On globalisation, consumerism, and F2P

(Even for me, that’s one heck of a subject line.)

What if developments in MMOs over the past few years really do model the real life experience in some ways? After all, virtual worlds are modelled on the real one … sort of.  Have gamers in virtual worlds been through their own virtual industrial revolution, and are heading on the road to  wherever it is that we are now in the real world?

Globalisation

Globalisation in MMOs, and specifically in WoW, happened when cross server transfers were enabled. Suddenly the population of a single server had much less of an impact on the progression of that server. Or to put this another way, there was a time when progression guilds took quite a strong interest in less progressed raiding guilds on their server and how they were doing. This might have been with a view to poaching players, but it was also because they knew that the server rose and fell together. There was an element of trying to foster the server community because progression guilds knew that earning a bit of goodwill with newer players now might result in better applications a few months down the line.

By the same token, if a raid guild on a server was well liked, non-raiders on the same server might share some pride in their achievements. I remember congratulating people I barely knew when their raid got C’thun down for the first time.

Servers now have become less relevant to a lot of players. Progression minded guilds and players think little of transferring servers or factions, advertise across servers and don’t feel the same sense of connection. Compare this with the way global industries set up call centres wherever the costs are cheapest and don’t feel such a strong connection to any local national interest.

You’ll still see some guilds, mostly more social ones, recruiting and training newer players off their own bat. If anyone remembers the post I wrote a few months back about running a TotC-25 to bring some less experienced raiders along, you might also be interested to know that some of them got the raiding bug and are keen to raid with our main crew in Cataclysm. Which is great because we’ll need the people.

Consumerism and F2P

Consumerism is a style of society in which people are defined less by their job and more by their purchasing power, and what they choose to buy. People are less interested in saving money (except if it means better consumption in future) or being thrifty with time or money, and more in having the newest latest most exciting items and experiences. We do see this as a trend in MMOs at the moment.

Players are less inclined to put all their focus into one alt on one game. Less inclined to define themselves as their main character or guild. Less inclined to pigeonhole themselves. Less inclined to put up with a long grind to get a minor benefit for one alt when they could get a new shiny more easily on another, possibly in a different game. And less inclined to value the achievements of people who do focus so much on one character – after all, look at how many options they have to give up to do that.

F2P games are bang in line with this type of play. A F2P game needs people to be constantly spending, so they need to offer a constant stream of new shiny items, which won’t last very long. This is the key — consumers like shopping. They like to have new and cool items to choose from. They bore quickly. They want to be seduced into making frequent purchases, not one-time permanent buys which would mean an item that never will be replaced. Consumables (by definition) are ideal candidates. If a player runs multiple alts then a F2P game can also try to lure them into buying shiny items for each alt separately. An item shop should frequently offer new things, time limited offers, anything to lure consumers through the virtual doors.

WoW in this context is actually pretty conservative with the cash shop options. They’re still good value compared to other games IF you have a lot of alts – the sparkle pony for example requires you to pay once and then all your alts can have one. Compare that with EQ2 which asks you to spend the same amount for every alt who wants the cool mount.

So it’s not necessarily about showing off to other players and keeping up with the Jones’, but might be just about being able to do a lot of shopping and choosing stuff you like for your own characters. Obviously the more money you pay, the more choices you have. Consuming is also a more solitary lifestyle. It’s all about your individual choices which you make privately with your own personal money, and less about having to fit in with the rest of the workforce. Again, this fits with the more solo friendly gameplay which MMOs are introducing.

The new breed of player may not be so interested in the endgame. Most of the F2P players won’t get that far – even if they stay interested in the game they’ll be cautious of committing too much time and money into it because that would restrict future options. This does not bode well for raiding as a playing style, at least not in its current form.

But can consumerism in games really support the sorts of communities that lead to long term growth? It’s a solo focussed mindset. And one effect of excessive consumption is that people can get jaded. The sparkle pony is new and exciting now, but how will it compare with future mounts, for example? Will there be a constant stream of people who will buy? In the real world there are also all sorts of issues to do with greater inequalities in society – in order for this to also be the case in MMOs, the cash shop would have to take on far more importance compared to in-game items.

Ni Hao to Stars, and So That Was The Argent Coliseum

Either Blizzard are getting soft in their old age or else hardcore raid guilds are getting harder. The heroic mode of the new Trial of the Crusader fell for the first time to Paragon (who pipped Ensidia to the post, which must make the US players happy .. or at least those who care about such things) on 7th Sept.

edited to add: Oops, my bad. Paragon are an EU guild.

The Chinese guild Stars, who are based in Taiwan, got the second kill yesterday, despite being patched a couple of days after the US. They celebrated with a classy little post on mmo-champion (complete with the now obligatory screenshot and log parse):

Everything we got belongs to all wow players who can speak Chinese (“ni hao” is enough :p), no matter you are on the server of China, Taiwan, EU or US. Thank you very much for your supports! Thank Blizzard for making such a great game and Soft-World International for bringing it to Taiwan. Hope wowers on the China server can enjoy WoTLK soon.

Players are often racist about Chinese players, mocking them as farmers. But Stars are clearly keen to remind everyone that they are part of the worldwide community too and would absolutely be up there competing for world firsts if they had half a chance. I can’t imagine Ensidia coming out with anything quite this charming on a first kill. Ni Hao all round.

In other news, a crazy hardcore guild tries to work the system by swapping servers several times a week. In order to get the title for heroic trial of the crusader, a raid has to clear the whole instance with less than 50 wipes. Apparently if you take a server transfer, your wipe record is cleared. Yes, it’s an expensive way to get some more tries but if it is possible, you can be sure that someone will do it.

