Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How good do you want your companion to be?

Green Armadillo is pondering NPC companion/pet stupidity as a feature. I think this is a rather difficult problem: On the one hand there are obvious advantages of being able to play SWTOR flashpoints and other instances through with just one real friend and two companions. On the other hand you don't want somebody leveling up a healer, showing up for a raid or instance with his guild, and being told that they'd rather bring a companion, because the companion heals better.

Some people are immensely proud of their leet skillz in playing MMORPGs, so what I will say now might be a bit controversial: There is no role in a group which theoretically could not be performed better by an artificial intelligence controlled companion/pet NPC than by a real player. Basically both the core function of a class and the "moves" of a particular encounter follow relatively simple basic rules. The difficulty for a human being is setting priorities when the action is fast, making decisions in split seconds. Not being slowed down by ping and reaction time, and not easily confused by a multitude of simultaneously incoming information, an artificial intelligence certainly could play this better than we can.

Thus even without "cheating" (like being invulnerable to AoE), a healer companion could be programmed to not stand in the fire, and heal the group, and do this better than a real player. Now some people would much prefer to play with their real friends than with an AI companion. But 7 years of WoW guilds and raiding are proof that players are often willing to rather take the best performing character with them on a raid than the most likable. Thus if companions played better than players, many guilds would automatically staff half of their raids with companions.

Thus the artificial stupidity of your companion actually *is* a feature, and not due to laziness or technical constraints from the developers. Companions could be programmed to perform better, but given that real players have a wide range of different skill levels, the point where the companion becomes better than your least performing friends isn't all that hard to reach. And that is a slippery slope, because if you make the companion better than the least well performing player, then why not make him better than the average player too? Or better than the best player? That has serious social and motivational consequences. The illusion of the value of "playing well" is easily shattered if you see a bot outperforming you.

So how good do you want your companion to be?

Watch what you are saying!

Just a short post on conversations in SWTOR, and the consequences of choosing one reply over the other:

What many blogs have already reported is that sometimes replies in conversations can give you light side or dark side points. By default a symbol in the middle of the wheel where you click to choose those options shows whether your reply gives light side points, dark side points, or nothing. You can turn that off if you prefer to be surprised, although in many cases it is rather obvious which reply is good or bad.

Sometimes conversation options are marked with a consequence in brackets, like [Attack] or [Refuse quest]. Unsurprisingly that means exactly what it says on the label, so choosing the option with the [Attack] label leads to you getting into a fight.

In the early levels, most of the time your conversation choices are completely irrelevant. You can test that by either choosing [Refuse quest] at the end of a conversation, or pressing ESC, both of which options make the NPC completely forget you, so you can start the same conversation again and choose other options. And it turns out that whether you tell the crazy Sith Lord that his animal dissection experiments are crazy or whether you admire him for them has no consequences. It only slightly alters the way he responds, but then leads to exactly the same next bit of conversation and reply options.

Once you get a companion around level 9, reply options have another angle added: They change the affection level of your companion. You can look up what your companion likes and dislikes in the codex. And when for example it says that your companion likes protecting women, and dislikes hurting them (even the bad ones), your choice of action in the next conversation with that girl who betrayed you will change your companions affection level towards you. Even if otherwise there is no consequence, nor light/dark side points attached to those options. Note that there is no hint telling you about that, you need to be attentive to your companion's likes and dislikes without the game helping you.

Epic can't be repeated

If you were tasked to represent the gameplay of a MMORPG as some sort of flow diagram, you would probably find it useful to think of it as having basic repeating units, like combat. These can be stacked inside of each other, so that you have repeating daily quests or dungeons which each have repeating combats. These repeating units are held together by the unique parts, the non-repeating stuff: Unique zones, quests, and stories. While two zones or quests might resemble each other, they aren't identical, and often you can do a quest only once, or stay in a zone only for a limited level range.

Now if you look at a decade of MMORPG development, you will find that the focus of MMORPGs evolved slowly from the repeating part to the unique part: In Everquest a player would spend the whole play session "camping" the same spawn point. In WoW he would do many different quests. And in SWTOR he will have far more evolved stories, cinematic sequences, and voice acting to tell the quests and the stories.

This evolution to more unique content has both technical and financial reasons. Technical because things are possible in 2011 which weren't possible in 2001. Financial because SWTOR's "40 novels worth of voice acting" are rumored to have driven up the cost of the game to 300 million dollars, an investment which would have been unthinkable in 2001. But with World of Warcraft making a billion dollars of revenue each year, investing 300 million in a possible successor doesn't sound completely crazy any more.

But the evolution to more unique content also reveals a focus on a broader audience. If you play just one character in SWTOR, you will never be able to experience those 40 novels worth of unique content, because much of it is in class quests for the other 7 classes. And you'd better not be in a hurry to level up as quickly as possible, because accepting a simple "kill 10 womp rats" quest in SWTOR can take minutes. You can skip all the dialogue with the space bar (don't use ESC, because that resets the dialogue and you'd have to start over to continue). But if you do that, you are basically back to WoW, having lost most of the selling point of SWTOR.

With beta testing for most people having been limited to one or several weekends, there can't have been many people who reached the level cap in the beta. So while there has been very little talk about the endgame of SWTOR, nothing I read suggests that Bioware has made any great breakthrough in that area. The endgame is the point where the unique content stops, and everybody finds himself in some sort of loop of repeating content, ranging from daily quests to raids.

I do like the way SWTOR tells its stories, both in quests and in dungeons. But even the most epic story in the most epic quest or dungeon is epic only once. When playing the second class through the same newbie zone, I found myself skipping dialogue I already knew, because the second time around it simply isn't all that entertaining any more. Thus while I do consider SWTOR a "better" game than World of Warcraft, a "WoW 2.0", during the leveling phase, I doubt that SWTOR has any advantage over WoW in the endgame. The famous "forth pillar" simply isn't suited for the endgame.

My wife still plays World of Warcraft, but she basically never does the WoW endgame. She levels up characters to the cap, plays a few daily quests, and then starts the next character. Also she doesn't play a huge amount of hours per week. For me it seems evident that Star Wars: The Old Republic is designed for people like my wife. I am pretty sure she will love that game, and due to her pace of playing and preference for alts she won't run out of content anytime soon. If Bioware is somewhat faster than Blizzard in adding expansions, she might actually NEVER run out of unique content. How awesome is that? There is a good chance that Bioware can not only attract millions of players like that, but then also hold onto them for quite a long time.

The kind of players who write or read blogs about MMORPGs often tend to play these games more intensely. There is a good chance that they will be more concentrated on a single main character, will still have that "the game begins at the endgame" mindset, and will play significantly more hours per week. And there is a good chance that SWTOR isn't all that new and great for that style of gaming. Certainly the promise of endless unique content goes out of the window if you play SWTOR like that. 300 million dollars buys a LOT of content, but not enough that somebody sufficiently dedicated can not outplay it. And then it isn't obvious what the advantage of playing SWTOR would be, compared to playing WoW or Rift or LotRO or whatever.

Thus my prediction for 2012 is that SWTOR will grow rapidly and keep players better than games like Age of Conan or Warhammer Online did. But among bloggers and game sites, the positive attitude towards the game will end much earlier. We will get a lot of "hardcore" players telling us what a sucky game SWTOR is, while Bioware is making hundreds of millions of dollars. And I'm pretty sure that Bioware prefers it that way, rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

SWTOR flashpoints

Apparently "weekends" in Bioware land last from Friday to Monday, so I was able to still play a bit of SWTOR last night. That enabled me to play my Sith Inquisitor through the Black Talon flashpoint I already did with my Sith Warrior. And just for fun and giggles I chose the "light side" option in my dialogue with the captain. And actually won the "roll", thus the group didn't kill the captain. And I was positively impressed how this did not only change the "fluff" of the mission, like the conversations. But it actually changed some combat sequences as well, at least for the trash mobs.

Only downside: Getting 100 light side points not only means you don't get 100 dark side points, but you actually cancel out 100 dark side points you earned earlier. Thus playing through the same flashpoint twice choosing different sides effectively nets you zero dark/light side points. And you'd need to either win the roll or have somebody else who choose the same option as you to win the roll to actually play through the different version. You might be better off replaying it choosing always the same side, but hoping that somebody of the other side wins to see the other version.

Monday, November 28, 2011

SWTOR combat styles

While a few people have actually tried to play through a MMORPG without killing anything, for the majority of players a lot of the time taken up by these games is in combat. Thus whether you like a particular class' combat style is an important factor in choosing which class to play. Before I played the SWTOR beta weekend, I had planned to play a Jedi Consular as healer on release. But having played all 4 main classes now, I changed my mind.

