Wednesday 30 December 2009

WoW: Pug Bingo

Angry Gamer says: "This has to be reposted and spread about."

[the image exceeded its hosting. Ah well for anyone late for the party it was a 5 by 5 bingo card where you got a square for various comical but true pug situations such as melee hunter or the enchanter's skill is too low to disenchant and so on.]

Who am I to argue?

You win by getting a line of 5 in a row. For example all the things on the top line or a diagonal from one corner to another corner. Middle square is free. Post here saying "House!" when you have a line.

Good luck everyone!

MMOs: Stargate Worlds

As this title changes direction I find myself nodding at their good sense.

Stargate Worlds has been in development for some time as a MMO. However they have been plagued by financial problems with reports of staff not getting paid and so on. Time after time they've lurched back to business, clinging on by their fingernails.

Recently they've announced that instead of launching a MMO in 2010 they will instead be producing a shooter. I applaud their wisdom.

2010 will see the launch of Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The subset of Stargate fans who do not prefer one of those IPs must be absolutely tiny.

Watching Stargate Universe over the holiday period made me think about how weak the IP is as the basis for a MMO.

I'm not saying Stargate is not entertaining, it is - as a TV series.

As a MMO IP it has serious drawbacks:

Uneven characterisation

Stargate Universe has some very well-acted strong characters that are interesting and memorable. Robert Carlyle is mesmerising, David Blue is great. But most of the actors are just bland. In scene after scene we see some big emotional drama played out and Carlyle is the only person whose face moves. It looks bizarre. Like everyone except Carlyle and Blue went to some acting school where you are told to act every part stoic and impassive. It undermines Carlyle's acting because it makes him look hammy when he is acting with a wide range of visible emotions and no one else is.

Carlyle's acting does not suit his part. He has created a strong character of great integrity and personality. Yet the script is clearly written on the assumption he is an unlikeable nerd. He keeps suggesting things in a highly convincing way and everyone rejects his suggestion because it comes from him. That doesn't make any sense, he is clearly an authoritative charismatic expert who is the only person who knows that the hell to do. They should have got Rick Moranis to play Dr Rush, not Carlyle.

The soldiers don't act like soldiers. They are continually ignoring orders and doing what they feel like instead. They act like teenagers, not professional military men and women. They are also particularly wooden. I don't believe soldiers are so impassive in combat situations, particularly not American soldiers. Kelly's Heroes is a much more convincing picture of how American soldiers behave under stress.

The home visits from outer space are ridiculous. Chloe visits her mother and Colonel Young visits his wife. Nice for drama but daft in the context of a mission in crisis. It's as if Picard popped back to London for a pint in the middle of Star Trek.

The IP is too like Star Trek

- the guy who can fly the ship has a Scottish accent.

- a major character is brilliant but can't connect to others emotionally.

- the plotlines are resolved by "leadership" which consists of impulsively ignoring your experts, telling people to pull their fingers out and reminding everyone that "we're all in this together". This is portrayed as opposite to and superior to actually knowing what the hell you're doing.

- a perky medical officer who asserts her rights as ranking medical officer to do things the leader doesn't want.

- ship-based with away teams.

- a high emphasis on emotional interaction between the characters no matter how inappropriate to the situation. All this Eli-Chloe-Scott love triangle business. I can see it makes the show more dramatic but sometimes you really think there's something better they should get on and do rather than fixing the shower.

Stargate really is just Star Trek with different uniforms. Wait, what's that? "Ah but don't forget the stargates," you say, "they're unique!" A mysterions device that can transport people across space. Yeah right, that's never been done before. Beam me up, Scotty.

Continuity breaks

In addition to this Stargate Universe breaks its own continuity all the time. In Episode 3 an away team goes to a planet to search for cleaning powder (an exciting story if ever there was one!). First Dr Rush, who is supposed to be the unemotional genius gives his water away to Lieutenant Scott in an emo moment. Then Scott orders Sergeant Greer to keep Rush alive. Then when they're alone Greer refuses Rush water, an action likely to kill him, and hits him and pulls a gun on him. Why doesn't he follow orders? Then they get back to the Stargate and a guy is trying to get through. Rush tells Greer to shoot him. He does, and asked why he shot him "because he told me too". So he doesn't follow his own lieutenant's orders but he jumps to follow Rush's orders despite hating him and having just hit him? It's nonsense. And once they get back up to the ship Rush blames Greer for shooting the scientist, telling Young "Greer, Greer shot him!" And this doesn't get followed up. Does the Colonel just forget that one of his men is running amuck shooting civilians?

In another scene Chloe attacks Dr Rush after her father dies heroically. Carlyle acts out a brilliant and moving scene where he explains on his knees how much he regrets the death and how committed he is to saving the ship. The rest of the cast looks on woodenly. A little later Colonel Young asks him if he cares about saving the ship. Hello? As far as the audience knows Dr Rush is the only person who cares about saving the ship. Everyone else seems about as interested as teenage boys helping their mums go grocery shopping. What the series is showing to the audience is wildly at variance to what the characters are reacting to. (This is because Carlyle is too sympathetic).

Implications for game-making

The series is fine for a shooter game. It's sci fi, it's full of soldiers, tech is shown clearly and is interesting as far as game weapons go. It's more like real soldier weapons (pistols, machine guns) than phasers and light sabers which a lot of people will like.

For a MMO which requires considerably more depth the cracks start to show.

First the lore is weak. It's a fairly transparent Star Trek rip-off. Worse a lot of the story contradicts other parts of the story and the science is non-existent. For example to find lime on the planet they go running around on foot despite having telemetry on the ship that can measure chemical composition and which they use at other times to detect breathable atmosphere. Why can't they just scan for calcium carbonate with the thing that tells you the atmosphere is 88% nitrogen and 12% oxygen?

Next what's interesting about the show is to a large extent the drama and the characters. That doesn't translate. Instead of playing out a dramatic scene with Robert Carlyle you interact with nerds who tell you to go to X for a 3.4% speed buff. Instead of a romance with Medic Johannsen you get asked "wanna cyber" by some big-breasted avatar that likely belongs to a 40 year old basement dweller called Bert.

The technology is not sufficiently interesting. The gates are the only really iconic tech but you can't do much with them in game. They're essentially a load screen between instances. The ship looks cool but you can't fly it. "Ancients technology" is just lumps of rock with glyphs on them that work like mobile phones or whatever. The weapons are apparently standard contemporary US Army issue - great for a shooter but very weak for something more story-based.

The characters don't lend themselves to obviously exciting classes (as compared with say Jedi). You got soldiers. A medic who is kinda crap - her best medicine seems to be apirin or something similar and her main treatment is telling people to get some sleep. You got mad scientist that everyone hates. You got college dropout geek. You got crap scientists who are useless. You got politicians who just whine at the soldiers and occasionally use their Leadership powers to calm everyone else. And you got everyone else whose only plot function is to panic and need to be calmed down. None of these make interesting MMO classes. From what I vaguely remember of the film they had a few archaeologists too. Whoop de doo.

The look is sometimes self-defeating. They have these great access corridors on the ship, reminiscent of the Nostromo in Alien. In fact I found myself waiting for the alien to jump out then thinking "oh shoot, it's Stargate, relax, nothing exciting is going to happen". The problem with using everyone else's tropes is that by and large they did it better.

Anyway that's something of a snap judgment, I don't know the IP well, just watched a few episodes over Christmas. What I saw does not make me think, wow, wish I was a character in that universe. In fact it makes me think "they were planning a MMO? Wow!" Sometimes it really is better to just write your own stories.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Comments: English only please

I just deleted a comment in a Chinese language.

I apologise if it was on-topic and relevant but if I don't know what it is I can't allow it to stand in case it's unsuitable.

Please feel free to comment again in English if you wish to make a point.

Monday 21 December 2009

MMOs: The fun of cheating

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun it is
To get creative with your play.

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Killing stuff is neat,
But it's even better when
You've worked out how to cheat.

Ever since the start of the MMO players have loved to push the game mechanics.

The Holy Trinity, so fundamental to the genre, may well have started as an exploit that got co-opted as a feature. In some primitive game a player figured out how to manage mob aggro and exploited this knowledge by stacking armour and defences on the character capable of holding aggro thereby inventing a much more efficient system than the Everyone Is Dps mechanic.

Many other standard MMO combat techniques are clearly methods of exploiting the AI which show the weaknesses of the program as a combat simulator. Kiting, circle-strafing, terrain exploiting and all manner of pulling. None of these combat techniques resemble what happens in real fights and it's unlikely that any of them were deliberately designed into games originally.

Sometimes the "exploit" is on the part of the developers: a field full of intelligent orc mobs who just stand there picking their noses while you pull and kill them one by one is designed as a bad simulation which is a fun game.

Why players love exploits

- it makes you feel clever.
- it creates a secret language of gameplay mechanics that "pro" gamers understand and "noob" gamers don't, thereby demonstrating mastery.
- it allows you to do amazing things not intended by the developers or expected by others.
- it allows you to progress faster and further than you would otherwise be able to.
- it makes the game look different and fresh.

