Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 29, 2015
Politics in review scores

Imagine that you created a game playing in 2015 Europe. As a dev your bonus from the publishing company depends on the Metacritic score of the game. And then you read a review in a major publication where the reviewer gave you a lower score because he didn't agree with a map in the game showing the Crimea as being Russian (or alternatively as being not Russian). Bonus gone because of a difference in political opinions. How would you feel?

In reality the game developer in question, Adrian Chmielarz, and the reviewer from Polygon had a political difference about sexism and equal representation of minorities in the game The Witcher 3. But otherwise the story remains the same, the reviewer gave a lower score to The Witcher 3 than other reviewers because of politics. And because this is the post-Gamergate era, any discussion of gender / minority politics in games always ends up exploding in a huge shitstorm. The problem with those shitstorms is that people only ever discuss minor details like some statement not being 100% accurate, or the credibility of this or that person, and totally fail to discuss the core issue.

I have no interest whatsoever in discussing the details of the Chmielarz / Polygon spat, and will delete all comments trying to derail this thread towards those details. What I would like to discuss is whether it is justified to give a worse review score or better review score to a game because you disagree or agree with the politics of the game.

Games have come a long way from Pong, Pac-Man, and Tetris. So when a game stops being about the interaction of abstract shapes, but instead shows cinematic quality stories, it is only natural that the reviewer has an opinion about the stories that are being told. And it is nearly inevitable that those stories in some way touch on political issues, because everything in life does. Would you expect a book review of "Capital in the 21st Century" by Thomas Piketty (or the earlier incarnation "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx) to be politically neutral and only talk about whether the book is well written or not?

On the other side threatening a developer with bad review scores if he isn't politically correct is clearly a form of censorship and attack on artistic freedom. I remember people complaining about the promotional material for Warlords of Draenor, because it showed only male orcs, and they wanted equal representation: Some male, some female characters, and preferably two gay orcs holding hands and another one in a wheelchair to represent the handicapped demographic. Personally I don't think we should repaint Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to include apostles of different skin color or gender. I believe that any artist, including game developers, should have the artistic freedom to say that *his* vision of warlords is one of blood-thirsty male brutes that just aren't very inclusive as a club. In particular I believe that if you tell a historical story, you should have at least the freedom to depict gender and race relations in a historically correct way, even if we all agree that those relations have progressed since. If gender and race relations in medieval times weren't very enlightened, that isn't exactly the fault of the artist who depicts those times. You *can* create a story based on the premise "what if people in medieval times would have been totally enlightened", but you shouldn't be forced to.

I think that while a reviewer could well mention his politics and his political opinion on things shown in a game in the text, it is somewhat unfair to then let those politics affect the review score. Review scores are simple numbers that don't reflect the details of how a reviewer got to them, especially once they are aggregated. The most common use of a review score is for a customer to decide whether a game is any good and whether he should buy it (thus the link to bonuses). Personally I prefer reviews without scores, but if you have to put a score, that score should say more about the quality of the game than about the politics of the reviewer.

Thursday, May 28, 2015
Anyone remember Aion?

I love it that Azuriel's blog has a tag for "impending doom". His latest post on that subject discusses the financial situation of Wildstar, which dropped by half from Q4 2014 to Q1 2015. Wildstar is now making less money than City of Heroes before it was shut down. Thus "impending doom". But maybe NCSoft should consider another alternative than just shutting down Wildstar.

Anyone remember Aion? I barely do. I found it to be not a particularly good game at the time, rather generic, and then it went free to play. But this "free" game is now making 7 times as much money for NCSoft than the subscription game Wildstar. "Free" Guild Wars makes even more money. To me it appears obvious that it is the business model of Wildstar that is weighing the game down like a dead albatross around it's neck, far more than any issues of content or gameplay.

In my mind Wildstar is a far better game than Aion, it has a lot more character, and some strong features like the great player housing system. I don't see why it wouldn't make as much money as Aion if it had the same business model. I'm even playing World of Warcraft for free these days, so why would I consider paying a monthly subscription for any game at this point? I believe the monthly subscription model is way past the point of "impending doom", with The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar having clearly demonstrated that the business model is dead.

