Saturday, September 11, 2010

So I guess selling Used Software really is just like Piracy!

Via Tobold, I just read this article in Wired about the overturning of the Autodesk case by the 9th US Court of Appeals:
Guess What, You Don’t Own That Software You Bought (Wired)
The 3-0 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal, if it stands, means copyright owners may prohibit the resale of their wares by inserting clauses in their sales agreements.

“The terms of the software license in the case are not very different from the terms of most software licensing. So I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t own their software,” said Greg Beck, the defense attorney in the case who represented an eBay seller sued by Autodesk. “The other ramification, there is no reason a similar license could not be put into the cover of a book. It wouldn’t be difficult for everybody to implement this.”
This may not be good news for eBay seller's and buyers on a budget but I absolutely agree with this ruling. When you buy software, you aren't buying the software but a LICENSE-TO-USE that software. As such, I feel a company is well within their rights to limit any transfer of that license to a 3rd party.

The more immediate ramification for consumers is that the discounts provided by a secondary market go away. But the longer term ramification is that the companies and individuals producing this software will be more justly compensated. That means they are more profitable and better able to continue to provide more of those types of products.

If I have a concern here it's the ramification to other Intellectual Property like books. A lot of books go out of print or have limited print runs.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Facebook: Sid the Seer?

Via Tobold, I just saw this article with Popcap executive Jason Kapalka who just confirmed my prediction from March that competition would squeeze the profit out of the Facebook gaming:

Serial Ganker (March 2010) - Facebook: A lesson in Competition
The Laws of Competition are going to require a successful social gaming company to compete by either:
  • creating lots of crappy games (most options)
  • and/or, build better games to distinguish themselves (best option)
This is what happens with market forces in a free market. Big markets with big profits attract lots of competition. Which, in turn, drives profits down because more people are chasing the same pool of dollars.

The point here is that while social gaming is attractive to investors right now, it’s not always going to be this attractive as competition drives down profits.

Those are my words from March above, but enough self-congratulating for being so smart and let's steal some juicy quotes from the article with Jeff at Popcap.

"You're definitely in the stage right now in social games where there's a lot of bandwagon jumping, where everyone sees moneymoneymoney and suddenly all these new companies appear. It happened before in mobile, it happened before in casual – in the past it's tended to signal the beginning of the end."

Kapalka isn't suggesting that social games as a whole are going to die. Instead, he says it's the end of a "golden era," where the possibilities of the genre seemed limitless.

So thus far, the first half of my prediction is coming true. Increased competition is bleeding away the profit in social gaming. Zynga, the largest FB dev, has taken the approach of making LOTS of crappy games with the hopes that will increase their overall exposure to more users.

The next stage, I believe, is that we'll see "better" games on Facebook. That's already becoming true to some degree. Certainly games like Desktop Defender, Kingdoms of Camelot and even (gasp) Frontierville are much better designed games than Mafia Wars and Farmville.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Should Used Games be Supported?

While I’m not of the opinion that buying used games is the equivalent of piracy, I certainly do agree that it’s bad for the business of making games. As a general rule, I think it’s safe to assume that the original manufacturer profits little to not at all when you buy or sell a game used.

I’m also not going to argue the legality of it. You can buy and sell used games. That’s not in question.

It’s true that a software license is simply a license to use and while that license gives you no ownership of the actual intellectual property, it does give you license to use the product. You agree to those terms when you install the product.

There is quite a bit of case law that exists for Copyright and Software. And some of it even says that one of the things Software companies can’t do is enforce a term that limits your ability to transfer the license to another party. It’s viewed in the same way that Books or Music copyright is administered.

BUT – unlike Books or Music, Software often needs to be supported long after the initial purchase or sale. This support comes in the form of patches and game updates. And, in many cases, some online service component that the game provides for multiplayer access.

Now the question I would raise is whether or not the right to continued support is something that should be transferable with that license to use?

I don’t think so.

In my mind, the right to use and the right to support are two separate items. Copyright law supports your right to use. It doesn’t support your right for support.

As I see it, a gaming company should be entirely within their right to provide a key for this support with the original purchase and then deny that key to anyone purchasing the product on the secondary market. There are plenty of examples of non-transferable warranties for non-software products.

To me, that’s entirely fair. If you buy a used game, then you buy an unsupported game.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why Warhammer's failing proves absolutely nothing about the things you think it does...

I was engaging Syncaine over at Hardcore Casual this afternoon on a very old debate we have had about WoW-clones and specifically whether or not we should attribute the clone issue as the reason for Warhammer Online's failure.

My position has been and always will be that Warhammer Online failed not because it was a WoW-clone but because they had a very mediocre execution of a very flawed game.

Or as I wrote on Syncaine's blog:
WAR didn’t “fail” because it was a WoW clone. WAR failed because Tier 3 and Tier 4 weren’t as much fun. WAR failed because it couldn’t support the whole server converging on one hotspot for PvP action. WAR failed because a two-faction system allowed one side to grossly outnumber the other.

Those are all design decisions that have nothing to do with WoW. There are certainly a whole slew of other failures as well but those I listed above are the big ones.

ANYWAYS– We’ve had this debate several times and I still maintain the idea that the reason these games fail is that, at the end of the day, they just aren’t as good a game as Warcraft.

If they were, then more players would stick with the new game. Not everyone, mind you, but certainly far more than the desolate wasteland that these games become after 3 months.
But all that aside, here's my real problem with WAR's failure. It's now the world's greatest excuse by everyone as to why NOT to do things. Or as I commented a bit further down in the discussion:
WAR is my great disappointment because it’s become a great scapegoat for many people.

Those who dislike PVP can point to WAR as to why PVP can’t work in an MMO.

Those who hate WoW can point to WAR as the reason why MMOs should stay away from anything remotely WoW-like.

But the REAL reason WAR failed has nothing to do with either of those things.
That's what really gets my goat about the perception of WAR's failure. It didn't fail because it had PvP. It didn't fail because it was a WoW-clone.

It failed because it just wasn't good enough.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Destroying PLEX for $$$$

TAGN has an interesting discussion going on over in the comments of his blog about this article from Massively.
Quick Background:
CCP recently changed the rules regarding PLEX (a system for trading EVE game-time for game currency between players) so that it can be looted or even destroyed by EVE pirates. Previously, you could not move PLEX and it could only be traded safely in the hanger.  And now, according to Massively, some player lost 74 PLEX cards (1 PLEX = 1 month game time) worth around $1300 real-life dollars. Destroyed. Not looted.
The discussion over at TAGN site seems to be focused primarily on what action CCP will need to take to make things right with the player.

The part that is getting lost here is that with the old PLEX system, CCP had nothing to gain except future sales. For example, trading PLEX for ISK didn't add net new money into the pocket of CCP -- it simply allowed one person to effectively pay for someone else's game time.

But if PLEX can be DESTROYED...
It's a much different story.

From CCP's perspective, it's a paid subscription they no longer need to honor that has been destroyed. Unlike the virtual Ore that gets mined, someone paid real money for that PLEX card. A game card that will never be redeemed if it is destroyed.

And what happens to the real life dollars? Those aren't destroyed. They stay in CCP's bank account.

Is money the real Reason for the policy change on PLEX?
The major benefit to CCP of the old PLEX system is that it encouraged players to purchase game time they might not need in order to trade it for the in-game currency (ISK).

From a cash flow perspective, this is a great thing for CCP because they are are getting money upfront today for a future promise of service. They are still beholden to honoring that promise, but they get the money sooner rather than later.

But one thing always rubbed me wrong, what happens when there are more unused PLEX cards being openly traded than their are players who could reasonably use them?

In other words, if you have 1000 months of game cards and only 800 months needed by players, then a couple of horrible things happen from CCP's perspective:
  • Cash Flow Stops or Slows - your players don't need to pay you because they have already paid.
  • The in-game price of PLEX suffers dramatic deflation and your primary product (subscriptions) is de-valued.
Now I'm not suggesting that CCP reached the point where their are more PLEX game cards than players who need them. But what I am suggesting is that CCP, who does have an economist on staff, is well aware that such a system is an impending financial crisis and not sustainable for the long-term.

I would even hazard to guess that CCP started to see cash flows slow down as less and less players find themselves needing to purchase PLEX because it already exists in-game.

But, you ask, why is cash flow important? After all, doesn't CCP already have the money from the game cards they sold?

Well, the problem is that in all likelihood, CCP management didn't just set that money in the bank. It's going to be invested -- likely back into the company to pay for development costs on a future project for future returns.  If those returns aren't realized right away, they need continued cash flows to keep coming in order to keep the lights on.

Destroying PLEX for Profit
What's the best solution to having a surplus of something? Why blowing it up, of course!

The moment that PLEX is destroyed and rendered unusable as game-time, the promise of future services is gone and it becomes pure profit for CCP.

