Warlords of Draenor healing changes
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 March 2014, 5:38 am
I am still undecided whether I will resubscribe to World of Warcraft for at least a few months when the next expansion comes out. However I do like what I hear about the announced changes to healing in that expansion. Basically healing will be slowed down, making it less twitchy and less susceptible to both reaction time and lag spikes. At the same time the changes will force healers to think more about who to heal, because there will be less "artificially intelligent" healing.

I liked healing in vanilla WoW, where for some time I was in a serious raiding guild. To me it seems as if the changes move healing back towards the intelligent healing of vanilla WoW, instead of the twitchy healing of the later editions. The smaller raid sizes today prevent us from getting mechanics like healer rotations back (where a healer deliberately didn't cast spells for some time to regain mana). But as long as your decision who to heal matters more than your ability to press a button within milliseconds, I am happy.
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Toxic nostalgia
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 March 2014, 5:02 am
Stealth games are not part of the list of my favorite genres. I did play some, like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Dishonored, but these are more the kind of games I don't buy on release but pick up for half price at a Steam sale if the reviews are good. So I didn't play Thief. But I read a couple of reviews on Metacritic, which gave it an aggregated review score of 68, not great. And of course every single review refers to the original Thief from 1998, which has a Metacritic score of 92. And I couldn't help but wonder if the review scores would have been different if the same game would have had a different name.

I am seeing more and more games which I would consider to be of medium quality released with names of great games from the past. There are a few games that end up being about as good as their predecessors from the last century (e.g. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Deus Ex: Human Revolution), but the majority look more like an attempt to sell a middling game with an appeal to nostalgia. I don't know if that has a positive effect on sales, but it seems to me that it has a negative effect on reviews: Expectations aren't met, and reviewers end up not being able to judge a game on its own merits, because the unfavorable comparison with a great game from the past gets in the way.

I'm not sure how many people buy a game unseen just because they are nostalgic about its name. What I consider far more deceptive is the use of nostalgia on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. For Thief I at least have the option to wait for the reviews. By definition your decision about whether to back a Kickstarter project can only be based on promises. And quite often that promise is based on past greatness, somebody wanting to make a game "just like the great ". Or even worse, somebody who was a developer on some great game and now claims that this game was great because of him, and that necessarily his next game will be just as great. To me all that sounds like a recipe for leading people into bad decisions they will regret later.

I don't believe great games are the result of a single great idea that is easy to replicate, nor are they the result of the genius of a single person. The history of gaming is full of names of developers who made a great game or great series of games, only to then create a bunch of unremarkable games. And it is full of bad clone games, where somebody tried to copy a great idea but failed to make a great game. Buying or backing a game because of a name is a mental shortcut that is statistically unlikely to lead to a good result.
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Paying for not playing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 March 2014, 2:07 pm
I am a capitalist insofar as I do believe that game companies are not charities. The overall revenue they get from a game needs to be higher than the cost to produce that game plus the cost of capital. And I am open to different business models. I do not consider "pay once, play forever" to be the only viable option. For example I am quite in favor of DLCs because of what I said about the revenue needing to be higher than the cost. If a whole triple A game would require a one-time purchase cost of $100 to keep up with inflation, I'd rather get half the game for $50, and the other half in the form of five DLCs for $10 each. That way I can play through a shorter version of the game before committing the other half of my money.

I am also in favor of a particular business model which is popular on mobile game platforms like iOS and Android: You get a game for "free", but that game has only a very limited number of levels. After level 5 or so you come to a screen telling you that you unlock the remaining levels for a one-time in-app purchase. That basically is the same as a game you pay for once, with a free demo. I do not share the EU's concern about the misuse of the word "free", although I do support the idea that app stores should have warning labels about "contains in-app purchases" and a list of the most popular purchases to give an idea of the real cost of the game.

I don't mind things like the sparkly pony in World of Warcraft either. As I am not an achiever at heart, and do not even believe that you can "win" a MMORPG, I don't even mind in-game stores selling stuff that could be said to give the player some in-game advantage, and not just being decorative fluff.

Where I am a lot more sceptical is thing like the recently revealed business model for EQN Landmark, where you pay money for the resources that you would otherwise need to spend time in game to gather. Again I am not worried about that being Pay2Win. Instead what bothers me is that you are paying more for the privilege of NOT playing the game. In my previous examples you paid to get *more* content, so you could play the game *more*. If you buy resources in EQN Landmark, you pay money to play the game *less*.