The Jedi Consular, and his alter ego the Sith Inquisitor, are somewhat comparable to mages in other games. They have ranged spells that deal damage, and crowd control abilities to handle multiple mobs. So far, so good, but the devil is in the detail: The crowd control spells don't last very long (8 seconds for the first one you get, 4 seconds for the second one), and most of your "ranged" spells have a range of just 10 meters, which is awfully short. You can cc one mob in a group from 30 meters away, and then attack the others while they are running towards you. But that tactic fails if it turns out that the mobs are carrying blasters, and they shoot you from 30 meters, while you have to do the running to get into range of your other spells. Combat gets easier around level 9 when you get your companion, who is a tank. But personally I am not a big fan of pet classes (I never had a high level warlock or hunter in WoW because of that). Of course all classes in SWTOR have companions, but I'd rather have a healer or ranged dps pet than one in the front line. So while the Consular / Inquisitor are certainly very playable, I personally didn't like their combat style all that much.

I didn't try a Jedi Knight, but I did play the Sith Warrior, and I presume they work the same. The Sith Warrior was fun to play. Combat is very much melee, but there are enough other abilities to make that interesting to play. The damage output wasn't any worse than that of the Inquisitor, but defense was less complicated, being passive by better armor. That means less clicking to switch targets when fighting groups of mobs, and leads to a better flow. I might play a Jedi Knight and make him a tank, but I think I want my main to be a healer, and the Jedi Knight / Sith Warrior is the only main class that can't heal others.

I then played a Smuggler, which I assume works the same as an Imperial Agent. Combat of the Smuggler is ranged, using blasters and grenades. This is the class that has the only really NEW combat mechanic, using cover. When you target a mob and there is cover available somewhere, you will see a green ghost outline, and pressing the cover button or "F" will roll you there into that cover position. From cover you can use abilities that don't work when you are standing, like a charged shot. That works for small values of "works". The smuggler starting zone is obviously designed for the class, with rocks and crates placed just about everywhere to provide cover. But even there you often enough run into situation where there is either no cover, or the cover isn't BETWEEN you and the mob. You find yourself crouching behind a rock, while the mob shoots you from the side. Cover also isn't much use against melee mobs. Sometimes you just have to crouch in the middle of nowhere to be able to use the abilities you can't use standing, which feels a bit silly. But the grenades are a lot of fun.

The class I finally liked best for my future healer main is the Trooper (does the Bounty Hunter work the same?). The Trooper is a ranged class, with in my opinion better ranged attacks than the Consular / Inquisitor. He starts out with a shot that not only deals damage, but also does an AoE knockdown, which effectively doubles as a sort of crowd control. In spite of being a ranged class, the Trooper has good armor. And he still works very well in close range and against melee mobs. Unfortunately I didn't have time to play him up to the level where he gets the advanced class and the healing abilities. But I trust that he isn't too bad as a healer, and will try that class as my first character on release.

Overall I found the Knight/Warrior and Trooper/Bounty Hunter easier to play, in terms of clicks and keys to press per encounter. If you like more complicated combat styles with more buttons to press, the Consular/Inquisitor or Smuggler/Imperial Agent might be the better choice for you.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

SWTOR class balance

So I've been playing SWTOR all weekend, 3 characters up to level 11 and another 2 up to level 5. And while the primary purpose of that was to find out what classes I would like to play at release, I was also thinking about class balance, because that tends to be a thorny issue with this sort of game. First of all it has to be said that the class balance between the two factions is perfect, for the same reason as the balance between white and black in chess is perfect: The classes on each side are mirror images. While let's say the Sith Inquisitor is hurling lightning, and the Jedi Consular is hurling rocks, that difference is purely cosmetic. The Force Shock and Force Lightning spells of the Inquisitor work EXACTLY like the telekinesis variant of the Consular, having the same cost, damage, and effect.

That leaves us with only 4 main classes, each of which has 2 advanced classes. As you only play the main class up to level 10, and up to that point they are all solo dps classes, we need to look at the 8 advanced classes. Group size in SWTOR is 4, so presumably we need 1 tank, 1 healer, and 2 dps. Of the 8 classes there are 3 tanks, 3 healers, and 2 pure dps, so at first look it seems that there shouldn't be a tank/healer shortage. But on second look all 8 classes are damage dealing classes, at least it says so in their description, and the 3 tank classes and 3 healer classes are hybrids. Of the 3 talent trees every class gets, it appears that only 1 tree per hybrid is for healing or tanking, while the other 2 are for damage.

So in the unlikely case that every class and talent tree is equally popular, we end up with 3 tanks, 3 healers, and 18 damage dealers. And it is likely that there will be even more players going for the damage dealing talents instead for healing and tanking, based on the experience with other games of this kind. Fortunately every class has a self-heal out of combat, but shortages of tanks and healers in combat are foreseeable. Who makes a Sith Sorcerer to then spec him as healer? The problem is aggravated by the apparent lack of a dual-spec feature in the release version, although it is said that this feature will be added later. I think it will be very needed.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

SWTOR beta impressions

Since yesterday evening I am in the SWTOR beta. Which isn't surprising, because this is the beta weekend where they basically let everybody in who ever applied for a beta key. My first impression is that I don't regret having pre-ordered the game, even if I am probably busy around Christmas and won't be able to play before the new year. Star Wars: The Old Republic is solid workmanship. I haven't encountered a single crash, bug, or occurrence of lag yet, and that on a beta weekend. The worst thing I can say about the game right now is that it I don't quite understand why they would do 4 hours of maintenance on a Saturday morning during the beta weekend.

Gameplay very much resembles World of Warcraft. While fans will certainly point out the differences between SWTOR and WoW, which certainly exist, life as an adventurer in SWTOR is very much like life as an adventurer in WoW. You take quests, kill 10 foozles, click on quest item locations, gain xp, level up, learn skills at the trainer. There is color coded loot with stats, NPC vendors that sell gear either for money or for some sort of token (think valor points), hotkey based combat, general chat, everything. Even the graphics aren't incredibly different from WoW, I bet someone could make 5 screenshots from WoW and 5 from SWTOR and put up a quiz, and not everybody would get it right which screenshots are from which game.

The point where SWTOR is arguably "better" than WoW is the cut-scenes and conversation with the quest giver NPCs. Although many of the conversation options are fake and don't make any difference, this interaction with the NPCs is way better than 511 characters of quest text. Another advantage over WoW is that at least some low-level quests are a bit more challenging than those in WoW. One elite quest mob took me three attempts (and a trip to the skill trainer) before I could kill it.

The open question, and it will remain open until next year, is how long SWTOR can hold my attention. Right now it is new and shiny, but I consider it inevitable that I get bored faster with a game which plays so similarly to many other MMORPGs.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Virtual worlds are very small

Ardwulf is writing about what MMORPGs could learn from Skyrim. One quote caught my eye: "A decent crafting system would be a good start. One of the more popular starting areas is a forest, for example – what if there was a lumberjacking harvesting ability and a tradeskill you could use lumber for, and you made trees – every tree, mind you – interactable? Well, obviously a lot of areas would be promptly deforested!" If you compare that with reality, you'll quickly observe that it took humanity many centuries, millenia even, to deforest most of Europe, using the tools typically available to somebody in a virtual fantasy world.

While Ardwulf is correct in assuming that if in a typical MMORPG it was possible to fell trees for crafting, and there was no corresponding tree growing mechanism, deforestation would be rather quick. But if you look at the root cause for that, it is that in a typical virtual fantasy world there are a relatively high number of characters per square mile, and a relatively low number of trees. People who are very concerned about immersion in MMORPGs often complain about teleports and similar methods of fast travel. But even if you remove all of those, you still end up with worlds where two major cities can be as little as 10 minutes on foot apart. I once determined the size of Azeroth as being only about 80 square miles.

When over a decade ago in Ultima Online I wanted to build a house, it turned out that there was no more flat space available in the whole world (on my shard) to build even a small house on, and I ended up buying a house on EBay. This still keeps most MMORPGs to offer freely place-able player housing: The total amount of square meters required to offer every player a house is often large compared to the total size of the world. Games with bigger worlds usually have to create these larger areas with algorithms, and often end up with areas that are empty and boring. But if you hand-make worlds with a density of content which plays well, you end up with virtual worlds which are very small. And so if you want to implement tree felling or house building, you don't have enough space for that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Don't take financial advice from gamers

MMOClash reports a financial analyst downgraded Activision Blizzard stock from "buy" to "neutral" based on an online survey with 381 gamer participants. Now personally I wouldn't buy Activision Blizzard shares; their main cash cow is aging, and the games business is extremely volatile. But I do have doubts whether accurate financial forecasts can be achieved by asking a few hundred gamers.

The first problem with asking gamers for financial forecasts is that you can't get a representative sample. People reading game sites and blogs, and willing to fill out surveys, are already a minority with a stronger than average interest and emotional investment in games. The second problem is that opinions about games usually overshoot the target. It's all hype and talk about the best game ever when a game is new, followed by all gloom and doom predictions. The usual train of thought goes like this: "I lost interest in this game. So the game must have become much worse, and everybody else must lose interest as well. The game is doomed.". You basically get mostly extrapolations where one guy looks at a sample of one, himself, and uses that to predict the behavior of 10 million players. That is statistically unlikely to give a good result.

