Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 26, 2015
Dog eat dog games

Stabs is playing Magic the Gathering Online, and says: "Of course the thing about pecking order games is that those at the top become very invested while those at the bottom tend to leave so it's always a pool of players that are refining themselves by success. But dog eat dog is kinda fun, nothing like seeing people rage when they lose :)". His statement of "Magic is an extreme of competitive gaming, the game is built around redistributing assets from unsuccessful players to successful ones." is a good description of why I left. Not that I was completely unsuccessful, but the whole atmosphere of the game was too much like swimming in a tank full of sharks to be enjoyable.

Of course there are still ways to have fun in such games, especially by subverting them. For example MtGO has a format called "draft", in which players each open a booster, pick the best card for their deck, and pass the rest to the next player, in a circle. The player who picks the best deck that way will then probably win the draft tournament and get more boosters as reward than he needs to continue playing. If you are good enough, you can endlessly play for free, while the unsuccessful players pay for boosters and entrance fee and go home empty, except for the cards they picked. The way to subvert a draft is to rare pick, that is not taking the cards that win the tournament, but taking the cards that are worth most to other players. As rare cards rarely are the best to build a winning deck, a good player passing you his leftover cards means he probably didn't pick the rare of his pack. Of course rare drafting messes with the draft tournament, as the rare drafter nearly automatically loses, giving a free win to his lucky opponent. But it is a great way to redistribute assets from successful players to unsuccessful ones, in reverse of the normal situation.

By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average (median, to be precise). More modern and more successful online games have managed to keep those less successful players playing, by having a reward structure where there are only winners. You don't actually "lose" a game of World of Tanks, you just "win less". Note that the reward structure is external to the rules of the game, Magic the Gathering Online could just as well have used such a reward structure which doesn't overly punish the losers. As a result the most successful physical card trading game in history managed only a disappointing online success, with just a fraction of the number of players that for example Hearthstone has.

"Seeing people rage when they lose" might be fun for Stabs. But I believe that as a business model it is inherently self-destructive. Successful competitive games make life easy for the losers, because you just can't run a game without them.

Friday, January 23, 2015
Recognizing the traps

A commenter this week said he was "burned by ArcheAge" and asked "How how much time and resource do you waste on a Free2Play game before you realise its Pay2Win?". My answer to that question is that this depends very much on your familiarity with Free2Play concepts. Whatever semantics you want to use, but Free2Play games definitively do want to seduce / trick / trap you into spending more than you intended. If you can avoid those traps, you can actually get more game for less money than in a Buy2Own business model. If you fall into those traps, you can get burned.

My recommendation would be to download a large number of "free" games on whatever mobile platform you have, phone or tablet, Apple or Android. As the games are not very elaborate or deep, you can easily play several of them in sequence. And you'll quickly learn how the same traps to incite you to spend money appear over and over in different guises. You can also learn a lot of those tricks by just watching some relevant YouTube videos like this one.

Once you are trained to recognize the traps, it becomes a matter of routine to avoid them. And you'll easily be able to recognize the same traps in more elaborate PC or console games.

P.S. While the Elder Scrolls Online is not going "free" to play, it will make the subscription optional from March 17th on. "Optional subscription" means that subscribers get virtual items and services that non-subscribers don't get automatically. So there will be a shop for virtual items and services, designed in a way that somebody might consider continuing to pay a subscription to get them. Which means ESO will have the same sort of seduction / tricks / traps as a Free2Play game. Buyers beware!

Thursday, January 22, 2015
Buying blindly

One reason why I am okay with the Free2Play business model is because I trust myself to handle it intelligently. I'm never going to spend thousands on a game, and if I end up paying as much for a "free" game as a full-price game would cost it was because I got as much enjoyment out of the game, or even more than I get from a full-price game. My buing decisions are informed, and commensurate to what I am getting out of the game. The key point is that I can start playing for free, and see whether I like the game, and gain a good estimate of the value of any virtual goods or services before I buy them.

Via the launcher I received yesterday an offer by Blizzard to buy the $40 founder's pack for Heroes of the Storm. This is exactly the opposite of what I am describing above: I need to pay first to get beta access to the game, and I have absolutely no idea of the in-game value of the heroes, skins, and gold that is contained in the pack. I don't even know if I will like the game.

