Thursday, June 30, 2011

Little break and some chewing gum

I can't post the next few days. Considering my recent frequency that's a break I announce.

To give you something to chew on, here's a comment Furdinand left on a post at Massively:

I remember thinking when Ultima Online and Everquest first came out that games were on the threshold of bringing the pen and paper RPG experience online. Big, open worlds to explore with random danger and adventures. I expected that we would eventually see something like a living room Forgotten Realms campaign with hundreds of thousands of players and DMs.
Now it's 2011 and D&D is on the threshold of being an offline WoW instead.

Added Marketing by Raph Koster to the Really Interesting Links.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Does Profit Equal Quality?

Apparently I have too much fun jumping into rabbit holes. So here we go.

1) If profit equaled quality, buying a new office building reduced the quality of the game.

2) So, let's change that definition. Does long-term operating profit equal quality? No. If that were the case doubling your employees' salaries would reduce the quality of your game.

3) But what about long-term operating revenue? No. Imagine Guild Wars: now add subscriptions. The revenue changes. But the game didn't change.

4) Is the number of players visiting your game at least once a month a good definition for quality? No. Cut the costs of paying in half and see the number rise without having changed the game.

5) Let's get a bit more theoretical. Assume the perfect business model. It charges every player exactly the maximum amount he would like to pay. Does long-term operating revenue now equal quality? No. Double the budget for advertisement and see the number go up although you didn't change the game.

6) We all know how to find out how good a game is: We play it. Quality is player-specific. Which spawns the next idea: Assume we could measure exactly how much fun a person has playing a game. Now we add the fun of all potential players. Is this a good definition of quality. No.

Imagine five players and two ways to design your game: Option A and Option B. Now imagine a scale of 1-10 that correctly measures the subjective fun of each player. 10 means a player loves your game; 1 means he hates it.
Note: Asking the players how much fun they have is not the same as correctly measuring their fun. Players don't always know how much they like a game.

Now consider this situation:

subjective fun: option A
subjective fun: option B
Player 1
Player 2
Player 3
Player 4
Player 5

The majority of players likes option A much more. But the aggregate subjective fun of option B is higher. Do you think option B makes your games better?

The problem here is that players are different. This difference makes it impossible to give an objective definition of quality.

7) One last thing. Sometimes you hear that sales figures (or something similar) are a good definition of quality, because we lack a better one. Now, this statement confuses a definition with a way to measure something.

Since 1983, the metre is defined as the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1⁄299 792 458 of a second. That is the definition. There is a difference between defining something and measuring it.

Summing up:
I don't think that an objective definition of quality is possible. If you want to introduce one nonetheless, I suggest option (6). If you want to measure the quality according to option (6), please recognize that there is a difference between measuring something and defining something.

Dear Developers: Please Ignore Forums

One of the things that surprised me when I listened to Mr. Cousins presentation was that he cared so much about the player feedback. At the end of his talk he says that forums are just warning signs and everything written in them has to be interpreted and confirmed. He is very right. What puzzles me is that EA apparently put someone in control of the entire f2p department who still had to learn this lesson.

Moreover, Mr. Cousins did not only read forums, but he actually read player emails. And these emails did have an emotional impact on him! He cared enough to check back what the authors of the mails did in the game months later. He cared enough to put them as anecdotal evidence into a professional presentation!

Most interestingly he was struggling for a long time to do what players want. The question he tried to answer was: If I add pay-to-win, will the higher conversion rate make up for a potential loss of players? Now, this is a good question and a guy in his position shouldn't ignore it. However, not a single time he asked himself: If I add pay-to-win, will the game be better or worse?

This shows a lack of self-confidence that I would not expect to see from someone in his position. Games are too difficult to be measured by metrics and forum feedback. Art in general is. Sure, the scientific approach can help a bit. And occasionally it can give some insight. But that's it. To make a good game you need to have some idea about what a good game would be. Alternatively, you can try to compete with Zynga about making the best cognitive-bias-based rip-off.

CCPs introduction of yet another pay-to-win option after several ruthless lies might very well fire back. I don't think it is probable. But it is possible. The fact that EVE is based on communities and leaders makes it different. It would be safer for CCP to simply make EVE better than to speculate that Mr. Cousin's experience can be projected on EVE Online.

In regard to forums, I very much recommend Elder Game's classic.

The best way to treat forums is to use several, at least two, professional community managers that take shifts. For example, the one week only CM A writes and CM B checks and the next week they switch. The check is the important part of it. As Eric correctly puts it: forums are cesspits. Nobody can read them for weeks or even months/years without becoming angry and discontent. Reading forums is the fastest way to the dark side ;).

Most of the company should not read the forums, but only read the filtered feedback of the CMs. In no way should they be able to write on the forums themselves without being double checked by at least two CMs who have the authority to block anybody's post, including the one from the senior producer!

The quintessence of this post: Dear developers, believe in yourself and focus on making a good game. If you think that micro-transactions reduce the quality of your game, don't be afraid to sell pigs in pokes. We, the consumers, are used to that. We are quite willing to speculate that this game will be worth it. Free demos are also a good way to get players to experience the game.

If micro-transactions and even pay-to-win are the only way to save your game then please realize that for many players they are just another downside they have to accept, because you're out of money. That's ok; please communicate the change in this way.

What you should never do is promise things you aren't willing to keep when things go wrong. Murphy is everywhere. In the long run your reputation is more important than your immediate product.


This is my attempt at making peace with the people who like micro-transactions (MT) in games.

It was about 20 years ago that I played my first MT game. It was a Star Trek trading cards game. Me and my friends were fans of the IP and started to buy card packs. The game was a lot of fun for us - for a while. It didn't take long and some of my friends started to win very often. Usually due to one or two cards that were quite special.

One day, in an attempt to balance the game, I copied their cards with plain paper. For some reason they didn't like it. I explained again and again that it was still the same game with the same rules. But since they had suffered the (considerable) cost of the card packs, they considered it cheating if I wouldn't suffer the same expense. I offered to repay them. We could share the costs, but they didn't like that either.

Soon after that I got out. It's not that I didn't have the money; that's rarely my problem. It's that I didn't like a business that sold beautiful paper for hundreds of Deutsche Mark. But I had learned that MT work - fabulously.

When I entered the MT debate on MMPRPG blogs I always pointed out that MT work. That's why they are dangerous. If they weren't profitable we wouldn't have to worry. However, a lot of players, and especially developers had argued with the MT-don't-work-crowd for so long that they considered it a victory when it turned out that, surprise, MT work.

Now, let me say that if you are a small games studio and can't make a retail release, and can't ask for a subscription and for some reason don't want to make a free demo, I think careful MT are a way you can go. Actually, for many games with a weak simulation-aspect I couldn't care less whether you use MT. I don't play arcade games, anyway.

What I don't like are MT in a virtual world. That doesn't mean that I don't want you to earn money. On many occasions have I said that $15 a month is incredibly cheap and I'd love to pay much more. For a good virtual world I'd easily pay $100 and more a month.

If I like your game I'd love to donate some money. But it seems like developers have this mindset that players need to be .. made.. to pay money. It's the only explanation I have for the non-existence of donate buttons.

From the advocates of MT I ask just one thing: Accept that the break of consistency in a virtual world harms the experience for some players, like me. We are in the minority. But that doesn't mean that we don't feel the way we say. For us a virtual world gets worse when the fiery sword doesn't come from the demon or the blacksmith, but from the developer's item-shop.

If some of us continue to play after you forced the MT on us, that doesn't mean that we enjoy the MT and just out of spite didn't want you to earn a lot of money. It just means that we like the game enough to continue to play despite the MT.

Added Mr. Cousins presentation to the Really Interesting Links on the right.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Surprise: Pay-to-Win works

Thanks to Psychochild for supplying this link.

It is a presentation by Ben Cousins, General Manager of EA's f2p games division EASY.

