The great Diablo 3 economy meltdown

Funnily enough, I’d been getting back into Diablo 3 recently so I was aware of the new patch that hit this week. One of the new features was that Blizzard raised the limit for maximum gold sold on the auction house from 1m to 10m gold.

And then … some players discovered a buffer overflow due to these changes that led to some easily replicated gold dupe mechanics. Very soon after this, some accounts amassed ridiculously huge amounts of gold, even by D3 standards. Blizzard disabled the US AH last night and deployed a hotfix earlier today.

But they’re reluctant to roll back the servers. Presumably lots of players returned to try out the new patch and Blizzard are aware of the effect of taking away any cool RNG drops that they picked up while playing on player morale. Instead they’re trying to identify offending accounts and doing selective bans.

It’s probably too late though, once that amount of gold flooded into the AH economy, legitimate players started selling drops/ gems for hugely inflated prices so the money has been distributed.

Here’s the lowdown from reddit, and the Blizzard official response.

It’s at times like these that it pays to be on EU servers that update after the US ones, our patch had the hotfix included.

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.

[Kickstarter] Camelot, t’is a silly place

With only 10 days left to go until the end of the kickstarter, Camelot Unchained (Mark Jacob’s proposed new niche PvP MMO)  is looking on shaky ground. All the updates, stretch goals, interaction on reddit and other forums, press interviews and media rounds cannot hide the fact that the kickstarter still needs to make over 700k to become funded (and that of course will not include any stretch goals such as the fancy updated version of Darkness Falls).

The kicktraq chart shows them being on track to hit $1.9m – a huge amount, but still  short of the $2m goal. MJ et al have responded by adding more high end kickstarter tiers, a reasonable response given that CUs higher tiers have sold out rapidly to keen fans.  It’s not all over until the fat lady sings and there’s still time for more pledges to come in, but I want to talk today about the problems I see with the project and with the kickstarter.

Maybe niche projects should have niche targets

The main problem CU has is that there simply aren’t enough backers. Compare their current 8350 backers to the numbers who backed other recent successful big gaming kickstarters like  Torment or Project Eternity  (around 73k-74k people each), or Shroud of the Avatar (22k people, more modest goal than CU). As you might expect from this type of project, individual backers have been prepared to spend big on their fantasy heartbreaker (an old tabletop term for people who design their PERFECT game but the games are never quite different enough to grab an audience). But CSE set a high, ambitious goal – they may be asking just too much of their niche. It does speak well for the project speaking to a moneyed fanbase that it is getting as close to the goal as it currently is.

The high tiers have been selling like hotcakes, it’s quite astounding how many people are willing to throw $5k or so at a niche product that won’t be out for a couple of years at best. If nothing else, CSE have shown that the niche exists and it has cash to spend. At the same time, unlike other gaming kickstarters, this one is for a subscription game. This is one reason why the lower tiers don’t look as enticing to people with a mild interest  – even getting a good discount on the base game, there will be more to pay.

And while kickstarters often see a rush at the end, I think it’s just as likely for a project like this that some backers will have been overcome by the excitement and pledged more than they can afford in the hope of making the project attractive to others. Expect to see them cancelling or reducing pledges if the thing looks as though it might actually fund (and they might have to pay), or even trying to issue a chargeback.

This is not unknown on kickstarter either – there is at least one case where Paypal froze a project account from a kickstarter because some donors had been threatening chargebacks.

Incidentally, I remember commenting on Syncaine’s blog when I first heard about the project that I predicted they would set their goal too high and not make it. I still think that.

What do players actually want out of a pure PvP MMO?

For me, I felt MJ had dropped the ball when I listened to the description of the stretch goal (he also didn’t actually mention what the stretch goal is to unlock the new dungeon, but they’re not going to make it anyway so it may be irrelevant). He has often historically been very focussed on what players want from this type of game but I felt something was off in the description.

He had a very strong focus on how fun it will be to make your enemy suffer, watch your enemy suffer, lay traps and inhabit monsters to inflict misery on your opponent. ie. Have fun griefing the dungeon!

