Monday, September 30, 2013

Trust, Reputation, and Impersonation

It's interesting that CCP chose this issue of impersonation as its "hill to die on". When you look at all the terrible things that Eve players have done, why is this issue the one that CCP moves to squelch?

I think it is because this issue has the greatest potential to break down trust in the game. Now, most people in Eve say "Trust no one." In reality, however, many of them do trust others. Trust is only way a group of people, a society, can build something larger. And Eve is very much about building things. It is very important for Eve to foster trust.

In a world where many of the "civilized" social norms do not apply, trust has to be earned. Trust can only be earned by building up a reputation over time. However, to take advantage of a reputation, an individual must be identifiable as the one who built that reputation. If someone else can easily pretend to be that individual, then you cannot rely on reputation and therefore cannot trust anyone.

If two players cannot trust each other, they have to interact through a third-party that they both trust. But if no player can be trusted, then players are forced to rely on the one third party which they can trust: the game itself.

We see this a lot in MMOs. Most trading is done through automated markets or auction houses. Thus neither player on both sides of the transaction need to trust each other. In WoW, when LFR came out, it soon became apparent that players could not trust each other to distribute loot fairly. Thus Blizzard had to step in, and implement a game system that could be trusted.

The less players trust each other, the more the game company has to intervene. The game company has to mediate the interaction and dictate how the interaction works.

And this is unfortunate, especially for sandbox play. If all interactions occur through game systems, the emergent behavior we prize never has a chance to develop. The games become less interesting and more static.

It would be interesting to see a game with even fewer system that act as a buffer between players. Consider a system where mail had to be delivered by other players. Or a game without automated markets. It would certainly be inconvenient. But this game is also more likely to give rise to unexpected styles of play.

Another interesting experiment would be a game system which cannot be trusted. For example, an unreliable Auction House or NPC merchants who sometimes steal the money from a sale. What systems would players evolve to cope? Maybe they would make many small orders and just take the expected loss. (More likely they would just quit and go to another game, though.)

MMOs need to foster a certain level of trust between their players. The less trust in the system, the more the game company itself has to intervene to reduce the necessity of that trust, and the less likely that interesting or inventive emergent behavior will evolve.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

An Asymmetry of Justice

Eve Online recently changed its Terms of Service and made pretending to be another player a bannable offence. Naturally, this being Eve, there is an uproar over the issue.

This issue is very interesting. Once you start examining the situation in detail, it leads to a lot of different places and different ideas.

One thing this illustrates is that there is a real "asymmetry of justice" in online games. The bad player can scam you, but you cannot punish her. In the real world, a scammer can be caught and lose their liberty or life. But in most online games, players cannot effectively punish other players. They cannot jail them, they cannot permanently kill them.

Even ostracism is very hard to pull off. As a simple example, you cannot prevent a player in Eve from trading with you, because the markets are implemented with an in-game system.

Of course, players punishing other players might lead to more griefing, which is why everyone stays away from it. But this leaves the game company as the only entity capable of punishment, capable of enforcing laws.

In a sandbox game, the game company should enforce the "laws of nature" of the world. How the world works, the nuts and bolts of physics. Ideally they would not enforce the "laws of man", leaving that up to the players. But other than A Tale In The Desert, no game has made that distinction. And even ATITD still had the game company be the enforcer of the laws.

The other problem, of course, is that of alts. In a way, alts are not really different characters. They are masks or disguises that a single character wears. And these masks are virtually impenetrable to other players. Once again, only the game company is capable of penetrating the disguise to the character underneath. And the mask can be discarded and thrown away if necessary.

Again, that makes it very hard for players to enforce laws or punish those who break them.

Eve takes pride in it's "Wild West, anything goes" atmosphere. But another way of looking at it is that Eve deliberately coddles the outlaws, denying the sheriffs the necessary tools to impose law and order.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Money Is Not Time

There is an argument among Free-2-Play advocates that "money is equal to time". The argument goes that some players are time-rich and cash-poor, while other players are time-poor and cash-rich. MMO design usually favors the time-rich players. These F2P advocates argue that F2P levels the playing field, allowing cash-rich but time-poor players to use money to make up for their lack of time.