But more importantly, you no longer have as large a surplus of game time and it reverses the two trends I addressed earlier. Less PLEX means PLEX is more valuable. Less PLEX means more players will need to purchase additional game time.

It's for this very reason that I believe the change by CCP was deliberate, intentional and entirely motivated by self-interest.

The irony is that EVE has a player culture that revels in such losses. They don't want it to happen to them, but the fact it CAN happen is oddly appealing.

Contrast that change with Blizzard. Can you imagine the reaction from WoW players if you could get ganked and lose your game card in WoW?

Legal challenge?
From a legal standpoint, it's an intriguing situation. Does CCP have the right to void those promises of future services?

If I'm CCP, I would argue that what I am providing for the fee is not game time until it has been converted. Instead, I'm selling a virtual currency similar to ISK. What the player chooses to do with that virtual currency is up to them. Based on their actions, it can be traded, stolen or even destroyed.

Assuming the player losing the PLEX is not the same person who bought the PLEX, they have to agree with this interpretation. After all, if they don't agree that it's simply virtual currency, how did they trade for it?

It's a much murkier prospect if the person losing the PLEX is the same person who bought it. But even here, however, I think CCP is protected because there are other alternatives to adding game time. It could be argued that the only reason a player would buy PLEX over other methods is to at least have the option of trading it.

On the legal issue, I particularly like Old Tom's comments at No Prisoners No Mercy:
Leaving out all extraneous analogies, the transaction between CCP and said customer is for a game-time code. That item has 2 possible functions – 1) Can be used to add game time to a particular account, or 2) can be transferred into an in-game item which then can be bought, sold, lost etc.

The transaction worked as promised. The issue is not the PLEX .. it is the game-time code. Seeing that the game time code was effectively transferred into PLEX, CCP’s implied warranty was fulfilled.
This is right in-line with my thinking that PLEX is first and foremost an in-game item subject to the rules for in-game items. That it can be redeemed for game time is secondary because the purchaser chose to turn the game time into an in-game item subject to those terms in the EULA.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quick Hit: What makes an MMO?

By definition, we all know it means Massive Multiplayer Online Game. Yes, I'm aware that it should more accurately be MMOG but the "Game" is implied when you say MMO.

The Online part is obvious, the "Massive" part is subject to opinion. And the "Multiplayer" part is subject to interpretation. For example, some would argue that the "leveling" game in a MMO like WoW is not Multiplayer at all.  Whereas, I might argue it is Multiplayer by virtue of it being a shared world.

I was reading an entry over at KTR about Cultural Differences and I was struck with a thought.  I think, at it's core, the defining characteristic of an MMO is shared experience. Or more specifically, a shared gaming experience with hundreds of strangers.

Now traditionally, this shared experience is in a Persistent Online World (POW), but I don't think a persistent world is really the defining trait. Lots of MMOs have sharded worlds or very little persistence. In fact, I would argue that if you start with UO, the trend has actually been to move AWAY from persistence in MMOs.

But the one commonality in all these games is shared experience.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

World of Darkness

I was just saying on Heartless_'s blog yesterday that if I were a game dev, I would have to strongly consider Vampire & Werewolves as the backdrop for an MMO. Vampires, in particular, is a subject matter that draws a lot of attention. Most recently, we have seen the Trueblood and Twilight craze but this has always been a very popular genre. Dracula, Underworld, Blade, The Lost Boys, Salem’s Lot, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Interview with a Vampire.

The great thing about that genre is that it’s not exclusive to Vampires and can include all things that live in the dark. Poltergeists, Ghouls, Zombies, Necromancers, Warlocks, Witches, Demons, Ghosts, Banshees, and basically anything else used to scare the bejeezuz out of people by movie producers. People just eat this topic up and it has a bigger fanbase than even the strongest IPs like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

The other interesting thing about the IP is that the Lore is mostly based on the creatures and critters than inhabit it. It’s not specific to an area or even a point in history. You could just as easily have a Vampire / Werewolf story set in ancient Rome as you could in modern day London or New York. In addition, the creatures themselves are mostly immune to modern weaponry. So, from a lore perspective, attacking a mythical creature with a holy dagger instead of a gun is entirely plausible.

World of Darkness MMO
The impetus for this entry is that I just learned about the World of Darkness MMO. Credits to Tobold for pointing out the upcoming MMO list.

World of Darkness is a pen-and-paper RPG with the exact supernatural horror setting that I just described. One of my major concerns with many MMO titles is that the IP just doesn’t work or fit very well with game mechanics required of an MMO. However, when the IP is already based on an established RPG, the rules already exist and have been tweaked and tested through years of “on-paper” testing.

I stopped playing pen-and-paper RPGs around 1993-94, so I only knew the World of Darkness RPG under its original title of Vampire: The Masquerade. As far as pen-and-paper RPGs go, Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to be well liked by the people I played with regularly (one of which wrote several published D&D modules). And according to Wikipedia, it won an award for “Best Roleplaying Rules” in 1991.

In my mind, it’s a huge point in WoD MMOs favor that it uses a well-established and tested ruleset. The underlying game mechanics are important to the pen-and-paper crowd. These things still exist in MMOs so it’s big plus to know that the foundation is well thought out and tested over time. But more than that, the specifics of the Lore were designed with an RPG system in mind.

Developed by CCP
But perhaps more importantly, it's also being developed by CCP. The same CCP who is currently publishing the second most successful MMO on the market in EVE Online. There are several very important things we know about CCP:
  • They have the financial backing of another successful MMO. We know the lights aren’t going to get turned off anytime soon.
  • They execute well. You don’t attract the players that EVE has with shoddy craftsmanship.
  • They stay committed. CCP will stay the course and continually work to improve their products over time.
  • They have a proven track record of doing things that are different from World of Warcraft.
  • The graphics are going to blow your mind. (see Cloth and Hair demo)
If I’m being blunt, the mere fact that CCP is attached to this MMO guarantees it some measure of success. If, for no other reason, because we know that CCP will stay the course and put forth the work necessary to continually improve it into a quality MMO.

Tobold asks us today, Which upcoming MMO will break the million subscribers mark? If I was a betting man, I would place my money on World of Darkness.

First of all, it has World of in the name. Perhaps if Funcom had released World of Conan instead of Age Of Conan more people would have understood that it was an MMO set in the world of Conan. Clearly, Warhammer made the same mistake by not naming themselves World of Warhammer. Oh sure, this would have abbreviated to WoW but one could argue that such confusion would cause an increase in subscription numbers when my best friend’s brother-in-law signed up for the wrong WoW!

OK. OK. On a more serious note, blogger pundits like to write lots of theories about why no MMO has seriously offered Blizzard real competition over the years. There are several recurring themes in these theories and World of Darkness would appear to avoid most of them. It’s not fantasy based. It’s being produced by a proven developer. It’s in a popular genre with a strong IP. It’s based on an existing RPG with tested game mechanics. The developer has a history of executing well, supporting the game long-term and listening to the community enough but not too much. And finally, the developer is best known for creating a unique game that is markedly very different than WoW.

On the surface of it all, I have to say that WoD appears to be very well positioned as a major up-and-coming MMO. The only irony is that I don’t really like Vampire movies or books. Oh well.. :)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Input Devices, the iPad, Wii and You

In recent years, consumer electronic products have seen several new and innovative technologies introduced to tackle the challenge of how users interact with their devices. Voice activation. Motion controls (Wii). Touchscreens. Invisible Mice.

Technology developed primarily as a result of wanting to create a more compact and portable product. The iPhone is perhaps the best example. It has voice activation features, motion controls to determine orientation and, of course, the now famous touchscreen. 99% of computer users still use a mouse & keyboard but most people have had some exposure by now to this type of technology with some type of non-computer device.

Why is this important?

Well, Raph Koster thinks the iPad form factor (or slate) is the future of computing for the average user. I tend to agree with him. It’s compact, portable and certainly covers all the needs that my wife, her parents, my parents, and all my siblings need out of computer. 

One of the knocks I had about the iPad at release is that for the price, you can buy a cheap laptop. And while I still believe that’s true, the trend is that the platform will eclipse PC innovation within the next 5 years. I would argue that it’s already eclipsed the innovation, but within 5 years it might actually become the dominant platform of choice among home users.

So by extension this is important for gaming because, in all likelihood, you’ll own one of these devices within the next 5 years.

Fighting the 1-2-3s
As we learned with the Wii, providing an alternate way to interact with our gaming devices is a novel and interesting way to breathe new life into them.

If I think about my own frustration with MMO controls, I find that what I don’t like most is having to make keystrokes (hotkeys) while simultaneously doing things with my mouse.

