[WoW] Ghost Iron is the new black

wow_bs

jurvetson@flickr

I wrote a post about my adventures with blacksmithing in Pandaria a few months back.

Executive summary:

  • Wow, there’s a lot of ghost iron about.
  • As well as the base material for blacksmithing and jewelcrafting, you can also transmute it into other stuff (like trillium, living steel, etc)
  • Hey, crafted PvP gear sells really well. Who would have thought?

So I made a ton on crafting and selling PvP gear until I got bored of it because I had more gold than I needed. (Which is the entire story of my ventures into the economy on any game, I can never feel motivated after I have enough.) Living steel is fairly cheap on the auction house so it’s still easier to sell crafted PvP gear and use the profits to buy anything else you might need. Life is good.

And then comes patch 5.2, which continues on the whole “hey guys, our entire economy is based on Ghost Iron these days” theme by adding a bunch of entirely new demand for the stuff.

1. A new PvP/ Arena season. This means that the PvP crafted gear gets a bump in iLvL to help starting players (not a huge bump: its going from 450 to 458). Typically what Blizzard have done in the past is leave the recipes alone but have them produce higher iLvL gear with a slightly different name. So as a blacksmith, you don’t actually have to do much to take advantage of this. However, you really don’t want to be left with old stock when the recipe is upgraded.

Often there is a surge of demand for crafted gear when a new season starts. I don’t know if that will be the case this time, it hasn’t really been improved much. But best to assume this might happen again.

2. Large demand for trillium as part of the Wrathion legendary questline. The next stages of this quest are rumoured to require people to hand in 40 trillium bars. Blizzard have been known to tweak files in between the test server and a live patch drop to encourage people not to hoard, but if this is true then there is about to be a huge demand on trillium. Which means a demand for Ghost Iron by alchemists queueing up to turn the stuff into trillium.

(I personally feel the cheapest way to get your trillium is to buy white/black trillium on the cheap and make up the spares by spending Spirits of Harmony at the vendor because a lot of people do not have miners and don’t know how to combine black/white ore to get trillium bars. Also white trillium has been cheap for ages.)

3. Blizzard are tweaking Blacksmithing, and making it possible to level the tradeskills from scratch in Pandaria, using only Ghost Iron as a material. Players have realised for awhile that tradeskills haven’t really been in synch with the new levelling curve – it takes a bit of effort and going out of your way to keep tradeskills up to date while you level now. So it may not really be surprising if Blizzard decided to provide shortcuts, in the same way that they did with cooking. As a crafter, this makes me a bit sad; I quite liked that there was an advantage to knowing where to gather all the materials you might need to level a tradeskill. Although I imagine more hardcore players on large servers just buy it all from the AH.

As a miner, it makes me think that the price of Ghost Iron is going to go through the roof.

4. And you’ll also need a bunch of Ghost Iron to make the new Lightning Steel material that is going to be used to craft new blacksmithing recipes in the next patch.  I’m not all that excited by any recipes that I have seen, as it’s mostly iLvL 463 (blue) weapons that can be transmogged to look like Burning Crusade weapons. I never thought that BC was really the weapons high point of the game, but your mileage may vary.

This isn’t really a gold guide, and if I need more in game gold I’ll probably just keep selling crafted PvP gear. But it’s intriguing to see Blizzard deliberately driving the economy like this. I can only imagine what will happen when they eventually bring in legendary gems (these recipes usually appear a few patches into an expansion) which are bound to be based on Ghost Iron too.

[Solving the Content Problem] The Smörgåsbord: Adding different subgames for different playstyles

dessert_buffet

skenmy@flickr

MMOs have always given players some freedom to pick what activity they prefer to do when they log in. This is one of the aspects that makes them so different from other types of games. For sure, themepark games tend to adhere to the RPG model and prod people in the direction of levelling, or at least in the direction of whatever the other players are probably doing, but players do expect to have some standard options.

For these to make sense as addressing the content problem, these subgames need to have completely separate progression mechanics from each other. I’m not talking here about adding achievements to existing content, but about offering something for totally separate playing styles. You could think of it as being a way to attract more players to the same game, by catering for different gaming tastes.

For example, MMOs often include an economic simulation. Players progress by making gold via trade (or other in game activities). A player who chooses to focus on this subgame can do it largely independently of (for example) endgame raiding or PvP. There can be plenty of depth in a good economic simulation – you only need to look at the sheer number of gold making WoW blogs to see how many different markets and approaches there are to playing this subgame. While the economy can be connected to every other part of the game, in a separated presentation (like WoW), you never actually need to play the economy beyond selling loot that you picked up while levelling. You could happily ignore it.

Crafting  can also be a separate minigame of its own. Players progress by learning tradeskills (maybe multiple tradeskills on multiple alts) and figuring out how to acquire the materials and make the items that they want. Plenty of players enjoy crafting who never have any intention of spending much time trading. It can be separate.

PvP is another very common playing style that is offered as a separate minigame by themepark MMOs. Separate again means a completely separate progression and gearing path. Players who enjoy PvP can often do this without ever touching PvE (after they have levelled).

So: separating playing styles? Is it a good or a bad thing

There are two ways to look at this.