If we could make accurate financial forecasts about game company shares based on let's say having lost interest in WoW and having liked SWTOR in the beta, we would all be rich. The fact that we aren't tells us that our opinions might be interesting to discuss, but can hardly be considered solid financial forecasting information.

Lucky Space

Hi everyone, if you read best facebook games often, you probably know that I'm fan of sci-fi games, so everytime there is some new facebook sci-fi game I'm very excited. Today I have for you Lucky Planet to me really interesting game, but is also true to say that it is not very different game of other build type of games you can find on facebook. Well, there are still some things that makes it different and things why I really like it.
The whole story of Lucky Space starts in space ship with mysterious message from someone who says is your uncle. Is this person really your uncle? Well, I don't know but the truth is that he gives you pretty great heritage. Whole asteriod he says is full of valuable metals. That is definetely something I would like to inherit in the space era of human kind. Today it would really be probably very useless, at least for next few decades. So this is the first nice aspect of the game, the story. Story is something I always like in games, so why not to put one in build strategy game also, right?
So after you land on this asteroid you have to start working. You want to be space millionare and that of course means lot of work to be done. The first thing you have to do is to explore that asteroid and very soon you find first object there, thing that creates food. Not many people can live without food, so cannot these space guys. So after exporing few meters around you will realize that as in many other facebook build strategy game, every move you make, every task you do consumes energy. When you level up you get energy, your energy is loading after some time and so. You know it from other games for sure. What is really bad in Lucky Space as well as in many, maybe even most facebook games is that when you want to play more, when you want to lvel up fast and build big and strong asteroid mining station, you will need real money. in this game as in other similar games is special currency space bucks that is hard to get and of course the most easy way is to buy them with real money. Well, who spends real money on facebook games? I don't know anyone, but there must be such people, because if there were not, there would really never be so many games using this concept. Well, it is still something I really hate, because it spoiled so many games that would quite good and even Lucky Space has this problem. It could be one of the best facebook games, but it is not. Ok lets get back to gaming.
In this game your task is to build big asteroid mining station so you need varios kinds of buildings as in other kinds of facebook games, in this is of course special that you are in space and also that you need to connect those building with special energy lines. So you have to get the energy, store it, you need food also and many other things.
This game looks really good, space looks lonely and deep, dark place. The whole system of this game is not too simple like zynga games are, but also not too complicated so everyone can play it few minutes every day and I'm sure all casual players who likes sci-fi and space exploration stuff will also like this game. I can recommend to you to at least try it. there are many things I forgot to write here, so go and try Lucky Space. If you want to be space millionare, you cannot hesitate any longer and start digging into that asteroid!

Rating: 7/10


I have to admit here first that I really do not like games from Zynga anymore, they just still repeats the same stuff and what was funny at the beginning is after two years of playing absolutely boring. Well, still when Zynga releases some game it is always really big event in the world of facebook gaming and that is the reason why even here on Best Facebook Games we just cannot miss that out. So what is this CastleVille all about?
I think it is really not hard to answer this question even if you have never played it before. as the title say, it will be one of those quite boring "ville" games. As i said before, these games might be funny two years ago, but now? They really should start to make some different stuff and not just all the time the same Farmille, that just looks slightly different and is in medieval era. Well I'm facebook games blogger and even I thought I will probably not like the game I tried and I really cannot say I'm happy with it.
well, I'm sorry for that, but today review will be very short, because there is not much to write about, there is something in this game from FrontierVille, something from Cityville and all together it is another boring clicking game from Zynga everyone played two years ago. it really did not change to much so I just cannot recommend this game to anyone who is more then 9 years old. in my opinion this is really not one of the best facebook, more like opposite in fact. Next time I promise I will find some much more interesting game, because there still are good games out there.

Rating 2/10

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Skyrim and challenge

I must say I enjoy discussing Skyrim, because by talking about that game is becomes really easy to point out the inconsistencies in people's beliefs about MMORPGs. There has been some discussion in the blogosphere about a comment Loque Nahak made on my blog: "I'm 11 hours into Skyrim, right now (level 9) and boy... coming from WoW it seems I've been playing a videogame for small children, really." But if you look at Skyrim from the point of view of a hardcore WoW raider, it is actually Skyrim which is a game for small children: There is no content in Skyrim which can not be achieved even by the worst "moron & slacker" from WoW. Skyrim has so many ways, from "clever tricks" to "god mode", to remove challenge from the game, that it is completely unthinkable that somebody could not have sufficient "leet skillz" to finish the game. The hardest part of Skyrim is learning to deal with the controls and interface in the first hour of the game.

To me that shows that a lot of the things that people have been saying about the necessity of challenging and inaccessible content in games like World of Warcraft is complete rubbish. In another comment Syl remarked that there is no "offline e-peen" which would prevent people from enjoying Skyrim with mods, or other challenge-reducing maneuvers. Challenge is simply not the point of Skyrim; the world and the stories in it (both pre-packed and emergent) are.

And of course the same thing can be achieved with a MMORPG. A Tale in the Desert (the 6th telling starts December 3rd), or Glitch are perfectly good examples of MMORPGs which are about the world and the stories in it (including those emerging from interaction with other players), and not about challenge. Everybody can play these games, without having to worry that an absence of leet skillz will lead to him being excluded from something, or worse, kicked out of his guild for under-performing. e-Peen is not a necessary component of a MMORPG.

Funnily enough a MMORPG designed not around a fixed challenge would actually be more likely to provide the right degree of challenge for everybody than the current design. If you design the MMORPG around the world and the stories, you can have players deliberately going to more dangerous areas, where the monsters are very hard to beat. Instead of having to nerf down all monsters in all leveling quests to the difficulty level which your least able players are still able to beat. It is only by balancing the fun out of MMORPGs that it becomes impossible to even try harder quests, because the game just hides them from you, because it doesn't want to offer you the bigger rewards linked to the harder quests already at lower levels. But if killing the mammoth becomes about killing the mammoth, and not about the reward on offer, that challenge can be on offer to anybody, regardless of level. And if it takes a lower level player half an hour of kiting that mammoth to kill it, it just makes for a better story than any "kill 10 mammoths" quest in other games. By balancing the rewards and risks, designers ended up having to create fixed challenge levels, which are either too hard or too easy for most players. The option to tune your own challenge to your abilities disappeared.

And the potential gains from removing the concept of MMORPG as a fixed challenge are enormous. Once you stop having to balance everything, stop making sure that all classes are exactly equal, stop worrying how this cool spell would unbalance this PvP battle or that raid encounter, you gain a huge freedom of designing the most incredible content. It is said that players optimize the fun out of games, but that phase is preceded by a design phase in which the developers already balanced most of the fun out of the game. If you make the game about challenge, you end up having to make sure that nobody can do anything really cool without having to go through a huge grind, because you need to make rewards proportional to the effort exerted. If you make a game about the world and the stories, you can have people just discover cool stuff, and provide them a grind-free memorable experience. Maybe one day we will actually get an "Elder Scrolls Online" game which provides such an experience.

World of Warcraft god mode

Imagine World of Warcraft had a god mode, like Skyrim does. What would that mean for the game?

My previous post about Skyrim was too long to get my point across, so this is the short version: I think that many of the freedoms you have in Skyrim, if transplanted to a game like World of Warcraft, would destroy WoW as a game. We do not want a MMORPG in which you can exploit terrain, can cast spells for zero mana, or can turn on god mode. Why do we want these features in Skyrim?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Skyrim - Gameplay

Skyrim is a strange beast when you consider its gameplay. You get a large amount of freedom, much more than you would get in most single-player or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. And I believe that it is this freedom of action which is mainly responsible for the ultra-high review scores and general excitation about this game. We got so used to being constantly guided and our hands held through all sorts of games that the freedom of Skyrim is refreshing. And for all the excitation we tend to forget that this freedom still has limitations, and comes with a price.

I’ll start with the limitations. There is no doubt that you can do *more* actions in Skyrim and get a reasonable result out of them than you can in most other games. But that doesn’t mean that everything in Skyrim works in a logical way. I stumbled upon one example as consequence of playing a warrior type character. I am wearing heavy armor, and carry heavy weapons around as part of my usual equipment. As Skyrim’s inventory is weight-based, I effectively block half of my weight allowance just with my gear. Thus there is less weight capacity for loot. Now I really wanted to get a lot of money in Skyrim, to buy a house in Whiterun and thus get some safe storage for the kind of items you aren’t quite sure whether you want to keep them. Thus whenever my inventory was full, I left the dungeon I was in, fast-travelled to the next merchant, sold the loot, and came back to the dungeon. As merchants are only open from 8 am to 8 pm that sometimes involved resting for up to 12 hours in the city. And at some point it struck me that I had left a cave full of bandits half cleared, came back after half a day, and found the cave exactly like I had left it. None of the bandits had moved, taken back the first rooms of the cave, set up traps or did anything else logical to happen.