Compare that experience to the Wii with it’s motion controls. Or with the iPad's on-screen finger controls + motion controls. The controls themselves are not just intuitive, but fun to use. On a personal note, I find them more challenging as well. Something that is “easy” with the twitch of my wrist on a mouse is far harder to accomplish when I need to swing my whole hand or body.

As MMO players, we talk a lot about innovation. We talk a lot about how MMO devs need to break away from the 1-2-3 hotkey mold made popular by Blizzard.

For me, this was a huge part of the appeal with Darkfall. The UI might have been total crap, but the controls as it related to combat were both fun, challenging and innovative. As I’ve written about in the past, the simple act of killing a monster you need to “aim at” makes the game several factors more difficult than your standard MMO.

Gamers are all about efficiency
I think this is what strikes some gamers wrong about using these newer input devices. The Wii remote is not as easy to use as a Playstation controller.

Using motion controls to drive a car or do just about anything is a bit more challenging on a Wii remote. Some gamers, like myself, enjoy that challenge. Other gamers, like Yahtzee Croshaw from Zero Punctuation can’t stand the motion controls because they make them feel like they have to flail around to do the same thing they could have done with the twitch of a finger.

Gamers are competitive and look at the input device as a potential tool to make them more effective. They buy expensive mice with super high DPI ratings and more buttons than your number pad. I know that on a personal note I am very tempted to buy a Logitech G13 Advanced Gameboard for that exact reason.

This is a fundamental problem with introducing new controls.  One of the games I have for our Wii is Mario Cart. As much as I love the motion controls, you can’t get me to use them in that game because it offers a method without the controls. If I were to use the motion controls while playing against someone who wasn’t – I would be at a disadvantage. Therefore, I feel like I need to play without motion controls in order to feel competitive.

If you want it to work, it can’t be a choice.

It’s not a new argument. There are plenty of people who play WoW who would rather play the game without addons. But in order to compete against players WITH addons, they feel compelled to download and install them.

As an addon author, I’m cleary not against addons. However, I can see that point and respect why other devs like CCP would choose not to allow them to exist in their game. Having an interface option where one method is clearly far superior to another method is really no choice at all.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No one likes grind.

To me, the statement "No one likes grind" is one of the most obvious observations that a person can make. It's right up there with "the sky is blue" and "black is darker than white".

The actual definition of Grind is "a tedious task" and it's synonymous with Drudgery. Tedious, by the way, is defined as "boring, monotonous, time consuming". I think that pretty much sums up what most MMO players think of Grinding.

And yet... I always find it terribly surprising when someone speaks out in favor of the grind. "No. No." they say, "we like the grind. The grind is important. It provides meaning. Context for all our hard work."

You like boring, monotonous, time consuming tasks? Really? Forgive me while I display some skepticism for a moment. For I find it impossible that even a masochist would really enjoy tasks that, by definition, are uninteresting, repetitive and cause players mental weariness.

No. I don't think you really do like the grind. No one likes the grind.

I think you like the reward.
I think what players like is the sense of achievement that comes from overcoming difficulty. That and the shiny Pavlovian treat that usually accompanies that sense of achievement.

No. It's not the "grind" that players find rewarding. It's the reward that they find rewarding.

I'm convinced that if you created a "box" in the middle of Orgrimmar that players could jump on for free coins that players would happily jump on that box 24/7 and proceed to send Blizzard thank you emails for giving them that box. The "box" they would say is the smartest idea ever.

But, of course, it's not the "box" that players would enjoy but the Reward it provides.

We need challenge, but do we need Grind?
As MMO players, we crave challenge. We want challenge. It's what gives our virtual achievements context and meaning.

As I wrote in Mid-June, there are several ways to make your MMO more difficult:
  • Twitch Skills
  • Reactive Decision Making
  • Planned Strategic Thinking
  • Time Consuming
  • Severe Consequences
  • Organizational Structure
Of all six methods for making your game more difficult, the worst possible choice from a player perspective is to make it more time consuming. Difficulty, by virtue of only being lengthy, is a miserable and mind-numbingly boring way to make your game more difficult.

We don't need the Grind to make a game challenging. There are plenty of ways to increase the challenge without needing to make it monotonous or boring.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Because the trolls don’t necessarily stop – they just know who you are now.

The worst part about Blizzard's recent announced change is that they sincerely believe this will clean up the forums.  Perhaps a bit, but at what cost?

The unfortunate reality is that Blizzard is simply arming the "trolls" with real information they can use to make the attacks more hurtful.

The real trolls, the ones who want to cause harm and mischief, just got a brand new way they can make your life miserable.  If they don't like what you have to say, they don't need to post the hate, they can just call you on the phone and leave nasty messages.

My Mom started getting hate mail from someone in an internet group with a grudge against her. Real mail. Sent to her house with threats.

There are countless ways that the trolls can now inflict harm upon you if they know your real name.  Get all their buddies to harrass you.  Sign you up for magazines.  Subscribe you to porn lists.

Or the other alternative I love is the “wrong guy” scenario. This is where the unlucky bastard who just happens to have the same name gets harassed in real life by some angry forum trolls. Calling his house. Leaving nasty messages. Sending him photos of his house with death threats.

Because the trolls don’t necessarily stop – they just know who you are now.

Kicking your ass in Real Life (courtesy of RealID)
I grew up in a small-ish town where there wasn’t much to do on the weekend. You either got drunk, got laid, or got into a fight. I’m also not a small guy and when I was in my teens and early twenties, I wasn’t always the best decision maker when it came to throwing a few punches. In one particularly noteworthy situation, I was carried out of a building by four police officers.

I’ve since matured quite a bit and been pretty subdued for the last 10 years. All of this ugliness was inside of a younger, less mature me. Outside of the occasional menacing glare, I haven’t been in a real altercation since the aforementioned police officer incident. The older me has too much to lose to ever behave that way again.

My point? Well, at one time in my life I was THAT guy. You know the guy I’m talking about... The one who snaps online and starts making the physical threats. “Where do you live? I want to kick your ass. Let’s meet somewhere.”

Thing is – I was serious. I really did want to kick their ass and had they been near my city... well, there would have been some vengeance for the online slights. Now I wasn’t always that angry. In all my years of gaming or participating in online activities I can only think of two instances where I would have been angry enough to take action.

But.. therein lies my point. I was angry enough to take action.

Look, in the grand scheme of things I’m not even the most likely person I know who would seek someone out to kick their ass. But I certainly know my younger self would have considered it. And my younger drunken self may have even acted upon it.

But what stopped me?


As frustrated and angry as I might have been, I had no outlet. No way to act upon impulses that could have turned out badly. Impulses that were further inflamed because the source of my anger wasn’t physically present.

You see, the real Internet Dickwad Theory is only partly about Anonymity. Because part of what makes something so much more dick-ish on the Internet is that you don’t have any immediate personal feedback from people. If you are being a dick to someone in real life, even if they don’t know you personally, you can both use body language and vocal queues to keep the conversation from turning from just a civil disagreement to a raging war.

But if you are being a dick on the internet, their imagination supplies the tone. Words intended to be fair and considering can quickly be seen as hurtful and inflammatory. Removing the anonymity while keeping the same inflammatory problems is simply a disaster in the making.

Is the use of Real Names a good idea?


And take that from the perspective of someone who is willingly admitting that they would likely have kicked the shit out of someone in real life had that anonymity not existed. That’s not fear-mongering. That’s just an honest appraisal from someone who knows himself well enough to know that this can only end badly.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The problem with PvP in MMOs

I think what took me a long time to realize is that not everyone wants equality in their PvP.

Too often, we label something as PvP and then just expect everyone to understand what that means. But PvP comes in lots of flavors and not all of it is the same. Back in January I wrote an entry about what I called the PvP Political Compass. That compass is my attempt to describe the flavors of PvP that exist in games.

What is interesting about the compass is that it also describes what people WANT out of these games. At one end of the spectrum, players want their actions to have an Impact. You play to win and you make your own fair play by carving out your own little place in the world. And in MMOs, this means grouping with other like-minded individuals for protection.

At the other end of the spectrum are players who take their meaning from the competition itself. They don’t want there to be any confusion caused by unfairness. Two people meet under equal terms and the person who emerges as the victor KNOWS they are the better player. No question. This is the same type of competitive spirit we crave in our sports teams.

As you can see in the PvP Compass, these two ideas are not compatible. By virtue of having Impact, you create an imbalance that is unwanted by the player who wants more competition. But it’s not entirely black and white. It’s more of a sliding scale. The more competitive you make it, the less impact exists. The more impact you create, the less competitive it becomes.

Can we make a Competitive PvP-based MMO?
It’s not much of a coincidence that the only successful MMOs which feature PvP as a prominent part of the game happen to focus on Impact-type PvP. MMOs, by the very nature of character progression, do not lend themselves towards equality. Thus, a PvP game which is very purposefully designed without the need for equality is going to feel like a more natural result.

