Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, July 01, 2015
The purpose of challenge

I have long been puzzled by an apparent contradiction about challenges in MMORPGs: On the one side a lot of people say that they want challenging fights. On the other hand the majority of the time spent in a MMORPG is for your character to become stronger, which makes any given fight less challenging. If we want challenging fights, why do we chase after those epics that remove the challenge?

Today I had a thought, that maybe I need to approach the subject from the opposite angle. What if what we really want is character progression, getting stronger? Then the "challenging fight" becomes not a purpose in itself, but rather a yardstick, a unit of measurement. It isn't the challenge which is important, but the status of being able to overcome that challenge.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Universal definition of the gamer identity

Recently there have been thousands of words written in the blogosphere on what exactly is a gamer. I don't get why there is any need for that discussion. The definition of what a gamer is is so simple:

Anybody who spends as much time and effort as I am in playing games is a gamer. Anybody who spends less is a casual n00b. Anybody who spends more is a basement-dwelling unemployed l00ser.

Note: The "I" in the above phrase does not specifically mean me, Tobold. It means everybody, or whoever is trying to define what a gamer is. It is an universal definition.

How many MMORPGs can you play?

Syp floored me with his gaming plans for 2015 mentioning 9+ different MMORPGs he is planning to play. I barely find the time to do everything I want in just one. Different MMORPG surveys consistently over the years have found that the average gamer plays just over 20 hours of MMORPGs per week. In one game 20 hours per week results in some sort of progress. Split over many games, nothing much is happening. Now I don't know how many hours per week Syp plays, and there certainly are extreme cases playing up to 100 hours per week. But I wonder if the average player even has the time to play 2 MMORPGs in the same week.

Besides time, the other issue is that MMORPGs require a lot of knowledge. You don't only have to know control schemes, but also things like spell rotations, and where to go to find what. I just spent all weekend figuring out the new zone in World of Warcraft. I'm not sure I could hold in my head all the information needed to play 9 MMORPGs efficiently.

So I'd like to hear your opinion and your experience on this. How many different MMORPGs have you played in parallel for some time? For you, what are the advantages and disadvantages of playing more than one MMORPG at a time?

Monday, June 29, 2015
The social patch

Something interesting is happening in World of Warcraft: After 10 years of trying, Blizzard finally got all the elements together to make people play in groups rather than solo. I haven't been playing in so many groups for so long for years than I have this weekend. Tanaan Jungle, introduced in last weeks patch, is the perfect group place.

The first part of the puzzle is content which you'd actually want to group. Yes, you could solo for example the Saberstalker reputation. But as you need 21,000 reputation for revered (which you need for flying), and each mob you need to kill gives only 30 reputation, but has over a million hit points, soloing would take a rather long time. Find a good group and you get to revered in a day. I did.

The second part is a good group finder tool. Warlords of Draenor added the custom group finder, which makes it possible to create or search for a group for any content. You can just write "Saberstalkers reputation farming" as name of your group, set it to auto-invite, and you'll have a full farming group all the time, with leaving members constantly being replaced. And no, you don't need a healer and a tank for that, 5 dps work just fine.

The third part of the equation is the system of cross-server linking and each server having possibly several copies of the same area. Which means that your Saberstalker farming group most probably will be in a copy in which there are actually mobs to farm. Your group won't be all alone, but it won't be totally overcamped either. That is especially useful for rare mobs, like the four champions of Hellfire Citadel which drop Medallion of the Legion (gives 1,000 reputation for all Draenor factions, basically one day less dailies to get to flying). You don't have to camp the rare spawn for half an hour, you can just search for a group for that mob, and when you join the group you will be automatically transported to the server and phase where the rare is up. I recommend the addon Premade Group Finder to check every 30 seconds for such a group and auto-signup to it. Yesterday I killed all 4 of them 4 times, once each on each of my 4 level 100 alts, and got 2 medallions out of it (they aren't bind on pickup, so I could send them to my main, but you could also sell them for 20k gold).

Even daily quests are sped up with groups. One of the factions you need to farm reputation with to get flying only has a single daily quest, which is finding 10 objects you get either by finding a treasure or by killing a rare. As you can only select each of the 51 treasures once, but kill the rares every day, rare-farming is the way to go. Especially useful here is the arena for the Rumble in the Jungle quest to defeat the three arena champions of Fangri'la. Even after you finished that quest you can still buy the totems to summon those rares, which makes it easy to farm in a group. Another faction you need reputation for requires you to do 3 bonus objectives every day, and that is a lot faster in a group as well.

