Sunday, February 28, 2010

Darkfall Trial: First Impressions

I spent 18 hours playing Darkfall over the weekend. Consider this a review of what I call the new user experience. In fairness, I can't review the entire game but what I can do is talk about what it's like to be a fresh newbie in Darkfall.

The new user experience is an important phase for anything in which you are trying to adopt users. That's the case if it's an MMO or something as mundane as a rebate card at a Grocery Store. The new user experience is where people are going to form their first impressions and decide if they want to continue using it.

Graphics and Engine
I felt the graphics were subscription quality and better than I would have expected. The models could use a bit more detail if I am being hyper-critical, but they actually struck me as similar to Warhammer in terms of quality and style. That's saying a lot when you consider the relative budgets.

One minor criticism is that there are few (if any) interactable objects. By interactable objects, I mean objects that change when you interact with them (moving doors, opening chests, quest spawns, harvest nodes that diminish, etc).

This is by no means a deal-breaker, but it's noticeable and makes the world feel a like a painting. Not flat, but static or unchanging.

World is empty, but in a realistic way
This was a top concern of mine. I *knew* the world was empty and that's something that's bugged me in other games. For example, the lack of random mobs in the RvR lakes in WAR was very jarring and immersion breaking for me.

Surprisingly, it's works in Darkfall.

Honestly, it reminded me a lot of travel in the real world. When I'm on a hike, I don't run into a wandering wolf or bear every 10-15 feet. I only run into bears and wolves when I am near the animal den.

Oddly, this bit of realism makes it more immersive in that you are traveling through terrain and only seeing the mobs where you would EXPECT to see them.

In a typical MMO, you need lots of bears and other mobs because they die quickly with little challenge. It's really a function of needing lots of stuff to kill that necessitates having such a high mob density throughout the entire world. Of course, when you think about it, such density is something you would never observe in nature.

In Darkfall, you very quickly learn that Mobs are smart, tough and challenging to kill. If you ran into one every 10-15 feet you would die. Frequently and with great pain. And so having mobs be where you would expect them to be and not randomly placed all over provides some measure of safety and strategic planning on your part.

GUI mode or Combat (Gameplay) mode
The most startling out-of-the-box thing about Darkfall is the mode switching between GUI and Gameplay mode. If you haven't played Darkfall, the short version is that there is a mode for doing "mouse pointer" stuff called GUI mode and a separate Gameplay mode used for making your character move, kill, interact and so forth.

It's the mechanics of this GUI/Gameplay switching that has every single Darkfall supporter trembling in fear of criticism when a new player begins. As I wrote the other day, people like the familiar and this is NOT familiar. Nor is it intuitive.

Basically, Gameplay mode is a Free Look mode in which you move the mouse to aim. This is really the defining characteristic of what makes Darkfall combat unlike most other MMOs. You don't have a tab-target, you have to aim your shots.

Now obviously, you can't Free Look and move a mouse cursor.

In Free Look, or camera mode, you simply don't have a mouse cursor. Your aim is where the camera points. This is standard in First Person Shooters where you just turn the camera to aim and fire.

But in MMOs, we also need a mouse cursor to pick up and move inventory items, organize your hotbar, look through quests and so forth.

In pretty much every other MMO (including Warcraft, Warhammer, EQ, and EVE), this problem is tackled by providing a button you need to hold down to Free Look. If the button is not held down, you have a mouse pointer. The default for this in most MMOs is the right-button on your mouse that enables a Free Look camera mode.

Aventurine's solution in Darkfall is to use a Toggle to switch between these two modes (Free Look and mouse cursor). Essentially, rather than a button that needs to be held down, you need to hit the toggle every time you want to switch between modes. This is very markedly different and you notice it within seconds of logging in for the first time.

In other words, if you are in GUI mode (mouse cursor), you hit the toggle button to enter Gameplay mode (Free Look). To switch back, you hit the button again. By default, the key bound to this mode toggle is the right mouse button.

And as far as I can tell, the first thing most people do is figure out how to bind that toggle to another button. That should be Aventurine's first hint that perhaps they should rethink that part of the UI, but I digress.

After several hours of play, you get used to the toggle. However, I'll say I'm pretty critical of it because it's not very intuitive and not necessary. In my opinion, the right-button to enable Free Look camera that 99% of all other MMOs use is far superior and already an ingrained motion.

I suppose that you can make the argument that your finger would get tired from being held down all the time during combat, but at the very least, it should be an option.

Combat is fun and challenging
It says something about a game when the basic starter mob is quite capable of easily killing you in your first encounter. For one thing, it means that just hitting TAB-1-1-1-1-1 is not going to get the job done.

I actually found the experience a bit humbling and enjoyable. There is some depth here and I haven't even begun to figure out how to incorporate things like Parry into my playstyle.

Combat in Darkfall is often described as First Person, where your perspective is through your character's eyes. That's not wholly accurate. 

Melee combat is Third Person, which is the style used in most MMOs. Archery and Casting is First Person. Switching from a Bow to a Sword therefore switches you from First Person to Third Person perspective.

I think this is another area where Aventurine made some odd design decisions. Why the forced switch?

Arguably, some people like Third Person and others like First Person. But why arbitrarily force all Melee into Third Person and everything else into First Person. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a camera toggle and let the player choose if (and when) they want to be in First or Third person?

Now, that said, the overall experience and challenge provided by needing to aim shots (and avoid them) is pretty fun and enlightening. I recognize it's not for everyone. It's much more intense and every fight requires your constant attention.

GUI Mode is poorly implemented
First, I want to be clear that my real complaints about the UI are not about the combat system or even the GUI mode toggle issue. The toggle is not intuitive, but with some work and button reassignment you adapt to it. The combat system is different, but in a very positive way.

No. My main issue is the recurring theme that Aventurine designed the UI the way they liked it and user be damned if they don't like the way that works.

It's subtle things like not having multiple keybinds for the same action as an option. If I want forward movement to be bound to a mouse button and the "W" button, I can't do it. And there are countless little things that are just like that example.

From a new user experience perspective, this is a real nightmare.

Will I or can I adapt?  Of course.  A blind man adapts to not seeing by learning to hear more keenly. But that doesn't mean he wouldn't like to see.

Where's the Help file?
From a new user standpoint, I would say that fully half the complaints about the UI would disappear just by having a better in-game help menu.  Wait. Is there even a help menu?

Ya, I guess it's called Google.

For the life of me I couldn't figure out how to form a group.  It was baffling that something as simple as 'grouping' with another player appeared impossible.  It wasn't until I Googled it and found some guy's review complaining about how long it took him to figure it out that I learned how it was done.

That, in a nutshell, is Darkfall's biggest problem. That which you do in GUI mode is not very intuitive and the game does nothing to guide you through using the GUI.

Overall Impression
The game has promise. That said, I can understand why it gets negative feedback. I think it's easy for new users to get caught up in a UI that's not terribly intuitive, inflexible and lacks any tutorials or other in-game guidance.

But...I had fun.

Despite all the irritation caused by the UI and lack of in-game help, I've been having fun running around in Darkfall. The game has a lot of promise and while it's certainly not perfect, thus far, it's been entertaining.

Of course, right now my "New Player Protection" timer has yet to run out and I've been safe from getting one-shotted by the likes of Syncaine. I have about 6 hours left and I've taken to thinking of that countdown timer as my Doomsday Clock.

I'll be sure to let you know what I think when my timer runs out. :P

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Evolving User Interfaces

Massively conducted an interesting interview with David Allen, president of the developer responsible for creating Alganon several of months ago that has stuck with me. The standout quote for me was:
WoW is the most successful and well-known MMOG in history, and it follows standards set by countless games before it. Why wouldn't we want the custom-built Alganon UI to be familiar to players who know these standards?
At the time, Alganon was under heavy fire (and still is) because they took the whole WoW-Clone concept to never before seen levels. The interview itself was subject to quite a bit of ridicule.

Side-by-side with screenshots, David’s attempt to defend that which even the most forgiving pundits would consider shameless plagiarism was laughable.

The irony is that from a pure product development standpoint – he’s right.

Re-inventing the Wheel
First, I want to say this isn’t a post about WoW having the only UI that can or does work in an MMO. I’m a strong believer in innovation and there are certainly lots of things that can be done to improve gameplay in WoW.

But that said, the WoW UI is really a product of many years of evolution. You can’t write a post like this without people pointing out that Blizzard copied most (if not all) of the basic elements of their UI from other games. They took what worked and improved upon it.

Users then made further refinements through Add-ons, many of which have made it into the default UI. And Blizzard hasn’t been sitting idly either and have made countless other improvements over the years.

The result is that the WoW UI is not only familiar, it has YEARS and YEARS of product testing behind it.

In practically every other industry, a tried and true user experience is a recipe for success. Product Managers often copy each other and improve upon concepts in an effort to refine and enhance user experience. Cell phone manufacturers are hardly looking at the iPhone and trying to figure out how to be radically different.