The problem here is that Impact PvP isn’t the most desirable type of PvP for most players. Starcraft, Counter-Strike, Halo and countless other games in other genres have been immensely popular to the Competitive PvP crowd. Even Tobold (known PvP hater) recently admitted that “PvP games could be more successful if they would do a better job of pairing people with similar skills and abilities against each other.

Impact PvP, by contrast, appeals to a much smaller group of players. It takes a certain type of player who is willing to both risk the consequences of negative sum PvP and has the skills to master the “social” part that these games require to find some measure of safety in a group.

So, in my opinion, it’s not that PvP isn’t a popular option. It’s that the type of competitive PvP that more players would enjoy has never been implemented in any MMO. Which begs the question, is it even possible?

Half empty or Half full?
Presumably, in a world of perfect equality, an average skilled player would lose just as many fights as they won. I think intellectually that most people can grasp that idea. But emotionally and subjectively, I think it becomes an incredible complex problem.

Because, in practice, most people will react emotionally. He must have cheated! We got nerfed! Laaaaag!

Further complicating the issue is self-perception. Would a person be happy they are winning half the time, or pissed off that they are losing half the time?

Countering the Character Progession
I sincerely wish that more games used a method of “tiering” players into relative power groups. WAR comes immediately to mind but they did it badly. For one thing, I wouldn’t “uprank” players to a new level. I would “downrank” more advanced players when they entered an area intended for characters who were less powerful.

Or as I suggested on Syncaine’s blog yesterday:
No upranking for low level characters into high level areas. Just downranking if a high level character chooses to visit an area that is not intended for them.

The key point here is that it’s an area NOT intended for them. Low level mobs they want to safely grind on? No. Sorry. Not intended for you.

Newbie players trying to figure out how to PvP? Sorry. Not going to be an easy gank because while you are more knowledgeable, you are not more powerful.

Everyone is welcome to travel anywhere they want, but if you choose to visit places that aren’t for you than there are consequences.

A low level character going into a high level area risks getting one-shotted. A high level character going into a low level area risks having to actually fight a new player on more equal footing.

Oh. And, sorry. No power leveling your buddy because you aren’t much more of a bad ass.

Now you obviously put all the best and most worthwhile stuff in non-protected areas. If the interesting stuff is not in these areas, then people will be motivated to move out of them quickly.

The real benefit of all this is that new people of similar power levels get to bang heads against each other instead of getting ripped up by the veterans.

I feel if you want to see a ‘popular’ implementation of PvP in an MMO that it has to address this competitive spirit. No MMO has done this well yet. Perhaps it’s impossible. But I’m holding out hope.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Online Privacy

TAGN has an interesting read up about privacy and Blizzard's new REAL ID offering.

The overall thrust of the entry is that despite all the benefits that the REAL ID system offers, it comes with a price tag of associating your real identity to that of an online community.

Why is this an issue? Because you begin to lose control of the information that can be found out about you on the internet. And as TAGN writes, there is a high probability your name will be Googled by prospective employers, clients, customers, or even just some guy trying to sell you stuff.

A lesson learned
For the last 10 years or so I have been guarding my real identity in online games and communities.  My last name is just not that common and a Google search will pretty much pop up anything related to me in microseconds.

I have no illusions that if someone wanted to figure out who I am and post my identity that they could do so without much trouble. So the reason I keep my identity guarded isn't because I don't want YOU to know.

The reason is fairly simple and can be best illustrated by this story.

After Warcraft 3 was released (not the MMO, the RTS), I worked on WC3 maps and mods. Being the generally helpful guy that I am, I wrote some guides and posted them on some forums. I never posted under my real name (just a nick) but I did sign up for the forums using my real name.

So imagine my surprise when 6 or 7 years later, upon Googling my name, I find another post on an entirely different website in which MY REAL NAME is credited for writing a guide. Again, remember that the only place I ever posted my name was on the signup page for the forum.

Even today, this is one of the top 30 or so Google results for my name. Ironically, the guides themselves no longer even exist anywhere.

I'm of the opinion that my virtual identity is one that I want to control. As much as I love MMOs, I simply don't want to be asked why I consider myself to be a SERIAL GANKER in a job interview.

And even when it's controlled, it's uncontrolled
I Googled an ex-girlfriend of mine maybe a year ago. No particular reason other than boredom and perhaps a morbid curiosity.

The search results didn't turn up anything that she wrote or that she associated herself with directly. But what it did turn up was pure gold. Basically, she had some type of domestic problem with her roommate.

The pissed off roommate, in all her glory, decided to blog about it.  In detail.  In which my ex was painted as one of the worst villains in roommate history.

Needless to say it was a great read and my morbid curiosity was well satisfied. Thankfully, I've never pissed off someone in such a way that they've wanted to document it for all the world to see.

Disturbing trend
I don't know if you've noticed it, but there is a trend happening that is moving us AWAY from privacy. Which, to me, is incredible considering that identity theft has become such a common financial risk.

The driving force behind this trend is two-fold. The first is that the under-25 generation doesn't care much about privacy. The second is that it's good for business.

Facebook, Blizzard, Amazon, Google -- they all want to know as much as they possible can about you. Facebook, in particular, is already the world's largest data repository for personal information.

They know who YOU are, who your friends are, what you like, and depending on how much you filled out on your profile -- where you work, went to school and live.

And, of course, all this information is made more useful to them if you give up the fight to control your privacy and let them decide what's important to you and who should be allowed to know things about your private life.

Even scarier is the long-term plan which Raph posted in which they become your single login and wallet for all things on the internet. If that happens, they'll also know all the sites you visit and where you buy stuff.

/tinfoil hat off

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Define Hard: Six ways to make your MMO difficult

The problem with calling something hard or easy is that it's a subjective opinion. What is easy for one person might be hard for someone else.

When I was younger, I had a very narrow definition of things I considered to be important attributes. If you were talented in those attributes, I respected you as a peer.

As I grew older, and particularly as I began managing employees, I learned that there isn't just one set of skills that are superior to others.

People are diverse and can be absolutely brilliant in one area and very obtuse and ignorant in another. As a manager, it became important to recognize these talents in order to set people up for success.

Today, I have a different outlook. I believe that all people are talented, not just in the same ways.

Some people are mechanical. Some people are intellectual. Some people are athletic. Some people are charismatic. Some people are beautiful. Some people are atristic. And so on.

The result of all this diversity is that there is no universal definition of HARD or EASY.

Why is this important for MMOs? Because one thing we consistently do as a group is rate content as either DIFFICULT or EASY.

Types of Difficulty in MMOs
  • Twitch Skills
  • When we speak of twitch skills, this is really a measure of a person's individual skill in executing a specific physical action. It's literally your ability to point-and-click or tap buttons both quickly and accurately. The downside of this method of difficulty is that it favors people who have great hand-eye coordination. Popular among gamers who have developed that coordination over years, but not as popular among the mass-market crowd of stay-at-home Moms.
  • Reactive Decision Making
  • Interestingly, when I think of this type of difficulty, I think about Tobold. He has been a big proponent for more reactive decision-making gameplay as an alternative to twitch mechanics. Challenges presented through this method require a decision to be made in reaction to some other gameplay element. The classic example would be "GET OUT OF THE FIRE" in a RAID encounter. Or, alternately, as Tobold has often proposed -- skills/cards that are randomly provided which you need to make decisions about which to use. The downside here, if there is one, is that players need to be more actively engaged. You couldn't, for example, watch a movie while crafting if such crafting required your constant ongoing attention.
  • Planned Strategic Thinking
  • Unlike reactive decision making, some situations require you to think deeply about the problem before you encounter it. The best example here is min/maxing your damage/healing output, thinking through how your character will progress, making equipment decisions and so forth. The downside here is that it's very easy for others to provide "cookie-cutter" solutions to these problems. The result is a lot of pressure from peers to make use of these "cookie-cutter" examples as the optimum solution. Individuality is crushed by the professional theorycrafters. 
  • Time Consuming
  • There can be no doubt that making anything take twice as long makes it twice as difficult to complete. The downside here is that making something more time consuming doesn't necessarily make something more fun. It's an artificial difficulty that most people, myself included, find cumbersome. 
  • Severe Consequences
  • More severe consequences is an interesting way to add challenge in that it doesn't directly add difficulty to the task. It simply adds consequence for failure which, in turn, alters your behavior in how you approach the task. The effect is that it adds caution to the approach. The downside is that it's very possible to make the consequence so severe that it entirely deters any attempts.
  • Organizational Structure
  • And finally, there is significant challenge in creating and managing an organization large enough to accomplish group tasks. In many ways, I find this is perhaps the most difficult type of challenge because it relies on players to play a meta "social" game to either lead or become part of a group that can work together effectively to complete the goals. The downside here is that the ability to operate as a group is completely independent from someone's individual effort and ability. A talented player with untalented friends may never progress.
For myself, I think I prefer increasing difficulty by making things more reactive and twitchy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

Pablo Picasso is famously attributed the quote "Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal". Copying, or emulating, is when you try to be like someone else. Stealing is when you take it and make it your own.

