Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 27, 2015
WoW "final" status

My World of Warcraft subscription runs out this weekend, so I thought I should give a final status. "Final" as in "final for this episode of me playing WoW". It is possible that I will resubscribe at some point in time, but judging on past form that might well take until the next expansion.

Overall I liked Warlords of Draenor. I know some people disagree with me calling the garrison "player housing", but in my opinion this is one of the best player housing systems that I have seen in a MMORPG. I'm not much of a decorator, so not being able to place the furniture where I want isn't of any concern to me; I much prefer gameplay functionality and world integration, and I think WoD did that very well. I don't think perfect player housing is possible, due to conflicting demands, so I consider the garrison to be a very well balanced compromise.

I'm ending the expansion with two characters at level 100, and two at level 96, thus short of my initial goal of three characters at 100. The reason I decided to cancel instead of playing another month and getting there is that ultimately I wasn't all that happy with the warlock I created and paid €50 to boost to level 90. He was a lot better than the priest in terms of power, in fact he might be my most powerful character overall. But I found him somewhat boring to play, as most of the time I was just spamming very slow spells with long casting times. I pull with Soul Fire, cast an instant Corruption, and then most mobs are dead before I even manage to pull off a second Soul Fire. The whole "I turn into a demon and become more powerful" thing is nice in theory, but in practice I only ever used it on boss mobs. Between my demon and the imps that spawn automatically I feel I already have too many pets before I even got to the point where I could hire a bodyguard. I'm not a big fan of pet classes, even if they are powerful.

On the positive side the Alliance warlock gave me the opportunity to play through all the Shadowmoon Valley quests, which I couldn't do on my Horde characters. On the negative side, once I came to Gorgrond I discovered that half of the quests, including the grand finale, were just carbon copies of Horde quests and I didn't experience anything new. That didn't motivate me to keep playing to 100.

What was exceptional about these two months of World of Warcraft was that I only visited one single dungeon (on normal, for a quest for an epic ring). I basically opted out of PvE or PvP group content, being disillusioned about playing with others. Of course if I don't want to group, I'm excluding myself from tons of content, which explains how I can "finish" Warlords of Draenor in two months. I fully recognize that there are a bunch of other possible activities where I could grind this reputation or that currency to advance my character further. But why should I? Why gear up for a content that I have no interest in? So in the end beyond experiencing the story of the expansion through quests I ran out of goals to pursue. Time to put the game aside again.

Rashomon and Gamergate

So the TV series Law & Order SVU did an episode based loosely on last year's Gamergate affair. That of course caused the conflict to flare up again, until even the grandfather of MMO blogging Lum the Mad chimed in. But what I found far more interesting is that both sides in the Gamergate conflict are unhappy about the Law & Order SVU episode, both not liking the way they are depicted on TV. So lots of people are saying bad things about that episode, about it being stupid, not realistic, bad writing, whatever. I think they are missing the point here.

I very much recommend watching the film Rashomon if you haven't done so before. It teaches us that there is no such thing as absolute reality. Different people experience the same events in different ways, and in consequence their memory and perception of these same events differ. Even if you wanted to make a documentary instead of a TV show, you would be unable to retell the story of Gamergate in a way where everybody agrees with the facts. You could even say that not agreeing on the facts is one of the core features of Gamergate.

The people actually involved on both sides of the Gamergate story are few in numbers. Even if you count everybody ever using that hashtag or a related one on Twitter, you end up with just a few thousand people. But the story hit many major newspapers and national TV. Which means that millions of people who were not involved in Gamergate ended up with some perception of those events. The TV episode of Law & Order SVU is based on that *perception* the outside world already had before the episode was shown. Of course then it propagates that perception, but it barely changes it. If both sides on the conflict look bad on TV, it is because that is how both sides already were perceived before.

TV is not the most subtle of media. But that is because it is a mass market media, and the perception of the public of events tends to be not very subtle. There is no simple causality of "TV is stupid and makes people stupid", but a far more complicated story of sometimes very intelligent people deliberately dumbing down the narrative because they think that is all their audience can handle. Is the Law & Order SVU episode a simplified narrative with some artistic interpretation instead of a documentary? It sure is! Is it "stupid" or "unrealistic"? No, not really. Given the same public sources a different team of writers for a different TV show might well have produced something very similar. In Rashomon terms it is the woodcutter's version of the story, the one where neither one of the participants comes out looking very good, the version of the story from the person who doesn't have skin in the game, the independent observer. It is likely to be the version that will be shared by most people, and the one that is going to be remembered.

