Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rift's Creative Gameplay

If you just read the title, you probably think I am crazy. Rift and creative? And why, of all things, the gameplay?

Well, in the beginning I played Rift just like World of Warcraft. I had my skills on my hot bar and pressed the hotkeys while moving with the mouse. Some time ago I made a warrior and I decided to advance him predominantly as a "Champion". That's a mock-heroic name for a guy who uses two-handed weapons.

While I leveled I got more and more abilities. And a lot of these abilities were off the global cooldown and reactionary. One specific ability would become usable when I scored a critical hit, another when I was parried or dodged and yet another when I parried myself.

Add these to several abilities that build up points and abilities that consume points for a 'finisher'. All the while looking at your energy bar that is as far as possible from your hotbar. Needless to say, playing a Champion was really stressful. I was constantly looking at my hotbars to find out whether one of the reactionary abilities would become available. It made sense to execute them as soon as possible. First, because they were good on a damage per energy basis and second, because these abilities overwrote each other and were on their own cooldown. So, often, the faster you executed them, the faster you could execute them when they became available next. Since they were off the GCD, every millisecond mattered.

My biggest problem were hotkeys. Where do you put three hotkeys that you need to press ASAP when they light up? Honestly, I was really challenged by this and was constantly much worse at execution than I would have liked. In battlegrounds, I would need to watch closely,
1) the enemey's movement
2) the enemey's actions (i.e. castbars)
3) my energy
4) my points
5) the three reactionary abilities

All the while I would need to stay in melee range, stay in heal range and line-of-sight, watch my health, whatch my debuffs, watch the enemy's debuffs, consider using special abilities like a AoE fear, charging somewhere and interrupting somebody. In addition to that, I would have liked to watch my healers and last and maybe least the objective of the battleground. Instead I was fighting the user interface! I was overstrained.

Keep in mind that this kind of gameplay is not new for me. I have some 500.000 kills on my WoW characters combined. I played WoW battlegrounds for 5 years. If anybody is a veteran at this, I am. But three reactionary abilities (and a few other things) on top of everything was too much.

One evening I was browsing the internet and found something remarkable: A macro.
Now, macros aren't new to me, but what was new was how they worked in Rift: You can write a lot of abilities into a macro. When you execute it with a hotkey, the server goes through the macro and executes the first of the abilities that is executable. Obviously, if the enemy is out of range for an ability, it is not executable, nor is it executable if a condition of the reactionary abilities is not met. So I made a few macros that looked like this

#show Debilitating Strike
cast Frenzied Strike
cast Bloodthirst
cast Inescapable Fury
cast Debilitating Strike
cast Rising Waterfall
cast Disruptive Strike
cast Mighty Blow

There's more to say about this macro, but the point is this:
I play Rift with maybe three to four macros. The actual game is all about spamming these buttons. Spamming, because you want the reactionary abilities to fire as soon as possible and never know when they will become available.

You don't play perfectly this way, but the fact that the execution is so simple makes it way superior to any other way to play the game. The fun of the game has been transfered into the metagame of coming up with the best macros. That's actually an interesting thing. But, of course, you can read macros up on the internet.

Now, I had my doubts about this kind of creative gameplay. Was it fun? In the beginning it was fun like hell! I would charge into the enemies and would finally have time to look at them and not just look at my buttons! I could protect my healers, I could focus their healers, I could move to where I was needed and if I wanted to kill somebody, he was as good as dead. The poor souls who mostly played without macros had no chance against this awesomeness.

Of course, the superiority feeling stopped being fun a few days later. It always does. Was this gameplay fun? I am not sure.

What I love about it is that I can finally play with tactics again and not completely focused on the execution and my user interface. I can look the enemy into the eyes, instead of staring at my hotbar. That's great. I like to play against enemies instead of against my user interface. The gameplay has certainly been too stressful without macros.
But, unfortunately there's another effect: I didn't care about my abilities anymore. Any button I pressed would fire a multitude of abilities which I couldn't predict.

So instead of
Power strike, Power Strike, Debilitating Strike, Execute
I was just spamming anonymous abilities that I couldn't care less about. I even forgot their names.

In the end, I think, it would have been better to not create so many abilities in the first place, when all I did was to copy/paste them into macros, anyway.

Did Trion create this "creative new gameplay" on purpose? I doubt it. I guess they considered it a good idea at the time without fully realizing what it does. It's a complete game changer for some speccs.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Making Crafters Matter II

I started to answer the comments on the last post, but it grew too long. Therefore I made a new post with the answers. Thanks for the criticism! The harsher the better. Just keep it reasonable :)

Roq, the dungeon is procedurally generated and there will be no waiting for respawns, because waiting in a dangerous cavern is, well, dangerous. Monsters will pin you down if you're on one spot for too long. I can also come up with about a dozen other immersive ways to prevent this. Don't think too much along the lines of WoW, please.
There are no levels and only a slow character power progression with heavy diminishing returns later on. There's also no cap. You can get ever better, albeit ever more slowly. Most players will be within a small power interval that is well known to the developers and can be planned in advance.

Rohan, yes, better things need more time. In fact, the best things may take days and weeks to make. The standard stuff, however takes just a few seconds.

Tolthir, that's exactly the point. The whole system is about trusting a crafter. That's why their reputation matters. The letters they add to their signature allows them to create different series of items. They may cheat you. But if they do, they will do much less profit in the future. And since this game has no twinks, that's a problem for the crafter. You can either grap cheap un-signed items or try to attain an item from a well know crafter with his specific signature. An iron long sword is still always an iron long sword. It will always be better and more durable than a wooden training sword. I'm sure you can find a collection of famous and trustworthy crafters on the internet within just a few weeks, as the whole world is just one shard. And some crazy guilds may decide to forge the one sword to rule them all. Who knows what happens if you really invest a fortune to make just one sword?

Klepsacovic, re-crafting is a nice addition. But I wouldn't focus the game on that. Thanks for the ideas, though.

Stabs, this is exactly how such a system is meant to be played.

Kring, thanks for asking this central question. Is it fun for non-crafters to not know an items exact stats? Everybody in this game can learn crafting. It doesn't influence your fighting skills in any way, but the time requirement to become a famous crafter won't allow you to also become the best sword fighter of the world. Playing excessively will lead to diminishing returns on everything you do.
Everybody can get patterns. The rare ones are rare, but they are still attainable for everyone who sets his mind on it and has support of enough players.
Mmmh, my immersion is broken easily, I think, but I cannot understand why a crafter who only works for a guild breaks it!? Oh - there are no server firsts or raids. I can't describe the entire game here, unfortunately. I'm sure there also are famous crafters who work for rich and large social groups. They might call themselves kingdoms, as there is no teleportation.

Syl, there are no soulbound items, all items decay with use and time, there's full loot, but little non-consentual PvP. Means: items are important, but are always temporary; even the best items. It is more important to fight with the correct weapon than to fight with the epic weapon. You don't want to stab a skeleton to death with a dagger. It's not very effective against these bones. Even the most epic dagger fails at that task.

I see, again, it is hard to discuss a feature out of context. Thanks for the feedback, anyway.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Making Crafters Matter

In a fun little discussion with a friend today we designed the best-selling MMORPG in history that will make you rage-quit real life. And we did it in just a few hours! It has a 100% player-run economy, of course.

Part of it was also this crazy idea:
Items have three different qualities: effectiveness, durability, appearance.
A better appearance is translated by the game into a modified 3D-model for the item.

The crafter uses a pattern to make a weapon. For example, an "iron long sword". An "iron long sword" has some base effectiveness, base durability and base appearance, but the crafter can improve these qualities by using more resources.

For example, he can decide that he wants to make a really sharp iron long sword. Thus, he adds some points to effectiveness. These added points will make the crafting process require more ressources. How much more, is determined by his skill compared to the skill the pattern requires.

The name of the sword is always "Iron longsword". However, he can chose to sign the sword. His signature always includes his name and a few additional letters. For example, he can chose to add the letters "Calamad" to the signature; or "Your mother". Depending on his age, you can guess which letters he chooses.
He can also not sign the sword at all, of course.

Now, here comes the trick about this system: Only the crafter knows the qualities of the sword! His customers have no idea! They only know that it is an "iron long sword", and his signature, if he added one.

I'd love to hear your opinions as to what kind of game would evolve out of this.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Alternatives to Monthly Subscriptions

In the last few posts I have been rather destructive. I gave reasons for why I dislike f2p games. This post will be constructive. There is a need of such a thing, because the old status quo of box sells plus subscription fees isn't optimal, either.

The problem with subscription fees is that every player pays the same amount. No matter whether he has a lot of fun or just a little. No matter whether he plays for hours on end or just a few hours every month.

This is a problem, because it holds the genre back. MMORPGs stay behind their potential if the companies cannot profit from the fun the consumer has. Take me, for example. Obviously, I like MMORPGs a lot. (At least I used to. Since about 2006, AAA-MMORPGs are becoming less and less immersive. It's really a problem by now).
But there's no MMORPG out there that asks for a money-equivalent of the fun I have and supplies me with an expensive MMORPG. I can buy a Porsche instead of a VW if I want, but I cannot buy access to a fully-grown virtual fantasy world instead of lobby-based minigames.

We need a business model that does three things:
First, it needs to allow companies to extract a fair amount of money from consumers based on how much they like their product. Second, it must not diminish the value of the virtual world itself, as îtemshops do in my opinion. Third, it must not involve strong incentives for the company's management that are detrimental to the quality of the game.

Here are a few brainstormed ideas:

1) If your game is class-based, sell access to the classes. One class of the player's choice is part of the initial download/box or just free. Access to any additional class costs. This way, consumers who access more of the game, pay more. This does not diminish the immersion into the game's world, as the purchase happens outside of the context of the game. It is also a very transparent transaction.

