Monday, June 30, 2008

WTB King’s Sword of Haste

If you live in a cave, you might not have heard that Blizzard announced Diablo 3 this weekend at the WWI in Paris. The blogosphere talks a lot about innovation and how new games are just repackage old games. There is maybe no better example of this than the Diablo franchise. As Richard Bartle would put it, I already played Diablo and it was called Gauntlet.

That’s Diablo. It’s hack-n-slash in the Gauntlet style. It truly is an evolution on that original arcade game with a fixed top-angled view and powerful character archetypes (red warrior, etc) that blast through scores of mobs. If I recall, later versions of the arcade game even had random dungeon mazes just like the original Diablo. As I killed stuff, I got to collect items and gold coins that I could spend on potions or upgrades. So by the Bartle standard, the original Diablo suffered from stagnation and lack of innovation because it was simply the Gauntlet game all over again.

I’m not going to rehash the whole Bartle debate on this blog, but the idea that Gauntlet = Diablo is ludicrous and an excellent way to illustrate what I am talking about when I say that EVOLUTION IS IT’S OWN FORM OF INNOVATION. There is simply nothing wrong with taking something fun and making it BETTER. This is exactly what WoW did to the EQ formula and what I hope that WAR will do for WoW. As I wrote on Heartless_’s blog:

I’m all for innovation and I will rant about MMO stagnation as much as anyone, but saying that two games in the same genre are the same is asinine. A genre becomes popular because people like what it offers them. The fact that games in a genre share common features is what makes it a genre in the first place. Radical change or revolution creates new genres that may or may not be well received. So yes, in the sense that WAR and WoW are in the same genre – [Bartle] is right. However, that doesn’t mean that evolution or innovation is not taking place within that genre. As you point out, people who LIKE WoW will continue to find WAR very appealing and innovative.

I have mixed feelings about Diablo. I have fond memories of the earlier Diablo games, particularly the first game which was the first game I ever beta tested. It’s a great game and a most importantly a F-U-N game. Sadly, it’s never been a particularly lasting game for me. Once I had beaten the game a couple of times with a fully leveled character, I quickly became bored with it despite the random nature of the dungeons. If you measure success by the length of time you played the game, then Diablo was Blizzard’s least successful game for me. However, if measured by the fun quotient while still enthralled with it, it might have been the best of the bunch (including WoW).

My most evil online moment is also Diablo related and like the game, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s something I am not particularly proud of and is actually the exact type of behavior I think needs to be prevented in online games. But then on the other hand, boy I sure had fun while I was doing it.

Old Diablo players might recall that there was a 3rd-party program that read memory values for your character and allowed you to back them up to your hard drive. It was not Blizzard sanctioned but was quickly a popular way to keep a “backup” of your character. When you died in Diablo, half your gold and all the items on your inventory were scattered all over the ground. Other players could pick up your gear and if you failed to get it before you got disconnected or crashed, then you might lose it forever. It wasn’t uncommon for people to die in a place where they couldn’t get equipment and then come beg people in Battle.Net chat for help.

I distinctly remember an episode (pre-backup) when I responded to one of these requests and went to help someone recover their gear from Level 9. My character was fully leveled and equipped, so I just dropped in the back door figuring to clear the way for him with no problem. Instead, I was immediately beset by every mob in the entire level. You see, in the original Diablo, if you kited all the mobs to the entrance and zoned out – they stayed there. What I didn’t know when I dropped in was that the people before me had pulled the whole level to the entrance and about 5 or 6 people had died trying to help.

This wouldn’t have been a huge deal except that the guy I was helping zoned in right behind me. Since Diablo had collision detection, I couldn’t run through him to zone back out and was trapped between him and the mobs. I put up a good fight but died and all my gear scattered everywhere. To make matters worse, since so many people had died in that spot before me – none of my gear dropped near to where I had died. About 40 minutes later, I had cleared enough of the area to start recovering my stuff. BUT, I never did find everything and one (or two) of the lowbies stole some of my very best items and at least half my gold.

So needless to say, when the opportunity to “backup” my character became available I jumped all over it. Now, on the surface of it, I never really felt that the backup was ever all that bad a thing to do. I saw it as more of a fix for a design problem. Of course, being a technical minded problem solver, I saw right away the potential for abusing it to create duplicate items and gold (or dupes). At first, I guess I thought of it as a bit of payback for my earlier experience. Until I figured out that I could copy OTHER character slots of people in-game with me. I could not only dupe their stuff but CLONE them.

Okay, so I knew that was bad. I knew it and still did it anyway. I could say that it was the slippery slope of duping and then boredom, but mostly I was just an immature jerk in my early twenties. Now keep in mind that this was all well before duping or cloning was widespread. Most people, even those with the program, hadn’t yet figured out how to do it. The whole “town kill” thing hadn’t even started yet. All these things eventually ruined Diablo and I have no misconceptions about my participation. It’s one reason why I am such an advocate against things like botting, gold selling and other cheats.

One thing to keep in mind is that cloning wasn’t about stealing gear – it was about griefing. By that point, my “honest” play had already netted me all the things I wanted and the duping had just been to twink low-level alts with manuals of strength and such that allowed a level 1 to use plate. The thing about cloning was that when you cloned someone and returned to Battle.Net, you had their name in chat!

It was the mischief that this provoked that I still find disturbingly humorous. Imagine this scenario, I clone someone. Then using that clone, I create another clone of someone I found annoying. I’m now two clones removed from my character and exit back to chat. I look for a third person to clone then get in a game and “show” them that I cloned them. They now think that guy #2 (the annoying one) is a clone and start spamming chat to that effect. I start mimicking them a bit so that people know he was cloned and then go clone someone else. Rinse, repeat until there are six or seven people all blaming each other for cloning them in chat.

As I said, this was my most evil online moment and I feel terribly guilty for taking such perverse joy in ruining the game experience of others. There really is no excuse and all I can say is that my more mature self wouldn’t do something so adolescent. A few weeks later when Townkilling, Duping and Cloning was all the craze, I realized how badly we ruined the game and deeply regret that I participated. There is no point or moral here, just my observation that if people can – people will and therefore game companies need to be very stern with finding and more importantly punishing those that do.

I’ll be honest here too, I still take joy in giving others a bad day. Hell, the name of this blog is Confession of a Serial GANKER, so I haven’t exactly tried to hide that fact. Still – it’s one thing to grief someone within the rules of the game, it’s another thing to grief them with hacks. After all, smart game designers can put some limits on the amount of punishment one player can inflict on another. Unacceptable consequences (like perma-death) are simply never designed into the game.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rogue School: Level 10 to 19

Last week in Rogue School, I covered levels 1-9 and this week I plan to cover levels 10 to 19. FYI – I don’t plan on covering each article in 10 level chunks, the first 19 levels just happens to work out that way.

Talent Points
The big news at level 10 is that you just received your first talent point. The key thing to remember about these early levels is that the first 11 points into Assassination provide roughly 40% more benefit than the first 11 points into the next closest tree (Combat). However, when you go 20 points into each tree, it flips and Combat actually provides 34% more DPS benefit than Assassination. The lesson from a leveling standpoint is that we should put these 11 points in Assassination for the early levels. Then when you reach level 29, you can respec and put these 20 points into Combat.

BUT – and this is a big BUT – your first two points should still go into Combat before Assassination. Putting these points in Improved Sinister Strike will reduce the amount of Energy needed to cast SS by 5. While that may not seem significant, recall that you use this ability more often than any other ability. 40 Energy instead of 45 means that you be able to cast three SS for 120 Energy and only need a single Energy Tick. For example, the rhythm for a 3-pt Eviscerate becomes: SS (-40), SS (-40), Tick (+20), SS (-40), Tick (+20), Tick (+20), Eviscerate (-35). That’s three Ticks to a 3-pt Eviscerate instead of four Ticks.