1. The first is that the ideal MMO (probably a sandbox) should have an integrated playerbase. It should be focussed on its niche, and every part of the game should feed into every other part to encourage players to interact. For example, there should not be artificial boundaries preventing PvPers from dominating some aspect of the economy (maybe by annexing some area where rare drops can be found) and at the same time, a player who participates in all aspects of the game (or is in a guild which does) should be able to dominate a player who doesn’t. If the game is large enough and the separate activities have enough depth, it won’t be possible for a single player or guild to dominate every aspect so there will be plenty of room for players  to specialise and co-operate. So there will still be plenty of choice for players, they can still pick which aspects of the game they prefer to focus on. They will just have to live with the consequences.

Note: this ideal would require quite a large, active sandbox game to really work. (This is the problem with a lot of the early ideas about ideal MMOs.)

2. The second is the buffet or smorgasbord approach. The game is like a buffet table, players can pick and choose which activities they want to do. More importantly, they can pick the activities which they want to avoid. There will be communities in game which focus on different activities and that’s fine. The game can never be as integrated as a type 1 MMO, the separate gaming bubbles won’t really affect each other. But if people want to PvP all the time then they can, and if they want to never PvP then they don’t have to.

It is true that there are many ways for players to cooperate or compete in MMOs that don’t involve beating the tar out of each other in PvP. You can argue that the economic game is a form of PvP also, which is true. But from a gameplay perspective, it’s a very different way of getting players to interact. There is plenty of competition but the raw aggression (and bad behaviour) that is so intimidating to so many players just isn’t as great an issue. It also can be slower paced and put more emphasis on strategic thinking.

Over time, players have seemed to prefer type 2 games. Even though type 1 games are probably more immersive and function better as integrated worlds. It might be fairer to say that either Type 1 favours a niche audience, or else that devs could do a better job with Type 1 if they stopped trying to shoehorn PvP into every game, since PvP tends to dominate games where it is not kept totally separate.

Introducing new minigames

I want to give some examples of separated minigames in MMOs, to show how different devs have used this as a way to solve the content problem.

  • Skirmishes in LOTRO. This is fairly brilliant design. The skirmishes are PvE instances that can scale from single player up to 12 people. They have their own queue. When running skirmishes you can progress your own skirmish soldier (a companion NPC who can be tank/ healer/ ranged or melee dps/ etc) via skirmish points. So there is a completely separate progression mechanic. You can also use skirmish points to buy levelling gear, cosmetic gear, and reputation items. Plus the skirmishes have their own achievements. Although skirmishes are integrated into some of the legendary book quests (and it would be an advantage to have a levelled skirmish soldier for these), they aren’t required outside this.
  • Pet battles in WoW. Another fairly brilliant design. It’s pokemon, in warcraft. You can go catch wild pets, have them fight other pets or other trainers. I’m not sure what you really get from pet battles other than the thrill of collecting more pets, or the occasional lucky battlestone drop that you can use to upgrade pets. But it’s fun, there’s some depth to it, and it’s very separate from the main game.
  • PvP in Warhammer Online. This is a fairly typical example of themepark PvP. You earn your progression points and gear by engaging in PvP. You may have special PvP abilities that you can buy with PvP points. While you can use your PvE gear in PvP, it isn’t optimal because the PvP gear has specialised stats.
  • Housing in EQ2. You get a house fairly early on in EQ2, and there is a huge array of housing items to collect and place. Fitting out and decorating both individual houses and guildhalls has pretty much become a separated minigame of its own.
  • Wormholes in EVE. EVE isn’t my speciality, but this is syncaine’s description. The reason I count this as a separated game is that it seems perfectly possible for people who enjoy wormhole play to focus on them and for people who don’t to never feel the need to go near them.
  • Space battles in SWTOR. A set of graded on rails space missions, with their own daily quests, tokens, and ship related loot. Bioware never really felt very committed to space battles, they’re fun but limited.

Raiding in WoW used to be a very separated game. The only way to get raid gear was to raid. As time goes on, players are now far more encouraged to dip into raiding as part of a general PvE playing style via LFR (ie. much easier to get into random raids), and have a much wider range of gear available for raiding.

Wildstar is touting separate player paths, and no doubt we’ll get to hear more about how those work out in practice as the game lurches towards release. My personal doubt is how well this caters for players who might be in a mood to fight/soldier one day and feel more like exploring the next. I don’t personally want to be forced to commit to one primary playstyle at the start of a new game and then be told I need to roll a new alt if I want to try something else. There’s separated and then there’s separated.

Separated minigames as content solution?

Both the good and bad sides about separated games is that they are all optional. It is possible for a dev to put a lot of effort into creating a new minigame and for the player base to collectively say meh. (PvP in City of Heroes is an example of a separated game that never really took off, the majority of players just weren’t that interested.)

It is also possible for devs to put a lot of effort into developing a minigame and then to abandon it to its own devices and not add any interesting new tweaks or content in future expansions. Housing in LOTRO feels a bit stagnant for that reason. The houses are nice, decorating them is cool, but there’s not really much to do with your house and it feels like abandoned content.

At its best though, separate minigames do give players a much wider choice of in game activities. And minigames with good depth can potentially add a lot of depth and replayability to the game world. On the downside, they can make a game feel far more complex, and it isn’t always clear to new players which content is optional, and how optional it really is.

[Thought of the Day] Difficulty isn’t always about difficulty.