Thursday, February 26, 2015
Saying some nice things about Crowfall

To stop the death threats I should write some nice things about Crowfall. :) Just kidding, there are actually nice things to say about Crowfall and as I only talked about the Kickstarter I feel that my generally negative attitude towards Kickstarter may look as if I hated Crowfall, which is not the case.

First of all I totally agree with Rohan that it is totally okay for Crowfall to be a PvP-centric game. We don't have enough decent PvP games, especially in the fantasy genre. Even for somebody like me who won't play a PvP game it would be interesting to know whether the lack of success of fantasy PvP games is due to there being no demand, or there not being any decent game on offer.

Second, I totally dig the Crowfall business model. I am not a big fan of the straight WoW-like subscription model, because that model sells you "equal opportunity of access for equal money". As in reality two people with equal opportunity of access will have two very different degrees of consumption, the straight subscription model penalizes players for playing less if either their real world commitments or their interests result in them not playing many hours per day. There is a good reason why there are so few restaurants with all you can eat buffets, the customers who just want a regular meal resent paying for the gluttons. In spite of $15 not being a huge drain on my finances, I cancelled my WoW subscription when I started to play less, because it always makes me feel uncomfortable to waste money.

The Crowfall business model is much better. You can buy the game once and play forever (I assume that is only valid for the core game, and any expansions will again have to be paid for). With that single payment comes just a single character passive skill training. Passive skill training means gaining skill while offline, which obviously is a huge advantage. So if you want to play more different characters, you either need to buy the game several times, or you need to get a "VIP subscription", which gives you three passive skill training slots. In either case, a casual player who has enough with just one character will pay less for Crowfall than a very engaged player who feels he needs several characters.

The semantics of that business model are somewhat tricky. On the one hand the devs can claim that theirs is not a Free2Play game with a Pay2Win / Pay4Power item shop. On the other hand an account with three passive skill training slots is rather obviously more powerful than one with only one, so you *do* pay for power. But as that power comes in the form of having more options, and being able to play more different characters without the disadvantage of having no passive training, the power of any individual character is not affected by this. That is extremely important for a PvP game. Crowfall does not allow you to boost the power of a single character by using money. It does allow you to use money to get more trained characters and larger kingdoms, things that are desirable (and thus will presumably sell) but not an unfair advantage in PvP. I find that very well balanced. It is even a slight improvement over the EVE model, where you need to pay several subscriptions for several characters in offline training.

I put an alert on the Crowfall Kickstarter to check in a month how it went. Given the current result it appears almost certain that the $800k goal will be reached, but that isn't really the number I am interested in. I am interested in the number of backers, currently just under seven thousand, in order to get an idea of what the potential market size for a PvP MMORPG is. (Don't quote EVE numbers to me, which are highly misleading: They count accounts instead of players, and count the 80+% of PvE EVE players together with the PvP players.) Dividing the money given by the number of backers also gives the highly interesting information that the average backer gave around $100, which is very interesting regarding the financing of niche games. Ultimately a niche game will need to get more money from the players than a mass market game due to economies of scale, and it is interesting to see whether that is possible.

Vigilante justice

Last week an 11-year old kid accepted an offer of help from a stranger on the internet, giving him access to his game of Destiny via the PS4 Share Play feature. The stranger promptly deleted the kid's characters and exotic weapons. So far, so "just another day on the internet". The video of the event went viral. And the internet reacted in the usual way by taking up the torches and the pitchforks and harassing the person who owned the account which the stranger had used to ruin the kid's game of Destiny. Then of course it turned out that the stranger wasn't the account owner. Account sharing between friends and family is rather common, and the account owner had let somebody else play on his account.

Apart from being a double lesson in why account sharing in any way is a really bad idea, I think the story also is a lesson on the dangers of vigilante justice. In another story this week it turned out that one person who had posted bizarre death threat videos in the name of Gamergate was in fact a comedian with an extremely bad sense of humor who thought it would be funny to make an extreme parody of Gamergate. Now it is him who is getting the death threats.

