Tobold's Blog
Friday, April 17, 2015
Level cap activities

I am not a huge fan of playing at the level cap. Gameplay at the level cap tends to be more repetitive, with diminishing returns of gear rewards over time. And while reaching the level cap is great as a starting point for the next expansion, the gear reset when that expansion comes makes most rewards you got at the level cap obsolete.

One thing I was interested in was making gold with my 4 level 100 characters in view of the WoW token coming to Europe one day. That turned out to be rather easy. With two tradeskill buildings and the relate professions per character, and a level 3 barn each, I'm making over 5,000 gold *a day* just by producing the crafting materials and savage blood that I transform into various upgrade essences. The problem is that with money-making methods I am most interested in proving the concept, and not necessarily in repeating the method for a long time. For the savage blood I need to kill 6 elite level 100 mobs per character per day, or 168 elite mobs per week. That gets tedious pretty quickly, and between farming those mobs and doing the daily garrison chores (gathering resources, collecting work orders, followers missions) I end up spending half of the time I play each week just with those money-making tasks. As I already have enough gold to buy a bunch of tokens, I'm planning to cut that way down, and skip the resource collection / farming part. The tradeskill building still make some money if I buy the resources, and I don't really need more.

End game activities frequently pose a danger of circular logic: You raid to get epics, and you need epics to raid more. I need gold to pay for WoW tokens, and then I spend my subscription time to make gold. To escape that circular logic I think I need to concentrate on what is intrinsically the most fun activity, and forget about the rewards.

One thing I am having a lot of fun with is pet battles. Collecting the pets from different zones appeals to the collector in me. I am currently working on the Draenor zones, with the added goal of reaching 150 pet battles won in Draenor, which gives an account-wide achievement which unlocks the level 3 menageries in my garrisons. But once I have that, I was thinking of collecting pets with my low level monk and/or hunter, combining questing with pet collecting in the same zone. Maybe that way I'll even level another character all the way from 1 to 100.

I still haven't regained my interest in group content, even with the announced timewalking mechanics. On paper it looks like a good idea: A lot of effort went into creating the dungeons of previous editions, and right now they are pretty useless. I soloed Karazhan for fun with my warlock, but beyond the nostalgia value that isn't really all that interesting. So yeah, making old dungeons available to current end game characters sounds good. Only I'm not interested because if you join a pickup group today you only ever get people in a hurry wanting to do speed runs, and complaining all the time about their group mates. That isn't what I would want to visit old dungeons for, even if they give level 100 rewards. As I said, those will be obsolete by the time the next expansion comes anyway.

One combat system to bind them all

Since last weekend I started doing pet battles in World of Warcraft. I simply missed out on them earlier and had only low level pets. So in the zones that were level-adequate for my high-level characters, the pets were too high level for me, and I wasn't in a mood to grind low-level zones for them. But when you do the final upgrade of your garrison at level 100, you get an easy quest for an "Ultimate Battle-Training Stone". With 4 character at level 100 I could thus instantly boost 4 rare pets of mine of different types to level 25, and could start battling high-level pets. Which then gave me more pets, and lesser battle-training stones, so by now I have a decent selection of level 25 pets for different opponents.

A hundred pet battles later it struck me that in fact the WoW pet battle combat system in solo PvE is far more interesting than the regular WoW combat system: In pet battle combat you actually need to plan ahead, and you can't use the same pets with the same rotation for every battle. You can lose a fight horribly, change your pet selection and their powers and win the rematch. In comparison the standard WoW combat is far more simplistic, requires less thinking, and your optimal tactic is largely independent of who you are fighting. So why not "Pokemon the MMORPG", where all battles are pet battles?

The answer to that is probably that solo PvE is only one part of combat in MMORPGs. You also need to consider group PvE and PvP. And the turn-based pet battles of WoW that work brilliantly with you alone against the AI wouldn't work quite so well when there is a whole group of players involved. Because there are so many different ways to play a MMORPG, the combat system needs to work well in all those modes.

