[WoW] The raiding dropoff in MoP

I think it’s approaching that time in the expansion where I get a bit burned out on raiding, notwithstanding having a great guild and raid team. I can tell this because I was getting quite frustrated at being the nominated turtle kicker (I promise this makes sense if you know the encounter) on Tortos this week. (Fortunately we’re taking a week or two off due to people being on holiday and then we have a guild meet coming up so I’ll probably be back to normal after that.)

Or maybe it’s just a frustrating role that no one really likes. Who knows?

Well actually, Zellviren has been collecting stats on normal-mode raid participation and has put up a long and detailed post on MMO-Champion about it. To summarise: raid participation in normal mode 10 man instances has been steadily dropping off since Wrath. Even with the surge in subscriptions that came with MoP, fewer guilds killed the first boss in Mogushan Vaults than the last boss in Dragon Soul (last raid in Cataclysm) in normal mode 10 man. He also collected data on a boss by boss basis to show which have been the main roadblock bosses in MoP for these raiders.

I know the main roadblocks for us were Elegon and Garalon so it’s no surprise to see large drop offs associated with both of them, but the numbers also show that after hitting those walls, a lot of guilds seem to have given up on raiding. He concludes:

“1) This is the first time we start to see massive jumps and “brick walls” appear in normal mode raiding. Elegon himself puts paid to more guilds than the entirety of tier 13.
2) The Heart of Fear is a one-instance wrecking crew. Of the guilds that started the expansion by managing to defeat the Stone Guard, it’s managed to kill over 58% of them.
3) The ‘attunement’ for Heart of Fear is bypassed, allowing more guilds to kill the Sha of Fear than killed Grand Empress Shek’zeer.
4) 75% of the final tier instance was less punishing than Amber-Shaper Un’sok; the Heart of Fear accounts for an average mortality rate of over 7.6%.”

In Throne of Thunder, only 25k 10 man guilds have taken out the first boss in normal mode. Ghostcrawler did comment that counting the number of guilds wasn’t a great way to measure progress (I interpret this the opposite way he does and wonder if it’s because hardcore players might have multiple alts in different raid guilds) but agrees that fewer players have made an attempt on Jin’rock 10 m normal than on Stone Guard in the earlier tier.

Then Horridan (which admittedly took us several weeks of attempts) filtered out another 5k, that’s 20% guilds which killed the first boss still haven’t killed the second.

Well, it makes me feel better about our current progress, even though we’re not one of the elite 7k who killed Lei Shen on normal. I was tempted to put elite in ‘’ but really what else can you call it?

Basically, the current endgame model doesn’t seem to be working. Yes LFR will have soaked up all of those raiders but does LFR have the stickability of raid encounters which each might require a month or more of effort from a guild to clear?

Have your views changed on F2P games?

With yesterday’s announcement that Rift is offering a F2P option from June 12th, it seems like a good time to reappraise the various F2P MMO models.

(Incidentally, the Trion dev team did an AMA on reddit this week about their plans for Rift.)

Lee Perry posts a considered defence of F2P games on Gamasutra, focussing on things that F2P games seem to do better than P2P. For example, for all the emphasis on metrics, they really do have a good idea of what their players enjoy doing. They do have to offer new content regularly to keep people interested. Compare this with the WoW “lets try something completely different next expansion” and “lets do patches at a glacial pace” approach. (I know they’re doing better in MoP, I know.)

As long as your goal is still to make a great game, and not to simply apply these techniques to shovel-ware garbage in the hopes of winning the mobile gaming lottery, I encourage developers to look at these concepts and pick at least a couple to embrace.  Get out there and use these forces for good.

But can these forces ever really be used for good?

World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 11 (is 14 even live yet?) and Everquest are now (I think?) the only major AAA MMOs which still only offer subscription accounts. There are also probably lots of niche MMOs (such as Tale in the Desert, Darkfall and Wurm Online) which use this model, as well as P2P MUDs. Feel free to post about any of them in comments that I haven’t mentioned.