In the MMO space, we have seen plenty of examples of MMOs copying World of Warcraft. And they fail. And everyone is left scratching their head and discussing what went wrong.

By contrast, Warcraft stole from Everquest (and other games). They took these ideas and internalized them. They didn't just copy the idea, they took ownership of it. Then improved upon it.

Consumers don't want copies
A copy is never as good as the original. When a company copies a work, they aren't thinking about the consumers. They are thinking about the product. It's all "look we have these too" because it's become a standard feature.

That type of thinking just doesn't leave room for thinking about improvement.

This is why I ultimately believe WoW has been so successful. Take Warhammer, for example, which introduced an innovative new MMO feature in the Tome of Knowledge. WoW took that same concept -- internalized it -- and created their Achievements system. They made it their own.

And having played both games, I can say that the Achievements systems for all it's shortcomings is widely more popular and used than the ToK.

You might disagree with Blizzard's vision, but let me assure you that this ability to take ideas and make them their own is the real reason they are so successful.

They steal ideas, they don't copy them.

My book
One day I'm going to write a fantasy trilogy. It might not ever be published, but I'm going to write it. :)

I think one of the reasons that I identify with this "stealing" concept is because of how I've approached creating the world and story for my trilogy.

I'm not going to discuss the specifics of my fantasy realm, but there are several core elements that were "inspired" by other fantasy works. Things I really enjoyed in other books I've read that I felt would have a great place in my world.

But I didn't just copy the idea. As I said, I was inspired by it. I took ownership of the idea and turned it into something that felt right for my world.

And it wasn't just one idea. But lots of them from lots of different inspirations. The result is something entirely different and I think only I would make the connection to what originally inspired my world.

This is how I believe an MMO developer needs to approach designing an MMO. They need to take lots of different ideas from lots of different games. Think about what they enjoyed about these games and then meld them into something cohesive that they own.

Something new. Something different. Something that those of us looking for that next cool MMO would want to play.

Not just innovation, but evolution as well.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quick Hit: Equipment which breaks

The first thing you need to understand when I talk about equipment breakage is that I’m not talking about destroying all of your rare and difficult to acquire equipment.

Or I suppose I am, just not in the same sense that you have come to understand “rare and difficult to acquire” relative to a game like Warcraft. If one boss drops three items for 25 people each week, it’s not very good game design to destroy that item a few hours later.

Now let me ask, should the "challenge" in acquiring a difficult or rare item be in "winning the roll" or in fighting the boss itself? In Warcraft, many boss fights are trivialized and the challenge itself is in the "roll" and not the "boss". As evidenced by the fact that many raiders will kill the same boss 25+ times before getting that Best In Slot item.

But what if each player got their own loot table and item for each boss. One drop every boss for each player involved in the raid. Instead of a 13 boss dungeon that provides 1 drop for each player, you have a 13 boss dungeon that provides 13 drops for each player.

Suddenly, an item that “breaks” after several hours of play is not such a huge obstacle.

Rarity is a relative term. You can make things difficult to acquire by making the boss fights themselves more difficult and challenging. And since the items themselves don't "last" or persist forever, getting that +1 upgrade doesn’t mean you throw out your old sword.

The advantage of such a system is that you don’t need “Gear Resets” to create equality. By virtue of simply playing the game, the content can be tuned so equipment simply wears out over time.

The consistent and constant loss of equipment created by breakage also provides a lot of value to your crafting system and economy. Why? Because the consumption creates a loss that needs to be replaced. An economy only works if that which is being used is consumed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quick Hit: Spontaneous PvP

I’m always surprised that I don’t get asked why I titled my blog Serial Ganker when I don’t write much about Ganking other people. You would think that such a blog would be filled with tales of my exploits (much like EVE Pirate).

The actual reason has more to do with my self-identity in online games. I’m aggressive and not ashamed of it.

I’m always prepared to drop whatever I’m doing to engage in spontaneous PvP. And well, when two people happen to meet spontaneously in the world, the two are rarely on equal terms. Even if they have relatively the same power score, the person who prepares for the fight and engages first is the one with a significant advantage.

But it’s not just about being the hunter. It’s also about being the hunted. My most memorable Spontaneous PvP moments are the ones where I escaped overwhelming odds in grand fashion.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Getting Screwed!

I don’t write much about my professional life because I try to keep this blog topical to MMOs. This post is going to feel like it’s not MMO or gaming related but hang with me for a bit and my point will come full circle back to MMOs. I promise.

Marketing was, and always will be, my professional passion. But... I like money and so I spent the first four years after college in a technical sales role that I felt would provide me with equivalent sales experience that I could (and did) transition into marketing.

It was a crazy job. We were a technical services firm focused on large accounts with UNIX datacenters. As an account manager, I handled virtually everything related to the client except deployment and billing. Now the real crazy part is that while we were a technical services firm, we didn’t actually provide any of these product or services ourselves.

I can’t express how much more difficult building out a quote is in this scenario over a traditional sales role. We didn’t have fixed costs. Instead, we negotiated our costs AFTER we had won the business. This means quoting to the client with just a rough approximation of what things are likely going to cost you.

I was responsible for not only negotiating the prices with our clients but also negotiating and managing our costs for any subcontractors we used. Oh – and my commission was based entirely on profit (not revenue) so negotiating lower costs would directly impact my sales performance.

All this taught me A LOT about leaving money on the table.

Trust, Money and False Expectations
If I can provide you a life lesson it’s that when money is involved, trust leads to false expectations.

For example, let’s say that you have a friend that sells furniture. You need a new couch, so you call your friend. Your expectation is that your friend is going to give you a great deal on a couch. However, from his point of view, you are just buying the couch from him because you would rather give a friend your money.

You trust him to give you a great deal, perhaps even at or below cost. He feels an obligation to treat you fairly, but not bend over backwards to get you that great deal.

I’m not telling you to NOT go to your friends for furniture. But what I am stressing is that it is a bad idea to delude yourself into having a false expectation that a person trying to make money to support themselves is going to do anything more than treat you fairly.

And that’s when the person is a friend.

For the stranger, trust becomes a tool. It’s important for them to engender a certain amount of trust in order for you to be willing to spend money with them. You need to believe that goods will be delivered. You need to believe the price you pay is fair. You need to believe that the quality and promises will be kept.

Misplaced trust is dangerous.

This is part of what I think is interesting about the whole Allods debacle. When the prices changed in the Cash Shop, it was perceived as a violation of trust. Pretty much by definition, the Microtransaction model requires a lot of trust from the players. It requires that they trust the developer to treat them fairly and not create artificial incentives to promote the Cash Shop.

However, the unfortunate reality is that none of these developers want to leave money on the table.

Money on the table
Tobold wrote a piece on Monday about a new Microtransaction style Facebook game he had spent an undisclosed amount of money on. I was a bit disappointed with him about it.

Not an entirely rational thing. It’s his money after all. Who am I to tell him how to spend it?

But here’s the thing – paying money for crap games, particularly in these Microtransaction models, teaches the developers something.

It tells them that some people are willing to spend this way. Paying incrementally more in small chunks for content that requires far less time to develop.

As I wrote in the comments of his blog, lets compare the value you receive from one of these games to the value you receive from an MMO like World of Warcraft.  Let’s imagine that Tobold spent a modest $5 on this Facebook game. A month of WoW is three times that cost – $15.

Did he receive 1/3 the relative value for his $5? No.

When I pointed this out to Tobold in the comments, he responded with the following:
Did I mention I spent 10 years of my life an about $10,000 on Magic the Gathering? If you don't count the PC and internet connection, 10 years of WoW only cost about $2,000.

But I don't see what is wrong with that. Why shouldn't somebody with more money be able to spend more on games? Do you think it is unfair that some people drive bigger cars too?
Tobold’s take is not that $2,000 is a better value than the $10,000 he spent on Magic cards. Instead, his take is that he would have been willing to pay $10,000 if Blizzard had allowed him.

In effect, he (and others like him) are telling Blizzard that they are leaving $8,000 on the table.

If WoW costs us 5x the price, would we receive 5x the value?
This is where I fundamentally diverge from the mindset that supports Microtransactions. The justification that you have the money to freely spend on these transactions is not the point. I have the money to spend too.

I’m just not willing to pay more for the same thing I was already getting.

My point being that Tobold and his $5 is getting incrementally less for his money supporting these types of games. His willingness to spend 5x the amount on these games won’t buy him 5x the value. Quite the opposite.