I think that Diablo 3 has shown that this is not correct. Money is not a substitute for Time.

This is because games are emotional experiences. Only, the emotions evoked are not the standard ones, but flow and fiero. The emotions of engaging in an activity, seeking to defeat it, and the payoff from defeating a hard challenge, or finishing a long task.

But these two emotions require time. You have to spend time to get into the flow. And fiero is very often related to how long you spent working on the activity.

When you substitute money for time, there is no flow, and no fiero. There is no emotional attachment to the event, or to the payoff. And that makes the game itself less compelling.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Warhammer Online Closes

Warhammer Online is shutting down in December.  I played it for a bit when it first came out, and actually wrote a fair bit about it on this site.

WAR had several good ideas, most notably Public Quests. Having both an offensive and defensive target is one of my favorite UI innovations. I think that WAR has been quite influential on the design of the MMOs that came after it.

But ultimately WAR was a failure. I think it was a failure because, while it reached for new heights, it didn't get the basics correct. Chat was a nightmare, and the latency and performance were pretty bad. And who can forget the contribution bug. Not to mention that just logging into the game meant wading through a morass of splash screens and opening movies.

The real lesson of Warhammer Online is that cool design will generate hype. But polish and performance, the basic grunt work, are vital to success.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Blizzard Shutters Diablo 3 Auction House

The big news today is that Blizzard announced that they will be removing both the Real Money Auction House and the gold Auction House on March 18, 2014. (Gee, I wonder when the expansion will be released.)

As you know, I am not a fan of the AH in D3. I still didn't think Blizzard would remove it entirely, though. Props to them for being willing to reverse course as needed. I think the major turning point was probably the release of the console version of D3, which did not have the AH. The console version has been very well received.

That being said, there are some people attacking Blizzard for putting the AH in the game in the first place. I think this is misguided. It wasn't an obvious mistake at first. The AH was put in to solve the problem of third-party scams, and by all accounts it did a very good job at that.

What I think will be most interesting is to see what measures Blizzard puts in place to stop the inevitable third party sales, scammers, and spammers.  Will there be some sort of secure trading? Will trading be disabled entirely?

By and large, I believe the console version doesn't have issues with trading because you trade primarily with local players in your living room. As well, the different networks are segregated and more controlled. But I think that free trading on the PC will lead to the same problems as D2.

But perhaps that's the better outcome. The positives gained by removing the Auction House might outweigh the negatives of spammers and scams.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Proving Grounds

Until 5.4, I never realized just how much I resented the way Mists of Pandaria was turning out. I play a healer, and it just seemed like so much of Mists was healer-unfriendly. There was all this neat new content and game modes, and I had to switch to Ret to do most of it.  Brawlers' Guild, dailies, scenarios, Battlefield Barrens.

On top of that, it was so hard to gear up my offset, which made doing all this new content even more painful. The loot system in LFR makes you focus on your main spec, so you can't pick up scraps like in a regular raid. All the reputation gear used to cost gold in previous expansions, so I could have bought both main and offset. But now it cost Valor, a much scarcer currency, so all my Valor had to be dedicated to my main set.

Let's put it this way: I entered 5.4 with two i437 green trinkets in my Ret set. And that mishmash was still better than Holy for soloing.

But 5.4 has introduced Proving Grounds, and they are amazingly fun for healers!

My first attempt went pretty badly. Went through Bronze, but wiped out on Silver 5. Then I realized I was healing like an idiot, and decided to play properly. This time I beat Silver, and then wiped out on Gold 5. I spent the next couple of attempts refining strategy, and got up to Gold 9. That's where I stopped for the night.

I really enjoy it. It's not exactly like raid healing, but it is very PvE healing with a little more responsibility for the healer. You want to add a little more damage, stun a little bit, maybe even try to interrupt. As a paladin, you need to use your cooldowns, including Sacrifice.