The simple reality is that users do appreciate the familiar.  From a usability standpoint, why fix what’s not broken. In fact, the unfamiliar UI of games like Darkfall are some of the biggest concerns that community has about new user adoption. The fear is that people won’t give the unfamiliar a chance.

So Alganon mockery aside, there is some merit in having a familiar UI.

What if Blizzard developed Alganon?
The obvious joke here is that they already did and they called it World of Warcraft. But the question I’m really asking here is that if Blizzard used the existing WoW engine but completely redid the content, how successful would that game be?

I’m talking about keeping the engine, but new lore, new races, new classes, new skills, new talents, new quests, and new regions. Not an expansion, but a totally new game which just happens to be based on the existing engine, UI and game mechanics. In other words, something akin to using the Quake2 engine to create the original Half-Life. Same game mechanics and engine, entirely different game.

I’m betting that if Blizzard were the ones to launch that game, it would be immensely popular. I’d play it. Hell, I think it would quickly become the second most popular MMO on the market next to WoW.

Of course, we’ll never know if I’m right because Blizzard would never do such a thing. But it does raise some interesting questions about why exactly people like playing WoW and not other MMOs. Is it marketing? Is it where your friends play? Is it the familiarity of the game mechanics? Is it the familiarity with the lore, classes and skills?

So why do we really hate Alganon?
Obviously some people hate it because they hate all things WoW. Others likely hate it because they support WoW and see it as an infringement of intellectual property.

For me, it’s just bothersome that I can’t pinpoint exactly why it bugs me.

I would consider myself fairly MMO agnostic and I don’t have a vested interest in any MMO game. I also fully buy into the concept that products evolve and you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And yet, the extreme plagiarism bugs me in a way I can’t figure out.

I suppose it’s some combination of both. Alganon offers nothing new AND it’s a complete rip-off. If it were just a partial rip-off, I don’t think I would have a problem with mustering support. But it’s the complete lack of originality in something as important as the talent tree that really bothers me.

That’s why the MMO market is so hard to please. We want things to stay familiar, yet be different enough that it provides a unique experience.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Darkfall: $1 Seven Day Trial

Given that my interest in EVE has been waning due mostly to the slow pace and lack of excitement in the combat mechanics, it comes as a very welcome surprise that Aventurine has released a Seven Day Trial of Darkfall for $1.

You might recall that I was on the verge of trying Darkfall a month ago when I opted to try EVE instead because of the 14-day free Trial. This isn’t a case of me being some cheapskate unwilling to fork out cash. I bought my EVE account the following day well in advance of the Trial ending.

No. I find that Trials are important to me because 100% of my gaming takes place on a laptop. Unfortunately, laptops and their lousy drivers don’t always follow the same system requirement rules as everyone else. There is very little that is more frustrating to me than buying a shiny new game only to find that it plays like crap. Not a problem I’ve had with my latest laptop, but my old laptop definitely had some occasional issues.


Top Interests about Darkfall
  • First Person Combat
  • Negative sum PvP
  • Territory control
While the rest of you were playing EQ and UO, I was playing First Person Shooters like Starsiege:Tribes, Quake, Half-Life, Unreal, Counterstrike, and Rainbow Six. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that a game with First Person combat mechanics would be appealing to me. In some ways, I always played MMOs like a FPS.


Top Concerns about Darkfall
  • Big, empty world
  • Grinding without purpose
  • Lengthy material requirements for “Things”
  • Exploits, cheats and hacks
  • I’ll like the game and need to learn how to spell Aventurine without looking it up
By all accounts, the world is big and a world without people or creatures is no world at all. I’ve never been a fan of lengthy travel and in some of the stories I’ve read by Syncaine and others, there is always this unspoken subtext that it takes a really long time to get from Point A to Point B. Also, many of the videos I have seen have shown some largely empty areas devoid of life.

I’m also a little concerned about wandering around the world looking for random monsters to kill for lewtz. At least for me personally, I’m going to need to research some purpose for killing specific mobs. It will quickly drive me nuts if I don’t have good reasons beyond ‘skilling’ points for attacking stuff.

On a related note, I’ve also never been a big fan of needing to kill 10,000 bears for the fur needed to build a fur hat. It’s one thing if it’s something big enough to be a group or collective effort (like a naval ship or Titan) but entirely another thing if it’s some minor stat upgrade. It’s not the mechanic of needing fur for hats, but the effort not equaling the reward that has me concerned. I don’t want to spend four weeks as a naked gatherer before I can travel to the next town.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

EVE Online: My Review (even if it's 5 years late)


I know how emotional and sensi-poo players can get about their favorite MMO, so I’ve been letting this post brew a bit. Parts of this post are going to come off like I’m bashing EVE and since I have a negative opinion about certain things, there really isn’t any way to avoid that. So I’ll only preface it with, this is only my opinion blah blah blah and I respect your opinion blah blah blah.

Other parts are going to be supportive. So if you do think I’m bashing your favorite game, well.. all I can say is that I do have LOTS of positive things to say about it as well. Also, I don’t have anything better to do at the moment, so I’ll likely be continue playing it for the foreseeable future (painful as that is at times).

My Mandatory Ed Zitron Disclosure
I’ve been playing EVE for around a month now logging on average 2-3 hours a day, up to 10 hours a day over the weekends. I’m somewhere between 80-100 hours logged in the game with maybe another 20-40 hours spent in out-of-game research and so forth. For those keeping track, that’s a pretty nice chunk of time over the last month playing the game even if it’s not enough time to experience every single nuance.

I’d say my time spent in EVE has been broken down into about:
  • 30% mission running in hi-sec
  • 20% ratting in 0.0 space (killing Pirates for ISK and Ops)
  • 10% fitting/equipping ships
  • 10% running ships from hi-sec to low-sec
  • 15% spent looking for Gang PvP
  • 5% hunting down WAR targets in high-sec
  • 5% participating in Gate Camps
  • 2% Mining
  • 3% podding myself to travel from point A to B (no Jumpclone)
Noticeably absent on this list is Fleet combat. Although I have watched this video and this video and this video which all give me a pretty good idea of what I believe I could expect from Fleet combat.

Graphics: The prettiest black space and red squares I have ever seen
This is my first shot across the bow. Obviously the picture I posted is a parody, but if you watch some of the videos I posted above, you’ll sadly note that it’s not that far off from the truth.

Before I even began playing EVE, I remarked how I thought Space is Boring. And I’m sorry, the best graphics in the world can’t hide the fact that outer space is big, black and empty.

EVE does a very commendable job in creating really neat looking ship models, stations and other cool looking stuff. It also does a commendable job of showing you what those things look like from 20km away – microscopic.

Personally, I found it really ironic that one of the things that people praise CCP for is updating the graphics engine in EVE. Why? I mean you see things up close in EVE so rarely, why does it even matter?

It’s worth pointing out that I really don’t attribute this as a flaw in EVE, but in all space-based MMOs. Any sense of realism in terms of actual dimensions and distances is going to result in this exact same thing.

Combat: For me, the heart of any game
If you look over the activities I performed in EVE, you can see that 75% of my activity was related to blowing things up or looking for things to blow up. That’s the part I like best in MMOs – killing stuff. Ideally, I prefer killing stuff for a purpose – but at it’s core what I really want to do is set stuff on fire.

Until I played EVE, I never thought blowing stuff up could be made so boring. I click a few auto-attack modules, click some other stuff on and off as appropriate, fly around great distances (often slowly).

Occasionally things get really exciting and I get Jammed, Scrambled or Webbed. All of which means that I can’t do as much auto-attacking or move around more slowly than I did previously.

And if you aren’t ratting or mission running, finding stuff to blow up is HARD. Surprisingly, people don’t want you to blow their stuff up, so they hide in stations and other POS. My small gang of three entered into a 0.0 system owned by an enemy alliance the other day and no fewer than 20 reds all hid in the station.

It’s really no surprise that the most PvP action I saw were Gate Camps in 0.0 systems bordering hi-sec. Which, in itself, is terribly boring when you outnumber everyone 10 to 1.

The impact nature of the PvP certainly adds a flavor, and I appreciate that, but the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired.  In some ways, the most exciting moments for me happened when I was running an expensive (for me) ship from hi-sec to low-sec and I saw a red following me in Local.

Time based Skill systems suck
I really only have one other bitch and that’s the time-based nature of the Skill system.

At first, what I thought would bug me about this system is catching up. That’s not really the case now that I understand that if you want to specialize in a very specific rig, you can be capable of flying that ship fairly quickly and a master of that ship in maybe another 9 months. Other people might have more ships mastered, but you can reach a point where you are just as good in THAT ship as anyone in the game in less than a year.

No – what ended up really bugging me is the pacing of the skills. As I noted above, I put a pretty decent amount of time into the game over a short period of time. All of that time might have given me more experience with the game, but my character is still just as limited in the ships he can fly as someone else who logged just a few hours of time.