How players show their exploits off, some examples

Example 1: Demon Lord Kazzak in Stormwind

Here is a video of Demon Lord Kazzak who has been dragged by a skilled Hunter to the city of Stormwind. The rampage this raid boss mob goes on is unstoppable by players since the boss heals when he kills someone. In an area full of low level players this makes him unkillable. When this boss was exploited in this way he had to be manually reset by a GM.

The Hunter had to do a tricky kiting job. Kiting such as this was generally managed by reverse jump shots. Your character moves forwards, then you jump, spin 180, shoot behind you while in mid-air, spin 180, then land pointing forwards. This tricks the game into thinking you had always been going forwards so you don't slow down while getting a shot off backwards. It takes a bit of practice to get right.

What is interesting is that although they moved this boss to prevent people continuing to do this they did not change the gameplay mechanic. It's on the long list of exploits which have become features.

Example 2: It's fun when the game goes wrong in interesting ways

This video shows an exploit where the player has managed to get the horses from the Arathi Basin stables to activate and attack the other side.

It's not amazingly powerful, the team exploiting lost this battle. It does however look interesting.

The good old days

This attitude is particularly prevalent in players who reminisce fondly about the early days of Ultima Online, Everquest and Star Wars; Galaxies. All of these games were designed (both on purpose and inadvertently) to encourage emergent gameplay.

When players say fondly that things were great back then what they are often remembering is they found interesting ways to beat the system that aren't readily available to most players in modern games.

The story of Fansy the Famous Bard, a player who killed other players by training mobs onto them is well-known and is an example of a player who received considerable recognition simply by exploiting over and over all day long.

Scott Hartsman agrees: his excellent blog post on emergent gameplay is called Emergent Play in MMOs - It's about the balance. Moorgard (developer Steve Danuser) comments:

"Locked encounters: saving the world from degenerates, (negative) one subscription at a time."

What he's saying is that it costs games companies subscribers to fix such problems because players love them.

Blizzard has been keenly conscious of this in policing World of Warcraft. Generally they don't ban players for exploiting - they just fix the exploit. Sometimes. Where they do ban people it's sometimes dependent on how succesful the player has been with an exploit.

When Wrath of the Lich King came out player Athene used his guild to help him level fast. He made level 79 in 13 hours. Then despite having confirmed with one GM that his levelling technique was legal another GM decided it wasn't, temporarily banned the players involved and reset the character to 70.

What they were doing was tagging mobs inside an instance, then the helpers would drop group and kill it while the power-levelled character went on to tag more mobs, then inviting everyone back before the auto-hearth mechanic for not being in the instance group kicked in.

After Athene and his friends were banned a player called Nymh made the world first level 80 also, and this time legally, with outside help.

Raid guild Exodus were temporarily suspended after a world first defeat of Yogg-Saron. Their take on the matter is very revealing. While they admitted that they exploited they said they'd do the same thing again and pointed fingers at many other world firsts which had been achieved using exploits and allowed to stand.

The whole issue of cheating has become such a grey area nowadays because some level of game mechanics abuse is an integral part of almost every player's arsenal and in many cases is designed back into the game as a "feature" by developers who like the way the emergent play changes the fundamental gameplay. The Ancient Gaming Noob found that only 12% of players surveyed thought that exploiting game mechanics was cheating and only 13% considered illicit real money transactions cheating.

Like it or not (and most players love it) exploiting is here to stay.

For designers the goal is a game where some exploiting is possible so that players are entertained but not so much that the game appears broken. When Darkfall released I didn't buy it because of reports of rampant afk macroing. A system that skilled you up for swinging your sword and supported macros was tailor-made for botting. Even a strict policy failed to prevent widespread abuse and I really didn't fancy a game which is played by leaving your computer on all day and overnight and levelling while you work and sleep. I hated it in SWG and didn't fancy dealing with it again in a game where it appeared to be mandatory. (They've since softened the skill curve to allow new players more chance to be competitive with veterans without exploiting).

So it's a fine line for developers - too little scope for player creativity and you follow in the footsteps of Warhammer Online. That game with its comparitively simple systems didn't allow the average player to seek advantage except through flavour of the month builds. What's worse they co-opted fotm as a design mechanic, deliberately overpowering Bright Wizards and Warrior Priests to balance the factions as Destruction was too strong. So not only was the only way to cheese the game (apart from certain keep exploits) playing a fotm build but the developers had decided which fotm build you would cheese with. This total lack of player control over their ability to cheese made the game less fun than its rivals.

Sunday 20 December 2009

EQ2: Purchase options

Everquest 2 is an excellent MMO and it's actually pretty cheap. However there are a lot of different options for buying it so here is a rundown from the perspective of a player in the UK on 20th December 2009. You should check for yourself each option as it's likely to differ, the details below should make it easy for you to shop around.

To summarise Everquest 2 it is very similar to WoW. It started out quite like WoW then as the game evolved became more like WoW over time (crafting simplified and interdepencies removed, soloing improved, a talent like system added, WoW raid sizes were changed to be more like EQ2 raid sizes etc). The games have heavily influenced each other.

The principal differences are a more polite community, a more strategic, slower combat, and a greater emphasis on inventory management and crafting. You get a lot more bag and bank space in Everquest and collecting and harvesting are typically a bigger part of the play experience.

EQ2 is a good choice if you are a veteran WoW player thinking about rolling an alt. Why go through Stranglethorn Vale for the tenth time when you can level in a completely fresh experience with new zones that are comfortably on a par with WoW's quality?

I think it is also the game I'd pick if I were playing with children. The language and behaviour of other players in WoW is just not very nice. I've barely even seen anyone swear in EQ2 nor have I joined a group wondering whether they will kick me for some reason.

OK, now to look at the different deals for the game. You may need to get the Station Launcher to view some options, it's a quick download:

Option 1, Recruit-a-friend, no initial cost, current subscribers only (or ask someone to recruit you at )

Pros: - the "friends" can group together for triple exp. Mentoring the friend will give him an additional 10% exp. They can also teleport to each other.
- the recruiter gets a load of stuff (special mount, station cash, collectible card game boosters), free month's game time.

Cons: - your account does not get a Journeyman's Cloak reward
- does not stack with the 60 free days you get if you buy the Complete Collection.

Option 2, Shadow Odyssey, accessible via the Station Launcher. £7.99

Pros: - all current expansions and adventure packs, Shadow Odyssey AAs unlocked and AA cap raised to 200, some collectible game cards.
Cons: miss out on Journeyman's Cloak veteran reward.
Note: it costs £12 on Amazon so get it via the launcher unless you can find a box somewhere for less than £7.99

Option 3, Everquest 2 Starter Pack, accessible via the Station Launcher. £6.99

Pros: £1 cheaper than option 2.
Cons: you miss out on an expansion plus the various freebies associated with it. Miss J-Cloak.

Option 4, free trial

Pros: you get the Journeyman's Cloak, a reward accessed through /claim which gives +25% run speed to any and/or all of your characters. Also it's 2 weeks free time unless you take the Complete Collection. So playing for 14 days, then buying Shadow Odyssey = 44 free days, Complete Collection = 60 free days.
Cons: while on trial you're restricted in many chat options, can't send people tells unless they /friend you, can't use auction house and other anti gold spammer mechanisms.

Option 5, Complete Collection, $19.99

Pros: all current expansions, 60 free days, 500 Station Cash.
Cons: no J Cloak, will not stack with recruit-a-friend.

Option 6, Station Access, £18.99 per month, if you have a sub to another Sony game your game time will be converted (I got 117 free days from a SWG sub I had active). You can check if you will be given time in the Station Launcher by clicking on the Station Access option.

Pros: gives you EQ2 except Shadow Odyssey, gives you access to all other SOE MMO games including Vanguard, EQ1 (only 2 expansions), Star Wars: Galaxies, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Planetside.
Cons: you are not given the complete EQ2 or EQ1 games, it's expensive, no J-Cloak.

Option 7, wait for Sentinel's Fate (coming out Feb)
If you're in no rush prices for older expansions will drop and/or they will be bundled into the new one when it comes out.

Conclusion: get a free trial then buy the Shadow Odyssey via the launcher when your time runs out. Great value, gets you the J Cloak which is by far the most important of the various freebies offered.

I actually went for Option 6 simply because I had a long SWG sub active. I must say it's a little annoying levelling without the J-Cloak.

Monday 14 December 2009

MMOs: modding

Modding is a hobby that players of single player computer games do to redesign the way their game works.

It's only single player games or non-massively multiplayer games that currently support this.

There are emulators of commercial MMOs that exist. They are not quite the same thing. First they are really hard to make - you have to reverse engineer the client then write code for your server to handle the jobs it needs to do then get it uploaded and running. They suffer from being not legal and highly vulnerable to cease and desist orders. These are not what I am talking about in this post although hats off to the pioneers who do them.

What I'm talking about is software that is designed to let amateurs build mmos. Possibly commercial software, possibly game engines of old mmos that are being shut down.

With MMOs there are several barriers to modding.

1) You don't have the source code. Unlike a game like Oblivion where you have the whole game in a MMO you only have a small part of it, the client.

2) Business models depend upon not letting people set up free servers.

3) People are bastards. If you set up an amateur MMO that was completely free people would turn up to try to hack it, crash it, grief players etc. This is just the nature of the Wild Wild Web.