Berath wrote last week about returning to LOTRO after having missed a couple of expansions. She was struck by how much there is to know, how many things have changed, and how hard it is to adjust once you have been used to playing a minmaxed/ optimised character in the past. She compares this experience with that of a new player on her kinship forum who is still struggling with being able to move, steer and fight at the same time.

I feel very much that the real currency of MMOs is knowledge. It’s the knowledge of how to play many facets of the game (tactics for all the bosses, instances etc, knowing your way round all the zones, how to counter every other class in PvP, work many different PvE markets), how the lore developed, and how the game has changed over time that marks out the real dinos. This is one of the reasons that although themepark players enjoy new content, they don’t always welcome expansions which make old content irrelevant or mean they have to totally learn how to replay every character. It makes that process of knowledge collection worthless. But at the same time, ensuring that players must work to keep their knowledge up to date means that current players can feel a sense of achievement, and that there will be payoffs for keeping up to date with the game.

The persistence and progression of player knowledge (along with a social network of gamers) is the true persistence and progression of MMOs. This is one of the reasons it can be so difficult for a new player to join an older game. Because they are consistently playing with people who just know more than they do, and may have no reason to either share the knowledge or teach newbies.

We tend to wrap game knowledge up as a part of gaming skill. ie. you can’t be good at game X unless you know A, B and C.  This is fine for people who enjoy collecting knowledge. Of which I am one. MMOs suit me fine; I have a good memory, like learning pointless trivia and don’t mind relearning it regularly. Being expert about in game lore and mechanics can also be quite sociable, it isn’t really a twitch game, and it encourages community/ blogging/ etc.

We really should stop treating in game knowledge as if it was optional or unimportant. And the game that can crack the nut of encouraging player communities to welcome and teach new players will have solved the numbers problem.

[General Gaming Links] Events, ‘I quit’ posts, TESO, Wildstar, and more

otters

harlequeen @ flickr (Brought to you by otters)

So this is the second links post of the year so far, and unlike the gaming news links of last week, what I’m aiming to do with the regular general links posts is simply to highlight blog posts and articles that have grabbed me. Because I’m aiming to save up a month’s worth of tagged content, some of these blog posts won’t be ultra recent but I like to think the better ones improve with time.  Let’s see how we go!

Omali at MMO Fallout talks about Random Events in Runescape and how he thinks Jagex have evolved them over the years.

Overly Positive is a community mod blog, and in this post Frank discusses how mods deal with “I quit!” posts. Anyone ever written an “I quit” post on a public forum? I know I never have. I generally just quit without a fuss.

Community people are always interested in why people decide to leave a game they represent, which is why all the people who inevitably respond to “I quit” posts with the notion that they should somehow shut up, go away, go back to WoW or whatever else, doesn’t really help us.

Terra Silverspar is cautious about The Elder Scrolls Online, and explains what Zenimax would have to do to change this to optimism.

The Pensive Harpy begs for an end of cinematic  CGI trailers for MMOs.

Sure, they look really cool, and can thrill the imagination. But they have ZERO bearing on the actual game, and they show nothing of significance about the gameplay (you know, the bit that actually matters?). The more slick and impressive one is the more I think "How much money was wasted on making this rather than being invested in something useful for the game?"

Green Armadillo has been playing SWTOR and TSW recently, among other games, and weighs in on how he thinks the monetisation schemes are working out. I personally do struggle to write about monetisation at the moment, and it is partly because I know that SWTOR and GW2 are making a lot of money from selling random lootboxes, but I cannot understand the motivation of players to spend upwards of $100 per month on random loot boxes! I just don’t get it. How is that fun? But there are a large number of players who do this, enough to keep games viable.

I have new theories about both games… neither of which would be good news for me as a customer of both products.  I get the impression that SWTOR is heavily dependent on its cosmetic item gambling packs and that TSW appears to be running a fire sale to keep the lights on for a few more months before going under.

He has had a blistering good blogging month, and another blog I want to pick out is his takedown of Marvel Heroes and the decision not to pre purchase.

smakendahed is struggling with GW2, he plays characters up to the mid 20s-30s but can’t seem to stick at it any longer than that. Here is his discussion of his experiences and  a plea for others to explain what motivates them in the game. (For me, it was the people I was playing with.)

I have no motivation to advance to the cap or continue playing once I’ve gotten far enough to see how a class plays and gain most of the abilities that interest me.

j3w3l is also musing on the state of GW2.

For a game claiming to be the evolution of the genre I’m not actual very sure as to the way it did. They abandoned ideals that were working well, and created solutions to problems no one was having.

Psychochild writes about the grind in MMOs, and particularly with reference to GW2. He ponders how things can turn from new/fun into dull grind from a player perspective and thinks about what Arenanet could to do perk things up.

I keep wanting to write about The Walking Dead, and keep telling myself I should wait until I’ve finished the game first. (Short version: it’s amazing.)  Currently I am about to start Chapter 3, and I find I need a break between chapters as it’s quite traumatic. Syp describes his experiences with the game and in particular how the choices  made in game have affected him.

Nick Dinicola explains why he thinks driving games and open worlds shouldn’t mix, in the process discussing what he thinks the core themes of an open world game really are.