It’s not a very favorable system for people who play frequently and expect to advance accordingly. This is a very personal thing. My good friend logs on just a couple of times each week over the weekend and loves this model. I can’t stand it, particularly since I’m gaining skill points at the normal rate having passed the 1.6M mark.

Everything else: Thumbs Up
I really like the negative-sum PvP and PvE. It really makes everything else in the game work. You don’t risk what you can’t afford to lose. People losing stuff feeds the rest of the economy. It really is the lifeblood of EVE and you can count me as someone who thinks this should be implemented in more games.

The only other thing I’ll say about the negative-sum system is that it’s not nearly as dramatic and scary as people make it out. Yes, you lose ships. But the game is built on the idea that you are going to lose ships and it’s easily recoverable. It’s unfortunate that so many people make this out to be such a big deal because it really is a very tidy solution to making lots of things work (power balance, economies, etc).

Also, I found the economy to be very interesting and complex because of distances, travel and Buy Orders. The Buy Order is something Blizzard should absolutely implement on their Auction House. For one thing, it would get rid of a lot of people spamming Trade.

I have mixed feelings about the Corp and Alliance system. My personal experience was very good because I got into what appears to be a decent Corp/Alliance. There is a real sense of community within my Corp (at least in 0.0) and Alliance. They run Ops and are doing other stuff in 0.0, so it’s been fun. I say mixed feelings because I have to think that this isn’t a uniform experience for everyone. Had I gotten into a bad Corp, I might have an entirely different experience to share.

Fitting ships is a blast. At first it seemed like there were an overwhelming number of options. Now, I wish there were more options. I’m a theorycrafter, so the depth of this type of thing will always appeal to me.

All of these things are really great and I enjoy them quite a bit. It’s just too bad I can’t stand the combat mechanics or the space environment.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Microtransactions: Follow-up to Today's post

If you aren’t familiar with the Allod debacle, Keen summed it up best. Basically, there is a debuff received when you die called Fear of Death. It lasts two hours and the only way to get rid of it is to use a Perfume that needs to be purchased from the Cash Shop. Keen is upset because a stack of 20 costs $13.50.

And after following Keen and other commentary, I’m struck with a recurring theme. That the problem lies in Allods implementation of the Microtransaction model, not in the model itself. This train of thought is best summed up by Heartless Gamer who wrote:
Lets forget about the cash shop for a minute; these changes don't make sense for any business model. Unavoidable, hours long death penalties? In a game designed to have players die repeatedly? This is a classic case of the punishment (fear of death) not fitting the crime (death). I would have as much of a problem with these changes in a subscription game where I would have to grind away my time for perfume, something more valuable to me than my cash.
Heartless_ is making the argument that we would hate this type of penalty in any game. He argues that if this change were made in a subscription game, players would still be up in arms about it. Very true. But with one critical difference, in Allods, you can PAY to avoid the penalty.

What if it didn’t cost $13.50 for a stack of twenty perfume?
What if it cost $0.25 for a stack of 1000 that would last you an entire year? It might be the most heinous and horrible death penalty in the world, but if you only had to pay 25 cents to avoid it for an entire year is it really a problem? If you don’t pay the measly $0.25 , then aren’t you just punishing yourself? I mean 25 cents is so inconsequential that anyone can pay it.

If the problem is that inconsequential and easily avoidable, why is it that big a deal?

And the moment you concede the point that $0.25 is inconsequential and not a big deal, then you’ve just accepted that developers can implement horrible design changes and you are OK with paying to avoid them.

All you are doing after that is negotiating the price.

For Keen, the $13.50 is too high. Twenty-five cents is acceptable.

But WHY is it acceptable?
The question I’m raising is why is $0.25 acceptable and $13.50 is not? In both scenarios, you are paying to avoid something bad that the developer artificially created to inconvenience you.

The price doesn’t matter. The fact that they are manipulating you to make you pay is what matters.

Why would you willingly accept that manipulation? I’m constantly amazed that people accept this as a matter of course because they see the price as inconsequential.

Who cares if the price is small? You are being duped into paying for bad game design. You are paying to AVOID an obstacle. That’s a problem with the model – not with the implementation.

The Line
Part of the problem is where we need to draw the line. The type of transactions I’ve been talking about are the ones that directly influence how you play the game. I’m against Microtransactions in general, but these are the main ones we need to make sure we never support.

It’s a bit harder to argue against Microtransactions that are merely cosmetic. A $10 minipet is a complete non-factor. A $25 name, server, or even faction change is not terribly remarkable either. But none of those things directly impacts how quickly you progress in the game.

Paying for progress is simply bad for you as a player. It might be temporily convienant, but ultimately it’s bad for all of us that you are allowing the dev to manipulate you into paying.

Microtransactions: Why YOU need to hate them like I do

If you believe in the old adage that you vote with your wallet, then you need to hate Microtransactions as much as I do. Let’s set aside all the fairness talk for a moment about Microtransactions and examine the economic impact of the model itself.

Ultimately, if enough MMO gamers support the Microtransaction model by voting with their wallet, then developers will see the model validated and successful enough to emulate.

That’s bad. Really bad.

Price to Maximize Profit
Allods Online recently set item prices with their cash shop well above what the majority of players would pay. In economics, we call this line the Demand Curve because it depicts the amount that consumers are willing and able to purchase at a given price. Since supply is completely controlled by the MMO developer at no cost, this means that demand is the only factor to consider when determining price.

The formula is simple: Price * Demand = Revenue at Price. Selling one unit at $1000 nets me the same revenue as 1000 units at $1. But selling 500 units at $5 nets me a $2500 or a 250% higher revenue. So, the trick is finding the price at which demand for that price provides the highest revenue.

OK. That’s all great from a developer standpoint, but what if you are one of the 500 that was willing to pay $1 but not $5? From your perspective, it’s just like the recent Allods Online fiasco. Prices are higher than you are willing to pay or can afford, so the model sucks for you.

So that’s the first reason that you should hate Microtransactions. The pricing is based on what will maximize profits.

And as far as we know, this is exactly what is happening with the cash shop in Allods Online right now. It may be that Allod will change prices, but if not – then it’s because they believe they can make more money off the fewer people willing to pay higher prices.

Creating Demand
The number one reason you should hate the Microtransaction model like I do is because it benefits developers to create demand for Microtransaction products.

This is critical, so it’s worth repeating. Developers benefit by creating demand in-game for Microtransaction products. That means that even if YOU don’t purchase Microtransactions, you feel the impact of the demand that developers are attempting to create for Microtransactions.

What do I mean by creating demand? I mean, throwing up subtle roadblocks that you would rather pay to avoid. Things like not traveling fast enough, not having enough bag space, not having the right weapon or skills, not leveling fast enough and so on.

The more inconvenient they make it for players who haven’t purchased Microtransactions, the more demand is created for them in-game. The more people who pay to avoid these things, the more the developer is encouraged to include such things in the game to create demand.

Now combine this with what I stated earlier about the magic revenue number. If you are outside the targeted paying customer (which may be a small group), then you are pretty much going to get screwed over by every single roadblock and obstacle that the developer throws up to inconvenience you into buying the Microtransaction.

I’ll never understand why people would willingly support a model that actively encourages the developer to exploit them.

And before I hear the obvious “they’ll lose customers” argument, let me be clear that they obviously know they can’t over-exploit players or they are going to lose customers. It’s a balancing act in which they look to exploit players as much as they think players will allow them to exploit them before quitting in frustration.

Validating the model
That’s why I want you to hate this model. I want you to show the MMO development community that players are not going to willingly allow themselves to get robbed blind in an exploitive manner.

Because if you don’t hate this model like I do, then you are only validating the model. You are saying that it’s OK to exploit us as long as they developer is subtle enough about it that you don’t know you are getting exploited.

At the end of the day, I’m not terribly concerned about Allods Online. I’m concerned about the impact  Microtransaction success will have on the rest of the industry. I’m concerned about how companies like Blizzard will continue to experiment with Microtransactions and value added services.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Microtransactions: Not only unfair, but foolish

I wrote an entry a few weeks back about defining the label Hardcore. The purpose was to discuss the nature of how we use the term to describe what can be very different expectations in an MMO. But perhaps more important is this insight into how we view effort for our reward systems:
All MMOs (perhaps all games) reward us based on our success in the two areas. Either we are dedicated enough to finish, or we are skilled enough to survive the intensity. And most likely, it's some combination of both.

Players expect to 'work' for rewards in either of these two ways. They either expect a long ardous journey until completion, or they expect an extremely difficult challenge to overcome. One is a function of Time, the other the function of Challenge.

I think that's what people don't like about RMT and Microtransactions. RMT takes neither Time nor Challenge. You don't need to be dedicated or skilled to purchase something with RMT. It literally runs counter-clockwise to everything we have come to expect about earning rewards. It strikes anyone willing to invest the time or willing to take up the challenge as wrong.
Why do we play?
As I wrote above, rewards take on meaning when they take dedication and skill. Ultimately, we play games because not only are they fun, but because they provide a sense of accomplishment for that dedication and skill.