Wildstar, currently rumored to be preparing a drop of subscriptions after having pulled boxed copies from retail stores, in my opinion has a problem with the combat system. I really love the Wildstar combat system in solo PvE, because it is far more interactive than classic systems. But all those telegraphs and signals you need to respond to collapse into chaos in a group situation. When you are fighting a group of monsters with a group of players, there are telegraphs on the ground everywhere and you don't know where to step.

Even in World of Warcraft the fact that the combat system is used for different situations poses a problem. It is simply impossible to have a perfect class balance for all the different modes of play. And typically class balance is considered most important for PvP, somewhat important for raids, and less important for solo PvE. So I am left with a shadow priest that downright sucks in solo PvE. And the announced serious nerfs in patch 6.2 for some classes are pretty much incomprehensible for me as solo PvE player, because it isn't the classes that are best in solo PvE that get nerfed.

Sometimes I think the relative rise of the MOBA and decline of the MMORPG is due to the fact that a MOBA is only trying to do one thing, while a MMORPG is trying to do too many things at once. I can think of better game designs if I start with the premise that my game is *only* having solo PvE, or *only* group PvE, just like a MOBA *only* has group PvP. Using one combat system for everything imposes serious limitations on the MMORPGs of today.

Thursday, April 16, 2015
Personal blogging

Yesterday mbp asked "Would you care to share your thoughts on the ongoing relevance of personal blogging in this age of facebook / twitter / reddit etc.?". I think the keyword in this is "personal", because that is where I see blogging moving towards to. A lot of the things that we thought a decade or more ago have turned out to be not true. Blogging isn't a platform to become rich and famous on the internet, blog posts do not make or move opinions except on a very small scale. The people who started blogging because they wanted to influence others, or to make money, have seen that this simply doesn't work and have stopped doing so. Those who only ever wanted to shout a strong opinion from the rooftops have moved to Twitter, fortunately taking a good part of the hate culture of the internet with them. Gamergate happened mostly on Twitter, not blogs.

Blogging has become quieter and more personal. Some hate blogs still exist, but they have turned into echo chambers of small groups of people already sharing the same opinion and repeating the same stuff over and over again. Sustainable blogging is personal, because intrinsic motivations last longer than hoping for extrinsic rewards. If you don't write for yourself, you don't write 5,000 blog posts over 12 years. Blogs are a perfect medium for public diaries, a need that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit don't address. Blogs are semi-public, the author still retains far more control than he has on social networks or forums, for example through comment moderation. That makes blogs a good place for moderate discussion, as you have the tools to kick out the troublemakers. Blogs work better for considerate, thoughtful discussion, while the other platforms work better for rash, strong expressions of strong emotions. It is actually a feature of Twitter that old tweets are hard to find, while for blogs it is a feature that they have searchable archives.

If somebody would ask me for advice whether he should blog, I'd ask him what for. Much of our daily lives is ephemeral. When you are playing a game, you leave nary a trace. If you want to preserve some memories and thoughts, personal blogging is a great way to do so. I am sad that I don't have blog entries from the role-playing sessions I did during my university days, because there was a lot of creativity in interactive storytelling that has been lost forever. For trying to make money or influence people, I would recommend different platforms (YouTube?), although I have a strong suspicion that for every famous person on the internet there are a million unknown people that tried the same thing. Blog if you want to write for an audience of one, yourself, first and foremost.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

This is my 5,000th post on my blog. That took me nearly 12 years, with an average of just above one post per day.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
McDonald's is not responsible for your eating habits

The best thing I can say about Wolfshead is that fortunately he doesn't post often. But when he does it is always a long diatribe against the evils of modern MMORPGs, modern being anything from this century. Usually I just ignore him, but his current rant at least deserves one major logical flaw to be pointed out: In a free market the bad habits of customers are not the fault of the companies that enable those bad habits. Just because junk food exists does not force anybody to eat junk food. And if, as Wolfshead claims, there is a bad habit of gaming without social interaction that is enabled by World of Warcraft, that is *NOT* the fault of World of Warcraft.