The cost can either be a one-time payment or a recurring subscription. A recurring subscription would be advantageous, in so far as it allows players to switch back to another class at no cost. This way, there is no pressure to stick with a class after you have chosen it and people wouldn't automatically quit when they don't like their selected class. Alternatively, you could buy concurrent access to a number of classes and change these classes for free every month.

Unfortunately this business model can lead to the management directing the developers to add much more classes than reasonable. So, it's not perfect.

2) Another idea is to sell a certain amount of play time. For example, one could sell a certain amount of free hours per week and demand a price for every additional hour played. These additional hours played and the additional costs would, of course, be shown on the UI and there would be a limit in how much extra costs can occur. This business model isn't exactly new. Mobile phone companies do it for years now and it works.
This idea encourages companies to make players play as much and as excessive as possible. So it's still worse than a flat rate. But if you cut off the amount of free hours at 30 a week and just offer a flat rate (normal monthly sub) for players who want to play more, this should work rather well.

3) Do you have any creative ideas?

Concluding Post on F2P

Time for a concluding post on the f2p debate.
First, I'd like to thank the most active commenters, Tesh, Max, Gilded, Kring, and Psychochild (in no particular order, hehe). Also, Psychochild made a post of his own on the topic.

I know that arguing often feels like repeatedly running against a wall. So I'd like to point out that these discussions actually did change my mind. I'm not suddenly in favor, of f2p business models, but I did learn a few things.

One thing I learned was that a game based on monthly subs can and often does use the same psychological tricks that I outlined in the last post. I was aware of the fact that they used tricks, too, but not really aware of the magnitude. The point I am making has therefore shifted. I now think that microtransactions are often worse than subscriptions, because the effect of using the psychological tricks has a potentially worse outcome for the player.

The worst thing that can happen to you in a monthly sub game is that you pay a monthly sub although you didn't want to or didn't actually play. Taking todays subscription fees, that's a maximum expense of about $15 per month. In a f2p game with microtransactions and itemshops, however, you can often spend without limit.

Moreover, the psychological tricks when you use them on a monthly sub game, mostly make the players play more than they actually wanted. For example, a sunken-cost fallacy in combination with a daily dungeon may encourage me to play a game daily, instead of only on weekends. This is in contrast to a f2p game where the tricks encourage you to spend more than you actually wanted. (Actually, it is questionable whether a monthly sub game does even has an interest in me playing daily and as exessive as possible).

In retrospect, I prefer to find out that I played exessively during the last two weeks to finding out that I spent money exessively during the last two weeks. The reason is that the time would now be gone anyway and the odds that I had done something particularly productive in my free time are small. However, the money is something I would still own if I hadn't spent it.

Paying $15 every month is also different from spending 0.67 cents every few hours. Most people do some calculations when confronted with the monthly payment options. But they are less likely to do this when facing micro transactions. Which is, of course, exactly the point. I just want the companies to encourage the consumer to make an informed, transparent and well-thought-out choice in contrast to encouraging impulse buying.

My advise, if you really want to use microtransactions and itemshops to finance your game, is to make them as transparent as possible. This is not easy, because the management and the marketing department will feel like not doing their job, when they don't use the psychological tricks outlined in the last post. But manipulating players to spend money that they didn't actually want to spend is not an honest way of allowing them to reward your efforts! These tricks are powerful! They work especially well on children and less educated people, who usually don't have much money to begin with.
I know that there are other cultures, especially in parts of Asia and right-wing U.S., but the culture I grew up in despises efforts to make poor people spend beyond their means.

Concluding, I'd like to point out again that my main argument against item shops in virtual worlds is that they destroy my immersion: the feeling that I play in one coherent, credible and consistent virtual world. Moreover, I fear the corruptive influence microtransactions have on a game company - especially when it comes to immersion, which often seems to be a frail flower to begin with.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Evil in F2P games

Yesterday I wrote about the evil in monthly subs. The reason I did this was to appear more objective and credible when writing about the evil in f2p business models.

Before writing this post I brainstormed a bullet point list of evils. It's now one page long. I think I'll just jump into it and hope that some reasonable structure appears, somehow.

First, please take a few minutes and read this really well written post about the sunken-cost fallacy. It will reappear constantly when going through the list below.

The euphemistic name
Let's start with something harmless: the euphemistic name. f2p MMORPGs, of course, are not really free to play. They are about as free to play as a free demo of a pay-2-play game. Admittedly, some demos are larger than others, but overall the aim of any f2p business model is to make you pay. The company also makes damn sure that if you want to play the f2p game on the level of any monthly sub game, you will also want to pay a similar price, at least. The euphemistic name is similar to "social games", by the way. This industry is really good at this stuff.

First, you need to buy points!
A second currency can actually be good for immersion. Buying points can also help parents control how much a child pays. But the real reason companies do this is something else. Guess why all casinos require you to play with chips!
Paying in a second currency has at least two psychological effects on a gamer. Firstly, people hate wasted points. And companies make damn sure that you will never really be able to reduce your point account to zero. There's always some points left. This is one reason the prices are sometimes odd. Companies abuse the player's aversion to waste and take advantage of the sunken cost fallacy.
Secondly, players like to treat those points like monopoly money. The same way they do when they visit a country with another currency. Mental accounting is at work here. The points aren't really worth all that much. You can't even re-exchange them. So you can just as well spend them, can you not? Of course, that also means that you will need to buy new points sooner ..

Just buy once
The biggest psychological obstacle there is, is to get players to pay just once; no matter how much. It's like the bursting of a dam, as you'd say in German. This first payment is what counts. About 80%-95% of players in f2p games never pay a dime! But the next bracket of players doesn't pay 50 cent. They pay at least $10 a month!

To get you to buy anything, companies usually have starter kits and limited offers that are unbelievably cheap or even cost nothing. The starter kit will give you a few nice points for free, and probably also some stuff that usually costs money. The limited offer can be something like 20 potions for the price of one. But just today!

Limited offer
20 potions for the price of one, but just today, is a limited offer. It says: "You can either buy this now, or you will never be able to buy it". And, once again, the waste aversion algorithms in your brain start ticking. It's the same reason your grandma had these eight pairs of shoes. They all were a special offer, you know. She would have lost money if she hadn't bought them!

Special offers
Not all special offers are actually cheap, of course. Some might just be especially special. And of course you always qualify for a special discount, because you are such a special and loyal customer.

The oldest trick in the world. The stuff never costs 600 points. It's always 590.

Cognitive dissonance
Once you bought something it has to have been worth it. Otherwise you would have been stupid.

Pride and status
At least one of your friends has this über-cool item? See the respect that he has gained due to it? It's the same as iPhones and expensive brands in school.

Peer pressure
Probably the most evil trick. Your friends needs you to buy this, so you as a group can advance together. You are a liability, don't you see? In fact, even if you are not a liability yet, you might become one. Who knows what your friends are really thinking when they smile back at you when you tell them that you won't pay.

Somehow the players need to be remembered that they can buy stuff. Consequently, there are little reminders everywhere. Or even not so little reminders. Some people don't like big red buttons on the UI while trying to immerse themselves into the fanatsy.

Lots of small payments
Now, some people criticize that micro payments, actually, aren't that micro, really. But they should be thankful. Give two persons $50. Give the one person just one note, the other one ten $5 notes. Guess who who spends it faster.

Impuls buying rocks
You thought this content was free. And it was; except for the very last step. For example the last quest in a quest line or some potion that would finally enable you to beat that mob. Companies try to take you by surprise and encourage you to buy things spontaneously.

Help a friend
F2P helps you to be nice. You can buy stuff for friends. As a present. Now, they will love you. .. and they will feel like they need to return the favor.

You're not one of these stupid f2p players who spends money on useless stuff! You actually wanted to give something to charity anyway. Isn't this a great chance to combine it with that cute sparkle pony? Of course, the company just added the charity on top of the original price.

Controversial items
Controversial items sell better and for higher prices. Firstly they get talked about a lot, which is free advertisement. Secondly, they evoke stronger emotions. The sparkle pony was not controversial by accident. These guys know what they are doing.

Obscure payment
The company has no interest in you knowing when and what exactly you bought. So, they try their best within the law, to obscure the information. They might even tell you that you saved $43 due to your brilliant use of special offers. In the fine print you can find that you also payed a lot of money - to be able to save $43.

Focus on children
Not an especially new trick. Children are extremely predictable. They still need to learn all these fallacies and how other people want to take advantage of them. And, most importantly, they are exceptionally effective at complaining and demanding stuff from their parents. Also, there are many events in our real life when we want/need to find presents for somebody. Now, the pink virtual doll is not something you might find interesting, but it might be a good present for your niece. In any case, nobody can blame you for not having a present once you got that stupid doll.

It works in real life, in virtual life it works even better. Allow people to buy lottery tickets for points!

You already spent so much.
And if you stop spending now, it will all have been in vain. You justify your earlier purchases with new purchases.

Price anchoring
In the supermarket, there's always the ridiculously cheap pen, the "normally priced" pen and the golden pen with diamonds for 90€. Which one do you buy? The "normally priced" one, of course. And the reason there is one for 90€ is not that people buy it; nobody does. It is there to make you feel like not buying the most expensive one. You made a good compromise, did you not? Works perfectly with healing potions and stuff like that.

Collecting stuff
Collections are great. Players love sets (I never understood why). Anyway, for some reason most of the collection is free, but a few parts cost something. People hate to have incomplete sets or really anything that's incomplete.