It’s easy to argue that RMT only impacts the player buying the RMT, but MMOs are not isolated worlds. We play MMOs because of other people, even if those people just provide the backdrop to our own MMO existence.

For many people, the value of the individual effort can only be measured against the achievements of other people in the game.  And what is meaningful about an accomplishment that can be invalidated by someone else willing to pay more?

This strikes at the heart of what we believe is fair in games. Traditionally, we only reward and respect the dedicated or skilled. RMT rewards neither.

Micro transaction by Design
RMT and Micro transactions work because they allow players to overcome an obstacle. The popular model that people seemingly support is the one where the “obstacle” for the players is purposefully placed by the developer as a roadblock. Extra bag space, a mount, XP potions, and so forth are all still just things that assist the player in overcoming specific game obstacles.

I really like Syncaine’s recent arguments against this type of model:
The problem I have with the model is that spending more does not get me more; it simply allows me to continue playing like I have before. Spending $50 at the cash shop does not upgrade the graphics, sound, or gameplay, it simply buys me potions/books/perfume to sustain the level of progress/power that was available earlier for ‘free’. The further you get from level 1, the more you need to spend just to maintain the SAME level of progress.
And as he alludes to in a follow-up post today, if people DON’T buy these things, all they are left with is an incomplete MMO.

Cash Rich, Time Poor
This model favors the cash rich casual player much more than it does the poor player with plenty of free time. A player with lots of time and little cash will progress much faster in a traditional $15/month MMO because they won’t have to overcome the artificial obstacles with real cash.

This is very ironic when you consider that they are marketed as “Free 2 Play” games.

The model is most appealing to player who has plenty of real life cash but a limited amount of gaming time. They can simply short-circuit the challenge by spending real life money.

I can’t help but think that this type of instant gratification is self-defeating.
  • Why pay money to NOT play the game?
  • Why pay money to have a developer build in ridiculous time sinks for which your only option is to pay more?
  • Why the hell would you want to reward the developer for making it too hard to do without paying them more?
Aren’t you just better off playing something that requires less of your real life time?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How I made 1000+ Gold Per Day

I couldn’t say with 100% accuracy how much Gold I was earning each day when I quit WoW, but on average it had to be upwards of at least 1000 gold a day. And that’s being conservative since I know there were several weeks when I made well over 10,000 gold in a single week.

Anytime you make a fantastic claim like that, people inevitably come out and call you a liar. To the layman, it seems unfathomable that a single player could generate that kind of profit. This post really isn’t about whether or not it’s possible – I know it’s possible having done it – it’s about how I did it and why it worked.

Vertical monopoly
When people think of a monopoly, the traditional view is of some sort of price fixing of the end-product. For example, owning the only gas station in a small town means that the only limit to the price you can charge is whatever your market will accept before they decide it’s worth driving to the next town.

In a game like WoW, this type of monopoly never really works because it’s virtually impossible to be the only gas station in town. Quite the opposite, there are LOTS of gas stations and each of them is working to undercut the next guy. Healthy competition like this actually serves to drive prices down.

However, there is another type of monopoly, which I’ve heard coined as a vertical monopoly, which has principles that apply very well to online games. The idea behind a vertical monopoly is that you control the entire distribution channel from THE SOURCE to the end product. The key to this type of monopoly is controlling and manipulating the costs of the SOURCE materials, not the end-product price.

Profit is in the conversions
Before I get into the how-to of competing, I think it’s important to talk about where the profits are in these transactions.

All traders follow the model of buy low, sell high. It’s very simplistic, very true and a guaranteed way to make money if you can, in fact, find something low priced and sell it for a higher price. The issue is that the margins are typically very low, so you need to deal in tremendous volumes to make much of a profit and you could take a significant loss if the market drops on you.

So the real money is in buying something low, then converting it to something else, and then selling that as high as possible for the most profit. Each time you convert to something, your profit increases. Or put another way, the more ‘developed’ your thing gets from whatever it started as, the more worth it has to other people.

This seems like a simple idea, but it’s critical to understand.

For example, 8x Borean Leather can be converted through Leatherworking to a pair of green Artic Boots. Those boots can be disenchanted into 1-3 Infinite Dust or 1-2 Lesser Cosmic Essence. Which means that each bundle of (8) leather is conservatively worth at least 1 Infinite Dust and on average, 1.5 Infinite Dust.

So after some simple math, you can figure out roughly what price you can buy the leather at to turn a decent profit. If you can buy Borean Leather for 45 silver (9g per stack) and Infinite Dust sells at 4g each, then you know each disenchanted green is going to net you a minimum of 40 silver profit (1 dust) and up to 8.4 gold (3 dust). Or on average, 2.4g profit per disenchant. And more importantly for you, few people selling enchanting mats look at Borean Leather as a source material to disenchant.

Snapshots or Moments in Time
The other key thing to consider is that the market is fluid. As such, there may be an average price or a typical price, but the market price is whatever the lowest BuyOut price is on the Auction House at that moment in time.

That is worth repeating because it’s consistently misunderstood. The “price” of something is not the price as it’s listed in Auctioneer, WoWEcon, or even what you have typically paid in the past. Nor is it some average of the prices currently listed on the Auction House. No – the market “price” is the price of something if you (or someone else) were to buy it IMMEDIATELY.

Therefore, the ONLY price that matters at that moment is the lowest price. These prices are a snapshot of the moment and are very volatile (see lots of change).

Now that said, there are also average going rates for items. Unlike the snapshot market price, these average going rates don’t fluctuate much over large periods of time without some dramatic market change. A common rookie mistake is for players to look at the Auctioneer or average listing price on the Auction House as the average going rate. That’s a quick way to lose a lot of money.

The actual “going rate” is the average market price. As defined above, the market price is the lowest BuyOut price at that moment of time. So, by definition, the average market price is the average lowest BuyOut over time. That’s the price that you could typically expect to sell or buy something.

Controlling your costs
My core strategy for competing was to aggressively control my costs and influence the costs of others. Implementing this strategy takes a few things:
  • a decent pool of seed money to invest in source materials
  • a very focused and solid knowledge of the materials you are trading (source and the end product)
  • time, to convert things and check prices
The first core tenet of this strategy is to always buy up any SOURCE material that is 10% below the threshold of what you consider the average market price. This means that if the current BuyOut (market price) is 9g and you believe market average is 10g, then buy it. Even if you already have hundreds in the bank. Buy it. Why 10 percent? To cover the 5% AH fee and any listing costs incurred if you need to sell it again unconverted.

At first, the idea of buying excess material can be a bit daunting. The thing you need to remember is that you are buying it at what you perceive to be a discount. And if you have done your homework, it IS a discount. Which means that the very worst case scenario is that you are forced to sell it off on the auction house for slightly more than you paid for it. You need to have faith that what you bought still has value and just consider it part of your inventory.

The good news is that you have plenty of SOURCE material which you bought for well below average market price. And, if your competition wants to buy SOURCE material, they pay the higher prices you left for them on the Auction House.

NOTE: One thing to also consider is that the Auction House isn’t the only source of materials. Keep an eye on the Trade channel for people buying/selling at below market.

Driving up costs for others
So, at the very least, we can keep our competition from buying below market price. But why not push them above market? Contrary to some opinions, you can price fix items in the WoW economy. Perhaps not what YOU sell them for, but certainly the price at which OTHERS buy them.

As you approach primetime, you can temporarily drive prices well above market. The key here is timing. You want to do this during the times when YOU are trying to sell your items (primetime) and others are logging in to convert stuff and undercut you. Ideally, you do the “push up” before primetime actually starts. This is where having an iPhone applet to the Auction House would be helpful (cough cough).

At a bare minimum, you buy up everything at market price – leaving just what is ABOVE market price as the minimum BuyOut. Rule of thumb was that I liked to see minimum BuyOut at least 10% above average market price. However, I do recommend some caution because being overzealous at this point is an easy way to overextend yourself.

A few of things to consider.
  • You are triggering a snowball effect. As your competition buys the SOURCE materials above market, they will continue raising the BuyOut as they stock up. If it went up high enough, I often listed some of my SOURCE inventory to offload it at the higher prices.
  • There is a psychological impact that may prevent your competition from buying above what they believe is market price. Which means, at least temporarily, they aren’t competing with you because they believe costs are too high.
  • In a high volume market, this is only sustainable for brief periods. Therefore it’s important you time it in conjunction with your selling cycle.
  • You are only temporarily hoarding. If you find you have too much, you can make your profit and then slowly divest it at market price.
Driving costs down for you
So another key principle of market economies you should consider is that for any given product, only a certain amount of volume is going to be traded regardless of price. For example, if only two of something are sold each day, then two people fiercely trying to sell four each day are going to drive the price down to nothing.

This is because the volume for that thing just isn’t happening to support eight of that thing being sold. When volume (or supply) exceeds demand, prices drop.