A dungeon in Skyrim is still a place with static mob locations, and scripted events, just like in any other RPG. The scripts have sometimes more variations than in other games, but I did manage for example to pass a point with a bandit mage on a ledge overhead several times, with the bandit reacting in similar ways repeatedly. After several tries I found a way how to enter that cave and put one arrow into that mage without getting damaged myself. And then I was able to simply do that action several times, leaving the cave to reset the mages script, but without resetting his health. Every time he would come forward and say something like “who goes where”, although he already had several arrows sticking in him and should know what would happen next. Many of the scripts in Skyrim are very well done, and are very believable as long as you behave in a predictable manner. Do something unexpected and you encounter the limitations of the system, the limits to freedom, by the script visibly ending up in some not very logical behavior. The more you stretch your limits, the less immersive the game becomes.

That brings me to the price to pay for the freedom you have: Skyrim offers you so much freedom that it ends up being a not very well balanced game. On the one side there are numerous examples of how you can “exploit” your freedom in creative way to make yourself overly powerful. I had a quest to find a mammoth tusk and quickly found that the mammoths are impossible to kill, at least at level 6, and that’s not even considering the giants running close to them. But I persevered and ended up pulling the mammoth away from the giant and into some terrain where the mammoth couldn’t advance any more towards me. Then I pelted the mammoth with arrows until it died, getting my quest items as well as a nice increase in archery skill. In a way that was still believable, but using terrain to create a combat situation where you can hurt the enemy but the enemy can’t hurt you is one of the first things any MMORPG prevents through some balancing measures. Because if you find the right spot and respawn location, you could gain endless xp (in an MMORPG) or skill (in Skyrim) and levels by repeatedly killing mobs that can’t hurt you.

Nils reported that he found another way to “break” Skyrim: Apparently there is an enchantment that reduces mana cost by 25%. And it stacks. So he enchanted 4 items with that, and was able to cast all his spells at zero mana cost. A lot of the “cool” things people report from Skyrim are things which would be considered “exploits” in an MMORPG, and which harm the balance of the game. Different players will put different values on this: Some people like the freedom, even if (or especially if) it includes the freedom to exploit. Other people would prefer a well balanced game.

The biggest problem to balance is probably Skyrim’s skill system. It is simple enough: You gain skills by doing stuff. And your level increases with the amount of skill gained. There are two problems with that: Exploiting skill gains, and the balance of your combat strength against the combat strength of the mobs. Like in other “skilling by doing” games you can gain skills by doing stupid stuff. Gaining sneaking skill by running against a wall. Deliberately and repeatedly stepping into traps and gaining restoration skill by healing yourself up afterwards. And so on. But at the same time the game increases the level of the mobs you need to kill with your level. Thus if you gain a lot of non-combat skills, you effectively make the mobs harder to kill for you.

Now normally in a game like this you would find me trying everything, every crafting skill, every magic skill, every thieving skill. But in Skyrim I quickly realized that this would be me shooting myself in the foot. In Skyrim the “best build” in MMORPG parlance is one where you only ever learn combat skills, and then only those which are complementary, and not too many alternative options like magic spells. You have the freedom to skill as you want, but the result ranges from skilling yourself to an overpowered fighting machine, to completely gimping yourself with lots of non-combat skills. And as the main quest has you killing a lot of dragons, gimping yourself isn’t advisable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this lack of balance in a single-player game is necessarily a bad thing. You make decisions, and live with the consequences, that can be a lot of fun. But I understand why some people said that you couldn’t turn that into an MMORPG: As soon as you have competition, either for PvP or for end game PvE, a lot of the possibilities Skyrim offers would simply be considered not viable. The optimizing the fun out of games force is strong with MMORPG players, and wouldn’t mix well with the freedom Skyrim offers.

SWTOR bullet points

  • I am not in the SWTOR beta, but expect to be next weekend with everybody else.
  • The SWTOR beta NDA dropped.
  • There are lots of SWTOR preview blog posts everywhere.
  • The overwhelming majority of these previews is positive.
  • SWTOR *is* a "theme park MMORPG", or "WoW with lightsabers", or "guided, quest-based MMORPG", or whatever you want to call that concept.
  • Bioware apparently pulled the feat off to implement that tired "theme park" formula well, and add some spice to it with improved story-telling and voice-acting.
  • Technically the game is in a good state.
  • There are nearly 1 million pre-orders in North America alone.
  • It appears very likely that if you add Europe and non-preorder early sales, SWTOR is going to sell well in excess of 2 million copies between release and the end of the year.
  • Assuming the reaction of everybody else is similar to those of bloggers, and the sales are really that high, SWTOR will generally be considered "a success".
  • Nothing begets success like success.
  • Predictions about how many players SWTOR will have 6 months after release are hard to make, but unlike most MMORPGs released since WoW, it is perfectly possible that the success or "network effect" will make SWTOR grow further after initial sales, and not drop off a cliff.
  • It would be wise of both developers and commenters to avoid the term "WoW killer", because otherwise they might be surprised to learn that it is actually possible to get a multi-million player MMORPG up and running without actually killing WoW.
  • WoW will continue to decline in subscriber numbers at least until the release of the next expansion, if not beyond. 7 million subscribers a year from now is a realistic estimate.
  • Some people will add 2 and 2 together, and as usual get 5, interpreting any decline in WoW subscription numbers as being "caused" by SWTOR. Ignoring the fact that an aging WoW is perfectly able to lose subscribers without any help from another game.
  • At some point in time SWTOR will start to decline and lose subscriber numbers.
  • If by coincidence this decline is anywhere close in time to the release of Titan, we might arrive at the ironic situation of Titan being declared a "SWTOR killer". :)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Skyrim - Technical Aspects

My readers persuaded me that I absolutely had to play Skyrim, and the good news is that I didn't regret buying the game. Skyrim is quite a good game, and I can play it without puking. Bethesda improved the 3rd-person view from previous Elder Scroll games to a point where it is actually usable. I can play Skyrim for about 1 hour before having to take a break, and managed over the weekend to get up to level 7 with nothing more than a minor headache.

The bad news is that Skyrim is not as flawless as the extremely high review scores would suggest. Maybe it is inevitable that somebody analyzing and reviewing games sees these flaws more than somebody consciously or unconsciously overlooking the flaws to just play and have fun. But my fun with Skyrim was marred with several immersion-breaking technical and game design flaws. As this is a rather large subject, I decided to split it up and talk about the technical aspects in this post, keeping the game design aspects for another post.

It all started at the beginning. I install and launch the game, and find my character sitting in a cart. The NPC in front of me is visibly talking to me, but I can't hear a thing. Listening closely I can confirm that he *does* talk, but the volume is so low as to be nearly inaudible. Now the technical fiddling begins. I look up the problem in Google, and follow the advice to set my sound to 44100 Hz quality. I put the in-game, Windows, and hardware volume controls to absolute maximum. And hurrah! I get the speech up to a volume where I can actually understand it. Only that every time I stop playing I need to think of turning the volume down, otherwise the next game I start blasts my ears off. And it turns out that once Skyrim is started, all Windows volume controls don't work any more. You can't Alt-Tab out of Skyrim, and the volume control knob on my keyboard is apparently disabled while Skyrim is running. So every time I launch the game and notice I forgot to turn the volume up, I need to quit the game, turn the volume up, and relaunch the game. Annoying!

So now I'm back in the game, listening to the NPCs through the starting sequence, and come to the point where I am supposed to actually move and do stuff. Only the keyboard controls aren't working. It turns out that Skyrim detects that I have an XBox controller plugged into my computer and assumes that if I have a gamepad, I certainly want to use it. And curiously keyboard controls are completely disabled when a gamepad is plugged in. I can't even find an option to switch to keyboard/mouse controls in the menu. In the end the solution is to unplug the gamepad, at which point Skyrim grudgingly accepts me wanting to play with a keyboard and mouse.

As others have mentioned, graphics are a mixed bad. The scenery is great, sometimes even stunning. The textures could be better. And the animations are second-rate at best. That turns out to be especially problematic when playing in 3rd-person view: Whether the game believes that I hit the enemy with my sword, and whether the animations show that I hit him, are two very separate and not closely related things.

Controls take getting used to, but aren't quite as bad as some commenters here said. I did play console games in the past, and thus understood where the controls were coming from and how they work. Actually the most annoying control for me is that getting out of a menu is the TAB key, and not the ESC key. ESC opens the save screen, and then you need to hit ESC again to close it, and hit TAB to get one step back in the menu. What is sorely missing is a screen which shows your character, his equipment, and status, like buffs and debuffs. As far as I can tell there is a body slot, a helmet slot, a hand slot, and a foot slot. But I can't be sure whether my character is running around without pants because there is no legs slot, or whether the NPCs are snickering behind my back because I haven't found any pants yet. I've seen rings and necklaces, but none with stats yet, and am not sure whether they would be wearable or not. And at one point I contracted a disease, and couldn't find the debuff anywhere. It turns out that buffs and debuffs are well hidden in the Magic menu, in the active effects subcategory at the bottom (you need to scroll down to actually see that one).