Level 10-11
As discussed above, the two talent points spent at these levels are best spent on Improved Sinister Strike. You also get Dual Wield, so go get yourself an Offhand. At this level, the only thing to consider for an Offhand is DPS. When you get Poisons, you will want something FAST because proc rate is based on hits not procs per minute like typical enchants.

Sprint: Rank 1 provides a 50% increase in run speed for 15 seconds and has a cooldown of 5 minutes. At this level, you don’t have Vanish yet so this can be a wonderful way to simply run away when you are overwhelmed. Humanoids that run away and get adds can be particularly annoying, so saving this to help you escape can be a real life saver. Alternately, you can simply use it to save you time running around. My personal preference was to keep it on cooldown as much as possible in order to speed up the inevitable runs to and from NPCs and quest locations. Costs 0 Energy.

Sap: Sap is an incredibly useful skill while questing. It allows you to CC a possible add and take on two or three mobs you otherwise couldn’t handle on your own. It can also be used to Sap a mob that is protecting a quest object. Rogues have a real advantage in questing in that they can stealth into an area, Sap something, loot the object, then re-stealth. I highly recommend that you get used to Sapping mobs during your leveling career because when you start instancing dungeons, this will be one of your most useful skills to bring to the group. In PvP, Sap provides the added benefit of allowing you to “even the odds” a bit. I can often take two players by Sapping one, killing the other. It can also be used to get away from a high level player attempting to gank you. A level 10 player can Sap a level 70 for 10 seconds. If you are quick, you might be able to get the Sap off before they hit you and take you out of stealth. A quick Sprint and some sneaky hiding and you can get away unharmed. Costs 65 Energy.

Slice and Dice: SnD is a finishing move which increases weapon speed. Rank 1 provides a 20% increase in your weapon speed. Rank 2 provides a 30% increase. The duration depends on the number of Combo Points used. This weapon speed increase effectively increases your white damage and frequency of weapon procs by 20-30% respectively. In the early levels, this is an overlooked ability because a large % of your damage comes from your instant attacks like Sinister Strike and Eviscerate. However, as you gain levels, white damage and poison procs can easily equal 60% of your overall damage output. Increasing 60% of your damage by 20-30% results in an overall boost of 12-18% DPS and easily makes it the most important finisher. It’s worth noting that the only difference between a 1-pt SnD and a 5-pt SnD is duration. Without Improved SnD, 1 point provides 9 seconds and each additional point provides 3 seconds. With Rank 3 Imp SnD, the duration is increased by 45% which is up to 30 seconds at 5 pts. Costs 25 Energy.

Level 12-13
Don’t bother rushing to find a trainer when you hit Level 12. You get an upgrade to Backstab and a new ability called Kick. Kick is an important ability, but arguably not worth the run back to a capital city. Just visit a trainer when it’s most convenient.

Kick: A spell interrupt that does a minimal amount of damage and prevents casting from that school for 5 seconds. Rank simply increases the amount of damage dealt, but it is never a significant amount (level 70 is only 110 damage total). This interrupt is far superior to Gouge because it costs less Energy, doesn’t require the target to be facing you, and prevents the spell casting in that school. The prevention is quite notable when you are working to prevent a caster from healing or dealing a lot of damage with a particular spell (like Pyroblast). Costs 25 Energy.

Level 14-15
Garrote: This is your first real stealth opener. Openers are powerful ‘surprise’ attacks that provide combo points and require you to be stealthed and in melee range. Garrote also requires that you be BEHIND your enemy like Backstab, but does NOT require a Dagger. The ability itself provides one combo point puts a damage over time bleed on the target that does X damage based on Rank and is modified by Attack Power. The bleed lasts for 18 seconds and ignores armor mitigation. Rank 7 and 8 silences the target for 3 seconds making it a powerful attack against casters, particular high armor targets like Paladins. The Attack Power modifier is 18%, so 1000 AP is equal to an extra 180 damage. Rank 8 with 1500 AP will deal 1080 damage for 18 seconds (or 180 damage per 3-second tick). This is arguably the best opener in boss fights immune to stuns, particularly if you don’t Mainhand a Dagger. Costs 50 Energy.

Expose Armor: This is a finisher that reduces the target’s armor by an amount based on the number of Combo Points used in the attack. It also causes a large amount of threat and lasts 30 seconds. The ability is inferior to the Warrior ability Sunder Armor and does not stack with it, making it useless in groups that include a Warrior. In fact, an easy way to piss off your warrior is to put this debuff on a mob and prevent him from applying Sunder Armor. However, in Boss fights where a Warrior is not present but includes a lot of other melee classes, the armor reduction will benefit all the other melee classes which could make it superior to SnD in those situations. The effect is also most beneficial against low armor targets, particularly casters, so it’s not uncommon to use the ability against casters in PvP. Still, in most situations this is likely the least popular or beneficial way to utilize Combo Points. Costs 25 Energy.

Level 16-17
I also wouldn’t recommend running out of your way to find a trainer at level 16. These two abilities are both important, just not important to your leveling career at this particular moment.

Feint: This ability is one of the most important in a Rogue’s arsenal because it allows the Rogue to instantly reduce the amount of aggro or threat they have within a group. Of course, when you solo, this is useless because you will always be the target of the thing you are attacking. But in a group, this allows you to continue to do lots of damage without drawing aggro or threat from the Tank. The ability to control your threat so accurately is what makes Rogues one of the best pure DPS classes in the game. Of course, when you are soloing at level 16, this ability won’t seem terribly useful to you.

Pick Lock: Lockpicking is an ability that skills up, just like a weapon or trade skill. Your max lockpick level is 5 * Current Level. At level 16, that’s a max skill of 155 but it only starts at 1 and takes some time to level. You will need lockpicking in a few levels for your Poison quest, but we are going to ignore it for moment until it’s a bit easier to level it.

Level 18-19
Ambush: This is a powerful opener that requires you to be stealthed and behind your target. However, similar to Backstab, it DOES require a Dagger to be in the Mainhand. It provides a Combo Point and deals 275% weapon damage plus X amount of damage based on the Rank. Since this is a modified weapon damage attack like Sinister Strike, the amount of damage dealt rises dramatically when you use a slow Dagger with a high average damage. A typical slow speed Dagger will be around 1.8 weapon speed. The issue is that since Ambush uses a Dagger, a follow-up attack with Sinister Strike will be drastically less than a slower 2.4 or 2.6 non-Dagger. So... if you want to open with Ambush, you can either use the Gouge-Backstab combination to make full use of the Dagger, or you can figure out how to use a macro to swap weapons.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Blizzard ordered to respond to brief submitted by an advocacy group in MDY case

Public Knowledge, a digital rights advocacy group, filed a motion as a "friend of the court" in the MDY v. Blizzard case that has provoked the judge in the case to issue an order requiring Blizzard to respond. (source: Virtually Blind)

One of the most important parts of Blizzard's argument is that Glider violates copyright law under the DMCA when it circumvents Warden. The argument they make is that Glider users violated copyright when they circumvent Warden in the game copy loaded into RAM memory.

Public Knowledge argued that it's implied that the users are allowed to have a copy loaded into memory when they purchase the game under existing law. Circumventing a technical measure to use a copy they already licensed is not a violation of any copyright law.

To quote the PK brief: “Blizzard cannot claim any infringement of its copyrights based upon the creation of RAM copies because the right to make those copies was never Blizzard’s to license in the first place.”

If the judge sides with MDY and Public Knowledge on the issue (as the order seems to indicate), then this would be a terribly fatal blow to Blizzard's case. As a third party, MDY is not subject to the terms of the license between Blizzard and their subscribers. Without the copyright infringement, the burden is on Blizzard to prove malicious intent to interfere with the contract. Making a piece of software for profit that might harm someone else indirectly is not malicious.