Guild Wars 2 has a B2P model where you buy the basic game and then there is no subscription, but they have a cash shop. EVE has a kind of hybrid subscription system where it is strictly speaking a subscription game but you can potentially pay for your sub using in game credits if you have them.

The majority of MMOs are now F2P where you can download the game for free and start playing without needing to subscribe. They make their money using a  mixture of cash shop items, paid DLC/ expansions, subscription options and selling in game gold for cash.

And then some games are totally free, such as traditional MUDs which are coded and run by volunteers. They welcome donations towards the costs of the server but there’s no reason to pay other than altruism.

One of the features of games that have transitioned from subsciption to F2P is that the player base tends to increase significantly in the short term (not surprising really) and also the number of subscribers increases in the short term. We’ve seen this most recently in SWTOR, which posted just under 500k subscriptions in the last EA earnings call. (They evidently have an effective “we will annoy you until you subscribe” F2P model going on.)

Green Armadillo compares a few different F2P models, dividing them into “Pay to Win” and “Pay for Others.” There are other ways to compare the different models, usually based on what perks/ virtual goods are being sold and how the game encourages people to become paying customers.

It isn’t even clear whether F2P does favour the casual player over the hardcore, as that also can depend on the business model. PvP games might lure in free players to act as cannon fodder for those who pay (World of Tanks), whereas other games make bank from selling cosmetic gear or lockboxes to casuals. It’s true though that if you do play casually, you can access a large number of MMOs without having to pay for any of them these days.

Liore describes the frustration that subscription players feel when a game goes F2P, the sense that the tight knit fabric of the game and certainties of the regular payments are being blown open, possibly to be replaced by an influx of rude casuals and a selection of annoying lockboxes (both of which have happened at pretty much every game which has transitioned). Without going that far, there is the potential for F2P to really divide up the player base and make existing players think hard about exactly how casual/ hardcore they want to be.

So – it’s a fast changing environment but the direction of the journey is very clear. Have your views changed at all on F2P games over the last months/ years?

Emotional Labour in MMOs: things you can’t get players to do

“when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’”

Leigh Alexander (who is a really good gaming writer, if you haven’t heard of her), twitter

Given that being massively multiplayer is one of the unique selling points of the genre, it’s always impressed me how far players will sometimes go in order to avoid having to interact with others.  (This isn’t an argument about forced grouping by the way, don’t worry.) I do this myself too sometimes – there are times when I just can’t be asked to interact. Maybe I’m not in the mood to teach a group a new encounter, or maybe I’m  in “the zone” and happily solo grinding/ levelling away and don’t feel like going all social with a group, even if it would be more efficient.

But players and designers have been wondering since the birth of the genre about how to encourage players to be more social, whether it be via forced grouping or rewards that require social organisation to solve, giving groups extra tools and props (like guild housing), providing social spaces and encouragement to socialise during downtime, better chat and communication tools (yeah, still a fair way to go on this one), and so forth. Some have worked better than others. We know that social ties are important to players and can help make an MMO more compelling as a long term proposition.

So it’s not unnatural to wonder if there are better ways to encourage players to interact. I’ve wondered the same thing that Leigh wonders in the quote above –  could you make it as fun/ rewarding to empathise, communicate, and be kind to other players as it is to defeat and grief them? Could that be the basis of some game mechanic?

Raph Koster takes the same tweet and runs with it, arguing basically that it isn’t a valid objective because it isn’t really the role of a game to guide how players feel. He notes that this is more of a non interactive narrative and, interestingly, that he thinks players feel controlled if they are told that they have to stop speaking and listen to someone else.

His argument is comprehensible only in a context of single player games – and certainly don’t apply to roleplaying (I wonder if he thinks RPGs count as games). In my tabletop games, I absolutely did expect players to be polite, considerate of each other and to listen when someone else was speaking. That’s a core multiplayer group based dynamic. We can call it “playing nicely with others.”

Oh noes, player A thinks the man is trying to control them if they are told to play nice with others! Whatever will we do?! etcetera.

But the question remains, could games teach these kinds of skills? Could they teach people to think about how the other person might feel before they let loose with some racist, sexist, homophobic smack talking rant? And if any games could, surely multiplayer games would be the right genre to try.

