on Elemental for now. Stardock screwed up on the release of Elemental, and nothing can be done to reverse the damage that was done."

And there is the big question: "nothing can be done to reverse the damage that was done"? Do games ever get a second chance? Me, personally, I'd be willing to buy Elemental in lets say early 2011 if I hear reports that some patches fixed the game. I am willing to give kudos to Brad Wardell for his "Mea Culpa" admission and apology, we don't get many of those. And that forgiveness isn't limited to Elemental: If I read next year that Final Fantasy XIV plays very well on the PS3, I might buy that game for that platform (instead of the lousy PC port trickily released first).

But maybe I am more forgiving than other players. "Game X releases full of flaws!" is headline news, "Game X fixes flaws 6 months after release" might not even get reported anywhere but on specific fan sites for that game. The internet has a long memory, and everybody looking for reviews of Elemental will find the bad reviews written right after release, not the little known fan site reporting that patch 1.17 finally made all of the original complaints obsolete.

So how forgiving are you? Would you buy a game which had a catastrophic launch later, after major patches fixing most problems? Or does a game only get one chance to make a good first impression and is then disregarded forever?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Final Fantasy XIV second look

I was going to write a detailed description of how my first play sessions in Final Fantasy went, but then stumbled upon this blog, where Rank-n-Vile describes exactly my play experience, up to and including the point where our spellcasters get killed by fungus due to the combat interface being as unintuitive as it is sluggish. Quote: "One thing of note is there is next to NO hand holding. You are basically told NOTHING." And that is key to the new player experience of Final Fantasy XIV: Everything works differently than you'd think it would work, and the only way to find that out is by trial and error, as the game refuses to tell you anything. I strongly recommend reading some FFXIV websites with player guides before trying to play the game.

Several hours of struggling with the game later, and armed with a lot of previous experience of similar games, I got to the point where I understood the game much better. Unfortunately the frustration doesn't end there. Even after you understand the UI, it remains overly complicated and sluggish. The game is pretty, but you pay for that by looking at black "now loading" screens often and for long whiles. And every command you give seems to lag by several seconds, so even gathering and crafting are slow to the point of draining all fun out of the activity.

The basic premise of Final Fantasy XIV is that you not only *can* play many classes with the same character, you more or less *must*. You've already read about the hard xp cap of 8 hours xp gain per character class per week, but long before that you will run out of quests for your class. Then you either grind, or you equip the tools of a different class, which lets you level and quest as another character class.

What is really good is the epic main story quest lines, of which there are three, based on which starting location you chose. These are told with extensive cut-scenes using in-game graphics, and putting your character right in the middle of them, just like they did in FFXI. The problem is that at least in the beta that sort of content is limited, and you better not make a second character in the same starting area, because the long cut scenes are only really good when you see them for the first time. And while that sort of storytelling works great in a single-player game, it isn't what I'm looking for in a MMORPG.

So I remain with my decision not to buy Final Fantasy XIV. Not only is much of the gameplay rather tedious, but the general slowness of the unresponsive controls make the basic elements of the game not much fun. If the basic elements aren't fun, then I just dread having to repeat them over and over. Final Fantasy XIV is a game which looks great on screenshots and videos, and even the feature list doesn't sound so bad. But the implementation is so convoluted and often just plain bad that it makes Final Fantasy nearly unplayable. Try the open beta and give the release version a miss.

Thought for the day: Conspiracy Theory

Locked out of the Final Fantasy XIV beta again, due to the patch downloader being stuck at 94.8% for hours. I'm starting to wonder if Square Enix is deliberately trying to keep most people out of the "open" beta, because so many people who actually got into the beta cancelled their preorder.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Cancelled Final Fantasy XIV preorder

After taking days to get into the Final Fantasy XIV beta, I finally made it and had the opportunity to play for several hours. And as I have it from a reliable source that the NDA is lifted (trying to find any information on the Square Enix site is an exercise in frustration), I can tell you about the game. My first impression was a good one, the game is truly beautiful, and the opening sequences are well done. Unfortunately that good impression ends the moment you have control over your character. Because saying you "have control" is somewhat stretching the truth. If you would study the best practices of how to make a user interface for 20 years, and then DO THE COMPLETE OPPOSITE, you probably still couldn't design a user interface so completely horrible, unintuitive and user-unfriendly as Square Enix has designed for Final Fantasy XIV.