In my little price control war, it wasn’t unusual for me to find myself with a nice surplus of source materials. Most weeks, I would just slow down operations for a bit and divest it down to a more comfortable level over the weekend. I typically saved my pricing tactics for Tuesdays (the best day to sell due to Raid resets/Arena pts) through Thursdays, with the weekend being the point at which I normalized my inventory.

The exception would be if I saw prices dropping. If that was happening, and I knew of no other external causes, it meant there was a surplus on the market. And so, counter to everything you might think – I would start dumping MY source materials onto the market as well in order to drive prices down.

These were short auctions which I intended to cancel. The key here is to help drop the price without being the loss leader. This is, needless to say, dangerous and something to watch carefully. Done correctly, however, and you drive the market price down. At which point, you cancel your listings, and try to drop it some more.

Once you’ve dropped it as far as you think it can drop – cancel your auctions and BUY BUY BUY. All the way up to your usual 10% off market threshold. And congrats, because you just made a small fortune even if it’s all temporarily tied up in inventory.

I actually first discovered this trick by accident. I had started a new character on a new server and a friend of mine (the reason I switched) was running me through Scarlet Monastery. I collected a lot of Silk Cloth – I mean A LOT. And at that point, I really didn’t have a bunch of gold on that server so I went about selling it to the Auction House. After I sold about half of my inventory, I realized that prices had dropped (due to my contribution) to less than half of what I was making at the start. So I bought everything up (took most of my money) and relisted at the higher price. And this strategy was born. :)

Jewelcrafting + Enchanting
The first profession that earned me a nice chunk of change was Leatherworking. It’s a small market with few source materials that is easy to control. Pairing it with Enchanting was nice because, as I wrote above, I could get rid of a lot of the excess leather I was buying to price control the leather market by disenchanting greens.

However, I tripled my income when my alt picked up Jewelcrafting. The reason is that JC and Enchanting have a very synergistic effect. JC really only has one source material. Saronite Ore. This makes it incredibly easy to price fix using the technique I described earlier.

Ore is prospected into green gems with about a 20% chance of being converted to a blue gem. At first glance, the blue gems are where you make your money. Which is true, and they more than pay for the Ore. But what to do with the greens? Well, turns out that 1 green gem + 2 Crystallized Earth turns into a nice green item which can be disenchanted into 1-3 Infinite Dust or 1-2 Lesser Cosmic Essence.

*ka-chink*

Yes. That’s the sound of profit. Lots of profit.

Setting up Suppliers
Indirectly related to the price fixing of the source materials is the idea of recruiting regular suppliers to provide items to you at a fixed, previously agreed upon, below market price. For Saronite Ore, I had about three regular suppliers who each sold me maybe 400g worth of Ore every couple of days. I also used to have a guy who sold me leather in such quantities that he was either secretly Chinese or Botting. No way to know that for sure, but I always thought that selling to a guy like me was a convenient way to avoid being circumspect.

Setting up these relationships is smart on a few levels. The first being that you have a guaranteed source below market price. The second being that you are preemptively keeping these low priced items off the market. After all, if I weren’t buying them, they would just be selling them to someone else in Trade. Who may, or may not be, my competition. Let’s just keep it simple and have you sell it to me and I’ll decide when and how it is to be sold on the market.

Time
The myth that so-called Gold Guides try to sell you is that you can make gold easily and quickly. I’ll buy the easily part, but the quickly part is simply untrue.

I’ve said this before, but perhaps the biggest myth is that some guy can make 1000s of gold just sitting at the Auction House. You can. But it takes time. All of the things I have described take time. Time you could be using to do something else. And it takes work and knowledge of your market.

It’s not BETTER than the guy who mines, gathers or quests for his gold. In fact, the only difference is that much of what I can do is unattended through the use of Mail and Crafting addons. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that reading some how-to blog entry or Gold Guide is going to make this a fast process.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Hacked!

Continuing yesterday’s discussion about RMT, Tobold has a follow-up post up about whether or not illegal RMT hurts the economy. The long and the short of his argument is that with RMT, net new gold is not created, merely shifted around. The problem is that Tobold wishes to completely disregard “Hacking” as one of the unintended consequences of Illegal RMT.
Thus whenever I mention gold farmers, somebody immediately starts shouting about hackers, which is *not* the same. While everybody knows somebody who know someone who has been hacked, few people bother to count that they also know 99 other people who *never* got hacked. Simple back-of-an-envelope calculations of the amount of gold stolen by hackers compared to the amount of gold sold every day in World of Warcraft shows that the large majority of sold gold is produced by farming and botting, not by hacking and stealing.
Well, you can write my name down as one of those people who *DID* get hacked. And no, Tobold, while illegal RMT is *not* the same, it is at least partially supported through account hacking.

No amount of minimization on your part is going to change the fact that without RMT, the account hacking problem would be far less severe.

Getting Hacked!
I don’t know if I’ve written about this on the blog. It happened maybe a year or so before I started blogging and was shortly after the Burning Crusade expansion. The crazy part is that prior to getting Hacked, I always believed that such things only happened to the ignorant, stupid or naïve. Being a very technical saavy person, this was something I was very confident wouldn’t happen to me.

I used a firewall. I used an Anti-Virus program. I regularly kept my OS up-to-date. I had a unique password for Warcraft, which I only used for Warcraft. The password was strong, using alphanumeric keys to form a non-dictionary word. In short, I was doing all the things a security minded professional would tell you to do.

And it didn’t stop me from having both my real-life Bank Account and my World of Warcraft account hacked within about a three hour window of each other. The crazy part about the bank account is that I could see the wire transfer as a debit, but the bank couldn’t reverse it. The even crazier part is that whoever did the hacking didn’t feel that getting real money was enough and stripped every single character (on multiple servers) of every item and gold piece.

The Logic of Everybody
When everybody knows something, it must be true, right? And when everybody doesn’t know something, that means it doesn’t exist?

The logic of "Everbody Knows" is fuzzy logic at best because it’s not really based in anything other than our perception. All Tobold can really do is apply HIS experience with "Everybody Knows" and the number of people HE knows that have been hacked to form this argument.

The result in this case is to seemingly quantify how many people are getting hacked in an effort to say it’s really not a contributor to RMT. A point which, in my opinion, is an invalid one because all it takes is one person on a hacked account who knows how to “dupe” items to create a large amount of gold.

The larger issue, that Hacking occurs BECAUSE OF RMT, is entirely ignored.

Oh, and of course, we have no actual evidence to support his claim that Hacking is far less common than we believe. We only have his logic that because only a few people we know have been hacked, not everyone, then it must be a small group. And yet, it must be a big enough problem for Blizzard to address it as their top concern regarding illegal RMT and for them to have dedicated staff on hand JUST to deal with account hacks.

In short, the "Everybody Knows" argument really only speaks to his own practical experience and not the quantifiable facts he is implying. Is cancer less of a problem because I don’t know anyone who has cancer?

When a Small Number has Big Meaning
I distinctly recall a debate class I had in High School. I don’t remember the exact nature of what was being debated, but much of the arguing was about the magnitude of the issue. Our side was saying the number was much higher, their side was saying it was much lower. No one really appeared to be able to win the point.

Then my partner stepped up and asked, “Isn’t your number a big number too?”

His point being that magnitude is measured by both quantity and intensity. Or in other words, the importance isn’t just measured by how often it happens but by the severity of the impact when it does happen. For example, products are recalled all the time when only a very small percentage of them will cause death or injury.  It's the death and injury part that makes it important enough to recall every unit.

To my way of thinking, that’s the critical flaw in Tobold’s reasoning. Even if we accept that Hacking happens less often than we believe, the impact from Hacking is severe enough that we shouldn’t willingly support anything that contributes to it.

That’s obviously true on a personal level for the person getting hacked, but it’s also true at the a broader level. A Hacked account is a free account – a throwaway – that can be used to do the very worst things that would get a normal player banned. As mentioned above, ‘duping’ is something that has been possible in Warcraft – you are just likely to get caught. But if you don’t care if you are caught, you could create quite a bit of gold out of nothing.

Thus, one hacked account can easily be a very large source of gold for illegal RMT.

Monday, February 15, 2010

RMT: The Unstoppable Force

If you think Syncaine is caustic, how about a guy just as abrasive who censors his comments? I’m not linking to his blog, but I will link to Tobold’s article about the latest entry on his blog, because I think the topic of Gold Sellers in MMOs warrants a discussion.

The original posters main point appears to be that because there are all these things that Blizzard could do to catch Gold Sellers, and Blizzard doesn’t do any of them, they must secretly support Gold Selling.

