Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
 
For the children!

Yesterday evening I had planned to sort out my various alts in World of Warcraft and decide what character I would create and level from 1 to 100. But while I was still doing garrison stuff with my level 100 characters, somebody in trade chat mentioned that Children's Week had started. Hmmm, isn't that one of those events which gives pets as rewards? Me being very much into battle pets at the moment, I couldn't resist and changed my plans. I spent the rest of the evening doing Children's Weeks quests on different continents.

As I was planning to do the quests on different characters to get more pets, I started with the character I was currently on, my priest. Thus doing those quests too me some time, as I had to take various portals or zeppelins to travel from one continent to another. At one point I was in Orgrimmar and didn't have a hearthstone ready to get me anywhere where I could use a portal to Undercity, so I took the zeppelin. And then realized that I had forgotten where exactly the entrance to Undercity was in the Ruins of Lordaeron. Must have been many years since I last entered Undercity without using some means of fast travel. Usually I do travel-related stuff with my mage who just portals everywhere.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the event. All that traveling makes the quests somewhat long and tedious, with me playing on my iPad while waiting for some flying mount to make it to the destination. Not really the most fun activity. And somehow it is a sort of trap: I felt as if I was being suckered into a not-so-fun activity by the combination of a reward I wanted (the pets) and the time restriction (you can only get these pets during this particular week every year). So in the end I wasn't sure if it was actually worth it. The pets aren't even of rare quality, so I'm not even sure I'll ever use them. They just help with the achievements to collect hundreds of different pets. And most of them are tradable, so I might be able to get them for cheap this week on the AH.

Monday, April 27, 2015
 
The economics of zero marginal cost

Why isn't Ford attracting more customers by giving out cars for free and then charging for additional stuff later? And if that model wouldn't work for cars, why would it work for computer games? The answer is in what an economist calls the marginal cost of an item, which is the cost of producing and selling one more of it. Once your game is finished and you have a distribution platform and everything, the marginal cost of selling one more copy is pretty close to zero. The same isn't true for cars, because even when the car is designed and the factory is built and set up, it still costs thousands of dollars to produce one more car and sell it.

The "culture of free" on the internet is very much linked to that zero marginal cost. Even piracy depends on zero marginal cost, because it doesn't cost the pirate more to make a copy of a game or other content than it costs the developer / owner of that game or content. Free2Play wouldn't work without zero marginal cost. But a lot of people confuse zero marginal cost with zero cost. It does not cost nothing to produce content, because it always costs time, and that time has an opportunity cost. However there are people on the internet who voluntarily produce content for nothing, me included. And that leads to an interesting economical question: What is the difference in quality between free content and paid-for content?

There are two sides of that: People who produce content for nothing are by definition "amateurs", which comes from the Latin word for love, they do something for the love of it, without payment. It can be argued that in certain cases such a work of love can be superior in quality to content produced by "professionals", who only do it for the money. In an environment of zero marginal cost a "professional" might be tempted to steal or rip off successful content from somebody else and sell it to you, like for example many cloned mobile games. On the other hand, if you car had a problem with its brakes, would you prefer a professional garage to fix it, or would you go to somebody who has a sign on his yard "amateur repairing cars for free for the fun of it"? Without financial incentive, an amateur might not be willing to invest too much time and money into a creation. Thus there is a viable economic theory that some very high level content will only be created in the first place if the developer thinks he can make money out of his creation. You can make Flappy Bird for free, but not Destiny, Battlefield, Bloodborne, or Grand Theft Auto.

Last week Valve announced a scheme which would allow people making mods to sell those mods on Steam. Most people reacted very badly to the idea, because they believe that they will have to pay to get the exactly same mods that previously were free. And of course the freeloaders made an immediate appearance, trying to sell mods based on the free work of others. But what about the long run? Isn't it likely that at some point a mod will be made *because* the modder was confident in his ability to sell it, a work he wouldn't have undertaken for free? Up to now very few mods end up being better than the original game. But with a mod economy in the future we might very well see a lot more high quality mods.