And it is not that I dislike resource collection in MMORPGs. In fact I rather like gathering resources in typical MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. I also am currently playing Craft the World, a game in which you spend most of your time gathering resources. But if you have a regular MMORPG or a game about gathering resources, the game developers have an interest in making resource gathering a fun activity. I'm afraid that in EQN Landmark the game developers have an interest to make resource gathering as annoying as possible, so as to maximize the number of players who rather pay than gather.

In addition to that, I am somewhat suspicious of whether SOE is price gouging rather than covering the cost of development, capital, and some reasonable profit margin. I mean up to $99.99 for access to the alpha version of what is basically a kind of editor for a future MMORPG? Resources being sold already in that alpha version? What we have here is a pricing scheme which would be considered somewhat expensive for a release game applied to an alpha version. Shouldn't such early access come with a heavily discounted pricing scheme to make up for the lack of features and finish?

So if you were wondering why I am not playing EQN Landmark, now you know why. For a game that has "Free to Play. Your Way.®" written on its homepage, I find it far too expensive right now. If it really becomes free to play, I'll probably try it.
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Playing different games together
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 March 2014, 4:57 am
Imagine a game which consists of different parts, one part being soccer, the other chess, played on the same field. Presumably the soccer players would complain about the chess players being in the way, while the chess players would complain about not getting the quiet required for their moves. Looks like a bad idea overall. So why do MMORPGs insist of having this mix of totally different games? One of the most frequent complaints in MMORPGs is about other players "not doing it right", which in most cases is due to those other players simply playing a different part of the MMORPG. Talking in Bartle types, for an achiever, an explorer is "not doing it right", and a killer thinks the same about a socializer.

Wouldn't it be much better to separate parts of those games into new games, for example make a game just about raiding? Not only would you not be forced to play hundreds of hours or pay $60 to level up a character in order to raid, you would also presumably find only people actually interested in raiding in that game. Then for the people who like leveling up, we could have a very different game, in which leveling takes much longer, and where reaching the level cap unlocks new classes which you'd have to level up again.

If you look at great computer games, they usually concentrate on doing one thing very well. As soon as a game has several parts, the additional parts are usually not that good, or get in the way of the main game. By trying to be all things to all players, you only end up making nobody happy. We will see that probably next year, when EQ Next comes out. Right now people are very happy about EQN Landmark, which does only one thing and does it well. It isn't all that obvious if the concept is still that fun if it is dropped into a MMORPG in which lots of players have very different ideas about what the actual game is.

As an added advantage, reducing the scope of MMORPGs would also make them cheaper to produce. I think it would be financially more viable to make a focused game, which costs less, and stands out from the crowd of MMORPGs that all have the same bloated list of features.
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Shikihime Garden
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 March 2014, 8:04 am
Sometimes you read discussions on blogs whether a blogger is a journalist or not. As most questions in life the answer is neither black nor white, but some shade of grey. The most recognition my blog ever got in this area was a press pass for a Blizzcon, including the opportunity to interview a World of Warcraft developer. But in general the big game companies do not consider me as "press", as they have access to bigger publications. Small game companies on the other hand, who can't get their games written about on bigger websites or print magazines, are sending me press releases all the time. And in 99% of cases I simply ignore those, because this isn't the kind of site that publishes press releases.

But yesterday I received a press release for Shikihime Garden: "For your information, Shikihime Garden is an original hybrid browser-based game of gardening and deck-building embedded with RPG elements where players must foster lovely Shikihime (female characters with magic abilities), take care of beautiful gardens and collect a variety of cards through numerous battles. The game combines turn-based card combat and simulation gameplay with exploration and quests." Deck-building and *gardening*??? What is that? Farmville with turn-based card combat? The game is browser-based, Free2Play, and will be released on March 11. You can sign up for Shikihime Garden here.

As I said, I wouldn't normally promote Free2Play browser games. But this one definitively wins the prize for the weirdest game description I have come across this year. So I will probably try it out just for the fun of it. Turn-based combat with cards might actually be good, if I'm lucky. Otherwise I can at least enjoy the weird cultural differences of a Japanese RPG.
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Bartle's Decline of MMOs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 March 2014, 9:52 am
Richard Bartle has published a paper on The Decline of MMOs. You should read it. It is not that I agree with everything he says, or the way he says it (all but one of the citations in his paper are to himself, what a narcissist), but this is one of those must-read documents if you want to up to date on the theory of games and gaming. Many points in the analysis of how we got to where we are now are spot on. The solutions he proposes not so much: For example making lots of servers with 250 players each has obvious problems a few months down the road when server populations vary widely and the game company needs to merge servers every month. Still, the paper is well worth reading and many of the ideas are worth considering. Recommended!
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Staying well left of the uncanny valley
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 March 2014, 2:36 am
The uncanny valley is a dip in a curve showing how people react to images showing humanoids that are more or less similar to real humans. The idea is that people react well to real humans and to humanoids that clearly aren't real, but somewhere in the middle there is a valley, where people react with revulsion to almost-human things like zombies. I don't know if it is only that, or if it is just a factor, but for myself I noticed that I clearly prefer computer game graphics that are a bit further away from photo-realism. Or in MMORPG 2014 terms, I much prefer the look of Wildstar to the look of The Elder Scrolls Online. A decade back I much preferred the look of World of Warcraft to the look of Everquest 2. I prefer candy-colored worlds with characters like pink pigtailed gnomes or characters with bunny ears to worlds using only shades of grey and brown with characters that all look human. I also like cel-shading and other means to create a more comic-like look in games.