On the other hand, if the judge sides with Blizzard, it's bad precedent for how the DMCA can be applied against third party integrators. While none of us wants bots, limits on third party integration is simply bad news for innovation and a gross abuse of copyright law. Ars Technica points out that "Blizzard is trying to stop a company from profiting from cheaters, but in doing so it may alter EULAs and TOS agreements, to the detriment of users."

Rogue School: Level 1 to 9

In my last Rogue School article, I talked about which racial traits are beneficial for Rogues. In this article, I am going to talk about your first levels (specifically 1-9) in which I’ll provide some leveling tips and talk about some of your first abilities and talents. I also recommend an article I wrote suggesting some leveling addons that I find are useful.

Basic mechanics
Rogues are a physical damage class that need to be in melee range in order to do damage. Physical damage is different from Non-Physical damage in two main ways: It can’t be resisted and the damage is reduced by your target’s Armor. Unlike many caster classes, a very large contribution of the physical damage dealt by melee comes from our weapon’s auto-attack (called white damage). I recommend reading an an article on Attack Power I wrote that includes a nice in-depth explanation about factors that impact these types of physical attacks.

Rogues use Energy to perform class abilities, rather than Mana or Rage. Energy has a maximum of 100 points and is filled with a fixed 20 Energy every 2 seconds in or out of combat. This static flow of Energy controls the combat pacing of a Rogue. So while they typically start a fight with 100 Energy – they quickly spend it and need to wait on more Energy. Since Rogues already wait on Energy every 2 seconds, most Rogue abilities are on a 1 second Global Cooldown rather than the standard 2 second GCD for other classes. It’s worth noting that most Rogue abilities are between 35 and 60 Energy, so they need 2-3 Energy ticks between actions.

In addition to Energy, some class abilities require that you have Combo Points on the target and the duration or damage dealt by this Finisher is determined by the quantity of Combo Points. You can have up to five Combo Points on single target and get them by using other class abilities that give Combo Points. Applying Combo Points on a NEW target will cause you to lose any points earned on your previous target. This is one reason why Rogues should rarely be given the task of killing “adds” during a boss fight.

Level 1-3
Your first few levels are all about getting used to the idea of Energy and Combo Points.

Sinister Strike: An instant attack ability that deals weapon damage + some additional damage and generates a combo point. For most Rogues, this is the most commonly cast ability and the one you will regularly use to build up combo points for your finisher. The single most important thing to remember about SS is that it is an instant Mainhand attack. Any poisons or enchants on your Mainhand have a chance to proc everytime it is used. Since the damage dealt by SS is instant, you want the weapon that deals the most average damage in your Mainhand (rather than DPS). Traditionally, this is a SLOW weapon. Instant attacks from Daggers are modified to do less damage than other weapon types, so rule of thumb is to use a non-Dagger. At level 1, you aren’t going to have many options, so this will be a Dagger. Costs 45 Energy.

Eviscerate: An instant attack ability that deals damage based on the number of combo points. We call abilities that use these combo points a Finishing move or Finisher. This is the only finisher of the direct physical damage variety and the damage caused applied instantly and is reduced by your target’s armor. In the early levels, a 5-pt finisher is not always that effiecient because much of the damage is overkill by the time you have earned 5 pts. During these levels, I suggest practicing with 2 and 3 point Eviscerates. Costs 35 Energy.

Stealth: The class defining ability of going invisible. It costs no energy and has a cooldown of 10 seconds that starts when you exit Stealth. Unfortunately, while this is incredibly cool and likely the reason you chose the class – it’s almost useless until level 18 (Ambush) or possibly even level 26 (Cheap Shot). The reason is that Rank 1 Stealth incurs a horrible 50% movement penalty and it takes far longer to Stealth up to a mob than it does to simply pull it with the default thrown weapon. In fact, you may even find that this continues to be faster up until Level 40 or so when you get the Rank 3 version with only a 35% penalty. That being said, I highly recommend Stealthing immediately after you begin to Eat Food. Just remember to Stealth then Eat Food or you will break out of Stealth. Costs 0 Energy.

Level 4-8
Backstab: At level 4, you get Backstab which is an instant attack ability that requires a mainhand Dagger and that you are behind the target. It also generates a combo point like Sinister Strike. It does a pretty significant amount of damage, but costs 15 more Energy than SS and the only way to get behind the target at this level is to use it while Stealthed. Costs 60 Energy.

Pick Pocket: Pick Pocket is an instant cast ability that allows you to pilfer the pockets of a targeted mob within melee range (provided that you are Stealthed). Pick Pocketing usually results in a some coins and possibly a garbage item, healing potion or junkbox. The junkboxes are the most useful because they provide some Poison reagents and allow you to level Lockpicking. Costs 0 Energy.

The lousy thing about Pick Pocket is that it’s a pain to remember to use it. Fortunately for you, Pick Pocket can be chained with an attack ability using a macro similar to this one:
/cast Pick Pocket
/cast Ambush (or Garrote, Cheap Shot)

Gouge: At level 6, you get Gouge. This is a very cool ability for the level because it deals a modest amount of damage, adds a combo point and incapacitates the target. The incapacitate effect last for 4 seconds and is useful as a Spell Interrupt against casters. When used, it automatically turns auto-attacks off and is broken if any damage is dealt to the target. Gouge requires that your target be facing you and is on a 10 second cooldown. It’s an excellent ability that can give you some time to run away. Or if you ever have the need to “kite” a mob as a Rogue, then using it every 10 seconds is the best way to do it. The most notable thing at this level is that Gouge can be used to setup a Backstab. Costs 45 Energy.

To set up a Backstab using Gouge, you will need at least 65 Energy and are close to your next Energy “tick” that would make it 100 Energy. The reason is that Gouge takes 45 Energy and Backstab is 60, so you need a total of 105 Energy. Gouge gives you four seconds, so you can receive a maximum of two “ticks” if timed correctly. 65 Energy .. Gouge (-45) .. Tick (+20) .. Tick (+20) .. Backstab (-60). At higher levels, you can put points in Improved Gouge and increase it up to 5.5 seconds which can fit in a third tick if your timing is really good and make that second tick a certainty. (5.5 seconds can also be enough time to get you out-of-combat and reenter Stealth).

A few mini blog entries…

Knowing how to have fun…
I must say that I really wish I could enjoy multiple games the same way that The Ancient Gaming Noob (TAGN) enjoys them. During the course of my gaming career, I typically play one game at a time. I might *try* other games and even *switch* but I rarely ever play several games at the same time. TAGN, on the other hand, manages to play several games all at the same time. He’ll play WoW for a night or two, then Eve, then EQ2, then LOTRO, then something else and so on. The amazing thing is that while he progresses very slowly because he is splitting his time across multiple games, he nonetheless progresses towards end-game in all of these games. From a pure experience standpoint, he is experiencing far more content than I am just playing my single game.

The irony is that when I read his WoW related posts, I often skip them because it’s a bit boring to read about how someone tackled and experienced an instance like Mana Tombs for the first time when I have easily completed it 50 or more times. However, his writing is so thorough and well-done that when he writes about other games I haven’t played, like Eve, I feel like I really “get” the Eve experience.

The other thing I admire about TAGN is that he only plays things that are fun to him. If it’s not fun, he just moves on to something else. A lot of us, myself included, get caught so caught up in the reward system of a game that we will grind out all kinds of unfun things to get our shiny new toy.

Rogue School
I put another Rogue School article up today. I don’t really consider this a “rogue” blog, but this is something that I want to do. Once I get a few more up, I’ll add link list on the left as a reference tool. It’s a bit of a struggle because doing these articles right is going to take some work and since I can only spend so much time writing – it means I’ll write less about other topics I enjoy. So – I decided that I am really just going to try to limit these school posts to one a week (likely Fridays). My intent is to make them sequential in the sense of what I think a new Rogue should be learning or doing. Eventual topics will include things like talent reviews, how NOT to get ganked, addons and macros, and so forth.