The entire 42 minutes he doesn't waste one single word on the actual gaming experience. All he is concerned about is how to extract money from the players. I can't believe he really was ever that naive to think that pay-to-win wouldn't make money. Every trading cards game from Star Trek to Magic: The Gathering has shown that players love to pay for in-game advantages.

But does the game actually become better? He doesn't talk about it. He is too surprised that selling crack is profitable.

There is Value in Scarcity

Before I played MMORPGs I was a very active player of VGA Planets 4 by Tim Wisseman.

VGA Planets is a play-by-email strategy game in a Sci-Fi-fantasy setting that mixes themes from all major Sci-Fi IPs. One game usually takes half a year, often one year. Some games never really end. VGA planets requires someone to start the game. To that end he can either use standard universe maps or custom-scripted ones. After having played for many years I eventually decided to make my own games with my own maps.

What had annoyed me ever since I had started was the abundance of resources. Games would often end in players having hundreds of ships and thousands of objects to manage. One turn could take hours to play through and often the real brilliance was in coming up with ways to speed up the process and focus on what is important. Still it was unfair, because those players who spent massive amounts of time a week on one turn had a huge advantage.

While I did spent massive amounts of time each week on one turn, I didn't like so many objects for another reason: the emotional bond to your starships and planets became worse the more you had.

That's why I scripted "The Last Bastion of Life". I made each planet have so little resources that players had to fight over every single piece. Every starship mattered. No race could afford more than one of the dreadnoughts. Whether to build one at all was an interesting question.

Up to that point there hadn't been a game with so little stuff. The game was a success. Players loved it. A lot of other games were started with ultra-poor planets.

Today I find myself in the same situation with MMORPGs. With the added problem that scripting my own game isn't all that easy. Scarcity is what engages humans. Abundance is boring and makes players apathetic. It is bad from a gameplay point of view and it is bad from a simulation point of view. If a ball of fire that engulfs an enemy does major damage, but doesn't happen often, it's more impressive than enemies that are constantly engulfed in fire.

When I look at the most recent Guild Wars 2 gameplay video, that's what I worry about. There is value in scarcity, but MMORPG companies rather compete for the most fancy graphics. There's a difference between good graphics and fancy graphics. Do you care when you are engulfed with fire in an MMORPG? Nor do I.

If you start with normal fireballs that engulf entire players, there's no way to make an impressive fireball. But impressive fireballs would be fun!

Domino about Item-Shops

Domino at Tradeskill Perspectives thinks that people are strange.

People are strange. In particular, people's reactions to in-game stores are strange. In-game microtransactions seem to bring out very mixed and contradictory feelings in people, and at the same time seems to blind them to the fact they're contradicting themselves.

Now, I agree that a lot of players say non-sense when they argue against item shops. They claim the kind of stuff Domino mentions. Or they claim that item shops are ok, but every item they want is too expensive.

So, what do players really want? A lot of different things. What I can tell you is why I don't like item shops. But first one sentence about "It's only vanity":
Vanity is one of the most important aspects of MMORPGs. It is not less important!

Games, as well as virtual worlds, are supposed to be closed systems. You are free to disagree at this point. If you do, we feel differently; and there's not much we can do about it.

Imagine you join a new sports team. A few days later you have the first match. Suddenly you realize that 20% of the players on the field have these really cool sunglasses. You ask the trainer and he tells you can pay a vanity price and then he'll give them to you, too. What's you're reaction?

Or imagine you're new to chess. At your first tournament your opponent has this magnificently crafted and superbly looking figurines. You, however, get some made of paper. What's your reaction?

In virtual worlds there's also the immersion problem. This is what many Eve players have. In Eve all items are crafted by players. Well, at least until now. Now there are items that are not crafted by players. They enter the universe from the outside. That feels wrong. It certainly doesn't add to the experience.

Add the corrupting effect of item-shops.

Problem is, item-shops don't make the game better. They are a business model and usually make the game itself worse. I can understand that an indie game uses them, because they don't have much choice. But if a AAA game has item shops that says that the developer is greedy and doesn't really care about the quality of the game. It's not like AAA-MMORPGs have a profit problem. Even the supposedly failed ones make a hell of a profit, let alone the successful ones!

One last thing: The developer's job is to understand players. The job is not to prove that they contradict each other. The job is not to prove that the players are wrong. If you don't understand the players, you're bad at your job; not the other way round.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Time to Talk about Water

Water is great. You can drink it.

I want to believe

I really don't want to appear like a pessimist, but it is really hard to blog about MMOs when there are no good MMOs around. When the companies that used to produce good MMOs start to behave like spoiled and greedy kids.

I'd almost wish it was just me. But looking at the recent update of, we can see, that I wasn't all that wrong when I blogged a genre in decline some time ago.

Fortunately, every crisis is also a chance. In some way I am happy that WoW is losing subscribers. It allows other companies to step in. Maybe it will make Blizzard announce Titan at this year's Blizzcon? Mmh.. I have a bad feeling about this Titan ..

It's not that I don't have a lot of topics to blog about. It's just that it is really hard to blog about MMOs when you just can't motivate yourself to actually play one. I mean, I want to believe. I'm willing to pay hundreds of euros a month for quality games (without micro-transactions!). There are worse customers than me, really. But if the industry continues to focus on immediate profit instead of quality games with a vision, there's no way I'm going to waste my money on them.

Are they crazy?

First Activision|Blizzard then CCP. And it's not like EA are saints, either. Are they crazy?

Look, if you want to do successful business in Somalia you better murder the right people. That's what's effective. If you want to do successful business in Russia you better pay the right people. If you want to do successful business in China you better don't say the wrong things; and paying the right people helps, too.

If you want to do business in a working market economy you better satisfy your customers. That's the reason for the success of a working market economy: the best way to get rich is to satisfy your customers. Not your shareholders, not your employees, not the government, not some gangs, but your customers.

But that's not what they are doing! CCP first lies about mictro-transactions in Eve Online, then they repeatedly lie about non-vanity micro-transactions. Activision|Blizzard rather pays $2.2 Billion back to shareholders than expanding, or even offering a reasonable amount of new content for World of Warcraft players. And EA wants to focus on the core business. That's usually the point where shareholders start to speculate on your stock for about 1 year. And then they drop you, because focusing on core business is a bad decision 90% of the time.

If these companies are crazy not all hope is lost. If, however, our loved market economy has changed into a system were the best profit is not earned by producing the best product, we have a problem.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Developer Burnout

Syl has written a nice post about how developers tend to cut out everything fun as games mature. Her post is aimed at World of Warcraft and I agree in spirit. It's just that I would really like to know why. Why do developers do this?

Look, if the developers had found some inconveniences unfun, why did they ever put them into the game in the first place? Here's a part of the explanation: Developer Burnout.

Developing a game is like a love relationship: In the beginning you are in awe. What you especially like are the small inconveniences. They give your significant other a soul, character. But, as you know, with time, well. Well, these inconveniences really start to annoy you. Why does she always forget her keys? That's stupid! Wouldn't it be fun if we didn't need keys?

This process also applies to players, of course. In the beginning they love the ten-minutes travel to the capital, but eventually they think it's a time sink and a grind. For developers, however, this is much worse.

As players we have the advantage that we can cut back on playing and even take breaks. That's impossible for a developer. You need to work on the game at least 40 hours a week (probably more), and you need to play it, too. As a consequence developers burn out much faster than the players. Breaks are often impossible.

When a developer has to level a new character for the 20th time he really, really hates leveling. It has to be faster! Much faster! Much, much faster! In fact, the game would probably be better if it could be skipped, but the players would moan and complain. Stupid players: Don't they see that leveling a new character isn't fun?

Prime: Battle For Dominus

Just a short post to give PRIME some attention. The web page is online for 11 days now and the game is planned to be released this year. Let's hope for the best ...

