Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 22, 2015
 
Outside battery limits

In engineering there is an important distinction of things being either "inside battery limits" or "outside battery limits". On an engineering plan there is often a dotted line showing that "battery limit", which is the border between "the plant" and "the rest of the world". I think that concept needs more attention when talking about games, especially multiplayer online games. The limits are often not clearly defined, and that leads to dangerous situations.

In Canada a 17-year old League of Legends players has plead guilty to a range of charges: "According to what [prosecutor] Bauer told the court, the teen would often target fellow League of Legends players and their families when they denied friend requests or he felt slighted by them over some minor offense. He would retaliate, according to Bauer, by shutting down their internet access, posting their personal information online, calling them late at night, or calling the police to call in an imaginary emergency situation.". To me that is an extreme example of that League of Legends player having stepped outside battery limits. You are supposed to beat your opponent *inside* the limits of the game; stepping outside of those limits is problematic, and in some cases criminal.

There are some games like EVE Online or Crowfall where the developers deliberately obscure the limits to what is out of bounds, and in consequence serious breaches of those limits happen. There is a whole school of thought among some PvP players where it is not sufficient to beat your adversary in the game, it is necessary to make the person behind the keyboard cry. I have been criticized for calling such behavior "evil" because "it is just a game", but I believe that from a certain point onward it stops being just a game and goes outside the limits of the rules of the game. And not just swatting, which constitutes a serious danger to the life and health of the target, but also lesser forms of cyber-bullying, harassment, and humiliation. If the target is a person as opposed to his avatar or other representation in the game, these actions are evil. That they take place because of a game is not an excuse; rather I find it worrying that somebody would be willing to inflict harm on another real person for something as trivial as a game.

I do believe that game companies and developers have a duty to make the limits of their game very clear, and to strongly react to transgressions that step over those limits.

Thursday, May 21, 2015
 
Legacy websites and Chrome stopping to support plugins

Google decided that their browser Chrome should stop supporting plugins, especially the Microsoft Silverlight plugin, because well, it's from Microsoft and not from Google. A number of websites are affected by this. And while there are lot of sites with a lot more traffic, the one site where this affects me is the Wizards of the Coast D&D Insider archive with the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons online tools.

I'm not quite certain why, but official computer and online tools for Dungeons & Dragons have always been a sad story. Usually you get a lot of promises for those tools when a new edition of D&D comes out, and then the whole plan falls apart and you get very little. That is what happened with the current 5th edition. For 4th edition, although the tools never lived up to the promises, at least WotC had two programs that worked quite well, a character creator, and a monster builder / database. And because my group like tactical combat and half of my players don't speak English and 5E isn't on offer in any other language, I am still using those online tools and pay a subscription for them.

But of course WotC isn't providing any new additions or support to the legacy website of D&D Insider. We can be happy enough they didn't shut it down yet. And as the tools work with Microsoft Silverlight, I now need to use Internet Explorer instead of Chrome. And I wonder how many other legacy sites there are out there that got created with plugins, and there is nobody to redo them in the new standard that Google is trying to impose on us. I would imagine that people are much more faithful to their preferred websites than to their preferred browser. If Chrome doesn't support your favorite websites any more, then goodbye Chrome! Google might well be shooting themselves in the foot with this more than hurting Microsoft.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
 
Neverending content

On MMO-Champion I stumbled upon an interview with ex-WoW developer Ghostcrawler who says: "Neverending content leads to making things so difficult you can't progress or asking you to run the same content 100 times.". I feel that is very true. Nevertheless I don't think that is an unsolvable problem, because you can design content in a way that running it a 100 times isn't boring.

For example look at games like Tetris or Candy Crush Saga (which will now come preinstalled with Windows 10). These are clearly games in which players run the same content far more than 100 times. But because there are minor variations, some randomness, and a slowly increasing difficulty level, players don't mind doing that same content hundreds of times.

Saturday, May 16, 2015
 
Battle.net Launcher

Not much blogging this week as I am traveling. I must say that the Battle.net launcher is a big improvement when you are away from home: I get to play World of Warcraft without having to take my authenticator with me, something I was always reluctant to due to the danger of losing it. Of course now somebody stealing my laptop could theoretically access my account, but I'm pretty certain that laptop thieves and WoW account thieves are two very different types of criminals with not much overlap.

In any case, even at home I am happy that I don't have to enter my password and authenticator code every time I log in. Logon screens are so last year!