Besides uncannyness, I also see an advantage of a less realistic look in terms of the user interface. For example TESO has an ongoing discussion where players complain that they don't see the effect of hitting an enemy very well. If you have a game where hitting an enemy causes floating damage numbers to fly away from the mob you hit, you don't have that problem. But those floating numbers are clearly better suited to a comic-look world than to a photo-realistic one. In Wildstar every attack has an area of effect which is painted in color on the ground, which in a world full of colors looks quite okay, but would break immersion if your immersion is based on things looking "real".

Furthermore a less realistic look is often easier to achieve, especially with animations. If your character is supposed to look very much like a human, you need to get human movements exactly right for that to work. If your character looks like a stuffed animal, its animations can be a lot simpler and still look good. A mono-colored surface without texture can look okay in a comic world, but looks strange in a photo-realistic one.

Maybe it is just me, but I can easier get immersed in a game when that immersion is just by gameplay, and not by the game pretending to be a video-camera. I don't know if that would change if I was using virtual reality goggles instead of a flat screen. What do you think?
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The Bore-lock
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 March 2014, 8:37 am
Where does magic come from, and how does it work? If you read fantasy novels from different authors, and play fantasy games from different producers, you will get a lot of different answers to that question. As it says on the label "fantasy", the magic is just made up in the imagination of the author. While other parts of the fantasy world might follow real-world examples, e.g. a society with a real-world medieval feudal structure, magic has more freedom, and thus often more variety.

I was thinking about that when I read this rant about the Bore-lock, in which the author complains that the warlock in 5th edition D&D (they apparently dropped the "Next" label) is boring, because he works with the same rules system on magic as the wizard and sorcerer. Because if you consider the question how magic works in the context of designing and pen & paper role-playing game rules system, you have one big question to answer first: Is there only one rules system for magic, which applies with different flavors to all spell-casters? Or do different character classes have different rules systems?

Of course both are possible. It comes down to a question of design philosophy, how complex you want to make your rules system. The author of the blog post linked to above clearly prefers more complex system in which every class has a different rules system. But there are obvious advantages to less complex systems, in terms of clarity, as well as class balance. If for example the different spell-casters in your group recover their spells in different ways, they end up pulling the group into different directions. The caster who in a Vancian model "forgets" his spells after casting them will want to rest more frequently to regain them, while another class whose resources aren't linked to long rests might want to carry on.

Personally I prefer the simpler model of having only one system of how powers work. That doesn't mean that all classes become the same, because different classes can have different powers. But you don't need to keep half a dozen different rules system in your head, and the resource management of different classes is more closely aligned.
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13th Age in Belgium
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 February 2014, 3:51 am
Ravious is writing about D&D successors, and mentions 13th Age as his favorite. I actually bought 13th Age as hardcover by mail-order directly from Pelgrane Press, and it is a very interesting roleplaying rules system. But other than stealing ideas from it for my 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign, like the escalation dice I might want to use, I will not have any use for 13th Age. Because while pen & paper roleplaying in my opinion has huge advantages over massively multiplayer online roleplaying games, it also comes with one huge drawback: You need to physically gather a group of players speaking the same language around a table.

I added the language part to that phrase because for me living in Belgium that is a particular problem. If you live in the middle of the United States you probably assume that everybody around you speaks English, but over here that is not the case. In my 4E campaign only half the players speak some English, and the only reason I can play 4th edition at all is that there was a short-lived collaboration between Wizards of the Coast and a French company to translate some of the 4E books into French. Playing 4E in French isn't easy for me, as it is my third language, and I'm far from perfect in it. But it is the only possibility with the players I have, and an English-only rules system like 13th Age would be out of the question.

Language is a big problem in Belgium, as it is a small country with two main languages. I'm not sure how the northern, Flemish-speaking part of the country does role-playing games. I guess there aren't all that many translations. Do they play in Dutch using English rule-books? Or do they play all in English? Because then maybe I could find a group playing 13th Age or Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder in English. I just have no idea how.

