Monday 22 February 2010

The Allods Cash Shop: A Marxist perspective

On Friday popular free-to-play game Allods put all its prices up tenfold in its cash shop which caused it to be come rather less popular. Syp has rounded up some of the reaction here.

This is one of the first widely popular MMOs in the West to deliberately price itself beyond the range of most people's comfort zones. It won't be the last. In fact more such exclusive games for rich players are inevitable and Marxism tells us why.

Marxism recap

Marxism is a way of looking at history through economic development.

Humans started off broadly equal in tribes - if there was food everyone ate and if there was no food everyone starved.

Advances in agriculture and food storage allowed for the emergence of non-producing warrior castes, eventually leading to Feudalism, government by the warrior caste.

Advances in trade and commerce led to the rise of the bourgeoisie leading to government by capitalists.

(And theoretically awareness that they controlled the means of production should have led the workers to govern but it turned out that they'd rather someone else did it much to the surprise of Marxists).

A Marxist history of MMOdom

In the beginning MMOs were for a small elite of privileged players. These were academics, computer engineers, games designers who got into invite-only game systems.

Shortly people paying for these projects realised that income would be rather nice. Services like pay-per-minute Neverwinter Nights emerged and targetted a very small proportion of gamers. Not only did you need to be on the internet but you had to be willing to either play very short times or play for long times and rack up huge bills. This was still not a mass market model.

The next social structure was tribalism. Every player counted in this unproven genre and you too could be one of the tribe for an easily affordable fee of $15 per month. This coincided with widespread internet access. Players of Ultima Online and Everquest started to play for very long periods and enthusiastically evangelise their games.

However some people were unhappy with paying $15/month simply to be one amongst many comparable players. They wanted to stand out. So the illicit RMT market blossomed with companies both in the West and in Asia making vast amounts of real world money.

After all this price model was essentially aimed at the lowest common financial denominator: students, kids, unemployed people.

Developers have waged a war on RMT, designing items that can't be traded for gold, mass banning gold sellers, combating hacks and exploits.

However none of this really touches the underlying issue - that there is a substantial part of the player base that doesn't want to be just one of the tribe. They want to be able to move into a nicer neighbourhood, send their kids to better schools and speak in a more correct accent. They want to be middle class, to be bourgeois.

Enter the cash shop

Cash shops provide a way in which players can spend money to stand out from the rabble. Nicer hats, exotic pets, faster flashier horses all help to show that the consumer of these virtual items is not just one of the hoi-poloi.

However what really matter in games is winning.

As capitalism occludes tribalism in the emerging social structure of MMO communities pay-to-win becomes absolutely necessary. It's what rich players want. It's what game publishers' accountants want.

It may not affect all games. It may not affect your game.

But somewhere someone wants to be better than you because he can spend more. A lot of someones. And their games are starting to arrive.

Eve Online: The Eve Personality Test

This psychological test is quite fun to do.

I got Gunslinger:

Take The EvE Personality Test today!
Created with Rum and Monkey's Personality Test Generator.

Eve is a PvP game. The PvE parts of the game are there to drive the economy in order to produce more PvP. Multiplayer is key, and even though solo-play can be fun, the game should be balanced as a multiplayer game. High-sec is as much of a warzone as low- and nul-sec. It's just a matter of finding ways to get at the people living there. You usually play with other people, because when the going gets tough, the tough get some backup.

Saturday 20 February 2010

MMOs: Wheel of Time - copyright

Legal Aspects

The announcement last month of a MMO based on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time had me thinking about how safe it would be to invest millions of dollars into a series which borrows very heavily from other copyrighted works.

The first book in Lord of the Rings is called Fellowship of the Ring. It is a story about how a group of young peasants living in bucolic tranquility are befriended by a mysterious magician. Soon dark and evil figures come seeking the youngsters who are forced to flee. They are aided by the henchman of the magician who secretly is the rightful heir of a broken kingdom. As they flee they take refuge in an ancient ruin where one of them is injured by evil magic that may prove very difficult to cure.

The first book in Wheel of Time is called The Eye of the World. It is a story about how a group of young peasants living in bucolic tranquility are befriended by a mysterious magician. Soon dark and evil figures come seeking the youngsters who are forced to flee. They are aided by the henchman of the magician who secretly is the rightful heir of a broken kingdom. As they flee they take refuge in an ancient ruin where one of them is injured by evil magic that may prove very difficult to cure.