The main disadvantage of 3rd person view is that aiming is a lot harder. As 1st person view in Skryim makes me nauseous, I decided to solve that problem by concentrating on melee skills, with only a little bit of archery thrown in. For magic I only do restoration (healing), which doesn't require targeting an enemy. I tried changing the FOV value, but a wider field of view results in the lines on the edges of my view being curved, with only increases nausea instead of reducing it. I'll stick to 3rd person view.

So overall I did manage to find a modus vivendi which allowed me to play Skryim. But I guess the Metacritic review scores apply mainly to the console version. People who buy Skyrim on the PC need to be aware that this is a console port, and not the best one. It sure is adequate and playable, but don't expect technical excellency!

A failed business model

Readers of my blog will know that I am neutral towards the Free2Play business model: I don't condemn games outright just because they are Free2Play, and if the system is well done I even pay to play. But what is certainly true is that the Free2Play business model has a wider range of implementations, some good, some bad. The monthly subscription model, while not ideal either, at least is a lot simpler. In this post I want to talk about a special implementation of the Free2Play business model: The Facebook game Free2Play model. And I think that it belongs into the bad subcategory of Free2Play implementations.

What makes the difference between a Facebook Free2Play business model and lets say some MMORPG or browser game with an item shop is the social network component in the Facebook game. Basically the game company is not only interested in your money, they also would like you to get your friends to play. If that works, the game "goes viral" and reaches a lot more players than it would by just using traditional marketing. So far, so good. But does it work?

The problem, like so often in games, is one of balance. Facebook games are balanced around an assumption of how many friends you have and can bring to play with you. If you are outside that assumed range of friends, the model just fails. The problem is usually the use of progress blocks, where you can't advance any further unless you either ask your friends for help, or pay with a game currency you can buy for real money. If you have not enough friends, that makes the game far too expensive: I've been asked to pay up to $25 to complete a single quest. That is just silly, even for somebody who in another game might have paid $25 for a permanent mount. I do like having the option to pay for an advantage, but like most people I tend to react negatively to a paywall which basically tries to extort me with a "pay or stop playing" choice.

By making paying to play so expensive and annoying, Facebook games thus make the "social cost" of pestering your friends more appealing. That very quickly leads to players realizing that the person least likely to be bothered by a constant stream of gift requests is somebody already playing the same game. MMORPGs like Everquest started out with a social model in which guilds were there to play with your friends, and over time that social model degraded to guilds where you play with people who have the same goals and play intensity as you have, even if you don't actually like them. Facebook went through the same development much quicker. Every Facebook game forum has "add me" threads. My new Facebook account already has 67 friends, just by clicking on links in various "add me" threads like that.

Besides thus encouraging you to collect lots of fake friends, Facebook then also offers you to bot your interaction with those friends. I discovered a Facebook app called "Auto Collect Games Bonuses", which automatically searches through the feeds of your friends and clicks on all game requests for you, netting you all the bonuses you get for clicking on that sort of link. The app already has half a million monthly active users, and it is not the only bot doing this sort of activity. Apparently my 67 friends produced 655 of such links in the last 2 days, from 4 Facebook games (2 Zynga, 2 others). That's a lot of bonuses collected. This and the requests I can send them makes paying to play rather unnecessary, I can get around all those blocks by botted interaction with my fake friends.

I believe that this particular business model is not sustainable. Zynga already revealed that only 4% of their players are paying, and that percentage is decreasing. It is a downward spiral, in which players avoid paying by using the help of fake friends, and the developers react by making the game more expensive for the dwindling number of people still spending money, driving more and more people away from paying for the games and into the fake friends alternative. And of course by spreading the spam only to your fake friends and not your real ones, you don't even advertise the game to new customers.

There are a few games on Facebook that do better. For example in Dungeon Overlord you aren't required to have friends at all to advance. Inviting friends gives you a few percent bonus, with no hassle to you or your friend and no continued gift request spam. That is the kind of game which might encourage you to invite your *real* friends instead of searching out other already existing players and fake-friend those. But most Facebook games just copied the business model of the first successful games. And I believe that business model failed, and is going to come crashing down not too far in the future.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Once upon a time, over a decade ago, I played Anarchy Online. That was mostly memorable for still holding the record of the worst MMORPG launch ever, but it was also my first MMORPG in which combat was done using guns and blasters. And I quickly noticed that I didn't like that combat much. It felt odd. Unnatural. Even with some spurious explanation of "personal shields" added, two characters standing toe to toe shooting at each other just doesn't look right. And because history repeats itself, Ancient Gaming Noob Wilhelm Arcturus has the same problem with Star Wars: The Old Republic: Needing 3 to 6 blaster hits at point blank to kill somebody is just weird.

Come to think of it, it is of course equally weird that in just about any MMORPG, using just about any weapon or spell, you *always* need between 3 to 6 hits to kill a mob of your level. This has to do with how long designers think a combat should be, and with the traditional use of random numbers in role-playing combat: A combat decided by a single "roll" of the dice would be very unpredictable. Rolling several dice produces a Gaussian normal distribution, where average results are common, and extreme results are rare.

Other than fantasy role-playing games, there are relatively few video games having people hack at each other with swords. And then most other sword-fighting games also use combat based on several hits to achieve a kill, although I'm pretty certain that in real life you wouldn't survive being hit once with a sword or an axe. But there are quite a lot of shooter games in which one-shot kills (headshots) are common enough. More importantly in those shooter games you usually have quite some distance between you and your opponent. Exchange of fire is depicted as a series of misses followed by one lethal hit. So this is what we expect, what we see in the movies, what we played in first-person shooters. Therefore shooting at an opponent at point blank range, hitting him in the head, but not killing him, is unexpected. Even in the Star Wars universe, where jedi can deflect blaster shots with a lightsaber.

How much Skyrim?

There seems to be some disagreement here and in other places on the "size" of Skyrim. Some people call it a huge and epic world, others point out that it is much smaller than a MMORPG. I've seen estimates of the time required to play the main quest to the end of about 30 hours, and completely playing through all side quests of 100 hours. Which isn't half bad for a modern single-player game, but doesn't compare well to thousands of hours of content of a MMORPG.

Furthermore if you play Skyrim at a typical MMORPG rate of over 20 hours per week, 100 hours per month, there is a good chance that the Skyrim buzz will be over in a month. The question "Skyrim or SWTOR" won't pose itself, because by the time SWTOR is out, Skyrim might already be yesterday's news.

What do you think about the size of Skyrim, it's replayability? How many months do you think you will play the game? How does it compare in size to a typical MMORPG?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Most of the time I play games for fun. Either because I already know the game and know it will be fun, or because from reviews and recommendations I believe it to be "my kind of game" and expect to have fun. But sometimes I deliberately go out and play games that I know are not "my kind of game". One reason is that sometimes I get surprised and have fun with games that are outside my typical range. Who would have thought that I would like World of Tanks or story-based first-person-shooter games? Another reason is that I blog about games, and would like to have some first-hand experience of current games and trends in gaming to improve the quality of my blog.

Zynga games on Facebook are not generally considered great games for experienced gamers. But taken all together the number of people playing these games are in the hundreds of millions. They are most definitely a trend in modern gaming, and potentially an entry point for many people into the world of video games. That makes them worth looking at.

Earlier this year I noticed some encouraging trends with Zynga games: The gameplay improved. Empires & Allies, while still not quite what a gamer would call a "strategy game", is a huge improvement over simple cow-clicking games like Farmville. Adventure World has "instanced dungeons" with a puzzle-based gameplay which, while not being terribly complicated, still offers more puzzles than the average MMORPG dungeon.

Unfortunately it seems that this trend towards better gameplay has stopped or is even reversing. This week Zynga released Castleville, which like Farmville and Cityville is void of any gameplay worth mentioning. There are the same farm plots and cows to click on to make money to buy stuff to decorate your land with. Castleville is "better" than Farmville in terms of graphics and sound, has more appealing characters, story and quests, and has a simple crafting system. But in the end it is a game about clicking on stuff to build a pretty farm castle. And, like in all Zynga games, you can't even do that without constantly begging for stuff from your friends. Or, as I do it, from your "Zynga friends", which you can find easily enough on the Zynga forums in "add me!" threads. In terms of evolution of gameplay it is clearly a step backwards.

As reported earlier, Zynga's profits are down, and there is increasing evidence that user numbers of Zynga games peak more and more early, and then decline quickly. The "-ville" games have historically been Zynga's greatest successes, so I would interpret Castleville as an attempt of Zynga to land another super hit before their IPO. It will be interesting to see, albeit somewhat worrying, if Zynga manages a return to previous form by releasing a game with less complicated gameplay. Do players evolve from simple games to more complex ones? Or are "click to get reward" games already the highest form of gaming some people are interested in?


I just read the interview with Marcko on MMO Melting Pot, which is controversial to say the least. Marcko sold his name and WoW gold guide blog for $50,000, and is now planning to make even more money with a Diablo III real money making guide and blog. Quote: "My goal with Diablo 3 is to get people making $25 per hour." Sorry, not going to happen.