Check out the about link and the FAQ if you like.
Oh .. and it's not going to be f2p. Yes!

How is Prime different from other MMORPGs?
Prime is a science fiction MMO with three different factions. Each homeworld is safe from attack, but the rest of the galaxy is open to all for exploration and battle.

We offer a real reason for player versus player combat: Control of Dominus, the only planet in the galaxy with the element (Prime) necessary for technological advancement, weapons of war, and defense. Players in control of Dominus harvest Prime - and invent/create uses for it as well.

Later this summer, we'll have a lot to say about player driven content, the bounty system, player inventions, story events conducted by employees, and more.

They just hired Sanya Weathers, who has worked on Dark Age of Camelot before ...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guild Wars 2

Seems today I will have to write about GW2. Yeah, there's really no choice involved considering the new material out there.

First on the dungeons. The video looks good.
I don't really like these over-the-top spell effects. Every character apparently is also a mage. But that's not worse than expected. ArenaNet tries to please all the players, but they don't seem to make the mistake WoW does and homogenize all difficulty. I do like that spells don't fly through players - but something tells me they are just positioning themselves well in the video.

Then underwater combat. Here's the video. First: I don't like underwater combat from a pure gameplay point of view. Never liked it. Then, I don't like that you can ignore water in MMORPGs. Wet clothes should have an impact. Well, it was obvious that GW2 isn't going to focus the simulation that much.

What I find utterly ridiculous is this:
Here at ArenaNet we don’t think breathing is fun. We figure that you have to breathe every day IRL (in real life), so why should you have to work to breathe in a game—even underwater?

You know what? Walking is also a bit boring. I have to do it in real life all the time! Here, at Nils' MMO Blog we think that people shouldn't have to walk in games, let alone run. Let them glide! How cool is that?

On the other hand, if this were Blizzard they had just added 10 minute breathing bars or just removed it. At ArenaNet they give you a breathing mask. That's what I was talking about recently: Adapt the simulation, if you want a different gameplay. That's one point for them; even though I have no idea where these masks come from, or where the underwater weapons come from.

I wonder whether you can live forever by being 'defeated', swim to the surface, reg, get down, be 'defeated', swim to surface ...

Summa summarum, GW2 does about as well as I expected it to do. What I don't like is that there is no tension in the combat. Oh, the character died? *yawn*

One More Word on Monocles

The CEO decided to talk to the players and told them to shut up.
That is not saying nothing will change, on the contrary, in fact we know that success in this space is through learning and adapting to _what is actually happening_ and new knowledge gained in addition to what we knew before and expected.

Now, for any other company that would probably end in disaster. With CCP I am not so sure. Eve Online is a cut-throat universe and it's a good guess the company and the players like that. In any way I congratulate CCP for saying the truth straightforward. That shouldn't be a bonus, but considering what other companies do, it is.

I argued yesterday that if you play a game like Eve where you could always subtly buy yourself to victory, a vanity item shop really can't be all that bad. In fact, it seems the monocle has generated more revenue (=profit in this case) than all other items combined. That's not really a surprise. I wonder why there is no 'glowing eyes implant' yet. Should generate lots of revenue if it costs some equivalent of $500.

This entire story will turn out to be quite profitable for CCP, but it has reduced the probability that I will ever return to Eve. Oh, and I stopped the monthly sub I was running to support them. Doesn't make sense to sympathize with a company or even 'like their product'. Ridiculous emotions. From now on CCP will be treated based on _what they actually do_.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Finally, on Monocles

I really wasn't so certain whether I should make a post about this one. But here it is anyway.

I don't like micro-transactions (MT) and I don't like real-money-trading (RMT). I wrote about f2p games a lot last month. The fact that Eve Online has always had RMT (Plex), has always annoyed me. An economics simulation, like Eve, shouldn't allow me to effectively trade € for in-game currency.

However, the way CCP had integrated the PLEX system into Eve was brilliant. If I ever was forced to introduce some kind of RMT/MT into a game, I'd do it this way. It protects the simulation as much as possible and has several really good characteristics from a business point of view. Still, I wished Eve had just a subscription.

Now CCP introduces vanity items. On the one hand, I don't think that vanity items are somehow less valuable than other items in games. The 'it's just vanity' doesn't really work for me. On the other hand, the PLEX system guarantees that you can buy all this stuff without ever paying a dime. Eve Online very effectively hides the outside-world influence of PLEXes from you.

But let's face the truth: You could always buy yourself to victory in Eve. It didn't work with 100€ a month, but invest 1000€ a month and it works perfectly. You ask who does this? That's because you are naive. For some reason most people believe that most people have about as much money as they do. Surprise: Most have much, much less and some have so much more that you apparently don't understand what it is like.

If you have 50 mio € on your bank account and a 1% annual interest rate, you get 41.667 € a month. Yes, a month, not a year. And that is a 1% annual interest rate. My bank pays 1.65% the year right now; and that's the convenient and perfectly safe rate. Subtract some taxes if you want. Point is that, unless you're crazy, it's impossible to spend that amount of money. Just one guy having so much money can finance a hundred normal players easily. Real-world wealth is exponentially distributed; a lot of people laugh at 50 mio. They wouldn't even consider you 'rich'.

Before you continue, read this article in The Atlantic:
For four years, the Gates Foundation has supported an effort by the center to determine exactly how the American wealthy think and live—and in particular how, when, and to what degree they make the shift from accumulating fortunes to giving them away philanthropically. [..]
Most of the survey’s respondents are wealthy enough to ensure that in any catastrophe short of Armageddon, they will still be dining on Chateaubriand while the rest of us are spit-roasting rats over trash-can fires.

Are virtual monocles at $60 expensive? Excuse me? Some people could use that as toilette paper without ever actually missing it. That's not demagoguery. I'm not telling you that this is wrong or anything. The moral debate is not for this blog. Fact is that many people couldn't care less whether that thing costs $60 or $400.

.. Unless there were a lot of people who considered $60 expensive. You see, the real value of a virtual monocle is not that it looks cool. The real value is that it is expensive. It is a veblen good. People buy it not although, but because it is expensive. Oh - and in Eve Online they will all say that they bought it with in-game earned currency, of course.

But it is too expensive for you, you say? Well, that may be so. But here's there thing: If you think that MT/RMT is bad for games I unconditionally agree. If, however, you want real-world money to change your playing experience, then you better accept real-world prices, ok?

Gucci is not too expensive. You are just not rich enough, that's all. Or maybe you think that nobody needs a Gucci Blouson for $445.50? I agree; nor does anybody need a $60 virtual monocle.

CCP didn't select this price by accident. They know who the players are that pay for Eve. It's not you. It's not 95% of the players. It is the top 5%.
Almost none of them would ever openly admit to buying PLEX, of course. The last thing rich people want is that non-rich people find out. And they feel it is a bit immoral to win games by spending resources from outside the gaming world. But Eve allows you to hide that you do. And that's no mistake, either.

On a side note: If World of Darkness turns out to be f2p and finances itself with virtual trench coats, I'm out. Sorry CCP, I really like that you advance the genre and don't spend all your money to satisfy shareholders. But aggressive MT/RMT is somewhere I won't go.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Death is not immersive

The omnipresent casual/hardcore ideology has lead to those who think that death should be trivial and happen rarely, and those that think that death should happen all the time and be harsh.

Both is wrong. While the 'casual' point of view at least works in arcade games, the 'hardcore' point of view only works in the most niche and most gamey games.

To those who claim to care about the simulation and often lean towards the hardcore side, I say: Death is not immersive. Whenever your character dies you are violently thrown out of the simulation. Great games instill a desperate fear of death in the player without having him die all that often - never if possible.

To those who think that frequent death is a necessary gameplay element, I say: Death should not be abused for gameplay purposes. There are better ways to give the player clear feedback about is actions.