Everybody else does it
It's perfectly normal to buy this potion. Really! 95% of all comparable players buy it regularly! You really stand out, and in a negative way!

A discount
This idea isn't terribly new. They sell you 50 healing potions at a discount. Thus, the price per potion is lower. The reason seems obvious: you might never need 50 healing potions. And in that case they sold you more than you need.
However, the real reason is more subtle. Fact is, you might need 50 healing potions eventually; as you certainly will need 50 rolls of toilette paper eventually. The reason they incentivise you to buy so much at once is that you will start to use it up faster if you have a lot in stock. If you have 50 healing potions in your backpack, your use of healing potions will raise considerably, promised! You can even calculate by how much: If the discount is 10%, you will start to use healing potions at least 10% more often - probably much more often.
Discounts like this are especially evil, because the consumer often thinks that he tricked the company. "I will need 50 rolls of toilette paper and it doesn't decay! Stupid company!". Self-confident constomers that feel like they are in control tend to buy more.

Limits on how much you can spend
That looks like a nice thing, doesn't it? The company does not allow you to spend more than 30€ a week.
Mmh, you never know when you might need another extra powerful healing potion. Maybe you should buy a stock as long as you can! Next week you might need to buy something else and then the limit would prevent you from buying it! In fact, you might actually lose an opportunity! Just like not doing the weekly raid quest, not spending the weekly maximum is stupid, is it not?

You didn't think good sales persons can do this, but then you suddenly had this barbecue equipment for 20 persons. When you bought it, you imagined yourself inviting all your friends and how they would love your barbecue. Of course, when you finally retire and manage to invite all your friends, the equipment will probably already be rusty and you can't find the complex manual anymore. Anyway, this works perfectly well with this one potion that enables you to save the entire raid. And it costs just 40€! Imagine how you drift into the air like an angel and all your friends will look up to you while you save them!

You didn't know smilies can be evil? Well, you would be surprised how effective this electronic speed indicator at the roadside is! When you are within the limit it smiles at you. When you go too fast it becomes sad. Sad smilies are terrible! And so is leaving the shop without buying anything. Look how sad the smiley is!
You're laughing, but I warn you: never underestimate smilies!

Phew .. There's so much more. Have a look at this and this. All these fallacies and cognitive biases can be abused. And if you go through them one by one, you find that most of them actually are abused in f2p games. Especially in "social games", of course.

In the end, remember that only 5%-20% of the players pay anything. But companies do not gain 20x or 5x as many players when they go free to play. Thus, those players that pay, pay more on average compared to a subscription. And even within those 5%-20%, there is a power law. Some players bankrupt themselves playing f2p games. Now, of course that's not you. You have perfect control over yourself, have you not? Actually, that's a bias, too. It's called the Bias Blind Spot. It's about people thinking they are immune to biases.

Not paying something at all in f2p games is a rather good way to prevent going on a spending spree. Just like not drinking any alcohol is a good way to not get drunk. Just don't believe that you can be the one who just spends $15 a month. Or rather, if you really want to force yourself to only spend $15 a month on a f2p game, start bookkeeping and tell somebody you trust every week how much you spent.
And when you start lying - for whatever reason!! - get the hell out of there!

Many paying players don't spend a lot all the time. They spend just a little bit every now and then. They are perfectly reasonable. But one day they get back with a friend from a party and they are a little bit drunk and, hey, what's money worth, anyway? It is this one week that you spend more than on all other weeks combined.

Of course, f2p is not inherently evil. It's just that it offers a hell of a lot of ways to increase profit. And most players actually never really figure out how the company did it.
Most companies don't really use all possible tricks to take advantage of you. The effect would be too powerful and would hurt their reputation. But, in fact, f2p also has a negative effect on the company. Once the management sees that they can basically print money, it's really hard to not make use of one more trick. Ironically, they get addicted too.

Concluding, all these abusive tricks aren't even the main reason I dislike f2p games. The main reason is that it destroys my immersion 90% of the time. I wrote about that here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Evil in Monthly Subs

Yesterday, in a rather lengthy post, I compared the monthly-subscription business model with the free-to-play business model in MMORPGs. One of the points I mentioned was that developers of f2p games have an incentive to take unfair advantage of their players. Several commenters have pointed out that this also applies to the subscription model.

So, I decided to make two posts about those unfair practices. Let's start with a post about the subscription model.

They want you to forget your sub!
Since developer have an interest in you being subscribed, independently of playing, they try to make it easy for you to forget to cancel the subscription. All sub-based games I know have automatically recurring subscriptions. However, you can usually unsubscribe a second after you resubscribed, and that's what I always do. But most players probably don't.

They bet against you - and win.
The company offers you a discount if you subscribe for more than one month. The reason this makes sense is that players often over-estimate the amount of time they will spend in the game. They are typically enthusiastic when they subscribe and the company tries to take advantage of that.

Currently, a one-month sub with WoW costs 12.99€ (=$18.31) in Germany. Three months cost 38.97€ which is exactly 3x times as much. But a 6-month sub costs only 65.94€. Thus, you save exactly 12€ if you play for 6 months. (Isn't it nice to get a round number?), Anyway, what does this tell us?

Firstly, it tells us that Blizzard doesn't really care about the 3-month sub. It's just there to make you feel smart about discovering that it's useless. Making people feel smart and confident is important if you want to sell them something. Secondly, it makes it easier for you to see that the 6-months sub is rather good. Multiplying something with two is easier than to multiply it with six and 38.97€ times two is obviously more than 70€. Thirdly, by comparing something that makes some sense with something doesn't make any sense at all, that which makes some sense seems to make even more sense.
Finally, it makes the 6-month sub appear less extreme, because you compare it with a three month sub, instead of a one-month sub.

The 6-month sub seems really good. Let's assume 30 days per month. If you go with the 30-day sub you pay 0.433€ per day. At that price, 65.94€ buy you 152 days of access to World of Warcraft. The 6-months sub, however, will buy you 180 days of access to World of Warcraft. You gain 28 days of "free" access. Almost an entire month!

Now, before you celebrate and go for the 6-month sub, let's have a look at it from the company's point of view: Blizzard isn't stupid. If all players who select the 6-month sub actually were willing to resubscribe after 152 days (about 5 months), they would not offer it for a discount! The 6-month sub is a bet: Blizzard bets that you would not be willing to resubscribe after 5 months. If you select this option, you bet that you will.

Just like any insurance company, Blizzard has an advantage here: They have massive amounts of data. On average they profit from the 6-month sub - otherwise they wouldn't offer it!
Of course, you also have a specific advantage: You know yourself better than Blizzard does. So, if you are absolutely certain that you would be willing to resubscribe in about 5 months (152 days), go for the 6-month sub! But then .. how can you be certain? Remember, on average, Blizzard profits from this offer. And do you really know what patches will have come out in 5 months?

Also, consider that your one-month sub might end at a weekday when you have no time to play, anyway. Even if you like to be subscribed continuously, you can save many days by not being subscribed in between the one-month intervalls. Maybe you are on vacation when a one-month sub runs out? That could save you many, many days.

The option to subscribe for six months instead of one, also tells us that a substantial amount of players who select the 6-month option lose the bet and play WoW in chunks of less than 5 months, because for every player that Blizzard loses the bet on, they need one where they win the bet! Otherwise the option weren't profitable.

And, finally, we learn that there really aren't all that many players nowadays that subscribe for 2-4 months in a row. Otherwise, they would try the same trick with the three-month option! This, actually, underlines that WoW nowadays is played by to extremes of players: Those that always have a running sub, and thus choose the 6-month option. And those that just have a look and typically do not play longer than one month in a row!

They get money for you being subscribed, not for you having fun!
In a perfect world, you would pay an equivalent of fun to the company. So, if you had twice as much fun, you'd pay twice as much. Unfortunately, and the companies probably seriously regret it, no such payment model has been developed yet.

The monthly sub model encourages the developers to not maximize your fun at any certain day, but to stretch it. That means that rather than you having a hell of a lot of fun today and not so much tomorrow, they'd rather have you have just enough fun to not unsubscribe for as long as possible. Of course, it is hard to calculate with 'fun'. It is not a zero-sum thing and a single really fun evening with your guild might very well keep you subscribed for weeks and months; it might even make you spread the word of mouth! So, in practice the developers just try to maximize your fun, while also always offering something to do. This is where grinds come in. Honestly, in WoW classical grinds have mostly been removed. The only thing that is left are achievement grinds.

But there are a lot of mechanisms in the game to keep you continuously engaged even if you couldn't care less for achievements. Character power progression is especially good for that. Once you reach maxlvl in WoW, you first need to go to normal dungeons and at the same time grind reputation with daily quests to access important items, then you go to heroic dungeons, then you go raiding normal modes. And if you are crazy you go grind heroic mode raids. I know nobody who does or did that, actually.

Now, some players might argue that WoW would be more fun, if you could progress faster. But, actually, I think, this pressure on the company to stretch the fun is good. It's exactly what is missing in single player games. I'd love to play The Witcher longer, having to explore huge dungeons for many nights - even if they are repetitive. But the game is made in a way that I can and must play it through in 40 hours or less.

Also, Blizzard is really quite crazy when it comes to content. For some reason, they like to make you progress much faster than they can offer content. Watch TotalBiscuit's rage-quit video in the last post to get a taste of that.

The best explanation I can come up with is that the developers are under a constant pressure to keep the sub number rising and, thus, constantly sacrifice the long-term success for the short-term success of the game.

Of course, interpreting a company's actions only goes so far. They aren't completely rational in the end.

Any more evil incentives?
Feel free to comment!

Another one Bites the Dust

TotalBiscuit will stop playing WoW and will also stop doing the show.

