Thursday, June 23, 2011

Numeracy and Democracy

Somehow it seems I'm writing this post at least once a year. But numeracy is actually something I am passionate about, and thus it hurts to see the huge amount of writing in which numbers are used in completely wrong and misleading ways. And disregard for the majority is one of eternal pet peeves of mine.

As this is a MMORPG blog, the relevant numbers most often represented in a completely wrong way are player numbers. There is actually not a single MMORPG in which player numbers are represented in a meaningful way. World of Warcraft famously lists total number of paying customers, thus bunching together the US/EU customer paying around $15 per month with the Chinese customers who actually pay by the hour, and normally much less. Rift reports the 1st million players, and you need to look in the small print to see that this is 1 million boxes sold, not 1 million players currently subscribed. EVE reports number of accounts, which in a game where most serious players have multiple accounts gives a much larger number than counting players. Free2Play games count accounts too, so if you open an account, play for 5 minutes, hate the game, and uninstall it, you will be forever counted as a player, as most of the time there isn't even a delete account functionality.

Now some people respond to this misleading bunch of numbers by claiming that numbers have no meaning at all. Nils loves to quote "Eat shit! Billions of flies can't be wrong." But if that would be a meaningful comment, we would also have to abandon democracy, which is built on the idea that the majority is right. Once you look closer at it, you quickly realize that this saying only means that what is good for one population (flies) isn't necessarily good for another population (humans). Now of course some people want to express that the players of WoW are shit-eating flies, while they are superior being with more refined tastes, but that is just the usual elitism. There is not one autocratic regime in the world which wouldn't argue that they know better what is for the best of the people than the people themselves would know in a democratic system.

MMORPGs are extremely democratic. There is very little other than personal tastes which would keep the player of one game from playing another game. Thus it matters very much which games people actually end up choosing. If out of their free will people vote with their feet and their wallets for one game, and not another, that really tells you something about how "good" that game is. With "good" of course being synonym with "fun", "entertaining", or "popular", not necessarily "acclaimed by some highbrow critics". Just like certain books or movies can catered towards very narrow tastes and end up getting great reviews and lousy sales, one can always find somebody giving a great review to a game only 10,000 people play. That game is "good" for its 10,000 players, but "bad" for everybody else. To be really worthy to be called a good game, a significant number of people need to spend a lot of time and money playing it, for a significant time, and out of their own free will.

What one has too look at to make these numbers meaningful is what are the scarce resources. By looking at how players spend their scarce resources, one can accurately say something about how good a game is. In the case of MMORPGs the scarce resources are money and time. A billion flies can be wrong as culinary advisors for humans, because flies have different food selection criteria than humans. A billion dollars can't be wrong, because money has value for all of us (albeit to different degrees, depending on your disposable income). You simply can't make a billion dollars a year with a bad game, without twisting the definition of what a "bad game" is to something irrelevant and not recognizable.

For time, the number of players or accounts is a bad measure, because you don't know how much time each of these players spends. Ultra-casual free games and "virtual spaces" quickly get millions of players, but most of them neither spend money, nor more than a few minutes per day on the game. Services like XFire or Raptr can give some idea of activity in a game, but usually there is only a small percentage of players who have thus tools installed, and they aren't necessarily representative of the whole player base. One better number one can see sometimes is maximum concurrent users, which at least after correcting for multi-boxing gives you some idea of how many people are actually playing. Server-based games usually have technical limitations of how many concurrent users they can support, and thus how many servers a game has, and whether they are opening up new servers or merging and closing down old ones is a valuable information here.

While there isn't much price differentiation between subscription games, these appear to be a dying breed, with every week bringing new announcements of some game going Free2Play (this week City of Heroes and Lego Universe). A Free2Play game will always have more players than a game of equal quality that charges a subscription. Hey, I'd actually might try CoH again now that it went free, although that is more about a lack of committment than a lack of money. Thus I'd argue that a game's revenue is a better indicator of how good it is than the number of players, unless you compare two games with the same business model and similar pricing.

If a game is very popular, one can use that fact for predictions and recommendations. If somebody of whose gaming habits I know absolutely nothing asks be recommend him a MMORPG, chances are that he will like World of Warcraft. That is not the same as saying that "everybody likes World of Warcraft", which obviously isn't true. If you don't know what dessert people like, ice-cream is usually a safe bet, while chocolate seaweed isn't. But once in a while you get somebody who is lactose-intolerant, and ice-cream would not be the best dessert choice. Some people are WoW-intolerant for various reasons, although the largest number of people actually disliking WoW are those who played it for hundreds or thousands of hours and burned out. Then you get into that strange area of discussion where people feel the urge to defend their game choices as if they were lifestyle decisions, so if somebody played a game for thousands of hours the game was obviously good at that point, and the miracuously turned bad just at the time that person was quitting.

So, player numbers are not totally meaningless, especially not if it is a subscription-based game, and there is a good correlation between player numbers and money spent. When Star Wars: The Old Republic comes out, the number of players it will attract (if actual subscription numbers are released) is a good indicator of whether that game sucks or is any good. That doesn't mean certain people can't have a very different definition of "good", and go totally against the majority opinion. Klepsacovic tried to persuade me to play Starcraft 2. For all I hear that is a good game, but I simply don't like real-time strategy games as much as I like turn-based strategy games. There is nothing wrong with not agreeing with the majority, and having different tastes. It is wrong to claim that the minority is right and the majority is wrong. As long as we can choose freely which games to play, that choice is like a democratic vote. Question the vote of the majority (if counted right), and you question democracy itself. Or as Churchill said: "Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried". If you argue that your exotic choice is better than the majority vote, then why yours, and not that of somebody else having a very different minority taste? A single person can only answer the question which game is best for *him*, the majority says which game is best for most.

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