Game and Simulation, Part 2

In the last post I pointed out that every MMORPG can be judged from a gameplay as well as from a simulation point of view. For the game designer it is desirable to make the game the best possible simulation, while also using the best possible gameplay.

To that end, the developer should chose the simulation in a way that it allows for the best possible gameplay. For example, instead of allowing players to drink potions while they are in the middle of combat and have two swords in their hands, just give them healing runes, engraved in the swords. This is exactly the same gameplay, but a better simulation.
Another example are the already mentioned shields that recharge fast, instead of allowing every player to rapidly heal his health.

Sometimes there are no good simulations available or an IP doesn't allow them. In that case, the gameplay should be changed to be as compatible as possible with the simulation.
One example are death penalties. Often a constant "I live again" doesn't make sense from a simulation point of view. But a harsh death penalty is unbearable from a gameplay point of view. To solve this problem one needs to understand the pure gameplay value of death: clear feedback.

The clear feedback can be moved into a sub-activity of combat. For example, the player can have a fast-reloading shield and ten life-points. When the shield drops he starts losing life-points. To lose one life-point is clear feedback that can be supplied reasonably often, without the player actually dieing. To recharge life points, the player can be forced to wait some time between combat.

This way, the player is penalized for losing the shield, but the penalty can be designed to be trivial, while still compatible with the simulation. It is much better than just using a shield (=health bar).
The loss of a life-point has to be made dramatic by visuals and audio.

If this game is reasonably easy, the player never runs into the problem of actually dieing, which allows the designer to use a rather harsh death penalty that is compatible with the simulation, but doesn't hurt the gameplay.

If the designer wants to empathize the fear of death, mobs can be allowed to have a very small chance to outright kill players that lose the shield. This is terrible gameplay, but, by definition, happens very rarely and is thus tolerable. Players need to be very aware of this mechanic. So aware indeed, that they fear it a lot more than the probability justifies.

The fact that this is terrible gameplay almost helps here, because players hate to be killed unexpectedly fast; it feels so unfair! But no players rage quit, because it happens so very rarely. In fact, since they survive a dropped shield all the time, the players constantly consider themselves lucky. In the very few cases in which they do die, the game needs to communicate clearly what happened. A manipulated RNG that prevents dieing to this too often in a short period of time can also be useful.

In general, the trick is to hide the gameplay inside the simulation. Without knowing, the player plays an engaging game. But he feels immersed into the simulation, because the abstract gameplay is hidden from him.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Game and Simulation

In the last post I argued that modern MMORPGs are mostly games, while modern first person shooters (in single player mode) are mostly simulations. In this post I will define more clearly what I mean when I say that a 'game' is a simulation.

All features of a 'game' can be judged according to how much they add to the simulation and how much they add to the game. It is unfortunate semantics that we have come to call all 'games' games. I hope you understand what I mean by looking at the context and the apostrophes.

Take for example the classic health bar. From a simulation point of view it says that your character can be differently healthy. If he is very unhealthy and takes a beating, he 'dies'. From a gameplay point of view, the health bar tells you how many health-points you have. The points can be reduced. If they reach zero, you are punished.

The simulation aspect is the interpretation of the gameplay mechanic. And what is important to understand is that every single aspect of a (non-abstract) 'game' can be judged according to gameplay and simulation. Both aspects are important.

For example, to create engaging gameplay it can make a lot of sense to allow all players to heal up after they have taken out an enemy. But for many games, like warriors in WoW, this is bad simulation. To not let players heal up to full, however, is good simulation and bad gameplay. A design dilemma that can, for example, be solved by changing what is simulated. That's why many first person shooters give you fast-reloading shields. It's perfectly good gameplay to have them reload fast. And it's also perfectly good simulation.

The problem is that good 'games' want to be a game as well as a simulation. And rightfully so. Pure simulations can be very boring and frustrating. For example, being perma-killed by a random trap you walk into is terrible gameplay. But it is perfectly good simulation. (Assuming that you want to simulate the real-life effects of walking into surprising death traps).

On the other hand, pure games have a lot of trouble appealing to new players. For example it's very hard to inspire somebody about a completely new card game, because card games are almost perfectly abstract games. They have almost no simulation aspect. Chess, on the other hand, has a weak simulation aspect residue. Thus, encouraging your kids to play chess is much easier if you first talk about the simulation of a great war, and only then explain the detailed rules.

This is the same with MMORPGs. Look at WoW's advertisement. Apart from fooling you with cognitive biases (10 mio players can't be wrong, nor can 1 billion flies..), they focus entirely on the simulation aspect. "It's not a game, it's a world". They couldn't be more straightforward.
Blizzard uses these adds, because the gameplay is impossible to be fun unless you actually play it. Nobody can be inspired to play WoW by being explained the rules. One has to experience the rules to find them fun.

With simulations it's the other way round: A simulation can seem a lot of fun without actually ever having played it. "Imagine you accompany the fellowship of the ring!"
And, in fact, a simulation that seems perfectly fun can turn out to be very unfun if you actually experience it: "An orc from behind - you're dead. - No, you couldn't do anything about him, you didn't see him coming!".

Many good games start with a strong simulation aspect and then transform more and more into abstract games. This is true for any first person shooter that added multiplayer, as it is true for MMORPGs. Once you are in the game and want to win, you usually could care less about the simulation. That's why players who raid have no problem with cluttering the entire screen with gameplay information. A new player would never touch a game that looks that terrible. But if you understand all the gameplay information, this makes for a reasonably good game.

Pure simulations miss most features of good games and vice versa. Have a look at the What Games Are blog to learn more about games. I don't need to link you to any simulation-explaining blog. You already know what a good simulation is: It is credible, consistent and takes place in a setting the player is interested in.

When you make a non-abstract 'game' (like any MMORPG), you want to make it a good simulation as well as a good game. If the simulation aspect were not important, you could replace all character models by squares and all NPCs by circles. That doesn't affect the gameplay. In fact, the better fps improves the gameplay. That's why many professional fps players scale back the graphics. Higher fps and better contrasts my look terrible, but competitive fps players don't care about the simulation. They care about winning.

The next post will be about how to combine games and simulations to be more than the sum of both parts.

Don't play Games with Death Penalties

Games rely on clear and constant feedback: you either win or you lose. This direct feedback is important to make games fun.

However, when players want to immerse themselves into a simulation, they don't want to get clear and constant feedback on what works and what does not. They don't want to win and lose all the time. They just want to feel as if they were indeed part of the simulation - and always win. Simulations do not rely on clear feedback! It's mostly irrelevant for them.

Have a look at this Call of Duty video. The player does the entire mission at hardest difficulty without shooting one shot!

Is this a great game? No. It's a terrible game. But it is a great simulation! I am actually immersed when I watch this! In one way I agree with the author of the video - on the other hand I think he didn't understand that he doesn't actually play a game! He plays a simulation.

The funny thing is that while MMORPGs in recent years have ignored the simulation and turned into 'just a game', games like Call of Duty have turned into great simulations and stopped being games!

What does this mean for death penalties? A great simulation just doesn't let you die. Just like Kring commented in a recent thread.

However, the simulation must still make you fear death! And that's why great simulations can have harsh death penalties: You are just not expected to die in the first place! You are only supposed to fear death - just like in real life or any movie.

While great simulations are easy and have harsh death penalties, great games are difficult, but have trivial death penalties. No other combinations works!

Ghostcrawler on Balance

Ghostercrawler (Greg Street), WoW lead systems designer, in his recent blog:
I’d love to have the discussion some time about how close two similar specs need to be before players will play the one that is most fun for them and not the one that does theoretical higher damage. Is it 5%? 1%? 0%?

In case you're interested in the answer: It is -1%. Oh, you think -1% is impossible? You're correct. See, the players don't play a specc because it is 1% more effective. They play it because they follow their peers, and because it is so simple to respecc.