The underlying problem is that apparently many people feel that the internet is a lawless space, and decide to take up justice in their own hands. Apart from that sometimes going wrong and ending up hurting the wrong person, the so-called "justice" is often far more criminal than the offense of person harassed. The person taking offense is more likely to end up in jail than the offender. The law is quite clear on that: If you put both the person who deletes a kid's Destiny character and the person who in response for that offence sent out death threats in front of a judge, the judge will find that only the death threat is a criminal offense.

Computer games are very much part of the internet, and it is probably because of this that the hate culture is so strong among gamers. Being called names and suffering ad hominem attacks for the "offense" of having an opinion about a game is considered normal. You are less likely to receive hate mail for having an opinion or making a decision that negatively affects the life of real people at work than you are for writing on a game blog. And that more and more becomes a death spiral, with reasonable and polite people quitting the discussion and leaving the field to the trolls and the haters. I don't think that this is good for gaming in the long term.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
How much does it cost to make a MMORPG?

The news of the week is the Crowfall Kickstarter, which has raised some serious questions. Not just the usual Kickstarter question whether the company can actually deliver what they promised. But a far more fundamental question of how realistic it is to make a MMORPG for less than a million dollars.

For me Crowfall in scope somewhat resembles Darkfall. So how much did it cost to make Darkfall? We don't have official numbers, but we do know they received $3 million (€2.6 million) from InternetQ plc as investment just for the development of Darkfall 2.0. They also received a bunch of European and Greek government research grants, which were said to be around $20 million. As Ionomonkey pointed out, the $800k they are asking for via Kickstarter corresponds to less than industry standard salary for the 17 known team members for a year.

Other MMORPG Kickstarter projects asked for much more money, for example Camelot Unchained with $2 million. And then of course there is a long list of actually released MMORPGs which did cost tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course the scope of these might have been a lot bigger, but I'm not sure if all Crowfall Kickstarter backers understand that they'll get a game with indie scope and polish, and not something comparable in quality to The Elder Scrolls Online or Wildstar.

In short, I do believe that it costs several million dollars to make even an indie MMORPG with ugly graphics and lots of bugs. It costs tens of millions of dollars to make a half-decent MMORPG, and over a hundred million dollars to make a top-shelf one. Backing a $800k project is basically giving a donation to a bunch of guys so they can have some fun coding the game of their dreams for a year, before reality hits them and sinks the project.

[P.S. Peter Molyneux' Godus Kickstarter raised $813k.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015
The Favorites of Selune - Trollhaunt - Session 1

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had vanquished all the henchmen of the previous adventure, but decided to not go after the main villain. They suspected Princess Taidra of the Duchy of Faywyr to have engineered the events in order to discredit her brother Prince Ular in a dispute about the line of succession, but didn't want to act without absolute proof. So instead they spent a month in training for their paragon levels and then traveled towards the town of Moonstairs in search of a portal to the Feywild.

This session started with their river boat having been stopped by a chain hung under water from bank to bank, and under attack by three magical tentacles. The tentacles turned out to be not very dangerous, and the adventurers killed them within a few rounds. But the chain and tentacles had damaged the boat, so that it couldn't travel further upstream toward Moonstairs. But as the town was only two hours away, they decided to continue on foot, through the swamp.

When night fell they were on a path through the swamp towards Moonstairs, and they saw two lights like torches or lantern ahead. Approaching they found that the lights were will-o-wisps, illuminating the carcass of a horse around which several trolls were fighting for the choicest bits. The leg of a man was sticking out from under the horse. While the druid of the group would have liked to avoid the fight, the trolls saw the adventurers in the light of the will-o-wisps and attacked.

As the group was aware of the troll regeneration, they utilized whatever powers with the fire attribute they had to stop that from happening. Especially the priest caught all of the trolls in a big column of heavenly fire. The trolls didn't stand a chance and died quickly. The man under the horse turned out to be a dead courier, carrying a letter from the mayor of Moonstairs to Duke Ruwan of Faywyr. It was to inform the duke that Prince Ular had died battling the trolls, and asking for reinforcements for the town. The group decided to bring that letter back to the boat, so that the captain could float downstream and deliver the letter as soon as possible.