First of all consider the step change: Marcko claims his WoW gold guide made people 40k gold per week. Now I'm not up to date on current WoW gold prices, but 40k gold is certainly not worth hundreds of dollars, and far from $25 per hour. But we all know that there are already a lot of "Chinese" (in reality they come from many countries) gold farmers in World of Warcraft.

So the second and bigger problem is one of arbitrage: There are quite a lot of people in the world who do not earn $25 per hour in their current day job. If it was possible to earn $25 per hour in Diablo III, they would do it. The more people trying to make money from the auction house, the less money there is to be made for each of them. If you price your goods so as to make $25 per hour, somebody will come and undercut you with a $24 per hour rate, and he will be undercut again, and so on. Basically the amount of money you will be able to make is by definition less than what a professional "Chinese gold farmer" is willing to work for. If Marcko's offer was in any way realistic, what would prevent a gold farm operator to buy 1 guide for $17 from Marcko, and use the information in that guide to have a hundred workers make $25 per hour from Diablo III?

I believe I understand where the flawed logic of the "get rich in Diablo III" business plan is coming from. The economy in World of Warcraft does not completely comply with standard economic rules: It is possible to "get rich quick" to the tune of thousands of gold per week in WoW. Been there, done that. But the reason why that is possible is that gold is not a legal currency. Lots of people treat gold like Monopoly money, and if they somehow got lots of gold don't think twice before wasting it on overpriced items. The same is not going to happen with a real money auction house. People have a far firmer grasp of the value of real money, and are not going to waste it like WoW gold. They can't just go out and farm some mobs or ore nodes to make real money to spend on Diablo III auction house items like they did with gold in WoW. AH trading for WoW gold worked because few people were actually interested in making a lot of gold.

I am already not a big fan of gold making guides. I'm not saying they don't work, but you are paying money for information you could have gathered for free from various blogs and game sites. But in the case of Diablo III the matter is much worse: Any guide promising you $25 per hour or similar amounts is a scam. You are more likely to make real money in Diablo III by just playing it and hoping for a lucky drop than you are by playing the auction house. There will simply be too many traders interested in real money for trading to be profitable.

P.S. I'm not so cheap as Markco as to sell my name and blog for $50,000. I have said before that my price would be $100,000, and I am sticking to that number. :) But frankly, I don't think I'll ever get an offer. A site making money by selling "guides" to gullible people has a better commercial outlook than a site providing written content for free.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Spoilers and virtual evil

One of my readers yesterday had an interesting theory, where he thought that the reason for the NDA being upheld for Star Wars: The Old Republic so long was that Bioware didn't want story spoilers all over the internet spoiling people's fun at release. Whether you believe that or not, it appears obvious that this plan is deeply flawed, because it breaks down on release day. We will have the first database sites with spoilers for many quests before the year is over.

Story spoilers might be a particular problem for Star Wars: The Old Republic because of the moral story choices. The typical MMORPG gamer is a person who when given the choice between saving a virtual princess or raping and robbing her bases his choice on which option gives the better reward, after looking up the spoilers on the internet. Previous Bioware single-player games with moral choices were appreciated not because players thought that making moral choices in a game counted for anything, but because it enabled them to play through the game twice and get to see different things.

Many players believe that good and evil doesn't exist in games. Apart from all of us playing mass-murderers whose kill count makes Anders Behring Breivik look like an amateur, we also don't hesitate to torture virtual victims if a quest demands it from us. Theft and armed robbery are so commonplace in MMORPGs that they are hardly worth mentioning. While many of these crimes are committed against unfeeling NPC characters, there are also new player ganking events in PvP games. The general thinking is that games are just games, and thus moral choices in games are just about exploring options, and your actions in a game don't say anything about you as a person in the real world.

That makes games with moral choices a no-win proposition: Either my moral choices in the game count for something, at which point I would be bound by my real world morality to behave nicely in the virtual world. Or my moral choices in the game don't count for anything, and then I might as well base my choice on whether to torture the prisoner on a spoiler database telling me that torturing him gives me the +3 blaster, while letting him free rewards me with the cloak of agility. Hey, I could use that blaster, lets apply the electrodes!

Apart from the moral choices, it appears clear to me that very quickly we will see the most dramatic events of Star Wars: The Old Republic as videos on YouTube. That is what happened to the epic Wrathgate cinematic of Wrath of the Lich King. Forums, blogs, and all sorts of other websites will be full of spoilers of SWTOR very quickly. Every time I mention that I would like to have more puzzles and intellectual challenges in my MMORPGs, somebody comments that this is impossible, because of spoilers. But that would mean we also can't have any epic, interesting or surprising stories in MMORPGs. Personally I will try to avoid all spoilers, but that isn't going to be all that easy. Especially with group content, where your fellow players tend to brand you a slacker if you haven't watched the video on YouTube before trying it for the first time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Beta isn't what it used to be

I am not in the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta. But I did get a mail telling me to not get a beta code from sites like IGN, because I would get into the beta at the same time as the people who got a beta key from those sites anyway. And now Bioware revealed that everybody who signed up for the beta before 11/11/11 would get in, which is millions and millions of people.

Gazimoff from Mana Obscura writes about how beta testing has changed, moving away from bug reports and using heat maps and data mining instead. If a large percentage of beta testers don't finish a specific quest, that tells you more than sifting through bug reports complaining about quests, many of which might be perfectly working as intended. Furthermore I can totally see the interest of Bioware to want to test if their servers can withstand millions of people, seeing how this is their first MMORPG and problems in that area are to be expected.

What is a bit weird is keeping up the NDA while having so many testers. Chris from Levelcapped points out that if you tell a secret to millions, it isn't a secret any more. Thus keeping information away from possible competitors can't be the reason for the SWTOR NDA. The general assumption is that Bioware marketing is using the NDA to better control either the hype or the negative opinions on the game. I'd say that strategy is backfiring. Some people simply don't care about the NDA, because they think that nothing bad will happen to them if they break it. Others use the fact that the NDA is still up to cast suspicion upon the game.

One thing which is certain is that the meaning of the word "beta" has changed. Google's GMail was in beta for 5 years. Minecraft is being "released" this week. Allods Online was in beta until version 2.0, with people already paying for items from the item shop long before "release". And many other MMORPGs obviously used betas as both marketing tool and server stress test tool. I've been in betas which didn't even *have* a bug reporting tool, bug reporting in betas is so last century.

Salman Rushdie on Facebook

Daniel wrote me to point out a story in the Washington Post about Salman Rushdie having problems with his name on Facebook. They first blocked his account for being a fake, then when he sent them a copy of his passport would only allow him to go under Ahmed Rushdie, his official first name. He then had problems getting technical support. Fortunately for him he has over a hundred thousand followers on Twitter, and managed to cause such a ruckus that Facebook gave in and allowed him to use the name everybody knows him under. They even apologized.

Unfortunately I'm not Salman Rushdie. While his problems with Facebook are very familiar to me, I don't have access to the same sort of solutions. My Tobold account is still blocked. I even failed to delete it, because to delete that account you need to log in. And attempts to get customer support are answered by a canned mail telling me that they won't talk to me until I provide a government photo ID proving that I am Tobold. Which of course is impossible, because Tobold is strictly a pen name, a pseudonym, and not my middle name.

The best Facebook is willing to offer me is to make a Page, with lots of options for making pages for brands, businesses, and even blogs. Unfortunately Facebook this year removed the option to import an RSS feed, so just like with Google+ I would have to add each blog post manually if I wanted it to appear on a social network. I prefer interacting with my readers on my blog itself, and not on a secondary site about my blog.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Skyrim Online

What is an MMORPG? One would think that after over a decade of playing them, and over 8 years of writing about them, I would have a good answer to that question. But I don't. The problem is not to look at any specific game and decide whether I would consider it to be an MMORPG or not. The problem is to imagine how much the existing games could change, and still be an MMORPG. I was pondering that question after reading not one but several bloggers writing about playing both Skyrim and the Star Wars: The Old Republic (beta) this weekend. Although they were more or less restrained by the SWTOR NDA, it was rather clear that everybody considered Skyrim to have a more believable, immersive, epic world than SWTOR. I believe them.

What I have problems with is jumping from the Skyrim vs. SWTOR comparison to a conclusion about the future of MMORPGs. I do think that SWTOR is a logical consequence of the evolution of the MMORPG genre from Everquest to World of Warcraft to now. But by being so typical, SWTOR ends up being not at all exceptional, not pushing the envelope. I tend to think about all the MMORPGs as being points in an imaginary cloud, the possibility space of MMORPGs so to say. The cloud encompasses all the features of all possible games that I would consider MMORPGs. On the outer edge of that cloud are atypical games like A Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates, or Wizardry 101. And games like WoW or SWTOR are smack in the center of that possibility space.

What I observe is that many people look at this center, and not the edges of the possibility space. They point at World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic and say: "This is what an MMORPG is!". I believe they are wrong. And more specifically in this case I don't see any reason which would prevent the possibility of a hypothetical "Skyrim Online", which would have all the immersion of the existing Skyrim plus the massively multiplayer online features that would make it an MMORPG.