A good open world will get you to stop at least once to admire the environment. There’s always one spot from which we can see the whole world, and it is in this moment that it hits us that this is all open to us, that we can go anywhere. An open world should give us a sense of majesty and wonder while providing lots of gameplay options.

Vixsin is impressed by how many goals she still has in MoP after reaching the end of Tier 14 progression. (She wrote this last month so may have run out of goals since then Winking smile ). She’s not completely uncritical, but pretty positive about the experience so far.

Stormy at Scribblings on the Asylum Wall is angry at feeling pressured by Blizzard into doing PvP. There are two battlegrounds that you need to win as part of the legendary questline, plus various encouragements to PvP as part of the Domination Point questlines. I can sympathise with this, I don’t hate PvP as much as s/he does but that’s purely because I could get my battleground wins and then never go back again.

The Godmother ponders how people are going to gear new characters and alts in the next WoW patch.

Once LFR as it currently stands is relegated to ‘old content’ I’d expect no-one with a desire to competitively gear to want to set foot in one again, especially if you’ll need rep from the new instance to keep up with the Joneses. This means MSV, ToES and HoF will become ‘The Alt 25 Mans’, full of people wanting to gear their secondary characters: I’d suspect an increase in wipes and a decrease in decent group quality as a result.

Ted A. suggests a few possible improvements to LFR loot mechanics in WoW.

Keen argues that PvP isn’t necessary in MMOs. Which is interesting as it still seems fairly core on the feature list of most upcoming games.

I think a game designed solely around capturing people in the moment by creating a really rich PvE world is a something I can really enjoy.  What does that mean?  I guess I envision myself packing a bag full of resources, and setting off in a direction with friends to see what we can find.  I like the idea of not knowing what’s out there, or not knowing when I’ll be back to town because the game — the world — is letting me go off and truly make the “player vs. environment” a reality. ((…)) Maybe that’s why I wish PvP was seen as less of a requirement.  PvE has the ability to create a much better experience for me, and I wish those types of experiences would be developed further even with the risk.

Pete at Dragonchasers, a self described ‘casual shooter fan,’ finds that F2P games can keep him happily amused. But he wonders what kind of an impact they will have in the long term, and how devs will lure casual players to pay for what they can currently get for free.

I wonder if there are enough serious shooter fans to support many big budget $60 games. It is my understanding (and I may be wrong) that game publishers need casual gamers to purchase their titles in order to thrive.

So in the future, how will these publishers lure in casuals like me? What are they going to offer me that I can’t get for free?

Jester is a really good EVE blogger, and to my mind he is at his strongest when writing about the big picture (and not so much about minor political disagreements between various EVE personas). This is a really good post where he ponders the three main goals for CCP this year. These are for Dust to launch successfully, attract new players to EVE, and keep the old EVE players happy. (A cynical reader might assume that the last two would be running goals anyway). Obviously CCP could have timed Dust better since it looks as though the PS4 is about to be announced …

The Angry Dwarf wonders what would be so awful if every game had a super easy mode.

Syncaine looks back on WAR (Warhammer Online) and remembers the good things about the game. I was and still am fond of the game, although I haven’t played it for ages. Plenty of commenters also chime in.

…if you look at what WAR brought to the genre, and compare it to SW:TOR or the ‘genre fixing’ GW2, WAR win’s in a landslide in terms of contribution. Public quests, evolving cities, how they did instanced PvP, the Tome of Knowledge, map functionality, etc. Yes, at the end of the day the game did not work enough to succeed, but many of its parts were brilliant and the blueprint going forward.

Syp lists 40 things he is looking forwards to with Wildstar. The astonishing thing to me is how negative most of the comments are. I get not agreeing with blog posts, but wow that’s some anti hype right there. Maybe it’s just the list posts people don’t like.

[Solving the Content Problem] Enter Sandbox

sandbox

andrewmalone @ flickr

This is the second in a series of posts about various attempts to solve ‘the content problem’ in MMOs.

A Sandbox MMO is a game where the devs create the gameworld/ sandbox, and then players jump in and do pretty much whatever they want with the tools they are given. It’s a very different style from the more guided themepark MMO where the game encourages people to play in a more directed way. Sandbox MMOs seem to be coming back into vogue, partly because of the content problem. EQ Next and Pathfinder are among two upcoming games which adhere to this design.

If we imagine a continuum between MMOs as virtual worlds/simulations and MMOs as games, then the sandbox falls squarely in the virtual world side of the equation.

A true sandbox game would have no NPCs at all, those roles would all be filled by players. So if players decided they wanted to give out quests, then you could have a quest based game. There would be no NPC vendors, you’d have to buy items from other players. If players decided that they wanted to PvP, you could have a PvP based game. But also, if players decided they wanted minimal PvP, to patrol the game with hardcore roaming bands of judges, and to implement their own system of crime and punishment to ‘punish’ PvPers (however they could do this within the bounds of the game) , then it could pretty much be a non PvP game. Different groups of players could run their own ‘mini states’ within the game.

Read that last paragraph and think about the possibilities.

In practice, game design pushes players strongly towards different sandbox playstyles. A game like EVE in which player corps can hold territory and gain economic advantage from doing so is going to encourage corps vs corps PvP, at least until the holding corps/alliances get so large and assertive that no one dares attack.

The way a sandbox game tackles the content problem is by encouraging players to create content for each other. (By content, I mean goals, organisations to join/oppose, and just ‘stuff to do’ in general.)