Why I prefer Shamans over Mages…
Blizzard CM Bornakk wrote on the forums that “having multiple CC classes can make things easier in some places, but (sic) a lot of players put more emphasis on CC than is needed.” I agree 210%. If you ever sat in a party with me while we were LFM, you would find that I am very outspoken about taking Mages simply because they can CC.

The most popular DPS class to group with are Mages. Everyone wants a Mage because they have great range DPS and the best CC in the game (Polymorph). The least popular are likely Fury Warriors, Ret Paladins and DPS Shamans – because they offer no ability to CC a mob. Even Shadow Priests and Druids can shackle/mind control and sleep in some instances.

The irony is that while you would think that the Mage in LFG would make an instance smoother – it can actually go far far smoother with another class. Part of the reason is that Mages are so in-demand that you are more likely to get a terrible Mage than a terrible anything else. The point here is not that Mages suck, but that just because someone is a Mage – that doesn’t make them more desirable in a group. A well geared and knowledgeable Mage is a wonderful and formidable thing. However, when you are LFM – you are that much more likely to get an under-geared idiot instead because everyone and their dog wants a Mage in group.

For whatever reason, DPS Shamans struggle to find groups and the opposite happens. It’s actually quite easy to find a well geared and smart Shaman in the LFG channel. And while they offer no CC, the group buffs are pretty damn awesome and they have excellent interrupts, including things like Tremor totem. The simple fact is that runs with Mages often seem harder than they should and runs with Shamans seem easier than they should.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Capping the Internet – Gangsta style

Tobold stirred up a hornet’s nest with his opinion on the recent news that Time Warner is testing internet usage caps and AT&T revealed that it is considering a similar plan. I’m not going to rehash the flame war that ensued other than to apologize for my contribution. However, Tobold’s view on these caps is similar to one that is also being propagated by Jack Schofield at the Guardian.

The basic premise for justifying caps as a solution by Tobold, Jack and the Service Providers is that a small number of users consume the most internet bandwidth. In the various articles on this topic, the numbers floating around have ranged from 5% of users consuming 50% of bandwidth, to 10% consuming as much as 75%.

This type of reasoning is intended to misdirect our attention away from the fact that far more than 5% or 10% of the users will be impacted by a usage cap. You will note that at no point do they say that x% of our users use more than 40GB (the proposed cap by Time Warner). This is called a fallacy of composition because it infers that the only people to pay more under the new plan are the 10% of users who consume the most bandwidth.

However, the reality is that if Service Providers want to simply maintain current revenue levels, they need to get more money out of ALL of their Internet subscribers. Why? Because much of their current business model is failing.

Consider that in the US, all our service providers derive revenue from three areas:
  • Internet
  • Cable TV
  • Phone service
Ten years from now, they will derive almost all of that revenue from one area:
  • Internet
The Cable TV and Phone service business units will have dwindled drastically as they are replaced with comparable services over the Internet. If they simply want to MAINTAIN the current levels of revenue, then they need to convert your $40 internet + $40 cable TV into a single $80 internet bill. If they just let the current market trends dictate the situation, then that $40 for cable TV is simply going to go to some video streaming service on the internet that offers you more choices.

Cable TV is about control. They selectively choose which channels to offer you for various plans and charge you dramatically for premium services. Moreover, the Cable companies also receive significant Advertising revenue that is based on the number of Cable subscribers. What happens to that Advertising revenue when all the Cable subscribers turn to Online alternatives that offer a wider selection of content? It doesn’t disappear, it simply starts going to online advertising giants like Google instead. The thing that drives the Cable and Telecom giants nuts is that they can’t control that content any longer. A perfect scenario for them would be something like your cell phone network where they have complete control over what you can and can’t access through your cellular phone.

An $x per GB system allows them to start setting the groundwork for a payment plan that favors them in this new Internet age. My issue is that it is not about them offering more service, but about them being able to make the same profit in a changing market place. The market forces at play are destroying their business and rather than adapt, they want to use their regional monopolies to exercise control over it.

That being said... the article by Jack Schofield in the Guardian does raise three good points worth addressing:
  • Digging up thousands of roads is expensive and takes a very long time.
    • The whole idea that Internet companies need to charge more for services as more people use the Internet is related to this idea that it’s expensive. And while I agree with that sentiment to a point, I also know that our government (federal, state and local) have heavily subsidized the deployment of these networks. In many ways, we are already paying for these improvements in the form of sales, income and property taxes. In addition, more users means more subscribers which means more revenue. I don’t want to pay for the “losses” that are incurred by Telecom and Cable in other areas of their business which are in decline.
  • If you provide more bandwidth, people consume more bandwidth faster. If they can download a 2GB movie in five minutes instead of 50 hours, more people will download more movies.
    • True – but only to a point. One family can only download and watch so much content. Popular content can also be “cached” by providers to ease up on the overall burden on the network.
  • The over-exploitation of shared resources, which can lead to the resources' usefulness being destroyed.
    • This last point is an area in which we should be concerned. However, any solution should be addressed at the 5% (or 10%) that are actually causing the problem rather than the entire community. As Jack suggests, technology restraints designed to limit the effectiveness of Bit Torrent sharing would be an alternative that would meet a lot less resistance and be focused at the actual offenders.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Rogue School: Racial Abilities

My main nowadays is a rogue and I decided to write a series of entries intended for class guidance. My intent here is not tell people how to play, but to provide them with hints and helpful information that help them make informed decisions. I don’t really consider this a “rogue” blog, but I thought this would be both useful and fun to write. With that in mind, lets start with character creation.

The only thing that matters from a gameplay perspective during the character creation phase is Race. Draenei and Tauren are both excluded as playable races for Rogues. I guess they are deemed to be too noble or something and can’t be seen sneaking around. Ha! Noble cows…

Humans: You don’t know this yet, but when you reach end-game, you will learn that Rogues hate other Rogues more than any other class. It’s crazy but no one hates the idea of getting blinded, sapped or stun-locked more than another Rogue. So needless to say, Perception (which greatly increases stealth detection) is a wonderful ability to have as a Rogue and ensures that you are the Rogue that comes out on top. Humans also get +5 expertise to Mace and Swords making them the top DPS race among Alliance.

Gnomes: The small model size of the Gnome is an undocumented racial advantage because spotting and targeting something small that is stealthed can be damn hard. You can also hide behind things like battleground flags while capping them and not be noticed. Engineering is also a popular tradeskill for Rogues, so the +15 racial bonus makes leveling Engineering affordable as low cost stuff provides skill-ups for much longer. And finally of course, is Escape Artist. It’s critical that melee classes stay in melee range to DPS and Escape Artist dispels the effects of immobilization or movement speed reduction effects to keep you from getting kited or rooted. There is no single ability that I miss more than Escape Artist now that I am Horde side again. When I rolled Alliance, I chose Gnome for this ability and never once regretted the decision.

Dwarves: Dwarves are surprisingly underrated Rogues. Like Gnomes, they have the undocumented racial advantage that comes from the smaller model size. They also have two racials that are well-suited for Rogues. The first worth mentioning is Find Treasure. As a Rogue, it’s very convenient that all the lockboxes (used for leveling lockpicking) and locked chests show up on your mini-map. More importantly, they also have Stoneform which lasts 8 seconds and makes them immune to bleeds, poisons and disease. Since many of these have damage over time effects that interrupt stealth, this is can be an excellent way to clear off annoying debuffs and re-stealth or vanish.

Night Elves: If you have played Alliance-side, then you know how much more quickly the graveyard runs can go as a Wisp. They also get a +1% to Dodge, which is always useful to a melee class. Most importantly, they have Shadowmeld. Which, for Rogues, means a passive +1 level to your effective stealth. That +1 is the equivalent of 1 talent point in Master of Deception or 1 player level difference between you and the hostile mob or player. One point by itself is unremarkable, but it can easily be the difference maker between one stealth class spotting another a fraction of a second earlier.