The best I can say about this offer is that it isn't quite as outrageously priced as some other founder's packs I have seen, and that I have more confidence in Blizzard to actually deliver a polished game in the end than I have in some of the other companies offering those deals. Some people already spent hundreds of dollars on Star Citizen. If that game fails to deliver on the hype, which given the high level of hype is nearly certain, some people will be severely disappointed and regretful.

Pre-purchase plans are bad enough, paying before the game comes out and you could read the reviews. But at least I've seen many pre-purchase offers on Steam where you could either get a discount for pre-purchasing or some other added value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm I am asked to pay $40 now for a game that will be free on release. I much prefer playing the game on release, when it is also in a more finished state. I'd rather miss out of some "exclusive" skin, or pay a bit more later, after having made sure that what is on offer is exactly what I need. I think buying games blindly is a bad idea, and buying virtual goods and services of a Free2Play game blindly without having first played the game is an even worse idea.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
10 minutes, twice a day

Over the years I have been subscribed to various MMORPGs for a long time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have played them every day during that subscription period. If you don't have much time, starting up a MMORPG usually doesn't make much sense. These aren't games that usually play well in chunks of 10 minutes, as they are designed to be relatively time-consuming. Warlords of Draenor is a big change in that respect: On a day where I don't have the time to play World of Warcraft, I would still log in for 10 minutes, twice a day.

The reason for that is the garrison sub-game, which is principally based on real time, not play time. You have a garrison cache which slowly accumulates up to 500 garrison resources, at a rate of 1 resource per 10 minutes. You have various building where you can give 7 work orders per level of the building, and each work order takes 4 hours. And you are sending followers on missions which last from 30 minutes to 10 hours. If you don't log on at all for several days, first your followers are all unemployed, then after about 3 and a half days your garrison cache reaches its cap and all the work orders of even level 3 buildings are done. At that point your garrison stops producing anything useful until you log on, send out your followers again, empty your cache, and start new work orders. Oh, and in addition your mine and herb garden spawn resources once per day.

If the reason that you don't have time is that you are working long hours with no access to a gaming computer, which is a likely scenario for an adult, you can still log in once before work and once after work and get pretty much everything set up again in 10 minutes each, shorter if you don't have alts. At this rate your garrison resource production is always at maximum, and by preferring long duration missions even your followers are productive for most of the day.

As I said, MMORPGs are generally designed to be time-consuming. At the level cap you usually need to put in quite some time to achieve some reward that is still useful for you. Compared to that the reward payout of a garrison per hour of play time invested is pretty fantastic. The downside is that by playing more, you can't advance much faster. For example it takes 1,200 resources to upgrade a barracks to level 3. With the garrison cache, lumber mill, and trading post you'll get those resources in around 3 days of just waiting around. But if you decided to get those resources by farming rare spawns, you'll get only around 15 per rare killed, and would pretty much need to kill every rare spawn in the game for one upgrade. Add all the treasures and quests that give resources and you'll have another building upgraded, and have run out of options.

To somebody familiar with city building / village building / farm building games on mobile platforms like The Tribez or Hay Day, that 10 minutes, twice a day mode of gameplay will be very familiar. But then these games don't have a subscription. While I would consider having to wait for hours for progress to be better than having to grind trivial content for hours for progress, the question is nevertheless how good this model works for World of Warcraft. 10 minutes, twice a day, makes 10 hours per month, which at $15 per month seems pricey. So the garrison is unlikely to be the sole reason for anybody to keep on playing. Even if you can get epic gear and other rewards for your character, those rewards aren't doing you any good if you don't play that character. But for a "weekend adventurer" with little time during the work week, the garrison is certainly a big plus.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Keeping the lights on

Clockwork from Out of Beta is talking about commercialization of games. Quote: "I think it comes down to the intention of the developers when they are making the choice as to whether or not include a piece of content. If the developer is genuinely out of money to dedicate and needs to release, I see no problem with cutting content that they simply can't pay for. ... However, if the developer has already finished the majority of the content piece and will have it ready for release soon after and hold it back purely to sell it for more later, then I start to get a little annoyed."

Basically Clockwork wants game studios to only make as much money as is needed to keep the lights on. Which is a rather bad idea, I'd even go as far as calling it dangerous. What we need is spectacularly successful games where the game companies make money by the boatload. And selling more content over time is one valid strategy to get there.