This guy must be a Moron (M&S?)
As Tobold points out, the idea that Blizzard secretly wants Gold Sellers is ludicrous for several reasons:
  • It undermines the Pavlovian conditioning Blizzard uses to keep people chasing the carrot
  • Gold Selling, and the illegal activities that support it, are the source of the biggest customer service concerns
  • Service requests related to these illegal activities costs Blizzard real money
  • Blizzard makes no profit on illegal RMT

Or, as you can read on Blizzard’s website, purchased gold comes at every player's expense:
What many people don't realize when buying gold is the large impact it has on the game economy, and also how the companies selling gold obtain it. Our developers, in-game support, and anti-hack teams work diligently to stop the exploits these companies use and help players who have become victims of their services. We regularly track the source of the gold these companies sell, and find that an alarmingly high amount comes from hacked accounts. These are the friends, relatives, and guildmates you may know who have gone through the experience of having characters, gold, and items stripped from them after visiting a website or opening a file containing a trojan virus. Our teams work to educate players and assist them in avoiding account compromise, but the fact remains that the players themselves are often these companies' largest target as a source for gold, which the companies then turn around and sell to other players.

Fighting the hack
Most of Blizzard’s resources for fighting this war come in the form of anti-hack tools and legal prevention. Consider that the #1 botting program for WoW, Glider, hasn’t been available for download since March 12th, 2009.

And Warden, the client-side anti-hack tool, is very very effective. If you don’t believe me, consider that ISXWarden, the ant-anti-hack tool that enabled all the other bots (WoW Bot, Open Bot, RhaBot, and others) hasn’t worked since June 2008. And, as fledgling hackers soon learn, editing memory values or other such hacky things without dealing with Warden will get you banned.

Does it still exist? Yes. And it will always exist because it’s a cat-and-mouse game. And, the more clever the mouse is, the more difficult it is for the cat to catch. The people creating these things are not stupid. Perhaps some of the people using tools created by these people are stupid at times, but the authors themselves are extremely clever.

BUT – at least right now, it doesn’t exist as publically as it once did. In large part, because these clever people figured out there is some safety in obscurity.

Detecting the behavior
Players view Blizzard as some huge monolith that can level destruction down upon the infidels. The issue is that it’s VERY difficult to find the infidels. Our OP would like you to believe that because certain players spam chat or ‘BEHAVE’ in specific ways, that Blizzard should be able to track them down.

It’s not that simple.

The reason is that the number of choices and amount of data are so immense that it would require a lot of computing power to calculate all the possible patterns. For this reason, they mostly rely on player reports to identify erratic or irregular behavior.

We see those that don’t care if they are seen.
If it seems terribly obvious, that’s because they simply don’t care if they are discovered. The spammer is the best example. Either, they are on a Trial account spamming Local or they are on a Hacked account spamming you in a whisper.

After all, if someone is going to take the time to hack your account and steal your gold, why wouldn’t they run a script that spams gold selling services at the same time?

And therein lies the rub. Account stealing is so rampant in WoW, why should “bad” behavior be limited to just stealing your gold?

Obviously, it’s not. And all the really bad stuff, the item duping and such, ARE obvious and DOES get detected. It just happens on hacked accounts. And they simply don’t care because it’s a throwaway account.

And the worst part for Blizzard, the guy getting hacked is the VICTIM, not the actual problem.

Bans are never instant
This is the one that bothers players and creates the perception that Blizzard doesn’t do anything. Players think that if they spot and report erratic behavior, the ban should come down instantly once a GM has reviewed the ticket.

But remember that this is a cat-and-mouse game. If the ban comes instantly, the mouse knows exactly what they did that got them banned. Keep in mind that there is a community of these people and they DO compare notes.

If instead, it is escalated to a team responsible for detecting it, they can ban a bunch of players in a wave and create confusion about what happened. Additionally, the Blizzard team can take some time to investigate and look for abnormalities that may later be detected automatically.

And what if the player in question was hacked or falsely accused? By not insta-banning, Blizzard gets the chance to review it.

EDIT: By-the-by, I think Blizzard does deserve some criticism for not being better about spam. I think most players want this auto-filtered, but the issue is the unintended consequences of filtering out valid messages. Clever spammers can come up with clever ways to avoid filters.

You can't really easily filter:
warcraft
gold
.com
The only real solution is player reports, for which they should respond more quickly.  But even then, what's to stop them from creating several accounts/characters and so forth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Will we see another Triple-A Fantasy MMO?

The Infamous Brad wrote a very rational and intelligent response piece to several of my posts from last month about the WoW Tourist Myth. Of course, I disagree with him on several points, but he does a great job of defending the idea that WoW’s current success can be attributed to something other than it simply being the best game in the MMO market.

The central point of his argument is that life has been brutal in the MMO industry because Blizzard is benefiting from network effects. The theory being that the usefulness of certain products increases as more people have that product. The classic example being the telephone which has little use if you are the only one with a phone and grows in value exponentially as more people purchase telephones.

There is certainly some truth in that opinion. After all, we DO tend to play the games that our friends play. We’ve also seen the explosion of growth that Warcraft experienced largely because it hit a critical mass of sorts that propelled it to a level of success never seen before or since.

We’ve seen this same network effect occur elsewhere on the internet with Ebay and more recently Facebook. And I suspect that in 2020, we’ll still see people using both Ebay and Facebook.

But in 2020, will we still be playing Warcraft?
Brian ‘Psychochild’ Green has a nice read up about how MMOs change over time. In it, one of the points he makes is that “an aging system becomes a bigger hassle to maintain.” After all, you can only slap so many Band-Aids on something before you would just be better off taking your lessons learned and starting from scratch.

What Brian is alluding to is that games age over time. Expansions provide an opportunity for developers to overhaul, but they still have to build upon the same foundation. I’m not saying it’s not possible to keep a game fresh and compelling, just increasingly more difficult over time.

Any which way I slice it, I can’t just can’t envision any scenario in which World of Warcraft maintains it’s current level of popularity 16 years after it’s release. For no other reason than I have to believe they will be overwhelmed by the innovations of some other game.

MMOs are Blu-ray, not Telephones
Video media is another product that benefits from network effects. Betamax fell by the wayside to VHS as more and more people owned VHS videocassette players and video rental stores started only stocking VHS.

Of course, nowadays you can’t find VHS videocassettes at the video store either. They were replaced by DVDs as technological innovations forced consumers to upgrade. And today, we are in the process of making the same evolutionary leap to replace DVD with Blu-ray.

You see, what The Infamous Brad ignored is that products – particularly technology products – are subject to what’s called the Product Life Cycle. There is an adoption stage, a growth stage, a maturity stage, and finally a decline stage. Warcraft isn’t going to last forever.

I believe, that at some future point, it’s going to decline for no other reason than the technical limitations and costs associated with backward product compatibility.

And even if you believe that it can manage the technological hurdle, eventually they are going to reach a saturation point where they can’t maintain the growth needed to replace customers who quit playing.

That’s distinctly NOT like the telephone which is a product that has become a necessity in order to communicate with other people.

People don’t get a phone and then one day stop using phones. Plenty of people play MMOs and then one day quit playing MMOS.

Will we see another Triple-A Fantasy MMO?
One really interesting question that The Infamous Brad raises is whether or not we’ll see another Fantasy based MMO fueled by a big budget:
"Funcom's Age of Conan (like WoW, only R rated!) will go down in history as the last stupid attempt to build a generic fantasy MMO good enough to steal WoW's subscribers. No, really, even if there are developers out there crazy enough to take another jousting run at that windmill, there aren't the investors willing to fall for their pitch again, and there won't be unless Activision/Blizzard does something so awful or so dumb that millions of people boycott them at the same time […] Which is why for the last three years or so, the industry has watched with bated breath every time a science fiction MMO has shipped."
This is something that never really occurred to me, but he’s absolutely 100% right. After all the failure, why would anyone bet on a Fantasy MMO again? Ignore for a moment that YOU might disagree with whether or not another MMO could be successful and ask yourself WHO would want to invest $100 million to compete against WoW. Particularly in this economy.

Which is an absolutely depressing thought. Especially considering that I hate Sci-Fi in MMOs.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dealing with Syncaine

I read both Tobold and Syncaine's blog regularly and I don't really have a vested interest in either blogger. I probably agree more with Syncaine philosophically but appreciate the tone and insight provided by Tobold.

As such, I was prompted to send Tobold an email privately when I read his recent entry about stopping Syncaine from slandering him all over the internet.

To his credit, he declined my suggestion citing that while he appreciated my "PvP Approach", the "personal attack stuff just isn't my style." And honestly, that more than anything else really illustrates the point that this blog war is one-sided.

Here is my email to Tobold in it's entirety:
"There is an old saying that says if you want all the people in the prison yard to respect your prowess, find the biggest guy in the yard and kick the crap out of him.

In this scenario, unfortunately, you are the biggest guy in the yard.

I have an unorthodox suggestion about dealing with Syncaine that I didn’t want to post in your comments. I’m a regular reader of both your blogs and I can tell you that he is hardly immune to all of the things YOU feel when he attacks you. Like most prominent internet figures, he takes his reputation seriously and doesn’t like when his credibility or opinions are undermined.

As I see it, you need to mostly continue to publicly ignore him. It bothers him that you have publicly declared you don’t read his blog, which is what prompted his apology (or truce) in January.

