Tuesday 31 July 2012

The unlamented decline of Zynga

There's been some discussion on the blogosphere recently about Zynga's apparent decline. Ted at Terra Nova thinks the novelty is wearing off. Spinks thinks it's part of the end of the MMO era.

About 4 years ago when Farmville was at its peak many commenters on MMO games publicly deplored it. Our hobby seemed to have slid down some spectrum towards brain dead accessibility from complicated virtual worlds like Ultima Online and Star Wars: Galaxies via WoW to games that were essentially just clicking to see a number go up. Why oh why, people like the Common Sense Gamer asked, do people play games that only require 5% of their mental processing power?

The answer, of course, is simple.

Because those games require only 5% of their mental processing power.

The question that doesn't get asked enough then, is what were these people doing with the other 95%? Knowing the answer to this is the key to understanding whether Zynga's business model is about to die a miserable death.

I don't actually know. But here's a guess.

Facebook is for many people about sex. It is a way of meeting and chatting up strangers that for a lot of people has become an element of modern courtship. I think many Farmville players were using chat programmes to flirt with some people and gossip with other people about who they flirted with. But online chat has dead times. Rather than stare at the screen waiting for a message people alt-tabbed and played a Zynga game. That's their business model.

Of course they don't want to raid with WoW players or pvp or any of that stuff - they're not actually gaming, they don't think of themselves as gamers and the last thing they want is to be lured into some activity that demands attention over what they're really doing (flirting and gossiping).

Speculation about Zynga's falling revenues and outlook needs to take into account two things:
- is Facebook still a popular element in modern courtship behaviour?
- are there better things to alt tab to?

Sunday 29 July 2012

How not to run your guild

People who make guilds in MMOs generally do so for social and altruistic reasons. Running a guild is a lot of work, inevitably places you in a position where you will have to deal with confrontation but we do it in the hopes of achieving a wonderful social space from which to play our game.

 Real life issues are generally a pain in the butt for guild leaders. We don't make guilds because we want some random internet person's political, religious or philosophical positions. But just because we don't want it does not mean we don't have to deal with it.

If someone in your guild makes a character called Pleasenomore Neegroz boot them and report them to the game moderators. Then apologise to the rest of the guild for his/her behaviour and explain what action you've taken. (You may also wish to retain his/her IP address and RL details on file so s/he can't sneak back in on an alt).

If you ignore it first the black people will leave. Then everyone else who dislikes racism will leave. Then everyone who isn't an ignorant troll will leave. Then the ignorant trolls will leave because your guild is full of ignorant trolls and sucks.

The same goes for other types of discrimination including the ubiquitous use of faggots or gay as pejoratives. If you act early you'll have to boot one or two people. If you hide your head in the sand most of the guild will adapt to people using these terms and will self-select for ignorant dickheads. Good people will leave and Counterstrike kiddies will be attracted to your butthead-friendly atmosphere.

If you run a guild, make sure it's YOUR guild.

Oh and to Saylah, /hug.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Digital consumer protection - the consultation answered

Here are my answers to the shortened form of the new UK consultation paper. Do have a look and, if you're a UK citizen, submit your own feedback to the consultation process.

The supply of goods

Q1a. Do you think 30 days is a reasonable period to return faulty goods for a full refund?

Q2. Should there be an exception to the 30 days limit where both the consumer and the trader might reasonably understand that there might be a delay before the goods are used?
Yes. It's common practice to pre-order video games. If you pre-ordered something you might not know there's an issue with it but you may in some circumstances have paid for it. (Most pre-orders don't bill you until the game launches but lets cover ourselves here).

Q3. Do you think there should be a limit on the number of repairs or replacements that a consumer must accept before being able to ask for a refund?

Q4. Do you think that this limit should be based on a fixed number of repairs/replacements, or on the total time taken for all repairs/replacements?
Fixed number.

Q5. If the number of repairs or replacements before the customer could ask for a refund were limited, what should the limit be?
2 repairs or 1 replacement. Not all technical problems are easy to fix and sometimes the supplier may need to try different solutions before finding one that works. However there needs to be a point at which a line is drawn and if they haven't fixed it in two goes they're probably not going to fix it.

Q6. If the total length of time taken repairing or replacing the item were limited, how long should this be?
14 days.

Q7. Do you think it’s right that traders should be able to make a deduction from a refund to take account of the use a consumer has had of an item since they bought it?

No - it would be too complicated and the courts can review any unfair behaviour by traders anyway,

Q9a. Do you think that items worth less than a certain amount should be exempt from having a deduction applied – in other words should consumers always get a full refund for these lower value items?

Q9b. If yes, at what level do you feel the threshold should be set?

Q10. Do you think it’s sensible to make the rules for different contract types as similar as possible?
Yes. Confusing contracts have come to be used to deliberate confuse consumers into paying more than they should in some areas (eg "zero percent" finance). It's vital to protect people better.

The supply of services

Q1. Do you agree that the introduction of a statutory guarantee will help consumers and traders to understand their rights and obligations?

Q2a. Do you agree that the introduction of these statutory remedies will help consumers and traders to reach solutions quicker?

Q3. Do you think that consumers would benefit from an outcome based standard for services? i.e. the direct consumer benefits would outweigh any higher prices arising out of increased costs on business? 
Yes. There's been so much financial misselling over the last ten years that more robust regulation would actually benefit the industry as well as the consumer because people would feel they could trust, say, a financial adviser not to give them advice while betting the other way in private.

Q4. Do you think it would be worth introducing a "satisfactory quality" standard just in respect of services to a consumer’s property?
Yes - in this sub-sector the risks are low and the benefits would be substantial, but in other sub-sectors it would be too risky.