I was not a regular watcher of his show, but he has a way of talking that makes it easy to listen to him. I recommend watching the last show, linked above. It's mostly a long rant on why he leaves.

I don't think it is especially revelatory, by the way. 50% of what he says is some unreflected mishmash, the other 50% are not really insightful. But that doesn't change the fact that a famous player leaves and I am pretty sure that is not going unnoticed at Blizzard.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Business Models

The most prominent business model for MMORPGs is the monthly subscription model. You pay once to buy the game and after the first month you pay monthly to access the servers on which the game runs.

The monthly sub model is prominent, because it was and is so profitable. Absurdly profitable, to be specific. In the last decade, common people wrongly figured that running a server costs a hell of a lot of money (their internet access certainly did!). Consequently, they thought that $15 was a fair deal. All MMORPGs, even the presumably 'failed' ones, thus, made a lot of money.
But the profit lured competitors. At first not enough to force a drop in the monthly sub, but enough to keep it from ever raising, in spite of inflation.

As the competition grew ever more numerous, it turned out that the sub model has a problem with very small fees. The reason is that the biggest obstacle is not the actual money, but the psychology of subscribing to something. People don't really subscribe to services that cost 50 cent a month, because these services seem less valuable than the psychological resistance to subscribe to anything. In fact, they seem so little valuable exactly because they cost so little.
One alternative would have been to make yearly subscriptions, but players didn't know how long they would play and, consequently, subscription periods of longer than a month never made it into reality.

At the same time, the costs of playing a MMORPG were actually incredibly low from a consumer point of view. Of course, they wouldn't pay more than necessary, but a cheaper competition wasn't really a strong incentive to buy. In fact, people knew perfectly well that paying $15 a month for something that one does for at least 20 hours a month is just incredibly cheap. I know that I've never spent less money in my life than during 'addiction-like MMORPG periods'.

New games couldn't have higher prices, because they had a hard time anyway competing against existing games. Old games couldn't justify to increase prices, either. And the almost completely price-inelastic demand prevented companies from offering lower prices. A lower price just wasn't a strong incentive to get into an new MMORPG, because the prices were already so low. Players just played the MMORPG they liked best and never even thought about changing to a worse MMORPG, just because it is cheaper.
Thus, we had stagnating fees at about $15 a month and no way out for years.
A perfect example for how traditional economics fail in reality.

Free To Play
Eventually somebody got the idea to make a game f2p. This game could be downloaded and be played just like that. No psychological barriers whatsoever. But this wasn't enough to make money, obviously. So, f2p games started to be f2p only initially and required money later on. There have been a lot of discussions about what should be free in a f2p game and what not. The bottom line is that being too harsh with pay-requirements doesn't pay off at all. But just hoping that players pay for really useless in-game stuff, doesn't really pay, either.

F2P games achieved something that I have asked for for a very long time: market segmentation. It's a pity that there is no $100-a-month full-grown virtual world out there. I would like to p(l)ay it! And it's also a pity that there is no $1-a-month MMO-lite out there. Some players might find that an MMO-lite (lobby-based minigames, or just raiding) is actually what they want.

F2P achieves market segmentation, but unfortunately not with a multitude of different games, but within one single game. More on that later.

For the consumer, f2p has the advantage that they don't feel like paying when they do not play. Something that isn't feasible with the subscription model. A pay-once-per-3-days model would remember players too often that they are paying. Nobody likes to pay that often. And the small amounts they would pay, would make the game seem rather cheap, too. Why should you pay so often for something worth so little? I know, that's irrational; but that's what psychology often is. Monthly payments have turned out to be a good compromise, not just for MMORPGs.

For the industry, f2p has even more advantages. It is a known fact that MMORPGs can become an addiction-like activity for some players. These players potentially pay much, much more than just $15 a month. And at the same time, the company can boast with incredible numbers of registered players due to high accessibility. Most importantly, in theory, every player pays exactly what the game is worth for him, never less. A dream for any CEO.

Recently a lot of MMORPGs changed their business model from a monthly sub to f2p. The reasons seem obvious. The players who are already paying $15 a month, obviously are willing to pay $15 a month. And as rational agents, they will continue to spend $15 a month if that is what the f2p model requires them to do.

The players who don't think that playing is worth $15, aren't currently playing the game, anyway! So, all you need to do as a developer is make sure that the players who already pay $15 also need to pay $15 in the future.

But there are reasons you will make a profit. Firstly, there are players who would like to play the game, but $15 is too much. In fact, there might be players who would like to play, but only if their friend, who doesn't want to pay, plays. And not-paying players also spread the word of mouth. Thus, even players who do not pay at all can increase your profit, albeit indirectly.
Secondly, some players that originally payed only $15 a month, might be willing to pay more. Much more. In a competitive environment they might even want to pay absurd amounts. Now they can.
Finally the switch to f2p is cheap news. And news is good. This news is especially good, as the central message of the news is that players can check out your game without paying anything. Some players will check you out and start to pay. You don't even suffer much from the "cheap game" prejudice, because the game was once a "quality sub game". Therefore, it might actually always be advantegous to launch with a monthly sub and then switch to f2p.

Of course, not all players are this kind of rational agent. Some might dislike the f2p model for other reasons. Here are a few:

1) A direct connection between a player's wallet and his in-game status blurres the barriers between the virtual world and reality. In some way a player's available time has always blurred this barrier, of course. But, at least, players needed to invest the time in-game. They needed to 'work' in-game for the goodies they owned in-game. If they can buy the goodies with dollars, they don't.
This argument is not about fairness, but about immersion! If somebody runs around with a fiery sword, because he spent $5, the game just isn't really immersive. If he runs around with a fiery sword, because he killed 5000 fire giants then this doesn't really make the game more fair: the guy obviously has absurd amounts of free time. But it does make the game more immersive. It makes (more) sense on an in-game level that a fictional in-game character runs around with a fiery sword due to an in-game action.
In the end, the change of the business model is not just a change of the business model. It also changes the product in a way that some players, me included, don't like at all.

2) For the players, those who are already paying $15 are rarely better off when a game switches to f2p. As desribed above, it is in the management's best interest to require them to continue to pay at least $15 per month, if they want to continue playing the game on the same level. It is in the management's interest, because the management knows for certain that this experience is worth $15 for those players who already payed $15 in the past. In fact, one major part of the revenue from f2p games stems from players who pay much, much more than $15 a month. These players will most probably be players that have played the game already while it was running a monthly sub model, because those who only join after the f2p switch, obviously aren't willing to pay as much. So, I often furrow my brows when players applaud a switch to f2p.

3) The f2p business model creates bad incentives for the developers. Developers of a monthly sub game need to keep players interested in the game for as along as possible. That's not necessarily true for the developers of a f2p game. They can profit alot and instantaneously, if they can somehow make players pay. My personal theory of how the sparkle pony was created is that the WoW developers wanted to do something the management didn't really agree with. Thus, they made a deal: if the developers could make $25 million over-night, they would get their way. They threw all good taste overboard and made the most childish sparkling prestige mount ever. They got their way. Oh, by the way, Tobold: the sparkle pony was a limited edition.

Should you wonder, how that mount could have made such a profit, you need to understand this: The best way to make money is to make highly controversial items that a few people love, no matter whether many others dislike them. (That's universal. Have a look at this post about statistics of beauty.)
Some 1% of the WoW players like to pay $25 for a highly controversial sparkle pony. Some other 1% might like the black skull mount. Another 1% might like the white pony with tatoos of naked mermaids on the limb. Of course, this way the world becomes populated by many highly controversial mounts; not really an enjoyable experience for anyone. But for a time, the company makes a hell of a profit. Much more than if they had sold just one mount that is acceptable for everyone, but not loved by anyone. And some players will even argue that you should just shut up if you don't like their mount, completely ignoring the fact that your mount is not only part of your gaming experience, but also part of mine.

4) The f2p business model incentivises the management to abuse the player's psychology. One way are obscure payment schemes. Have a look at the Psychology of Video Games Blog. These schemes are not in the interest of the players at all.

The Fourth Pillar

Yesterdays lengthy post was clarifying that the social aspect of MMORPGs, like WoW, is not as important as usually assumed. Instead, during leveling, the traditional MMORPG is the successor of open-ended offline RPGs. And later, at endgame, the traditional MMORPG transforms into a collection of minigames, like battlegrounds, raids, anonymous dungeon runs, gold farming, auction house gold-making and collecting achievements, with the sole intent to keep players p(l)aying.

The reason MMORPGs during leveling were better open-ended RPGs than their offline counterparts was the pure size of the world and the persistence that came naturally with the online character. The large size was possible, because the costs of running servers was a convincing, albeit preposterous, argument for players to pay an additional $15 a month.

Thus, I argued SW:TOR will be successful, because it does to story-focused RPGs, what traditional MMORPGs did to open-ended RPGs. During leveling, it will be a huge story and it will profit from the persistence that the online character enforces.
At endgame, SW:TOR will become a WoW clone. Just as WoW at endgame is not about the world anymore, so SW:TOR at endgame will not be about the story anymore. Just as WoW, it will be about minigames once you finished the story.

In their now famous press release Bioware said
"We believe that there are four pillars of the roleplaying experience: progression, exploration, combat, and story. "

The statement immediately drew a lot of criticism. The reason was that most people still considered a MMORPG a world. And the promise of these MMORPG worlds was that they would one day not need to end at max level, but would rather use players to passively generate content for each other. Like many players, I am still a believer in this dream, by the way. Not only from a player point of view, but especially from a developer point of view. Eve Online proves that it is possible.

