Monday 30 January 2012

Diablo 3: Selling gold guides

We can't be 100% certain but it now seems that Marcko's ban from the Diablo 3 beta was on the grounds that he has stated an intention to produce a gold guide which he would intend to sell.

There's a few interesting points to consider.

Firstly there's the point that Marcko, famous for his Just My Two Copper blog and its associated WoW gold guide, was given a Friends and Family invite by a Blizzard employee after he mentioned how much he'd like one on his blog which is called Diablo 3 Gold Guide Blog. Blizzard then discovered (shock! horror!) that he is planning a gold guide and banned him.


Of course it wouldn't be the first time the left hand knoweth not what the right hand is doing at Blizzard but it's certainly very silly on the face of it.

Let's have a look at what this latest message said:

"Hi Christopher,

Our Terms of Use, which players agree to prior to playing the beta, make it clear that using the game for commercial purpose, such as for selling unlicensed game guides, is prohibited. Violating the Terms of Use can result in a ban, as was the case here."

OK there's a few points that aren't clear. First, is this only a beta restriction? Because Marcko didn't sell anything during the Beta and as far as I know didn't plan to. Or are they planning to prohibit commercial fan sites when the game goes live?

It would be a huge change of direction for Blizzard to suddenly start actively banning players who are involved with commercial enterprises. For there are lots of commercial WoW sites including Curse Gaming, Wowhead, Thottbot, several hundred blogs that are monetised and hundreds of thousands of Youtube videos. If you put something on the internet it's normal for your content to generate money. That's just how Google and Youtube work. This blog is actually non-commercial but I suspect that it will be harder to put out non-commercial blogs in the future as I'm freeloading off Google and I'm sure they'd prefer it if they got paid.

Next, is there something specifically about farming gold as opposed to playing the game in other ways which is commercial? I can kind of see how people might think so because we all instinctively feel that game gold is "money" even though it's not. Virtual game currency is simply a meter, getting richer is like getting higher level. It's an aspect of gameplay and not actually real money. (Although D3 makes this murkier with the prospect that gold can be cashed out). I don't buy the argument that gold is real world dollars any more than killing power is real world dollars - both can be cashed out, converted into money but they aren't money, just the potential to earn it.

So is it wrong to give people tips on playing the game? There's certainly a lot of bitterness towards theorycrafters but it's never before been something the games company has joined in on. Advice on how to level, where to farm gold, what talents to pick all has money-making potential in a game that will be for many people about making real world money. Is it unfair to help people optimise? Immoral even? I don't really think so either.

Is it wrong to sell information in third party transactions? Well it's not an IP violation. There's no copyright in information. If you think about this it's obvious. Ford own the design of their cars but they don't own "knowing how to turn left". Information about a game isn't property of the game company, there's no legal infringement.

It is (apparently) a terms and conditions violation which doesn't surprise me at all. EULAs are one-sided, not negotiated and have grown over the years to give the issuers more and more powers. Legally an online game is basically a private club that can admit anyone it wants.

In the end banning players for making gold guides is hopelessly futile. It's pretty obvious that you can make a gold guide and not connect it with your in-game character name or the real name they have on file for you. In fact there's so much information around you could possibly make a commercial gold guide without even playing the game, just by doing online research. It's possible they could use cease and desist orders but I'm not sure on what legal grounds they could ask for people to not sell guides to their game. There's no copyright in strategies. Trademark violation, maybe. But any legal remedy they use won't stop these guides from mushrooming up again. The internet has proven remarkably resilient to being told to shut up so far.

Friday 27 January 2012

Diablo 3: achievers beware!

Anyone who's been part of any video game community knows that every once in a while people get banned and immediately protest that they were just playing the game normally. Sometimes they're lying, sometimes they're just lying to themselves ("I was banned because I was good, so good I went off the charts"). Many times it's simply a grey area as in the recent case of the graveyard campers in SWTOR's Ilum battlefield planet. A patch switch reward to kills, the population between sides is fubar, so Empire camped and chain killed all the Republic players non-stop at the graveyards. This resulted in several players getting banned after farming helpless respawners for hours.