His willingness to spend so much more is just telling Blizzard and the other gaming companies that there is a willing market of people who are willing to overpay relative to the services and products they have been receiving.

Negotiating the Price
I don’t begrudge Tobold’s right to outspend me. I DO begrudge him for teaching developers that it’s OK to provide less for more.

Right now, game developers are realizing that players are willing to spend more on games. I think of these Microtransaction models as a negotiation of sorts. Developers are testing this new market trying to find the line that makes them the most profitable.

Sadly for me, Blizzard and other are learning that YOU are willing to spend much more for little content. The Sparkle Pony is not dangerous because it offers some unfair advantage but because it teaches these developers something about a market willing to spend money on almost nothing.

At the end of the day, the trend is that collectively we are going to spend more for games.  I can't change that, nor do I really want to change it.

I would just like to see us negotiate a much better deal.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

SW: TOR - How I would approach it if I were Bioware

There has been some talk on different blogs about the upcoming Star Wars MMO.  The overall concern is that Bioware has been on record as describing the upcoming game as a "storyline" RPG similar to what they have done in the single-player versions.

The thought here is that a "story" is only temporary and doesn't work well in an MMO.  After all, what does a player do when the story ends?

Valid concern.

As I wrote on Syncaine's blog today, I think if I were Bioware, my focus as a developer would be on setting up some methodology that would allow me to quickly and easily build out lots of content.

Specifically, some sort of story "toolkit" that content managers could use to create new content.  Notice that I didn't say content developers but content managers.

In my mind, that's the key.  This "toolkit" needs to be easy to use and not require a lot of hardcoding development on the part of the content manager.  They simply write the questlines, provide the NPC interaction dialog, work with voice actors, and then choose the locations, monsters, items and such that the player will deal with in their "adventure".

In a way, this isn't any different than the "Map Editor" toolkit we saw for Warcraft 3 or other similar types of things.  Heck, I even recall a Dungeon Contstuction Kit on my old Apple II (or maybe it was on the Commodore 64?).

The point being is that the only way that I see "story" driven content working in an MMO is if there are LOTS and LOTS of stories.

And the only way to do that is to make it easy to CREATE the stories themselves.  And that means giving the people who will be creating this content simple, easy-to-use tools in order to create it.

Now, this might make for some "cookie-cutter" adventures and might not be the MMO that I want to play, but I think there is a market for it.  As I wrote on Syncaine's blog, just think of all the people that mindlessly complete the same Daily Quests day-after-day.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Warcraft: A retrospective look back

I’m not playing World of Warcraft at the moment. Nor do I have much interest at this point in playing the Cataclysm expansion.

There is no irrational hate here, just a lack of interest. To the contrary, I have very fond memories about WoW. And while I’m one of the first to point out all of Warcraft’s shortcomings, I think (as a whole) that Blizzard has done more things right over the years than wrong.

Millions of other people also support this idea as well. Say what you will about the game, but if they actually were screwing up the game at every turn, no one would be playing the game. The simple reality is that people do enjoy playing it and if they didn’t, then millions of them wouldn’t continue playing it.

Burning Crusade – The Design
In retrospect, I realize now that Burning Crusade was a lousy expansion. Oh, I suppose the leveling and questing experience was fine. Not as good as Wrath, but it was definitely an overall improvement to Vanilla WoW. I think if I am being critical here, it’s that there was only one entrance into Outland and it resulted in some crazy crowds at release.

There were some other improvements as well, like Flying Mounts, Heroic Dungeons, Badges of Justice, and Armor Tokens for Tier Pieces. But outside of those things, the expansion mostly sucked at end-game.

The biggest problem is that the transition path from a fresh 70 to an entry-level raiding 70 was idiotic. The entry-level raid dungeon, Karazhan, was very well done – but getting to that content was a serious pain in the ass.

You’ll recall that you needed to get “keyed” in order to get inside of Karazhan (which involved a lengthy quest chain). Now, the quest-chain for a key was not a new idea. This was pretty common in Vanilla WoW.

But at least here, there were more things to do and you hadn’t already been raiding at a level 50 only to hit this “key” wall at 60. Which meant that you didn’t have the expectation of raiding at level cap until well after you had done many of the level 60 dungeons.

Also, in Vanilla WoW, it was only important for one person to have been keyed in some of the starter dungeons. And for the others, it was a relatively easy dungeon crawl to get “attuned” to things like Molten Core.

To make matters worse, the next raid dungeon in Burning Crusade also required a separate “key” that could only be completed after an even longer quest chain involving the raid bosses in Kara. Even worse, this next dungeon wasn’t 10-man, but 25-man.

Now I’m no math wizard, but even I can tell that you can’t divide 25 by 10 evenly. In order to get even the minimum of 25, you needed at least three groups of 10.

Even worse, a 10-man group was typically made up of 2 Tanks, 2 Healers and 6 DPS.  If you multiply that by three, you end up with 6 Tanks, 6 Healers and 18 DPS.  25-man Raid composition needs 3 Tanks, 8 Healers, 14 DPS.  So too many Tanks and DPS, but not enough Healers.

The end result is that several progression walls were created. And even overcoming one wall (beating 10-man Kara) was then faced by the next wall (getting 15 more to do the next raid dungeon).

Frustrated players would hit a progression wall and might never get past it. I’ll always remember BBB (Big Bear Butt blogger) writing about how he effectively couldn’t get past Karazhan not for lack of gear or skill, but because he couldn’t overcome the social engineering challenge of getting other people to stay in his guild long enough to get everyone keyed for SSC.

On a personal note, I actually quit most of that whole raid progression game and focused on PvP for the last year of that expansion out of frustration.

Burning Crusade – Guild Drama
Design issues aside, much of my problem with Burning Crusade related to guild issues. I switched from a Horde to an Alliance server a bit after the expansion released with some real life friends. In doing so, we left our old Horde guild (we were part of the core group, but our Guild Leader had been absent for several weeks).

After a few months at 70 on the Alliance server, all but two of my real life friends had slowly stopped playing. The three of us then decided to go back to our old Horde server. We also wanted to play different classes (in my case, the same class I played on Alliance), so despite returning to the same server – it was a fresh reroll.

Surprisingly, our old guild didn’t die after we left. Our absent Guild Leader had returned and managed to reform a new core group of players. Like the prodigal sons returning, we joyously rejoined him.

This was a pretty big mistake.

It turned out that our Guild Leader was mostly the leader in name alone. He had a great aptitude for attracting and keeping players together, but pretty much assigned out the business of running raids to his raid leaders.

A big believer in more is better, he recruited a lot of people and the result was an elite group of maybe 20 people, followed by another 20 fighting for the 5 remaining raid spots.

Elite is likely the wrong word choice to describe that core group of players. In truth, this was just the best geared group – not necessarily the most skilled.

I think what was most frustrating to those players just outside of that group is that castoffs kicked out of other guilds were often given a raid spot based on gear quality and not their ability to actually perform. Needless to say, this group wiped a lot and stalled on a lot of content that similar guilds easily beat.

From my perspective, I never raided anything beyond a few Kara runs with this group. The issue for me was Raid time. Back when I left the server, the Raid time was a very convenient 8:00pm PST. I, and my other real life friends, live on the West Coast, so this worked out really well for us.

However, after we left, the group that filled our void was largely East Coast and preferred a 5pm raid time (forming at 4:30). I couldn’t even physically get home from work until 6:00 and wasn’t available to raid until 7:00pm.

I think I stayed in that guild far longer than I should have out of friendship with my old acquaintances. I never even got as far from a PvE progression standpoint as I had with my old Alliance guild. I eventually left for a PvP-focused guild (since that’s all I was doing).

Ironically, I ended up doing much more raiding with this PvP guild than I ever did with my former guild since we often paired up with another group once or twice a week to raid for gear. Go figure.

Wrath of the Lich King – No Guild Drama
It’s my sincere belief that most MMO players struggle with the types of Guild Drama issues that I described above. I think finding a “good guild” is more the exception than the rule and is likely why the solo-viability of a game like WoW makes it immensely popular.

I think this bears repeating because I think some other bloggers have always been fortunate enough to have a good guild or group to play with and in many ways, I think this twists their expectations.  The simple fact is that far more people are in bad guilds than good ones.  Good people, but not enough of them to DO much of anything. Or conversely, large groups, but run by people you don't like or connect with at a personal level.

That's a very important consideration for a developer because as I learned in Wrath, having a good quality group to play with dramatically increases the “fun factor” in these games.

In any event, shortly after returning back to WoW, I was recruited into a great guild that I can't say enough good things about.  It was by far the best group I’ve ever played with and I think that it contributed greatly to a much better experience than the one I had during Burning Crusade.