Thursday, May 14, 2015
 
Brexit

So the conservative party won the UK elections and will now hold a referendum about the British exit from the European Community, the so-called "Brexit". As politicians are unable to explain why an economy with no industry that is living of trade would be better off in a free market, it is likely that Britain will vote for the Brexit. And it is only in that wave of splendid isolation that I can explain the decision of the BBC to close down their global BBC iPlayer.

The global BBC iPlayer was a simple deal: While UK citizens get free access to BBC content, for which they already paid for with their annual television licence fee, Europeans and Canadian get to watch that BBC content on their iPad in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. Before Netflix came to Europe, this was the only TV on demand service working on my iPad. And it still has some advantages over Netflix, as the iPlayer allowed you to download films and watch them when you didn't have a network connection.

And now the global BBC iPlayer is shutting down at the end of the current subscription month with no replacement. The BBC says it has "plans" for new global digital services, but given their usual speed that could take years before those plans become a real service. So right now the BBC is refusing what was essentially free money, because they simply sold already existing content to more customers and now refuse to make that sale. For the BBC the Brexit is already happening, and the rest of the country can't be far behind. I wonder if they'll ever realize that they aren't a global superpower any more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015
 
Does betrayal scale?

People who behave make for boring stories. The most famous World of Warcraft player is Leeroy Jenkins because he was clearly misbehaving. But as WoW has relatively strict behavior rules, it doesn't really produce all that many stories worth reading. Not like EVE Online, which is a great source for stories of scams, betrayal, and assassination. The people who make Crowfall would like to imitate said and announced their rules: "A key component of politics is the concept of betrayal. We envision many relationships being formed and broken in the game. Whether it be a subservient guild who who overthrows their master, an infiltrator who loots the entire guild cache and delivers it to their sworn enemy, or an alliance that breaks falls apart at a key turning point of a campaign… We consider these to be “fair game” tactics." As there is no lack of people who would like to misbehave, we can be sure of getting stories of betrayal from Crowfall.

But how does such betrayal scale as a form of entertainment? Clearly the idea is to allow all sorts of dirty politics in Crowfall for the fun of the players. And I always had the impression that this works better in theory than in practice: Betrayal is not an activity that you can do very often, and it usually doesn't involve a large number of people in the know. If everybody is aware that betrayal is allowed by the rules of the game, people will be paranoid and not easily trust each other. And that includes that if you plan a betrayal, you can't tell many people about it, because they might reveal your plans to your enemy.

Scree lists some stories of EVE Online, like the Titans4U scam which netted the scammer 850 billion ISK, worth $45,000. Great story for readers, but consider for a moment the inherent fun of that for the players. The scammer presumably acted alone, so he was the only one actually having direct fun from the betrayal. And while that netted him a lot of real world money, I guess in the game he was finished, because nobody will ever trust him again. With lots of people on the losing side it seems to me that fun-wise the betrayal story is a negative sum game. How many people are going to stay in your game because it allows them to regularly betray somebody, and how many players do you lose who quit in disgust?

While I don't know how many people actually play EVE (CCP only lists accounts, and most players have several accounts), I have trouble believing that many of these players play EVE only because they want to betray others. It isn't as if there were a lot of non-betrayal space trading MMORPGs out there, and I'd assume that more player are interested in the more repeatable direct PvP than in slowly building up the trust of others in order to betray them once. So I'm not sure that betrayal scales well as a activity of entertainment in a MMORPG.

Saturday, May 09, 2015
 
Blizzard is pumping gold into the economy

Real markets move in unpredictable ways. The advice to buy low and sell high is a joke, because you don't actually know whether the price is going to be up or down tomorrow. The WoW token market is not a real market however. As you can see on WoWToken.info, the price goes up and down in a very predictable sinus curve. By observing the rate of change you can even predict future prices. So unless you are completely oblivious, you are going to buy low or sell high. There is absolutely no reason to sell when prices are low, or buy when prices are high, as you just need to wait some hours for the next peak or valley.

The market also uses an algorithm that guarantees the token seller the amount of gold the token was worth when he decided to sell it, while the token buyer only pays the price at the moment when he decides to buy. That leads to a curious market anomaly: The token seller is selling when prices are high, but there are no buyers at that moment. The buyers strike when prices are low, buying up whatever the sellers put on the market during the previous peak. And Blizzard is making up for the difference. With every WoW token sold, Blizzard is pumping thousands of gold into the economy, because of their price guarantee to the seller. The buyer is always paying less gold than the seller receives, because everybody knows whether the current price is high or low, and acts accordingly.