I'd now like to draw your attention to the strange case of Marcko, the blogger behind Just My Two Copper and the Diablo 3 Gold Guide Blog, who has just got banned for, in his opinion, being too good at (legally) farming gold.

Of course we haven't heard Blizzard's side and it's useful to have a degree of scepticism but let's look at the points Marcko raises.

1) he was farming a LOT of gold. 6-10k gold per hour, peaking at 11.25k is extraordinary for a level 13 character. He managed to get gear with 145% gold find on and was playing a Wizard which may well be the fastest killing class at 13.

2) I don't think he's a cheat. He's a well-established blogger who writes openly about his gameplay and has done for years. It beggars belief to imagine he just dupes all his gold and then makes up detailed and workable strats for all sorts of market niches (for example farming for out of date enchanting mats from obsolete instances). The only way you could know about all those market niches really is if that's how you play.

3) If you look at the email he received from Blizzard it warns him to give customer service a call or put in a ticket BEFORE he does anything that might be construed as exploitative. That implies he was banned for something that has been contrued as exploitative. If he'd been banned for using 3rd party software the rep wouldn't have mentioned that.

This then calls into question something quite fundamental to online games. Online games have always been to some extent achiever driven. Sure pre-Trammel UO had lots of killers but they were also achievers, no one would have minded them if they hadn't been both bloodthirsty and unbeatable. In EQ achievers were the top players - they got to kill the dragon and no one else did because the raid bosses spawned in the world and were gone for quite a while when killed. In WoW world first kills have always fascinated a large part of the player base and have drawn in sponsorships and fan sites despite quite commonly being based on borderline or overt exploits. Ensidia's world first Algalon kill has over 2 million views on Youtube. Even many normal WoW boss kills rely on arguably exploitative techniques. The standard way to kill Drakkisath in UBRS in Vanilla WoW was for a Hunter to kite the boss away while the other players killed his 2 bodyguards. Surely that's not how the encounter was intended.

So with Marcko's ban, the ban of some of the Ilum exploiters and earlier similar bans for over-achievers we may be moving into an area of uncertainty that will undermine our hobby, at least for achiever types. There are two things that are very bad about this.

1) Players should be able to just play, make progress, optimise and play more. Without worrying about whether they're so good that they risk getting banned. Success shouldn't be punishable.

2) It's lazy development. "Hey dudes, some guy's making 10k an hour" "Jeez dude, it's five o'clock on a Friday, just ban him and let's get a beer." Lazy.

So could Blizzard have reasonably expected it? Absolutely. This was a playstyle even in Diablo 2  where gold was worthless.

The most gold find possible, in v1.10+, is 3890%. (Only reachable by using D2C magical and rare items with GF amounts that can't be found in later patches.) That's almost 40x the gold you would get with 0% gold find. At that level a monster that usually dropped 500 gold would drop 19,850 gold. 
Source. the most popular Diablo wiki. This has existed there for over 10 years without anyone thinking it's cheating.

What will happen when D3 goes Live? Well, if you read this blog or Marcko's you'll have been warned not to stack gold find in the first couple of weeks. It does look like they may ban people for, in the words of their customer service rep, "anything that might be construed as exploitative." You're probably ok with magic find as the drops are rare. Did you find 4 legendaries this evening because of your exploitative 145% magic find or because you just got lucky? It's too small a sample size.

One of the aspects of this I find most disappointing is what it says about the modern video game beta. A beta should be about finding problems. A beta team should be DELIGHTED if someone says "if I jump in a weird hopscotch way on the roof of this building it crashes the server" because the point is to fix that shit before you go live. Instead one can't help feeling that the Diablo 3 devs have all been re-assigned to new projects and beta is being run by the marketing team. Because if there are any genuine developers still working on the game they were asleep at the wheel on this one.

Friday 20 January 2012

SWTOR: why I'd like LFD

OK here's what I want to do:

- indicate I'd like to play a particular Flashpoint.
- play the game and forget about flashpoint-related admin until I get a message saying my group is ready.

Here's what I don't want to do:

- stand around Imp Fleet for an hour spamming
- do /who for my level and send off fifty whispers
- maintain a Friends list of tanks and healers. My friends list is for, duh, friends.