Endowment effect

The endowment effect is a psychological phenomenon where people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. It appears that Blizzard developers aren't very well versed in psychology. They caused a huge uproar by announcing that flying isn't going to be introduced to Warlords of Draenor, nor any future expansion. People pointed at their $25 flying mounts and felt cheated. Mount collection is a huge part of the game for some people, with players willing to run old dungeons and raids many times in order to get some rare flying mount. But those flying mounts usually look horrible waddling on the ground, so being told that they will become forever useless is hurting some people big time.

There are good arguments for and against flying, but I consider all those arguments to be irrelevant. The point is not whether World of Warcraft is a better game with or without flying. The point is that because of the endowment effect you cause more damage taking away a feature than you created by introducing it. I'm very much convinced that exactly the same thing will happen when the next expansion doesn't have garrisons or some equivalent form of player housing. People get used to features, adjust their gameplay to them, and then get angry when those features are taken away. It doesn't matter how good that feature is. Devs need to make the decision of whether a feature is good for the game *before* announcing and introducing it. Constantly adding features and then removing them again just makes it appear as if the devs don't have a plan and are simply working on trial and error instead of with some vision or design philosophy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015
To discourage their purchase

This post deliberately has the same title as Azuriel's post on the subject. That is because it basically is just a small addition to the discussion of Azuriel. The issue at hand is Apexis crystal items in patch 6.2 costing gold instead of Apexis crystals. Which makes the crystals pretty useless, and opens up Blizzard to conspiracy theories linking the move to the new WoW tokens.

Azuriel quotes a dev saying: "The high pricing is deliberate to discourage their purchase in favor of crafted items or raid BoEs.". Now I make a lot of money with little work by producing armor upgrades, e.g. Hexweave Essence, from the resources that my garrisons produce. And when I see the price list of the "Apexis" gear in gold, I must say that they are not highly priced at all. If you bought a crafted epic, then applied first an Essence, then a Greater Essence, and then a Powerful Essence to it, you'd probably end up paying more for about the same iLevel. I don't think the prices "discourage their purchase in favor of crafted items" at all, and in many cases the Apexis items are also cheaper than popular raid BoEs. The move is more likely to destroy my crafting profits than to discourage buyers.

Everything old is new

The latest MMORPG from this month is the original Everquest, a new "progression" server called Ragefire with the advertising slogan "play it like it's 1999". There is obviously a huge demand for such back in time servers that promise to bring back our MMORPG past. I just don't think that is actually possible.

I have fond memories of the original Everquest. It is second only to World of Warcraft in the length of my subscription. And its basic philosophy of "you have to play together with other or perish alone" is fundamentally different from World of Warcraft and most other modern games. But a large part of the attraction of EQ at the time was that it was one of the first mass-market MMORPGs and the most graphically advanced in 1999. Sixteen years later we aren't the same people any more that we were in 1999, our tastes and expectations have evolved with all the games we played since then. And the graphics standards have evolved too, so today EQ is just downright ugly.

So for me the most likely scenario is that people will start playing on this Ragefire server out of nostalgia, and then relatively quickly discover that their selective memory made them remember all the good things and forget about all the bad stuff. It simply isn't 1999 any more, and we can't bring 1999 back. Most players will give up after only a few levels, because today the original EQ leveling speed will appear extremely slow.

Having said that, I do believe that Blizzard could get a million or more subscribers for a month or three by offering a "vanilla WoW" server with 40-man raids to Molten Core.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We know from official data that the peak of subscriptions from the release of the Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft is over. But subscription numbers aren't reported frequently, and you always get into discussions on whether the changes happened on the servers you are playing on, or somewhere in China. What we need is indicators of how active our server cluster is. Now sometimes those indicators are anecdotal, like previously crowded spots feeling less crowded. So an objective indicator, a number, is preferable.

Now I am using the auctioneer addon to scan the AH once a day to get a database full of prices and know when an item is cheap or expensive. And that scan tells you the number of auctions scanned, as a number and as number of pages with 50 auctions each. And I noticed that these numbers are down, from 1,000 pages with 50,000 auctions down to 700 pages with 35,000 auctions.

So I wonder in how far the number of auctions is a representative indicator of player activity. Or whether somehow I could find an even better one. What do you think?

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Not leaving the house

As I have some other things going on I am currently not playing so much World of Warcraft. Basically just garrison maintenance, which still brings in more gold than I would need to pay for the subscription. But that has to be temporary, either the patch will give me fresh stuff to do, or I'll just quit, because I don't just want to make gold to pay for the subscription I need to make gold.