4) They are incredibly labour-intensive to build.

I believe that over time the first two problems will inevitably collapse. This is because of Stabs' Law. No matter how pointless or bad for the gaming industry it may seem to be at some point someone who owns the rights to an old mmo will stand up and tell the world, thanks for playing, it's been a great ten years, we're shutting down the servers, here have the source code, it's uploaded and open source. Just because. Stabs' Law.

3) is a problem that is solved over time. Suppose knitting circles didn't exist and someone just now came up with the idea. There would be warnings that knitters could get mugged while travelling to the circle or that one of the members might be an axe murderer. People might turn up to them just because they are new with no motive except to be disruptive. Eventually though if people keep going along and knitting the disruption just falls by the way side, it's no longer interesting to do it.

If there are, one day, thousands of free amateur mmos out there it simpy won't be exciting to travel around griefing them.

4) is the reason I'm investigating mmo modding and beginning to communicate about it. I want to tell people what might be possible, how I'd like it to work so I don't have to do elements of mmo-building I don't like and/or can't do (for example coding or designing combat animations). We will see amateur mmos, they're going to be occasionally brilliant, they're going to become increasingly fun to make over time and they will be worlds that if you are reading this you will probably play in or create before the end of your lifetime.

I look forward to seeing some of you in Querulous Plains in about fifteen years' time!

Querulous Plains: Patent Office

It's not possible that an amateur modder can match the amount of work that can be done by a professional design team so mmo modding will depend to a great deal upon automation and player-created content.

The Patent Office is a feature that harnesses player inventiveness to have people create new features for your virtual world.

It needs to be pretty limited and it needs to be manually moderated. Still, checking whether a Goblin Wall Destruction Engine breaks your game is quicker and easier than designing one yourself.

What is elegant is that designer laziness is a feature. In common with a lot of sandbox elements players love having control of aspects of the virtual world themselves even if the way you've implemented it as a designer is by being too lazy or time-contrained to just do the damn work.

Who can file a patent?

Limited by class. There will be some sort of engineer or architect class in the game, this will be one of their unique perks.

How much does it cost?

A lot. It should be a guild or factional effort to get a patent. Looking for backers and investors will be part of the gameplay of people who want to invent things (and might be pretty fun in and of itself).

How often can it be done?

Restricted. Maybe one per week max.

What happens when one of these player-created machines breaks your game?

QP is a competitive pve game like a football game that takes 3 months to finish. It's not the end of the world if an inventor breaks the game, it will just be a feature you don't roll out to other servers.

What happens when one of these player-created machines improves your game?

It will become a game option. Perhaps an option for faction leaders to chose to enable for their kingdom (do I want a kingdom that can build siege engines or a kingdom that can build warg cavalry?). Possibly something as simple as adding the Goblin Wall Destruction Engine to the Engineer's schematic set.

Can people name these after players?

Hell yeah. I know I wouldn't fork out a million gold to finance one unless they agreed it was going to be called Stabs' Goblin Wall Destruction Machine.

The process

A player will design the suggested gameplay effect and building cost. So the Machine might take 200 Wood, 200 Iron and 50 Leather to build, be an unmanned but attackable raid accessory, be repairable on the fly by Engineers and subtract 20 from the defence of all mobs in a Tier 2 raid. I'd like them to also be able to design the look of it in some kind of editor. As a minimum some kind of concept art would be required even if it's just a photoshop of something the player Googled.

Designers have a week after it's submitted to check it balance it and ok it for production. So we might decide for this that it's not in line with the resource cost of similar machines or that 20 is too strong a debuff.

QA will be brief. The real QA consists of seeing how it performs for the rest of campaign. Forum whining will provide genuine insight into its power level much as I'm loathe to make this game yet another whine-driven MMO.

If it fits then great. Not only have you got players to do for free what most studios pay designers for you've also given people the best world ever simply because they have control over such things. Gotta love the sandbox business model :-)

Sunday 13 December 2009

MMOs: What I'm playing

Readers could be forgiven for becoming a little confused by the amount of games I'm discussing. Here's the details in priority order:

Actively playing:

Everquest 2

EQ2 is my mellow out game.

I've always loved this game but have tended to follow friends out of it. I've recently re-subscribed to it as a Station Access subscriber and am happily building a stable of lowbie crafters at the moment. EQ2 crafting while listening to podcasts and eating the occasional satsuma is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. I may shake things up a little today by listening to Tony Robinson reading Pratchett instead of No Prisoners No Mercy. Ahhh, decisions, decisions.

I'm planning to level an Inquisitor to 80 and see if I can find a raiding opportunity. Inquisitor seems reasonably in demand while being fun to play and good at soloing.

Splitpaw server seems pretty busy and I think I'll find quite a few groups while levelling up (although not as many as I would in post 3.3 WoW - hope that feature migrates across to EQ2 soon).

Eve Online

I have two accounts both paid for by buying plexes in-game. This makes Eve free for me to play in terms of money, it costs about 2 hours a week of gaming although that cost is going down. Viewed in terms of what my time is worth it's not bad and I actually enjoy the data inputting playstyle of Eve market pvp.

For now I'm not playing Eve as a social game at all, the only people I ever talk to are spam recruiters who invite everyone in Jita to join their corps. I do however have big plans once I'm done becoming a zillionaire.


This is my social game. I have joined the Van Hemlock podcast's Friday night group and played with them once which was great fun. I also have a friend who plays although he's very caught up in high level stuff at the moment. I'll hook up with him again once he's in the mood for more casual play.

It's a fantastic grouping game but now that the initial buzz has worn off I've very little interest in soloing. I pug in this game from time to time and the pugs are excellent and usually voiced.

Warhammer Online

I occasionally play the endless free trial version of this when I feel like some utterly mindless pvp. Just grab my elf and shoot orcs. It's great.

Truth be told I'm unlikely to sub. It's great fun at Tier 1, I suspect it's great fun at level 40 in Tier 4 but I also suspect it's horrible levelling from 10 up to 40.

Warhammer is a game I feel I missed the boat on. You really had to play with the horde of people right at the start to get the most out of it. After the first month it's been declining since it so desperately needs high population density for any of its parts to work. I suspect it only really functioned properly in September 2008 (and was a brilliant game for that month).

Station Access games

At some point I'll probably tourist the Station Access games. Vanguard, SWG, Planetside, Pirates of the Burning Sea are all worth a look. It's a nice scheme and I may end up continuing with it when my current deal runs out in April.

Querulous Plains

I'm very slowly designing my own game which is leading me towards modding. I'll probably play some moddable games to get the feel for them and do some modding. This is a very long term project, I just want to test some ideas in mods that I'll eventually build into a mmo in about 10 years or so when the general public can make mmos by modding. Baby steps for now.

Games I've stopped playing


Great game, loved it, had 4 good years. I don't find repetition as much fun as I used to. Daily quests - meh. Levelling another alt - I know those zones backwards. Farming easy raids - meh. It's still the game I would recommend to any non-gamer who asked me which MMO to play.

Shattered Galaxy

I've popped into this F2P Sci Fi MMORTS zergfest to pit my tanks against other people's on and off since 2003. It's a very nice game for fairly mindless violence. Warhammer Online Tier 1 is now filling the exact same niche for me though.

Star Wars: Galaxies

I played this in July and August for a while. Despite playing with 2 real life friends we never managed to effectively group: one was much higher than me one was lower. I soloed my combat character doing missions. After you do 10 missions (about an hour) you stop getting exp and have to log off for a day, bored. There's an alternative to missions called theme parks. One of these I completed and mildly enjoyed (Jabba's) one I did half of then couldn't face any more (Meatlump). This included the out and out worst quest I've ever seen in any game. You have to find 7 objects. They are in cities somewhere. They are small and tucked away so they are quite easy to miss. That's it, that's the quest. I looked it up of course but it irritated me immensely that I had to. I don't mind choosing to cheat but taking a quest that says "Hi. You're screwed. Cheat to continue." was most annoying. The last theme park involves a space escort mission above Lok and I got vaped by a huge gang of hostile spaceships. The only way we could figure out by which I could beat it would be to get someone to boost me while I lurk in their ship as a passenger. So basically another Cheat to Continue quest. Sigh.

I may have another look in a couple of months. There's so much in this game I absolutely love. Sigh.

Games I'm looking forward to playing

Star Wars: the Old Republic

I'll be going the whole hog on this one - I want to be playing on day one and all the other games will take a backseat, hopefully for several months. I'm specifically planning to buy a year's worth of Eve game time in advance of the SWTOR launch so I don't have to log into Eve to grind isk.

Darkfall Online

I've followed this game for several years but didn't buy it at launch. I was put off by rampant cheating and afk macroing.

I think they've got that under control now and they've adjusted skill gain so people who don't glue a paperweight to their Swing Sword key overnight have a chance to win now.

I have a full schedule of games though and I'm of the opinion that Darkfall will get better and better with time. I'm not in any particular rush to play but I'm glad it's out there as something very cool waiting for when I get bored of other games.

WoW: Cataclysm

I'll go back for a few months to tourist the new stuff when this comes out, SWTOR schedule permitting.

Internet economics: Stabs' Law

Stabs' Law: if what you are doing online can conceivably be done cheaper then it is inevitable that your business model will cease to exist.