You may be thinking “but we have player run events and organisations in WoW too” which is true. Most MMOs have some sandbox elements, and it’s a core feature of the genre. But an actual sandbox game is going to have a different kind of feel for players, with more pressure on bored players to make their own amusement rather than waiting for the next patch.

Also, in a sandbox game, things in the game can change radically between one logon and the next depending on what player organisations have done in the meantime. You can’t plan your gameplay around dailies or raid lockouts, or you can try but other player actions might affect everything. It’s not actually necessary for a sandbox game to feature PvP, A Tale in the Desert is an example of a game that doesn’t do this. However, when devs talk about sandbox games, they often have PvP in mind.

Good Sides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games can have an incredible sense of meaningfulness and depth. Everything that happens, many of the things that exist in the game world,  are because another player/s caused it. Because of this, they attract a very invested fanbase.
  • In particular, they can offer a meaningful sense for PvP.
  • Sandbox games offer a lot of power to players, in terms of being able to direct and influence the game world.
  • Sandbox games encourage social play, you can simply accomplish more as part of a group than you can alone.
  • There is huge freedom in a true sandbox game for players to pick their own roles, playstyle, and goals. If you want to set up an in game business delivering in-game food to player groups in far off locations, you could do it. If you wanted to specialise in helping other player businesses advertise their goods and services, you could do that. If instead you want to be an adventurer and go fight dragons, you can do that. If you want to be a crafter, you could do that. None of these roles is more important than any other. There is no ‘right way’ to play a sandbox. However, you probably can’t do all of those things and will have to choose.
  • The ideal of the sandbox involves actual in game player run communities. Probably Second Life illustrates this better than EVE, simply by being a more diverse environment.
  • Sandbox games typically place a high value on player crafting as a way to let players a) drive the economy and b) contribute creatively.

Downsides to the Sandbox

  • Sandbox games need a certain amount of active players to really work (the actual number varies depending on the type of game and how it is designed). If the playerbase falls below this number, the sandbox pretty much fails.
  • Sandboxes are not always good simulations. This is for many reasons including 24/7 access (what does it mean if players from another timezone can wander in and destroy what you have built up while you and your guild are asleep?) and players in general finding it easier and more fun to cause havoc than try to keep the peace.
  • But a more focussed sandbox game (or a more varied one like Second Life) could try gatekeep for players who are already in agreement with the themes of the sandbox. For example, if someone wanted to run a sandbox based on RP in 18th century Paris, and monitored new players to check there were on board with that, you could probably minimise the griefers.
  • Sandbox games can be quite socially unstable, because they’re dependent on players. They don’t have the checks and balances that a themepark game does to keep the game fun for everyone. They are particularly subject to griefers.
  • On the other hand, Sandbox games can be socially way too stable. If a PvP game settles into a state where large player organisations own all the land and have minimal motivation to PvP, then a PvP minded player could find themselves with nothing to do.
  • Similarly, you can spend hours sitting around in game waiting for something to happen. Sandbox games can be very dull.
  • This all means that Sandbox games are tricky to set up and run.
  • Sandbox games are really susceptible to accusations of devs getting personally involved and tweaking things to favour their own characters. I don’t entirely know why this is but we used to see it a lot on MU*s too.

Mark Jacobs to kickstart Camelot Unchained

HolyGrail034

Well, that’s a turnup for the books. Read the press release here. I’m sure there will be a press blitz shortly.

The core concept for the new MMORPG focuses tightly on three key elements, RvR, housing and a true player-owned economy.

“We believe there’s a small yet viable audience of fans who are very keen to play this type of MMORPG,” stated Mark Jacobs. “However, tightly focused niche games don’t necessarily hold great appeal for traditional publishers who are looking toward the mass market. We see Kickstarter as the best way to reach out directly to the people who will actually play our game for help in funding its creation.”

Also, no one is counting but that means at least one of my annual predictions for 2013 is actually going to be true! Win.

[Links] Gaming news: Sony due to reveal next gen playstation in Feb, Hartsman leaves Trion, gPotato gets sold to company with less daft name

My aim with the links posts this year is to separate out gaming news (which I’ll post about once a month) from links to other gaming blogs or links that caught my eye. So this is a news focussed post, with some blog posts to illustrate how bloggers have reacted to some of the games/news! Feel free to send or tweet me links to interesting gaming related news for inclusion in future posts.

playstation

seanmasn @ flickr

The biggest gaming news of January is that Sony are implying that they are going to reveal the next Playstation on February 20th. This is big for obvious reasons, we’re at the end of a console cycle and games companies turning in poor figures have been blaming them on the console cycle for most of last year. There have also been rumours that Microsoft also plan to announce their next generation console  this year, so expect to see a lot of gaming press on the issue.

Sony posted a trailer on their blog which ended with the date: February 20th, 2013. The Wall Street Journal discusses the new console in context of the ailing video game market (I hesitate to say ailing, maybe changing would be closer to the truth.)

Gala Net (aka gPotato portals), publishers of Allods amongst other F2P titles, has been bought by Webzen, another F2P publisher. Take this as another date point on the “maybe F2P isn’t the answer for MMOs” graph. It seems from the financials that Gala Net had been well into the red for all of last year.