However, one must accept that World of Warcraft got 12 million players once, without ever even trying to do this. Instead, during the entire growth period, they left the leveling game mostly untouched! So, WoW cannot have grown due to an improving leveling game. Instead, it probably grew because the 'innovations' at end game made players stick around longer or return more often.

The only time Blizzard touched the leveling game (Cataclysm) and tried to transform it into an open-end / story-driven hybrid, subscriber numbers plunged. The reason is that you can either make a story-driven RPG (Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher) or an open-ended one (The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout 3). A story-driven RPG without voice acting and a completely linear story is not competitive nowadays - no matter how much content is offered. And an open-ended RPG with a story line and an insane leveling speed that effectively prevents exploration isn't really open ended anymore.

The point is that Bioware was wrong: There are four pillars, but you can choose only three of them: exploration and an engaging story just don't go well together. I hope for their sake that they don't try to copy/paste the classic WoW leveling game and add voice acting - but they really can't be that stupid.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why Bioware's SW:TOR will be a Success

Wall of text incoming..

As regular readers might have noticed, I just returned after a 10-day break from MMO blogging. I'd like to think of it as a constructive break. Sometimes, when you're in the center of the action, you loose perspective. It's a natural phenomenon that can easily be avoided by taking a break.
After having returned, I want to write a bit about common fallacies.

For example, the fallacy that MMORPGs are so successful, because of social aspects.

I've already written a bit about it yesterday.
Players play MMORPGs, because they offer a world. The world must not necessarily be very immersive, but it must be big and interesting to explore. This, also, doesn't necessarily mean that MMORPGs need to be sandboxes to be popular. Quite obviously, they are not. And even if you like to argue that that's because there are no AAA-sandboxes, there's still one remaining question: Why?

Most players didn't start to play a MMORPG, because they wanted to play together with friends. They might have had a friend who told them about the MMORPG, but more often than not this friend was not the one they then leveled with together. How do I know this? Well, support for leveling together has always been bad, and actually it has become worse over time. Blizzard, with all their metrics would have known better, if so many people had leveled together. How many of my readers have leveled with friends on their first character?

What lured players to MMORPGs was the same thing that lured them to open-world RPGs, like The Elder Scrolls: A living, huge fantasy world. Blizzard advertisement for WoW is still: "It's not a game. It is a world."

Of course, most bloggers, me included, laugh at this. WoW is rather a lobby-based multiplayer game that is stacked on top of shallow, linear and badly told (walls of text) stories. But there is a reason that Blizzard's marketing department does advertisements like this: The world aspect is why players start to play MMORPGs. In fact, this is the only remaining explanation for so many players reaching max-level, is it not?

Obviously, Blizzard does not think that the world aspect is what actually keeps players playing. From their point of view, the players don't really know what they want. And while this is certainly often true, in this case I think differently. But that's not the point. The point is that players don't start to play MMORPGs for the multiplayer or even the online characteristics.
They start to play for the setting, the world, the fantasy. They want to be a night elven hunter with a mighty cat at their side or a brutal warrior with a two-handed axe, or a wise mage with a staff.

Looking at MMORPGs as the successor of offline, single-player, open-world RPGs, you understand why many players ask for more sandbox elements. Max's comment on yesterdays post was very much on the point: "And MMOs seemed to be the answer - why have procedural generation of fake quests when you can have real people create real ones?"

Of course, having the possibility to play together with friends helps MMORPGs. And many players later only play out of habit and, because their friends do. The habit being more important, actually. How do I know? Even MMORPG bloggers mostly don't have close social ties in-game. And if not even the bloggers are part of vibrant communities, how can the average player be? In fact, every single one of my real life friends who ever played a MMORPG, did so on his own. Our attempts to coordinate and level together were always sabotaged by gameplay mechanisms. They might have been part of guilds or even raids, but they didn't care much for these communities.

Also, the real problem with MMORPGs is the endgame, not the early game. Blizzard almost exclusively tried to improved the endgame. Only with Cataclysm did they attend to the early game (the switch to even more linearity didn't pay off, it seems). It seems like Blizzard's metrics never indicated a problem with the early game until it was technologically no longer competitive. Apparently, too many players quit earlier than Blizzard would have liked - but not before reaching the max level!

Moreover, Blizzard tried to make the endgame ever more similar to the leveling game. How do I know? Well, you remember the switch from epic epics to throw-away epics in WotLK? They wanted to make you change your equipment more often, hoping that this would be more fun for you. Regardless of whether it was (it was terrible, imho), they tried to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game wherever they could. Remember the introduction of daily quests?

And this leveling game is probably the least social activity in WoW. In fact, Blizzard's metrics seem to have indicated that players play together so little during the leveling game that this aspect could safely be ignored; which is exactly what they did (phasing, non-shareable questlines).

Furthermore, the anonymous, teleporting dungeon finder, obviously, wasn't good for the social aspects of World of Warcraft. Blizzard isn't stupid. They must have known that the LFD would increase the disintegration of the social ties on a server. They apparently decided that it was worth it!

Remember that in a big and careful company like Blizzard, you can't change much without backup. Just stating that you think an anonymous, teleporting LFD is a good thing isn't enough. You need to prove it. And thus, we can conclude that Blizzard's metrics indicated that the social aspect of WoW wasn't the main driving force behind its success.

Now, you may want to argue that Blizzard was just terrible at interpreting their metrics, and I am inclined to agree. But it is hard to argue that their metrics were obvious, then.
The metrics most probably didn't show that most players played in a strong social context. The social context might still have been important, for example the expectation or illusion of a strong social context could be more important than the factual social context. This would be hard to see in the metrics.
But to argue that the metrics were obvious in that players cared a lot about the social aspects is not consistent with the fact that Blizzard isn't stupid.

So, what do we learn from this?
1) Advertisement of MMORPGs should focus on the world, even if the world is not the strength of the endgame! Managing expectations is important, but WoW grew to 12 million players once without caring about this particular expectation.
2) You can lure players with the world, but can totally focus on different aspects later on, like capture-the-flag minigames and repeated dungeon runs with stangers. If done well, players don't care and are thankful for the variety.
3) The social aspects are not as important as you might think. Making MMORPGs more similar to facebook games might change this. But, honestly, I'm not so sure I look forward to this.
4) The early game should indeed focus on a world. WoW proves that new players accept shallow and badly told stories as long as they are not completely linear. What really counts is that players feel like a night-elven hunter with a black tiger in an, at least superficially, credible world that they can explore. Quests are alright, as long as they do not interfere with the (illusion of) exploration.

And now to the SW:TOR *grin*.
Why do I think that it will be successful? Because it will do to story-focused RPGs, what past MMORPGs have done to open-ended RPGs. SW:TOR will be a really big story. Maybe even epic - at least in proportions.
I am, actually, pretty sure that I will have a lot of fun playing it; until I reach the end game. I, most probably, will stop playing then or make a twink. But many others may not; just as many others didn't care about that World of Warcraft stopped being a world at max level. Good story-focused RPGs are a success story and SW:TOR will be the biggest story focused RPG for a long time to come! At endgame SW:TOR will transform into a WoW clone. So, if Bioware includes battlegrounds and achievements and raids and an item progression, they have a good chance to be as succesful as WoW.

However, what I still hope for is to one day play a really, really big open-ended RPG; preferably online in a way that other players passively generate content for me. But, most importantly, the game world needs to be huge and open-ended. Blizzard didn't even try. They made a huge world, they advertised this world, they obviously thought that the leveling game was alright and they, thus, focused on improving the endgame. But what they never even dared to try was to retain the world feeling at max level. In fact, they forgot about it, and made an expansion that diminished the world in favor of a bad story-focused RPG during leveling. A grave mistake; and facts support this opinion.

The Elder Scrolls V

Since current MMORPGs seem to become more boring every day, I decided to have a look at The Elder Scrolls series. It turned out that there's actually TES:V coming out in November this year, if everything goes as planned, that is.
I found this preview interview.

And here's my review of the preview:

1) "Exploring temples, helping townspeople, and dueling dragons are all part of a typical day in Skyrim."
That's 0/10 points for the headline. Either it is a marketing lie or it is true. A marketing lie would be ok. But if it is true, than chances are good I won't buy the game. The last thing I want in a fantasy world is to fight dragons on a regular basis. That's like Christmas every day.

2) "In brief, you character's left and right arms are mapped to two separate buttons; in this case, the left and right triggers on the Xbox 360 controller because the demo was on an Xbox 360."
I know they like consoles. I don't. Let's hope that they make use of the sophisticated interface that is a keyboard.

3) "Compared to previous Elder Scrolls games, combat in Skyrim seemed much more involved"
Marketing non-sense. This is what you get from professional game magazines.

4) "Our Nordic-looking hero was constantly sidestepping around his opponent to better position his shield against oncoming attacks or to find a way around the enemy's own defenses."
Let's see how it works with more than one enemy

5) "Once the first bandit was dispatched, a second appeared to avenge his friend's death."
Ah, that makes sense. Instead of helping his friend, he waited in the shadows to avenge his death once it happened. Moreover, it allows us to fight one enemy at a time. A win-win situation .. not.

6) "In her weakened state, the bandit could do little to defend herself when our character swooped in for the kill with a stylish execution move, which involved a sword through the chest."
Finishing moves. Never liked them. They make you feel like flourishing in the humiliation of your opponents instead of paying them respect and being happy to have survived the fight.

7) "Instead of just being a spreadsheet that comprises names and numbers, the skill screen displays your skills as star constellations in the sky above"
What ?? Does that mean that I descended from heaven and my growing skill changes the stellar constellations? That's getting ever worse..