Playing online, whether it is in the context of a MMORPG or some play-by-forum version of a pen & paper system, is not the same as sitting around a table. You lose a lot of options if you are online compared to face-to-face. But the advantage is that you can play with anybody around the world. In the case of MMORPGs you can even sometimes play with people who don't even speak a common language with you. I remember Final Fantasy XI had a chat system where you selected phrases with a menu, and the English and Japanese players each saw that chat message in their language.

I'd love to play more pen & paper role-playing games, especially in English, but here in Belgium I don't see how.
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Failure in games about building
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 February 2014, 3:01 am
Last night in Craft the World I had an unfortunate incident when I tried to snatch a dragon egg from above a lava lake. It turned out that there were more dragons around than I had thought, and their attack knocked my dwarves back into the lava lake. In the end I got the egg, but half of my dwarves were dead, with their equipment irretrievably lost at the bottom of the lava. But as I didn't turn on the permadeath option in Craft the World, new dwarves spawned, and while it took me the better part of an hour to gather the resources, in the end I had crafted the equipment and was back at full strength.

While I am still busy playing Craft the World, I read that another similar indie game about crafting and building is being played by several other bloggers: Banished, a game where you need to build up a town so that your group of exiles survives in the wilderness. And apparently failure is handled differently in that game. I've read several descriptions of bloggers forgetting something in the complex economic cycle of the game and having their population starve or die in other ways. And then you need to start from the beginning.

Now I do consider the system in Craft the World to handle failure quite good: You are definitely made aware that you messed up, and it takes some time to repair the damage if you do; but you don't have to start all over again. If on failure you always need to restart, you end up frequently repeating some rather basic and boring stuff, not just fixing your errors. Of course that depends also on the time scale of the game, it doesn't matter much if you have to restart after half an hour, but if you have to start over after being already 10 hours into the game, that would feel extremely harsh and frustrating to me.

As much as I like games about building and crafting, and am happy to see their revival (I've last seen so many building games in the 90's with the Caesar and Pharao city building series), I must admit that the more complex the building game is, the more difficult is it to handle failure. If you completely messed up basic infrastructure early in the game, starting over from the beginning might in some cases be the only viable option. Nevertheless I am not yet convinced whether in some cases it isn't the "real games play with permadeath" masochism which makes developers put in too harsh punishment for failure.
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Life choices
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 February 2014, 1:19 pm
So as to not derail the previous comment thread: Hagu posed an interesting question there:
Thought experiment, if you had to choose between two adults to hire for a professional job, and all you knew was that one was great at an MMO and another was kinda bad, wouldn't you want to hire the kinda bad? Doesn't being great at an MMO mean you have made some poor life choices?
I don't think that knowing whether somebody was good or bad at an MMO gives sufficient information about his life choices. From my own experience being good or bad at an MMO is not so much about life choices than it is about a choice what you want to do with the time you spend in game.

People who are good at MMOs frequently want you to believe that this is an incredibly difficult feat, requiring a huge amount of skill and dedication. In my experience, that is not really true. It does require *some* skill and dedication, certainly. But I am certainly not the fastest button-masher, nor did I ever call in sick to play an MMO, and I had no problems being a valued member in a hardcore raiding guild in WoW at some point in time. Having experienced that I then rather played with a more casual guild, but that was simply a matter of choice. You *can* be great at an MMO without having to neglect job and family, but then you don't get to see much of the game except the part you want to be great at.

I would however ask that job candidate at what exactly he was so great at in that MMO. I would have no problem hiring for example an experienced raid leader. You simply can't do that without having leadership and teamworking skills. So *some* skills shown in an MMO can potentially be quite relevant for a job. I'd also might want to know what his class/role is. I'd hire a healer over a dps class, because the healer demonstrated more concern for others, and a certain willingness of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
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Neither clueless nor jerks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 February 2014, 2:53 am
Imagine you are on a crowded beach on a sunny summer day and you start building a wonderful sand-castle. You put in a lot of effort to make it look just perfect. But then you notice that the other people around you aren't participating. They either just build imperfect small sand-castles, or none at all. Except for your perfect little corner the beach is just a random mess of footprints in the sand. That makes you all angry, and you start berating the other people on the beach as being clueless or jerks. But are those the only two possible explanations? I would say it is far more likely that the majority of people on that beach simply don't care. They are there to get a tan and relax, not to put any effort into sand-castle building.