Here are the arguments that don't persuade me:

- chat spam improves community. It hasn't at all for me, apart from people in my guild I can't even name another player on my server off the top of my head. I've done a lot of flashpoints but it's mostly low level and it's mostly people's alts. Even if I friended them I wouldn't get to play with them tomorrow as they'd probably be on a different character. In a game where everyone is supposed to alt, Friends lists don't work.

- LFD systems encourage worse behaviour. Now historically this might have been true but it isn't true now. Modern players pressurise you to speed up, whine about your gear, occasionally ninja and sometimes bail halfway. This happens all the time with the current system. WoW inherited players trained by EQ's forced grouping system to not be jerks. SWTOR is inheriting people trained by WoW and IT WONT CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOUR in a month. It's just designers trying to play social engineer with the player base. It's egotistical and it won't work. Few of us care enough about this game to fundamentally change the way we interact with others online. We'll just go.

- "I get on fine without a LFD system". Great. I'm happy for you. I hope you continue to have fun without a LFD system when the rest of us are gone.

- "You can flag yourself as LFG". I do this and I have never got a whisper asking me to join a group in a month of playing.

Tuesday 17 January 2012


One of my favourite games is Minesweeper, the free game with Windows. If you haven't played it it's a simple puzzle game based on calculating safe squares to clear and unsafe squares to mark as dangerous until you can clear the whole board by identifying every safe square.

It's not immersive. I've played it for years and never felt like I was on a naval frigate in the North Sea, a gale howling around the foc'sle, anxiously spotting bobbing nautical hazards.

And that doesn't matter because it's an enjoyable game.

I also play Eve Online. And that's pretty much as non-immersive for me as Minesweeper. I really don't find myself caught up with being a spaceship pilot. I log on, admire the way certain numbers have gone up, queue skills to train, queue manfacturing and research jobs, queue planets to produce resources. Occasionally I'll become more active, join a corp, do some pvp and so on. And I enjoy all that very much, it's a very good game.

(I'm aware other people do get very immersed in Eve and I think that's actually a great feature of the game: that it's valid as either experience).

When MMOs hit mainstream with Ultima Online they were based around a dichotomy that arose in Dungeons and Dragons gameplay in the late 70s and early 80s. Just like Eve there were 2 ways to play D&D. I'll illustrate with examples:

1) The player characters are in a bar. A little old man comes up to them and offers to give them a map to a horde of treasure in an old ruined dungeon beneath a castle just outside town. The players agree to investigate. This is essentially the on rails gameplay and tends to lead to numbers playing a strong emphasis, on getting better stats as that's the way to progress.

2) The player characters are in a bar. A little old man comes up to them and offers to give them a map to a horde of treasure in an old ruined dungeon beneath a castle just outside town. The players decide to do something utterly random and unrelated. One of them because he's an elf spontaneously decides he wants to find himself a unicorn and the rest agree to help him. Some Dungeonmasters would be thrown off and upset by this and would attempt to push the party back onto the rails (perhaps there might be high level bandits in the woods who would chase the unicorn seekers out). Some Dungeonmasters would put away their carefully prepared script and get on with the task of making up story and opportunities to suit their maverick players.

Debate between fans of the respective positions have raged for decades but both of these playstyles were supported by the system and I'd argue both are perfectly valid.

However MUDs and early MMOs tended to be made by the second type of players. They built worlds with forests and unicorns and all sorts of other stuff in so players wouldn't need to be fed a quest by the stereotypical old man in the pub but could play very creatively. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons there weren't really any rail systems available until WoW, players had to take charge of their own entertainment. Perhaps not surprisingly then there was a real opportunity for a developer to provide a more balanced experience and the fact that the developer that did so already had a devoted fan base and a good reputation just iced the cake. WoW, with its Christmas tree quest hub system, showed a huge appetite for a more guided playstyle.

Now what both WoW and D&D had that made them so great was a balance between the two styles that allowed the game system to support both. For me in 2005 WoW was about progression along the rails but it was also an enhancement of my experience that it was a world that supported other stuff, even quite weird stuff like making machinima, exploring every high mountain and remote corner, blogging and so on. It made it richer.