For me this is especially interesting in view of having 4 characters at level 100. The patch is finally requiring my alts to leave their garrison, at least for a while, to get reputation for ship blueprints, and farm rares for equipment blueprints. That means I will progress slower, as I don't have the time to play 4 characters on work days. But that is probably working as intended, as alts just producing passive income is not great game design. I'm approaching one million gold without doing much for the money.

So in summary, patch 6.2 and Tanaan Jungle made World of Warcraft a far more social place. I hope Blizzard can keep that up for future content.

Friday, June 26, 2015
The economy of abundance

In 2014 Steam added 1,400 games to its library, more than 100 per month. Even if you would just spend 1 hour 59 minutes with each new game (and then sneakily refund it), that would take more hours than a full-time job. The Apple app store is even worse, it added nearly 10,000 games per month in 2014. Even if you spent just 5 minutes testing each game you couldn't possibly keep up. There aren't hundreds of MMORPGs out there, but given how much time each of them takes there are also far more than a single person could play.

Not only are there too many games to play, but there is also the problem that there are far less types of games than there are games. Of the 379,313 games in the app store, how many are match-3 puzzle games? How many are about building a base and raiding the base of other players? Steam is full of sequels, or games that while being from different companies still strongly resemble each other. The expert might be able to see the difference between all those multiplayer shooter games, but for the layman they are all pretty much the same. For example I don't play zombie apocalypse survival games, so I can't tell the dozens of them on Steam apart. Being well versed with MMORPGs I can see the difference between all those different MMORPGs, but honestly at the core many of them are very similar and have the same basic structure.

The economic consequence of that is that given the choice between too many similar games, players tend to flock to a few market leaders, while the rest of them distributes between all the others. There is more supply of games than there is demand for them, which is one of the reasons why people have been increasingly protesting about "too high prices" for games, in spite of the fact that inflation-adjusted even triple-A games have become cheaper over the last 20 years. But why pay $50+ for a game any longer when there are lot of viable alternatives for cheap in a Steam sale or on some app store?

In the past making computer games was a profitable business because there are lots of idiots who are willing to work twice the hours for half the pay making a game than they would get for writing banking software. But even that competitive advantage isn't cutting it any more if people aren't willing to pay much for games any longer. I recently stumbled upon a quote on Blessing of Kings saying: "Steam is essentially reverse piracy. Instead of playing games you didn't pay for, you pay for games you'll never play.". But that isn't a situation that can continue indefinitely. At some point people will stop buying, because they already have a lot of similar games unplayed in their libraries.

Now in many cases players won't care if some video game developer goes out of business. But the danger is that in the last years more and more games have turned in online services. And when the company goes broke and the servers go down, the game you bought isn't playable any more. There might be some dark clouds ahead for gaming.

Thursday, June 25, 2015
A question of identity

I don't blog much about my TV watching habits, but one of the shows I like to watch is Top Gear. That is a British show about three middle-aged guys behaving like immature teenagers while playing with often very expensive cars. That has a huge appeal to the predominantly male audience, so Top Gear is the BBC's biggest hit. But it was never a comfortable relationship: The loudest of the three presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, has strong right-wing opinions and isn't afraid at all to say things which aren't politically correct. That led to a series of "scandals" where Jeremy said something which offended somebody, and the BBC got complaints.

That could have gone on forever if Jeremy Clarkson at one point hadn't completely lost it. He wanted a hot meal after a day of shooting, only got offered sandwiches by a production assistant, and that enraged him so much that he hit that production assistant to the point where the guy had to go to the hospital to get his split lip stitched. Now many fans, used to that endless series of "scandals", were ready to forgive Clarkson. But the BBC fired him. Which was probably the right thing to do, as I think most employees from most companies in the world would much prefer if their boss hasn't got the right to beat them. Unless you are a professional boxer there aren't many places where you can seriously hit a coworker and not get fired.

But that situation is now leading to an interesting question of identity. The BBC holds the right to the Top Gear brand, and announced that they will continue the show with completely new presenters. Mean Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, are going to host a new car show, presumably on Netflix. So which one of the two shows is the "real" Top Gear successor? The one with the brand name, or the one with the presenters who made the show such a hit? My guess is that the Netflix show will have far more success than the BBC show. Clarkson, Hammond, and May have a special love/hate chemistry going on between them which the BBC can't possibly reproduce. The rest of the show, expensive cars and crazy races, is easily enough reproduced. And there is no copyright on the format of a TV show. So Netflix will be able to produce a show that resembles the old Top Gear far more than the BBC can.