Then they went on to Moonstairs, where they found an old acquaintance in the inn: Beatrice, the guard of the seamstresses' guild, who had accompanied the prince on his troll-hunting expedition. Beatrice was drowning her sorrows, and told the group a sorry tale of betrayal: The expedition had equipped themselves with flasks of oil from the palace quartermaster to burn the trolls that the soldiers cut down. But when they wanted to use them it turned out that somebody had replaced all the oil by water, and the regenerating trolls overwhelmed the prince and his party. Beatrice had run away, but was the only survivor. The trolls even came to Moonstairs and delivered the head of the prince in a sack.

The druid of the group, who had already been to the portal to the Feywild, was able to draw a map showing the location. And Beatrice could tell the adventurers that this was right where the warren of the trolls was. Their king, Skalmad, was apparently trying to recreate the old troll kingdom of Valdar, which had been destroyed a hundred years ago by a previous Duke of Faywyr. With this we ended the session.

Monday, February 23, 2015
World integration of garrisons

In Star Wars: The Old Republic you have a star ship on which your followers live. World of Warcraft garrisons have a lot more functionality for your followers, and the garrison is a lot better integrated into the world: It is located in the starting zone for your faction on the map, and in many respects works like any other quest hub, but better.

That integration comes at a price: Unlike the SWTOR star ship, your garrison can't take off and go somewhere else. You already notice a difference once you leave the starting zone and start questing in other zones, but at least there is still a good connection by flight paths. But I am wondering what will happen in two years, when the next expansion with the next continent comes out. Will we abandon our current garrisons and build new ones on the next expansion continent? Will we keep the old garrison and travel by portal? If we keep the old garrison, will we upgrade the crafting buildings to craft the resources and items of the next expansion?

In short, the garrisons are a nice new idea, but they aren't very portable. There is a reason why SWTOR has space ships, or the houses in Wildstar are on floating rocks in the air. The better you integrate player housing into the current zones of the world, the more problems you get when those zones get outdated by the next expansion.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A reader alerted me to another bad news about Everquest Next: I won't have artificially intelligent NPCs powered by the Storybricks system any more. So if we ever see a game called EQN, it will probably be a boring WoW-clone that works like all the other boring WoW-clones out there. They ditched the dynamic system that was going to make EQN different, and now will just exploit the Everquest brand with something unoriginal.

Friday, February 20, 2015
Do we still need new games?

Several people commented yesterday that as long Steam doesn't go bust and they keep their current library, they wouldn't be too much affected by a decline in the video game industry. That is especially visible in the MMORPG genre, where the most successful game of 2014 was 10-year old WoW, and NCSoft was losing money on Wildstar while making money with the ancient Lineage games (in Asia). People apparently don't need new games all that much.

I do believe that there is an unlimited amount of stories to tell, so there is room for an endless amount of books and film. But when I read the bad reviews for The Order: 1886 which all laud the great cinematic story-telling and then slam the game for having too little and too outdated gameplay, I don't think that people buy games for their stories. I don't know how long Telltale can keep up the concept of making a series of games with no evolution of gameplay, just by telling a different story every time. Personally I much dislike those "games" which are only pseudo-interactive stories with no real meaningful decisions.

On the gameplay side evolution is very slow. When was the last time you played a game where the gameplay was not a minor variation of gameplay of earlier games? At best you get interesting combinations mixing gameplay elements from several different games. I can see how somebody who already has a dozen first-person shooters doesn't necessarily need a new one. With 70% of the games in my Steam library not yet played, and my iPad library being like that as well, I certainly could survive a drought of new games for a while.

So do we really still need new games?

Personally I think we do, but unfortunately not the ones that we are likely to get. For me for example the possibility space for massively multi-player online role-playing games is huge; but the part of that possibility space taken up by existing MMORPGs is tiny, because they all cluster around the same set of features with only a few outliers. I can imagine fully dynamic virtual worlds with many modes of gameplay we haven't seen before, but I'm not optimistic that somebody will have the guts to deviate from the tried and tested. So "no new games" isn't all that different from the current "no games that are really new".

Thursday, February 19, 2015
Coping with reality

I believe that 2015 will be a difficult year for video games, if not worse. My newsreader feed is already full with stories of layoffs, games cancelled, or MMORPG's whose earnings dropped by two thirds in one quarter. I believe that a combination of factors like the rise of mobile platforms and Steam Early Access / Greenlight has made it increasingly easy to make and distribute games. To the point where there are more games being produced than there is demand for. Demand in the economic sense of the word, as in willingness to pay for, not like in demanding better games on a blog / forum.