Ironically, Ghostcrawler just learns the same lesson, the designers of skill-based games have learned before: If there is no friction, there's no way to keep the marbles from moving towards the lowest point. And if there is no lowest point, the players fake-invent one!

On the other hand, if there is friction, the problem becomes a no brainer. This is from Daxxarri, community manager of WoW:
Overall, we've never seen a strong correlation between which class is considered overpowered and what players are playing.

See? Add some friction and the problem is solved. It's not a balance problem, dear Ghostercrawler.

In fact, even if players play overpowered classes more, it's not automatically a problem! Did you read Eric at Elder Game, Lead Engineer and Producer of Asherons Call 2?
Turns out that the people who played the other classes available to that race had taken on an “underdog” mentality. The people who played Claw Bearers liked that they were woefully underpowered compared to Feral Intendants. It was like playing the game on Hard Mode. And the people playing Feral Intendants liked playing on Easy Mode. In balancing the game I had failed to understand the needs of the people playing it.

Unless they become really grave, balance-problems aren't fun-problems. A MMORPG can be absolutely fun even though it is unbalanced. And that's especially true if there is some friction that hasn't been removed yet in the name of convenience, metrics and "less punishing gameplay".

Not turning MMORPGs into super-challenging sports that requires perfect optimization helps, too.

Thanks to Raph Koster's blog I found this gem: "Don't play games with me". Start at slide 46, if you are short on time. Added it to the really good links.

I'm not a Gamer

A few days ago, Wolfshead wrote something that I was thinking for a long time: I'm not a gamer (*). Hell, I just want to use my computer to play a character in a credible virtual fantasy world. That's all!

I do own a smartphone for quite some time now, but I could never figure out what's so great about playing games for a few minutes. It feels so wasteful; like watching a movie in three-minute segments. I, also, could never understand why people want to listen to music in the tram/train/bus. It's just a distraction!

Don't get me wrong: I'm not super-focused and efficient; or only if necessary, I guess. Usually I get distracted very easily. So easily, in fact, that I need no game to help me. There's so much stuff to think about when you sit in the tram/train/bus. Yesterday afternoon, after sports, I came up with four new topics to blog about; all within 5 minutes in the shower.

Oh, and I'm not a geek! I remember the few bits of the last Blizzcon that I streamed. This "embrace your inner geek" and stuff. I wrinkled my nose. I'd never pay to visit Blizzcon. In fact, I probably wouldn't go there if Blizzard payed the trip.

I'm not interested in the celebrities of this business. I'm not interested in "events". I'm not interested in the comics, the lore-books, or meeting the designers in person. Not the slightest. I just want to play a character in a credible virtual fantasy world. That's all!

Since that's not possible I started to blog about it. Then I started with armchair design. If the industry is too stupid to pull it off, I will either have to get into management to get rich enough to hire people to make my game, or I will find somebody who shares my interests and who already made all that otherwise useless money.

Honestly people: Modern games miss 90% of the features of Ultima Online! It's not about nostalgia; how could I be nostalgic about a game I never played? Modern games just don't have the features older games had! The market gap for a modern AAA credible virtual fantasy world is the size of a small galaxy by now.

* The "I'm not a gamer" article Wolfshead links is part of the problem. I'm not a "player", either.

R. Koster destroys Social Games from within

Thanks Gilded for linking this on his blog. A fun, smart and inspiring presentation; highly recommended (audio starts to play immediately ...).

There seem to be a lot of people in this room who are interested in making even more money with the distractions we have got to know as social games. Koster shows them an aweful lot of future opportunities to do just that.

However, should they really follow his advise, they would turn their tiny distractions into full grown virtual worlds.
I really hope this presentation turns out to be the future  ..

Added the presentation to the Really Good Links.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Truth about Modern Games

Bill from dubious quality just wrote down the truth:

[..] First, the single-player campaigns of most games aren't even games anymore--they're movies. Wonder why the single-player campaign of your favorite FPS only lasts six hours? It's because it's incredibly difficult to make a six-hour movie, let alone something longer.

Really, it's probably more accurate to say that instead of movies, games are like the old mine cart amusement park ride. You get on the cart, it goes forward on rails, and surprising things pop out at you along the way. Welcome to the world of the corridor shooter. It's not a game. It's a ride, or a guided tour.

Why would anyone want to make a game like that?

Well, like I said, making a six hour movie is hard--but, and this is important, it's easier than making a real game.

Think about Ultima IV and the amount of content contained in the game. Sure, there was a storyline that needed completion, but the sheer number of things you could do as a player were absolutely amazing.

That story, and that level of interaction, required a complex game design and an incredible amount of detail.

Today? Modern Warfare 55 is not complex. It's just a corridor, and you run through that corridor shooting at shit and blowing things up. Complicated world design? No. Elaborate set pieces? Yes.

Games used to be complex. Now they're elaborate. It's a huge difference. And I think in a design sense, it's much easier to make an elaborate game than a complex one. It certainly doesn't require as much skill. [..]

Visit his blog to read the entire piece.

Also have a look at Systemic Babble who has a thread about it.

All Ways to Punish Players

If we were to brainstorm all possible ways to punish players what would we come up with? Scrusi already started it in a recent comment.

(a) Loss of some accumulated value. Be it gear, money, experience, points, what have you.
(b) Loss of time. Corpse run, restart at a save point, etc.
(c) Temporary reduction of character strength.
(d) Loss of real world money. (Insert coin to continue)

Later, Azuriel, in a comment, proposed (e) embarrassment as yet another option. I think that's a very creative idea. Has any larger MMORPG actually ever tried that?

I want to add two:
(f) symbolic punishment, like very small gold fees.
(g) To end the current adventure without encouraging the player to immediately start another try. This requires some extra work to shape a player mentality, otherwise it becomes a loss-of-time.

Syl adds:
(h) (temporarily) restricted access to content

Jesse adds
(j) Loss of in-game social contacts. Very innovative.

A few more from myself:
(k) Your NPC enemies grow stronger
(l) Your guild/social group suffers
(m) Your in-game adversaries (players) are rewarded
(n) Permadeath

Time is the Fire in which we Burn

One pain every blogger knows is that all his posts very fast disappear. Now, for 90% of the posts that's not at all a problem. They either commented something that was happening at the time or were just not very good.

Some posts, however, are still relevant. And some of these are actually good. At least, that's what I like to think. That's why I have decided to make a post about some of my better posts. I will link to three of them.

Since this blog has grown from about 5 to almost 300 readers a day, I hope that most of these posts are actually new to you.

September 2009: Unpredictable Dungeons

September 2010: The Fun Fallacy

January 2011: Sandboxes Without Sand

If you think that any other post on this blog is especially good, I'd be happy if you told me in the comments. And, well, you can also tell me what you don't like about the blog; this information may even turn out to be more valuable.

Unrelated link.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Death Penalty

The last post was about death penalties in general. Among some boring properties I stated that
The perfect death penalty is an extremely effective deterrent, but completely harmless once it has actually happened.

Scrusi, in his comment, finally pointed the dilemma out. Isn't there a perfect symmetry? Isn't it exactly the repercussion, the aftermath, which deters one from dying? The answer is that for a perfectly rational person, this is correct. But fortunately, players aren't perfectly rational.

The trick is to exploit a psychological fault within the human brain; a fallacy, to create a death penalty that is very deterrent, but rather harmless once it it has actually happened. But this won't make the perfect death penalty, of course. Please remember that until your computer mind-controls you, there won't be a perfect death penalty. Humans are just too smart for that.

First, I need to very superficially describe the game the death penalty is embedded in.

There's a player-run castle with lots of player-owned shops. In these shops you buy equipment. You can buy very cheap equipment or very expensive equipment. Expensive equipment gives a rather small boost to your character's effectiveness. There's also an entire virtual world outside that castle, but that is mostly irrelevant for this post.