The reason why we need those blockbuster games is the reality that so many games fail financially. If a company sets out to make a game, they are aware that there is a very real possibility that the game will never even pay for the development cost. If the best they could hope for was to break even, why would they even bother? The reason why we have such a big choice between many different MMORPGs to play today is that Blizzard at one point made a billion dollars of profit per year. If the financially most successful MMORPG in the world would just have kept the lights of the development studio on, many of today's games simply wouldn't exist.

To make a game you need capital from investors, and you need manpower. Investing in a business like games or movies is a high risk venture. The reason why you risk your money in that instead of buying treasury bonds is that there is a chance to get filthy rich. And the reason why developers program games instead of software for a bank is because they too dream of becoming famous for having created a blockbuster title or even rich.

I am opposed to a culture of entitlement where players want games and more content, but do not want to pay for all that. Let game companies pursue whatever commercialization strategy they want. If a game comes out at a certain price with a certain amount of content, you should decide whether that content is worth that price. Whether the development studio is profitable or not should not figure in that decision.

Monday, January 19, 2015
What is difficulty?

2014 was a good year for indie games, there were literally thousands of them released for PC and / or mobile platforms. In several cases the reviews or even the advertisement of the game itself praised the game for being "difficult", an attractive proposition for game veterans tired of trivial games. But my experience with those "difficult" games was a disappointing one; apparently I have a different definition of what "difficult" means.

In my definition a person who is more intelligent or more skilled in gaming would do better on the first try in a difficult game than a person who is less able. I found remarkably few games to which that description would fit, although for example some puzzle games certainly qualified. But in the overwhelming number of cases I found games in which the basic gameplay was exactly as trivial as in mainstream games; and then the game hit you with an unfair surprise you couldn't possibly have foreseen, and then put a harsh penalty for failing on that. The so-called "difficulty" then is remembering the unfair traps the next time.

I have no problem with for example the difficulty of a jump-and-run sequence being that you need to jump at exactly the right point in time, with a very narrow window of opportunity. That is difficult. If the game then forces me to replay the 15 minutes up to that jump before I can try again, that is not difficult. It is just annoying. Jump-and-run sequences are also a good example of the game giving you good feedback: You usually can tell if you fail whether you jumped too early or too late. Far too many games have failure modes which don't give you much or any feedback. You fail, but you don't know why, so other than random trial and error you can't improve.

I like difficult games. I don't necessarily like unforgiving ones. And I certainly don't like having to replay the same trivial shit over and over, just because there is one unforgiving bit at the end of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
WoW status report

My current "main" character, a fury warrior, reached level 100 this weekend. I had the resources to upgrade my garrison to level 3 and fill the new slots, but not yet to upgrade the buildings. You can get resources from rare spawns or treasures, but that is rather limited, so the main way to get the resources for your garrison is just waiting in real time. I have a level 2 lumber yard and a trading post, both of which produce resources, but still I'll have to wait quite a while until everything is level 3.

Other than the garrison I'm not really enchanted by the possible activities at the level cap. I still haven't done a single dungeon, which tells you how low my interest in group PvE is. And other than that there isn't much. I can do a daily slow grind for Apexis crystals, and get an epic after nearly 3 weeks. This and similar game design elements suggest to me that everything is designed with having in mind that the next expansion is 2 years away. Progress slowed to a crawl, I'm not all that interested.

My other two characters are level 95, because I had decided they both needed a level 2 lumber mill. The frost mage is fun to play, the shadow priest not so much. Sometimes I'm doing the same content with all three characters, like getting a specific follower, and the shadow priest definitively is weakest in solo combat. He is also the only one who is really waiting for cooldowns, doing ineffective Mind Flays while waiting for the decent spells to be active again. In comparison the other two classes constantly have their hotkeys light up to show yet another bonus spell / power they now can do instantly and without resource cost. Resource cost is a joke anyway for the spellcasters, I have never seen my mana bar other than 100% full on either caster. Anyway, both level 95 characters now also got their barracks to level 2, and the bodyguard certainly will help that shadow priest. The bodyguard is kind of overkill for the other two.

While I did the same quests in the first zone with all three characters (which you kind of have to for your garrison), after that there are enough quests for at least 2 different paths to level 100. By choosing different outpost buildings you get different quests, so there isn't too much overlap. While questing I also gather timber, treasures, and rare spawns, so there is a good deal of variety. Overall I'm having fun, but mostly with the leveling part. Not sure how long I will keep playing once all three characters are at the level cap.