The thing is that even if Proving Grounds don't teach you to raid heal, they teach you to heal, and to adapt your techniques to different damage patterns (damn rabbit bleed!). If you can do that, learning to raid heal is not all that difficult.

The NPCs are pretty funny, and play just badly enough to make it interesting. They miss some interrupts, don't stack, and stand in the fire. The comments on the healer threads are amusing. Some of the priests were complaining that if they Lifegrip the hunter out of the fire, sometimes he'll manage to Disengage back into it.

I've noticed some interesting conversations on whether guilds should require Proving Grounds for their raiders. I think that requiring Gold is excessive for a normal/Flex guild, but any decent player should be able to handle Silver. Requiring a Proving Grounds achievement is still better than requiring gear or raid achievements. I would break down the levels like so:

Bronze - for people completely new to healing. After this you should be able to do normal dungeons and LFR.
Silver - If you can do Silver, you're ready for Flex or normal
Gold - If you can do Gold, you're ready to try Heroic content
Endless 30 - Probably good enough to hang with the Royalty crowd

I think Proving Grounds is an excellent feature. I hope it encourages more people to try out the group-centric roles of tank and healer. Before Proving Grounds, you had to learn how tank or heal by getting tossed into real situations with other players. While there's something to be said for learning through trial by fire, a lot of people did their best to avoid that harrowing experience.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Giving Up Your Unique Points

In the last patch for The Old Republic, Bioware added two new flashpoints (4-man instances). The Czerka instances and boss fights are reasonably decent. The role-less story mode is excellent. However, the flashpoints are missing something.

All the other flashpoints in TOR have a light/dark choice. Most of them have conversations. The entire group goes through the conversation, everyone picks a choice, and the game randomly chooses a choice to play out the storyline.

The new Czerka instances are missing that element. They play like a pretty normal dungeon from WoW or similar games.

I think Bioware has listened to all the speed runners who urge people to "spacebar" through the conversations. Now there is no conversation to spacebar through. Admittedly, I only listen to the conversations the first few times I run an instance. Afterwards, I spacebar through them.

But those conversations are what made TOR flashpoints unique. I enjoyed them. Some of the conversation and choice-heavy instances are the best part of TOR.

Basically, if I wanted to run a straightforward, linear instance without conversations and LS/DS choices, I'd play WoW. I think giving up your unique points for the sake of end game efficiency is a mistake.

The Czerka flashpoints are good MMO instanced content. But they are not good TOR flashpoints.

Monday, September 09, 2013

5.4 Holy Paladin Changes

Patch 5.4 comes out tomorrow, and there are a fair number of changes for Holy Paladins. Here is a quick rundown of the major changes as I see them.

  • Tier 3 talents are rebalanced - Mastery no longer affects the Eternal Flame HoT. The HoT does tick for more healing. Sacred Shield can be maintained on 3 targets. Selfless Healer will give you a Holy Power charge when you Judge (but Judgement increased in cost) and you can get free, instant Divine Light and Holy Radiances. I like the new Sacred Shield. Selfless Healer looks powerful, but you have to change your playstyle.

  • Mana changes - Seal of Insight no longer gives back mana. Divine Plea now has no drawback. You should use Divine Plea on cooldown as soon as you have spent some mana. There is no reason to melee anymore.

  • Holy Shock improvements - Holy Shock became cheaper and the cooldown is now affected by Haste. Combined with the change to Eternal Flame, Haste might become the new stat of choice.

  • Guardian of Ancient Kings - cooldown is lowered, but only heals the target, not multiple people.

  • Glyph of Blessing of Sacrifice - removes the drawback on Sacrifice. This is now a must-have.

  • AoE Heals - had their mechanics changed to improve performance during raids. They should still heal for the same amount, but they now heal in a slightly different style.
There's probably a couple other minor changes. I'm probably going to switch to Sacred Shield. I may also try a Haste build and see how that plays. I did like the faster Holy Shocks with T14, and the new changes may bring that style of play back.