Orcs: Blood Fury is the highest DPS racial for Rogues providing 282 attack power for 15 seconds at level 70 and has a 2 minute cooldown. They also have a passive 5% resistance to Stuns which is helpful against other Rogues.

Trolls: Orcs and Humans both have racials that can provide slightly better sustained DPS, but Berserking keeps Trolls in the argument by providing the best burst damage. Berserking provides a minimum 10% haste bonus (that scales up to 30% with damage) that last for 10 seconds, costs 5 energy and is on a 3 minute cooldown. Trolls also do 5% increased damage to Beasts and 1% extra damage with a Thrown weapon. While the Thrown damage is nearly useless, that extra Beast damage is pretty significant and equivalent to an extra attack every 20 swings. Lastly, Trolls also receive a 10% health regeneration that is active in and out of combat. For Rogues, this trait is not particularly useful as ideally we aren’t taking much damage unless soloing (in which case, eating food is better anyway).

Undead: Will of the Forsaken makes this race one of the most popular Rogue races for the Horde. WotF is activated to become immune to fear, sleep, and charm effects for 5 seconds and is on a 2 minute cooldown. Like a Dwarf’s Stoneform, the immunity can be used to cancel the effect and regain control of your character. In addition, Undead also get 3x the amount of time to breathe underwater. While the prolonged breathing is a neat passive ability, spending a couple of gold to keep a Water Breathing potion is pretty comparable and can be done by any race. Likewise, Cannabilize provides 35% of your health over 10 seconds, but simply having your character well stocked with food can provide a similar effect.

Blood Elf: Similar to Gnomes and Engineering, they get a useful +10 passive skill bonus to Enchanting. If you want ring enchants, this will help keep the costs down while you level the skill. Blood Elves have two main abilities: Mana Tap and Arcane Torrent. Mana Tap reduces your targets mana (by 120 mana at level 70) and charges you with a buff that can be consumed by Arcane Torrent to provide 10 energy for each buff consumed (up to a maximum of 30 energy). More importantly however, Arcane Torrent silences all enemies within 8 yards for 2 seconds AND this can be used without stacking Mana Tap first. Arcane Torrent is on a 2 minute cooldown. All of that sounds complicated, but if you just ignore the Mana Tap part altogether (never even use it), then you can still use Arcane Torrent as a 2-second AOE Silence every 2 minutes. This is like an extra stun against casters and can be used to stop fear, heals and even prevent a mage from blinking out of a stun.

In summary, the number one thing to consider while picking your Race is to choose something that suits you. I’ve talked a lot about the racial abilities, but the most important thing is that you actually LIKE the character and is something you want to play and is visually appealing. Ideally, you can strike a balance between “the look” and the abilities that race offers you. As I have hopefully pointed out here, every race has some attractive qualities for racials.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

But I thought I fixed it…

Scott Jennings has a great response to some things written by fellow game developer Dan Rubenfield.

For those of you who aren’t a readers of Broken Toys, Scott is a game developer credited with working on Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC). Dan Rubenfield is credited with working on both Ultima Online (UO) and Star Wars: Galaxies (SWG).

Scott’s article is a damn interesting read for anyone familiar with the controversial drama surrounding a major gameplay patch for Star Wars: Galaxies called NGE (an abbreviation for New Game Enhancements).

The original game mechanics included in the launch version of SWG were often cited as overly complex and even broken. As with any game, it was tweaked and expanded and eventually developed a pretty stable user base. However, given the Star Wars license, the subscription numbers were felt to be low (particularly compared with Everquest, the other SOE game at the time).

Two years after the launch of SWG, they released the NGE which dramatically altered nearly every aspect of the gameplay. These NGE changes were so sweeping and dramatic that many people didn’t even consider it the same game.

Now consider that for two years, the user base grew to enjoy and become familiar with a particular style of play. Arguably, the style of play wasn’t always the most enjoyable experience, but every single person had spent considerable time in character development to progress within the game. When NGE took place (unannounced and following an expansion), huge parts of the subscription base felt betrayed and canceled their accounts.

The ironic thing about NGE is that most critics and players who ultimately gave it a chance widely agreed that it was a massive improvement in gameplay. It lacked the depth of the original game, but was more enjoyable and popular among casual players. I had a good friend who left SWG after about 6 months and then came back after NGE and found it to be a far better game. Albeit, a very different game.

Anyway – with that context in mind, I highly recommend reading Scott’s response to one of the developers responsible for the NGE. It’s good stuff and a very enjoyable read.

I have advocated some big changes in MMO design on this blog. While I think these types of innovations are good for the industry, I also strongly believe that many of these changes could never be implemented in an existing game. NGE is a perfect example of how that can actually destroy your game instead of fixing it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Expanding the expansions….

On Monday, I wrote about innovation and today I wanted to write about an interesting idea I had about introducing a new expansion. I read a lot and I particularly enjoy (surprise, surprise) fantasy-scifi books.

One of the more popular authors in the genre, Raymond E. Feist, wrote several trilogies in a fictional world called Midkemia. The first series in that fictional world was called the The Riftwar Saga . It told the tale of a war between the world of Midkemia and a world on the other side of a rift portal called Kelewan. The original series is told entirely through the view of several key characters from the world of Midkemia. By and large, the books mostly take place on that side of the rift and only one character travels to Kelewan for any notable period of time.

It’s a classic series and I won’t offer any spoilers. However, the reason I am reminded of this series when speaking about MMO expansions is because of a later trilogy of books that came out called the Empire Trilogy that was written as a collaboration with Janny Wurts in Feist’s fictional world of Kelewan. The story takes place DURING the Riftwar, but from the point of view of characters that are on Kelewan. It doesn’t tell the same story and Kelewan is wildly different then Midkemia. And yet, it’s still very familiar with certain key world events (like the opening and closing of the Rift) shown in an entirely new light. It’s an excellent trilogy and my favorite of all those written in Feist’s universe.

Last week, Syncaine and Tobold both shared some concern about MMOs that simply “raise the level cap” when an expansion is released. Syncaine outright asks that MMOs stop raising the cap and Tobold makes the point that at the current trend, the 10th expansion for World of Warcraft will raise the level cap from 150 to 160.

I was struck with the contrast between that idea (the level cap) and the experience I had when I read the Empire Trilogy about Kelewan. An expansion doesn’t need to be “more of the same” or a continuation of the existing story – it can be a parallel story arc or a different perspective on something we already know. In fact, one of the things that people really enjoyed about the Burning Crusade was the Caverns of Time which allowed people to revisit and re-experience events they already knew.

Now also consider that one of the most successful and popular expansions in MMO history was Ruins of Kunark for EverQuest. That expansion was wildly praised not only because it increased the level cap, but because it also introduced new content from level 1 to the new cap. A player could re-roll and not need to quest an area that they had already played.

In combination, these two things tell me that an expansion that provided a new leveling experience and had a parallel story arc that offered a different perspective on the old content would be wildly popular. After all, people do enjoy the familiar – they just don’t want it to be the same. Imagine if the Burning Crusade hadn’t been when the portal re-opened and THEN you find out what had happened to Illidan – but instead started when Illidan first entered the Outlands after the portal had been closed. Your experience STARTS with the closure of the portal and the eventual re-opening happens somewhere in the middle of the expansion.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the Sunwell patch were the World objectives that were needed to make “progress” in the war effort on the Island. As the objectives were met, you could see that we were retaking the Island, but the quests stayed in place for anyone who came late to the game. In a WoTLK interview, Jeff Kaplan compared the old way of World events to this new technique:

"Players in MMOs always go "I want to go into the village and burn it down, and from that day forward the village is always burnt down," and like the guy who comes a week later "Dude, where's the village?" ... "Oh it was epic, we burned it down!" ... "Well I wasn't there for it!" But an event like this, you feel like everybody, even if you miss the event, you gain from it having happened rather than feel like something was taken away from you. "

I’d like to see more of this type of thing in expansions as a way of progressing the story. I also believe that this type of thing is great for building a sense of community and ensuring that your population paces itself through the game TOGETHER as much as possible. From a story tellers perspective, it allows you to be creative and unfold things at an interesting pace.