In the case of McDonald's people could still point out that junk food is cheaper than healthy food. That still doesn't make McDonald's responsible for you eating junk food, but at least you can blame socio-economic factors for it. Playing World of Warcraft is not cheaper than other MMORPGs, in fact WoW is one of the most expensive games out there. So if more people play World of Warcraft than some "socially superior" game, it is because players *prefer* the "playing alone together" mode of World of Warcraft to the forced grouping of yesteryear.

Communities in online role-playing games evolved in a trend which is similar to the evolution of communities elsewhere on the internet: We moved from a situation where only a very small part of the population had access to a situation where everybody has access. Early online communities were tight because they were small and socially homogeneous. Today the online world is much bigger and much more heterogeneous, which leads to people having less in common and less interest in interacting with each other. People today prefer games in which they don't have to speak to each other for exactly the same reason that people generally don't start conversations with strangers on a bus.

What Blizzard does is what Blizzard always did well: Make accessible games and design them around what the players want. If guilds and raids today in WoW are the way they are, it is because people prefer them that way. And it is because people prefer playing the way that WoW offers that the game has millions of players. There is no secret, hidden conspiracy where Blizzard executives visit the houses of people who would rather prefer games with more social interaction and force them at gunpoint to play solo-friendly WoW.

The "flaws" that Wolfshead lists, easy soloing and no downtime, are actually part of World of Warcraft's recipe for success. Forced grouping and long downtime are not popular features for the mass market. The worst thing you can accuse WoW of is creating a mass market, as some people would have preferred MMORPGs to remain niche forever. But even in a hypothetical parallel world with no WoW, MMORPGs would have evolved to have less forced social interaction. Because the alternative, that is visible in places like Twitter or League of Legends, is a toxic and petty community in which people hate each other. Good modern games deliberately isolate players from each other, because hell is other people.

What do the gold buyers spend their gold on?

When the WoW Token was announced, I speculated that it would lead to gold flowing from people who didn't use it to players who had some need for it, who would go on a shopping spree and cause AH inflation. For me it appeared perfectly reasonable that somebody who was short on gold and bought 20k of it would spend it on let's say some Hexweave Leggings (follower missions for some reason don't give leg slot items) and maybe even a Hexweave Essence to further upgrade the iLevel of those leggings. But as far as I can make out from websites that track US server AH prices, the US prices for those items haven't changed since the WoW token was introduced and are roughly the same as the prices on the European servers, which don't have the WoW tokens yet.

So I am wondering what is happening. Are there not enough WoW tokens being traded to make a difference to AH prices? Or are the people buying gold spending it not on the AH, but for example to upgrade their garrison or buy NPC vendor mounts? Or am I just looking at the wrong kind of items and there is an inflation, but for items I haven't looked at?

If you are "playing the market" on the US servers, I would be quite interested to hear your observations. Did you notice any effect of the WoW token being introduced? What items do the gold buyers spend their gold on?

Monday, April 13, 2015
On the role of the DM in a tabletop role-playing game

I've been reading a blog post about whether a DM in a pen & paper role-playing game should be an impartial arbiter, friendly guide, or deadly foe. None of those options struck me as particularly fitting, at least not for my style of Dungeons & Dragons gaming. So this is a post about what in my opinion the role of the DM is.

What I didn't like about the three options described above is that they have one thing in common: They set the DM apart from the players. Yes, pen & paper role-playing games which use a DM are asymmetrical and the role of the DM isn't exactly the same as the role of the players. But more often than not a tabletop role-playing group is otherwise homogeneous, a group of friends or people with similar interests. So in my opinion the DM is first and foremost a player too. That means that fundamentally everybody at the table, DM included, is working towards a common goal, telling an interesting interactive story and having fun in the process.

Think of it like the actors in a play that revolves around a strong main character, let's say Hamlet. Everybody is an actor in that play, including the person playing Hamlet. But the person playing Hamlet gets more time on stage. In a game of Dungeons & Dragons the DM also gets the most stage time, because everything anybody else does happens somewhat in interaction with the DM. But the goal, to make "the play" a success, is the same for all actors / players.