There is also lots of new content. I am very interested in seeing how Proving Grounds and Flex Raids turn out.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Next Warchief

In 5.4, Garrosh Hellscream will be deposed, and a new warchief chosen to lead the Horde. Who do you think the next warchief will be?

I think that Blizzard will not pick someone obscure. They will pick someone with a lot of name recognition, who makes sense to the average, casual Horde player. With that in mind, here are my rankings:

Front-runner - Vol'jin

Vol'jin has gotten a lot of screen time, including a full novel. He's also the driving force behind the rebellion, and has been a racial leader for all of WoW. That makes him the obvious choice.

Contender - Lor'themar

Lor'themar has also gotten a lot of screen time in MoP, and has been developed into an admirable, competent leader. However, the big negative is that he is a blood elf. The Horde's motif in Warcraft is to be the "monstrous" faction, the outsiders. Having a pretty-boy blood elf be the Warchief cuts against that, and cuts against the Horde's identity in a major way.

Contender - Thrall

Thrall was the previous Warchief, and he has very high name recognition. But he's also the one who left the Horde, and it might seem weird to just waltz back into leadership. However, the orcs will still need a racial leader. Thrall is pretty much the most important orc left, and is likely to be the orc racial leader. Having Thrall be leader of the orcs--but not Warchief--may seem odd.

Dark Horse - Sylvannas

It's Sylvannas. Massive name recognition and popularity, and cunning enough that her ascension could seem plausible. However, she's been on the sidelines for most of Mists, so it would be odd for her to come out of nowhere and grab the throne. Plus, what would she really do as Warchief? She has her kingdom and her armies over in the Eastern Kingdoms. Taking on leadership of the entire Horde seems like it would gain her a lot of trouble and not many advantages.

I would expect her to use this opportunity to throw out the Kor'koron Overseers in the Undercity. That seems like a very Sylvannas-like move to me.


That's how I see the race for Warchief. I think Blizzard is going to pick Vol'jin. He's the one they've been setting up, the one who's story arc leads to the mantle of Warchief. To be honest, picking anyone else really seems like deliberately making a twist ending, just for the sake of having a twist. That rarely works out well.

Monday, September 02, 2013

FFXIV: Launch Woes

Final Fantasy XIV has been out for a week or so. There have been two experiences with the game. The first, the actual game itself, is very good and a lot of fun. The second, trying to actually log into the game, is very unfortunate.

The problem is FFXIV was not prepared for the amount of interest. The producer has said that, since it was a relaunch of a failed game, they predicted that it would start slow, and slowly grow through word of mouth. This may have been a reasonable assumption.

I think that they got a lot of last minute sales. I don't think the vast majority of the audience realized it was a relaunch. The 1.0 launch slipped under the radar for a lot people, including myself. As well, there are so many FF games that it is sometimes hard to remember exactly which number the series is on.

In any case, the servers have been swamped. Character creation has been locked on most servers. Most NA/EU servers are full, and you cannot even log into them. Personally, I've been experimenting with random characters on the Japanese servers.

Now, there are some technical flaws that make the situation worse. The log-in queue system is not very good, it seems to only handle a few people. Most of the time, attempting to log into a server is met with a flat rejection, rather than a queue. This encourages people to spam the login, hoping to catch the small window when someone leaves the server.

The second issue is that there is no auto-logout if someone has been AFK for a while. People are logging in, and simply never logging off. As we have seen time and again in MMOs, gaining personal advantage trumps behaving in a way that would benefit the group as a whole.

Tomorrow, Square is planning to add more servers. While this will be good, I hope they don't go overboard like The Old Republic did. Overly full servers now are better than half-empty servers in a couple months. I can see a lot of people trying this game and deciding that it is not for them. It is a slower, more old-school experience, with all the inconvenience that implies.

The real lesson is that these server-based games should start limiting sales. With physical sales, you could match your copies printed to your server hardware. With digital sales, the temptation is to just sell an infinite number of copies. As pretty much every major launch in the last few years proved, that creates an unhappy launch environment. The artificial scarcity (assuming that the game is good) might even help the sales, by creating more interest and more anticipation for new sales.