It was, dare I say it, richer than prototypes like Everquest and Ultima Online because it had the rails as well as the open world.

I don't think people have really understood this. Thus both WoW itself and other MMOs have concentrated on designing better and better rails until we've ended up at SWTOR which is a very fine set of rails indeed.

It's not going to be a great MMO though and it won't have the endurance that WoW did. It lacks world, to such an extent it made industry expert Professor Ted Castronova furious. Nor is anyone going to "fix" MMOs by designing a great sandbox where sandbox is a synonym for an online game which is missing half the stuff that should be in it for it to be a great MMO.

Because a great MMO is both a great virtual world and a great game. As deep a world as SWG where you could pick up any object and place it on the wall of your home. As great a game as Minesweeper which is on everyone's computer.

So that's why Raph Koster's recent lament that immersion is dead in MMOs seems unlikely to me. Because MMOs need it and, as I can see from my level 50 SWTOR guildies who have stopped bothering to log in but to raid, you can't make a great MMO without it.

Monday 9 January 2012

SWTOR: Finding the Force

After feeling a bit fed up with the game I renewed my interest by making an alt. I made a Jedi Guardian which was great fun, especially as I found that perverting a good girl is even more interesting than playing a bad boy. I took her up to level 12 and Dark Side Level 1. There's supposed to be a cosmetic change as you turn Dark and after much squinting at my character I've decided that the reason she looks different is her bunny eyes have become tiger eyes. It's subtle but it's definitely there.

I like it too that she's a solid chunky woman rather than the usual fantasy game Frazetta clone. She looks more like a P.E. teacher than a model.

Perverting the storyline of course really tests it and most of the sidequests simply bounce you right back on track. If someone is trying to give you a quest reward and your dialogue options are something like:
1) Thank you!
2) Aww shucks you shouldn't of
3) mwa ha ha you'll never placate me, I'll be back to burn your village to the ground
picking option 3 gives you the exact same quest reward with perhaps a quip about how witty you are.

They're not all like that though and I managed to find a set of dialogue options that utterly appalled my fairly amoral helper on my Imperial Agent, in fact I lost 400 points of friendship with him in under 60 seconds. Essentially this means sacrificing 0.002% Slicing Mission speed and in exchange I get to utterly crush the universe beneath my Iron Fist forever. Well at least I would be doing that but a snag has cropped up and I can't actually beat her so I'm parking and collecting rest exp and a few daily pvp/flashpoint/space missions so I can deal with this spurious problem and win the game. At least that's where I seem to be, plotwise.

Of course that brings up the more serious issue of how can 2 million players all be the Universe's Greatest Hero? To Bioware's credit you do actually forget that there are other players who matter while doing your highly immersive class quests. Of course that's also a problem once the content is finished. Do I want to give up being the most feared Secret Agent in the Universe and be subs bench dps for our raid team?

Alting is a great solution and is working very well for me. I've started a Sith Sorceror. They are, I gather the fotm class, but more importantly you really feel evil playing one, as if you're Palpatine burning people up with Force lightning. One has to try hard not to cackle.

The Sith Sorceror: there's a lot to love

I've also managed to do several flashpoints which is a high point of this type of game for me. No matter how good the solo gameplay is I don't really love soloing any more which is why I play online games. Although some people are annoying most are pretty nice. About the worst I've had is people wanting to type my keys for me, down to pedantically explaining where my space bar is in case I didn't understand how to skip cutscenes. There's also been a lot of people who are friendly and joke around.

I'm particularly glad to see people respond to jokes as I tend to make them when I group with people and in recent times they nearly always get ignored. In games like WoW I'd certainly started to feel vaguely awkward about making jokes, rather as if I told a Two Ronnies style double entendre about women's breasts to a bunch of teenagers who confusedly wonder why I don't just say "tits". (The answer of course is that "melons" is funnier - but possibly only to people over 30).

Thursday 5 January 2012

SWTOR: Banned from the official forums?

Update: As Spinks surmised it was a glitch in their forum software. It's now working fine for me. Still, they're not making a great impression.