Take my BC example from earlier. Lets say that you have a leveling experience that is unique to the new Blood Elf and Draenei races that take place in new Outland zones rather than tacked onto Azeroth. This experience tells us what Illidan did in Outland when he first arrived. As players progress through the first twenty to thirty levels, Illidan establishes his reign and the Draenei begin their exodus to Azeroth. Young blood elfs, led by Kaelthas, are revealed the truth about their leader.

Meanwhile, back on Azeroth, a series of world events for level 60s takes place that ends with the opening of the Dark Portal. At this point, the newbie Blood Elf and Draenei are tasked with escaping to the Azeroth from Outland.

The Blood Elf story arc heads them back to their homeland to repair the havoc wreaked by the Scourge. The Draenei story arc takes them to the Azuremyst Isles to establish an new capital city (Exodar) in Azeroth. The level 30-45 experience is centered on establishing the new capital cities through more World events. The 46-60 experience is centered on establishing treaties with their respective Horde and Alliance factions.

Back in Outland, the mid-level 60s enter Outland and start making War on all the Outland factions that we know and hate. As we slowly progress through the expansion with a series of world events as we learn about Outland and establish outposts in all the high level zones. This whole process takes the better part of the expansion and culminates with an attack on the Black Temple.

From a story and experience perspective, I think I would have really enjoyed that Burning Crusade. The point here is not that they did BC badly, but that an expansion offers a wealth of opportunities. There is no reason why they can’t do something like I described above with a future expansion.

On a similar note, I think the call to action for things like new continents is misplaced. As I mentioned earlier, people like to see new stories for familiar places. There are a lot of possibilities to progress the WORLD story and retune that content to higher (or lower) levels.

I have quested through every inch of Azeroth and helped countless questgivers with each of their problems. However, everytime I roll an alt, I help those same questgivers through the same problems they have always had. Can you imagine how fun it would be to go back through Azeroth and everything was UPDATED and while that old problem was solved (and we see the effect) they have a whole host of new problems. Maybe we were successful in driving out those Ogres from the badlands, but we accidently drove them up into another area and they gained a few levels.

And what about Invasion and counter-Invasions. Imagine if the war between Alliance and Horde was back at full force. Alliance were pushing from Dustwallow Marsh into the Barrens. Horde were pushing up from Stranglethorn into Duskwood and Westfall. That would be a blast and could act as an expansion all by itself. This is the World of WARCRAFT – where’s the WAR?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

8 Myths about Botting

WoWInsider has an article up titled, Do Botters Really Matter? My answer? Yes, but mostly No. The effect that botters have on YOU personally is pretty minor and in some ways beneficial. Let’s explore some of the myths surrounding bots:

Myth #1: Botters cause inflation by selling items on the Auction House
Botters often get blamed for inflation or ruining the economics of the game, but the truth is that their presence actually has a deflationary effect on many items. Mats that are farmable in the outside world will tend to be a bit lower priced and in much greater supply as a result of the bot farming. It’s not quite as cut and dried as all that since items that ARE NOT easily farmable by a solo player may go up in price, but as a general rule they don’t cause inflation by introducing new items to market.

Bots don’t do things like daily quests for Gold, they farm and then sell their wares on the Auction House which takes a 5% cut. No gold is created by selling items on the Auction House and the money made from vendoring items can’t be much more than the repair bill. Quite the contrary, an argument can made that they actually take Gold out of the economy when they sell things out of the Auction House.

In fact, if you just do Dailys for your gold – then you are directly contributing to inflation far more than any botter. Your gold is 1) created out of thin air by a quest turnin and 2) you aren’t providing any mats to Auction House. The only thing you are doing is using your Daily created gold to purchase stuff.

Myth #2: Botters cause inflation by SELLING gold for real money
Well again, since they don’t create it – it’s not inflation, just redistribution of wealth. They are taking that gold earned from selling items on the Auction House and redistributing it to players purchasing it. Now consider that I am strictly talking about BOTTERS, not gold sellers in general. It’s my belief that far more gold comes from other sources like Account Hacking and Exploits than from Botters.

And honestly, gold that comes from botters is preferable over gold that comes from account hacking (read this article about the victimless crime of buying gold). I say ban the gold BUYERS as often as the sellers and botters. IMHO, buying gold is just as big a crime as selling it. After all, if there were no buyers…

Myth #3: Botting in a Battlegrounds is as bad as going AFK
In battlegrounds, a well written BG bot that works to achieve objectives or stay with the group is going to be more productive than an AFKer. I’ve written before that the fundamental motivation between AFKers and botters is the same. If they couldn’t bot, they would AFK.

That’s not to say that Botting is GOOD for PvP, but given those two choices, I guess I would rather have them bot doing something than just simply AFK doing nothing at all. Note that I don’t distinguish any difference between an AFK bot that jumps or runs into walls and an AFKer that sits there hitting spacebar every 4 minutes. That type of AFK bot is not sophisticated and easily player reported.

Myth #4: Botting is faster than hand-leveling
No public bot will quest as effectively as a real human. In fact, the only questing available in any public bot is termed passive questing. If it just happens to be in an area where a quest is available, it will pick it up. If it happens to kill stuff that completes the quest and then happens to be in the area where it can turnin the quest, then it will turn it in. It does not actively seek out or know how to complete a quest and the types of quests that it will do are pretty limited.

Most levels come from grinding out mobs. It takes FAR MORE time played to grind out a level on mobs than it does through questing. This is particularly true with the leveling changes in patch 2.3. In total time played, botting can be as much as 150% slower than a smart player leveling an alt. Fourteen hours of botting is the equivalent of roughly 5.6 hours of hand-leveling. Of course, the difference is that bots are automated – so they can keep on going for 14 hours without break. So in terms of actual days, the levels can certainly go faster if you can bot 10+ hours per day uninterrupted. But a human who could put in 4+ hours would level at a much faster pace.

As a side note, one way to detect a suspected bot is to check the Amory for reputation. Bots often have wacky or unexplainable reputation. It’s damn hard to hit 60 legit and not be at least honored in one of the four major factions. I recently power-leveled a friend through about 30 of his levels and he was honored in two factions at 60. This isn’t a certain way to figure it out, but it’s useful as one indicator.

Myth #5: Player reports don’t get Bots banned
Despite the recent banwave that struck thousands of Glider and Innerspace accounts, the far majority of several hundred weekly bans are generated from player reports. The thing to remember is that Blizzard doesn’t typically act against these accounts instantly. The first thing that happens is that the initial GM reading the player report escalates it to a team the specializes in bots and exploits. This team then marks the account as something to monitor and will conduct an investigation into the reported botting.

If there is enough evidence for them to “suspect” but not confirm, then they will issue a 72 hour ban. During that time, they may confirm the ban and change it to a permanent ban or simply use it to conduct a warning. It is at the investigators discretion, but they also may find the offense is not serious enough to warrant more than a 72 hour ban. AutoIt programs used to automate fishing or simply jumping every 4 minutes in a Battleground are good examples of something that may only provoke a 72 hour ban.

When an investigator does discover an infraction, the ban itself is rarely instant. Instead, they queue them up to be banned in the weekly round-up that happens around maintenance time. This is a smart move on Blizzard’s part as it obscures the method of bot detection. It’s easy to determine and share the cause of a ban if it happens instantly. If it is delayed by days (or even weeks) then the actual cause can easily be lost by someone trying to figure out why they got banned.

Myth #6: Botters are greedy and want to ruin the game
Most botters are not motivated by greed when they begin to bot, but by a love and interest for the game they are playing. The initial reason for botting either starts with a desire to improve in the game for little effort or simple curiosity in creating and writing a bot that will conduct automated play. For some, there is an inherent challenge in writing the bot. For others, they simply don’t feel they have the time to invest to reach the goals that they want out of the game. As one botter once put it, “WoW is like Cigarettes and Glider is like the Patch.”