According to wikipedia:

"Robert Jordan has stated that he consciously intended the early chapters of The Eye of the World to evoke the Shire of Middle-earth in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Other strong allusions to The Lord of the Rings exist as well, particularly the incorporeal and invisible Dark Lord, the dark home realm of Mordor compared to Thakan'dar (as well as Shayol Ghul' Pit of Doom to the fiery pit of Mount Doom), obvious similarities between Trollocs and Orcs, Myrddraal and Nazgûl, and Padan Fain and Gollum."

The series also owes much to Frank Herbert's Dune.

This type of borrowing is known in copyright law as a "derivative work".

Under US law the type of borrowing that Jordan did is probably permitted. According to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse:
The law strikes an uneasy balance between an author's or artist's right to profit from their works and other artists' and authors' right to build upon previous works to make new works.

Interestingly under UK law you can't make derivative works without permission unless you are an American. Seems daft but it's official.

So Tolkien as a copyright-protected British author can be pillaged by Jordan who is American provided his work was within "fair use". Storylines and stock characters are not copyrightable under American law. (Source).

Of course on reflection it's clear that we can't make the way Americans produce entertainment actionable here if we want to import American entertainment but it's still bizarre to have a law that can be broken with a wave of a US passport.

Now even under American law you can't rip off characters:

Question: Can I take a character from a movie, like Chewbacca from Star Wars, and use it in a play with a very different plot and otherwise different characters?

Answer: Probably not.? The people who hold copyright in Star Wars own the characters as well as the plot, the filmed images, etc. Placing a distinctive fictional character in a different context or medium is still copying that character, and therefore infringement.


So wasn't Jordan just using Tolkien's characters like Aragorn/Lan?

No, not quite.

None of the characters are exact clones. Lan is probably the closest but there are distinct differences. Tolkien wrote before the popularisation of martial arts. Lan's characterisation is greatly enhanced by the description of his martial arts skills and forms, a brilliantly written westernisation of Chinese martial arts forms. He is also immensely physically strong and implacable which Aragorn isn't. More Arnold Schwarzenegger than Viggo Mortensen. He's also the Warder of Moiraine which is a completely different relationship to Aragorn's relationship with Gandalf plus there's a hint of sexual tension (which I certainly didn't notice between Aragorn and Gandalf!). Generally Aragorn is confident and attractive where Lan is repressed. (Note: I'm just considering Book One here, what happens after makes the characters even more different).

So you can't quite say he used Aragorn. Nor that Matrim and Perrin were Merry and Pippin. They're not clearly the same people.

So Wheel of Time is not in breach of Tolkien's copyright or Herbert's copyright but it would be if Jordan had been from the UK.

Lastly making a plagiarism action stick in the American courts is really hard. The notable successful cases seem to have been extraordinary blatant such as the 80 word for word quotes in Alex Haley's Roots. In this parodic letter Philip Nobile imagines the author bragging about pulling his Pullitzer prize winning scam.

Ethical Aspects

Copyright sucks, you can't own my thoughts, what's old Prof Tolkien who popped his clogs in 1973 gonna do with $100m dollars now anyway, yada yada yada.

As Oscar Wilde said:
"Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man"

Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer and this opinion is based on internet research not case and statute law research. On the other hand every citizen has the right to know and discuss the law of the world, to pass the rules by which we live into the custody of a privileged few is to abstain from freedom.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Pen and Paper roleplaying: D&D 4th edition

I've had a couple of sessions of 4th edition and I thought I'd share my impressions here. I would assert that it is relevant to MMOdom, both because D&D is the template from which most MMOs stem and because it's quite likely that once Turbine, Atari, and Wizards of the Coast settle their legal wrangles that we'll see a 4th edition MMO.

My initial reaction was one of disappointment. 4th edition is very much a return to D&D's wargaming roots. Playing it as a first level character just about every ability for every class is concerned with making hit point totals go up or down or moving yourself or others around the playing map. There is a lot of tactical intricacy in manoeuvring around the battlefield. The basic aim is to give the monsters the choice of hitting the tank or stepping past the tank to hit someone else provoking an attack of opportunity by doing so.

It is a very good game of its type it just wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a break from MMOs into freeform creative roleplay. Instead I found a game where players calculate odds and optimise number-crunching. In other words 4th edition is like a computer game where you do the sums longhand.

Let me give an example. In previous versions 1st level casters of various types got a spell called Charm Person. This spell made the target regard the caster as a trusted friend but didn't change their attitudes to anyone else. They still disliked your party members and considered them enemies, they still supported their evil overlord. However they trusted you completely.

This meant that in order to get the most out of the spell you had to lie creatively. Telling your charmed orc that the elves and dwarves with you were actually orcs transformed by a terrible wizard, telling him that his hated rival was trying to get him in trouble with his boss and we needed to prevent this nefarious plan, etc etc.