Original post:

I'm getting this when I try to post:

Stabs**, you do not have permission to access this page. This could be due to one of several reasons:

  1. Your user account may not have sufficient privileges to access this page. Are you trying to edit someone else's post, access administrative features or some other privileged system?
  2. If you are trying to post, the administrator may have disabled your account, or it may be awaiting activation. 

The only possible one of those that might apply is "the administrator may have disabled your account".

Now I really don't know whether they've banned me for saying I'm unhappy about the lack of LFD tool and will probably unsub or if their forums are simply broken during maintenance and the wrong message is coming up but they seem to be doing their honest best to shoo me away.

Or possibly it's because I canceled although it seems a bit mean to shut people out who are still paid up players but who aren't willing to allow EA infinite access to our personal money.

Wednesday 4 January 2012


Although it's still early I think I've seen enough of TOR to offer some opinions about how it compares to the previous Star Wars MMO.


Actually, they're incredibly similar, at least on the low quality settings I run SWTOR at. Running around SWTOR it's easy to forget which game you're in if you're a SWG veteran. I think the graphics are fine although I do want to gripe about performance. For a game that looks rather dated SWTOR is a beast. When I first started playing it defaulted to low on everything which was borderline unplayable until I turned shadows off. It still chugs and loads slowly.

I sometimes fantasise about running a games company and one of the things I would do is put a Computer of Death into the office. This is the weakest machine we want our game to run on, an old Pentium I found in a jumble sale. And all the staff would spend a week on it at a time. Chosen by drawing straws on Friday afternoons. Because if the people developing these games didn't have state of the art overclocked beasts to work on all the time then maybe we would see games that are play decently on a normal machine.

It's particularly disappointing after Bioware recognised that too high systems specs had previously been a problem with many games (notably Age of Conan and Vanguard) and made a special effort to ensure this game would "run on a toaster".

To be fair SWG released as a horrible buggy mess that crashed to desktop and bluescreened so SWTOR wins on graphics, just.

The cutscenes

These are very well done, beautifully produced and well acted. Some of the plot twists are amazing and some of the dialogue are clever. The acting is genuinely brilliant, you can read a subtitle and think that's not an impressive answer, then hear it spoken and think "oh yeah!"

SWG hardly had any cutscenes, just a little bit with Han Solo at the beginning as I recall and the iconic scrolling slanting text so SWTOR is a winner here. It's a good feature, beautifully made.


That does however bring me on to a serious criticism of SWTOR, in fact what may be it's deepest flaw. The game is badly paced. Cutscenes are great but they come so thick and fast it's hard to tell whether I'm playing a game with lots of film or watching a film with interactive bits. It gets too much. I found myself space-barring them after a few days because I'd had enough of cutscenes.

More importantly there's an overall rush to SWTOR that is very unappealing. People got to 50 in a few days. Now barely 2 weeks in almost everyone in my guild is 50. You don't really learn and explore a planet because you're only there for a day or two. You don't really learn and explore your skills because you get new ones every few hours. It just scrolls by too fast.

As players we optimise ourselves to beat and push the system but we need the system to also push back to create a fun dynamic. Push at SWTOR and you win, you max out, you save the universe. It lacks substance.

WoW, remember built itself up as a game where it took on average about 6 months to max level. There were people who still hadn't maxxed out a character by the end of Vanilla despite playing regularly. When we did Stranglethorn Valley we spend a fun 3 weeks there. Now although WoW isn't like this now, and you can level very fast, that early slow leveling played a crucial part in establishing WoW's popularity. It seems people look at WoW and copy what it is now without realising what it had before that got it to the top.

SWG, despite being remembered as a sandbox, was very much a leveling game and quite a slow one. It took months before anyone mastered an Advanced Profession if we don't count Architects who mastered because a whole guild gave them Ore. Those months were some of the most enjoyable times I've ever had in a MMO.

I think SWTOR loses on this aspect as do several other recent MMOs like Rift. Content becomes meaningless when it zips by in a flash. WoW can get away with it because WoW is established but WoW established itself on a game based on slow paced leveling.