Which only leaves one question open: Which show will have The Stig?

Crafting in 6.2

I only had a short look at the new World of Warcraft patch up to now, concentrating on the crafting part. I used to make items like hexweave essence, greater hexweave essence, and powerful hexweave essence. These now all have been replaced by the "new" hexweave essence, which can be applied multiple times to a crafted item to bring its ilevel up to 685. Beyond that you need the new mighty and savage hexweave essences, and those need the new resource felblight. (Replace "hexweave" by other terms like "truesteel" for other professions than tailoring).

Apparently the devs were of the opinion that felblight somehow would "fix" crafting in WoD. I disagree. I was seriously disappointed to find out that you can't buy felblight for primal spirits, like you can for all other crafting materials. Which means that the *only* way to get felblight is gathering resources in Tanaan Jungle. Really bad idea, as that will just lead to node camping, and people being angry at each other for "stealing" nodes, especially once we get flying. And of course a lot of people abandoned gathering professions, as those were kind of useless before the patch.

The crafting resource requirements for the basic essences has been lowered, and the production of those resources has been sped up. I don't think that actually changes anything. Prices will adjust according to the new balance between supply and demand. Although I am not yet convinced that the new production speed between the craft-specific resource, the sorcerous element needed, and the savage blood is in balance: I have the impression that I now have far too many of the craft-specific resources and not enough elements and blood to craft them into essences. Which is a problem because there is no way to "grind" monsters for elements and blood, so you can't adjust relative production speeds.

Other than the mighty and savage upgrade items the patch brought no new crafted items. Which means that we are still stuck with making the basic crafted items and upgrading them with essences. And we still can't wear more than 3 of those, which basically turns crafted items into a "filler" for slots you couldn't find other items for. I really don't see how patch 6.2 has done anything to improve crafting, it still isn't very interesting but more of a passive money maker.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Is an expansion a form of blackmail?

Recently several rather successful games have run into trouble when they tried to sell an expansion: People protested about prices for the expansions being equal or close the price of a full game. Now normally one would think that an overly expensive product isn't something to complain about: Steam is full of games I am not willing to buy at that price, and that causes me no distress at all. I'll just wait until I can get them for half price or less a year later. But maybe expansions are different.

If I don't buy a new game, my situation doesn't change. I didn't have the game before, I don't buy it now, I still don't have it, no loss to me. But the people who would buy an expansion are those already currently playing the game. Not buying the expansion means either stopping to play, or running around in old gear through old content while everybody else around you is enjoying the new content and getting new gear rewards. An expansion appears to be less optional, and more a must have.

So some people apparently perceive an expensive expansion as being a form of blackmail: If you want to continue playing, give us your money! Playing without the expansion doesn't appear to be a viable option for many people. That would explain why an expensive expansion is causing so much more protests than an expensive new game. What do you think?

Zeitgeist : Police Academy

My new Dungeons & Dragons campaign is going to start end August, when my players are all back from their holidays. But as we already rolled the characters and still had time to meet once before the holidays, I created a special pre-campaign adventure for the players to get to know the characters they created.

It is Summer in the year 499 A.O.V. (after our victory, the victory being of the humans against the eladrin empire, which got destroyed in the process). On Pine Island, a quarter of the city of Flint in the kingdom of Risur, the Battalion Academy is training recruits for the army, the police, and the Royal Homeland Constabulary. Recruits first go through basic training before they are assigned to one of those forces, the RHC being the most prestigious, in charge of the security of king and country. So it is with some excitement that an inspection by the Viscount Inspector Nigel Price-Hill, the boss of the RHC, is being prepared. Price-Hill, who is normally in the headquarters in Slate, the capital of Risur, is being accompanied by Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, the head of the Flint branch, and Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft. They are being shown around by the head of RHC training in the Battalion Academy, Colonel Sebastian Harlock.

The player characters are all recruits in basic training. After the parade and inspection, they observe Price-Hill, Saxby, Delft and Harlock in a heated discussion of a newspaper article. On approaching they can hear Price-Hill saying that "We need to do something about this! And especially we need to show the king that we are doing something about this!". On noticing that they are being overheard Lady Saxby says "I think I have an idea, but let's discuss that in private.". So the leaders of the RHC are walking off, leaving the newspaper behind. In the newspaper the characters see that apparently the article under discussion was about people disagreeing with the king's politics on progress: The king wants Risur to industrialize, especially in the military sector. He wants modern weapons like muskets and steamships, like Risur's enemy Danor has developed. But in the 4th Yerasol war, 7 years ago, the Risuri forces, more used to druidic and shamanic magic than modern weapons, failed to use those weapons to good effect and lost the war. So a faction in Risur, the primalists, want the country to return to the old ways, against the wishes of the king.