There’s work and then there’s WORK

Let’s get one thing straight. MMO players adore working on their characters. Not everyone has the bloodymindedness and tenacity to grind out every last faction and endgame upgrade but this is a genre built on the expectation of 10s and 100s of hours of play. Spending a long gaming session levelling, crafting, PvPing, instancing, or raiding for some minor upgrade is absolutely par for the course. It’s not as fun to feel forced to do something you don’t enjoy but the actual concept of work in these games isn’t a dirty word.

Listening to other people and empathising with them is work, it’s called emotional labour and lots of people have to do it as part of their jobs. And even these people like to switch off at the end of the day (because it’s actually quite demanding work, emotionally). This is one of the reasons why it does often feel like more work to interact with strangers than to grind away slowly on your own, because it is. And it’s not even all that fun unless they are listening and helping you too. Can we admit that socialising often isn’t fun? I think we can.

By the same token, splurging incontinent emotional backlash all over the game/ internet may not be fun per se, but is cathartic and relaxing(?) for people. Or maybe some people find it fun.

So when we are talking about wanting a game to encourage people to do the former and not the latter, we are looking for a mechanic that can reward people for doing  emotional labour, and discourage them from something that they find liberating. No wonder it is a tough sell.

Although anyone who likes the Bioware romances or Japanese dating sim types of games will at least be open to the idea that it might be fun to get to know someone, figure out what they like/ dislike, and be rewarded with some kind of relationship. So  maybe in order for empathy to be fun and not to be a pointless grind, there must be the possibility of a meaningful relationship (not necessarily romantic) at the end. Players have to believe that they too will be valued and accepted by a peer or a peer group on their own terms.

Why social pressure can’t solve this one

For all of that, there is a real issue that players feel controlled by in game communities. Some in game communities can be very controlling. One of the great appeals of soloing is not having to be beholden to the minor dramas and power players of a guild, not being told when to play or who to play with, how to use chat or which bboard to hang out on, and so forth. This is one of those cases where art mirrors life; RL communities are controlling too (you may not notice this if you fit in Smile ). In return for some conformity, you can then get support, security and friendships – things that are really key to making life worthwhile.

Which means, in games as in RL, if you want to feel less controlled you have two options: go lone wolf, or find a group of people where you fit in and are comfortable with the rules. MMOs are typically really bad at helping players find compatible guilds, it’s a flaw that no one ever has properly addressed.

Guilds have a much easier time than game mechanics in encouraging players to play nicely with others. The threat of being thrown out of the group is a very powerful one to our social monkey brains. The more pressing issue is that antisocial players tend to form up with other antisocial players, in groups that accept that behaviour.

This is fine in a group based game. If your Diablo group wants to swear at each other, no one else needs to care. But in a massively multiplayer game, groups will interact with each other.

That is what an MMO mechanic to encourage empathy would have to fight. Not the soloers (who are probably mostly happy to be left alone and will return politeness with politeness if they really do have to talk to anyone), nor the more fluffy or mature guilds who do encourage good behaviour, but the howling packs of invective laden muppets who are having plenty of fun doing what they are doing.

I think the best answer is better moderation, and better tools to let players ignore the people who are annoying them. Some things you can teach, other people need a slap round the chops (technically we call this “appropriate use of authority”). So what if they don’t like the feel of being controlled? That doesn’t mean everyone else has to pander to it, especially if it means designed won’t even try to make more emotionally nuanced games. Some of us enjoy controls, constraints, boundaries or railroads in games – it’s wrong thinking to dismiss them all as “that isn’t a game mechanic.”

It would be possible to go further, to look at how the justice system tries to get offenders to empathise with their victims. But so difficult in an online setting to actually isolate someone from their terrible peer support group.

Or else we could just design games like Journey where it is only possible to help other players, and never to grief them or interact in a negative way.

Can hardcore players destroy a MMO?

I bet anyone who ever played a massively multiplayer online game has come up against the scenario where you realise that someone you are playing with (or against) is putting way more time, effort, research and social networking into the game than you are.