Group content

I've been disappointed with SWTOR's group content because it's quite hard to get groups. I'll admit to having been spoiled by LFD tools but I can't be bothered to send out tons of tells and slowly build a friends list in the old-fashioned way. It's annoying enough that I was thinking it's probably best to let my sub lapse and come back when they've put one in. I really like doing group content as I quest through the solo content. There's no chance of finding a group while out questing and it's a tedious process hanging around the Fleet space station spamming.

SWG on the other hand despite not having proper instances did have some fun group content that emerged out of classes interdependence. The Ranger class for instance had to make camps for people to progress so Ranger players tended to organise interesting expeditions for other players. It had caves like the Squill Cave on Tatooine which attracted crowds of people in very chaotic public raids

The Rails

To compare these two games we need to look at the rails, the system where the game channels you towards the content it chooses.

In SWTOR rails are firmly in place but nicely crafted. You can only do what the designers had planned for you to do but it's good enjoyable content. In SWG the designers had a sandbox philosophy, they put in stuff that could be interacted with but didn't necessarily know how players would interact with it.

Each side has its fans but my concern with regard to SWTOR is that the rails may simply run out. What happens when the train reachs the end of the line? You can roll an alt or raid or pvp but none of those things are quite enough for me. The sub-based model implies that the game will be your main or even your only game and will endlessly immerse you. Where I think SWTOR is heading is what I saw in my Rift raid guild. At the end of a raid people would ask "when's the next raid?" be told Tuesday then say "cya Tuesday" and not log on until then. There was no point playing.

That's a serious flaw in an MMO. SWG always had something to do so it wins clearly here.


SWG had asymmetrical spontaneous pvp where SWTOR has pvp battlegrounds that you queue up for and where you face a matched team. I'm miles in favour of asymmetrical pvp. It feels like pvp as war, with strategic depth, rather than pvp as sport.

I probably shouldn't assign SWTOR as the loser as many people prefer that instanced sanatised safe form of combat. Let me just say it doesn't particularly appeal to me, for me pvp should feel dangerous.

The economy

OK, the design teams have come from completely opposite poles and I'm going to plunge in and say that SWTOR's philosophy here was half-baked and terrible.

In Galaxies economic professions were a fundamental part of the economy and almost everything was made by players. Resources were rare, searching them out was time-consuming, the top crafters were astonishingly hardcore. Later on this philosophy, as with many aspects of Galaxies became diluted but in 2003 the economy was fascinating.

In SWTOR the philosophy is throw it all at the players so they won't whine. Have unlimited money with a gathering profession that literally just gathers cash. Level to max in a few days. Have 5 crafting characters on one with your crew of willing slaves working 24/7. Oh and the Auction House is a worse database than one I could build on Open Office freeware in an afternoon.

Some elements of it are well-designed. The crafting/missions/gathering division is elegant as is the reverse engineering mechanic and some of the item design. But the whole thing more ressembles Kid in a Sweetshop than Economic Simulation. Bioware have profoundly failed crafter players.

SWG of course had one of the most interesting and admired crafter economies ever done.

Space combat

SWTOR wins hands down. I really like the space combat minigame. SWG launched with none but then added a space game that was just too hard for me.

Player housing and cities

One of the outstanding SWG features. In SWTOR you get a ship which serves as a player house and is nice but it really feels barren without the ability to fill it with junk and decorate it.


SWTOR is too generous, too casual and simply too finite. It feels like a single-player game, like there's a point where I'll say "Done!" and I really will be done. It's very worth playing for a time, an improvement on the KOTOR series which were very good single-player games. But that's the thing - it feels like a massively single-player game. All the elements that should encourage interaction are absent or half-baked. There's a lack of cool things to find because it's all on rails. There's a lack of groups because there's no LFD tool. There's no economy. There's no war.

SWG will remain a high point of my gaming experiences. Hopefully its demise will catalyse other products that suit the people who liked it. It's a very strong influence on Dominus which I'm looking forward to more than ever now. And I feel that when SWTOR fails to retain the numbers it was built for, when it fails to "kill WoW", people will look back to older game designs and see if there was anything there that can be delivered in fresh ways to modern audiences.