The next day the characters are being told that they have been selected for the RHC, forming a new type of squadron, the musketeers. They aren't allowed other ranged weapons than muskets, and it quickly becomes clear that this new squadron is in part a political statement, trying to demonstrate the superiority of the modern weapons over the old ways. That is why the group does not contain any druids or shamans, but only characters using arcana, divine, and psionic powers. In detail the group consists of:

  • Eldion, a deva invoker. Devas are humans who were present when during the great victory 500 years ago the human army slew the avatar of the eladrin goddess Srasama. The death of Srasama led to a huge magical catastrophe, turning Danor into a magic-dead zone, killing nearly all eladrin women in the whole world (which led to the downfall of the eladrin empire), and causing a huge explosion. The humans who were close enough to witness the death but didn't get killed in the explosion received a sliver of the goddess' immortality, and have since then constantly be reborn every time they died, retaining a part of their previous live's memories. Eldion got selected for the RHC due to his political connections. He is a pragmatic politician who wanted to get into the RHC to promote his political career, and got a recommendation by one of Flint's mayors, for whom he worked previously.
  • Merian, an elven avenger. Merian is the only one in the group with a connection to the old ways, having been born and raised as a savage in the Risuri jungle. But a secret sect of the Clergy converted him and educated him as avenger for the church. It was this conversion from the old ways to a more modern religion which got Merian selected for the RHC.
  • Aria, a human sorceress with dragon blood running in her veins. She is a spirit medium, able to talk with dead, and can sometimes be found in conversation with her dead father. Her power to speak with the dead is of obvious use for the RHC.
  • James, a human battlemind. When the current king founded the RHC 30 years ago, James' father was one of the first constables. This family connection got James selected for the RHC.
  • Artus, a half-elf ardent. Artus fought as a young man in the fourth Yerasol war, distinguished himself as a war hero, but witnessed the death of many a comrade. Drifting after the war he was selected to the RHC following a recent political effort to employ war veterans.
  • Malicia, a human paladin. She is of noble birth, related to one of the previous kings of Risur. While the kingship is handed from one king to the next based on merit, the family of current and previous kings is the nobility of Risur. The RHC being considered a distinguished career, Malicia got the job due to her family connections.
After being selected the group spends the next 6 months in special training for the RHC, especially training with the musket (all players get the musket weapon skill). Any other ranged weapons are prohibited. At the end of that training, in Winter of the year 500 A.O.V., Colonel Sebastian Harlock has planned a special demonstration event as a sort of final exam for the musketeers: They are to face two squadrons of police and military recruits in a mock battle using non-lethal damage. They are facing a squadron consisting of Sergeant Gravash, a dragonborn soldier, with 4 policemen plus another squadron of Sergeant Alduin, an elven archer, with 4 militia archers. There being a political dimension to the battle, the group is set up with their muskets at one end, and the two squadrons fighting them are placed 25 squares away. The archers having short bows with a range of 15 squares, they need to spend the first round running, while the musketeers with their range of 20 have the advantage of being the defenders.

With several members of the group having the political skills to understand that a demonstration of muskets is called for, most of them use the musket once in the first or second round. Due to luck (most of the group has low dexterity and isn't actually any good with the musket), they kill the 4 archer minions with musket balls, to the applause of Colonel Harlock. The two sergeants and the policemen aren't minions, and are such much harder to kill. But with healing from both the paladin and the ardent, the group withstands the assault and wins the battle. (Technically this was a hard encounter, level 4 encounter for level 1 characters, but the advantage of the set-up made it easier than I had thought. Still it ended up being an interesting test battle giving everybody the chance to get to know the powers of their characters.)

After finishing their training with distinction that way, the group joins the RHC branch of Flint, and they each receive a magical RHC badge (amulet giving +1 to defenses, and allowing them to use their second wind as a movement action instead of a standard action. That is basically a disguised house rule, as the experience of the previous campaign showed that the second wind self-healing wasn't used much if it meant not attacking that round. As a movement action it isn't quite as good as the dwarven racial power that allows second wind as a minor action, so it still isn't a complete no-brainer but demands a tactical decision.). They are being told that in 6 weeks, in Spring 500 A.O.V. (the Risuri calendar has no months, just 4 seasons), the king will come to visit Flint for the launch of the first Risuri-built steamship. They are assigned as security for that event, and will spend the next weeks canvassing the area of the royal shipyard, performing background checks on the guest list, etc. The next session (the actual start of the campaign story) will be that event.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Every MMORPG has a lot of content that requires mostly time, and not much skill. While a game like World of Warcraft might use words like "epic" or "achievement", fact is that the achievement often isn't all that great, nor is the reward all that epic. However some of those achievements can serve some useful purpose as a milestone. In a game without end it can be useful to get a signal that you have finished some chapter.