Friday, January 16, 2015
Veteran rewards

Apparently Blizzard is sending out real world packages with a physical object as reward to people who started playing World of Warcraft within the first 60 days and then never unsubscribed. Unsurprisingly that causes a controversy. Quote: "There is certainly merit to a company like Blizzard wanting to thank players who have given them somewhere around $1800 in subscription fees and $200-$300 in box purchases. That's a damn loyal customer. At the same time, however, this can tacitly sending a message to newer players that they just aren't quite as special or held in as high of esteem as the older ones. There's a tough balance to be struck".

No, it isn't.

If you give somebody $2,000 you *are* special to him and held in high regard. If you used the donate button on my blog today to give me $2,000, you would be special to me, and I would have no problem sending you a parcel with a gift, assuming the gift plus shipping costs me less than $50 and I get to keep the remaining $1,950. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

A comment on the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide

As I said before I will not be able to play any 5th edition D&D in the foreseeable future, because that edition only exists in English, and half the players in my group only speak French. I proposed to run the Starter Set with them anyway, but they preferred sticking to 4E. Okay, but I got the 5E Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for Christmas anyway, more out of a theoretical interest in where D&D is going. I understand 5E is selling very well, and I assume that this is because it is effectively a much better edition for new players than previous editions were. Less math, less rules, more imagination, and that without most of the silliness that OSR offers.

But one thing struck me as rather strange in the Dungeon Master's Guide: If you open a page at random, chances are that there will be a table on that page with instructions on how to produce a random result from that table by dice rolls. Do you need a NPC villain for your game? Roll one up randomly from a series of tables! Need a complete dungeon? We have random tables for that too! And for the monsters you'll meet, the treasures you'll find, the diseases you will contract, or what objects you'll find flushed down in the toilet.

I hate random tables. They result in a play experience for the players that is not very coherent, for example by creating a dungeon full of random monsters where it is hard to explain why they would live together in this form, waiting for the players to arrive. Random collections of rooms with monsters and treasures do not form any sort of sensible ecosystem. And if the content of the next room is random, players don't need to think or plan ahead.

Of course you'll tell me that rolling randomly on these tables is optional, and selecting NPC traits on purpose instead of rolling a dice is still possible. But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination. Ultimately a game like that could better be played with a computer as dungeon master, as the system eliminates the need for the DM to create a story. Random tables work directly AGAINST the main advantage of a tabletop RPG over a computer RPG.

Thursday, January 15, 2015
Free isn't free

If you are a very literal minded person, you might wonder why MMORPGs that failed to attract a sufficient number of subscribers then go "free to play". Surely free is less than a subscription, so the game should make even less money, shouldn't it? Well, free isn't free, and a move to Free2Play can triple revenues.

One of these very literal people is Keen, who is stating that we're willing to pay for value, so we don't need "free" MMORPGs. Like anybody with an interest in economics, I very much agree that people are willing to pay for value. Keen says: "Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.". Right, but what exactly do game companies charge for, and under what circumstances will that dissuade people from playing?

Subscription games charge for access to the game after the usual first free month. Meaning you bought a game for full price, and then they charge you extra for actually playing it after one month. It is pretty easy to see how that can dissuade players, who feel they should have the right to play a game they paid full price for. "Access to the game", paid for by month, also doesn't have the same value to every potential customer. Obviously if you play few hours per month, that monthly access might look rather expensive. If you disagree with that, try to think of the reverse case: What if the game charged you for access by hour? In that case the person playing a lot would find access more expensive than the person playing very little.

In a Free2Play game, access to the game is given away for free. But that is where free ends. If that is all you need, that is obviously a great value proposition. But if you want a larger inventory space, more characters, sparkly ponies, and other virtual goods in the game, you will need to pay. To somebody who plays not very much, that could well still look like a great value for money. In the subscription game he could very well have to pay WITHOUT getting the virtual goods he wants, because they are locked behind a time wall, for example by requiring a certain time investment into raiding.

Free isn't free. It is pay what you want for whatever from the shop that you want. That dissuades a lot less people than the paying for access business model. MMORPG players aren't cheapskates, they know what they want, and are willing to pay for value. Which is why we are discussing when the 2014 crop of subscription games is going Free2Play. Most people decided that just access to the game wasn't value enough to pay for.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
The dream of community

In response to my previous post on increased interaction with the world of WoW, Gerry Quinn asked whether there was also increased interaction between players, presumably the selling point for a multiplayer game. The answer is clearly that there is less and less interaction between players over the history of multiplayer online role-playing games. Many games go to great lengths to minimize player interaction, and many players think that hell is other players. How did that happen, and why didn't these games live up to their promise of community?