Now while there are plenty of players who will enjoy that, it is a sideshow. The main appeal for players in a permaworld with PvP is the opportunity to BUILD, not just to destroy. People want to know they can hold territory with their guild, stamp their authority on the landscape of the game, invest time and effort to be a part of the story of that gameworld that will go down in gamer history.

EVE gets this right. CU does not. Sure, “haha, that dude fell in the lava trap!” is good for a laugh in a Dungeon Keeper kind of way, but it isn’t the draw that being able to stake out your claim to a part of the world and defend it will be. CU certainly offers possibilities for the latter type of play too, but that wasn’t what MJ was hyping. I think he’s losing touch with his niche. Presenting high end tiers which involve custom build bases for guilds also impinges on the model – they will be cool for people, but they mean the design has to allow for bases to be in safe areas. That means guilds will be limited in how far they can take over each other’s bases or territory.

There is no reason this won’t be fun, and it does mean the higher tier purchases don’t have an undue advantage, but it will not be the no holds barred PvP-a-thon of EVE or even Darkfall. So you don’t get all-in PvP, but there are also no plans for a PvE game. People are excited about the project now, but I wonder if that is really what this niche want.

So what needs to happen for CU to fund?

One of two things needs to happen: either existing funders (plus anyone who was hanging in there until the very end to pitch in) need to all stick more money into the fund, or else a bunch of new funders show up.

CSE is betting on the former, with the introduction of new high end tiers for anyone who … just feels like throwing in an extra $10k or so.

Even if Camelot Unchained fails to fund, I wouldn’t call it a failure. They’ve raised a lot of pledges from a small player base so far. I just don’t think they’ll make their goal.

[Random] Introducing the Random tag—buy toothpaste, get SimCity DLC

And in a new blog feature, I am going to highlight acts of randomness in gaming PR where I read the story and think “OK, that was random.” Feel free to submit odd gaming related PR stunts that you find.

EA’s Random Sim City Promotion

If you buy a specially marked tube of toothpaste, you can get a DLC for Sim City that includes such noteworthy city attractions as “a giant garden gnome”  and “the world’s largest ball of twine.”

Man, what?

The burning question in my mind is that if you get an in game giant ball of twine when you buy toothpaste, what do you get if you buy a ball of twine?

Sang-Froid–Tales of Werewolves

sangfroid_title

Sang-Froid is a game I picked up from Steam this week, on the recommendation of a friend. It may be the most Canadian game ever written (sorry Bioware), and tells the story folktale-style of  two brothers who have to save their sick sister from a variety of baddies including wolves, werewolves, demons and The Devil.

But that’s not why I have been glued to it for the last couple of days. The game itself is a riff on Tower Defence, but after setting up your various traps around the brothers’ cabin in the woods, the game switches to third person as you head out into the werewolf-ridden night with your trusty axe and rifle to bag yourself a few baddies. And of course, you get to interact with the traps you so carefully laid earlier, luring wolves under the hang trap or into the wolf traps, lighting your bonfires and hoping to grab the odd headshot with your (very slow and awkward to load) rifle.

I feel as though I have barely touched the tip of the iceberg. There are items you can find to help, and abilities you can learn as you level as well as new traps.

So if this sounds like your kind of thing, I recommend taking a look.

sangfroid

EA: Probably the worst company in the USA?

Fellow gamers, we are living in interesting times. Despite sales of games heading up year on year, the traditional AAA/ publisher-developer model is looking increasingly creaky. Making a AAA game is an expensive, risky process and the feedback I’m seeing from the industry is that they’re often not getting the (vast) sales they need to justify the risk. So we end up with games that seem successful to consumers being judged unsuccessful by the publisher because 1m/ 2m/ 3m/ etc. sales just isn’t enough.

This all has very little to do with Electronic Arts being voted worst company in the USA for the second year running on a consumerist.com poll. The likelihood of them actually being the worst company in the USA is pretty low, but it’s clearly something people feel strongly about. Also there’s a sense in which a lot of people have made up their minds to hate EA and will just assign any bad decision made by any developer under the publisher’s umbrella to feed their hatred. For example, it’s really unlikely that EA had much say in the ME3 ending (that was a purely Bioware decision), but it’s all grist to the mill.