Whether the DM should be the arbiter depends a bit on what system you are playing. There are systems where the rules are deliberately vague and the DM is always required to judge any action of the players. Personally I dislike the "mother, may I?" style of play, and prefer systems with strong rules, like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. If a situation can be played by following the rules as written, it isn't even necessary that it is the DM who has the best rules knowledge. Although if another player takes that role, the DM has to make certain that this player is impartial about it, and not a "rules lawyer".

Friendly guide is still the closest option of the three presented, but it isn't so much guide as the DM simply having a different view of the story, and a different set of information. There are many aspects in the fantasy world that the DM knows, but the players haven't discovered yet. That doesn't mean that the DM's view is absolute. It is *because* many parts of the world are unknown to the players, that the DM has the freedom to change the world on the spot. If your group enters a town and the cleric says "I am looking for a temple of Selune", I as the DM will either create such a temple on the spot, or if that doesn't fit reply with some other information about religion in this place, even if I hadn't thought of that before and hadn't prepared anything. If the players have a great idea to resolve a situation, the DM should play along, even if that wasn't what he planned. Thus the players can create new elements in the world by suggesting them and having that suggestion accepted.

What the DM should never be is deadly foe. He shouldn't use his infinite power over the world to basically cheat in combat against the players. It is best to design the challenge in advance, and then treat combat like a game of chess: The DM is the adversary, controlling all the monsters against the group of the players, but he is also a player in a tactical game which resembles a board game. Thus like any other player he should cheat on the dice rolls or conjure up new monsters on the fly when he feels he is losing. The DM sets the challenge level in advance, and then lets the dice fall as they may. Random results, whether that results in an easy win or in a player character death, are part of the story in a tabletop role-playing game.

DM isn't an easy job, and it involves more work than the other players have. But ultimately the DM should also have fun, interact with the others to tell a story, and be part of the group. Somebody *has to* be the DM in most pen & paper systems, and it is best not to set that role too far apart from the players. You never know, maybe another day you and your group will decide that somebody else is going to be DM for the next campaign.

Alternative uses for WoW tokens

Talarian was musing whether he could make a profit by speculating with WoW tokens. Buying tokens for gold and reselling them for gold isn't possible. But you can buy subscription time for gold when tokens are cheap, and buy tokens for dollars and convert them to gold when tokens are expensive. The market would need to move a lot for that to work, because the tokens cost $20 for a $15 subscription, but in theory it is possible.

I had another idea on an alternative use for a WoW token: Transferring money between alts on different servers or different factions. The principle is the same as Talarian's idea: One character trades gold for a token, while another character buys a token for dollars and trades it for gold. Again you take that $5 hit, but that is cheaper than some other ways of transferring gold. Note that between factions you can transfer gold for a 5% fee via the auction house, but you need a second account or a trusted friend for that. I used a second account with a 10-day free trial recently and that worked fine.

From the current chart on I am wondering whether prices are stabilizing. The peaks are getting less high, and there is a trend towards a stabilization around 22k. But what I am even more interested in is when the WoW token will come to Europe. I'm looking forward to that.

Saturday, April 11, 2015
4 x 100

As far as reasons go to level a character to 100, I might just have found the silliest one: I leveled my shadow priest to 100 because he had been in the mid-90's for so long, he ran out of bank space for the various level 100 gear reward tokens from follower missions. I hated the idea to vendor them for 5 gold instead of the full converted value, or missing out on some surprise when converting them to real items. But as conversion is only possible at level 100, I had to play the shadow priest some more.

The priest is probably still my least favorite character of the four level 100s I have now. But I found that towards the end of the 90's his performance got better. I'll see how he does against level 100 elite mobs when I have my barn upgraded to level 3, but he might just do okay.

Friday, April 10, 2015
Heightened suffering

Ashenglut from Epic Slant is quoting Nietzsche on people who want to heighten suffering in an article discussing why some people like brutally difficult games. I was wondering whether the love of brutally difficult games isn't a social artifact, something which would go away if we would all play in isolation.