It was a wonderful spell that heavily encouraged imagination and acting a part. And it's the sort of spell that the new system has either removed or shunted off to high level.

The cynic in me suggests that a heavily tactical system means that DMs have to purchase minatures and dungeon tiles as well as the 3 basic books and lo and behold these accessories are advertised on the back of my player's handbook as core products.

The next gripe is that the system seems astonishingly imbalanced. I (naturally enough in a number-crunching system) set myself to figuring out a character to do extreme damage. I came up with a Half-Orc barbarian.

Half-Orc gives +2 strength, adds his weapon damage again to any hit that connects as a free action and has some nice combat oriented feats.

Barbarian is a class that only really needs one stat (allowing you to optimise it rather than spread your points around), has a number of abilities that give additional attacks and uses big weapons.

I haven't unleashed this beast yet but I'm pretty confident it will do a lot more than the d8 +4 my druid pre-generated character has been doing.

In fact I saw a Barbarian in action and it was a wrecking ball even without being half-orc.

Another change is that magic item lists have been moved from the Dungeon Master's Guide to the Player's Handbook. Also caster characters can take Enchant magic item at level 4. It's a fundamental change in philosophy, magic items are now things you shop around for or even manufacture rather than items of mystery. I'm ok with this, I love item making gameplay but I can see it's another step towards rollplaying over roleplaying.

4th edition is a good game, in fact compared to the minature wargaming I did in the 70s it's leaps and bounds ahead. Using a protractor to calculate arc of fire is a memory that still makes me shudder.

I'm just a little disappointed it's not the heavy social interaction gameplay that seemed an inevitable evolution of the genre in the 80s and 90s, instead it's a game of computer type problems which you calculate by hand.

Friday 12 February 2010

Eve Online: Goonageddon: Conclusions

Is goonery dead in Eve?


They took a big hit in assets. Not only the estimated 1.6 trillion isk Kartoon confiscated but a lot of players have stuff trapped in hostile systems or lost stuff to pirates and hostiles during the evac. On the other hand assets are not the most important element in Eve, players are.

They will lose some disappointed players and have expelled some of the corps that made up the former alliance. The Goons value their identity as Something Awful posters. Something Awful is a very strictly moderated forum. This fiasco has caused Eve goons to re-evaluate themselves, they are now less willing to tolerate people who would be mocked as bad posters on the SA forums simply because those guys are good at Eve. In addition some genuine SA people who were heavily into the POS-shooting side of the game will quietly stop playing.

On the flip side they will gain a lot of new and returning members who will come in the hope of seeing interesting drama.

I think that while they may not take much of a numbers hit they will become less effective per capita as POS-shooters get replaced by forum warriors. Less effective at conquering space at any rate, they should as an alliance become more effective at posting without grammatical errors and mocking other forum-goers.

Where are they going?

Cloud Ring according to leaks on the SA forum. I think they'll be able to take it and I think they'll be able to hold it. I think once they get it they will stick there for a while. In the long run I'm sure they'll be hoping to launch a campaign against their nemesis in Delve, if for no other reason than that it will be an interesting story.

Who's in charge?

I think they have a pretty competent bunch, certainly better leadership than the lackluster Karttoon and the burnt out Niart Epar.

Darius Johnson will reprise his role as "loud shouty man". He's an extrovert who is very entertaining and persuasive and the Goons will be pretty effective while he runs the show. He quite recently became a father though and gave up being CEO because of that so his real life will probably require him to pass on the reins fairly soon.

Here he is giving a presentation at Fanfest 2009:

Here he is recently snorting cheese and putting mustard in his eye:

As you can see he makes an excellent chief goon.

Kalrand, quoted extensively in my previous blog post, will be CFO and is certainly a very sharp individual with an excellent grasp of the financial side of the game.

The Mittani will continue to lurk behind the scenes and react to crises. Here's audio of him explaining the BoB disband:

Drakban Solo is administrator of the Eve Goons' forum and wiki servers. They have an extensive and by all accounts excellent wiki and of course being a community brought together by forum posting they cherish their forums. He seems to be doing a solid job and the new Goon alliance is named in his honour. (No harm stroking the ego of the man who far more than the CEO could bring Eve goons down).

So the current leadership will be pretty effective. Of course if the goon rabble get bored of them again and want someone else put in it becomes a crapshoot once more.

No matter what happens (short of a complete ban on Eve on the SA forums) goons will continue to entertain the rest of the Eve community and to make CCP money by keeping their sandbox drama-filled.