However, once botting begins, it often takes the luster, meaning and interest out of the game. Any “grind” mechanics (even in end-game) become glaringly obvious to the botter and something to be avoided. The hook that keeps them playing for the sake of playing is gone and the attitude becomes one where they think, “why should I do X when I can just bot and get Y”. In large part, this is a symptom of the reward system of the game and mechanics that force players to do unfun things for those rewards. The botter simply becomes disenfranchised with anything they see as unfun. Instead, the idea of botting and not being a sucker becomes the fun part. For some, that progresses into greed and attempting to make money from botting.

Myth #7: Botters are easy to spot
Badly written bots are easy to spot. Well written bots act like you and me. For the record, Glider is a BADLY written bot. It’s good for it’s type of bot, but at it’s core – it’s a keyboard pusher. It reads a handful of memory values and then pushes keystrokes and moves the mouse to simulate game play. The advantage of this method is that it’s harder to detect through detection methods like Warden. The disadvantage is that it has less awareness about it’s surroundings and is more easily confused by terrain and other players.

The best written and most sophisticated bots don’t just read memory values, they provide an active programming environment that allows bot authors to interact with the WoW API as objects. This allows them to do things like actively search for objects of a type and collision detection that allows them to avoid objects that would interfere with travel.

Glider like bots use “pathing” that a bot follows on a very linear path. You can watch the bot follow that path over and over or even kite them off the path and disrupt the bot altogether. More sophisticated bots use a “navigational mesh” that is comprised of a full map of navigable points. It then uses a formula to determine the best path from it’s current point to the destination point. It’s very difficult to kite this type of bot off it’s path since it “learns” new terrain as it travels.

Used in combination with the object oriented programming environment, these bots can find a point of interest (remember it in a database) and then travel to another point of interest. When it then decides to go back to that first point of interest (perhaps to repair) then it calculates the best path back to it from it’s current position. A mob or node can be the new point of interest as well, so it can dynamically follow them and recalculate path as it moves towards it. The result is something that moves very human-like and is not stilted. A few of these bots can also use Flightpaths in these calculations and know to use them to move to another area.

Both types of bots have several mechanics they use to determine other players who appear to be following them. The user sets safety conditions based on these followers and if it does go outside of these safety settings, it will log off or move to another area (possibly taking a flight path). Gliders will often “stand still” when being followed for longer than a period of time. Others will auto-reply or auto-emote to you (wave).

The best way to observe them is to monitor the behavior – move away – then monitor the behavior again. If you see these types of avoidance methods, mount up and stand on them. Then watch what they target. Any human player will almost assuredly target you or whisper you if you do it long enough. If you choose to whisper them… ask a difficult to answer question. Something like, where is the repair guy or what is your latency or how many bars to level 43?

The weakest part of the bot chain is what is called the combat routine. Most bot authors don’t know every class well enough to write the entire bot, so they write the framework and then leave the “combat” part of it to someone who knows the class well. This is the point at which you can often break the bot by kiting it or observing the behavior. One thing to watch is how quickly it changes direction. A badly written routine will flip back-forth quickly, too slowly, or be off-centered.

Myth #8: Botting does not matter
So it would seem on the surface like botting doesn’t really matter… right?

NO. It does matter. It very much matters. Because it’s the perception that someone is getting something for nothing. And we hate that. We all hate that. We hate that our hard work feels invalidated because someone else got something for little to no effort. That’s wrong. No one likes to work hard for something and the guy next to you is just handed it.

It wouldn’t feel FAIR. And that’s why we hate botters – they don’t play FAIR. They cheat the rules and reap the rewards. It’s wrong and the actual effect aside, we hate cheats. Don’t cheat and tell me you are doing the community a service. You’re still a CHEATER.

So even if botting is actually beneficial to the community, the fact that they are gaining something with little to no effort is not an acceptable cost to those of us that DID put forth the work. That’s why botters matter. The real effect doesn’t matter as much as simply knowing that they exist and they are getting something for nothing.

The Onion Spoof on the next WoW Expansion

Pure Gold.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Theft or Innovation?

Tobold has an article up on an achievement system for WoW. The intriguing part isn’t this system itself, but some insight that Tobold shares about his thoughts on the whole “copy-cat” thing that happens when an MMO “steals” another MMO’s idea.

Tobold wrote:
“[The MMORPG] genre has a pool of features which are either expected, or optional. Every game grabs a lot of features from that pool, that is why they all belong to that same genre. And then sometimes one game adds new features to the pool, and if that feature works, it becomes part of the standard features of the genre. Who introduced which feature is only interesting to historians, and it isn't always the game that had the feature first which automatically has the best implementation of it.”

Heartless had some additional thoughts about innovation in the comments on Tobold’s blog. For your point of reference, the “Public Quests” that Heartless refers to are a mechanic that is planned for Warhammer Online (WAR). Public Quests are essentially group quests in which you are automatically teamed with others in an area. The comparison has been made to Battleground queues except these would be PvE in nature and I assuming non-instanced, so you need to travel to the area for the quest and so forth as usual. They also aren’t “cross-realm,” so presumably groups that work well together would want to do more Public Quests together.

Heartless wrote:
“MMOs do not change in leaps and bounds, and innovation is a slow, iterative process. However, I think the lesson that we learned with WoW is that enough small changes can smash the doors wide open for this industry. Suddenly, changes that seem small are refreshingly new and exciting on a large scale. That is where I am with Public Quests. WoW brought the idea that there needs to be rhyme, reason, and direction to a player's adventures in a diku-inspired MMO. What WoW didn't do, was give rhyme and reason for people to work together until it was absolutely necessary to support long-term development of group-required content. WAR is just putting players together far earlier in the game, with reason and direction on how to work together. It may seem small, but trust me, when you put players in situations where they can freely work together, without feeling forced, magical things happen.”

Both Tobold and Heartless key in on a central idea that I couldn’t agree with more: Competition Breeds Innovation. In order to compete, you need to bring something fresh and exciting to the table. The first implementation of an idea is often not the most successful implementation, but it’s vital that it take place in order to give birth to the idea in the first place. As Heartless states, this can be a slow painful process.

Polish, if you will, is it’s own form of innovation. WoW gets a lot of criticism for not being innovative and stealing ideas, but the reality is that they did innovate – just on top of the ideas of earlier competitors. Sometimes innovation leads to dramatic evolution. In most cases, however, it’s a much slower process. It often takes a company that perfects the ideas of someone else in order to see the industry as a whole take a step forward.

A lot of my own blog entries have dealt with the issue of innovation. In particular, I have been very vocal about getting rid of the holy trinity and introducing a durability system where gear breaks.

I would say that getting rid of the holy trinity of Tank-Heal-DPS would take some pretty hefty innovation. In fact, I would hazard to say that the first implementation of such a change would most definitely would not be the best one. By contrast, a broken gear durability system has been done – it just hasn’t been done as successfully as it could and could use some Polish.

Of course, part of the problem with an existing game is that you can’t just tack on innovative ideas to an existing system without risking the possibility of breaking the whole thing. First, you almost guarantee that it will lack the Polish the rest of the game enjoys because it was an afterthought. Second, radical changes are unfair to the people who went through the game under the original rules. This is largely why ideas like mine (broken gear, the anti-trinity) could never be successfully implemented in WoW.

That’s part of what worries me about the direction I feel Blizzard headed. It’s certainly more feeling than factual, but it seems like they are trying to compete with WAR , AoC and possibly even LoTRO by tacking on some of the competitions innovation to Warcraft. As Tobold also wrote in that entry, “These sort of systems only work really well if introduced right from the start, grafting them into an existing game isn't quite that easy.”