Now, in the basement of that castle there is the entrance to a vast labyrinth. That's very similar to Diablo, I know. But this is far from an action RPG. You want to venture into this labyrinth to gather resources and stuff you can sell. By doing so you can improve your castle, you own house, finance a war and lots of other stuff. On a side note, you also want to venture down there, because it's an unpredictable adventure and fun in itself.

There's also a very credible weight limit. So, while you venture down there, you will not pick up every plate mail and two-hand sword you see. Instead, you will rather look for gems or whatever is valuable and carry-able. Even if you stay down there for a long time, your backpack will stay rather clear.

And there's the need to carry supplies with you, because your equipment will eventually break. Unless you can repair or replace it down there, you are in trouble. So, remember: All your equipment eventually breaks! All of it. Equipment is just a tool! Nothing lasts forever.

Of course, while you venture down there, there is the usual character power progression. It is highly compressed in this game and a lot of it runs horizontally. That is, you further customize your character, but he doesn't necessarily become more powerful.

The deeper you venture, the more dangerous the enemies are, of course. Also, the deeper you venture the more potential rewards there are. But it is perfectly normal to just venture down there for half an hour. The labyrinth is procedurally generated and the enemies use some basic AI to move around in it. You can explore endlessly without going deeper, if you want. To go really deep, you want to take a well organized, well supplied, group. But it shouldn't be too large, because making a lot of noise is not a good thing when you're really deep.

I know, you love that game already. But please, please! Now comes the topic of this post. If you want to comment, do so on the topic, please ;)

When you die in the labyrinth you lose your stuff and get teleported back into the castle. I know, you hate it and are very disappointed. But here's why that is actually a good death penalty once you emotionally disconnected yourself from WoW.

Shefrin & Thaler, back in 1988, wrote
"[Humans] mentally frame assets as belonging to either current income, current wealth or future income and this has implications for their behavior [..]"
That's called mental accounting.

Weight considerations make players necessarily start their adventure only with what they really need and with what they absolutely expect to lose. There's no real emotional punishment once you do lose it.
When you bought that axe to use down there, you already knew that it is going to break eventually. That's why you also had some equipment to fix it once it does. But since it does become ever less effective, you already wrote it off - mentally. A second trip would be started with a new axe, anyway! Nobody would want to buy a used axe! The axe was an investment.

The stuff you found in the labyrinth, may be in your backpack, but it is not safe yet! You need to get to the surface to actually own it! It is potential future economic gain. It is not something that you can lose, because you don't emotionally own it yet!

It's like a guy unexpectedly promising you to give you 100€ if you beat him at poker right now. But unfortunately you lose. From an purely rational point of view (Gevlon will insist!) this is exactly the same like losing the 100€ note you just found on the street. But from an emotional point of view, it's something completely different.
Think about this example for a second.

You'd hate to be prevented from playing the guy, because that felt like losing 100€. (You'd absolutely hate to die, because that would prevent you from carrying your stuff to the surface). But if you actually do play and lose, it's really not that much of a problem, because you didn't actually lose 100€ - at least you don't feel like it. (If you actually do die, it's really not that much of a problem, because you didn't really lose this stuff - at least you don't feel like it.)

Now, this isn't perfect. It might, in fact, make sense to really empathize that your stuff is not truly yours yet. For example, by using a gamey separate backpack, that's called "stuff found so far". Maybe there are ways to do so that are more compatible with the simulation.

This death penalty also has another interesting characteristic. In the last post's comment thread, Eteocles pointed out that the same death penalty can actually be differently harsh. Of course, he's right and this effect should be used to create a good death penalty.

You want the death penalty to be more harsh to those players who like harsher death penalties. Now, some commenters will point out that nobody actually likes a harsh death penalty. The only thing they like about it is that other players have to face it. Call me naive, but while I do agree that this is true for a few players and party true for most players, I don't think it is entirely true.

The proposed death penalty becomes ever harsher the deeper you go. You lose more invested time and you probably lose more valuable items should you die.
And since you are likely to be in a group, if you venture beyond a certain depth, your loss will be shared. "Do you remember when we found that big red gem at level 50? And then we went on to level 51 and the big troll army ran us over from behind? We were so like ooggh!".
Shared loss isn't even necessarily bad! It creates memorable moments. Read Elder Game if you want to know why that is very important. Memorable moments make players resubscribe after a break.

Finally, this death penalty is auto-adjusting. Just like the challenge level of the entire game is. You remember this post?
If you want to optimize your financial gain, you don't take a too large group with you. But going really deep with just your buddy is .. hardcore. On the other hand, if you just want to see the content and don't care all that much about optimizing the financial gain, you go down there in a large group. Which makes dying improbable or even impossible. .. If you don't go too deep that is. But with a casual mindset you don't want to spend too much time on the game anyway, and consequently will never make it very deep for time-reasons.

The death penalty is a clear cut. No aftermath. You are not weaker for some time, you don't have to regain (re-grind) stats or money. In fact, nothing in the game reminds you about your death. Once you are back on the surface you are free to experience new adventures. In the labyrinth - or outside of the castle.
The game makes it easy to get some basic equipment, of course.

The death penalty, in this game, exploits mental accounting to make people afraid to lose potential future gains. But since it's just potential future gains, they aren't that painful to actually lose.

The death penalty is auto-adjusting: the more hardcore a player is, and the more risk he is willing to take, the harsher it becomes.

The death penalty is a clear cut. Nothing in the game reminds the player about a past death.

The death penalty is impossible to abuse, unless the player wants to get back to the surface and lose all his stuff.

Finally, assuming the lore supports the naked-teleport, it makes a lot of sense from a simulation point of view.

Is it perfect? No.
But even if you don't like this specific death penalty, I hope I could spark your imagination. Maybe you can come up with more cognitive biases to exploit to create an even better death penalty.

For purely personal reasons I removed a blog from the "Blogs I follow".

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Death Penalties

Before I typed in the title of this post, I checked the blog's history. Can it be? I haven't written a post titled "Death Penalties" before? That was a surprise.

But then, perhaps not. Death Penalties are boring. They have been discussed for forever and there is just no solution. There's just no perfect death penalty. Do you expect to finish reading this post knowing a brilliant new death penalty? Exactly my point.

The first problem is to find out, how harsh your death penalty, considering your game, really is. For example, in a WoW-like game any death penalty that includes item-loss is game-breaker! In a game like Eve, where there are no epics, and (mostly) no item grind, where (most) items are just tools to be crafted, used and sold, item-loss is a possibility.

To determine the actual harshness level, I suggest to imagine what the player is likely going to do after a 'typical' death. Is he going to run/wait for 20 seconds and continue with whatever he just did? That's the least harsh penalty. Does the death penalty end his immediate adventure? That's quite harsh. Is he going to have to invest major amounts of time to rebuild his character / wealth? That's very harsh. Does the death penalty have any chance to maker him rage-quit? That's too harsh.

Contrary to what the name implies, death penalties are not supposed to punish players. Instead, the purpose is to make them not want to die. That's a big difference! In a perfect world, a player would really, really hate to die, but once he does, he doesn't care and moves on to new adventures. And that's exactly why most kinds of aftermath are wrong!

You don't want your players to become annoyed about their death long after they have died! It has to be a clear cut! You want them to forget about it as soon as possible. You just want them to not want to die before they die. The perfect death penalty is an extremely effective deterrent, but completely harmless once it has actually happened.

Death penalties have to feel fair. The player needs to blame himself if he dies. He needs to feel in control for as long as possible and like he dies due to his own actions! If he doesn't feel in control, it must have been a conscious, prior decision to give that control up. Fairness is the more important the more harsh the death penalty is.

Finally there's the simulation aspect of the death penalty. Does it actually make sense in the game's lore? If you are free to choose your lore, choose one that makes your death penalty make sense. It's a real bonus.