8) "Basically there are a number of skeleton quests that have been planned out in broad strokes, but have some of their characters or plot points left blank. The system then dynamically populates these blank areas with people or objects you've encountered during your journey."
That must be the first thing I liked.

9) "He also noted that the number of voice actors featured in the game has been greatly expanded, so that players won't run into the same handful of voices time and again."
That's also good. Either you don't do voice acting, or you do it right.

10) "Our journey took us up along a mountain pass where we learned that some creatures--such as a lumbering giant--aren't out to kill and won't attack on sight."
Credible monsters? Yes, please!

11) "Others--such as an angry frost troll--still wanted to rip our head from our shoulders but were easily dispatched with a blast of fire magic."
Grea.. - what? Does it say "easily" ??? I hope not!

12) "We weren't sure what they were discussing, but it mattered little after we blew one of them away with a headshot from our longbow."
Except for the fact that it seems too easy, I like it.

13) "The second jumped to her feet and began frantically searching for our hiding spot in the shadows. Stealth in Skyrim has been tweaked from previous games so that the transition from the alert state of enemies (where they are looking for you) to their danger state (where they are attacking you) is more gradual depending on what you do."

14) "At this point, our character decided to forgo melee weapons altogether and rely solely on his magical abilities. In one hand, he equipped the circle of protection, which warded off the undead foes; in the other, he equipped chain lighting, which blasted foes to pieces."
I know a lot of players like this flexibility. But for me it always diminishes my character's identity. However, I know that TES games have always been like that. I would just hope that specializing actually pays off.

15) "Once the Draugr were defeated, our character studied the tome and mastered the fireball spell, which he then paired up with a one-handed axe."
Learning skills in a (more or less) credible way, instead of 'going to a trainer'. Great.

16) "Items in your character's inventory can be viewed as 3D models, from the simplest herb to a shining elven glass sword. Certain books, such as the journal we recovered, can even be read page by page in this mode"

17) "Once the creature was killed, our character--being a dragonborn--absorbed its soul."
Why do I always have to be special by heritage or developers' arbitrariness? Can't I just become special due to my deeds for once?

18) "From what we've seen, it doesn't look like Bethesda Softworks is trying reinvent everything we know about The Elder Scrolls with this game. Instead, it has listened to the comments and complaints from the community and has crafted a sequel to be more of what fans want."
Seems like that sentence describes the entire games industry nowadays.

19) It's not in the review, but only in the interview video: They will stick to their scaling difficulty. That is, enemy mobs scale in power with you. I can't say how much I hate this. In fact, this was one of the reasons I liked MMOROGs so much. The nature of MMORPGs forces the developers to put monsters in the world that have a fixed strength.

Concluding, The Elder Scrolls is still the best shot for an open-world RPG. I will buy it, I will probably enjoy it. But I already know that it could be so much better *sigh*.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why I played the first 100 hours

Playing The Witcher 2 for the last few days, I remembered, why I like MMORPGs so much. And, no, it's not the fact that they are massive. And it's not the fact that they are multiplayer, either. In, fact, it's not even because they are online.

Before instances and teleporting were at their current level, MMORPGs had vast landscapes - that made sense visiting. Also, you could never save a MMORPG - instead they had (more or less) credible consequences for death. So, as hard to believe as it may be, I used to love MMORPGs, because their nature made them better at the simulation aspect than single player games. Also, you can just play a MMORPG. There is no story that is suddenly finished. In some way, original World of Warcraft was a really big Elder Scrolls game. Much worse at immersion, much better at gameplay, but still a really, really, big virtual fantasy world. This is why I fell in love with it.

The most fun activity I know in a RPG setting is to explore a dark dungeon, trying to survive all on my own. There are no AAA single player games that offer this experience for some time now and MMORPGs just used be reasonably good at it.
For some reason, dungeons in MMORPG are nowadays all group content, but there is still the open world. Of course, this one has been destroyed for all practical gameplay purposes in WoW, but in Rift the open world is still on health support. That's better than nothing.

Interestingly, I never played MMORPGs solely for the simulation aspect. About ten years ago, I used to play first person shooter multiplayer deathmathes for hours on end. This had nothing to do with role playing or immersion, of course. It was just a game, a distraction. MMORPGs managed to join my deathmatch playing habits with my love for RPGs: Battlegrounds.

I probably spent more time in battlegrounds in WoW than anywhere else. And I never had a problem with them being instanced or hardly credible, because I never played deathmatch for simulation purposes in the first place. I played them for the flow of it.

Nowadays I find that I play MMORPGs almost entirely for the battlegrounds. Which is, obviously, a shame. The Witcher remembered me how much fun a dungeon crawl can be - especially with nowadays graphics and sound technology! But I finished The Witcher now and the dungeons are just too limited to be fun a second time. In fact, the dungeons aren't even a major part of the game and the gameplay is too lacking to play the game after you know the (brilliant) story.

You might be surprised that I didn't mention my guild and online friends so far. The truth is that these were great motivators to keep playing for a long time. But they weren't the reason I started to play MMORPGs. They weren't the reason to play the first 100 hours.

Games are about Death

I really just want to promote this very nice post at What Games Are. The Blog, generally, has very good posts. Few, however, are as thougt inspiring as this one. I don't actually agree with it completely. But it certainly is a very unique perspective.

However games depict change, not stasis, and a key part of understanding change is the perception that in some ways, yes, life is indeed cheap. It is an inescapable facet of existence that we see death all around us every day, and since art is a mirror that reflects existence, death tends to be a game’s inner subject. As love is essentially the inner subject of all songs, and the quest is the inner subject of all stories, so death is the inner subject of all games.

Dear developers, believe in yourself!

The Witcher 2 has this moment when you really want to save somebody you really care about. I don't want to get more into the details and spoil it for you. But this moment is a great story-telling moment. Time is of the essence, obviously. But I first needed to complete some side quests.

If you read the last sentence and didn't stop thinking, you played too many of the standard-RPGs in the last decade. The problem in the Witcher 2 was that the story was told so well and was so credible, that this problem became even more apparent.
I stopped playing back then and called it a night. The next morning, after some considerations, I skipped the side quests. I wasn't happy about this, but knew that I had done the right thing.

But most of all, I was condemning the game and its developers that put me into this immersion-breaking situation in the first place. (It's not like doing the side quests first would have had any consequences).
This is unnecessary and diminishes the experience. And ironically it's even more problematic, because the game is as good as it is. I am sure there are ways to tell the story and prevent the situation. In fact, I can think of several ways.
Point is that CD Project didn't seem to care; even though they went to great lengths to otherwise keep the story consistent and often handed in explanations later for why characters acted the way they did!

The developers are no idiots. They are smart guys who wanted to make a great game. And they audaciously did break with several other standards of the genre! It almost seems as if they didn't have the strength to break with even more current absurd rules of RPG creation.

This also applies to the economy. Merchants buy at about one hundredth of the price they sell. However, this is only necessary, because there are chests and boxes and armoires everywhere. And you can freely loot them - even in the presence of their obvious owners. In addition to that you can carry with you immense amounts of stuff. I really don't know why it is even limited in the first place. From a simulation point of view, the limit makes about as much sense as no limit.
And from a gameplay point of view I don't think that deciding what to carry with you is such an interesting decision. Sure, I could calculate the worst money/weight items and sort them out first. But who does that? It's just annoying - especially considering the amount of stuff you needed to check! And how do I actually know the exact prices of the item without haven even spoken to the guy who wants to buy it?

So, we have a lose-lose-lose situation that the developers picked. Merchants need to have ridiculous buy/sell prices, because players have ridiculous weight allowances, which are only necessary, because they can - and at hard difficulty need to - loot everything they see. There's even a "loot all" button, because the developers know that players couldn't care less about what is actually in the chests they loot. The only explanation I have is that the developers copy/pasted this feature from other games. Just like they copy/pasted ridiculous side quests that immensely disturb the immersion into the story.

You can say similar things about the item progression. I could find no credible reason for why merchants later in the game sell better items and enemies drop better items than their earlier counterparts. And it's not necessary to enjoy the game, anyway. Perhaps the developers thought that there are 'achievers' out there for which a credible story doesn't mean much. But how enjoyable can achievement be in a single player game? And would the Witcher 2 be a game for them in first place?
Or they thought that some people are just too dumb to realize how ridiculous the item power progression is. I don't know. Point is that it diminishes my experience; and for what? What do I gain? It wouldn't have been hard to put a few good drops into places that make sense. Like some dungeons that you need to visit. This way you could have some item power progression, but a reasonable one.

I could go on with the traps that make no sense. From a simulation point of view they are laughable and from a gameplay point of view they are annoying. They look like a bad compromise.

Thus, my request for The Witcher 3: Please make a consistent game. This is a great franchise you adopted. I am not a fan of story-focused RPGs (in contrast to open-ended ones), but I really like it! Please find the courage to follow your vision of a credible, immersive experience for a mature and smart audience. I know you cannot be happy with many of the points I mentioned above. Don't listen to the copy/paste guys. Have some trust in yourself and your abilities to make great games!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Plastic Rear Spoilers

Bhagpuss just posted two links into Tobold's comments section.
(1) and (2).

So, the average MMO player is in his 30s and has a comparatively good education. Seems I am average for a change. Nice.


After having played The Witcher 2 for some time now, I just wanted to resubscribe to Rift. Rift is my 'current MMO' right now, although it does have its many problems. I mostly just level up 50 and then make a new toon. I also do excessive BG-PvP. I don't really play it as a RPG, but more like a distracting PvP-action game. Not at all the kind of MMORPG I'd actually like to play, so I take long breaks. I always unsubscribe just after I resubscribed - just in case I forget it later.