Friday 11 December 2009

Querulous Plains: Backdropping

In the game I'm designing I talked recently about raids. I have thought of a feature that I think would really enhance the raids in my game, as far as I know it's an original idea. At least I haven't seen it anywhere not heard of it being done.

As readers of my previous post will know QP raiding uses a system for competitive pve. Raids are in Tiers and it's a race to the middle.

Backdropping will provide a visual clue to what other people are doing in the game.

So suppose you are in Tier 1. Tier 1 is a big zergfest drop-in raid similar to Warhammer Online's public quests. Tier 1 is set on a field in front of a castle and in the background you can see the castle walls which is where Tier 2 happens. You can't interact with the castle walls, it's just a graphical display.

If someone is actively raiding then one person will usually be assigned to carry a battle standard in any zone after Tier 1. This standard is just a big flag, it gives morale bonuses to the raid while it is active and attracts enemies. You don't have to have it up but the hit to your stats if it drops is probably enough to cause you to wipe. The person carrying it can't do anything else except keep it up, he needs to be defended by other players as the AI will try hard to kill him.

I have the idea that this will add an extra tanking element to the game's raids - you need a tank to carry it, plus tanks to intercept mobs coming for the flag carrier plus your regular boss tanks and add tanks that the encounter design would require.

In addition the flag is graphically mirrored onto the backdrops of other tiers. A graphic, similar in design to the flag, will be seen flying as long as the standard is held up and players in adjacent tiers will be able to see it fall if you wipe or lose your flag carrier.

So let's suppose my guild, The Pirates of Ick, are raiding in Tier 2, the castle walls. People in Tier 1 will see the flag that I designed when I made the guild (which is also our guild tabard). So my brave green skull and crossbones will flutter as a fairly small detail in the wall battle Tier 1 players see as part of the background to their play area.

Disaster strikes, our flag carrier goes down! Players in Tier 1 will see the flag disappear.

We rally! Another player heroically lifts the flag and we push through to kill the boss! The graphic I have in mind here is best explained by comparing it to one of those Warner Brothers cartoons where a champagne cork is popped and all sorts of colourful things fly out of the champagne bottle. However all of these little images are the proud green skull and crossbones flag of the Pirates of Ick. And this appears in the background that Tier 1 players will see while they are raiding - a glorious explosion of green pirate confetti showing the world we've won!

Thursday 10 December 2009

EQ2: Marketing - it gets worse

About the same time I was writing my piece yesterday about the confusing mess of options facing new subscribers or re-subscribers, OpenEdge was writing about another bizarre aspect of EQ2 marketing.

That's right, they are giving former players a chance to play again for free - but they're not telling them! OpenEdge's wife only heard about it through her husband's Twitter.

This whole system needs an overhaul. EQ2 is actually cheaper than people would guess. I'm still in the mindset of £35 ($50) for the box plus £10 ($15) per month sub plus a hefty fee for the numerous expansions and adventure packs. In fact UK former players can have the whole thing over the Christmas holidays for under a tenner.

However it's no good being cheap if people don't know about it. All you do is reduce income from the people who were going to play your game anyway.

Here's some areas I feel they need to address:

Conflicting schemes

It is utter madness to have your schemes trying to beat each other. This is actually how the banks worked and it caused the collapse of the financial markets.

With the banks staff were paid incentives if they made a certain number of loans. They would be paid if they gave a mortgage to Mister M. Mouse. In fact, would he like two? And some insurance with that?

I have no idea how the SOE marketing staff are incentivised but if I were trying to sort out this mess the first thing I would look at is pay - are people getting bonuses if their scheme beats the other guy's scheme? For there's no reason the complete collection should be deliberately engineered to undermine the recruit-a-friend scheme in the way I described yesterday.


It should be really easy to see how much each scheme will cost so customers can find out in 2 minutes what is best for them, not 2 hours.


Have all the schemes more or less in line with each other. You don't need very different schemes in Europe to what you offer in North America. This is the route down which DDO has been forced and if one deal is significantly better then people will sign up with the wrong deal deliberately. Why is the complete collection not available in Europe?

With the internet I can buy the complete collection in dollars from the US store anyway. So it's not as if you're really stopping people from getting it, it's just a confusing mess of several different places to look for several different deals for varying amounts of time and with varying freebies so that it's a headache to know which one is best.


Tell people how good your product is. Tell them in multiple ways. To be fair maybe they e-mailed me telling me I could have 117 free days if I upgraded, I had let my e-mail details go out of date. But no one reads most of the unsolicited e-mail they get anyway.

Put it on the Station Launcher, front page in a little window You get 117 free days if you upgrade now next to the Station Access link.

Virtual horses are worth their weight in gold

However they weigh nothing. So stop screwing raf players out of them - it doesn't cost you a thing to let people get the mounts.


EQ2 in Europe can be had for £7.99 without Shadow Odyssey or £8.99 with it. Make up your minds, either Shadow Odyssey is worth something in which case it should be sold separately and for more than £1 or it's not separately worth money by now in which case just make it standard.

I think (I'm not sure and I can't check just now) that my Station Access does not include Shadow Odyssey. It says 7/9 for EQ2 on the Station Launcher when I log in. Assuming that's not a Star Trek in joke I think it refers to my not owning all the packs. So my all singing all dancing premium most expensive sub option does not include an expansion worth £1 for the main game I want to play on it.

I have no idea now where I'd go to get hold of this for any reasonable amount so I'll just play without it for 5 months then get the new pack when my sub expires.

Now don't get me wrong - EQ2 is an awesome game that I really really like. It is just very sad to see a great product so badly marketed. Not just because games need to make money, but also because MMO games need people. I think SOE would see a lot more people in EQ2 if they improved the way they market this product.

Having said all that Splitpaw EU server seems pretty lively with lots of people looking for low level groups (as well as pug raids and higher level groups) and a number of new guilds recruiting. A number of bloggers have gone back to EQ2. Check out the comments here and here.

So don't let the business side of things let down a great game.

Afterword: I posted this and yesterday's post to the official boards but they deleted it. Hopefully it may have got sent to the right person anyway. For what it's worth it was honestly meant as constructive criticism.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

EQ2: Payment options

The payment options for EQ2 are confusing. So confusing in fact that Sony themselves seem to have become confused by them - the latest complete collection deal conflicts with their recruit a friend scheme.

These are the options:

1) Make a fresh trial then buy the Complete Collection. When you add the collection key to your trial account you get 60 free days minus however much time you've already used on your trial. The collection gives the basic game plus all expansions and adventure packs plus 60 days.

Now the Complete Collection can only be used on a trial or fresh account, you can't update your current sub and get 60 free days. Nor can you upgrade an old account with this offer.

It costs $19.99 through the online store.

2) instead of that you could trial the game then make a completely new account when you buy your Complete Collection. This will give you 14 days of free trial plus your full 60 days. The drawback is that what you've achieved in your trial will be wasted, still for people who just like to potter about exploring and aren't in a hurry to get to 80 that's a better deal than 1).

One big advantage of doing it this way - there has been a lot of cases of trial accounts not getting credited with the free 60 days when they upgrade. Starting with the complete collection should mean that you don't face that. (It only takes a message to Customer Support to get fixed but still it's hassle).

3) Buy the new Expansion which comes out in February. This will come bundled with all the previous expansions and packs plus some free game-time. This would be cheaper than buying the game now and then buying the Expansion in February but probably more expensive than buying the game now and not buying the new Expansion. It seems the new stuff is only for level 80+ so I'm not sure I'll need it. They may make people buy it anyway of course, need it or not.

4) Recruit-a-friend. This has been a source of much confusion on the EQ2 Trial Players Boards. If you read the offer very carefully you will find that your friend only gets his/her rewards if you pay for your sub within 30 days and of course if you get the Complete Collection with 60 free days you won't be paying for a sub. Clever get-out eh?

They specifically don't let you credit your account with 60 days then pay for a sub to qualify for raf - it's either or. (Yes, you read that right - they'd rather keep hold of their virtual horses than accept your money).

Frankly they've been too clever for their own good. What this means is that anyone using the recruit-a-friend scheme is going to expect a free mount and some other goodies when their friend subscribes. In fact they won't receive these if the friend has any sense because the friend will instead buy the complete collection with 60 free days, a much better deal.

While some players will handle the disappointment with equanimity a lot of people will fall out over this. For the veteran you lose out on a cool mount and your perks because your mate has decided to be a cheapskate. For the new player your friend never told you about a better deal simply because he wanted a free mount - what a scam-artist!

In an industry where success rests on friend connections and word of mouth more than anything forcing friend to screw over friend as an introduction to your game is daft beyond belief.

5) Activate an ancient account. I don't think I've played my original EQ2 account since March 2005. I have played EQ2 since but I made another account because I've forgotten the original account name. If I could persuade Sony Customer Service to disgorge the information I'd be eligible for some veteran rewards

To be honest though there's nothing that really interests me. I'm not a great enthusiast for cosmetic or decorative junk (particularly in a game that has such an abundance of it), I'm not very enthusiastic for exp potions as I like levelling more than end-game and I don't need discount on the broker (Eve is my financial game).