I have no interest in defending EA, no doubt they deserve a lot of the flak. Plus you have to assume that gamers will a) be online a lot and thus able to vote in online polls and b) interested in gaming any voting system.

But as a non-US person, the surprising thing to me is that US consumers don’t hate the same sorts of companies that I think would win the poll here: energy companies, banks, railways/ airlines, tax evaders, any other annoying company that is generally a hassle to deal with or sets unduly high prices. The businessinsider post I linked above notes the same thing:

Usually, utilities, cable companies, and airlines come at the bottom of customer satisfaction ratings because the interactions people remember are paying bills, delayed flights, or dealing with outages.

EA’s a company that is supposed to entertain people. The fact that it’s won this poll twice in a row shows how much it needs to alter its priorities.

I just don’t think UK consumers would vote a gaming company top of the hate list. Then again, looking at the reactions to Mrs Thatcher’s death, maybe some organisations or iconic figures have just become acceptable figures of hate. (NB. without getting into the politics of it, I think people who disliked Mrs Thatcher have more grounds than the EA haters.)

Peter Moore (EA COO) touches on this in his statement, and tries to address some of the criticisms, pointing out that for many of them there are many more players who are happy with the state of things than are complaining. (Although I think he should have left SimCity off the list: too soon, Peter, too soon.) This definitely won’t do anything to satisfy the people who hate his company, a bit more humbleness might have gone further. But I’m not sure anything would stop people from hating on EA except being given a different hate target.

Maybe next year.

[WoW] Thoughts on 5.2 – Everybody walk the dinosaur

wow_dino

Sadly, dinosaur jousting is not (yet) in the game

Somewhere along the line, it stopped being acceptable for patches to be referred to just by their numbers (probably because it’s obscure, hard to remember, and vaguely techy), so patch 5.2 should more properly be known as The Thunder King. (Amusing comparison: in Jewish custom, books of the bible are traditionally known by the name of the first word in  that book. This has the advantage of not being stuck with names like “Deuteronomy.”  In WoW, we know our patches by the name of the last endboss.)

This is the big content patch of the expansion, involving a couple of new zones, a big new raid, bunch of progressive daily quests (ie. they are in phases) with associated scenarios as the phase advances, more crafting recipes, open world raid bosses, new pets and mounts, and new reputations. In particular, there are a lot of dinosaurs because REASONS.

I’m having fun hanging out with my guild, getting on with the daily quests, running some raids in normal mode with guildies and LFR, and unlocking the next phase of the Isle of Thunder, of which we are about to unlock the last part. I am starting to feel worn down by it though and I want to talk a little about why that is, and other impressions of the patch.

We got dailies in your dailies

I think the daily quest part of the patch has been really well done. I like the mechanic of having some randomly selected dailies every day, and of unlocking the next phase of the zone after enough have been (collectively) done. It’s pretty cool. This isn’t an “I’m burning out on dailies!” complaint, I quite enjoy them. But the effect of all these extra tiers of dailies on top of the daily heavy MoP endgame and the daily heavy last patch is a ponderous feel of “same old, same old.”

For all that, once you have all the rep and loot you want from the local rep vendors, it does at least give plenty of choice in how you’d like to earn your weekly valor points. I don’t see that as a bad thing at all.

The loot problem with large raids

When I say large raids, I mean raids with lots of bosses. In Throne of Thunder, there are 12 bosses. Not all wings are open yet for LFR so Blizzard have staggered the release of the raid in a similar way to what happened with Icecrown.

The loot problem is that if each boss can drop several items that might be relevant for your class/ spec, that is going to add up to a lot of duplication. I counted about seven different robes that my shadow priest could potentially get from ToT LFR, all of the same item level. (Which happens to be 2 iLevels lower than the robe I had upgraded from the last patch.) Getting loot is great! It’s always nice when the game gives you something. But it’s going to be very hard for me to be even mildly excited about any of those drops.

I know, transmogrification and cosmetic clothing. I should get excited because they all have different looks. But it’s still just a robe and my goblin is a shadow priest (ie. spends most of the time in shadow form where you can’t really make out the gear) so the lure of loot isn’t really pulling at me yet. And this is even before the last wing has unlocked in LFR. I shouldn’t be this blase about drops already.