What I find curious about game economics is that there appears to be a large population that is always defending the status quo, even if that status quo is contradictory. Thus among the people complaining most loudly that mods are best if they remain free we also find the same people who previously argued that games are better if they are not for free.

 
Colossal time sink

I bought Shadow of Mordor on Steam this weekend, as it was on my wishlist and there was a half-price promotion. On that occasion I noticed that I hadn't bought anything on Steam since restarting World of Warcraft. It isn't that there aren't any good games in my Steam library, I would love to continue playing Pillars of Eternity for example. But World of Warcraft ends up being such a colossal time sink that I simply can't find the time for anything else.

To some extent that is good news, as it means that I am having fun. I had a good time this weekend basically doing all the battle pet content of the Mists of Pandaria expansion: Beating all the pet masters, the pandaren spirits, the beasts of fable, and finally the celestial tournament on Timeless Isle. I also went on my very first LFR raid, with my priest spec'd to holy, as I was annoyed of his ineffectiveness in shadow spec. LFR is silly easy, although we managed to wipe on Operator Thogar by being run over by trains. I did several "raids" and got two epics, albeit for the same slot. Not something that I'll do a lot, as the epics aren't actually better than what you get without raiding from your garrison, but an interesting change of pace.

What I still haven't even really started yet is a grand project to level a character from 1 to 100, while simultaneously collecting pets everywhere. I have a low level hunter and a low level monk, but I'm not sure whether I don't want to start over from scratch with a hunter of a different race and combine the hunting for battle pets with the hunting for rare hunter pets. To get that started I should probably reduce further the time spent on "maintenance" of my 4 garrisons, which eats up too much time.

So as long as I have lots of stuff to do in World of Warcraft, I can't find the time for other games. Technically I am in the beta for Heroes of the Storm, and I have downloaded the client, but never even started it. There is a much higher barrier of entry to starting a new game than to deciding to just play good ol' World of Warcraft. A new game requires you learning controls and what the game is about, and playing a game you know very well is much lower effort. Maybe I'm just in a low-energy phase, but right now this means that WoW is taking up all my time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015
 
Speculation

I couldn't resist the opportunity for speculation: I bought a WoW Token for money on one of my poorer characters and exchanged it for over 40k gold. The idea is to use a rich character of mine later to buy a WoW Token for less than 30k (prices go up and down quite a lot). The overall effect is 5€ extra paid for a month of subscription, but gaining 10k gold and having it transferred to where it is needed.

Friday, April 24, 2015
 
Europeans buy less gold than Americans

Curiously the price of the WoW Token is rising again in Europe, hitting nearly 40k, while the US WoW Token is down to just above 20k. As the price reflects the relative supply and demand, it appears as if the players on the US servers are far more enthusiastic in buying gold, while the Europeans are more interested in selling their gold. I find it hard to explain why there should be such a huge difference, with the tokens twice as expensive (and thus gold being half the price) in Europe. Any ideas?

Thursday, April 23, 2015
 
Semantic collision

A role-playing game is a semantic collision of two very different activities: Theatrical "role-playing" and playing a game with dice and rules ("roll-playing" or "rules playing"). Different people enjoy those two parts to different degrees, and they are prominent to different degrees on different platforms: Computer RPGs often concentrate on the game part, which then makes the role-playing part an "unique selling proposition" for tabletop RPGs. But there are definitive synergies between the two parts, especially in the heroic fantasy genre or other genres where action and combat are very much part of the story. The inherent randomness of determining success or failure by rolling dice creates a source of neutral input and impulse to the story-telling. And in the other direction clever role-playing can create advantages for combat later or generate more interesting gameplay situations.

On blogs and forums people frequently exchange ideas how games "should" be designed and played. But the truth of the matter is that those blog and forum posts have little or no influence on game developers. In a computer game the developer determines the laws of physics and possibility in the game. You might be able to pursue different goals and activities in a MMORPG, but you cannot change game design. But as the Dungeon Master / Game Master of a tabletop game it is YOU who determines what is possible, and that makes you a game designer to some extent, even if you use a pre-made rules system like Dungeons & Dragons.