The supply of digital content

Q1. Do you agree that we should make clear what legal rights the consumer has in digital content transactions?
Yes. It's vital. It's become standard practice for software to include EULAs that require us to waive all of our rights. Not so long ago a games company required customers on April 1st to agree to a Eula forfeiting their souls. They collected 7500 souls from gamers who agreed to this Eula.

We are proposing that the consumer should have the following rights in relation to digital content:
  1. the digital content must meet any description given
  2. the digital content must be of satisfactory quality, meaning it should meet a reasonable person's expectations taking account of all relevant circumstances
  3. the digital content must match any trial version or demo
  4. the trader must have the right to supply the digital content and should not put the consumer in a position where the consumer is breaching copyright of the digital content.
Q2. Do you think that these rights are broadly appropriate for digital content?
Partly. Online games vary their content over time and the effectiveness of a player's favourite character or technique may get reduced (this is referred to as "nerfing"). Point 3 must not mean that a company has a duty not to nerf Paladins or games like World of Warcraft will be impossible to sell in the UK. Points 1, 2 and 4 are fine.

Q3a. What do you think would be a fair and workable outcome for the consumer if digital content failed to meet the rights listed above?
The consumer returns and / or deletes the digital content and has access to a refund within 30 days of purchase or some similar short period

Q4: Do you think the consumer should be able to expect:
The entire digital content package (including the digital file itself and the means of accessing that digital content) to be of satisfactory quality (i.e. meet the digital content rights listed above)?
With products like online games there is no meaningful separation between the product and the means of delivery. It can't be said that you have a satisfactory copy of World of Warcraft if you can't log in to the supplier's server as the game doesn't work locally, it only works while connected.

Friday 20 July 2012

UK law changes on digital consumer rights

The British government, specifically the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is proposing to change the law on consumer rights with regard to digital content. That means games, our hobby, will have an entirely new legal framework.

It clearly needs it. Currently the situation is laughable- the company puts in a ridiculous EULA which requires you, as a purchaser to waive every right you have and take any dispute to somewhere so far away it may as well be Mongolia if you do want to dispute it. These things are supposed to be contracts but they really aren't because one party has no power of negotiation. If you read, say, the Secret World's Eula and then contact Funcom and say the Eula's fine except I don't agree to dispute resolution being done in Norway (or whatever) then their answer is almost certainly going to be "tough, take it or leave it." So it's not actually a contract, it's not a negotiated agreement. It's simply a forced waiving of your rights. It's the old Roman system of caveat emptor, a system which was replaced as commerce rose in the seventeenth century because it's a crap system, it restrains trade because you can't trust the seller. It hurts both parties in the long run.

Not so long ago a games company required customers on April 1st to agree to a Eula forfeiting their souls. They collected 7500 souls from gamers who agreed to this Eula. Nobody reads them, everyone has to agree to them, it's ridiculous and unfair to expect people to be bound by them.

But what will a strong consumer protection framework mean for games? Can you ask for your money back if they nerf your paladin?


The consultation is open to the public at the moment so the law that final comes can be changed by our input. It's inevitable that strong representation from the industry will attempt to neuter the law so it's important that as many of us players as possible provide input to the consultation so that it leads to a workable law that protects consumers without making it impossible to sell games where the experience changes. Because if a consumer if protected from being given a worsened experience, then they are perhaps protected from having their paladin nerfed and that would suck. Not because I hate paladins, but because there needs to be some artistic freedom to tinker with the game in something like a MMO.

Tomorrow I'll do a question by question analysis of the shortened consultation.

Thursday 12 July 2012

TSW: the LFD question and how I'm doing

Now that LFD is an established part of the MMO format I miss it when it's not there.

I recently tried to get a group as dps and it’s a matter of waiting for the LFM then desperately trying to be the fastest respondent as 40 people ask for the spot. Or starting a group yourself and spending half an hour looking for a tank. I then tried tanking which went ok but left me feeling really drained. We wiped 4 times on the last boss then killed it on the 5th try which would have been absolutely fine if doing it with friends but felt very uncomfortable doing it with strangers. Even though no one complained or group quit just the expectation that they might rather killed the fun.

With LFD I can quest knowing that a group will at some point pop up without me having to think about it. That’s a big enough improvement that I’ll probably let my sub lapse after the free month and come back when it’s available.

I think in future I'll just train myself to consider the release of a game's LFD tool to be its actual launch and everything that comes before as some kind of beta, albeit paid.

Other than that I'm enjoying some of TSW and I certainly admire it as an evolution in gaming.

I've not especially enjoyed the pvp which can be summarised as roll the most populated faction then follow the zerg to win. (Also melee seems to do the same dps as everyone else while suffering twice the exposure so it feels daft meleeing with a blade build).

Instances are interesting the first couple of times but organising groups in chat is for me a horrible overhead. I'm rather baffled as to why they elected to have cross-server instances and still not have a LFD tool. I don't mind meeting people but I don't want to keep meeting stranger after stranger, most of whom don't even play on my server. Either let me make friends within a small community or deposit anonymous people into my content efficiently.

So what is great about TSW are the missions. Part of me is uncomfortable with the inefficiency on wandering around trying to figure out some obscure hint but I'm squelching that side so I can explore the game. The missions unlock the stories and the stories and lore are also wonderful. I've just finished China Mieville's Kraken which is perfect reading to complement this game - a story of cultists with magical powers running around contemporary London. (And written in plain English unlike most of his books).

So all in all well done Funcom, check it out if you haven't done so already but not for me a game that dominates my gaming time. I'm more interested in Eve and Diablo 2 really.