So imagine most pieces of armour will be present in multiple varieties also. I wonder if it might have been better to be a bit stingier with the drops.

In any case, clearly it’s in normal/heroic mode and rep gear from the raid rep vendor that the more useful upgrades for me will come. This isn’t doing a great deal to motivate me into LFR unless my friends are around, and as soon as I have the few LFR upgrades that I want, I may get my valor points via the easier raids and heroics instead.

Difficulty and LFR

The conversation about difficulty is focussed at the moment on Durumu, the beholder boss. LFR groups fall like flies to this guy, three full wipes is the fewest I’ve ever had before we got him down. This is way out of line with how bosses usually fall to LFR groups.

And the reason is not because the mechanics are especially hard, it’s because there are some very key elements which are just hard to see. If you set up a purple foggy maze on a dark background where the safe area moves around and kill off anyone who accidentally strays into the (hard to see) maze for too long, it’s not a recipe for an easy boss kill. This type of difficulty is a mixture between punishing (if you don’t get it right, you will probably die and no one in the raid can save you), and needlessly visually obscured. It is the second part that is the problem.

On the bright side, having to figure out how to get past an annoyingly hard boss can sometimes bring out the best in LFR groups. After a couple of wipes, people tend to focus more on getting organised, marking the person/people who claim to be good at seeing the maze and getting everyone else to stack on them. And after managing the boss, the raid has tended to feel  more cohesive for the rest of the run – there is a sense of achievement. I think it’s interesting to observe. Even annoying difficulty isn’t always bad.

But Blizzard do still need to fix it because it’s annoying to die to stuff you can barely even see.

Getting the community to interact

In this patch, Blizzard have put a few new elements in to try to encourage more interaction. The Isle of Thunder has some rare elite mobs which drop desirable items (including a key to the new solo loot-grab scenario), and which need a few people to kill. You also don’t need to be in a group or raid to get loot if you have helped with the kill  I find that general chat on the isle is often used to report when one of these mobs is up, as a general invitation to people to come and pile in. So it seems to be working as a way to get players to communicate and invite random others to help. What they don’t tend to do is tell you where the rare mob is, so you’ll have to learn those locations on your own (or with the help of a handy website).

There are also a couple of new world bosses which need huge numbers of players (ie. more than one full raid) to kill. These also have been pretty successful in encouraging interaction. Word tends to get round when one of them is up via guild chat, trade chat, general chat in cities and everyone is welcome to come and pile in. Because you need that many warm bodies.

So do I like to see this kind of thing in the game. I think it’s worthwhile to have bosses with fairly simple mechanics but that require large numbers of players to kill, alongside content that is more difficult, more solo friendly, or favours elite groups. How busy/ popular those mobs will be when people no longer need the loot is hard to say. I see far fewer Sha of Anger (world boss from the start of MoP) groups being formed now than I used to, for example.

Do we expect every patch to be a mini expansion now?

There are some real bonuses to having patches that involve self contained zones and reputations and  easy stepping on points for players who had taken a break. Mostly because you can draw players back in who had previously gotten bored with the expansion  to see and play the new content.

The downside is that more of the things you had done previously in the expansion will feel deprecated. The rep and loot from the last patch will soon be replaced by the rep and loot from the current one. Keen had a good point I think where he argues that he wants time spend in MMOs to feel like an investment.

I see Blizzard trying to find a balance in which your achievements from the beginning of the expansion still feel valid and useful later on. For example, time spent maxing out the farm is still useful – you can still grow useful stuff on it. Mounts and pets are still useful and valid if you want to use them. Knowing the heroic instances and earlier LFR raids is still useful, they are good sources of valor points and knowing the fights will make it easier for you to shine/ your raid to kill them.

This balance between valid current content and deprecated old content has always been a point of contention in themepark style MMOs. In some ways, the games always feel purer a few months  after release — after the worst of the release bugs have been fixed but before the first expansion is released, because it simply isn’t a concern and all the content is current.

I wonder whether other MMOs find a better balance than WoW does.  I know in LOTRO I always used to feel that the older content felt more valid than old WoW raids, for example. I’m not sure if that is still the case.