So I just wanted to resubscribe again for a month and do some cheap, distracting BG-PvP without any emotional bonding to my character or even much social stuff going on. But I didn't.

I didn't, because Trion first told me about my
River of Souls Event Reward Pack.
Thanks for spoiling the rest of the evening for me. And making me write a rage-blog post instead. This is ridiculous! I get rewarded with a soul-reward-pack!!?
For what?

This is like buying a new BMW and just before I buy it, you tell me that it even has this plastic rear spoiler in rainbow colors !!!

And not enough. After that I got told that I can update to the collector's edition and get exclusive in-game items. Reading this my body temperature rose by 1° and I rage-quit the re-subscription process.

Most players are my age and similarly educated? I feel this is hard to believe looking at these ridiculously cheap psychological tricks that seem to work on them while diminishing my gaming experience. I feel offended.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Review: The Witcher 2

A few days ago I received the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. There's so much wrong with this game. I hate it.

And more than anything else this proves its quality. In fact, The Witcher 2 is probably the best story-focused RPG I have ever played. Which is exactly why I care so much; and why I hate it.

Let's start with why I care. The story is mature. Not teenage-mature, but truly mature; credible. Its direct competitors, the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series pale in comparison. Having played The Witcher 2, they reveal themselves to you in their true form: stories for children.

"You are my hero",
"You are our leader",
"Please love me"
This is a Bioware story. Read my Dragon Age review, if you want.

The Witcher 2, however, has a complex and deep story which is truly epic. Not because you are epic, but because the world, you are in, is. Perhaps most importantly, the characters are credible. They have their own goals, their own feelings, their own reasons. They love you or hate you, but mostly want to use you to their own ends. At no point do you desire to give them 'presents' to make them like you! Whenever you can make a decision, it just feels too important than to use it to suck up to somebody. Characters are not superficial at all.

Oh - and there is no hand-holding. If you insist on doing (and saying) stupid things, you will die. Without further warning, in fact! The coices you make do matter!

The game has four difficulty levels of which three can be taken seriously: "easy", "normal", "hard". "Insane" means perma-death and it is even harder than "hard". My guess is that only a handful of people on this planet have the dedication and skill to finish the game at "insane".
I play at "hard", as usual, and within the first few minutes I started to make decisions not to increase the power of my character, but to stay alive. This feat alone were actually enough to declare the game the best story-focused RPG of all time!

Moreover, at many times in the game I started to walk, not run, because running felt wrong! Think of that! I've never done that before. In a dark forest, I wouldn't run, because it is too dangerous. Who knows, what you run into, what is behind the next tree? In a tavern I would rather walk, because running feels not appropriate. As you see, I love this game and, yet, I hate it.

Because, why the hell, can't I jump down a 1 meters slope?? Why, the hell, can't I walk through this scrub? Why do caves appear and disappear depending on whether you have a quest to do in them? Why am I flooded with quests when I arrive in the first main city. Haven't we outgrown this?

Why can I loot the chests in peoples' houses while they look at me? Why are there coins in every stupid chest? Why do the merchants sell at 100 times the price at which they buy? Why is there a herb at every second step? Why can I carry about 1-2 metric tons?

Why does this game require an item-power progression? Why does it change into a stupid arcade-reaction game at times? Why is the best way to do 90% of combat to fanatically click your left mouse button?

Why do deadly looking bear-traps reduce my health by about 5%, even at "hard"?

Why, oh why, does the game have scripted boss-encounters? ahhhhhhhhh!

The Witcher 2 is the best story-focused RPG I have ever played, but it's not really a game. Honestly, and absolutely seriously, I would have been just as satisfied, if not more satisfied, if I could just have skipped the entire combat (the game) and experienced the interactive story. Because this interactive story, with decisions that really matter, characters that are perfectly credible, a world that makes sense and an adventure that feels epic and at times amazing: This is why I "play" that game.

The actual gameplay is average - at best. Sure, your character's sword does not cause an explosion whenever it hits an enemy. Nowadays this is a something you need to mention as outstanding. But otherwise, The Witcher 2, even at hard, does not have a deep or even polished gameplay. The reason I stopped playing at "insane", with perma-death, was that the game doesn't allow me real control over my character. In fact, it takes control away on a very regular basis - even during boss fights: ridiculous. I have died more often due to the insufficient character-control than to anything else!

The Witcher 2, in some way, is the opposite of World of Warcraft. While WoW focuses on gameplay, gameplay, gameplay and lacks any credibility and immersion, the Witcher 2 lacks good gameplay, but excels at creating a world. Now, we just need to take the best of the two and merge it. But, I fear, there are technical obstacles here. Have I mentioned, that the graphics are phenomenal, even at "high"? I couldn't play at "ultra" settings - which means I'll probably need to buy a new computer soon.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


Wolfshead has one of his posts online; a strong opinion that inspires everybody who agrees with him anyway, and alienates anybody who doesn't. If he were the leader of a political party, this were the kind of speech to mobilize his followers and frighten his opponents. It were a bad speech to convince undecided voters.

As usual, I am more a follower than an opponent of his opinions. And I can understand his change of mind very well, because I also changed my mind.

Quests seemed so great! Ten years ago nobody would have dreamed of a game with thousands of quests. And then World of Warcraft proved to everyone that you can do it. You would just need to invest enough money and time and it would pay off. So nowadays all MMORPGs offer quests like crazy. And, as it happens so very often, we should have been more careful about what we wish for. Those quest-genies just don't want to get back into the damn bottle.

In contrast to Wolfshead, I don't want to get rid of quests completely, and maybe that is not even what he wants. Quests are great. If they are memorable.
My problem with quests nowadays is that I care so little that I don't even remember them when I try. My brain is just too good at filtering unimportant information and every try to convince my brain that these quest-texts actually matter is .. slammed. My brain just seems to know that the quests don't make any difference at all and focuses on what is important: .. mmh .. in the past the "rewards" were important, but that's not true anymore. I honestly don't care about them and I regret this. What is important for me nowadays is to tick off my to-do list. How long until my brain decides that this is totally absurd, too, I wonder?

So how do we make quests memorable again?
1) Telling a great story. But Blizzard tried this and failed with Cataclysm. Maybe Bioware will succeed, but I wouldn't bet on it.
2) Making them matter. Great suggestion, but how? Phasing is too immersion breaking (and my brain is too smart for it, anyway).
3) Cutting down on the number of quests. If there were only a few, you would remember them.
4) Making the player choose between which quest he wants to do: mutally exclusive quests. Maybe this could work ..

Any other ideas? Because, I don't think just removing quests is the solution. "Farming" enemies in groups was a nice gamey community-strengthening feature, but it never made much sense to me. I want an immersive reason to kill 'em. I just want a good one. And I still want to play the MMORPG for hours on end for years .. *sigh*.

It seems to me the only way is to depart from the themepark MMORPG and make a sandbox.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Rift Rant

Since the last two posts are probably too difficult for most to understand, here's just a rant :).

As much as I liked the classic feel of Rift while leveling, I cannot get myself to play my max level character. Neither can I motivate myself to play through the leveling again. The role system just makes me switch back and forth without giving my character any identity I could emotionally connect to. As a Firemage he is impressive and, of course, totally over the top when left untouched. But if forced to move around or hit he is annoying to play.

As a chloromancer/warlock he is a hyper-optimized war machine that cannot die in non-elite PvE ever, was repeatedly insulted in PvP for the overpowered nature of the specc, and generally is most effective if he aoe's everything to death with instant aoe dots while keeping himself healthy due to the damage he does. Did I mention that this is one of the most effective mage-healing speccs while also killing PvE mobs the fastest?

As a Stormcaller he is about 10x as good at destroying stuff with lighting as Zeus and rather fucked up if somebody shoots back at him.
As an Archon he is only good in raids and then only if there isn't another Archon already. .. Yeah. Exactly.

Fun thing is, I am pretty sure I could enjoy each of these roles. But the possibility to switch on the fly somehow makes me switch back and forth without really liking anything, always focusing on the negative side of each specc. I think that it would have been much better if I had had to work for each of the speccs. But, obviously, that is not compatible with the WoW-like architecture of the leveling game.

Oh, and before I make another post out of it: I don't get why collecting the millions of artifacts is fun. If there had been a few hundred hidden in the basements of some of the impressive caves and castles in the game, it could have been great. But to find one every step of the way .. I stopped dismounting for them quite a time ago, because it felt utterly pointless. Minipets, my ass.

This development isn't really a big surprise. And I will not go back to WoW, because this time, for once, there just isn't anything I would look forward to be doing. Sorry, Michael. It's just unfortunate. Rift is too much like WoW to be able to support good open-world content. And the explicit focus on "rewards" in the game is really, really, really going on my nerves. If they at least had the dignity to hide the fact that it's "just rewards".

To say it bluntly, I think the best way to encourage me to kill mobs right now is to threaten me to give me rewards if I don't.

Optimization and Player Segregation, Part II

Keeping my last post in mind, I want to venture a bit further.

First, a side trip to World of Warcraft. In this recent post I had written down six ways to combat the optimization problem, or the inefficiency phobia, whatever you want to call it. However, the last post reveals another way to look at it:

WoW is, without doubt, easy to learn and hard to master (1). If you think differently, please stay away from my blog. In addition to that, it also makes a lot of difference in WoW how skilled you are (2). The difference between a very good player and a credibly bad player is tremendous. These are really two different dimensions and need to be looked at separately!
It is clear that this combination of characteristics in a game induces a run for efficiency in the player base. This run turns into a social drama, because WoW also (practically) forces players of all skill levels to play together (3) in the LFD or to raid as a guild that was not originally estabilished for raiding.