Eve Online: Goonageddon, Part Three

There's a saying "A week is a long time in politics" and it's certainly proved true regarding the political fallout of Niart Epar's neglience with regard to the Goonswarm sovereignty bills.

I'm going to do another cut and paste job for most of the rest of this post, partly because the story is well-told from an inside source and partly because it's in a post in the Eve Official markets forums which most people won't find.

The teller is the Goons' new Chief Finance Officer a thankless task if ever there was one, posting as Kalrand from the Charles Ponzi School of Business. And that in itself is a contender for the best corp name Eve has ever seen once you read more about Charles Ponzi.

The thread is a Goons scam and is in itself a fascinating example of how a team of players can use clever arguments from various perspectives to enhance the scam.

Here's what Kalrand has to say about recent events in Goonswarm:


Do you want to know what happened?


One of the things that Goonswarm has been good at for the last few years is getting high level spies into various alliances, or turning high level directors of warring corporations to our side.

Because of this, our directorate is structured in a way that any one director would minimize the damage to the alliance.

Example: Karttoon has the big giant reserve of all the money, and the only guy who can push the button to nuke the alliance. (Incidentally, this is why Yih's scheme was so hilarious to anyone in GS).

Our CFO, gets a large portion of the money, and any of the income, but isn't a "director" in game mechanics, so he can't just take more. This is then dolled out by him to the various projects and titular directors to spend on things. Any income is returned to him, and if there is an excess, it's kicked back up to the wallet controlled by the CEO.

Also, we have an independent auditor, who apparently didn't have roles to audit the alliance wallet.

Karttoon goes on his honeymoon, promising his wife no internet spaceships for a few weeks, and leaves with all the isk locked up.

Our CFO doesn't log into the game for a month, since he's (as we now know) burned out.

The auto-pay system continues to take isk from the designated wallet slot. The CFO is not monitoring this. The auditor can't. No one else should/does have roles to monitor this.

At the onset of Dominion, our logistics teams determined that they are able to save the alliance more ISK per month by taking down fuel burning towers (set up pre dominion to maintain sov) as compared to turning off sov in systems, though they do that in many of them.

Many of the goon member corporations take over the sov payments for their own constellation, with Goonfleet only having leftover to-be-removed systems, logistics systems, and important station systems.

War starts and logistics are diverted to fighting off three invading alliances, which with current Dominion mechanics, and Goonswarm's US timezone dominance, is actually going pretty well, though it's 100% defensive.

Dominion 1.1 changed the TCU online time from 12 hours to 8, meaning that, if there is no sov, an alliance can take sov in a single timezone. This is not a problem for Goonswarm since we're fighting a defensive war, and still have sov just about everywhere.

Two Days Before Sov Drops:
Dominion mechanics have autopay fail on many sov payments two days before they are due, and for the next two days send DED mails to various directors that sov is about to fall. Directors receive hundreds of these each day, and their mailboxes are eternally full, so no one sees them and raises the alarm.

The Day Before Sov Drops:
The CFO pops back in, tells people that he is kind of burned out, and tries to sell his cap ship manufacturing business. No one notices the "kind of burned out" part.

The Day:
IT happened to be going on some kind of a r64 reinforcement op, and are up later than normal, in force, but out in the middle of nowhere querious. Goons are harassing them, but IT had better numbers at that point. Goons had just finished some other major fight the day or two before, and were in the middle of moving combat ships to NPC Delve in expectation that IT would try to siege NOL, the Goon market capital soon.

The bill comes due. There's not enough isk in the wallet.

Sovereignty drops suddenly in most of the major station systems in Delve at 11pm EST, in the last third of the US time zone. Member corps are unaffected.

Our CEO is still out, and no one can reach him. The CFO is offline, no one has heard from him in two weeks, except for him trying to sell his cap ship business.

I figure out what happened, and post in the current op thread. At first most people think it is a billing bug, not a billing mistake.

The Mittani takes control and tells everyone to get everything they can haul out of stations to safety. Phrease raises a huge fleet and attempts to defend everywhere at one. Logistics starts onlining TCU's across all of delve.

IT realizes what happens about as fast as the rest of the game, and makes a beeline for any important system, especially NOL & J-L. Their numbers swell, as word gets out.

Goons log in in huge numbers. AAA invades station systems in Querious.

The fight/evacuation continues deep into the night, but IT/AAA/Stain has superior numbers. Random pirates come into querious to try to gank evacuating people in industrial ships.

Goons have been outnumbered for weeks, and were able to defend under Dominion mechanics. The only thing needed to defend a system, is to have dominance for one timezone, only once over a four day period.