If you followed that link above, the article about people being either clueless or jerks is of course about players of World of Warcraft. Blizzard recently said they would consider putting in a skill test as a requirement for running heroic dungeons, requiring a "silver" score in the Proving Grounds to access those. That is supposed to solve the problem of players in dungeons being "clueless". Talarian quotes another player who "suggests that the real problem in random dungeons are the jerks".

But just like on that sunny beach, I would say that the majority of players of World of Warcraft are neither clueless nor jerks. They are simply not interested in putting in a lot of effort. I mean, why would they? Didn't WoW teach them for hundreds of hours that progress is something that comes automatically for just playing effortlessly? The idea that at the end of simply enjoying your sunny beach or cruise holiday you would suddenly be forced to put in some effort is really quite ridiculous. You could call it a bait & switch scam. The majority of players aren't clueless or jerks, they are simply tourists. They regard the kind of people who take that game very seriously with the same bemused look as tourists on the beach give to somebody who is working hard there.

It isn't for me to decide who is right or who is wrong here. Obviously heroic dungeons and raids require players to perform at a certain level for the venture to be successful. But I can't really blame the tourists walking into them and wondering what the fuzz is all about. A performance requirement *IS* out of place in a casual game like World of Warcraft. I just seems to be part of the game because the developers failed to come up with a better idea for the endgame which would have been more fitting with the rest of the game. If WoW had that sort of performance requirement starting from level 1, the heroic dungeons and raids would fit a lot better, but then WoW wouldn't have millions of players.
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Do you want more or less item sales in games?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 February 2014, 7:38 am
Azuriel is a very confused person. He isn't quite sure whether he is FOR or AGAINST games having additional revenue streams from selling virtual items, in addition to the purchase price of the game (which might be zero). So on the one hand he is complaining if games give you that option to buy things for real money from an in-game store. He can't understand that in many cases a game has a "delayed purchase" option, where you get a somewhat shackled version for free, and need to pay a sum of money ONCE to unlock those shackles and get essentially a full game for a single purchase. Okay, so you'd assume that Azuriel hates real money item sales. But if Azuriel is against item sales in games, one would assume that he doesn't want to buy that sort of stuff for himself. So why is he complaining about a level 90 character in World of Warcraft costing $60?

The only reason to complain about those $60 boosts to level 90 is if you want to buy such a boost, and would like as many other people as possible also to buy such a boost. Simple economics: The cheaper the boost is, the more people will buy it. But if you are AGAINST boosting a character for real money, feeling that it is somehow unfair, then you should welcome that this boost is so expensive. A $1,000 Pay2Win item is not really an issue, because too few people will buy it for it to matter at all. A $10 item is much more problematic.

Boosting additional characters to level 90 is a luxury, and it is priced like a luxury good for that reason. You already get one of those boosts for free. And if you played the previous expansion, you most probably have at least one character at level 90 already. You really only need additional boosts if for some reason you want to play far more characters in Warlords of Draenor than you played in Mists of Pandaria, or if you want to play at least two characters in the new expansion that you didn't play in the previous one. There simply aren't that many people who will ever need such additional boosts.

Imagine the alternative, a boost to level 90 costing just $5. I am sure that many people, Azuriel first among them, would complain about all those "n00bs" buying their way to level 90 instead of leveling their characters up the old-fashioned way. So this is really a situation where Blizzard doesn't have any option which Azuriel wouldn't complain about. And for them it is a simple economic calculation: Everybody who buys a boost isn't spending X months leveling up that character, so every boost is a potential loss of subscription months.
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The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 10
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 February 2014, 3:48 am
We stopped the previous session with the Favorites of Selune having stormed a keep to kill an orc chieftain, but then afraid to actually charge into the room with the orcs. So this session started with them on the landing of the stairs between the floors of the keep, considering what to do. The wizardess heard the chieftain upstairs giving commands and planning an attack, and wanted to run away. The sorceress wanted to lure the orcs into an ambush. Without really having decided on a plan the group thus went back downstairs to the floor below, where they had fought the previous combat. And found that the orc shaman had wind-walked back down through the hole in the ceiling, accompanied by two orcs rappelling down a rope. Clearly the plan of the orcs was to attack the group from all sides.

The heroes thus started combat in earnest, concentrating fire on the orc shaman. The orc shaman tried to flee towards the main door, removing the bar the players had put there earlier, and starting to move away the barricade they had erected to block that door. He also shouted out to "Bruse" and "Spike" on the other side of the door to help him open the door. But with the adventurers being strong on ranged combat, the shaman died before he got the door open.