Wizardry Online, a new F2P MMO noted largely for a hardcore death penalty, released this month. When you are marketing your game as “the most hardcore fantasy MMO ever created”, it is a fair bet that you are aiming at a fairly specific audience. Still, Dark Souls sold well on a “this game is really hard and unforgiving” tagline so  the players are out there. Stropp gives his first impressions of the game:

The game promises a hardcore level of difficulty, and yep it is hard. Nearly every modern MMORPG tries to insulate its new and low level players from death. You’d have to be playing pretty badly to die to a mob under level 20 in WoW, even a mob 2 levels above player level. In WO, I died a few times early on.

Brian Reynolds resigned from Zynga, where he held the post of Chief Game Designer. It’s another very high profile flight from Zynga, which has been bleeding senior executives over the last few months. He wrote a blog post for GamesBeat talking about the decision to leave and what he plans to do next. And it sounds as though what he plans to do next involves starting a new game studio, this could be very good news indeed for strategy fans (as long as they don’t hold shares in Zynga).

I want to experiment more than might be appropriate for a publicly traded company, and I might want to do something that would be “off strategy” for Zynga or otherwise too risky. ((…))  I suspect that “starting a little studio with a few wingmen” — for the fourth time in my career — is likely to be on the menu.

CCP is working hard on getting Dust 514 ready for release. The game, which will be F2P for PS3 only,  is in beta at the moment. MMO Melting Pot sums up some bloggers’ thoughts on the beta and none of the people they quote actually like the game or seemed inclined to want to play it on release. That could be really bad news for CCP, these are people who were already invested in the genre and probably also play EVE and have Playstations: ie. their target audience. Stabs has some nicer things to say about the game. I predict that we’ll get to know how Dust is faring in the market by how keen CCP is to add more cash spending ‘opportunities’ to their cashcow, EVE later in the year.

Scott Hartsman announced that he is leaving Trion Worlds, where he has been the executive producer on Rift. I think this came as a surprise to observers and players, especially as the influence he has had on Rift has been so widely praised. Two questions left to answer are “How will this affect Rift?” and “What is Hartsman planning to do next?” Rift bloggers ponder whether his departure clears the way for a transition to F2P for the game, although the devs haven’t made any formal announcements to that end. I also wonder quite how financially successful Rift has actually been with its current model, a lot of bloggers have been keen to give it as an example that subscriptions can still work in the current market. But what if the financials aren’t actually in that great a shape?

Trion also have their hands full with releasing ArcheAge (F2P fantasy MMO) later this year, and Warface (a F2P MMOish shooter) as well. Not to mention Defiance (multi platform shooter MMO, that will tie in with a Syfy TV series).

Jay Wilson (Diablo 3 lead designer) has moved on to another role within Blizzard. Posters on the official forum have been so arsey about the poor guy that Rob Pardo commented on the thread, defending him. I quite enjoyed Diablo 3 and have no regrets about buying and playing, it’s not going to be my go-to game for the next three years (in fact I dunno if it will be my go-to game ever) but I’m interested enough to pick up the inevitable expansion at some point. Wilson is very low down on the list of game designers I’d like to have a quiet word with. Tipa has had at least 230 hours of entertainment from the game and it sounds as though she isn’t done yet.

Even though we played this game for half a year, it didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s time to move on while we’re still having fun with the game. I don’t think it will be leaving any of our hard drives any time soon.

Gas Powered games set off a new kickstarter for Wildman, an action RPG and then announced a few days later that they were sacking most of their development team in a round of layoffs, leaving people to wonder exactly who was going to make this new game if it did get funded. Unsubject, as usual, does a great evidence based takedown of Gas Powered, and notes that the state of the company’s financies is the sort of risk that investors should have been told about in advance. I doubt the game is going to reach its target, but it’s worth noting as an example to kickstarter funders of caveat emptor.

Leigh Alexander writes about the kickstarter fad for gaming, and wonders whether letting your fans be your publisher is a good idea. She has a point, we know how ‘reasonable’ fans can be when a game doesn’t meet their expectations.

Curt Schilling is selling one of his socks to raise funds to pay debts owing due to the failure of Amalur. Apparently it’s expected to fetch at least $100k. Who knows what he might have earned if he’d sold the other one too.

Bioware announced that planet Makeb, star of the next paid DLC for SWTOR  (I hesitate to say expansion) will feature same sex relationships. Naturally the non-gaming media siezed on this to report on the gay planet. Whilst it would be way preferable to adjust all the existing in game content to include same sex relationships, it’s easy enough to see that this is a) a cheaper way and b) probably technically easier than altering all the existing romances to include same sex options. I understand the criticisms but if it’s this or nothing, surely this is better.

Anna Anthropy also released an adventure called Hunt for the Gay Planet as a commentary. It’s probably NSFW.

Tera, a MMO known mainly for the decent combat and lasciviously clad characters, has gone F2P – it’s nine months after launch, if anyone is counting. j3w3l argues the case for why you should give it a go. Keen has some issues with the spin on their announcement (but really, can you imagine a dev ever saying “we’re going F2P because we suck”?)