You can’t ignore him, but you can keep yourself from responding.

Secondly, I think you need to fight back. To defend yourself and to discredit him. And that means attacking him back in a very un-Tobold like way. So I would make one more Syncaine post, in which you do three things, a) state this is the last time Syncaine will be referenced on your blog (and stick to it), b) make a bunch of slanderous ad hominem and hurtful attacks (very aggressive, very un-Tobold like), and c) make a point of saying that these wars have always been one-sided BY CHOICE and this post is intended as an imitation of Syncaine’s style as an example of how you COULD have been responding to Syncaine in any real blog war.

If the attacks are done well enough, I think it will get the point across that this has never been a two-sided fight, but a one-sided shouting match.

Alternately, you could also attack him as someone OTHER than Tobold. You joked about creating a separate persona as Gevlon, but I think you DO need a separate persona if only to go on the offensive without creating the sensational ‘blog war’ drama that draws all the interest.

Now, the nice thing is that given the prominence of your existing blog, you can promote the other persona. And maybe, occasionally, set aside your stance to ignore Syncaine to comment publicly on the Tobold blog about something the evil persona wrote about Syncaine. I think that’s the real key because you could quote the persona, but denounce the ‘tone’ of the attack. Perhaps even comment about how this is exactly the type of thing you despise about the ad hominem attacks he makes at you.

It means attacking HIS credibility, HIS interests, HIS game, HIS financial stake in Darkfall, and most of all -- HIS faulty logic (of which there is plenty). Note that I'm not talking about the intellectual debates you've tried to engage with him in the past. I'm talking about using the same ad hominem attacks he uses against you to derail him.

And likewise, if he DOES post something hurtful on his blog, then you can respond to it under that other persona. I can’t say that any of this will make it go away, but it does give you a platform to at least respond and defend yourself without giving him what he wants (the traffic of a blog war)."

So why would I suggest such a Machiavellian approach? Because I think it's important to point out that the two players in this war aren't both fighting a war. I want him to fight back.

Or as I wrote on Syncaine's blog in the comments:
"The issue is that it gets promoted as a blog war when it’s really a one-sided shouting match.

On the one side, you have a very prominent blogging pundit commenting about the nature of MMOs.

On the other side, you have a rabid fanboi defending his turf.

The pundit doesn’t want to argue with the fanboi, but the fanboi won’t shut up.

In fairness, the fanboi wasn’t always a fanboi and was once disguised as a pundit himself. But something happened (WoW didn’t die?) and the pundit became consumed with fury.

At least… that’s how I read both blogs. "

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

PLEX and RMT in EVE

I first saw this chart of relative ship prices in EVE linked over at Common Sense Gamer. The purpose of the chart is to show how much effort it takes (either in time, in-game currency, or real dollars) to acquire the different ships in EVE.

By and large, the response to the chart has been largely shock that the biggest ship (a Titan) costs $7600 real life dollars and that the ship can be destroyed. What’s not mentioned much is the purpose of this ship and how it takes a large Corporation, and more often an Alliance of Corporations to build it. And then, once built, they rarely engage in combat themselves and are used to transport the fleet.

Shock Value
The more I play EVE, the more I realize that the people who play EVE like the shock value of talking about how expensive things can be blown up. And it’s just that – shock value. The reality is much more mundane.

EVE works because ships and structures are destroyed. In 0.0 space (PvP land), every inch of space is owned by a Corp or Alliance. These are GROUPS of hundreds or thousands of players, working together to put up structures to claim that territory and police it with their ships.

Losing or gaining territory means things need to blow up. This feeds the economy, which in turn, is most profitable for the economic players willing to play in 0.0 space where they most valuable things are located.

Losing a ship, or even a Player Owned Structure, IS the game. It’s not just a consequence, but the actual purpose of playing. A catastrophic moment of losing something so significant that it takes quite a bit of time to recover are VERY rare. The game is DESIGNED around losing ships and structures.

The most severe losses happen at an Alliance or Corp level. An individual player would never lose a Titan, the Alliance or Corp would lose it. Likewise, losing the Player Owned Structures (POS) in 0.0 is a loss by the GROUP – not a loss by the individuals. As such, the loss is a shared burden and one that, as a group, you will recover.

On an individual level, the smart player doesn’t risk what he can’t afford to lose. And if he DOES lose it, there is an insurance contract on every ship that mitigates the severity of the loss. In some cases, that might not mean a loss of anything more than your time to buy and fit a new ship.

RMT in the form of PLEX
Tobold’s take on the chart is really more of a comment about the Real Dollar cost of these items. In EVE, you can purchase what is called a PLEX license with real currency (US Dollars) that provides you 30 days of game time. This PLEX license is something that can be sold in the game to another player for in-game currency (ISK). A single PLEX game card costs around $15 and sells for 280 million ISK.

For Tobold, the legal RMT makes the economic part look a lot less attractive.  On the one hand, I agree with him.

As I wrote last week, one thing that has bothered me is that EVE doesn't reward players who PLAY the game. You could, in theory, skill up and get all the in-game currency (ISK) you want while logging very few game hours. That's very counter to what we have come to accept as 'fair' for receiving rewards in an MMO.

On the other hand, I disagree with him that CCP has a bad implementation of RMT. The one smart thing that CCP did is make PLEX part of the existing market economy. I think that's the difference for most people.

Making PLEX part of the economy means that:
  • it is susceptible to market forces (280M ISK being market price, it could go up or down)
  • provides ‘gametime’ to ISK sellers, not real life cash
  • it doesn’t create net new ISK that inflates the economy
  • lots of people selling PLEX for ISK drives the price of PLEX down
This means that it doesn’t really ‘take away’ from the economic game, it enhances it. In short, I have to think that 'winning' the Economic game in this setting would mean BUYING the PLEX and not paying real money for game time. Or put another way, laughing at the people who ‘paid your subscription’ for something you earned so easily.

I think that’s why it gets such wide spread acceptance among EVE players. A new player is OK with it because they can choose to jump start themselves into better ships/skills right away. An old-time power player is OK with it because a) they have skills the new guy will take years to get and b) they are the ones buying the game time with ISK.

That’s distinctly different than the usual RMT model where only the developer and the RMT buyer benefits from the transaction. For the record, I’m still against RMT but as far as this particular implementation goes, I think there are far worse models.

How CCP makes money on PLEX
The really clever thing about PLEX is that it encourages people to buy game-time in advance of when they need it. From the perspective of CCP, there is no free game time. Either you are paying for it, or someone else is paying it for you.

The difference is that someone might use in-game ISK to buy several months of PLEX game cards and sell them off to people who might hoard these cards. It’s very likely that lots of players have several months worth of PLEX in inventory. They are also only sold in (2) packs, so even the person selling the PLEX might still have one remaining in inventory.

The result is that there are many more months of game time floating around than actually being used each month. In many ways, it’s like selling year long subscriptions to people who wouldn’t normally buy a year-long subscription.

Monday, February 8, 2010

In which I throw Leveling and Skill systems under the bus...

All RPGs, by nature, are character driven stories – where YOU are the central character (or team of characters). As the story unfolds, your character evolves. At a minimum, this is the addition of new equipment and inventory to aid you in your adventure. And typically, it also includes some other type character advancement – usually in the form of new levels, skills or attributes like health.

MMORPG are no different in this respect. The character is the defining trait of a Role Playing Game. The core of a game lies not in it’s virtual world, but in the character each player controls.

Levels and Skills
The underlying mechanics between Levels and Skills is similar in that they both advance vertically with progression, but skills are very specific while Levels are broad and affect a large number of things. Skills are effectively mini-levels for a specific character trait.

As such, they both share some common disadvantages:
  • There is a vertical limit or ‘max cap’ on how far you can advance with this type of progression
  • Players can view gaining skills or levels as an obstacle (not fun)
  • Separate from, but often prerequisite to, the end-game
  • Fairness issues related to lowering or raising the cap
  • The further you progress, the more obsolete and irrelevant the early content becomes
Now consider that any MMO that uses this system introduces it to new players as the very first task for them to accomplish. And then the game proceeds to limit just about every possible thing they can do from a character progression standpoint with this system. You want to do what? You need to gain X level or skill before you can do it.

With game design like that, it’s really no wonder that people a) try to grind through it quickly and b) don’t know what the hell do to when they reach the cap. Ultimately, it’s about expectations and from a very early start, these games teach players that THE most important thing is acquiring these levels or skills.

Toss them out
At a fundamental level, what do you want your MMO to be about? Do you want it to be about power-leveling your character attributes? Or do you want it to be about the gameplay? Because whatever the end-game is intended to be in your game, the leveling and skills system is simply an obstacle to getting to that part of the game.

But what if the leveling part is the part you enjoy most? I would argue that it's not 'levels' that you play for, but the linear progression provided by those levels. It’s a very clear mark of progression. Which is to say, it’s not much different than reaching a checkpoint or savepoint in Halo or some other FPS.