Completely unrelated: I love this.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Elder Game and the Hindsight Bias

Elder Game has a nice post up about punditry.

And he's right - he usually is. The human mind is extraordinarily creative when it comes to making sense of things that don't make sense. You can see it every evening in the news (assuming you are that antiquated). The stock-person explains to you that shares fell today, because of rumors about Greece. Of course, if the stock market had risen, the explanation had been that there were rumors about a new Intel chip. That's the hindsight bias.

So, yes, Eric: Trying to make sense of things is messy. Just like democracy is. Mmh, off topic. But not asking the "why?"-question isn't really a solution either, is it?

When writing about MMORPGs, and especially when trying to analyze what worked and what didn't, it doesn't make a lot of sense to doubt yourself all the time. It will make you appear less convincing, if you point out that you're not convinced of your own opinion. Having a good discussion is impossible if you're not convincing. And having good discussions is necessary if you want to get that tiny step closer to the truth.
Of course, you should always remember the limits of your knowledge.

About myself ...
In the past, it turns out, that my taste was an extraordinarily good indicator of how an MMORPG will do. I started WoW and was instantly amazed. I stayed subscribed for two years and played regularly before I even took the first break! That was shortly before TBC had ended. I returned half a year later and didn't like it much, but I stayed subscribed for about 50% of the WotLK expansion. I came back with Cataclysm, leveled one toon 80-85, one from 1-31 and another purely by dungeon finder 1-61. Quit.

I was full of expectations when AoC came out. I leveled within 10 levels of max level and quit, because there was not enough content. All within the first month.
I was a bit more careful with Warhammer, loved the leveling, played a week at the endgame. Quit. All within the first month.
I was very careful about Rift, loved leveling three chars, resubbed several times. Quit.

If that isn't representative of the success of these games, I don't know what is!!
Unfortunately, I may be a victim to memory distortions!

I decided that I am not. By analyzing myself, I decided, I can analyze these games. There's a chance that's wrong. I accept this chance. Having a 100% mainstream taste is a bit embarrassing at times, but for criticizing MMORPGs it's pretty good. And at the same time I imagine that I would be able to design a revolutionary MMORPG without any teleports whatsoever. And make it mainstream! Yeah, there's a good chance that I'm wrong. I see you smiling. But there's really just one way to find out.

Added Elder Game to the Interesting Pages.

Avoiding the Lowest Common Denominator

Transitioning back to MMORPGs in general, what do we learn from the last few posts?

There are two ways to cater to as many players as possible: First, you can design a feature in a way that it appeals to as many players as possible. This is often called "catering to the lowest common denominator". Second, you can design a feature that adjust itself to appeal to as many players as possible.

This is a very important difference. If a static feature is designed to appeal to as many players as possible, it often appeals only to a minority and at best 'satisfies' the majority. On the other hand, a feature that adjusts itself to the players, can be fun for many or even all of them, without making compromises; especially, if it is compatible with the simulation aspect.

Dungeons that allow those players, who overcome challenges faster, to face harder challenges, is such an auto-adjusting feature. Static dungeons that try to appeal to all players, on the other hand, are fun only for a minority and at best satisfy the majority.

Space Invaders is the perfect example of an addictive and for a time highly popular game that rewards players with challenge alone. Unthinkable in MMORPGs. A MMORPG designer should probably combine higher challenges with slightly faster character progression.

Maybe it is even possible to use this idea on more than just the challenge level of activities?

Have a look at the newest Extra Credits video.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

They say that people will listen to you and remember what you have to say more, if you put it into a nice story. That's what I did in the last post. While I am certain that most of this is at least roughly correct, I am also certain that some of it is wrong. Anyway, time for a dry quintessence.

World of Warcraft's growth rate went from a perfectly stable 2 million subscribers per year during 2006 to 2009, to zero during WotLK. This was exactly the time when Blizzard changed the character progression mechanic.

The old mechanic allowed players to explore (mostly) static raids at their own pace. Raid groups could take their time to complete the content. Since 'better' raid groups progressed faster to more difficult content and without as much equipment, they faced more difficult challenges than 'not so good' raid groups.

The new mechanic forced all players into exactly one raid tier. They had a specific amount of months to complete it, before it became obsolete from a character progression point of view. The challenge level was the same for all players. Heroic raids were insignificant, as, for various reasons, they were visited by only a handful of players.

The old mechanic did not encourage players to visit dungeons once a day. And although forming a group on their own was often tiresome, when players did visit a dungeon, it usually was a pleasant social experience. Moreover, dungeons mostly weren't boring, because players didn't visit them all that often. Dungeons had different challenge levels and required different amounts of time to be completed.

The new mechanic strongly encouraged players to visit a randomly chosen dungeon once a day. They completed this dungeon within an anonymous group of other players they would never meet again. Players ran dungeons so often that they very soon found them very boring. All dungeons were adjusted to have the same challenge level and to require the same amount of time to be completed.

The old mechanic used 'random loot' that made badly-geared players gain gear very fast, while well-geared players gained gear very slowly. Most raid dungeons never became obsolete, because there was always something someone would still need. Generally, loot was given out more slowly and often became infamous.

The new mechanic used 'badge loot' that made poorly and well-geared players gain gear at roughly the same speed. All, but the current raid dungeon, were very soon obsolete from a character progression point of view. Generally, loot was given out much faster than before and was usually forgotten fast.

The classic-TBC mechanics offered reasonably tuned content that players could tackle in a pleasant social environment and at their own pace. Sure, players moaned and complained about those who had more: The unemployed, the students, the born-rich. But at the end of the day they had fun when they played in the evening. And thus they stayed subscribed.

One complain about classic-TBC was that most players never experienced the end of the story. I think this is a very legitimate complain. I think it encourages us to think about separating the overarching story from the raiding. Alternatively, raids could be transformed into leveling dungeons when an expansion hits, or the balance could be tuned carefully to ensure that eventually every raid group overgears the next raid in a way that anybody, who invests enough time, sees the end of the story.

In the absence of such a solution, the question is what is more important for players? To experience the entire story or to always have reasonably challenging content that they can do in a pleasant social environment at their own pace?
It's a hard decision, especially for someone like me. But if I ran a business, I'd chose the content over the story. Players just care more about whether they can have fun this evening, than whether they will experience the end of the story in two years.

In classic-TBC, one complain of advanced raid groups was that the system made it often hard to replace players. I think this was a concern of a minority. Recruitment-runs in older raid dungeons and advertisement of advanced raid groups in cities actually enriched the game and gave new players a feeling of 'everything is possible'.

I do think that classic as well as TBC should have had more introductory dungeons and raids.

When the new mechanic was released, the players were busy fighting shadows and didn't understand that WoW had neither become too hardcore nor too casual. It had become a one-size-fits-all that couldn't satisfy the broad spectrum of 12 million players.

Most ironically, the new system was in direct contradiction to the intend of the developers to cater to all players. Maybe the developers were fighting shadows, too?

Edit: Seanas just sent me a really good link. It's from Summer 2009.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Team B took over

Once again a WoW post. I'm sorry for the readers who aren't interested in it, but I find the question of why WoW has (had?) almost more players than all other MMORPGs combined too interesting to ignore. Eventually I'll blog about MMORPGs in general again; don't worry.

As you might be aware, there are two teams that worked on WoW over the years. Team A managed classic WoW and TBC and then moved on to Titan. Team B created WotLK and Cataclysm and is still in control. During classic and TBC the subscription numbers grew to over 10 mio. They abruptly stopped to grow in early WotLK when most players had finished raiding Naxx.

Therefore, being in Team B might not have been all that much fun during WotLK, anyway. But when sub numbers suddenly started to drop by 5% after Cataclysm was released, you can bet that Team B got nervous; as was whole Blizzard. Looking at the forums, the blue posters are irritable. Everybody there wants to know what went wrong; as does Trion or every other copy/paste company, by the way!
The question of why WoW suddenly stopped to grow, and now even declines, might actually be as interesting for the industry as the question of why it was as successful in the first place.