Apparently swapping servers also resets the other raid locks so you could theoretically run the raid instances again to get more loot in the same week. I mean, if you were that obsessed and really thought it was a big enough deal for 25 raiders to all pay for server transfers. Presumably Blizzard will have to hotfix something in now to prevent that (maybe put a 1 week timer on server transfers), in case other crazy hardcore guilds take it as a sign that they should be doing that too.

Incidentally, anecdotal evidence says that the heroic trial of the champion is hard as nails for regular mortals. So it is by no means a walkover to the vast majority.

Why faction identity is so strong in WoW

I love having factions in games, and I’ve always thought that it was a good idea. It gives new players something to identify with immediately, and an inbuilt group of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ players to work with and against in game.

Without factions, it’s easy to feel alone and directionless. With them, you may inherit some of your faction’s goals right from the start. And I’ve always thought that if you set it up carefully, you could motivate experienced players to recruit and train newbies in order to strengthen their faction.

There are different types of factions:

  • NPC factions (like villain groups in CoH or the Argent Dawn in WoW). You may see these guys around but you can never actually join their gang, although they might sell you stuff.
  • Player run factions. A guild is a kind of faction. In some games player-designed factions are even more explicit than that. In my old vampire MUSH, the various vampire clans were all run by players. It may be possible to switch factions, but that depends on the players and the game.
  • Hard coded factions. This would be like the Alliance/ Horde in WoW, or Order/ Destruction in Warhammer Online. When you create your character, it is a member of a faction. You may be able to change this faction later (like in EQ2) but it’s led by NPCs regardless. This has the benefit that the faction does not collapse if one player leaves.

My first experience of factions in MMOs was in Dark Age of Camelot where your faction levelled in completely separate (safe) areas from the other lot, and also you couldn’t communicate with them in game. So you spent a lot of time with your own faction. They were the only people you could talk to or group with. The only way you could really interact with the other side was by fighting them.

I suspect the main reason for this was to stop people cheating, they wanted people to fight the other faction, not collaborate with them. But it also had the effect of fostering a strong faction identity.

Of course faction identity is strong, it defines your whole game experience

It’s not surprising if people do identify with their factions. It probably dictates gameplay even more than class in a lot of current MMOs. Your levelling experience can be very different between Horde and Alliance, for example. Your choice of races is dependent on your faction. You’ll use different quest hubs, different travel routes, and different capital cities. You may spend more time in different zones and instances. You’ll interact with different NPCs. You’ll also have faction specific lore and history, for those who are interested in such things.

You’ll talk to different people. You’ll see different guild tags. You won’t mix much with the other faction and when you do, it won’t be cooperative. (Actually players will tend to cooperate, even if the game makes it difficult. I know I’ve had my character’s life saved by friendly wandering Alliance dudes before and I bet that’s not unusual.)

In Warhammer, it’s even more differentiated. You could probably level in completely different zones based on your race, never mind just the faction. (So three different levelling paths per faction.) Your faction in WAR also dictates which classes you can play, and there is no crossover. If you want a Choppa, you have to go Destruction and you have to play an orc. It’s less flexible but I quite like it as a way to give the factions a very different flavour (and a lot of replayability).

The problem with giving each faction vast replayability is that somehow the whole mess needs to be balanced.  Ultimately Blizzard gave up on balancing shamans and paladins and gave both classes to both factions. Part of the outcry at the time was because people felt that faction identity was being watered down (the horde has a lot of shaman lore, the alliance has a lot of paladin lore).

In any case, the designers really really want  to foster tension and PvP, dammit. So the game is designed to give players a strong faction identity, and to give them reasons to compete and fight with the other factions.

We can argue about how well they actually implement this, but certainly in WoW Blizzard have experimented a lot previously with getting the factions to compete in different zones. They’ve dropped that in Wrath, probably due to monumental lack of interest (although I rather liked Halaa, the neutral town that you got to fight over in TBC.)

Faction identity vs Server identity

You could argue that a player’s choice of server has just as much influence on their game as a choice of faction. After all, different servers have completely different communities. You can’t talk to people on a different server in WoW from inside the game (I think you can in EQ2). And, more significantly, a PvP server offers a very different levelling experience to a PvE server. Unsurprisingly, players made much more of a fuss when Blizzard offered PvE to PvP server transfers than when they just implemented transfers between similar server types.

It isn’t just about ease of levelling. It’s about server identity being all bound up with the levelling experience. People who played on a PvP server used to know that everyone else they played with had also levelled in the same way. Yes it does mean that they shared similar assumptions beyond just which quests they had done, but part of being a PvP server player was that you’d done your time in the Stranglethorn trenches.

We do get a lot of our identity from nostalgia, and from things we have done in the past, and from making connections with other people who have done the same things. If you get a load of people of a similar age together, it’s only a matter of time before they start discussing TV shows they used to like as kids. (If your friends don’t do this yet, it is only a matter of time.)Similarly, a bunch of Alliance players may joke about Hogger and Van Cleef, both of whom are due to make guest appearances in the next 5 man instance, in patch 3.2. Old School Horde may point to Barrens chat and the Sons of Arugal. These things are shared experiences that helped to form the Alliance/ Horde player identity.

I like having strong faction, racial, and class identities in a game. But identities aren’t always things that people don and doff at the drop of a hat. So it doesn’t surprise me that a lot of people have a strong reaction to the idea of paid faction transfer. In a way, it makes the shared experience just that little bit less shared.

A game that was designed from the start to let people switch classes or factions would probably handle identity and class/ faction switching in a much smoother manner.

It’s hard to say if that’s how trends are going, when SWTOR is boasting that every faction/class combination will have a completely separate levelling experience. Wonder how much they’ll charge to let me switch my jedi to a stormtrooper if it all doesn’t work out :)