Meanwhile the dwarven warrior heroically defended the door against the orcs coming down from above, while the rogue was less successful trying to stop the two orcs that had rappelled into the room from charging the others. As an additional complication it turned out that in this fight it wasn't the group who benefited from the magical effects of the cards of the Deck of Many Things. The orc chieftain Bakrosh, who had two cards for a while, apparently had better control over the cards than the adventurers did, and used one of those cards to create an aura that made moving around him difficult for his enemies.

But as it turned out, the orcs weren't actually all that strong. One after the other they died quickly, including Khavra, the chieftain's female companion. When the main door finally was battered down from the outside, Bruse and Spike turned out to be an ettin, a two-headed giant. But seeing how the orcs were already losing the fight at that point, the two heads discussed whether to join the fight and then decided not to, and the ettin left. Before any reinforcements could arrive, the heroes had killed the orc chieftain, and put his head on a spike outside the gate.

They did find some interesting treasure: Gold, two cards of the Deck of Many Things, and two stones the size of a hand with the dwarven rune for "speak" on it. They didn't try those out yet, but they guessed that they could be used to talk at a distance. So they grabbed the loot and went back to the camp of the eladrin, because the sorceress hadn't met Berrian the eladrin leader yet.

The background story of the sorceress was that she had sensed something from the Far Realm entering this world, but the other characters in the group hadn't told her that it had been them who had let that beholder loose onto this plane. So the sorceress asked Berrian if he had seen anything, and as Berrian had his scouts watch the watchtower while the players had explored it, he was in fact aware of the beholder having left the tower and having headed north. Berrian was worried about this contact between the planes, and suggested the group check out the wizard's tower in the village of Gardmore Abbey, where they might find documents to tell them more. The group then rested with Lord Padraig's mercenaries at the watchtower, and observed from there that the orcs were leaving Gardmore Abbey. This not only was what Lord Padraig wanted, but also cleared the way into the village to the wizard's tower. With that as a possible next destination, we ended the session.
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Craft the World
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 February 2014, 3:16 am
Game reviews are frequently written by gamers for gamers. As a consequence they frequently don't bother to explain how a game works, but refer instead to well-known earlier games that work in a similar way. Thus if you look for a review of Craft the World, you will find references to Minecraft, Terraria, and Dwarf Fortress. That is all very fine, but what if you haven't played Minecraft, Terraria, and Dwarf Fortress? Although Minecraft is quite successful and famous, all three of those games are "indie" games: Low-resolution graphics (Dwarf Fortress actually has ASCII graphics), and highly complex gameplay which can appear somewhat daunting to new players. Instead of claiming that Craft the World is similar to these games, I think it would be better to say that Craft the World is a more accessible version of these games. While you might still like Craft the World if you already played the previous games, I would recommend Craft the World especially to people who DIDN'T play Minecraft or Terraria or Dwarf Fortress before.

Craft the World starts out in a genre-typical way: You are told to fell a tree, which gives you wood, which you can then craft into your first tool. In Craft the World it isn't you who is felling trees or gathering resources, instead you control first one dwarf, and later several of them. Every time you gain a level, you get another dwarf. I don't know if there is a level cap, but I did finish one map at level 10 after 15 hours, so don't expect to ever get hundreds of them. If one or several of your dwarves die, new dwarves spawn until you have again as many as your level. So your role is telling your dwarves what to do: You click on things, and your dwarves do the appropriate action; they will fell trees, mine rock, hunt animals, and gather the resources that drop as a result from those activities. Later you will also construct things like cooking fires and workbenches, which your dwarves will use to manufacture things when you tell them to.

The world of Craft the World is mostly 2-dimensional, but it has a foreground and a background. That can be a bit confusing at the start, because it isn't well explained, but you'll get the hang of it quickly. For example if you want to build a house, you first build the back walls as a continuous rectangle to determine the size of the house. Then you build more walls in the foreground which serve as floors and outer walls. Doors and furniture also go into the foreground level. If you properly enclose the space with walls, roof, and doors all around and put a totem inside, the whole ensemble counts as a shelter. Dwarves can only sleep in beds which are inside such a shelter. Note that at the start of the game it is a lot faster to create a shelter by digging down and making a cave. If you don't remove the earth background and put a hatch on the only entrance, you get a quick shelter that doesn't cost a lot of resources to build.

Using another genre convention, Craft the World has a day/night cycle, and during the night monsters appear and try to attack you. They will attack the doors of your shelter, and in some circumstances even the walls. But if you have built for example at the start of the game a simple cave and put not just one but several doors in series at the entrance, it is totally possible to remain safe inside and wait until the sun rises and the monsters turn to dust. Once you get more dwarves and have them better equipped than just with a wooden club, it is also possible to kill the monsters for xp and special resources. Once every 45 minutes or so a very big monster invasion occurs, so building defenses is a good idea.