I am well willing to chant with you the often repeated lament of how game companies are more likely to target the center of the possibility space than to try and push the edges of that space outwards. But I don't think that it is already time to give up all hope. There are still games on the horizon like Guild Wars 2 which will be very different. And it is likely that the center of the possibility space will become so crowded after SWTOR is released that it forces competitors to do something different to survive.

While Skyrim having such a big open world is certainly nice, it has to be remarked that big open worlds are a current trend in single-player games. While MMORPGs have on average become more theme-parky, single-player games have become more sandboxy over the last decade, with GTA playing a big role in that development. And while it might not necessarily be Skyrim Online, it is quite possibly that a company with a strong single-player brand makes an MMORPG in the future, and that this MMORPG will have an epic open world because of that being what the company knows best. Just like SWTOR inherits many of the features of previous Bioware games, a company currently making epic open world single-player games might produce an epic open world MMORPG in the future.

I don't expect SWTOR to provide me with more than a few months of fun, because I expect it to be too similar to other MMORPGs in the center of that possibility space cloud. I will probably burn out quickly, because I've played too many too similar games in the past. And I consider it possible that I am not the only one who will have that experience. And over time this might cause a shift in the MMORPG market. I still have hope for MMORPGs that are very different. Just look how many different combat systems single-player RPGs of the last couple of years have, while too many MMORPGs are using a combat system that hasn't evolved much since Everquest. There is room in that possibility cloud, and that room gives me hope.

Ooops, we deleted your characters!

A reader alerted me to the news that the Japanese MMORPG M2 shut down because the game data were accidentally deleted during a botched maintenance, and there was no backup. Doh!

But apart from the /facepalm moment, there is an interesting aspect to the story: It ties in with my recent post on playing for fun versus playing for advancement. If the main motivation of a game is advancement, losing this advancement is a game killer. But if you are playing for fun, you could have as much fun after a restart! Just think of games like Civilization, which you would also restart after having won (or lost) the previous campaign. You keep playing in spite of losing all your previous advancement, because playing the game is fun.

Apart from the fact that I don't currently play World of Warcraft (except occasionally on a free trial account), I would consider advancement not my main motivation for having played WoW. That is, if Blizzard would write me tomorrow that sorry, they lost everybody's character data and we all have to start from level 1 again, that wouldn't make me want to play WoW any less or more (although the opportunity to level up with friends might be fun for a while, not that such an activity is well supported by WoW). That could be because I'm not much of an Achiever player type. Or it could be that my WoW achievements are in my head, where a deletion of data on Blizzard's servers can't erase them. I made friends, I've seen the world of Azeroth, I faced Nefarian in Black Wing Lair back in vanilla, and nobody can take that away from me.

But I don't think there are any MMORPGs other than A Tale in the Desert which would survive a character data reset. And that isn't limited to MMORPGs based on levels. I doubt many players of EVE would return after all skills and ISK would reset to zero. And the speculations about a partial reset in Darkfall weren't exactly welcomed by the players either. World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, City of Heroes/Villains, Age of Conan, Warhammer Online, all of these would lose the majority of their players if all characters got deleted by accident or design and everybody would have to start over. Character advancement is the major motivator for MMORPGs, and taking that away is lethal for the game.

Numbering subjectivity

Anjin from Bullet Points has a great post up about review scores. He quotes several reviews of the same game, complaining about the same weakness in that game, and then notes how different the review scores are. Quote: "What is funny about all of these reviews, and several others that I looked at was that they all agreed about what they liked and did not like about Uncharted 3. What they differed on was the degree to which that swayed their opinion of the game. There are several 100 point scores on Metacritic, several in the 80s, and then there is Tom Chick with his 40. A 40 has the same problems with the game as everyone else, but could not overlook those problems like nearly everyone else."

I found that interesting because this weekend I had a similar impression when listening to various commenters talking about Skyrim. Some people really liked the game (to the point where they got aggressive towards people not playing it. Apparently that sort of behavior isn't limited to MMORPGs.). Others were unimpressed. But I don't think that people disagreed about actual facts, it was only that their overall impression was swayed to different degrees by those facts.

Fact is that Skyrim has a control system with the cursor fixed in the middle of the screen. Fact is that it is a console port, inheriting both textures and a control scheme that isn't optimized for keyboard and mouse from the console version. The difference is that some people think that the game is so great that they don't mind these problems, while for others they are game killers. One reader suggested that if Skyrim caused me video game nausea, I should drug myself with seasickness pills to be able to play, because otherwise I would miss a decade-defining game. Another reader called it "a potentially amazing title... ruined by horrendous animations (npcs/monsters) and an absolutely stupid and crappy inventory system (direct port from consoles, requires WASD keys)." I do think people agree what are the strengths and weaknesses of the game, they just assign very different scores to them.

Personally I think these are perfect examples of why I don't give review scores on my blog. I just say what I like and dislike about a game. That still gets some of the fans upset ("How dare you to talk about a weakness of my favorite game!!!"), but I think it would be a lot worse if I gave a low score. Some problems I might have with a game *are* extremely personal, with motion sickness being an example, and really shouldn't keep anybody else who doesn't have the same problem from buying that game. It would be extremely unfair if I gave a low review score to a game just because its camera system makes me puke. However I insist on my right to chose not to play a game that makes me puke.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Out of dopamine

Yesterday I wrote about the idea that games of advancement which aren't inherently fun, but only keep people playing with a dopamine rush, will hit problems once players get less and less receptive to that dopamine. There are indications that this is already happening. The world's biggest dopamine pusher, Zynga, is facing decreasing profits. Their $306 million of quarterly earnings are close to what Blizzard makes with World of Warcraft, but their profits are down to a measly $12.5 million, just 4% of earnings. WoW's profits are about 50% of earnings.

The difference is probably due to how the different business models deal with disengagement. For Zynga drops in profitability are a leading indicator of player disengagement, because players stop being interested enough to fork over money before they totally stop playing. For Blizzard it is the other way around, players often stop playing before they stop paying. I'd also argue that for all it's flaws World of Warcraft is still inherently more fun than any Zynga games. Players burn out a lot faster of Zynga games: Farmville had over 80 million users at it's peak a year and a half ago, and is down to 30 million users today. Zynga keeps being the leading Facebook game producer not by having one game everybody plays (like Blizzard), but by making new games every few months. They are even about to enter the domain of fantasy games with their soon-to-be launched Castleville. And while their games are getting "better", that is from such a low base that players aren't staying beyond the new and shiny, the first dopamine rush. Having to keep players with the company by producing and running so many games is expensive, thus the low profit margin, although each individual game is relatively cheap.

But there is also an alternative explanation for the decline in player numbers for Zynga, Blizzard, and many other players: There are now too damn many games out there! When World of Warcraft came out, it sold more copies on days one than what the analysts had said was the overall cumulative size of the European MMORPG market. Or as Azuriel shows on his blog, WoW basically doubled the overall market size. But very few games manage that feat, and having twice the market size isn't of much help if you have ten times or more the games. Due to their lower barrier to entry, Facebook games suffer much more from this than MMORPGs, there are already over 3,000 games on Facebook. And there are tens of thousands of games on iPhones and Android. Wikipedia write about the North American video game crash of 1983: "There were several reasons for the crash, but the main cause was supersaturation of the market with hundreds of mostly low-quality games which resulted in the loss of consumer confidence." Does this look familiar? History repeats itself.

Playing for fun versus advancement

One of the things that makes you want to always fight one more battle in World of Tanks is the advancement of your tanks and tech tree. The experience points you gain in each battle allow you to research better equipment for your tanks, or unlock tanks from a higher tier. But recently I noticed something unusual about my behavior in WoT: I stopped caring about advancement. I'm at tier 7 out of 8 in artillery, 8 out of 9 in both medium tanks and tank destroyers, and 9 out of 10 in heavy tanks. But instead of pushing for the last tier, I'm almost exclusively playing my light tanks, which don't advance any more. I have the tier 5 out of 5 tanks in all three nations, while the other tank types are from just one nation. And when I start to play, I nearly always play the light tanks, although they don't earn much credits, and only earn "blocked" xp which I would have to pay gold to convert it to usable experience points.

Now on the one hand that is good news for World of Tanks: There are far too many games which aren't inherently fun enough to keep people playing, and the various rewards and advancements are all that keeps you at them. If I play light tanks over the others it means that at least for me in World of Tanks I keep being motivated by playing for fun, and not just by playing for advancement. Which is good, because all these games of advancement suffer from the fact that advancement always ends at some point, some "level cap" or "maximum tier".

On the other hand I wonder if playing for fun isn't a sign that the pull of advancement is weakening. It used to be that only role-playing games had levels and stats. But these days pretty much every game is a game of advancement. I'd even say that some developers are making games now which are ONLY about advancement, failing to put any fun gameplay in. It has been shown that this constant stream of rewards and advancement works because it makes the brain release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that provides feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. So some scientists say they have evidence that by playing a lot of computer games with a constant stream of rewards, our dopamine receptors are being weakened, leading to both video game rewards and natural rewards losing their power of motivation.