I don't think this is working a planned by Blizzard.

Friday, May 08, 2015
 
NBI and Gamergate

The NBI launched a Talkback Challenge to write about Gamergate. I do think that this is a bad idea. I very much agree with Jeromai that it would be better not to feed the trolls.

But I would like to take the opportunity to talk about freedom of speech, because I believe a number of Gamergaters horribly abused the term to the point of it becoming unrecognizable. In short, freedom of speech gives you the right to communicate your opinions and ideas without needing to fear legal consequences. Freedom of speech does not A) force anybody to listen to your opinions or ideas, nor B) does it give you the right to any specific platform for your opinions and ideas.

Thus in particular, somebody blocking your Twitter feed and not reading it any more is not a violation of freedom of speech. Somebody not allowing you to post your opinion on *his* website, or have a stand on *his* convention is not a violation of freedom of speech.

As an example, you have the freedom of being pro-slavery. If you write a pro-slavery blog without falling into the trap of writing anything that is legally considered to be "hate speech" or "inciting racial violence", you are free to express your pro-slavery opinions without legal consequences. That doesn't make you less of an asshole. You might not have legal consequences, but other people reading your revolting opinions and ideas might well spit at you. And you don't have the right to publish your opinions on the cover of Ebony, or give you the right to a stand at the National Baptist Convention.

Saying "I support Gamergate because I believe in freedom of speech" is just plain wrong. You would need to also support every other group that holds revolting opinions, because they all tend to always clamor for freedom of speech.

 
Nitpicking

You know that feeling you get when somebody is wrong on the internet? I got that reading several blog posts about the fall in WoW subscription numbers. I'll just quote one from Belghast, because he made the statement very explicit, but the same thing was reported by several other people. What Belghast said is "what we are seeing is a lot of people who came back and played the game for the month that came with their boxed copy, decided that they did not really like what they saw and left again all without actually subscribing.".

That is factually wrong. Only the original game of World of Warcraft comes with a free month. Somebody who bought the box of Warlords of Draenor either already was subscribed or decided to "actually subscribe" before being able to play, because WoW did not come with a free month of subscription included.

So, I did it, I fixed the internet. :)

Of course that doesn't change the fact that the people who came and subscribed just in order to play Warlords of Draenor then went and unsubscribed a month or two later. Personally I am still subscribed, but A) that subscription is now paid in gold, and B) the content I am mostly playing is pet battles and leveling through Cataclysm content. Besides garrison maintenance I am not actually playing Warlords of Draenor content. So I don't disagree with the view that WoD had only 1 or 2 months worth of content, and lots of people came, saw, and didn't stay to conquer.

Thursday, May 07, 2015
 
Back to base

In 2007 Raph Koster published a post on how open big virtual worlds grow. The post describes an universal curve of growth and decline of MMORPGs. While for each game the time scale and the peak number is different, the overall shape of all curves is the same. Expansions are basically peaks added on top of a universal curve, which do not change the underlying fundamentals. So once you got past the headlines of "Oh my god, WoW is dying (again)!" and "WoW loses 3 million players overnight", you will discover that World of Warcraft is perfectly aligned with Raph's theory and just got back to exactly the same base curve it was on before the Warlords of Draenor expansion.

The expansion peak might have been a bit bigger than usual because the further along the decline curve you go, the bigger the number of ex-WoW players becomes. People tend to use any available number to support their pre-existing opinion, but I think there isn't really anything interesting going on here. Until end of Q1 2015 World of Warcraft simply followed a predictable trajectory, because the fundamentals didn't change.

So the interesting data point is going to be the next one. Because obviously a move like going free to play is changing the fundamentals and will change the basic shape of the player number curve. So if you consider the WoW token a form of free to play, it could be expected that there is a visible impact on player numbers rising again in Q2. But if you think that only very few people buy and sell WoW tokens, you'd expect a slight decrease in Q2. We will see!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015
 
How much lore do you need?

I am between campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons, having finished the Favorites of Selune campaign and not yet started the Zeitgeist campaign. So I am busy preparing the new campaign, understanding the campaign world, and getting everything together we will need to create characters and start playing. Doing that I quickly ended up with a very specific question: How much lore do I need to tell to my players before character creation and playing?