My reasoning is this: Imagine you had a game with a million different difficulty levels and you could tune it exactly to your liking and most amount of fun. You would not want to tune it in a way that you would never win. You would also not want to tune in it a way that you always win. There is some ideal win percentage, which might not be 50% but which certainly isn't 0% or 100%, at which you have the most fun.

Now obviously your win percentage depends also on your skill. Two players with different skill would have to tune that game to different difficulties to both arrive at the same win percentage. And that is where the social aspect is coming in. If I am talking on the forum of that game and am being asked what difficulty I prefer, that indirectly becomes a question of "how skilled are you in this game?". So people who are somewhat insecure and tend to derive self-worth out of their mad video game skillz are very tempted to say that they prefer a higher difficulty, because that is indicative of their high skillz.

An additional social effect which goes in the same direction is the notion of exclusivity. The same insecure players would not only like to enjoy a game, they would like to be part of a small exclusive club enjoying that game, because that would give them higher social status. [That is a bit like quoting Nietzsche, because you pretend to be part of an intellectual elite who actually reads and understands Nietzsche.] That explains why people not only clamor for games with optional brutal difficulty. They clamor for games where brutal difficulty is the *only* option, because that excludes a lot of players who are not veterans of the genre and creates an exclusive club with high social standing.

Personally I find brutally difficult games just boring, because "difficult" basically means that you are frequently forced to repeat the same content. You jumped one pixel too early or too late? Do the whole level again, and again, and again, until you get it right. I simply don't have time for that. Being able to jump at exactly the right pixel does not add to my self-worth (I get that from real life), and doesn't add to the entertainment value of the game. There are games which are story-heavy where I prefer to play at normal or lower difficulty level, because I know that otherwise I risk to get bored of the game before I have seen the end of the story. That is why several games call their easy difficulty setting "story mode", a notion I completely agree with. I simply depends on what you are trying to get out of a game. I suspect few people derive maximum enjoyment out of the most brutal difficulty, if it wasn't for the social status they think they get out of doing so.

Going infinite

In Magic the Gathering Online there is a special format of quick tournament called a draft where you cannot use the cards in your collection but need to play with expensive fresh packs of unopened cards (called boosters). You need 3 boosters to participate, but if you win the tournament you get more boosters than that as prize. So if you win sufficiently often you can "go infinite", that is keep playing without having to buy those expensive boosters. The WoW Token has opened up the possibility of "going infinite" in World of Warcraft, paying for your subscription with the gold you make in game. It is hard to say where the gold value of a token will settle (currently going up again to 26,500 g), but for the purpose of this post I'll consider you need to make 30,000 gold per month, or 1,000 gold per day every day, to go infinite. The discussion here and elsewhere reveals one interesting fact: Opinions differ widely whether 30,000 gold is "a lot" or "very little". And I would like to discuss why that is so.

I currently have 4 characters above level 90 with garrisons in World of Warcraft. Thus let us examine a very basic strategy to go infinite for me: I could log on every day and do the same thing with every one of my 4 characters: Gather the resources in my garrisons, and use them to start work orders in my crafting buildings. For example the daily ore I can get from a level 3 mine is sufficient to run a forge and a jewelcrafting building. Even if I don't have the professions myself and just use the work orders from two buildings and the daily recipes from the NPC to make 16 advanced crafting resources per profession and character per day, I end up with nearly 4,000 of those resources per month. So I can make 40 crafting epics. I can easily sell them in the current market for over 1,000 gold, so that is 40,000 gold and enough to go infinite.

And that is just the most basic plan, I think I could do much better than that with a more complicated version where I also use a level 3 barn to farm savage blood and make "essences" and similar upgrades which sell for a lot more. So this is why anybody who is used to trying to make gold in World of Warcraft will consider making 30,000 gold per month to be trivially easy, as I barely even need to leave my garrisons for that. Thus the utter incomprehension of the players who consider making gold to be easy for the other side, the people who would be tempted to buy 30,000 gold for $20. So let's have a look at the other side, by considering the "cost" of my plan to go infinite.