Edit: MMOG Nation has an article on innovation up as well that is worth reading. It has a bit of a different perspective on innovation and really illustrates why perhaps a smart company should keep quiet on what they are doing until the last possible moment. The WAR hype machine has been anything but quiet the past few months. It’s articles like this one that are giving me that “feeling” I described in the previous paragraph.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Pondering the future of SOE…

The Ancient Gaming Noob (TAGN) has an excellent entry up about the future of Sony Online Entertainment (SOE). If you live in a cave, you might not have known that SOE are the owners of half a dozen different MMO titles including SWG, EQ, and EQ2. TAGN points out that back in March, the controlling parent organization for SOE changed from Sony Pictures to Sony Computer Entertainment (which is the Sony company that owns and operates the Playstation series).

He remarks that the recent “Back to Norrath” campaign that provides a free subscription to returning EQ and EQ2 players can likely be attributed to this recent change in corporate ownership. His theory is that reporting directly to a successful gaming company is better for SOE than reporting up through the Movie and Television company. The logic being that gaming companies know gaming and SOE will be less likely to behave irresponsibly if they have to report up to a parent company with more subject matter expertise.

That’s entirely possible and a damn good theory. For the sake of SOE, I hope that’s true. I don’t play any SOE games and the three that I have tried, I never really liked for more than maybe a 100 hours at the most. Still – I think competition is a good thing for innovation and I know lots of people HAVE enjoyed those games. So I wish SOE all the luck in fixing the ship and sincerely hope that TAGN is right.

In my experience within Corporate America, I can’t say that this type of realignment always works out that way. Truth be told, it’s actually pretty common for companies to report up to entities that have no idea how to run their business. And honestly, that’s not entirely a bad thing. In many cases, the most innovative companies that experience excellent growth are built from the bottom up, not from the top down. The “top” is often quite distanced from the reality of a situation and unable to provide anything more than a “big picture” perspective. That picture is important to the overall direction, but the best ideas aren’t going to come from that top guy. They are going to come from the trenches and hopefully your company has process and management in place that solicits that feedback and learns from it. The best leaders don’t tell their people how to do their job, they simply enable those people to do it unencumbered.

In these types of SOE realignment scenarios, the far more common response is for the new parent to come in and tell it’s latest acquisition “how they do it” and expect them to do the same. The fallacy is that because the businesses are similar in nature that they are the same. To make matters worse, the top decision makers are often distanced from reality. The combination of that distance and the “we know better” mindset can be a recipe for disaster. Alternately, the company can really benefit from the efficiencies and resources of the new parent. For example, in this scenario, perhaps both units are able to leverage many of the same artwork and sound people.

Either way, the end result is often an entirely new charter and direction for the original company. Organizations that were in one business suddenly find themselves in an entirely new business that’s similar and yet quite different then the old business. Of course, that’s not entirely a bad thing and may actually be the intent of the original acquisition. A failing business in one industry can often be guided to a new thriving industry through this painful process and become extremely successful in it’s new role. This is a pretty common tactic in the tech industry as a way of expanding into other markets. Fans of the company aren’t always pleased with the new direction, but it can be a healthy thing for the company as a whole.

If we simply extend that logic to the new organization structure for SOE, then as TAGN suggests, we might see SOE start working on and developing MMO games for the Playstation 3. This makes a lot of sense and strikes me as the most logical reason for the reorganization. Even if that wasn’t the intent, it will likely be one major result of the reorganization.

And the more I think about it, the more I think making console games might be the very best thing for SOE. The relative market sizes between console gamers and PC gamers isn’t even comparable, so the opportunity is HUGE. It’s also a very appealing genre for Asia and Japan marketplaces. In it’s current state, SOE is barely competing with EVE and simply getting dwarfed by WoW and the upcoming hype surrounding WAR and AoC. In addition, they don’t really have a noteworthy new MMO title planned that has garnered any excitement.

As I said, these types of realignments often end up with an entirely new charter and direction that is similar and yet quite different than the original. It wouldn’t surprise me one iota if that new direction was console games for SOE. It also wouldn’t surprise me that the next MMO to break Blizzard’s subscription record was an MMO on a Sony console.

In the end, TAGN and I are very much in agreement about where SOE seems to be headed. The difference is that I think it will be a painful process where they will “unlearn” many of the things that made them successful as they focus on consoles. Don’t worry about them killing any cash cows, though. As TAGN wrote, I doubt they will shut down anything that is making money.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Will WoTLK have staying power?

So I’m back from vacation and the big news in MMO-land appears to be the very successful launch of Age of Conan. Tobold summed up a bunch of these theories about what it means to WoW early last week. Mostly, I tend to agree with his observation that AoC won’t “kill” World of Warcraft and will have a marginal impact on it’s profitability. As he points out, one day WoW won’t be the biggest kid on the block any more, but not because of a single WoW killer, but by a thousand little cuts.

The biggest WoW Killer at the moment is the lack of expansions. I wrote a couple of months ago that, at the most basic level, people get bored with what they have and start looking towards other things for variety. And right now, more than anything, I am seeing a LOT of boredom in the WoW community. Tobold’s assessment is that Age of Conan will have a million subscribers this year and most of them will be ex-WoW players that would have quit playing WoW with or without AoC. I couldn’t agree more. WoW seems to be bleeding players at the moment and not all of them are turning to AoC.

The blogosphere seems to get caught up in the idea that the WoW Killer needs to be another MMO. The real killer is stagnation. Players turning to games like AoC is just collateral damage. The reality is that they don’t need to turn to another MMO at all. WoW is simply a form of entertainment and it doesn’t just compete with other MMOs, but all alternate forms of entertainment. This could range from other platforms (360, Wii) to other genres (FPS, RTS) to completely different types of media (Movies, TV, Books) and other types of leisure activities (Hiking, Surfing, Swimming, Golf).

Speaking purely from personal experience, I am finding less and less things to do in the game. My current WoW-hobbies are primarily including playing the WoW Merchant game, playing Battlegrounds (for FUN, not honor) and power-leveling a friend’s Alt. (The power-leveling has actually been the most entertaining one since we chat on vent about stuff and I actually feel like we are two people playing one character. It’s odd, but I have as much attachment to that Hunter of his as I do to any of my alts.) In many ways, I find myself wondering why I am even bothering to play at the moment. I’ve been resisting the urge to create another Alt as I largely view that as a time sink created by boredom. When I rolled my latest main, I decided that it would be my last re-roll.

So I certainly understand why people are tired of this game at the moment. It’s still the best MMO on the market, it’s just not new and exciting any longer. From at least two of my real life friends (and from what I have read on other blogs), my understanding is that the freshest WoW-like experience at the moment can be found in AoC.

This, of course, is symptomatic of the larger issue that WoW has only one expansion in almost four years. By contrast, Everquest had SIX expansions during the first four years of it’s life. Everquest II (released at the same time as WoW) has had SEVEN expansions over the same period of time. Even assuming that WoTLK ships by Christmas, that will mean an average of one WoW expansion every 24 months in an industry where the standard has been set at one expansion every 9 months.

My prediction? In the coming months, WoW is going to continue to steadily decline as people get bored and look for alternate entertainment. This will happen regardless of AoC or Warhammer Online. The longer the expansion takes, the bigger the decline. When the WoTLK expansion does release, many people will come back to play. BUT – the moment that boredom even remotely creeps into the game, many players (myself included) aren’t going to have the patience to wait for another infusion of content.

With regards to AoC and Warhammer Online – well, these games have an excellent opportunity to take and hold market share. The bored WoW player base is ripe to be plucked. While I believe that anyone with a level 70 account is likely to play WoTLK on release, the next expansion will be held up against the new standards set by these other games. If the product offered in WoTLK isn’t better or new enough, then don’t expect people to KEEP playing the expansion once they have had their taste of the latest WoW flavor. Unless Blizzard increases the pace of it’s expansions after WoTLK, then I don’t expect it to have the staying power that Burning Crusade experienced.