This is why the design of my next D&D campaign is very important to me. There are game design principles I believe in, and this is my opportunity to realize them and see if they work. And the balance between the role-playing part and the game part is a very important piece of that. I am not saying that I have an universal solution, but I do what I like, and I do play this campaign with people I have been playing with for years, so to some extent I know what they like. Thus the goal is to find a balance which is the most fun for all of us.

I recently joined another D&D group of people I didn't previously know, where I play a character in a 5th edition D&D game. I don't want to dis that game, but I can certainly see that between the personal style of the DM and the 5E system this makes for a system that I am not overly fond of. In two sessions we only had one single fight, and that one was over in 5 minutes. As much as I want more story for my game, I don't want to fall into that extreme either. I'm pretty sure my players would get bored, they do like tactical combat. I am far more inclined to target an overall 50:50 ratio of time spent in combat and time spent role-playing. Not necessarily per session, but at least per adventure. I don't want just a "role-playing", nor do I want just a "game"; I want the complete thing, a role-playing game.

 
WoW Token hits Europe

One could have reasonably expected Blizzard to launch the WoW Token in Europe at the same price than in the USA, because there isn't really a strong reason to think that the market value would be much different over here, with the Euro being at $1.07. But strangely enough somebody at Blizzard decided to set the starting price of the WoW Token in Europe to 38k instead of 30k. I faintly suspect that they observed on the US servers that the price dropped by 8k from 30k to 22k since its launch and figured that if they launched at 38k they would end up at 30k. While a few players bought tokens for this high amount of gold and drove the price on the first day up to nearly 45k (a similar post-launch peak happened in the US), the high price then simply caused people to stop buying those tokens. So now the price is 33k and falling, and in trade chat many players said they'd wait for the prices to reach US levels.

I haven't done a recount of my gold yet, but I think it is over 300,000 now. I'll certainly buy at least one WoW Token for gold if the price falls below 25k as expected. But that is mostly to be able to say that I did it. Otherwise I have much reduced my gold-earning activities, because they are only fun for so long, and I'm not falling into the circular logic trap of buying a subscription with gold, and then only using that subscription to make gold. I don't like repeating the same activities over and over, even if that makes me save $15 a month.

As I have no intention of cancelling my subscription and replacing it with WoW Tokens, I started to wonder what happens if you have both. If I have an active subscription and turn in a WoW Token for 30 days of game time, does that "suspend" my subscription and make Blizzard not charge me money for a month? Or do I need to cancel my subscription in order to use the token?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015
 
The Favorites of Selune - Last Session

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had fought their way through the troll warrens, uncharacteristically skipping an optional combat. That left them for this session with only the final boss fight of the dungeon left, against the troll king Skalmad. The fight was okay-ish, but in view of this being the end of the campaign I think I should have re-designed Skalmad instead of taking him as written from the King of Trollhaunt Warrens adventure.

Skalmad is a troll who found an artifact, a magical orb. A person can rip out his own eye and put the orb in, and that gives him access to some special powers. I loved the idea, but unfortunately didn't bother to playtest or re-read the powers in detail. And it turns out that in practice the eye wasn't all that great. It had one minor power that slowed a single character and prevented teleportation, but with a solid front adventurers vs. trolls movement wasn't much of an issue in the fight. And then there was one power that shot a sort of fireball, but only once per encounter. That made Skalmad mostly reliant on melee combat, and for some reason he was hitting less hard than the battle trolls of his entourage. Once I started I didn't "cheat" and upgrade Skalmad in the middle of the fight, but in the end I did wish I had prepared better and made my own version of the troll king with more impressive eye powers.

I guess that is a lesson on transitioning from one campaign to the next. The natural tendency is to be very excited about the new campaign, and that poses a risk of not properly ending the old one. But then I guess in the history of D&D there are far more campaigns that just somehow petered out than those who got a spectacular send-off at the end. With the Favorites of Selune having been an episodic campaign with no large story, there wasn't really much room for a great finale.