Now many people who were active in the early days of online games in the 90's will tell you that something went wrong over the last 20 years, and will maybe offer one of several different explanations of what it was that went wrong. Personally I believe that it was the original promise that was wrong from the start, and things moved from an unrealistic idea towards reality. The reality is that people don't necessarily want to form a community in an online game.

In the early days of the internet, the population of the internet was unnaturally homogeneous: The only people with access were those who had access to a mainframe in an university. I played LPMUDs on a  green (or amber) text on black background mainframe terminal, or used that terminal to chat on BBS bulletin boards. The people I met online were from different countries, but they were predominantly young, well educated, and not poor, because that is the kind of person going to university. If your experience of the internet is one of a place where everybody you meet is socially compatible to you, it is easy to start dreaming of the type of community you could build. But that dream is built on a bad premise, a false experience with a too narrow and not representative sample size.

Then "AOL ruined the internet", as it was said at the time, by letting in everybody else. Suddenly you had a much wider diversity of ages, education levels, and social classes than before. And the history of mankind is one of constant segregation, often self-segregation. People naturally tend to form communities with others who are like them, and avoid people who are not like them, or even consider people not like them as enemy.

Game companies like their games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, because more possible customers usually results in more money. But trying to force more interaction between people who wouldn't naturally have formed a community tends to fail. The core beliefs of one group of people might well be offensive to another group of people and vice versa. And real world conflicts like the political strife between left-wing and right-wing people can spill over into game communities. And if all ages can be online, there is the eternal worry of "we have to protect the children" from real and imagined dangers. As a result we get games in which chat is at the very least filtered, or even totally disabled. We get game systems in which things like "kill stealing" or "ninja looting" are technically impossible. And we get group content where players need neither talk to each other to set up a group, nor to play together as a group. The player economy is handled with an auction house system, so people do not need to talk to each other to trade. And most of the content of most MMORPGs is best played solo. Playing a multiplayer player game alone is more and more enabled, and direct player interaction isn't encouraged.

As I said, interaction between people online today is now more similar to interaction between people offline, and thus in a way more "natural". That is bad news for the utopians, but I don't see that trend reversing. We simple don't have the same pre-screened population any more that would have made a larger community possible.

Sunday, January 11, 2015
Interacting with the world of World of Warcraft

Warlords of Draenor is the 5th expansion for World of Warcraft, so a lot of people who aren't playing assume that it is pretty much like the original game and the other 4 expansions. But when playing through the leveling content of Draenor, a subtle but important change is visible: There is far more interaction between you and the world than in the previous 10 years.

Of course that is "far more" compared to not much at all. The world of WoW always had mostly monsters to interact with, and some gathering nodes. Other than that there were very few items you could interact with. Basically if you could click on something, it was part of a quest you had. Apart from a few treasure chests, the world was barren of things you could touch. The quest focus also was very true for monsters. Yes, you could always kill monsters without having a quest for them, but usually there was not much reason to do so. Rare spawn monsters did not necessarily drop anything interesting, and as they had long spawn times, you didn't come across them all that often.

In the new zones of Warlords of Draenor, this has much improved. The most visible aspect (because they show up on your mini-map), are the rare spawn monsters, which now aren't rare at all any more. Compared to previously they now offer more interesting fights, feeling a bit like soloable dungeon bosses. And they drop more interesting loot, plus garrison resources. Cleverly they do so only the first time you kill them, so people don't farm the same spawn repeatedly.

In addition to that there are now lots of hidden treasures, recognizable by a purple glow. Some of them are quite good, offering better quality items than you would get by questing in the same zone. There are also resources, toys, and other interesting fluff items. Which means that today it makes sense to actually look around in the ancient ruin you are exploring for some quest, because by looking you might find some nice extra rewards. On the other hand I must say that some of these treasures are a bit too well hidden. But of course there are addons which show all Draenor treasures, as nothing ever remains hidden or secret in a massively multiplayer game.

While I unlearned all my gathering skills, which have become obsolete in this expansion, I still spend a good amount of time gathering timber. So between rare spawns, treasures, bonus objectives, and timber, there is now quite a lot of extra stuff other than quests to do in the WoW zones. A clear improvement, and one has to wonder why it took them 10 years to get there.


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