Anyway, I was playing the auction house speculating with Universal Language modules and parts, and ended up getting a module cheap. And then I decided I had too much gold anyway, might as well spend it on some luxury. So I bought the other parts and handed them in for the "quest" that gives you an auctioneer in your garrison. As going to Warspear for the auctioneer was pretty much the only thing I still did regularly outside the garrison, I'm now able to play without ever leaving my player house. And that probably isn't a good idea to allow that in a multiplayer game.

The garrison is rather big for a player housing system in a MMORPG, and has more functionality than most. I understand the attraction of all that convenience, but in the end the result is isolation, and player harvesting and crafting having been ruined. It is also very hard to take away convenience from the players, they are still complaining about having lost flying in Draenor. So how is the player base going to react if in the next expansion the garrison becomes outdated, and players are basically losing that convenience and housing? Already in patch 6.2 players will discover that they need harvesting skills again, what happens when that comes back as being the standard method of gathering resources? The patch adds more content to the garrison, so people will feel it even more when they don't get anything equivalent in the next expansion.

While I think that the WoW garrison has been worked very nicely into the story and continent of Draenor, I am wondering if a flying house like the starship in SWTOR or the floating island in Wildstar isn't the better way to go. And I think that there can be too much convenience in player housing, because you don't want a massively multiplayer game where most players are sitting alone in their instanced housing most of the time. Player housing in MMORPGs has some big inherent problems, and Blizzard is far from having solved them.

Friday, May 22, 2015
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing

This started out as a comment on my previous blog post, but ended up getting too long for a comment, so I made it into another blog post. Michael commented that "Tobold, it's not that I at all disagree, it's that I question the point of continuing to talk about it.". I believe that this touches a rather fundamental and recurring problem of all forms of public writing, including blogging and journalism: Should you engage with and write about people and organizations you strongly disagree with, or should you ignore them?

I've always been with Edmund Burke on this one, see title. Even when I am fully aware of the dangers and unwilling to feed the trolls, I'd rather post to point out where I disagree than just keep silent. So I would like to discuss a recent example:

The Noisy Rogue, a self-proclaimed pro-GamerGate blogger, posted a very hateful post full of personal attacks and insults about how the Newbie Blogger Initiative "has gone full George Orwell. You shall not go against the group think. You shall have the correct opinions. All those who do not have the correct opinions shall be cast out and shunned. For we have the numbers and all agree with us.". I disagree with the post and would have ignored it, if I hadn't also disagreed with the response of a circle of pro-NBI bloggers: They first exchanged a long series of tweets between themselves (but visible to everybody) on what an idiot The Noisy Rogue is, and then wrote a blog post on the same subject starting with "It seems that a certain blogger—whom I will not link to here...".

To me that appears to be the worst possible way to respond. You neither engage or even acknowledge the person you disagree with, but you also don't ignore him and keep silent about the issue. I would always prefer to link to dissenting posts than this sort of half-way treatment. To some extent I blame Twitter, which has a strong culture of "let's talk badly about somebody behind his back" school yard behavior, while making the shared insults publicly viewable, maybe in hope that the object of the insults finds them later. In this particular case The Noisy Rogue might well point out that this is exactly the sort of behavior he complained about in the first place.

Moving smoothly from my previous blog post on games spilling into the real world, I think it is best to understand GamerGate as a political right vs. left conflict spilling into the world of games and game writing. In my opinion the left won a moral victory by using somewhat less objectionable means in the conflict, reducing the right to their standard "all mass media are controlled by the left" excuse. Which gets rather thin when even Fox News comments "Recently, an online campaign dubbed "GamerGate" has led to the harassment of women in the video game industry for criticizing the lack of diversity and how women are portrayed in gaming.".

But the point is that the fundamental right vs. left conflict is never going to go away. And as nobody ever admits defeat on the internet, even GamerGate is probably going to stay with us for years to come. In multiplayer games, griefing is not going to go away. Ignoring everything I don't like isn't really a viable strategy. And there is the danger that I recede into a shell of just reading the sites I know that I will agree with, which leads exactly to the sort of group think that can justifiably be criticized. This is why I link to posts I disagree with. This is why I moderate comments only for personal insults, never for dissenting opinions (although obviously that means deleting comments which have both). Acknowledging the other side and speaking out against things I disagree with is a value in itself, even if it can't possibly change anything.