Warren Buffett said after the financial crisis in 2008 that it is only after the tide goes out that you can see who is swimming naked. As long as making games is a boom industry, over-enthusiastic investors or developers can keep a game studio afloat even if there isn't a good business case. When there is a game industry recession and hope is in short supply, tougher business decisions get made based on financial facts. It is also possible that this year or next we will see a major backlash against the crowd-funding business model. It already made headlines when Godus failed to deliver on its Kickstarter promises, imagine what the reaction will look like if Star Citizen isn't as great as everybody believes!

I believe the overall result of that gaming recession will not be pretty. And in particular I believe that the kind of games and business model we will see surviving this recession will be the ones tailored to more casual gamers, and diametrically opposed to the wishes of the hardcore gamers. The success stories of the future will resemble the story of games like Candy Crush Saga (casual, mobile platform, Free2Play). While games like Wildstar (hardcore, PC only, subscription) will have a hard time even getting published in the future.

This is not based on wishful thinking or my own preferences (I detest Candy Crush Saga). I am simply observing what works financially and what doesn't. Both major subscription MMORPGs released in 2014 are already in deep trouble. TESO is removing the subscription, and the Q4 Wildstar revenue numbers suggest only 100K players left, and quickly reaching the level at which NCSoft shut down City of Heroes / Villains. And more and more people discover that if they save $60 on a triple A game and buy a bunch of indie or mobile games for the same money, they get more bang for their bucks, especially given the number of triple A games that disappointed over the past few months.

I don't think that complaining will help. Life isn't fair, but we knew that before. The whole "this business model is morally superior" discussion is crap; in a recession the question becomes which business model and which kind of game enables a game studio to survive. Pure and simple. To some people with a huge sense of entitlement that will be a nasty surprise. The rest of us will learn to cope with the reality of the business of making video games.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015
1886 clashes with 2015

Friday a much-hyped PS4-exclusive game called The Order: 1886 comes out. But in spite of a review embargo until Thursday the launch is already in trouble: Somebody with a review copy played through the whole game and posted the full length Let's Play videos on YouTube (now taken down). YouTube is where many people get their information in 2015. Problem is that on seeing the game life, many people didn't want to buy it any more.

Part of the criticism is exaggerated. While the videos showed 5 hours 30 minutes for a full completion of the game that was very obviously a speed run. I totally believe the devs saying that a regular player is more likely to need 8 to 10 hours to finish the game. That still isn't very long, but saying that you shouldn't buy this only because it is "only 5 hours" isn't right.

On the other hand the videos showed very well the gameplay, and people complained about the number of quick-time events, and the re-use of boss battles for example. I think those are valid concerns. And the interesting thing is that due to the review embargo combined with the leak the raw information about how the game played was out way before the filtered opinions of any game journalist. I might be a cynic, but I'm pretty sure that some journalists have now secretly lowered the score they game The Order: 1886 in their draft review. If you already know that your readers hate the game, don't post a too glowing review about it, however much advertising money you get from the game company. The whole thing is likely to hurt Ready At Dawn / Sony badly.

For me it would be perfectly fine if we got such a video leak for every new game. It didn't help me for The Order: 1886 (would never have bought it anyway, don't owe a PS4). But for the few games I'm still tempted to buy on release, I'd love to see a gameplay video before. That would be a lot more helpful for me to evaluate my purchase decision than some day one review. So here is my proposal to all game developers: If you really believe in your game, why don't you publish a full Let's Play video playthrough on YouTube yourself before release? It would get tons of views, you could show your game played as intended by you, and if it is really good then this should only increase your sales. How about it?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Beware of hackers coming over the phone!

A gentleman with an Indian accent called me today. He said he worked for Microsoft, and they were getting reports that my computer had been hacked. As proof he told me how to open up the Event Viewer, where of course there were lots of error messages and warning. After thinking he had me sufficiently scared he then offered to fix my problems by asking me to type in the address of a website into the Windows run window. At which time I told him where he could stick his lousy scam. I did a virus and malware scan, just to be safe, but my computer is already pretty well protected with hardware firewalls and software, so of course there was nothing.

So please, if somebody calls you with tech support for a problem you didn't even know you had, be extremely suspicious. That sort of customer support simply doesn't exist in the modern world. Somebody is simply trying to lure you onto their site that then *will* infect your computer, or they'll sell you a scam protection or something.


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