Craft the World has a huge tech tree which in the standard game you follow from start to finish (there is a sandbox mode where the tech tree is unlocked from the start). The tech tree has better gear for your dwarves, as well as nicer furniture, food, spells, and a lot of other things. In addition to the tasks of doing the next items in the tech tree you get a few other tasks that involve exploring underground. You can find hidden rooms, and ultimately a portal room. Repairing the portal opens an exit, which will end your current game and start you fresh at level 1 on the next world. I'm currently on the second world, an arctic world where the conditions are quite different, and even the tech tree has some changes due to different resources being available. And there is a desert world after that. If you don't want to follow that campaign, you can also create worlds with your parameters of choice, determining things like size of world and climate. Every world is randomly created, you'll never play exactly the same world twice.

Besides technology there is also some magic. The spell I use the most is a magical portal which you can cast anywhere on the map to quickly teleport your dwarves there and back. Very helpful to teleport quickly to the resources you need at the moment. Unfortunately you can't cast those spells endlessly, you will run out of mana, which regenerates in real time. Fortunately mana also regenerates while the game isn't running. Or you can brew mana potions. Other spells help you find hidden rooms, or speed up regrowth of trees. There are even some combat spells.

Overall I can only recommend Craft the World very much. It is a perfect introduction to the "crafting sandbox" genre of games, with nicer graphics, dwarves who do much of the basic labor for you, and less harsh death penalties. And it is sufficiently different from other games of the genre to bring some new elements into it. Recommended!
Tobold's Blog



Should I try The Elder Scrolls Online?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 February 2014, 6:54 am
There is a number of new MMORPGs coming out, and I think I will buy both Wildstar and Everquest Next. That is not to say that I plan to spend years in those games, but at least I will buy the initial box and play the first month to then decide how much I like them. For The Elder Scrolls Online I am not so sure. I am reading reviews like this one from Clockwork, and they make me want to give the game a miss. Even the fans of TESO are making me want to not play the game, for example when I see how some flew into a rage and completely misrepresented my rather neutral post on the tutorial and starting area of the game. Up to now I have seen A) negative reviews and B) fans attacking those negative reviews, but I haven't seen a detailed and positive review yet.

My experience with TESO is limited to reading reviews, seeing screenshots, and a few YouTube videos. Personally I prefer the cartoony WoW / Wildstar style of graphics to the "let's keep the game in grey and brown tones" of games like EQ2 and TESO. The graphical style also tends to affect the user interface, for example Clockwork talks about TESO missing the floating numbers to indicate damage: Those floating numbers fit much better into a comic look than into graphics that aspire to be photo-realistic.

But ultimately I am most concerned with gameplay. And with a MMORPG my prime concern is always the combat system, because you spend so much time doing combat. The combat system was the prime reason why I didn't play that much LotRO, in spite of having paid for a lifetime subscription. I loved playing a hobbit in the Shire, but I hated that combat system where you pushed buttons and then waited for things to happen much later. That is not related to whether a combat system is twitchy and full of action, but simply to how involved you feel with combat when there is an immediate reaction of the game to your key press. So when I read that this is a problem with TESO, that could be the deciding factor not to buy the game.

I would be grateful if somebody you post a link here in the comments (Pro tip: Use HTML tags in the comment to turn the URL into a clickable link) to a detailed and positive review of The Elder Scrolls Online. I am more than aware of the negative things said about the game and would like to see the positive sides described in more detail before I make a final decision.
Tobold's Blog



Kickstarting MMOs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 February 2014, 2:31 am
Syp is looking at MMOs on Kickstarter and wonder whether any of them are interesting to him. Personally I have a related but different question: Is it actually possible to finance a good MMO via Kickstarter? To the best of my knowledge the biggest funding a computer game ever got was around $4 million, and from there to the development cost of a triple-A MMO there is still at least a factor of 10, if not 50.

I do have high hopes for Star Citizen, which recently reported getting $38 million by crowdfunding. But only $2 million of that is from Kickstarter. Other games have mixed funding schemes, where some of the money comes from investors and some comes from crowdfunding. But if you get the majority of the development money from investors, how is that still a crowdfunded game? Isn't it likely that the devs are beholden to the people who put the most money into the project? And if that isn't the fans, then the Kickstarter minority funding part to me looks very much like a cynical attempt to get some free money from eager fans.