  • Maybe it’s That Guy who undercuts all your glyph auctions half a second after you have posted them. Every single time.
  • Maybe it’s the really powerful and organised alliance who seem to have a zillion players in every timezone.
  • Maybe it’s The Guy in your raid group (or LFR) who is all geared and tweaked out and times his/her rotation to the millisecond.

It’s easy to feel demoralised if you are competitive and you see a situation where you know you don’t want to put in the time/ money/ effort to compete with that. This is one of the big structural problems with MMOs: how do you have a game where a wide variety of players can all play together without breaking the game? Do you encourage the hardcore players/ guilds to be part of a separate more hardcore endgame? Do you encourage players to play alongside others of similar mindset and give them separate instances  to mess around in?

Gevlon has a good take on this in a post about RMT where he muses that if you let players cash out their earnings from the auction house, it would attract a more professional crowd (note: his opinion of professionals is a bit higher than mine).

What effect would it have on the game? Every market fully covered, leaving no trading income to casual/newbie players, only similar professional traders could compete. The simpler income sources, like doing PvE would be covered by real world corporations using minimal wage labor (after all, ratting can be done by half-illiterates), leaving absolutely no in-game income source to the real players.

He even decided to cut back on his own trading, “giving more space to other players to play in Jita”. This isn’t a case where the hardcore would be destroying the economy, it would still function fine. Just there is a theoretical case where there are enough ultra competitive players to mean that there are no niches left for casuals in that side of the game.

There are other theoretical ways in which the ultra hardcore could push a game into a stasis from which it could never escape. You could imagine a turf holding game where all the turf ends up belonging to a few large alliances who have mutual non aggression pacts.

The only way out would be if the ruling alliances deliberately cut back on their expansionary plans (much like Gevlon describes in his trading) in order to promote a more ‘healthy’ ecosystem in the game. Where ‘healthy’ could mean anything from ‘more welcoming to new players’ to ‘more likely to give us some fun territory fights in the future.’

In a themepark game, this is all largely irrelevant (I think it’s mostly theoretical in most sandboxes too). There simply are fewer parts of the game where players would have this much control that a large powerful guild could simply win the game. But it’s interesting I think to compare with RL – sometimes looking to the long term good of the community might be worth more than going for pure domination.

Have you ever played a game where you felt you or your faction dominated so hard that it wasn’t fun any more, or where you gave up because you felt the hardcore players meant there was no point?

[Social Games] Game of Thrones, and other improvements in Facebook gaming

game of thrones

It’s ironic that just as people are cooling on Facebook as a gaming platform, the quality of gaming on  FB is improving in leaps and bounds. This has been a long trend, encompassing more classic games like Words with Friends and Draw Anything, as well as Bejewelled and Hidden Object style gameplay.

But the more typical social games themselves have also been improving. You can’t get away entirely from the more annoying aspects – the popup windows urging you to use the store to speed up your actions, or to spam your friends with invites and/or gifts (less of an issue if you have a spare gaming account and keep your FB gaming ‘friends’ separate from people you actually know) – but there are more games around now which feature more interesting options, and more intriguing gameplay.

Game of Thrones Ascent (now in beta) is a good example of the type. As you might guess from the title, this is the official game of the series so it isn’t surprising that it plays the TV theme at you when it loads. The team are also respectful to the IP, tying your own stories into the better known NPCs and noble houses that you’ll be familiar with from the books/ films. You play the founder of a minor noble house, swearing fealty to one of the larger houses (Lannister forever! I hold out the faint hope that Charles Dance with no shirt on might show up if I’m loyal enough!)  and getting a castle of your own to name and improve.

Along the way there is crafting, some castle simulation (you know the type of thing: improve various buildings, craft/trade various things), and you can recruit and train sellswords to send on adventures. You get to build up your skills as a fighter, merchant, or sneaky bastard and decide whether your noble values their family over the realm, the new ways over the old, and whether you prefer cunning or honesty. There is also a narrative thread about you building up your domains, which also ties into the storylines from the series (first book, so far) where you get little episodes with choices to make and that may also need you to send off your minions to do various things. It’s nicely done, and as I say, respectful to the IP.