One of the reasons this guild worked so well for me is that I had a great relationship with the other Rogue.  If I'm being blunt, most Rogues are scrubs and/or greedy bastards.  However, the two of us were both great players and pretty unselfish.  It really made for a solid friendship and I was closer to him than any other member of the guild.

Wrath of the Lich King - Design
Wrath is not without it's issues. Leveling and questing was a far more improved experience.  If I'm being critical here, I would have liked to have seen more "phasing" and a smarter implementation of it in certain places.  It's a great mechanic to evolve a story.

I didn't PvP much in Wrath because honestly, the far superior PvP in Warhammer had by this point pretty much turned me off from WoW's sub-par PvP.  Wintergrasp was unspectacular and the new Battleground boring compared to the pure action to a scenario like Tor Anroc.

The real improvement for me was the Raiding.  Much more accessible and the 10-man versions made the possibility of PuGGing content your Guild wasn't doing that week (or you would miss) a realistic option.

I know people have been critical that Raiding was made "easy" in Wrath but I think that's not exactly true.  I think what made things easier (and better) is that you had twice the opportunity to do each Raid.  You could run it in 25-man AND in 10-man.

Even players who never did the 25-man content could master the 10-man content and then PuG a 25 and have roughly a good idea of what they needed to do.  10-mans are a training ground of sorts and THAT'S what made the content overall easier.

The net is that the end-game was simply just more enjoyable than in Burning Crusade.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What makes a good IP for an MMO?

Over the weekend, I finished up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. If you weren’t aware, Brandon is the author who got the nod to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. 

I’m a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy reader and after hearing that Brandon was the planned author for the WoT finale, I read his first novel Elantris to get a taste of how talented he was as a writer.

I liked his stand-alone book but was still pretty skeptical about him finishing arguably the best and most storied fantasy series of all time. Unfounded fears as it turned out his Wheel of Time novel was one of the best in the series.

All this got me to thinking that as bloggers, we sometimes talk or rate the IP of our MMOs. In this context, we aren't talking so much about the engine or game itself but the actual "Lore" that makes up the virtual world we inhabit as players. This Lore is important because it tells us the story of the world and our part within it.

From one perspective, it would seem like Books and Movies would be an excellent source for Lore in an MMO. After all, here is a story and world that is already developed.

They also have an existing fan base that makes for a great core audience. This approach has proven very profitable in the Movie industry. Comics like Spiderman, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk and even Garfield (and soon Marmaduke) are all existing stories with existing fans whose license translates great into Movies. Heck, we are even seeing Video Games like Resident Evil and Prince of Persia turned into Movies.

But there is a problem when applying this approach to MMOs. Balance.

Different – But Equal
The issue as I see it when applying the Lore of a given game to an MMO is that you inevitable need to break or deviate from the Lore in order to make it “work” in the MMO. A game like Warcraft, whose Lore didn’t exist outside of a game, doesn’t have this same problem of breaking Lore cannon in order to make a game more fun or balanced.

The best example of this in action is Star Wars. Following the Lore, the most powerful unit in any Star Wars MMO would need to be the Jedi. Han Solo, super-stud Bounty Hunter that he is, could never kick Luke Skywalker’s ass. Only other characters who also possess Jedi powers are able to face and defeat each other.

In a book, movie or solo video-game – that’s not a problem.

In an MMO, where people may want to choose a class other than a Jedi, it’s a problem.

That’s because it’s inherent to the story that these groups are more powerful than everyone else. Which really doesn’t fit with an MMO where the goal is to provide players options that are different but still equal.

This isn’t true with all the cannon Lore in all books, of course. But it is a common issue. In many ways, it’s far easier to just borrow the parts you like and create your own Lore.

Certainly Lore built for game systems is just going to be naturally much better designed and easier to implement. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Warhammer are all just going to be more inherently aligned with the RPG model. No need to fit a square peg into a circular hole.

The OP is OP (translation: The One Power is Overpowered)
My biggest concerns regarding the upcoming Wheel of Time MMO is that by necessity of game design, it’s going to have to break the cannon of WoT Lore.

In WOT, being able to wield the One Power (Aes Sedai, Ashaman, etc) is a trump card that beats anyone who has a sword. There are very few ways for someone without the OP to defeat them.

A sword wielder just gets wrapped up in Air weaves. Arrows? Air weave again.

I think of myself as a fairly creative guy and I can’t think of a single way to balance the One Power against non-wielders without seriously breaking or deviating from the cannon.

In fact, there are very few non-wielders who have could confront and win against an OP user. And those that exist are rare because they are central unique individuals to the storyline.

I guess everyone could be someone who wields the OP but that seems a little restrictive for a classic fantasy MMO (and a bit Darkfall-esque where everyone is the same).

Bigger than Life characters
One thing I really appreciate about Blizzard’s Lore in Warcraft is that they have some “bigger than life” NPC characters. Say what you will about everyone being a Hero in WoW, but the real Heroes from a Lore perspective aren’t player based at all. Thrall, Arthas, Illidan, Gul’Dan, Medivh, Jaina, Grom Hellscream.

Important People.

That’s one thing I will say in favor of the Wheel of Time Lore. There certainly would be no shortage of high profile NPCs on which to base events, raids, quests and so forth. There are lots and lots of very prominent and interesting characters that would be very useful as NPC bosses and heads of state.

Mistborn Trilogy
Ironically, despite my earlier observation that Books can make for lousy IP in an MMO, I do think that the Mistborn series has some potential.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but one of the things that makes Mistborn interesting is that there are lots of different types of talents that have a lot of power in their specific areas.

They also come along with slang names which would work great as Classes. For example, a “Thug” is someone who can burn a metal that makes them physically powerful. A “Coinshot” is someone who can propel metal away from their body. A “Lurcher” is someone who can attract metal towards them.

Done right, you could easily have eight distinct classes with various abilities. And at least one ( a “Hazekiller”) which has no abilities.

Abilities also improve with usage and have a “resource” that fuels/limits the user.

I don’t know if I would go so far as to allow player controlled Mistborn. But that’s a possibility – particularly at end-game.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Darkfall: Long overdue follow-up to reactions

No breaks, working lunches, and a working weekend have all conspired to sideline me from the blog for the last couple of weeks. It’s been like this since April but really built up steam in May. The frustrating thing for me is that I just haven’t had an opportunity to respond to reactions to my Darkfall: Last Impressions post.

Reaction of Darkfall Players
Stabs made an incredibly astute observation. The actual reaction from the players who should be most offended, those still playing Darkfall, were for the most part very sympathetic.

RyanT, who didn’t even agree, even went so far as to repost my entry on the Darkfall forums. The post wasn’t met with scorn and more than half of the follow-up commenters agreed with me.

And that was on ForumFall. A place not exactly well known for its welcoming and endearing nature towards QQ posts.

That’s because at some level they all understood one basic truth: That even many of the current DF players, if forced to start over, wouldn’t spend 4-6 months of intense effort developing a character that didn’t get four-shotted. I think what non-DF players missed is the scale of effort required.

I also wasn’t criticizing the fact that imbalance existed. At one level, I’m OK with the imbalance because I view myself as the type of player that will just “work” past the imbalance. However, ultimately what got to me was the realization that the sheer amount of “work” required is unfathomable.

Again – scale.

This isn’t WoW. If I had spent the amount of effort I had spent in Darkfall on a Level 1 WoW character – I would not only be level 80, but I would have 4 or 5 BIS items (Best In Slot). Heck, I more or less did that same exact thing a year ago January/February with my Mage alt.

Darkfall is a game where everything you do contributes to a skill and stat. The more you play doing ANYTHING, the more your stats increase. Character development never really stops.

Thus, it would be monumentally unfair to the “other guy” if I was allowed to easily catch up. How would you feel if you spent 6 months developing a character only to have me “catch-up” in six weeks and then pass you?

Tobold’s “Serial Ganker quits Darkfall
I found it a bit entertaining that I never wrote the word “quit” anywhere in my original post and it was used in Tobold’s title. True enough, I suppose. But perhaps a good example of my overall issue with how Tobold characterized my post.

I felt the selective quoting had a much more negative overtone about Darkfall than my original post. Again, I wasn’t misquoted or even quoted out-of-context, but certainly anything positive that I had to say about Darkfall was conveniently left out.

Tobold goes on to say these thoughts of mine echo his own thoughts about EVE. The principal problem of PvP in an MMO is character advancement and such advancement puts new players at odds with veteran players. I’ve raised that question myself on occasion. Certainly it’s an issue.

However, it’s not a unique issue.

It exists in Darkfall, it exists in EVE, it exists in WoW, it exists in WAR. It exists in all MMOs. It even exists in MMOs that don’t allow you to attack other players. Tobold would have you believe that this issue doesn’t exist in PvE. But it does. Because we don’t play MMOs in a vacuum. We play with other people.