Thus my "playing" session is better described as a "struggling with the controls" session. The UI is apparently optimized for the PS3, and trying to play it with a mouse and keyboard is like trying to steer a car with an outboard motor and a rudder. Worst of all is combat, where everything feels so unresponsive that it isn't fun at all. But the horror isn't limited to that, everything else is also done in the most complicated and least intuitive was possible. Want a quest? Well, you first have to get the quest description in the city, only then can you go to the quest hub, start the quest there, and then go to the actual location where the mobs are. And that's the kill quests, which have the huge advantage of actually working, I repeatedly failed an escort quest because the escorted NPC had pathfinding problems. And if you want to look up information on the beta tester site, the game crashes when you alt-tab out.

I would like to tell you how to improve your gear, but fact is that I already made several levels and did a number of quests without yet getting any gear upgrade. My loot up to now consisted of strange stuff like a "walnut +2". Maybe its crafting material? At least if you try to sell it you only get 1 gil per item, which makes me think that selling isn't what you are supposed to do with it. The starting quest leads you to a crafting guild, but if you haven't selected a crafter to start with, you can't do any crafting before you learned how to switch classes.

While I did like the graphics and the cutscenes that open liven up the quests, I couldn't get myself to like the combat system. And if the basic activity which you need to repeat over and over isn't fun, there isn't much use in playing the game. Thus the first thing I did after ending my play session was to cancel my preorder for Final Fantasy XIV. I'll still try the beta for a bit, trying if the controls get better if I install a gamepad, but right now I don't have high hopes for this game.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blog roll

This is why I don't have a blog roll. I rather link to interesting posts I see, instead of getting into stupid fights who should and who shouldn't be on my blog roll. By definition a blog roll is a selection, and the very act of selecting somebody is going to cause somebody else to be unhappy.

Do you even want freedom?

In a forgotten corner of an old thread on this blog there is a debate raging between Nils, Nils, Nils, and a bit of me, in which he argues that the Dungeon Finder is bad, because it allows him to optimize the fun out of World of Warcraft. I think that is a totally valid argument: A developer offering a game with different modes of gameplay must count on players choosing the most efficient path en masse, and ignoring less efficient activities even if they are more fun. WAR very much suffered from that in its first few months, because doing PvP scenarios was so much more efficient than doing public quests that in the end the public quests nearly died out. And in WoW it is certainly possible to ignore much of the game now, and just sit in Dalaran all day and queue up for dungeons all day long.

Thus from this point of view we could demand from a developer to restrain a player's activities in order to FORCE him into a more varied and fun content, instead of letting him optimize the fun out of the game. Quote Nils: "Rules need to restrain me. That's what they are there for. That is what the game company is there for."

But there is a Catch-22: To prevent players from optimizing the fun out of everything, the game has to be what some people dubbed a "theme park", not a "sandbox". Or in other terms, the game can not give the players much freedom, and certainly not a huge range of infinite possibilities, because in a range of infinite possibilities some are always more efficient than others. Developers *can* balance a game by creating rules that restrict what a player can do, and make all activities equally efficient. But that only works for a limited number of different activities, each of them being strongly guided.

In a completely different game, Magic the Gathering, the developers where asked the question: "Card X sucks, why do you put such a sucky card in the set?" And their answer was that if all cards were equally strong, players would not have the freedom to make the mistake of choosing a less good card. Picking cards for your deck is more fun if there are good picks and bad picks. If every choice you can make is equally valid, the choice becomes meaningless.

Thus the idea to create rules to prevent one activity to be more efficient than others clashes with Sid Meier's theory that a good game is a series of interesting decisions. Instead of the players optimizing the fun out of the game, you'd pass that task to the developers, and it would be THEM who optimize the fun out of the game.

So what do you really want? Freedom, including the freedom to make bad decisions? Or a game which prevents you from optimizing the fun out of it by making all choices equally efficient? Me, I prefer choice. Because I have the self-control to prevent myself from optimizing the fun out of a game, and explore less efficient but more fun other options. Games shouldn't be terribly unbalanced, but there should be enough difference in efficiency of different paths to allow players a meaningful choice.

[I have the feeling that this is another post in a strange series of posts where syncaine and me agree on something.]