There are also boss fights which are more like MMO raids where you can invite your friends to come help. I’ve seen this mechanic before in social games (for example in Rage of Bahamut) and it’s an interesting tweak on the social baseline. In the few I have seen so far, it is possible to finish off the boss mob alone, it will just take longer. The game also includes a chat window (which is a bit odd since it’s on Facebook which has a chat window anyway) which I guess means you could chat to your mates while taking out the big baddy.

There is also some gameplay I haven’t got to yet which involves PvP, possibly in alliances. It’s a very MMOish social game.

I’m finding this interesting enough for a blog post, it’s still in beta and can be a bit sluggish, but recommended if it’s your kind of thing!

Bungie unveils Destiny: Shared World Shooter

Let us be very clear on one thing, Bungie does not want people to think that Destiny is an MMO. Instead they are describing it as a console-based first person shared world shooter that will require an internet connection. There’s also a hint of a 3rd person social hangout/city, and players being able to use space ships to travel round the solar system, with an implication that space combat may be supported. So, this thing is going to be big, the artwork is super pretty, and also they have already specified no subscription.

Also there will be evil space zombies to shoot.

Bungie invited a bunch of press in recently, so now we do know a bit more about the game itself. Although not a great deal about the gameplay, which wasn’t demonstrated. IGN have a large writeup, and also a shorter FAQ for people who just want the basic summary version. Here’s a sample:

What the heck does “shared world shooter” mean?

  • Basically, it’s an MMO, but you can play the entire game solo or in small co-op groups.

Give me an example.

  • You and a buddy could be fighting some bad guys on a planet, and another player could seamlessly appear, help you out, and then you could group up or all go your separate ways.

What does it remind you of?

  • A bit of Planetside 2, a dash of Borderlands 2, and of course some Halo.

Are you sure?

  • Nope. Bungie didn’t show any real concrete gameplay. We’re hypothesizing based off of everything they told us.

No doubt we will hear a lot more about this venture over the coming months (no release date as of yet, the journos speculate 2014). The current furore is around “How dare they not release this game for PC?” (There’s an interesting note in the comments there to the effect that pad-controlled shooters tend not to make as much use of vertical space because it’s so much hassle to adjust the camera for the player.)

I thought the more interesting point is that Bungie clearly feel that a large, immersive, persistent, game world is still really important to players. Important enough to hang an entire game around. In fact, world is the first of their seven key pillars (one upping Bioware’s four key pillars, I guess.)

  1. A world players want to be in.
  2. A bunch of fun things to do.
  3. Rewards players care about.
  4. A new experience every night.
  5. Shared with other people. They did specify also that no one will be forced to PvP unless they explicitly want to. So this sounds to be primarily a co-op game.
  6. Enjoyable by all skill levels.
  7. Enjoyable by the impatient and distracted.

This has been said before, mostly with respect to accessibility, but I wonder whether pillar 7 will be the weak link that brings the whole structure down. Because I’m not sure if most players really want to play with people who are constantly impatient and distracted (unless they match their own playstyle very closely).

But maybe ‘playing with other people’ is going to be a more flexible experience in general. Bungie were specifically comparing the multiplayer co-op to Journey (massive award winning emotional chillout exploring puzzle solving work of genius) of all things.

Really I was hoping to hear more about the space battles (not a pillar!) and what fun things there might be to do in their game (pillar 2) that don’t involve shooting things. I’m guessing that the bunch of fun things pretty much do mostly involve shooting stuff, but who knows? I liked the IGN comparison to Planetside 2, Borderlands, and Halo; I was getting that vibe from the descriptions too.

But mostly the intriguing thing about this game is that they aim to prioritise small group adventures, with a massive player base. How they fare may set the stage for the next wave of MMOs. And in particular, I imagine Blizzard are looking closely at Bungie’s offering because the basic layout (large 3rd person social area, FPS adventuring) has a lot in common with speculations about Titan. But then again, maybe that’s why Bungie is not planning to release Destiny on the PC…

[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.