Obviously they have to somehow make the best out of a situation where they change or die.  Just don’t believe for a second that they’re changing because things are going really well for them.

zomboobies

Racing ahead of the pack for “most tasteless special edition of the year” are Deep Silver for the bloodied female torso (with perky boobs) model they are giving away with preorders for Dead Island Riptide.  Conveniently Placed Exhaust Port is not impressed (nor is anyone else, to be honest, even people who like schlock horror.) I’m not even going to start on the sexism angle.

What Deep Silver has done here goes far beyond just creating something horrible. Lots of people have done that (there’s a sequel to The Human Centipede.) I’m sure somewhere out there is an entire line of photo-realistic busts of bloody nude torsos that enthusiasts of such things can fawn over. No, what Deep Silver has done is so much worse. It made such a thing and then, with a wink and a nudge, said “Dude, you’d love this.”

Solving the content problem: where have all the MMO players gone (longterm passing?)

“Mom, did Grandpa serve in the war?” ” No honey, he played World of Warcraft for 10 years.”

– UrbanGimli, “it’ll never be the same thread” on reddit

I’ve seen a lot of talk over the past few months about the content problem in MMOs, and how current devs hope to solve it.

This is going to be one of a series of posts looking at the issue and at some proposed solutions (which will include sandboxes, adding subgames for different playstyles,  blending mobile and fixed gaming, livening up the grind, events, giving players a stake in the world, harnessing player creativity, RP MMOs, and the game as a social network.)

What it is not is about how WoW is declining, because I’m not honestly sure that it is.

What is “the content problem” in MMOs?

  • It is when players work through content faster than developers can keep up with them.
  • It is when a game can’t seem to entice new players to stick around and form a longterm community, instead of moving on en masse when they’re done with the content.
  • It is when the sandbox content that exists seems to drive away more people than it attracts, due to griefing. And player generated content gets optimised quickly for maximal xp/exploiting/ dick pictures.
  • It is when all the methods that seem to have worked in the past to attract players to a game and make it sticky for them don’t seem to work any more.

So there’s an underlying assumption that MMOs, being permanent virtual worlds, should be attracting players who want a permanent presence. An onine ‘home’ if you like. They should be fundamentally different from single player games which you play through and then set aside.  Or play through, set aside, and come back when the next DLC is released.

There is also an implication that a successful MMO should have an in game (and out of game) community associated with it. These might be formal organisations like guilds or raid groups, or loosely associated groups who PvP with each other, keep the in game economy rolling, and create content for each other. Also bloggers and addon writers,  forum communities on fansites, groups on Facebook, and whatever other social media is hot at the moment. All of these player associations are assumed to be fairly stable for the longterm; a guild which breaks up after a month isn’t really a functional guild for example. A blogger who writes a couple of posts and then goes dark isn’t really helping the in game community establish itself either.

Or to put this another way, many commenters and longterm players feel that an MMO should be greater than its content. There is a virtual world and community involved, after all. This is important because if there’s a bad patch, then players will keep playing until the next one (at least) if the game is greater than its content.

As with all things gamery, people tend to assume that the standard ways of playing 2-3 years ago are some kind of writ-in-stone baseline to which all future gamers should adhere. But maybe, just maybe, the reason early MMO players liked to treat the games as their virtual home and build strong communities was just a part of the era. We know the internet has been great at bringing together communities of interest who might not otherwise meet. MMOs were how a lot of RPG computer gamers first met other hobbyists. Also, gamers at the time were early(ish) internet adopters and tended to come from similar geeky backgrounds, and be of similar ages. Maybe they just tended to have more in common.

What if today’s players aren’t interested in making that sort of commitment?

So how do people play MMOs now?

  • World of Warcraft – No one plays anymore
  • SWotOR – They only played for about a month
  • (insert countless other online games here)
  • Minecraft – Everyone built their cool house and left

The only things that most social groups I find want to play anymore are the simple, repetitive, FPS games like Team Fortress or other games like League of Legends.

thadrine, rpg.net

So what’s a typical gaming evening? Maybe it involves hanging out on voice chat with some other gamers who  met (and got on with) via different games, blogs, RL, mutual friends and social media. There will be smutty jokes, chat about people’s work and families, and at some point a bit of negotiation about what games people feel like playing tonight. Torchlight 2? Don’t mind if I do.

The space in which a lot of my gaming friends move is that of a loose cloud of people who play a portfolio of current and old games. There may be some regular ‘game nights’ or they might decide jointly what to play based on who is around, or people might just talk on voice chat while playing various different (including single player) games and not be playing together in-game at all. The community isn’t tied to a game, although people will tend to enjoy trying betas and new games out together and forming an in game guild to do so. They probably aren’t motivated to recruit in game, although might do if they run into someone who might fit in well. There may be some light raiding, although by the time you get that far, other players in the group will be itching to move to a different game.

I’m also in a couple of more established guilds, like my WoW guild which we started on Day 1 (the day the EU servers first went live). Over time, we’ve settled into something more than just a guild, but that is very clearly based around a specific game. Sometimes groups of people do play other games but they never have seemed to really ‘take’ longterm.

So I’m going to extrapolate wildly from my own experience and say there are two main forms of player community going on at the moment. The oldschool guild/community which does emphasise commitment to a game, and the newer social group which assumes that most players will not settle in a game for more than  few months at most.