Subbing this way would cost me £7.99 for the Shadow Odyssey Bundle (5 expansion packs + 30 days game time) or £6.99 for the Basic Everquest 2 bundle (4 expansion packs + 30 days game time).

6) Station Access Pass. This is a scheme that allows you access to all of Sony's MMOs for a monthly fee.

Apart from EQ2 there's EQ1, Star Wars: Galaxies, Pirates of the Burning Seas, Free Realms, Planetside and Vanguard.

For me I already have a sub to SWG and possibly on the basis of that it's offering me free days. (Edit: confirmed, the 117 days are from having a SWG sub active). It costs £18.99 for a month and if I pay for one month I'll get 117 free extra days.


For me, much to my surprise, the cheapest way to play EQ2 is to get the Station Access which gives me all of their games for about 5 months. This is due to a very large amount of free bonus days I'm getting either because it's an old account or because I subbed to SWG this summer for a year in a rather foolish fit of nostalgia.

Note: this is a somewhat simplified version as I didn't analyse in any depths the varying amounts of Station Cash and veteran rewards attached to the various offers. (mainly because I don't particularly care about that stuff).

Afterword: I opted for the Station Pass in the end, the only option that carries over my SWG sub to EQ2.

Saturday 5 December 2009

EQ2: Fresh features

Alternative advancement slider

I downloaded the EQ2 trial yesterday and discovered that they have addressed the issue of people who like to level slowly in a rather creative way.

In your alternate advancement window there is now a slider bar:

Amount of adventure experience to convert to alternate enhancement experience

I set it to 75% and carried on playing. My character is now level 11.44 with 7.25 points worth of AA progression.

For people who haven't played EQ2 recently alternate advancement is like a talent point system that you level up separately. It's based on advancement experience which is earned in a different way from regular adventure experience with more of an emphasis on rewarding exploring.

It starts at level 10 so with 75% of my adventure experience going towards it I've earned 7 and a bit levels of AA progression and one and a half levels of adventuring levels since the system became active.

Now what's so nice for me as a slow leveller is that not only can I set my levelling speed to slow but the game is rewarding me for doing so. Having these extra AA points makes me a more powerful character for my level than I would be had I not touched the slider bar.

So I can explore several different 11-20 areas and progress without my quests and AA objectives turning grey and ceasing to reward me.

The ingenious thing about the system is it doesn't stop people powering to max level. If you never touch the slider bar you will hit max level in the usual way then experience after max level will be converted to AA (in other words you'll collect these quasi talents as if you set the bar to 100%).

Not only does it suit slow leveller explorer types but it also helps keep people who want to play together at the same stage. I was recently playing DDO with a friend but I couldn't keep up with him and he got further and further ahead until we could no longer operate together without penalty. With this system he could still progress his character while not out-levelling me.

Achievements notification

I don't remember EQ2 having achievements last time I played but it may have been there. What is new however is you get pop-ups now telling you you've completed an achievement.

They aren't as ubiquitous as they are in WoW, I think I've completed about 4 or 5 so far.

The pop-up looks really elegant and combined with the fact you don't get spammed with them I found it a much less overpowering system than the WoW one.

Revised racial abilities

They've re-done the racials.

Most notably there are no longer the same amount of racial choices as a max level character gets picks. So more choice and you don't have to grab all of them as you max your character out including completely useless ones.

They seem a bit less powerful than I remember. I've only seen the Sarnak ones and they were pretty strong before. No more dragon breath at level 10.

So it's a flatter curve, less oh my god that's utterly broken abilities and less meh I suppose I may as well take it even if it's useless to me choices.


Last time I downloaded EQ2 it took all night, I think about 15 hours or something. This time it took about 40 minutes.

The difference is that I haven't downloaded the entire client. There's a little dinosaur now who pops up from time to time in the corner of the screen and starts walking. That means you're downloading a little bit of the client.

Generally these systems slow your game down when they stream but so far I've noticed very little of that. The dinosaurs appears and does his little walk but you can play on as normal.

It's noticeably smoother than the DDO streamed client and the Warhammer Online stream client.

Item shop

You start with 300 points worth of cash. I don't remember getting any free last time I played.

This is similar to DDO and is certainly a good idea. One of the key elements to cash shops is to get people to begin spending.

I'll probably buy an experience potion if I can, haven't figured it out yet.


I can /claim an absolute ton of rewards. Most of them are decorative but there's a few exp potions (the principle being it's good to give prospective customers free crack), a pretty powerful looking ring for level 29, a +25% move speed cloak and a 12 slot bag.

This was on a new account. I believe that if you activate an older account it will give you a lot more stuff. However my older account is not eligible for the 14 day trial, I think you can only do that once ever.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Querulous Plains: raiding

Querulous Plains is somewhere between a virtual world I'm designing and a home for all my off-the-wall armchair design ideas.

I'd like to describe how I see raiding working in this world.

Competitive PvE.

In football most fans like to see their team's hard man kick someone in the shins while making it look like he was trying to get the ball. And they love to the 12 year old come on at half time and bounce the ball two hundred times without letting it drop.

But what they pay for, what they cheer for, what keeps them coming back year after year is the struggle to score goals at one end and prevent them going in at the other.

In MMOs we've seen shin-kicking presented as the end-game. 0,0 in Eve, a mean area of skilled veterans, mercilessly killing any trespassers. We've seen arenas and battlegrounds adopted by a minority of WoW players. We've seen Conan, Warhammer and Aion launch with the aim of providing end-game pvp of depth.

We've also seen ball-bouncing presented as the end-game. Zone into your own private sub-area with some of your friends and kill a boss monster in privacy. It can be intense and challenging. Yet it's private, what you do in there really isn't terribly interesting to anyone who isn't in there with you.

What we haven't seen much of is competitive PvE.

The nearest we've come to it is Everquest's world raid boss spawns. They were a pretty horrible mechanic. At some point during a week a boss would spawn and uber guilds would frantically telephone people telling them to drop everything and rush to their computers. The first guild to get their team together could take a crack at it. The rest had just rushed there for nothing. Better luck next week.

That's horrible in many ways, mainly the need to organise your life around your hobby and the no second prizes element of people who don't come first not even getting to play.

Visualise a raiding system where killing a boss is one small step you take in a military campaign, a campaign in which you are striving to out-perform your rival factions.

Your raid content is always there. No one can tag it so you can't have a go.

Your raid content is interesting to other people. Killing a boss is scoring a goal for your faction. Your friends smile, your enemies groan.

In Querulous Plains there will be 4 levels of raid content at launch. Raid content may be visualised as a large castle with the first raid taking place on an area of level ground in front of the castle.

- The Field, entry raid, an endless stream of monsters which need coordinated large groups to beat. Group size is unlimited and monsters can be crowd controlled or tanked which means for this content everyone is welcome. A clueless newbie is one more rifle whittling down the bad guys. Kills here score a modest amount of points for your side.

-at the end of the first month the faction who is leading on points is declared the winner. Recruitment to that faction is closed, new players can only roll on one of the two losing factions or on a different server.

- The Walls. The faction that won the first month has breached the walls. They can now attempt tougher boss monsters that spawn on castle walls giving them a terrain advantage. They will still see some packs of entry level monsters but less than they saw in the previous month and less than the two other factions are seeing. They will only have a slim chance to win Month 2 because the tough bosses only award slightly more points and are considerably harder to kill. This month should see the other factions catch up but not necessarily.

- in each month after one faction will be promoted by one level of raid. So perhaps one of the other factions farming the Field will breach the Walls. Or the faction that raided the Walls could breach the Bastion. Only factions that are behind other factions are open to new players.

- The Bastion. An area of tough raid bosses. In addition raid bosses on the Walls and in the Field will occasionally spawn during raid attempts and need to be held away (creating a second min-raid). Essentially you will need to raid with a second raid force in reserve ready to peel off and engage add raid bosses. It is harder to earn points when in this mode than in earlier modes which will allow the losing sides a chance to  catch up.

- The Inner Keep. The final raid. Adds from outer zones are a significant hazard and the bosses here are exceptionally tough. Points alone are not enough to win, you must defeat the Four Nemeses to claim victory.

- Victory. If a faction wins the server is effectively closed down. There is a day allowed for people to log on, celebrate and enjoy (or endure) scenes of the losing sides' towns and cities burning. PvP is globally enabled so players can victimise their foes or put up heroic pockets of resistance.

Winners are allowed to create a new character on any server. This new character will get Son of [original character] or Daughter of [original character] after their name. This can grow over time so someone with 5 straight wins would be Great-Great-Great Grandson of [original character].

Losers have to re-subscribe (pay again). Just like any other new player they can join the game and attempt to win. Possibly this may be the main revenue source of the game. In other words if you win all the time you play for free, losers and new players finance the business.

Crafting is a key element to success. Weapons break in this system as does armour. End game raiding particularly as you get towards the Inner Keep is brutal on a factions supplies. Players will have to work hard to produce enough weapons and armour to sustain raiding. It is certainly possible that raids could falter because they don't have enough equipment.

Raids rewards victors with crafting inserts. These inserts when used in a craft will produce better items than normal. Using these items effectively is a key part of winning the game.

In general players are fairly even in power. The difference between a new character with starter gear and a veteran with mastercrafted dragonbone loot is not huge. It's not a system when getting a new weapon doubles your dps output.