It’s a marker of achievement and an obvious step forward. That’s the part you are playing for and I’m not trying to take that away from you.

What I’m suggesting is that we replace that linear progression with other things. Things you can still work towards achieving, but things that are more consistent with the end-game design of your game. The progression should complement or be part of that progression, not separate.

The importance of ‘Heroic Deeds’ and ‘Epic Moments’
Personally, I would rather my character-based progression be based on the deeds or things that happened to that character than on some numeric blip that increased every time I attacked a monster. When I think of my favorite moments in Warcraft, I don’t think about that time I dinged 80 but specific raid encounters and specific quest lines.

I’m talking about my achievements and the ‘story’ as I experienced it. Even when I think about PvP, I’m thinking of those ‘Epic Moments’ when crazy stuff happened or I solo killed multiple players.

Quest arcs, Impact PvP, Raid Encounters, and yes, even Achievement based milestones, are a better measure of progress than simply leveling.

Consider that one of the drawbacks to skills and levels is that specific content needs to be designed for players at various stages. This means that in WoW, for example, all the content developed for level 10-15 characters is obsolete even by level 20. From a resource management standpoint, that’s a lot of unused content for a stage that lasts 15 hours of play time in a game which even casual players log a thousand hours.

What if that development time had instead been used to develop better quality content for Heroic Deeds and Epic Moments? Content that was actually useful to players even after that 1000th hour?

The importance of ‘Things’
For me, the most powerful and interesting part of character progression is in the acquisition of things. In Lord of the Rings, what made Frodo unique and interesting? The one ring. A ‘Thing’ that he possessed.

Don’t underestimate how powerful both acquiring and losing ‘Things’ is to players. The whole reason that Impact PvP is viewed so negatively is because of the consequences that come from losing your ‘Things’. And what about when that ‘Thing’ drops off that boss?

There are countless progression opportunities related to ‘Things’. You can get stuff, lose stuff, replace stuff, make stuff, trade stuff, steal stuff, have your stuff break, need some stuff in order to use other stuff, have really powerful stuff and even (gasp!) lose stuff when you die.

It’s also possible to have linear progression with ‘Things’ as well. For example, perhaps you need ‘Thing X’ in order to do Z and gain ‘Thing Y’. But ‘Thing X’ isn’t easy to get and requires the completion of a Heroic Deed. Nor can you give ‘Thing X’ to another player and circumvent the need to do the Heroic Deed.

In fact, if ‘Thing X’ were important enough, then it could become the bottleneck that requires all players to progress through that Heroic Deed. Not to mention all the progression that could be related to player housing, keeps and territory control.

All of this can be done with a skill or level system as well, but the point here is that the player’s attention is directed to this style of progression from the start rather than viewing these things as an obstacle to power-leveling.

It’s a form of progression that works in harmony with your end-game and is very scalable (just add more ‘Things’ and Heroic Deeds).

Yes, it’s just a more complicated way of handling player progression. Added complexity isn’t always bad — it can add significant depth to a game. Depth that is really helpful in holding a player’s attention for YEARS.

Also, none of this is to say that specializations (talent trees) don’t exist. Or even classes for that matter. I’m just talking about removing the stat based leveling system as a method of progression.

Friday, February 5, 2010

In which I attempt to defend Griefing...

According to a recent post by Tobold, griefing players in an MMO is evil. Albeit, not as evil as say murdering or robbing someone in real life, but evil nonetheless. Strictly speaking, he’s right.

Evil, by definition, is doing that which is morally objectionable. Moral, in this sense, being the standard of what is right and wrong as it conforms to the rest of society. The norms of society are really important to this definition because each individual person has their own perception of morality. It’s only within the context of society that we can judge that which is immoral or evil.

MMOs are interesting in that the social dynamics of the community certainly provide a society for that MMO. And as with all societies, acceptable behavior is defined by the norms of the people in that society.

In this way, there are very clear definitions of what is right and wrong behavior in any MMO. These norms may not be the same in each game, or even a reflection of the broader real world society, but they do exist within the confines of that game.

Men Behaving Badly
In real life, we view things like drug use, lewd or rude behavior, and even sexual promiscuity as immoral acts. And yet, it’s not uncommon for men to revel in a politically incorrect world of booze, burps and boobs.

Morally objectionable? Yes. Fun? Hell, yes!

Therein lies the problem. It may not be proper, it may not even be accepted. But dammit, it’s fun.

We even have a term for the idea that the pursuit of pleasure is the actual (and proper) motive of every action: Hedonism. And if someone is too prudish or too morally upright, we say they have a ‘stick up their ass’.

And our dirty little secret? Everyone has some guilty pleasure they KNOW is questionable but love to do.

The Humor in Griefing
OK. So one of my dark little secrets is that I can see the humor in griefing. I don’t think it’s appropriate, I don’t think people should do it, and I most certainly absolutely hate it when it’s done to me. And yes, if people get griefed, I am very much inclined to blame and hold the developer responsible for allowing it to happen.

And yet, it can be funny. It can be entertaining. And yes, I’ve even done it.

The Bank Hiests in Darkfall is perhaps the worst griefing story I have every read. The author of that link describes in great detail his exploits in robbing and destroying several guilds.  It is appalling. It is unacceptable. I feel horrible for the people involved. And yet, I couldn’t help but laugh and marvel at his accomplishments.

Sometimes when the dark parts of our soul get exposed it’s humorous. Many comedians, films, authors have been incredibly successful because of the dark nature of their humor. Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in Pulp Fiction is the car scene where Marvin gets shot in the head. Taken out of context, it’s horrible and awful. But oh man did it make me laugh when I first saw it.

In fact, to really understand what makes Griefers tick, you really should visit Something Awful, the birthplace of the most famous MMO griefers – The Goons. This is a website dedicated to all the awful things that make us laugh.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
As Tobold also pointed out, when actions are consensual, it’s not really griefing. From this perspective, it’s important to realize that the society morals of a game like Darkfall (with corpse looting) may be much different than a game like World of Warcraft.

Each MMO really is an individual community with it’s own social norms. Certain behavior that is unacceptable in one game may be perfectly acceptable in another game. Even in WoW, social conventions can be different between two servers. If you have ever gone from a PvE to a PvP server (or vice versa), then you likely have some idea what I’m talking about.

Griefing is Evil
But, at the end of the day, despite the potential humor -- Griefing is just not that fun for the guy getting Griefed. It just plain sucks to get Griefed and have your day ruined because some asshat thought it was funny.

Which is ultimately why I will fail in this attempt to defend Griefing.

Because, in the end, Griefing is not something you can defend. It is horrible. It is awful. And funny or not, it isn't something we should condone or support in our games.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Creativity vs. Scope

Scott Jennings has new article up at MMORPG in which he writes about the common failures in MMOs. It’s actually part two of a two-part article – the first part being about the biggest MMO failures. In the article, he calls out four critical success factors for developing a new MMO:
  • Scope
  • Technology
  • Service
  • Design
For Scott, the biggest culprit appears to be scope. And with good reason. Scope is the definition of what a project is and everything it will include. In truth, the other three success factors he names (technology, service, design) are all included in the overall scope of a project.

As Scott points out, most scoping problems are either related to having unrealistic project goals or deviations from your scope (called scope creep). Realistic goal setting is really a function of experience, so ideally whoever is creating a project plan has the subject matter expertise to lay out achievable milestones.

In my experience as a project manager, scope creep has always been the bigger danger. Over the course of any long project, the scope of that project is likely to change or evolve.

When this happens, it’s important to clarify your scope and ensure your milestones are still achievable. You can’t be so inflexible as to never change your scope – but you also have to be cognizant that if you DO change your scope, it’s going to impact other areas.

Creativity
For MMO developers, I’ve always believed that part of the problem is creativity. Which is ironic, because creativity is REALLY important. But the problem with creativity is that it doesn’t want to stay within the confines of a scope.

The plan (including scope) is a box. Thinking of an idea outside of that box (creativity) is bad for the plan. It might even be a really great idea – but it’s still outside of your scope. So do you incorporate that idea, possibly letting your budget or timeline slip?

Devs, I think, are more inclined to overlook scope implications because they like a new idea. At least, until they run out of money and have to release an unfinished project. And then, at that point, it’s simply too late to decide whether that was really an important enough idea to cause your project to launch unfinished.

The Plan
I’m not an MMO developer, but I have worked as a Project Manager in my professional life. One thing that I can tell you for certain is that ideas are cheap. Much cheaper than implementing those ideas.

The point being that it’s better to create your vision and your plan prior to even starting the project. Set your eagerness to BEGIN aside for a minute and think through the entire project from start to finish. Develop a comprehensive outline on paper of how everything will function together.

Think it through as thoroughly as you possibly can and THEN work to a proof-of-concept phase.  If that works – THEN STICK WITH THE PLAN.

Animated films are pretty damn creative. And guess what, they have a plan too! That’s because they come up with the ideas first, then storyboard the ideas. Then when they develop the animation sequences, they use rough animations to test the concept.