Outside battery limits

In engineering there is an important distinction of things being either "inside battery limits" or "outside battery limits". On an engineering plan there is often a dotted line showing that "battery limit", which is the border between "the plant" and "the rest of the world". I think that concept needs more attention when talking about games, especially multiplayer online games. The limits are often not clearly defined, and that leads to dangerous situations.

In Canada a 17-year old League of Legends players has plead guilty to a range of charges: "According to what [prosecutor] Bauer told the court, the teen would often target fellow League of Legends players and their families when they denied friend requests or he felt slighted by them over some minor offense. He would retaliate, according to Bauer, by shutting down their internet access, posting their personal information online, calling them late at night, or calling the police to call in an imaginary emergency situation.". To me that is an extreme example of that League of Legends player having stepped outside battery limits. You are supposed to beat your opponent *inside* the limits of the game; stepping outside of those limits is problematic, and in some cases criminal.

There are some games like EVE Online or Crowfall where the developers deliberately obscure the limits to what is out of bounds, and in consequence serious breaches of those limits happen. There is a whole school of thought among some PvP players where it is not sufficient to beat your adversary in the game, it is necessary to make the person behind the keyboard cry. I have been criticized for calling such behavior "evil" because "it is just a game", but I believe that from a certain point onward it stops being just a game and goes outside the limits of the rules of the game. And not just swatting, which constitutes a serious danger to the life and health of the target, but also lesser forms of cyber-bullying, harassment, and humiliation. If the target is a person as opposed to his avatar or other representation in the game, these actions are evil. That they take place because of a game is not an excuse; rather I find it worrying that somebody would be willing to inflict harm on another real person for something as trivial as a game.

I do believe that game companies and developers have a duty to make the limits of their game very clear, and to strongly react to transgressions that step over those limits.

Thursday, May 21, 2015
Legacy websites and Chrome stopping to support plugins

Google decided that their browser Chrome should stop supporting plugins, especially the Microsoft Silverlight plugin, because well, it's from Microsoft and not from Google. A number of websites are affected by this. And while there are lot of sites with a lot more traffic, the one site where this affects me is the Wizards of the Coast D&D Insider archive with the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons online tools.

I'm not quite certain why, but official computer and online tools for Dungeons & Dragons have always been a sad story. Usually you get a lot of promises for those tools when a new edition of D&D comes out, and then the whole plan falls apart and you get very little. That is what happened with the current 5th edition. For 4th edition, although the tools never lived up to the promises, at least WotC had two programs that worked quite well, a character creator, and a monster builder / database. And because my group like tactical combat and half of my players don't speak English and 5E isn't on offer in any other language, I am still using those online tools and pay a subscription for them.

But of course WotC isn't providing any new additions or support to the legacy website of D&D Insider. We can be happy enough they didn't shut it down yet. And as the tools work with Microsoft Silverlight, I now need to use Internet Explorer instead of Chrome. And I wonder how many other legacy sites there are out there that got created with plugins, and there is nobody to redo them in the new standard that Google is trying to impose on us. I would imagine that people are much more faithful to their preferred websites than to their preferred browser. If Chrome doesn't support your favorite websites any more, then goodbye Chrome! Google might well be shooting themselves in the foot with this more than hurting Microsoft.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Neverending content

On MMO-Champion I stumbled upon an interview with ex-WoW developer Ghostcrawler who says: "Neverending content leads to making things so difficult you can't progress or asking you to run the same content 100 times.". I feel that is very true. Nevertheless I don't think that is an unsolvable problem, because you can design content in a way that running it a 100 times isn't boring.

For example look at games like Tetris or Candy Crush Saga (which will now come preinstalled with Windows 10). These are clearly games in which players run the same content far more than 100 times. But because there are minor variations, some randomness, and a slowly increasing difficulty level, players don't mind doing that same content hundreds of times.

Saturday, May 16, 2015 Launcher

Not much blogging this week as I am traveling. I must say that the launcher is a big improvement when you are away from home: I get to play World of Warcraft without having to take my authenticator with me, something I was always reluctant to due to the danger of losing it. Of course now somebody stealing my laptop could theoretically access my account, but I'm pretty certain that laptop thieves and WoW account thieves are two very different types of criminals with not much overlap.

In any case, even at home I am happy that I don't have to enter my password and authenticator code every time I log in. Logon screens are so last year!


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