When you RAID in game like WoW, you compete for your RAID spot. You are one of 10 or 25 people. If there are 11 or 26 people who want to RAID – let the competition begin. Who’s got the best gear? Who does the most DPS? The more veteran or “advanced” player has an advantage.

Even mundane tasks like harvesting, trading, or mining are all competitive activities in which veteran players have an advantage.

Mining Copper on foot? You’ll lose to the guy on the mount.

Mining Fel Ore on a mount? You’ll lose to the guy on the Flying Mount.

Competing on the Auction House? You’ll lose to the guy with more gold who understands the market, has established trading contacts and can afford to weather out a bad market.

Veteran players will always have an advantage. This isn’t new. In fact, the only way to take away that advantage is to either force everyone to be equal or take the “group” out of the equation.

That’s why I can’t really be critical of Darkfall or EVE on this score. It’s indicative of a bigger problem with all MMOs.

How do you on-board NEW players while at the same time not invalidating the work of your more veteran players?

Blizzard takes the approach that with every expansion, you effectively get a gear reset. They also don’t have any qualms about lowering the effort required to get gear or increase your relative power. It takes a third of the time to level 1-60 that it once did. Gear that was BIS when I quit WoW a year ago is trivial now. In short, they actively undermine the efforts of their most dedicated players in order to create this balance.

If there is something different about Darkfall and EVE it’s that neither game takes this approach of invalidating the effort of their most dedicated players. I’m sure some would argue that they should. I don’t know. As a new player to Darkfall, such a thing would have greatly increased my experience. But at what cost to the veteran players?

Even in Blizzard’s case though, the solution isn’t exactly ideal (as evidenced by Tobold’s recent complaint about the grind in Outland). You still have 70 levels to slug through of content 4-6 years old before you can get to the most active group content as a new player. Most of which you will do as a “solo” player.

The “Hero” Reaction
I think what irritated me most about Tobold’s post is the direction it took in his comments and Gevlon’s separate follow-up post on his blog. Over the years, Tobold has been pretty outspoken about EVE in that “there are more of the downtrodden masses than there are emperors.” A criticism that I don’t share. He wrote:
I get extremely suspicious nowadays whenever I hear of a game which allows you to achieve great things, lead an empire, and rule over the masses. [..] If I want to lead empires, I play single-player games.
In fairness, I don’t think Tobold was aiming that comment at me. However, it quickly became obvious in the comments that at least some of his readers were attributing the idea that *I* wanted to lead empires and that’s why I quit Darkfall. Gevlon took it one step further and said that I quit because I didn’t want to be a cog and that I wasn’t a team player.

The common theme is this silly idea about people wanting to be a “Hero”. I’ve never really liked that argument not because it’s untrue but because no one likes feeling unimportant.

You are the center of your Universe. You will always care most about what happens to YOU and what YOU do. Even if you are part of a team, YOUR role and YOUR actions as they contribute to the team are the most important part in YOUR little universe.

I played team sports in High School, so I understand perfectly well what it means to be on a team. Individual success is meaningless if the team doesn’t win.

But if the team DOES win, does that make individual success still meaningless? No.

Your individual performance still matters to YOU. If you know that YOU are not contributing to help the team win, you don’t feel as if YOU earned it – even if the team does win.

So it should never come as any surprise to anyone that the most important part of any MMO is YOU.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pure Win!

Obviously, I don't agree with Tobold's opinions on PvP, but this paragraph is awesome:
Because, see, all of the "advice" the EVE fans gave me also applies to this situation: If you feel that my blog having a lot of readers gives me an unfair advantage in a battle of opinions, all you have to do is to open your own blog, work hard on it for 6 months, and you can have thousands of readers too. This blog is my territory, my nulsec, in which I staked out certain positions, which includes a strong anti-PvP bias. I will do everything to defend my position, I have all the weapons I need for that, and if that makes you feel unfairly ganked, well, life is harsh as you repeatedly told me. Maybe you shouldn't enter unfriendly nulsec in the first place, if the result is that you complain afterwards about unfairness! There certainly were enough warning signs posted at the gates.
I think the reason I like this quote so much is because he's fighting back. I far prefer these kinds of posts as responses to the disparaging remarks he receives over the 'why is everyone picking on me?' type he usually writes when attacked.

And he does get attacked. A lot. But that also comes with the territory when you have such a prominent blog...

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Darkfall: Last Impressions

I've been playing Darkfall for almost two months now and I think I'm done. In many ways, I think Darkfall is a great game. The combat is much more innovative, interactive and enjoyable than what you see in other MMOs.

I also enjoy the on-use skillups despite all it's obvious flaws. There is something uniquely rewarding about focusing on a style of play and watching that level up.

I also found that I didn't lack for direction despite the horizontal nature of the game.  I always had something to do and made a couple of friends while I was at it.

It wasn't even the grind.  I mean, harvesting isn't exactly exciting, but the full loot nature of the PvP adds a bit of excitement to the mundane.  Which is certainly something you would never experience while running around mining or herbing in Warcraft.

No.. It's because I'm a pussy.

Oh, I don't mean unskilled. I suppose that could be it, but I wouldn't even know because every time I get into a fight I'm killed pretty damn quick.

How many hours should you have to log in order to be competitive?
Now I don't mind "working" to make my character more developed. I also understand that people who have put more "work" into their character deserve to have an advantage. For better or worse, that's the nature of PvP in MMOs.

But what started to bother me a few weeks ago, really bothers me today as I'm fully realizing that in order to "catch up" to a point where I am even remotely competitive is going to take not just an incredible amount of time, but an unfathomable amount of time.

I know this because I've played A LOT over the last few weeks. And despite how much time I've put into it, my character has barely broken into the tier just above the 'newbie' stage.

To put this in perspective, I leveled my Mage alt in WoW last year from level 1 to 80 in maybe 3-4 weeks. By the fifth week, I had 4 out of 5 of the Tier pieces and decent pieces in my other slots. All of this was in addition to the raiding I was doing on my main.

The point here is not that WoW is easy to level. Obviously, it is easier than Darkfall.

No, my point here is that I have been known to log some long hours. I talked about life-balance the other day and the part I tend to sacrifice is sleep. I KNOW I play a lot. As evidenced by my being able to level a Raiding alt in five weeks without the benefit of refer-a-friend.

And at that rate of play, I also believe that in Darkfall, it would take me a minimum of another 4 months to build up a character that would begin to put me at a point where I wouldn't constantly get my ass kicked.

Which just makes me wonder, is it even worth it?

Biggest Lie: New players can contribute in PvP
This is perhaps the biggest lie that gets told to new players as they start in Darkfall. The idea is that because new players can deal maybe 30% of the damage that an established player can deal, that they can contribute immediately in PvP.

The problem here is that they can only take 30% of the effective damage that an established player can as well. If they are attacked at all, they are dead.

Now, on the surface, I don't have much of an issue with this whole dynamic. New players need to be more sneaky and try to stay in groups where they don't get focused. OK. All that is fine.

My problem is that after many many many hours, I still couldn't take any damage and live for very long. It's like PvP in WoW without resilience gear. You might be able to DO damage, but that means nothing when you are dead within mere moments.

And again, I have no real issue with that concept, my issue here is HOW LONG you remain that weak little thing who needs to sneak, escape and kow-tow to the much more powerful players.

I'm very competitive in these games. I don't want to be a cog in the machine. I want to contribute. I want to win. That's what drives me and motivates me.  I'm just realizing now that I can't keep up that motivation when it's going to take a minimum of four more months to get competitive.

New Player Perspective
I think I would have an entirely different perspective if I had played Darkfall from launch. For one thing, I have no doubt that with the hours I put in that I would have a very developed character.

Also, my "competition" would have always been at or below my relative skill level. At the very least, those far more advanced would be fewer and farther between. My skills might have been low, but so would the skills of everyone else.

The overall experience would just be more enjoyable because I wouldn't feel that I'm losing solely based on longevity.

As a new player, I have a different perspective. I'm at the bottom and I'll be at the bottom until a point where all my more advanced stats and skills begin to cap out.

I have to say that the prospect of playing a game intensely for 6 months as a whipping boy is not an entirely enjoyable thought.

This is a perspective that I just don't think a long-time Darkfall player would understand. I mean, from their point of view, they 'worked' to get where they are at and reducing the amount of work for me is a slap in the face.

But the problem is that it's relative. As I said above, when you are at the leading edge, there is never a point at which you need to 'catch up'. You are always already caught up by virtue of longevity.

But as new players start playing your game, they are behind from the start. Having the same leveling curve for those players is NOT a consistent experience. Those that came first actually have it easier because the competition wasn't as well developed.

I don't know how you fix that in an on-use skill game and keep your veteran players happy about it. All I know is that I've grown tired of it and have lost patience with the game.