In conclusion there is a market out there for players who want to beat other people by killing dragons, not by ganking them and teabagging them. There is a demand for games where people can drop in casually for 20 minutes and be useful but where hardcore players are still fantastically valuable. And this game would provide a very different raid experience that people would love to play.

After all we all love to win!

Thursday 26 November 2009

MMOs: Incentivising raids

I'm planning a series of posts looking at players' motives for wanting to raid.

Clearly the first thing that springs to mind is loot. But loot is a snake eating its own tail, the more you spoil players with Amazing Awesomeblades of Awesomeness the harder they become to impress.

I remember when epic armour was literally a traffic stopper in World Of Warcraft. Players used to stop running wherever they were running to and just stop and admire the armour or weapon. "/t Uberman hi, where did you get that sword pls?"

Moving on from that design let's look around. In Eve the top content includes very hard PVE such as soloing level 5 missions, wormhole exploration and hunting officer plexes in 0,0 space but the pervasive end game is PVP. Even those PVE activities are made daunting by the fact they take place in low sec or null sec so you're at risk of being ganked while PVEing. There are extreme solo challenges (and extremely competent soloers/small gangs) but the closest to raid type content has to be the battle for null sec space.

So how is that incentivised?

Well it is incredibly lucrative to hold good areas of null sec. The system is soon to be revamped but at the moment null sec gives you both passive income from moon mining and excellent PVE spawns for players you allow to operate in your systems.

But a huge part of the motivation is loyalty to your team and disdain for the other team. This is a much bigger factor than loot. It's a PVP game and players want their team to beat the enemy team.

In DDO raiding seems to be much more for a sense of accomplishment than for loot. It has many different dynamics than WoW raiding. Smaller raids mean that there isn't quite such a jump from group content to raid content. Going from 6 to 12 is nothing like going from 5 to 25. Small sizes mean less tolerance for incompetent players (which is both a good thing and a bad thing). DDO's relatively horizontal progression and difficulty settings (solo/normal/hard/elite and a new one just being introduced: epic) mean that a good raid leader can tailor the challenge to suit his group much more than in WoW.

The small community seems to really change the motivations. If there are 50 people at your level of ability on the server screwing up means more than just missing out on a drop.

So here are three elements of raid incentives to think about:
1) Loot
2) Clan building
3) Peer approval

I'm inviting comments on how raids can be designed to keep people interested and having fun in other ways than just the simple loot mudflation system. I'm not saying don't consider loot in your scheme but please do comment if you think you can see how an interesting raid system could be built in a MMO game.

Monday 23 November 2009

DDO: Designing a Dungeon Builder

"DDO Executive Producer - If we could do anything today with no limitations, I would love to add Dungeon Master tools to the game to empower our players to create new quests and areas of the game. It is a natural fit for Dungeons & Dragons and it would really unleash the creativity of our player community to get to expand the world and make it their own. In the long term, I envision opening up huge parts of our world of Eberron and filling it up with the best examples of the player-created content."

Lifting this quotation from Jacoby's excellent thread on the Beckett Massive Online article I'd like to ask folks  what we would like to see in a Dungeon Builder, a toolset that lets players create content.

(Disclaimer: this was mentioned by Fernando as a personal pipedream, it is not a feature the community has been "promised".)

First of all I'd like to look at player-created content in a wider MMO perspective.

One of the most notable successes in this department has been World Of Warcraft's use of its player base to make customisations to its User Interface. Thousands of unpaid programmers have produced tens of thousands of downloadable add-ons hosted at fan sites and tested by fans.

This is wonderful for the game developer because of the Darwinian sink or swim nature of the process. Some addons bomb or just don't work. But many are highly popular and are perceived by almost every player to be an improvement over the default UI. And some of these get incorporated by the developers into the game, improving the UI at zero cost and risk.

Even if Blizzard had hired a crack team of highly paid celebrity developers they could not have got better UI development out of them because the community selects and follows the best addons itself. If you launch something it may sink or swim, this system allows Blizzard to incorporate features which are already proven successes with no risk of failure.

Eve Online has a similar program of player UI coding and also involves players in game design direction with its Council of Stellar Management which is kind of like a Student's Union. No actual power but a very effective method of channeling feedback.

Now generally player-designed dungeons haven't worked in MMOs so far (I'm told Anarchy Online has a decent mission creator but I don't know enough about it to do any more than pass on the rumour).

City of Heroes/Villains tried earlier this year. The Mission Architect was extremely popular and some cancelled subscribers started playing again.

One of the first missions was called Meow and spawned a sub-genre of missions known in the game as meow missions. Basically they put a load of high exp low hit point mobs in a cluster at the start of the mission and players would zone in, blast them all down with area of effect damage, then zone out and reset. People got to very high levels super-fast doing these. The game developer reacted by mass bannings, the community was outraged and it all ended in tears.

Which brings us to the first design consideration - Achiever players will design and play exploit dungeons if the system allows for it.

(My personal suggestion would be that player-created content is uploaded at first with no rewards. No exp, no favour, no loot. Each month the developers will pick one from the player-created dungeons to win 5000 Turbine Points and be incorporated into the game).

Next I'd like to talk about Second Life. Second Life encourages player creation, in fact it isn't a standard game, it's a really just a vehicle for player-created content. To encourage this they give players copyright over their own creations. This recently resulted in a mess where a player sued the developer over a matter related to his Intellectual Property rights which were being ripped off by other players.

Legally that may create the headache where a MMO with different EULA treatment of intellectual property may create legal precedents that make it difficult to encourage player-created content in DDO. Of course any lawyer worth his salt should be able to distinguish between a case where the company assigns copyright to its players and a case where a company requires players to waive IP rights but still. This is probably something that should specifically pop up in the Dungeon Builder every time you open it so players can't possibly claim they couldn't be expected to know they were waiving their rights.

Next design consideration: ownership of the copyright. (I think WoW has shown that it's ok to tell everyone feel free to create but we still own it. People will still make stuff and no one has tried to sue Blizzard over add-on copyright).

Other design considerations
- pvp dungeons. capture the flag maps, king of the hill maps and so on. PvP functionality would be very popular I think.

- environment: tileset or design? Should the Dungeon Builder basically use a tileset like Waterworks so every dungeon is a series of sewer tunnels which lets things stay manageable or can the software and the game support more free-form design?

- who can make them? all of the player base? VIP only? (Personally, even as a non-VIP I'd suggest VIP only. This is an advanced feature that would benefit greatly from extensive DDO experience).

- lore considerations. What if a player creates a dungeon where you kill Jeets? Should there be some kind of restriction, possibly use the DDO NPC names database as a block list of unavailable names for quest NPCs and mobs. What if a player creates a dungeon where the purpose is to kill a mob named for another player? If someone made a Kill Mockduck dungeon where the end boss was a large and sinister duck with terrifying oratorical skills would that be funny or griefing?

- obscenity issues. If someone can conceivably draw a penis with the dungeon editor you can guarantee they will. How do we stop players using obscene text and imagery? Or does it even matter, after all we can't stop people being obscene if they choose to in chat channels, maybe this is no worse.

Anyway there's a lot to think about and hopefully we can put together a thread that may have some usefulness to the developers if they get a chance to pursue this dream.

Player-created content would be awesome!

Thursday 19 November 2009

WoW: Random thoughts on 3.3

Details of the Icecrown Citadel raid in patch 3.3 have been released. Some random thoughts

- it sounds awfully like Naxx in structure. 4 quarters, 3-4 bosses each. That's probably a good thing but I'm just wondering, if the architecture is basically similar, if sometimes you'll be raiding and you have to stop and ask which raid you're doing. Still it's sound as a concept and I much prefer the 4 quarters style of Naxx to the linear approach of Molten Core.

- it seems good lore-driven content again after the rather dubious (lore-wise) offerings they've given us in 3.2. I think it's helpful and immersive to feel like you're fighting a heroic nemesis as opposed to farming a recycled 2005 mob.

- staggering the release doesn't surprise me at all. I've noticed for some time that the 3 patches of wotlk don't actually fit the development cycle. If there's approx 18 months between expansions we should get one every 6 months. In fact we got 2 in the first 6 months. Unless they decide to do a 4th content patch they have to spin out 3.3 until Cataclysm is just about ready.

- every method of slowing players down has been hated by players. This cap on attempts on the end bosses is the latest in a long line of stalling methods which include fire resistance gear, reputation grinds, attunements, raid comp problems (eg 4 horsemen in Naxx 40 needing 8 tanks). While people don't like this one almost all of the other methods were even more hated.

They don't want you to finish the game. They certainly don't want you to finish 3.3 in December when Cataclysm still needs another 9-10 months.

- I actually like the incremental buff more than what it replaces (wholesale raid nerfing). The dumbing down of raids in patches has always been immensely unpopular and there's been a feeling among hardcore players that Blizzard has sold out to the casuals every time. At least they're stating up front that the casuals will be getting access over time. It's actually a far more honest approach.

- the zone wide buff will make farming and soloing in the Icecrown zone very effective.

- opting out of the buff is not in fact a gameplay feature. It is a Forum Wars feature disguised as a gameplay feature. If anyone complains about content being dumbed down forum warriors can say "just click the buff off dude" and shut them up.