I suspect that the newer group is growing more quickly. Why? Well, have you tried recently to find a good oldschool guild in your game of choice? If you have done so successfully then well done. It was never easy at the best of times, and I suspect it’s even harder now unless you network really hard. It’s tough because ideally you want a match for your playing style, timezone, gaming interests, social culture, and one that has room for your class/spec of choice. Plus they have to be longterm gamers. And once you have found them, they will expect a regular commitment. After all, that’s what you joined for.

It’s likely easier to find a solid guild in a game that is over six months old – that’s long enough for the more transient guilds to have broken up or stopped recruiting. Which is another way of saying that if you (as a player) have a longterm mindset, then the longer you play your game of choice, the more likely you are to find other players/ guilds with that mindset.

The newer type of more transient community is more like an extended friends network, and they are much less demanding in some ways. It’s unlikely that there will be an onerous application process. But also no guarantee that anyone in the group will want to play the game and/or content you’re currently jonesing for either. Although they’re probably open to persuasion.  You might also find group members are part of longterm guilds in at least one of the games they play, which will help you find a guild like that if you end up really enamoured of that game and wanting to commit to it.

The notion that we are growing communities of ‘play the content, then move on’ gamers has got to be worrying for MMO designers. It used to be the case that enticing existing guilds to your beta was a really good way to jumpstart an in-game community. These days, if you attract a transient guild, it will be great for your initial numbers but when they’re bored (in a month or two), they will probably all move on together. It’s harsh being a member of a group like this when the rest of the group wants to move on before you do, or if something comes up iRL so you fall behind the rest in levels in whatever game they’re into at the moment  – but you can always find another in game guild, right? If there is one.

Only 24 hours in a day

In WoW, I remember making friends with strangers. I easily met a lot of people in vanilla going through lowbie instances while levelling, 40man raids, then doing tons of Heroic runs in BC and Kara raids. Those were really good times coz you could just sit around Orgrimmar/Shattrath City and chat with your guildies/friends. I don’t know the state of WoW nowadays, but in newer MMOs, I just can’t seem to be able to do this anymore.

Klat93, reddit

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and obviously this is a rose tinted memory, but there are a lot more MMOs out there now to compete for players’ time than there used to be. There are also a lot more multiplayer games which you can play while chatting to your existing friends, rather than always having to go in blind and make new ones.

I think that for a lot of more experienced players, however much they might have enjoyed the social side of MMOs, they didn’t want to keep repeating the newbie social experience over and over again. It’s hard work, making friends with strangers. Plus they now had already met other gamers who they wanted to play with in newer games as well as the old one. And once you have a taste for achievement, it’s hard to go back and be an ignorant newbie. Also, hanging out and meeting people is very time consuming, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

As it happens ‘time consuming activities’ are one of the solutions to the content problem. An MMO that could encourage players to relive the whole ‘hanging out in Orgrimmar and chatting with guildies’ or ‘making friends with strangers’ behaviour would probably be great at retaining players. It just isn’t great gameplay – in fact, if you are able to hang out and chat with your guildies while playing a game, there probably isn’t much else going on at the time. (I’ll come back to the great gameplay concept later, because just as a good MMO is greater than its content, it may also be greater than its gameplay.)

But the baseline is that communities of players who drift together from game to game are very well suited to a lot of players. You get most of the social upsides of multiplayer/MMO gaming with less of the boring grind/endgame. But when the more vocal members get bored and move on, the rest probably follow.

  • So maybe if new games want to build their own longterm core player base, the best place to start is NOT with existing guilds.
  • And many players simply aren’t interested in committing longterm to a single game. In the past they didn’t have as many choices as they do now.
  • And the million dollar question: how do new players who might want to play a game longterm link in with the in game community?

It came from the PUG

My experiences in random instances and raids in WoW has been pretty positive recently. I’ve been in groups with some people who weren’t good players but haven’t seen any of the type of bad behaviour that makes for amusing blog posts. That’s a good thing, although sad for the blog posts.

Still, here are a couple of PUG stories.

Suddenly, RP

wow_redshirt

The instance is “Gate of the Setting Sun”, set on a wall-top garrison that is under siege by the mantid hordes. My group had been competent but silent, making our way through the various trash and boss spawns in a business like way.

Then we get to the section (shown above) where the soldiers are trying to fight through enemy ranks so that they can light a signal fire to raise the alert.  One NPC offers to try to run the gauntlet.

Suddenly one of my group pipes up on group chat: He was going to retire in two weeks time

Another player adds: And his girlfriend is pregnant

Then someone else adds: they just got engaged to be married

And that was it for group communication for the whole of the instance. I like to think everyone found it as engaging as I did.

Apparently anti-magic shield prevents magic

In another group, LFR this time, I was healing in a fight where there are a lot of enemies, and several of the mobs can  buff all the NPC to make them do more damage (Wind Lord Mel’jarak). So it’s down to healers (and anyone else) to debuff them, and priests have an AE debuff which makes them quite handy in this fight.

Anyhow, after the first wipe, the tanks were complaining about lazy priests because the debuff hadn’t been dispelled. I thought this was odd because I knew I’d been casting it and seen it not taking. Then I realised both the tanks were death knights, which means they both had an AE anti magic shield which had probably been covering the NPCs as well as the players.

“It will work better if you don’t put up anti magic shield,” I said.

There was silence. We killed him next try. (Note: I don’t know for sure that I was right, but I think it’s quite likely.)

Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.

 

Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.