The WoW that was developed by Team A had specific ways of character advancement and loot distribution. Both were subject to severe changes by Team B.

The character advancement developed by Team A (copied from other games), included several raid tiers that required to be run through sequentially. First, players ran Molten Core, then Black Wing Lair, then An'Quirai, then Naxxramas. Several smaller dungeons and raids were available on the way.

The raid tiers were available to everybody as soon as they were developed. But if you started a new character you had to run through them in that order again - unless you wanted to be carried. Being carried, usually, was quite possible in 40 man raids.

The random loot system used by Team A allowed players to become well geared relatively soon. But getting the last final piece of gear could take for forever.

Team B, when they took over, were very enthusiastic. Who wouldn't have been? They took over the fastest growing money-printing machine in the industry's history. The genre was developing fast and many things seemed possible. In fact, the new neam planned to do a 7-chapter epic WotLK expansion.

In the end, not even half of that made it into the game. Did they just want too much? Did Activision later tell them that doing less would be more profitable? Who knows.

What we do know is that Team B set out to change the game to the better. Ghostcrawler started to communicate on the official forums extensively. Class revamps happened whenever feasible. The relentless focus on arena in TBC was scaled back. Most of all, raiding became more accessible.

For a long time players had complained that the classic:Naxxramas or later TBC:Sunwell raids were a waste of resources as only a few players would access them. Also, they had complained about the slow pace of completing a set. This was a (intended) consequence of the random loot system.

Most of all, there was the ever-present question, of how to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game. To understand the appeal of this question you must know that the leveling game works miraculously well. Even the WoW clones were easily able to provide good leveling games. But it also was quite expensive. Of course, Blizzard could easily have created a virtually endless leveling game with the one billion profit they made a year, but the management didn't want to reduce the return-on-investment down to the industry standard. So the designers tried to find a way to make the endgame more similar to the leveling game.

One way were daily quests. Another way was to increase the speed at which players got new items. The new raid-advancement mechanic would allow for that: Players would focus only on one raid at a time. They would chain-run dungeons to update their equipment accordingly. The Dungeon Finder would help them do this. By using a badge system, instead of random loot, players would not need as long to complete their sets.

Team B had only the best intentions. Everybody always has. And still they messed it up. Here's why:

Next to the phenomenal technical and artistic qualities, the central reason for WoW's success was that all players could always advance their characters by experiencing interesting content. That means that the content the players experienced was at a reasonable challenge level and happened in a pleasant social environment.
Since players are differently motivated, invest different amounts of time and maybe even are differently skilled, the game was flexible.

A player who played less often would experience the content at his own pace. If finishing a raid tier took him a year, then it took him a year. If it took him a month, it took him a month. All he needed to do was to find a compatible raid group or re-join one when he came back. Since raid groups were hard pressed to come up with 40 players and there always was somebody who couldn't make it that evening, random players would be invited. Part of the server community was built this way. It was how I got to raid the first few times.

The random loot system allowed players to get many items relatively fast. But even the players in the raid group that were most active, still had something to get from the lower-tier raids. In a way, random loot is evil and ingenious.

The change Team B brought along had a few advantages: Since everybody raided only one raid tier at a time, a large pool of players was available. This had been a constant problem for advanced raid groups in the old system. They often had problems finding replacements for doing advanced raids.

Also, the new system allowed players to replace items faster. Since this was more similar to the leveling game, it was considered a good thing (note: I disagree).

But the new system also had several disadvantages compared to the old one:
Since, at all times, all players raided the same raid tier, its difficulty had to be rather low. Otherwise, a lot of players would not have been willing (=able, if you insist) to do it. The new Naxxramas, consequently was rather trivial.

Since a lot of advanced players, who had superior network effects on the community, didn't like that, Team B had to create additional difficulty levels: heroic raids. These heroic raids, however, always felt highly gamey and artificial. Moreover, they were rather boring to complete, because players already knew most of the encounters. In contrast to what you read on forums, nobody plays MMORPGs for challenge alone. If someone just wanted a challenge, he played Mikado. The setting and the simulation aspect are important for MMORPGs.

Players who needed a year to complete content would suddenly not complete raid tiers ever. Players who completed raid tiers in a month would suddenly find themselves out of content.

Blizzard had always thrown away old content when they made an expansion, even Team A. Team B, however, even threw away raids in the same expansion: Since dungeons were much more efficient at providing better gear, players skipped older raids. The only saving grace were achievements. Most players, however, ran older raids only when they were seriously bored.

In combination with the Dungeon Finder and the daily dungeon quest, the dungeons became a grind in its purest form. While they did become more accessible, they also turned from a pleasant social experience into a boring, un-immersive, anonymous and at times asocial MUST. I'm sure it was easy to misinterpret the statistics. But trust me: nobody looked forward to do the daily dungeon. The pleasant social and reasonably accessible content that dungeons had once been was removed from the game.
The only reason to run dungeons was to later take part in raids. And since these raids were very accessible and relatively enjoyable in WotLK, sub numbers didn't drop. The rapid growth, however, stopped. Many players accepted the new dungeons and suffered through them to experience the story of World of Warcraft in the raids.

At the end of the WotLK expansion, Team B was mildly optimistic. Sure, their own expansion had stopped the rapid growth of the game, but they were about to change some things back to how they were. They would put back the challenge into the game! Unfortunately, they hadn't understood a thing.

Team A's WoW wasn't successful, because it was challenging. It was successful, because players advanced their characters while experiencing content at a reasonable challenge level and in a pleasant social environment. It was successful, because the game offered content for everybody to advance his character: from the most hardcore to the most casual.
Players were not herded together, but would play the game at their own pace.

To be able to make the game more challenging, Team B needed to make internal compromises. Being already in a defensive frame of mind, some developers sought support from the statistics department. There was a strong negative correlation between player deaths during leveling and the probability of re-subscription. Moreover, a vocal minority of players had loved to do the Loremaster achievement, which meant doing outleveled content. Nobody had the courage to argue against this. Consequently, the leveling game was made beyond trivial.

Maybe some developers still insisted that they needed an introductory raid, like MC, UBRS, Zul Gurub, Karazhan or Naxx. But being short on time and overstrained already, it was decided to skip it for now.

Heroic dungeons were designed to be very challenging early on so that they would still be challenging when players got better equipment. Unfortunately, this meant that shortly after Cataclysm's release the average player found himself confronted with a very trivial leveling game and very hardcore heroic dungeons that had often to be completed in an unpleasant social environment. And all this was necessary to start raiding which was rather hardcore and as such inaccessible for many of them.

The result was a 5% drop (after creative bookkeeping) in subscriber numbers shortly after Cataclysm had been released in Europe/NA and WotLK had been released in China.

To combat this drop, Team B, now 'supported' by several other teams, decided to get out more content faster. As a first measure the Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman raids were modified and re-introduced as heroic dungeons. The player base complained, but overall this was mildly successful.

Moreover it was decided that an introductory raid was needed. The existing tier of raids was severely nerfed as the new tier was introduced. Unfortunately this didn't work out so well, because the then old raid tier competed with heroic dungeons. One lesson developers have learned by now is that players always prefer the easy and fast way to advance their character to the fun way. This usually also means that they quit soon after, complaining that the game is not fun. That's how players are.

In the end, there is only one thing developers need to do: They need to provide reasonably challenging content that players can experience in a pleasant social environment at their own pace. And they must do this for all players; from the most hardcore to the most casual.

Herding players together at one difficulty level by requiring them to regularly experience trivial monotonous content in an unpleasant social environment is the wrong way.

You're welcome to read the following posts on this topic where I switch from story telling to dry analysis. (1), (2).