If anyone actually does click the buff off in game they will be faced with the following conversation:

Guild Leader: why do you die all the time and do half the dps of anyone else even when not dead?
Gaming Purist: I clicked the buff off man, gaming should be a challenge.
Guild Leader: Good luck with your search for a new guild then, bye!

I still won't be re-installing WoW before the next expansion but I certainly plan to tourist this place once I get Cataclysm.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Blogging: dummies' guide anyone?

There's a few things I'm not happy about with my blog. I'd like to learn more about page design. My blogroll doesn't update fast enough. Commentors have copy paste issues if I forget to click back to Edit HTML from Compose mode after I post. I have no automatic flagging of new comments, so if someone comments on an old post I won't see it except by luck. Etc.

What I'd like to do is read through a good beginner's site or book.

Does anyone have any recommendations?

Sunday 15 November 2009

DDO: My first raid

I've been a little quiet the last few days. The reason is some RL friends started DDO and I've made a character or four on the new DDO server to play with them and have been playing my little socks off. My main character is a Bard called Lemmy who has reached the giddy heights of level 9 already.

Yesterday after doing a couple of runs with a very experienced player from our new guild he suggested doing a raid. In a "try anything once" spirit we agreed although not without a certain amount of trepidation. I was only level 8 at the time, I'm still very much a newbie, my friend is even newer and we would be doing it in a random pickup group.

The raid we did is free-to-play content called Tempest Spine. There are a number of traps but we made do without a Rogue since there didn't seem to be one around. Our raid leader did stipulate 2 healers and one of the wizards claimed that wizards are important but otherwise we didn't seem bothered by what class anyone was.

We found 12 people fairly quickly and everyone ran to the instance with some alacrity. It felt like people were keen.

We zoned in to a volcanic wasteland with rivers of lava crossing the landscape in every direction. Dotted here and there were fire elementals, which are generally pretty dangerous in this game. We buffed everyone with Resist Fire, cast Haste, and then rushed like lemmings through this outdoor section to the safety (sic) of the giant stronghold we had come to assault.

We had set the difficulty to Normal and mobs seemed fairly underpowered as long as we could bring our full force to bear. They still hit pretty hard though and anyone who got too far ahead of the group was left as a sticky mess on the floor. Traps were lethal, getting hit by one was pretty much an insta-kill.

The general feel was of comedy, a slight Benny Hill madness to the gameplay. This was partly caused by the stop-start nature of the Haste spell. Periodically we would all gather up and wait for something but if someone cast Haste which is the most sought-after buff and doesn't last long people would charge off so as not to waste it.

I was one of the people who could cast Haste and it was great fun dropping it on the group like giving a wind-up clockwork toy a nudge and seeing it frantically rush to the edge of the table like a mechanical lemming.

The group was extraordinarily good-natured with people passing off dying with a laugh. There were some very funny deaths over the course of the evening.

At one point someone said trap and we stopped just in front of the trap. Now in any large crowd there's always someone who hates to be stuck at the back unable to see what's happening. So there we were stopped just in front of the trap and someone shuffles forward to get a better view and Wham! He's a stone in someone's backpack.

We had a genuine Leeroy moment where we stopped before the last boss to sort out which player would hold the three runes we needed for the fight. It turned out we had only picked up two of them, having forgotten one downstairs. One of our tanks, deciding that his haste buff was ticking down at an alarming rate and having turned Voice off jumped through the portal of death to confront the last boss. My inner lemming urged me forward and I took a few steps towards the portal but suddenly thought "hang on!" I looked around and no one else was going in. "Ah!" I thought. At this point our heroic soloist died and someone asked if he had gone in. Much merriment and shouts of "Leeroy!" ensued.

The last boss was hilarious. He seems to be modelled on that childhood game Atishyou, atishyou, we all fall down. He blows people all over the place and fights on a smallish platform surrounded by a very long drop. He always seemed to aggro on someone who would run around in panic so the random knockbacks were chaos incarnate. After getting blown off the first time I actually managed to keep my back to a wall for most of the next two attempts. I still got blown to a wall overlooking the fight but I was able to jump down and pass it off as though I'd meant it like some complex Jacky Chan-style manoeuvre. It does feel a bit like being a dandelion seed.

Despite various calamities, the rune we forgot took best part of 30 minutes to recover, my healer friend released out when he died once then had to run solo through the raid to find us, we did the raid once on Normal, twice on Hard and had an absolute blast.

Some tips for new people:

1) Stick with the group. Stick like glue. It's a very confusing layout for new people.

2) Try to learn the layout.

3) Don't jump when you're running across lava. You take damage every time you enter the lava. Bunny hoppers will be melted!

4) If your group is not disarming the traps you need to time your leaps across them well.

5) Don't get ahead of the group when charging into packs of monsters. If there's a Firewall stand in it and let them come to you (in fact try to block chokepoints as the monsters will try to get at the Wizards behind you).

6) One room consists of a fairly tough fight then a sudden wave of very quick rust monster adds. Do not melee them with your precious Shiny Axe of Leetitude! It's a very evil encounter!

7) Try to keep your back to a wall for the last boss. Even if melee move to a place where if you get blown away from the boss you will hit a wall not a 200 foot drop.

8) Gather for buffs.

9) Haste does not always mean Go!

Good luck and I hope you have as much fun as we did!

Monday 9 November 2009

Games: Let my gamers be free

Today a number of blogs are trying to raise money for charity. This initiative, MBACD, has been organised by Ferrel of Epic Slant and Brian "Psychochild" Green of Psychochild's blog has hosted our mailing list. Thanks a lot to them both.

The charity I have chosen is Amnesty International.

To donate money follow this link:
Amnesty International Donate Now page

This charity fights for human rights. Whether it is civil liberties in a more progressed nation or a campaign to stop torture and political executions in repressive regimes.

They have fought campaigns in just about every nation in the world because the struggle for liberty needs to be constantly fought in every country.

It was with immense sadness that I read of the fight for freedom to play video games in Venezuela. Raph Koster reported this news and the original piece, written for Boing Boing is heart-rending.

Here are some excerpts from this shocking and appalling piece but please do follow the link and read the whole of Guido Núñez-Mujica's article.

This law makes selling video games to anybody actually worse than giving real guns or cigarettes to a minor, or even forcing him or her to work, as you get less jail time and lower fines if you do any of those things. 

These games are a cherished part of my life, they helped to shape my young mind, they gave me challenges and vastly improved my English, opening the door to a whole new world of literature, music and people from all around the world. What I have achieved, all my research, how I have been able to travel even though I'm always broke, the hard work I've done to convince people to fund a start up for cheap biotech for developing countries and regular folks, none of that would have been possible hadn't I learned English through video games.

Now, thanks to the tiny horizons of the cast of morons who govern me, thanks to the stupidity and ham-fisted authoritarianism of the local authorities, so beloved of so many liberals, my 7 year old brother's chances to do the same could be greatly impacted.

But I won't obey, I will be an outlaw gamer, and I vow to teach him as much as I can and as much as he is willing to learn, as early as possible. I refuse to give up my rights to a government that is commanded by Vuitton clad jerks asking sacrifices from us, I refuse to stop gaming because a bunch of control freaks tell me that I will become a killer and that the wonderful games that enriched my childhood are psycho factories.

If I get fined for writing this (Article 13, promoting the use of violent videogames), so be it. If I go to jail because I carry rooms in my hard drive or in an R4 card for my brother, next time I return to the country, so be it. But I'd rather go to jail than betray the gamer culture, partially responsible for making me the person I am today

Again the link to donate money to Amnesty International is

Amnesty International Donate Now page

It breaks my heart that we gamers need them now simply to play our games.

Do have a look at the other bloggers participating in the charity drive:

Ysharros - Stylish Corpse -
Spinks - Spinksville -
Psychochild - Psychochild's Blog -
Slurms - Multiplaying -
Ferrel - Epic Slant -

MMOs: The use of subscriber numbers as a statistic

Frank at Overly Positive has written a rather scathing post about The Silly Subscriber Number Worship.
Aiiane at Up Past Midnight also feels too much weight is given to subscriber numbers. Syncaine crows about Aion struggling while explaining how in his view subscriber numbers mould the games that get produced.

I think subscriber numbers are a reasonable indication of a good game.

Of course there are niches and one has to respect that a full loot pvp game or a permadeath mode only game are unlikely to get high numbers since they appeal to a small subset of the gaming public.

Still I think in general that the audience is discerning and good at filtering out what it likes from what it doesn't like.

The McDonalds analogy is flawed. There are genuine medical reasons why living on McDonalds food is bad; there are environmentalist issues arising from the company's ranching practices in the Amazon Basin, there are aesthetic issues regarding the look of high streets and there are social justice issues around low pay. So many people dislike McDonalds for reasons that aren't related to the product.

Subscriber numbers point to WoW being a better game than Warhammer, once seen as a potential "WoW-killer". Looking more specifically at that subset of the WoW-playing population who cancelled their WoW subs and bought Warhammer one sees that the majority went back to WoW. These are people capable of making choices about what they like. To assume they are all sheep or stupid or tourists is to denigrate them.