First of all my plan requires 3 to 4 alts with garrisons of at least level 2. For veterans like me (6,500 hours of /played time in WoW) that is not really a problem. But if you were to start as a new player today, it would take you hundreds of hours and thousands of gold to get just to this point. Second just logging on my 4 characters and running through all the daily stuff in my garrisons already takes me about 1 hour. And that is 1 hour of boring repetitive chores. If virtual economies and making gold wouldn't fascinate me, that would become tedious pretty quickly. What if you have only 1 hour per day to play? Would you want to spend that hour doing chores to pay for your subscription, or would you rather go out and have some fun?

Which brings us to the financial argument: Yes, I can easily pay for my subscription with gold playing one hour per day making that gold. But that means I paid with 30 hours of "work" instead of $15. I basically worked in World of Warcraft for 50 cents an hour. Financially I would be far better off if I worked a minimum wage job elsewhere and paid for the subscription with dollars. I earn $50 per hour in my day job, so why would I want to work for $0.50 in World of Warcraft?

When the WoW tokens come out I will buy some with my accumulated gold out of pride. I am as proud of my skills to make X gold per hour in World of Warcraft as somebody else might be to have the skills to deal X damage per second. Paying for a subscription with gold is a way to express my virtual economic skills, just like running around in raid epics in a city is a way to express your virtual warrior skills. But I'm pretty sure that this pride won't last forever. I have no interest in doing daily chores just so that I can save the trivial sum of $15 per month. When I am tired of making money in this expansion I'm not going to continue doing so just to pay for my subscription. Going infinite may be trivial in World of Warcraft, but paying for my subscription with real money is trival too.

Thursday, April 09, 2015
eSports on steroids

Last year there were some big discussions about the role of video game journalism, with some people demanding that video game journalists should behave more like regular investigative journalists and less like mouthpieces of the industry. Well, sometimes investigative video game journalism happens, but I doubt that gamers will be happy with the result: Eurogamer has an excellent investigative article, well researched and with sources and all, about the use of performance enhancing drugs in eSports.

Of course the steroids in the title are just a figure of speech. Steroids stimulate muscle growth, and that tends to be not much of a help for a video game. But there are other drugs, for example medication for attention deficit disorder, that makes you more concentrated and increases your reaction time. Obviously that is a big help in certain competitive video games. And now that between Twitch and the first eSports events being shown on ESPN the video game tournament is becoming more prominent and people can earn thousands of dollars by performing well, it isn't surprising that some people use those performance enhancing drugs. Organizers turn a blind eye because they don't want eSports to be connected with doping, and there are no drug tests done at these events.

Allegations of drug use aren't new. But sooner or later we will come to the point where either eSports stops growing, or it will have to deal with these issues in order to be taken seriously. At some point some player will become seriously ill or die from side effects of some drug he took in order to improve his performance, or some winner will be proven to have been doped, and there will be a huge scandal. It often takes a Lance Armstrong scandal to really clean up a sport.

As an average gamer with no competitive ambitions I am frequently puzzled by the obsession some people have with performance in video games. I can understand the problematic of raiding, where your success depends on the performance of others, and if you are in a group with underperformers you waste your time and don't get any shiny epics. But the culture of performance goes much further than that, and even extends to single-player games. I don't understand why I should care at what difficulty level you play some single-player game. I'd recommend choosing the level that is most fun to you, and not trying to prove something by playing at a level that is more frustrating than entertaining.

What I understand even less is why some people cheat or "game the system" in multiplayer games. That goes from using aim bot software to manipulating your rating in a ladder-style match-making in order to be able to crush newbies, all of which are common and well-document practices. And now we can add drug use to that list. I am not convinced that it is *only* people playing for big prizes in tournaments that would consider taking an ADD drugs to play better. What satisfaction can you get out of a win if you know that you cheated to get there?


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