So, this was it for the Favorites of Selune, a campaign of just over 3 years. It taught us how to play Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, and got us from level 1 to 11. I asked, and my players prefer 4th edition over other options, so the next campaign will use the same rules system, but use all Player's Handbooks, and not just the first one. And I'm hoping to improve on the role-playing part.

The new campaign will start slowly: One session to introduce the world of the Zeitgeist campaign, and then another session to create the characters. The idea is to first establish the campaign world, and what the general role of the group is in that game world, before creating the characters. I always felt that if you make a character before knowing anything about the world, you risk to end up with a background that doesn't really fit into the history of the world. One of the strong points of the Zeitgeist setting is that it provides character themes which are tailor-made to fit into the campaign. But for that to work, some knowledge of the world is necessary.

Friday, April 17, 2015
 
Level cap activities

I am not a huge fan of playing at the level cap. Gameplay at the level cap tends to be more repetitive, with diminishing returns of gear rewards over time. And while reaching the level cap is great as a starting point for the next expansion, the gear reset when that expansion comes makes most rewards you got at the level cap obsolete.

One thing I was interested in was making gold with my 4 level 100 characters in view of the WoW token coming to Europe one day. That turned out to be rather easy. With two tradeskill buildings and the relate professions per character, and a level 3 barn each, I'm making over 5,000 gold *a day* just by producing the crafting materials and savage blood that I transform into various upgrade essences. The problem is that with money-making methods I am most interested in proving the concept, and not necessarily in repeating the method for a long time. For the savage blood I need to kill 6 elite level 100 mobs per character per day, or 168 elite mobs per week. That gets tedious pretty quickly, and between farming those mobs and doing the daily garrison chores (gathering resources, collecting work orders, followers missions) I end up spending half of the time I play each week just with those money-making tasks. As I already have enough gold to buy a bunch of tokens, I'm planning to cut that way down, and skip the resource collection / farming part. The tradeskill building still make some money if I buy the resources, and I don't really need more.

End game activities frequently pose a danger of circular logic: You raid to get epics, and you need epics to raid more. I need gold to pay for WoW tokens, and then I spend my subscription time to make gold. To escape that circular logic I think I need to concentrate on what is intrinsically the most fun activity, and forget about the rewards.

One thing I am having a lot of fun with is pet battles. Collecting the pets from different zones appeals to the collector in me. I am currently working on the Draenor zones, with the added goal of reaching 150 pet battles won in Draenor, which gives an account-wide achievement which unlocks the level 3 menageries in my garrisons. But once I have that, I was thinking of collecting pets with my low level monk and/or hunter, combining questing with pet collecting in the same zone. Maybe that way I'll even level another character all the way from 1 to 100.

I still haven't regained my interest in group content, even with the announced timewalking mechanics. On paper it looks like a good idea: A lot of effort went into creating the dungeons of previous editions, and right now they are pretty useless. I soloed Karazhan for fun with my warlock, but beyond the nostalgia value that isn't really all that interesting. So yeah, making old dungeons available to current end game characters sounds good. Only I'm not interested because if you join a pickup group today you only ever get people in a hurry wanting to do speed runs, and complaining all the time about their group mates. That isn't what I would want to visit old dungeons for, even if they give level 100 rewards. As I said, those will be obsolete by the time the next expansion comes anyway.

 
One combat system to bind them all

Since last weekend I started doing pet battles in World of Warcraft. I simply missed out on them earlier and had only low level pets. So in the zones that were level-adequate for my high-level characters, the pets were too high level for me, and I wasn't in a mood to grind low-level zones for them. But when you do the final upgrade of your garrison at level 100, you get an easy quest for an "Ultimate Battle-Training Stone". With 4 character at level 100 I could thus instantly boost 4 rare pets of mine of different types to level 25, and could start battling high-level pets. Which then gave me more pets, and lesser battle-training stones, so by now I have a decent selection of level 25 pets for different opponents.