One can further analyse the game mechanics to see specific reasons why WAR failed to retain high numbers of players. It's a mass pvp game and didn't function very well. Keeps were takeable using weak points. RvR generally does not work well with two realms. You get the everyone joins the winning side bandwagon effect.

Next just as the presence of an observer distorts an experiment the mass of subscribers or lack of subscribers distorts the numbers. Most people want to play a game with tons of other people. It's sensible - why grind to level 80 in a game which only has 10k players and thus might get closed down by the time you max out?

My main caveat is that companies distort their numbers. WoW for instance counts every unopened gamecard they've ever sold as a "current subscriber" and counts people who pay 5 cents to play an hour in a Chinese cybercafe once as "current subscribers".

In any event now that WoW has lost the rights to operate in China it's unlikely we will ever see WoW numbers released voluntarily again. (People may be able to deduce numbers from company financial information they are legally required to submit). Most people think WoW has 11 million subscribers, in fact they may well have less that a million active subscriptions.

Some marketing people even scroll through all their available stats before dredging up some number that sounds good. Champions Online recently announced one million characters have been made in the character creator. What the hell does that have to do with anything? They may have ten thousand players. Or less. By all accounts the character creator is the best thing about the game so it's hardly surprising people are playing with it.

What's even more astonishing is that a number of bloggers and games journalists have divided it by four to suggest that Champions Online has 250K subscribers. Huh? Sorry guys if you take a figure that means nothing and divide it by four you still have a figure that means nothing, not a point of information.

It seems to me that if the only stat you care to reveal about your new game is something completely out of left field like people playing with the character generator your real stats must be shockingly bad. If CO actually had 250K subscribers they would be telling everyone. It's like claiming your game is a success because the /dance emote has been used a million times.

In conclusion once one gets past the deceptive methods generally behind any figure you get a ball park idea of which games are doing well. A game that is doing well is generally doing well because people enjoy playing it which may be a sign that you too would enjoy playing it if it's your style of game. Further a game with good numbers is protected from some of the calamities that strike games that are financially challenged: lack of extra new content, failure of game elements that require massive participation to work, lack of people to group with and so on.

Sunday 8 November 2009

WoW: some thoughts on game economics

The launch of the World of Warcraft item store with two minipets available has provoked a lot of discussion on various blogs.

I'd like to look at the bigger picture because some of the views I've seen seem misinformed or (frankly) naive.

Opinion has generally split into two camps whose beliefs are as follows:

Either: Blizzard owes us, man, they'd be nothing without us loyal customers, charging us money is biting the hand that feeds them

Or: Get real, they're a business run by android accountants, $0.001 more per head is the only thing they look at.

Both have a grain of truth but distort that element to get a position that is nonsensical.

First the "Blizzard owes us" viewpoint. Yes, customers make the company profitable and the company recognises this not only with respect to those of us who have contributed money in the past but also looking ahead to people who will continue to regularly buy their games in the future.

It goes to quite sophisticated lengths to keep people happy while increasing revenue. For example the controversial petshop is mitigated by the announcement that half of the proceeds for one of the pets will go to charity. This costs them money but increases goodwill. Blizzard clearly feel that goodwill is crucial to their business and that it's worth several thousand dollars. It's not all about wringing the last cent out of their customers, they clearly want to be liked despite raising the cost of the game for those people who don't want to miss out on a cool WoW feature.

Next, the blaming the accountants viewpoint. First off accountants generally don't run companies. Also they are people too and probably a high percentage of the accountants who work for games companies are games fans too (otherwise they'd be working in better paid accountancy roles in other industries, for example the financial sector). Next not all accountants are pencil-counting morons who will run profitable businesses into the ground by grubbing every cent they can at the price of customer good will. Just because their job is counting the cents does not mean they are devoid of common sense or any recognition of the other elements that make a business profitable.

By and large Blizzard has handled this introduction of an item store well.

They let their competitors go first. SOE introduced an item store to EQ2 amidst storms of protest a couple of years ago and then went further and introduced special RMT gold-buying servers. Eve has its plex system. Champions Online recently tested whether respecs would be a viable shop item and got a pretty resounding No from its player base. This is generally not an area where pushing the boundaries is rewarded.

They tested the waters with veiled item store like offers. You could get in-game items with the collectible card game, with the collectors' edition, with blizzcon tickets. This has been amazingly effective camouflage for a fundamental change in charging policy. People who have recently been upset by the item store pets get responses of "spectral tiger dude, it's been in the game for years". But it is different to have an in-game item shop. So it's very clever of them to muddy the waters.

They're giving 50% to charity! Or wait actually they're not. They're giving 50% of one of the two pets so about 25% to charity and only for slightly under 2 months. Plus their accountants will claim back a lot of tax (that's what accountants actually do btw for those out there who still think their job description is to destroy games companies and make fans cry). Still people in general are terrible with numbers and 50% sounds like a lot even though the net cost to Blizzard will almost certainly be under 1% of what the cash store takes in over its lifetime in WoW.

However the main thing is the pets are nice, gorgeous even, they aren't game-breaking or even capable of any gameplay impact if you don't have them (except for achievement completion and arguably achievements are fluff anyway) and the fans I'm sure will love them and buy them in great numbers.

They've made two mistakes though.

First, they've screwed the non-Americans.

Gordon of We Fly Spitfires explains it here.

It's astounding considering how careful they've been in so many regards of the goodwill of their fans that they screwed half of their premium price fanbase. Essentially they've ignored the real exchange rate and gone with an exchange rate of $1 = 1 euro and a rate close to $1 = £1.

People have suggested that it is reasonable because the dollar is weak. This is nonsense. Back before the Euro Europe had several terribly weak currencies like the Italian Lira and the Turkish currency and those countries were over-charged just as much as the rest of us.

Exchange rate is not value.

People have suggested it's a cultural thing, like Coca Cola being cheap in the US and expensive in Europe. I don't buy this because I think virtual game fluff is too young a commodity to have this kind of cultural identity.

I think rather that they decided to have a comparitively cheap price point in the US to keep their more vocal fans calm and are comfortable with a more expensive overseas price point which collects more revenue out of foreign fans.

Remember what I said about goodwill above? Goodwill is very important to Blizzard, they will get a lot of future sales simply because "it's a Blizzard game". For Blizzard a big part of goodwill is US goodwill. The US players are the people Blizzard developers meet at conventions, they are the people who post on the WoW forums that Blizzard developers read (a summary of the Euro WoW forums is compiled weekly and sent but that's obviously a much lower impact) and I think Americans in general are more expressive and quick to vocalise complaints than we Europeans who are descended from stock that decided to meekly submit to authority rather than brave the frontier life hundreds of years ago.

This is what I think of the price points: $10 is too cheap from a bean-counting point of view. Sale volumes would be almost identical if they charged US customers $20. £10 or 10 Euros is probably about right for Europeans - if they pushed it any higher I think sales would fall off sharply.

But the big advantage of making it cheap to Americans is that their most vocal, closest and most important fanbase can accept this change comfortably.

That's what I think they are doing.

The reason I think it's a mistake is that they are causing a big backlash of goodwill loss this side of the pond in exchange for a small amount of extra revenue.

Had they charged us £7/7 euros people would not have had any issue other than general discontent about being triple-dipped (ie we've bought the box, we've paid the subs and now we're getting microtransactions too? Meh).

But they're adding insult to injury by over-charging us. Because we're passive. Schmucks. Too spineless to object. After all, we're descended from the timid ones too scared to get on ships like the Mayflower, right?

Now that's not worth three quid. We're actually not spineless even though we generally don't complain. Unlike Americans who as a people will generally complain about something for a long time before ditching it, we tend to stifle our complaints for a limited time then say "stuff this" and leave. We are much less likely to complain but we are much more likely to up and leave.

For me Blizzard has been off my "must buy their game the day it comes out list" since November 2004. That was the month WoW did not launch in Europe. It eventually limped over the Atlantic three months late.

Treating customers differently is a fundamental cause of loss of goodwill. Treating customers unfairly for three lousy quid is just bad business.

The next mistake I think Blizzard has made with this making the pets transferrable. This makes them similar in some ways to plexes in Eve and diamonds in Runes of Magic in that people can spend dollars on an item they can sell to another player for gold, effectively legal gold-buying.

I don't have a problem with legalising gold-buying as such but I think it opens up two potential problems for WoW.

First the gold-buying mechanism is pinned to a highly volatile good. These pets will be cool for a few weeks then people will be just as impressed with a whelpling. So the first few sold will get a fair whack of change,. player speculators will then step in to try to flip, the price will soar, then once interest in owning these wanes at the same time as interest in using them to legally buy gold booms the market will crash and many speculators will dump their stockpiles.

Speculation is a huge part of this kind of tradeable in-game item, in Eve which is a much smaller game a recent dev blog revealed there are about 16 000 plexes (about $240K) being sat on by speculators.

So whatever your views on legalised gold-buying establishing a legal gold buying facility which will inevitably crash like it's 1929 is a terrible way to implement this feature.

My advice to readers is don't touch this market, even if you would like to legally buy gold except in one circumstance:

If you want a panda and don't mind waiting a month or two buy one for 50 gold or so after the market crashes instead of paying £10 now.