All three characteristics together create the drama, and changing any of them will reduce it. You can either make it very easy to master WoW. In that case, everybody plays rather perfectly and there is no drama. Or, you can make it hard to play perfectly, but have the benefits of doing so be low. An example would be an extremely complicated priority system in boss fights, that is 3% more efficient than a one-button spam. In this case, only few players would play perfectly, but those who did would be oblivious to those who do not. And finally, you can segregate the players according to their skill.

Now, leaving the WoW example behind, how realistic is each of these measures?

Is it feasible to make a game that is not easy to learn and hard to master? I don't think so. This characteristic is about exploration of the game and as long as there is still something to explore, players like to stay. It is about mystery. Also, one reason playing soccer at medium skill is fun, is because there are people who play at a world championship. The celebrities enrich the game - especially for the people who play at much lower skill. So, no, a good game should be easy to learn and hard to master; even if most players don't actually master it.

Is it feasible to segregate players according to their skill? Yes. The nature of the segregation can either be natural, that is, players look for similarly skilled players to play with. This is how things work in most of today's games and sports. Alternatively, or in addition to that, you can use a measuring system, like the Elo rating that is most prominently used in chess, but also by the WoW PvP match-making. These systems have several hard limitations, like requiring a high number of wins / losses to accurately determine a player's skill. There is no known system to guess the skill of a player without clear feedback, like wins/losses, by the way. Warhammer Online, as well as Rift tried to implement such systems into their public quests, but failed miserably. Rift gave up on it soon after release and now gives out 'rewards' for participation alone.

Finally, you can try to keep the benefits of mastery low, but still have the game be easy to learn and hard to master. Of course, the benefits must not be too low, otherwise the players don't care for mastery, and in that case, the game could as well not be hard to master. Also, this is incredibly difficult to design! Firstly, it is hard to measure skill in the first place. Secondly, the benefits of skill are hard to measure. Finally, in a non-boring MMORPG, there are lots of strongly connected activities that skill can be attained in. To balance such a system against other classes/speccs/skill combinations is already hard. To also balance them carefully for benefit of additional player skill in various connected activites, is probably a nightmare.

Finally, I'd like to say that not all activities in a MMORPG have the mentioned problem, in the first place. Take in-game economics as an example. Imagine a player-run economy that offers a very easy-to-use interface to the economically non-interested player, but offers a complicated and deep buy-order/sell-order system to the interested player. In this case, additional player skill isn't a problem, due to player expectations. Since players know from the real world that making less money is perfectly ok if you are economically less skilled, they don't complain about it in-game at all! That is funny in so far as the gold coins in a MMORPG are, of course, gameplay-wise indistinguishable from any other arbitrary points. But from a simulation-aspect point of view, it is a currency. And players have very specific expectations about currencies. For example they expect their wealth to decrease from time to time and have no problem with it at all.

Another example are organization skills. Similarly to the economics example, players have very strong expectations about the influence of organization skills in-game. Nobody complains that the student has an advantage at organizing 40 people, because he has more time. While this is obviously the case, it is also, obviously, impossible to change. So expectations cannot be messed up by the developer here.

Conluding the last few paragraphs, it is possible to have activities in-game that are
- easy to learn hard to master,
- bring along powerful benefits for mastery,
- don't segregate the players,
- and don't create a drama

as long as these activities befit from strong already-estabilished expectations.

Segregation also, doesn't necessarily mean that players have no contact with each other. On the contrary: the hard working organizer has contact with a lot of people and plays a very complicated and deep game with its own benefits for mastery. But he doesn't play against the other players, but together with them. The better he is at organizing, the better off are the players he organizes.

The same applies to the skilled and hard-working in-game merchant. The real-world expectations about currencies and economics are mentally transferred and keep players from complaining about his 'unfair benefits' from skill. At the same time, everybody benefits from the liquidity he creates and indirectly interacts with him.

Check out Klepsacovic's posts on a very similar topic.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Optimization and Player Segregation

In the past, you have often seen me argue against player segregation. When I started playing MMORPGs, my experience was that the new players were welcome by the more experienced players. And I liked to play with the more experienced; and later I liked to play with the less experienced. In this scenario, segregating players was not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental to everybody's fun.

But over time things changed. Surprisingly one root of this change was a design principle that I always supported: "A game should be easy to learn and hard to master". There also were other causes, like anonymity and focus on raids in WoW. But let's ignore them for once, in this post.

All good games are easy to learn and hard to master. Klepsacovic won't like me, but I'll still discuss soccer and chess as examples, fully aware of the fact that there are differences between these games and virtual worlds. In fact, these differences are crucial and discussed at the end of the post.

The reasons this design principle is so important are player retention and new-player attraction. Both are needed for any good game. And so you see soccer players of all skill levels. Even 35 year old men often play soccer or chess (or any other well-known game) at all skill levels. And they have fun. Sure, at times we wish we were a second David Beckham, and maybe we occasionally thought about training more to really show the others our superiority.
But mostly we have fun playing even though we cannot win the world championship, even though we are not rewarded with millions of Euros and even though our reputation as a soccer player is negligible compared to our reputation as a dad, as a friend or as a professional. We still have fun.

Because we understand that to be more we'd have to invest much more time and effort - and pain. And because we understand that the time is past. In this life we just won't become a soccer star anymore. And even those of us who strongly believe that we are all flesh and no soul and will rot under the earth (or the sea?) eventually and for eternity .. they just accept this inevitable truth. It's not fair, but to say it bluntly: Somebody perfectly managed our expectations. Thanks.

Now, this is something you cannot say about Blizzard. World of Warcraft changes all the time. It feels as if somebody told the developers to not change the golden goose too much, but since this is a large and motivated team they just cannot stand idle. So, the lead system designer muses about critical hits instead of real innovation. And rightfully so, if we look at the kind of 'innovation' that came along with Cataclysm.

Anyway, since our expectations were that badly managed, we evolved a sense of entitlement. In the past, I never cared much about that I couldn't access all content. In fact, this made the game world more credible for me. But since WotLK we think that we deserve to see all the content. Spare me the "we all pay the same price" argument, please. Point is that this is just a matter of expectation management and a harmful sense of entitlement can evolve if it is neglected or even ignored.

So the answer to the question that I haven't asked yet: why do different skill levels work in most games, especially sports, but not in some others?, is expectation management. It is something that happens quite naturally.

This is also why it is so very valuable if the designers state clearly what they want the game to be and what not. When Ghostcrawler said clearly that they don't balance arena on a 2:2 basis, he did something very smart (without knowing?). Players now know what to expect. CCP does it much more often. For example they state clearly that if you get ripped off, it's your fault. Now, you can disagree with these design intentions, but knowing what you can expect helps immensely with enjoying an activity - any activity, really.
If I climb up a mountain, perfectly certain that there is a very comfortable hotel at the top, the whole trip can be ruined if there is just a basic campground. Compare that to finding a basic campground where you didn't expect anything! Fact is that, within a certain limit, we can enjoy a lot of things, if we just know what to expect (or, alternatively, if we are pleasantly surprised).

So, how are expectation management and player segregation related?
Player segregation can help with expectation management. If you are part of a group of soccer players who just play 'for fun' and you also 'just play for fun' yourself, this is great. However, if aspirations differ too much, it is harder to have fun. This is not only an effect of comparisons with peers: You can have more fun as a below-average player in a good team than as an above-average player in a bad team. It's not necessarily the case, but it is quite possible. For example, even the worst player in the soccer-world championship is happy to be there. Even if he doesn't play a minute. He wouldn't trade this against playing somewhere with good friends and just having fun.

If we believe in the "A game should be easy to learn, hard to master" design principle, we also need to face the consequences: the more we succeed at implementing the principle, the more important does it become to empower players to choose the correct groups; to allow them to segregate the community. This segregation doesn't have to be total. Players of various skill levels and expectations should still occasionally have contact with each other! But to force these players to play with each other is a recipe for frustration.

And how does this relate to the debate about optimization?
There is an endless amount of readily available material about how to get better at soccer and chess. Now, we don't know how good these games were if this material was not available, but what we do know is that it's not much of a problem. Why?

Well, firstly, because of the mentioned player segregation that comes naturally to these games. If your peers don't read up on soccer strategy, you can have fun without doing it, too.

And secondly, because the challenge is not alone in the execution: not in soccer and certainly not in chess. In both games, donkeyspace plays a very large role. And this is true for most successful games. Actually, I am hard pressed to come up with even one very successful game for adults that focuses on the execution challenge alone. Do you know any?

So, I have changed my mind. If your game is easy to learn and hard to master, you might need to empower players to segregate into groups of roughly similar skill and aspiration. Watch the expectation management: if all players feel like they have a right (or important reasons) to be in the top group, it's your mistake.

It is maybe not a surprise that this problem occurs in a MMORPG. While you might be able to segregate the community in a game like WOW, in a better virtual world, you don't usually have this luxury! And that is a major problem. If you want a group of 5 players to literally destroy a group of 20 players if they are more skilled, you better (somehow?) make sure that the group of 20 doesn't develop an aspiration to not be destroyed. Because if they do develop this aspiration, they either try hard to get better or leave your game.

And thus, I reach a conclusion that nobody is more surprised about, than me:
If, in your game, mastery makes the players much more powerful, and, if your game is easy to learn and hard to master, then segregating the community is necessary.

But while this is an option in WoW-like lobby games, it is much harder in a virtual world. And thus, a virtual world either requires a lot of finesse (for example, geographic segregation of the community along skill levels/aspirations), or it may just not be that easy to learn and that hard to master. Alternatively you could try to develop a virtual world that is easy to learn and hard to master, but doesn't much reward mastery. I cannot say if this would work.