The downside of this is that we risk not just burning out of one game, but burning out of all games of advancement. Less scientifically expressed it appears logical that your millionth virtual pixel reward excites you a lot less than your first one. It would also mean that the efforts towards gamification are doomed to failure, because by the time we have turned the real world into a big video game, we have kind of lost interest in these games and their rewards. The upside of the development is that the games which will survive this trend are those which are inherently fun to play, with or without advancement. For me that would be World of Tanks right now. I'm still waiting for a MMORPG which would be fun without the advancement.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Skyrim for me

I did my homework and watched gameplay videos of Skyrim in both 1st person and 3rd person mode. And in all of them the cursor is stuck firmly in the middle of the screen, just like it was in the previous games, Morrowind and Oblivion. That control scheme leads to more camera movements overall, because you can't click on let's say the chest on the ground without looking down. And in the previous games that excessive camera movement did cause me video game nausea, making them unplayable for me.

So, sorry, but whatever other great qualities Skyrim might have as a computer role-playing game, I will not buy it. Not before I at least have played a demo for an hour to check whether the game makes me nauseous. And apparently there isn't a playable demo for the game, a Google search for Skyrim demo only turns up "demo trailer" videos.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Azeroth - We are the 99%!

The news of the week continues to be Activision Blizzard's earnings call. An earnings call is a teleconference of a public company discussing their latest quarterly results. For most companies that is dry stuff, but for game companies this can get interesting: They tend to reveal information they otherwise don't tell players; and they are legally prevented from lying about that information, although of course they will always try to spin the info in the most favorable light.

Azuriel from I An Age bravely delved into the earnings call transcript, and found what Blizzard thinks is the cause of Cataclysm's relative lack of success: The end game is too difficult. Quote: "Once players reached max level, the end-game content in Cataclysm is more difficult. Balancing this content for our diverse player base can be very challenging." And they think they have a solution already: "The raid finder will make it easier than ever for casual players to experience end-game content, and it will open up a big part of the World of Warcraft to more of our players." I think I've even seen a reference to making raiding less "dance"-based in one of the recent Blizzard announcements, but I can't find the source right now.

I find this train of thought interesting, because it could herald MAJOR changes to how raiding works in future expansions like Mists of Pandaria. I do think that Mike Morhaime correctly identified the Cataclysm problem as being the gap between the leveling game and the raiding end game. And I believe that Blizzard is going to do everything possible to avoid the same story happening again in the next expansion. And that means finding a way for the majority of players of World of Warcraft to raid after having reached the level cap.

Blizzard might be underestimating how enormous that task is. We are *not* talking about applying a 25% nerf on some boss mob health here. What would be needed is a system in which the average player, and even the somewhat below average player, can have a meaningful experience with raid dungeons which makes him stay subscribed. That means raid encounters in which most players
  • do *not* have studied the "dance" on YouTube,
  • do *not* have spend hundreds of hours gearing up before even trying the first boss in the first raid,
  • do *not* have an uninterrupted block of 4+ hours available,
  • do *not* consider wiping 400 times before the first boss kill reasonable,
  • and finally do *not* have above average skills in moving fast or playing their character extremely well.
In short, for this plan to succeed there must be a form of easy-mode raiding which barely resembles the raids of today. That isn't to say that this can't co-exist with classic raiding. But for the average or below average player there must be a looking-for-raid functionality which allows him to jump quickly into a raid, get some success and reward in half an hour, and jump out of the raid again; without causing the raid to fail for the other participants, obviously.

I do think this is theoretically possible. How hard a raid is, how much preparation and/or skill it requires is a totally arbitrary value. You *can* make raids that aren't any more difficult than a current daily quest (although that might be overdoing it, it is probably sufficient if the raid is still challenging for a slightly below average player). It is just that these raids won't look at all like the current raids. It is safe to say that such changes would cause some veteran players to have apoplectic fits. And it is not sure that after 7 years of making raids designed for a minority of players, Blizzard developers are flexible enough to completely change their approach.

The main objection to such a system will be "but this is not what *I* want", from players who have played World of Warcraft for years, and raided for thousands of hours. But as I said, there is no necessity to remove heroic raiding from WoW just because you added easy-mode raiding. So at worst there is some loss of exclusivity. And that is probably a good thing, because "exclusivity" is exactly what killed Cataclysm. Any other solution proposed will still have to deal with the question what the 99% of players who aren't the elite are supposed to be doing after reaching the level cap. (And no, Mike, I don't agree that "the level-up content in Cataclysm is some of [y]our best works." It was too linear and didn't have good replayability.) Adding a hundred or so hours of leveling content every two years is obviously not a solution to achieving a more stable player base. If Blizzard wants to stretch out the time that average players stay subscribed after an expansion is released, they need to do something radically different.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Anybody from China?

While I do try to keep up to date on what is going on with MMORPGs, I must admit that the sources I read are all European or American. Thus I completely missed the fact that Cataclysm was released in China this July, until a reader told me. Sorry about that.

But that bit of news makes me scratch my head quite a bit. What exactly is going on in China? According to Blizzard they lost a lot of subscribers in China in 2011, both before and after that Cataclysm release. That would be very atypical. Even if we consider Cataclysm a "bad" expansion, in Europe and America its release still led to a spike in subscription numbers. That spike fell off quicker than that of previous expansions, but that still took several months. Why would that be otherwise in China? To have a continued drop of subscriptions right through an expansion release, Cataclysm would have to have sold extremely badly in China. And I doubt that just because I and other blogger wrote about being bored of Cataclysm quickly it would affect sales numbers of that expansion in China. They probably don't read us any more than we read them.

So why did the release of Cataclysm not stop the slide of subscriptions in China? Was there some sort of protest because the expansion came out in a censored form? Was it released too fast after Wrath of the Lich King in China? Or were there other factors at work of which we are unaware? If you have any real information about that (other than your personal impression that Blizzard is the devil and WoW sucks), I'd love to hear about it. Are there any English-language sources discussing the state of WoW in China?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Predicting Blizzard's doom since 2005

If you ever get a job in management, you are quite likely to be given some sort of training course in which the difference between stating a fact and making a judgment is explained. Usually with lots of funny exercises to teach you to talk in facts and avoid judgments. Of course facts only would make for rather dry blog writing, so people on the internet deal nearly exclusively in judgments, rumors, and speculations, with very little regard to facts.

The current facts about Blizzard are that the official World of Warcraft subscription numbers are down to 10.3 million, down 1.7 million from the peak shortly after Cataclysm was released. And 8 Blizzard employees changed their Facebook status from "working at Blizzard" to "worked at Blizzard". So this being the internet, and Blizzard being very much hated by some people, the headlines go something like "Massive Layoffs at Blizzard. Titan in Trouble. Company Doomed."

There is a lot of journalistic dishonesty involved in that sort of reporting. If you get a number like the 10.3 million WoW subscribers from a source, the Activision Blizzard earning call, then why not also use all the other facts cited in that source? It turns out that most of the lost subscriptions were in China, and because Chinese subscriptions aren't all that profitable for Blizzard, the loss of those subscriptions didn't have a major impact on quarterly profits. What did have a major impact was not having release any new games lately, a situation which will obviously change in Q1 2012 with the release of Diablo 3.

The selective reporting is due to people wanting to connect their personal dislike of Cataclysm with the drop in subscription numbers of World of Warcraft. Thus if they would be honest and mention that the drop is primarily Chinese, their argument would weaken a lot. Cataclysm isn't even released yet in China. [EDIT: Ooops, it was released on July 12 2011 in a censored form in China.] Personally I don't think that Cataclysm was a great success of player retention, but that is based on personal opinion and anecdotal evidence, and we don't really have all the numbers on the matter.

The prediction of Blizzard's doom and rumors on massive layoffs on the Titan project are pure asshattery. The earnings call made it clear that World of Warcraft is still an extremely profitable product, and that Blizzard overall is an extremely profitable part of the Activision Blizzard company. The idea that Blizzard is running out of money and can't afford people to work on Titan any more is ludicrous. People are let go in all companies all the time, and laying off 8 people is at best a minor reorganization in a team of hundreds of people in a company of 5,000 people. This is far from the same situation at CCP or other small companies. You just need to look how the same people judged 20% layoffs at CCP as a healthy refocus on their core values, while Activision Blizzard laying off 0.2% of their staff is judged as a sign of certain doom, to see how much these judgments are made based on personal likes and dislikes of the games these companies produce, and have nothing to do with economic reality.

Shortly after World of Warcraft was released one guy in the online game community I was frequenting at the time predicted how their release sales were just a fluke, and that subscription numbers of WoW would drop quickly, and Blizzard go bust as a consequence. I hope he wasn't holding his breath waiting for that to happen for the last 6+ years. And I wouldn't advise you to hold your breath while waiting for Blizzard's "certain" doom today either. The economic signs for Blizzard aren't universally positive, and there are certainly problems with their aging main product. But the company will rake in crazy amounts of money in 2012 with the release of Diablo 3, the next part of Starcraft 2, and the Mists of Pandaria expansion.