It is with that in mind that I am happy to report that I have done all the pre-patch achievements and tasks necessary to acquire flying in Draenor. I'll just need to do the reputation grind in Tanaan Jungle once it opens. While of course I am interested in being able to fly, I also think this is a good milestone for this particular expansion. It tells me that I have done all the significant solo content of the expansion. That is more than I can say of some previous expansions, although those didn't necessarily contain an equivalent milestone.

On the other side of the coin this milestone means that there isn't much left pre-patch that I am still interested in. And I assume I'll cover the post-patch new content in something like a month. However, where I was previously always thinking "why should I spend a monthly subscription on a game where I don't play much any more?", the introduction of the WoW Token changes that part of the equation. I'm much more willing to continue playing occasionally and paying with in-game currency of which I have tons of, than to pay with real money. There is less of a feeling of obligation to play when I didn't pay real money for the subscription. So I'll see how that works out for the rest of the year, and presumably most of next year, before we get the next expansion.

Friday, June 19, 2015
Why we can't have nice things on the internet

There is an eternal fight in the MMO blogosphere about business models, which is usually a conflict between fans of the subscription model and fans of the Free2Play model. Up to now I have read very few complaints about the buy once, play forever business model, which seemed to be everybody's favorite. That is until Guild Wars 2 announced the pricing for its first expansion. At that point the internet turned ugly, got out the torches and pitchforks, and attacked ArenaNet full force. Sigh!

There are two main complaints here: One is that the Guild Wars 2 expansion at $50 is slightly more expensive than let's say a World of Warcraft expansion at $40. That blatantly ignores the fact that playing a WoW expansion over two years costs $40 + 24 x $15 = $400, which is a hell of a lot more than $50. Really, ArenaNet charges you just one-eighth of what Blizzard does for a comparable service, and you are still complaining that this is too expensive?

The second complaint is that the expansion comes bundled with the base game. Gasp, horror, somebody who didn't buy Guild Wars 2 yet can get the game and expansion for less than you paid! That is absolutely scandalous! Nobody else in the history of video gaming has ever reduced the price of a three year old game or bundled it for free with the sequel or expansion! No, wait, in fact I get a similar offer from Steam about once a week. Blizzard sells you the base game of World of Warcraft plus all the expansions up to Mists of Pandaria for $9.99. Which means that $50 buys you the game plus all expansions, just like Guild Wars 2 does.

In short, the whole uproar is from the usual entitlement kids who want not just to pay for a game only once, but also want an endless stream of added content and updates for no money at all. ArenaNet just can't win under conditions like that. At some point in time all those video game developers working for peanuts will give up on that ungrateful bunch of their customers, and we will be reduced to getting only as much game as we are willing to pay for. Which apparently for many people isn't very much.

Thursday, June 18, 2015
Steamed under

There is currently a Steam sale going on, and I couldn't help but buy some games. That brings my total of games bought this year to 11 games, for an average of 14.16€ per game. The problem with that is that I only played one of those games, Pillars of Eternity. Which is also the only game I paid full price for (you can now get it for 33% off). The rest was all much cheaper, usually at some big discount of 50% or more. But even the cheapest game is too expensive if you don't actually play it.

The chief culprit here is World of Warcraft. I am still having fun playing that, since the WoW Token was introduced I get to play for free, and when I decide each evening what I want to do, WoW has the lowest barrier to entry. It's a bit like a comfortable old slipper. The fact that I am buying other games shows that I am still interested in other games, but it takes a certain amount of activation energy to actually do so. With every new game you have to put in some effort to learn how to play it, and after a long day at work that energy isn't always there. A secondary problem is that I have this huge new Dungeons & Dragons campaign to prepare. So whenever I have energy, I rather make progress with that campaign than starting a new video game.

The good news is that I do expect things to change in the summer. Patch 6.2 is expected for next week, and after a few weeks of toying around with the new features and doing dailies to get flying in Draenor, I expect my motivation to play WoW to decrease. And my D&D campaign is starting with a pre-adventure next week, and in earnest after the summer holidays. Once that gets going the preparation work is getting less.


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