Since sov has dropped, the first alliance to drop a TCU gains sov. IT destroys several goon TCUs all over delve, and replace them with their own. AAA does as well. Sys-K then joins the party and invades TPAR in Period Basis.

The Next Day:
Many of the Goon TCUs are saved, and online early in the morning the next day. Several of the most important systems were camped and controlled by IT, particularly NOL, the market hub, and J-L, the capital ship staging system. These then become IT systems later that morning after two large battles for control in early Euro prime.

Other systems are taken at leisure as the Euro prime goon numbers are not going to be dominant, and by the time Goons regain dominance in the evening US time, several other important, but less key, stations are lost.

The CFO pops back online and realizes what happened. The CEO still has no idea.


The CFO is known to you as "Sophie Daigneau".

His cap ship venture was CAIDS.



Would you like to know what happened?


One Week before the disbanding
When we last left the story, Karttoon was happily away on vacation, Delve was on fire, and the CFO had just been sent to the pillory on the goon forum.

Over the next twenty four hours word trickled down from the remaining directors that we were abandoning any defense of Delve, and moving out as quickly as possible. The same game mechanics that allowed us to defend against a much larger hostile fleet outside our prime, would doom us to never taking back any of the fallen stations.

At this point The Mittani gave a State of the Goonion address which summed up the above points, and gave us a destination: Syndicate, the original home of GoonFleet.

Three days before the disbanding
Continuing on into the week, Goons evacuated Delve as best they could given the circumstances, first for NPC Delve, then Lowsec, then dumping their assets somewhere in Highsec space, and usually hopping back into Delve to help other people evacuate, and shoot at random IT people. People began to stage in Orville for the eventual push into Syndicate. Delve continued to get worse every day, and personal assets that weren't evacuated by day four would need a fleet to break the station camps.

Darius JOHNSON was pulled out of retirement to lead us until someone could locate the CEO.

Darius gave a second address to rally people ops focused on breaking ships and materials out of Delve. This continued for several days, with each day being slightly less successful.

A large number of mercenary corporations and assorted other wardecs were issued against GoonSwarm and, given the average goon's skill at this game, a huge number of ships were blown up across all of high sec.

Eventually Goons made it to Orvolle, which is right on the entrance to Syndicate. Whereupon the immediately got camped into the station by the area residents. Whenever a op was called to clear the undock, the hostiles would dock, and this has repeated for a few days.

Two days before the disbanding
Karttoon returns! He gets back from his vacation and promptly doesn't log in or post. He eventually shows up on Jabber, and tells everyone that he's not resigning. I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes. The capfleet hulls are transferred to him, to do reimbursements for everything over the last three weeks.

The day before
Karttoon logs into the forums and makes a handful of posts, half dealing with his vacation, and half trying to downplay how bad everything is. Almost every response is a post telling him to resign.

The Mittani begins to run interference to quell the angry Goons, and it tampers down on the forum, a bit. A poll is posted, and Goons are about two to one on the resign or not resign question, not that they have any say in the matter.

The day
Karttoon doesn't post. He logs into jabber, and I have no idea what he was up to.

Some guy named Kalrand gets appointed to the position held by the old CFO.

Around 11pm eastern time, the end of the US prime that most of goonswarm plays in, Karttoon logs in, and kicks out every corporation in goonswarm. Karttoon then takes away hanger rights from anyone he can in GoonFleet.

Any sovereignty still held in Delve is lost. Goons are suddenly not subject to wardecs and take the opportunity to fly around and move things.

Any titan/capship/whatever in space, at a pos, is bounced out of the shields as soon as the pilot logs in.

Hostiles decent on the North syndicate area and attack goons. Some goons attack other goons because standings aren't immediately correct between the member corporations. This is largely fixed pretty quickly.

Various directors use hidden alts to steal as much as they can from Goonfleet, but one of them announces this in the corporate local chat, which Karttoon sees, comments on, and continues to remove standings.

A mothership is lost to a hostile fleet.

A capship producers begins to insurance scam his existing stock that he hasn't been able to sell in a few weeks. Rumors abound that it's Karttoon destroying the cap fleet hulls that had been returned to him.

Karttoon starts to post on He is stripped of access to

Karttoon has the GoonSwarm alliance, the GoonFleet corporation, several wallet corporations, and the Band of Brothers corporation. Along with hundreds of billions in isk and assets.

Goons are dropping Goonswarm, and joining Goonwaffe, an old goon corporation from before the increase in the number of members that could be in a single corporation.

Darius JOHNSON is in control.