Now it is perfectly possible to start a campaign with absolutely no lore whatsoever. A generic dwarven warrior, a generic elven ranger, a generic halfling thief, and a generic human cleric meet in a generic tavern in a generic fantasy world. Go! The problem with that approach is that not every player is a creative genius and master of improvisation. Given a generic fantasy world as background, a typical group of average players is going to end up with a history that reads like a bunch of World of Warcraft quest texts: Fun adventures battling more or less random monsters for not much of a good reason except for gaining treasure and experience. Hey, it works for World of Warcraft!

But imagine you want to play a campaign in the world of Game of Thrones, and you want your campaign and the stories being told interactively between the DM and the players to somewhat resemble a Game of Thrones story. Creating random characters and meeting in a tavern is probably not going to do the job. You would need to tell the players about the various houses, about the wall, about the different meaning of "winter" in that game world, about old and new faith, and about some other things. And then you might not want to give them total freedom in choosing their character background, because running that campaign with player characters loyal to different houses would be rather awkward.

It is basically the old question of high fantasy vs low fantasy all over again. A low fantasy campaign works well with little lore and lots of improvisation, because players only need to rely on their experience and knowledge of typical fantasy to tell a typical low fantasy story. For a high fantasy campaign in which the players are saving the world by throwing the one ring into Mount Doom, the players better know a bit about the world. Like where is Mount Doom, what is the difficulty in getting there, what are the consequences of failing to throw the ring in, and why didn't anybody offer them 100 gold pieces as reward for that quest?

Having said that, there is certainly a danger of presenting too much lore to the players. The Silmarillion is too much knowledge, even for a Middle-Earth campaign. Lots of DMs who created fantasy worlds went way overboard with creating extensive history and lore for that world which ultimately isn't all relevant for the campaign.

Thus the idea for my Zeitgeist campaign is giving an overview of the history of the world, the lore, the power struggles, and to which group in the world the players belong and are presumed to at least initially have loyalty. But only to an extent which is necessary for intelligent character creation and playing the first adventure or so, during which then of course more lore can pop up in play. The reason I want to explain lore before rolling characters is that I want to use the campaign specific background themes, and it is hard to expect somebody to play a "docker" or a "skyseer" without explaining what those are and how they fit into the world. I just need to work out how much lore is "enough".

 
Messing with the player economy

There are a few players in World of Warcraft who choose their crafting professions by regarding immaterial aspects like role-playing. Of course a dwarven warrior should have mining and smithing as professions, otherwise he wouldn't be a proper dwarf! But everybody else tends to see professions as a way to make gold, which is even more important if gold now can buy you subscription time and save you real money.

Now Warlords of Draenor introduced huge changes to crafting professions. It made it easier to pick up a new crafting profession and level it up without having to go through all of the old content, you can level a profession like tailoring or smithing from 1 to 700 with only WoD materials. WoD also significantly changed the relation between gathering professions and crafting professions: It allowed everybody to gather WoD materials in the safety of their own garrison in sufficient quantities for crafting, and without needing to have the gathering profession at all. Gathering professions like mining or herbalism became unprofitable. While at the same time the crafting professions (with the exception of alchemy) were turned into a source of passive income: Just do your daily transmute and your work orders, and you'll make thousands of gold every month from your garrison.

As a consequence a large number of players dropped their now useless gathering professions and went for two profitable crafting professions instead. My warrior got double screwed by having herbalism and alchemy before WoD; now he has smithing and tailoring to "pay the rent". But as Azuriel points out patch 6.2 suddenly requires people to have maxed out gathering professions again, as it introduces a new high-level crafting material "Felblight", which is gathered in the new zone Tanaan Jungle using gathering professions. Crap, I haven't got a single high-level character with a gathering profession any more.

I don't think I am the only one. It was pretty evident and common knowledge up to this point that gathering professions had become somewhat useless (I don't even spend the time to gather the free resources in my garrisons any more). Lots of people dropped them. And I guess that will mess mightily with the supply of Felblight. Yes, you can level up mining or herbalism again in your garrison, but going from 1 to 700 will take over a month that way. And while the initial price of Felblight will be high, you never know how it will evolve in the long term and whether that justifies dropping a crafting profession and putting all that effort into leveling a gathering profession again.

I think Blizzard dropped the ball on crafting in Warlords of Draenor. Them now backpedaling on gathering professions only makes things worse.

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