A hundred pet battles later it struck me that in fact the WoW pet battle combat system in solo PvE is far more interesting than the regular WoW combat system: In pet battle combat you actually need to plan ahead, and you can't use the same pets with the same rotation for every battle. You can lose a fight horribly, change your pet selection and their powers and win the rematch. In comparison the standard WoW combat is far more simplistic, requires less thinking, and your optimal tactic is largely independent of who you are fighting. So why not "Pokemon the MMORPG", where all battles are pet battles?

The answer to that is probably that solo PvE is only one part of combat in MMORPGs. You also need to consider group PvE and PvP. And the turn-based pet battles of WoW that work brilliantly with you alone against the AI wouldn't work quite so well when there is a whole group of players involved. Because there are so many different ways to play a MMORPG, the combat system needs to work well in all those modes.

Wildstar, currently rumored to be preparing a drop of subscriptions after having pulled boxed copies from retail stores, in my opinion has a problem with the combat system. I really love the Wildstar combat system in solo PvE, because it is far more interactive than classic systems. But all those telegraphs and signals you need to respond to collapse into chaos in a group situation. When you are fighting a group of monsters with a group of players, there are telegraphs on the ground everywhere and you don't know where to step.

Even in World of Warcraft the fact that the combat system is used for different situations poses a problem. It is simply impossible to have a perfect class balance for all the different modes of play. And typically class balance is considered most important for PvP, somewhat important for raids, and less important for solo PvE. So I am left with a shadow priest that downright sucks in solo PvE. And the announced serious nerfs in patch 6.2 for some classes are pretty much incomprehensible for me as solo PvE player, because it isn't the classes that are best in solo PvE that get nerfed.

Sometimes I think the relative rise of the MOBA and decline of the MMORPG is due to the fact that a MOBA is only trying to do one thing, while a MMORPG is trying to do too many things at once. I can think of better game designs if I start with the premise that my game is *only* having solo PvE, or *only* group PvE, just like a MOBA *only* has group PvP. Using one combat system for everything imposes serious limitations on the MMORPGs of today.

Thursday, April 16, 2015
 
Personal blogging

Yesterday mbp asked "Would you care to share your thoughts on the ongoing relevance of personal blogging in this age of facebook / twitter / reddit etc.?". I think the keyword in this is "personal", because that is where I see blogging moving towards to. A lot of the things that we thought a decade or more ago have turned out to be not true. Blogging isn't a platform to become rich and famous on the internet, blog posts do not make or move opinions except on a very small scale. The people who started blogging because they wanted to influence others, or to make money, have seen that this simply doesn't work and have stopped doing so. Those who only ever wanted to shout a strong opinion from the rooftops have moved to Twitter, fortunately taking a good part of the hate culture of the internet with them. Gamergate happened mostly on Twitter, not blogs.

Blogging has become quieter and more personal. Some hate blogs still exist, but they have turned into echo chambers of small groups of people already sharing the same opinion and repeating the same stuff over and over again. Sustainable blogging is personal, because intrinsic motivations last longer than hoping for extrinsic rewards. If you don't write for yourself, you don't write 5,000 blog posts over 12 years. Blogs are a perfect medium for public diaries, a need that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit don't address. Blogs are semi-public, the author still retains far more control than he has on social networks or forums, for example through comment moderation. That makes blogs a good place for moderate discussion, as you have the tools to kick out the troublemakers. Blogs work better for considerate, thoughtful discussion, while the other platforms work better for rash, strong expressions of strong emotions. It is actually a feature of Twitter that old tweets are hard to find, while for blogs it is a feature that they have searchable archives.

If somebody would ask me for advice whether he should blog, I'd ask him what for. Much of our daily lives is ephemeral. When you are playing a game, you leave nary a trace. If you want to preserve some memories and thoughts, personal blogging is a great way to do so. I am sad that I don't have blog entries from the role-playing sessions I did during my university days, because there was a lot of creativity in interactive storytelling that has been lost forever. For trying to make money or influence people, I would recommend different platforms (YouTube?), although I have a strong suspicion that for every famous person on the internet there are a million unknown people that tried the same thing. Blog if you want to write for an audience of one, yourself, first and foremost.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015
 
5,000!

This is my 5,000th post on my blog. That took me nearly 12 years, with an average of just above one post per day.

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