I do believe that good games can come from Kickstarter. Or from systems like Steam Greenlight, where the fans don't have to pledge money, but at least get to express their interest in a game before it is made. But I do think that those systems are more for indie games, and less for huge and expensive games like MMORPGs. What do you think?
Tobold's Blog



The difference between games and toys
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 February 2014, 3:12 am
Syl is writing about an admin mode in EQN Landmark: "It is also safe to say that without a creative mode (meaning flying and unlimited resources without gathering), many of these wonderful servers simply wouldn’t exist. It’s not realistic for an individual player or just a small group to manage the sheer volume of growing, harvesting and gathering required. And that’s not considering the time spent on planning and coordination. More importantly, it would be considerably less fun and less motivating an endeavor for the more productively inclined." I find that discussion interesting, because for me the difference between admin mode and not admin mode is the difference between a toy and a game.

Lego is a toy. Given enough Lego bricks, you can build whatever you want within the limits of the physics of blocks and your imagination. Make those blocks virtual, and the limits change, but the result remains a toy: There is no real goal, no gameplay. It is a great expression of creativity, just like you can express your creativity with writing, painting, or composing. But it doesn't have the structured play which is the definition of a game.

But if you add gathering, suddenly a game emerges. Playing now has a structure, of planning what you want to build, gathering the necessary materials, and executing the building. Where Syl complains about the "sheer volume of growing, harvesting and gathering required" and the "planning and coordination", I see a great cooperative multi-player game in the making. To me it makes total sense if a single player could build a house, but it would require a guild to build a city or large castle. And we could have materials that are safe to gather, while others would be dangerous to gather, at the bottom of monster-infested mines. Then you get emergent gameplay between the gatherers/crafters and the adventurers protecting them and receiving gear for that.

In admin mode, Landmark would not only be not a game, there would also be no reason to run it in multi-player. Lego doesn't make for good multi-player, the different creative visions tend to come into conflict. But if there is a big gathering effort required for making a castle, not only does it make sense for the gathering to be done by multiple players. You also get a strong social interaction, as the group will have to work out how to make compromises with the artistic vision of each participant. Again we can add more gameplay features to that: Minecraft and related games usually have monster attacks at night, so your castle does not only have an aesthetic function but also a practical one.

SOE could always sell "Landmark - The single-player toy" as a separate product, with admin mode as standard, for people who just want to build without limits. But I think for Everquest Next with Landmark, as massively multi-player online games, gathering is absolutely required.
Tobold's Blog



What are these other players doing in my game?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 February 2014, 4:28 am
It is said that developers make the games they personally would like to play. I don't know if that is true. But I did observe that apparently many MMORPGs are designed from the perspective of the single player. Game companies strive to create games where you being the only player on the server would work perfectly well. In fact many games actually have features which work BETTER if you are the only player on the server, like timed monster-killing challenges which other players in the area would mess up. But if I would be as well off, or even happier, as the only player on the server, then why would I want to play this game as a multi-player title in the first place? Give me an offline, single-player game and I would have to pay less and have less trouble with login queues and the like. So if developers are making massively multi-player games, why aren't they designing them for a multi-player experience from the ground up?

Note that this doesn't only apply to quest-based MMORPGs. Whenever I see those beautiful screenshots of wonderful buildings created in EQN Landmark, I ask myself: And what now? How do these buildings play a meaningful role in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game? How are they integrated into gameplay? I have trouble imagining players in a MMORPG just running around as tourists to look at player-created buildings around the virtual world. So where is the multi-player experience of such a sandbox game?

As an article on Massively recently remarked, developers often have very limited imagination of how multi-player interaction in a virtual world could look like. After giving players the ability to kill each other, the devs run out of ideas. I recently read some blog posts about DayZ, and couldn't help but remark that in any realistic simulation of a post-apocalyptic world, many people would work together against the outside dangers. But if you make a game in which there are simply no or too few options for players to help each other, but there is a fully functional combat system, then players will end up killing each other. Simply because there isn't much else to do.

But even non-violent actions can become problematic in a multi-player game. I am currently playing an indie sandbox game called Craft the World, a mix of Terraria (2D Minecraft) and Dwarf Fortress. Great fun! But I'm not sure I'd like to have another player around me in that sort of sandbox game: Hacking down trees or digging mines has consequences, and in a multi-player environment the other players' actions are likely to have consequences for me. In a sandbox MMO the game would need to make sure that players can't deplete resources in a way which would make the game impossible to play for their neighbors.

The only sandbox MMORPG I know which is not about people killing each other and which gets many multi-player interactions right is A Tale in the Desert. And that isn't exactly a triple-A title, and is missing the whole adventuring side of the game. I would very much like a game in which there is some sort of player economy / ecosystem which supports both adventuring heroes killing monsters and other players just building stuff and living meaningful virtual lives. EQ Next might promise some of that, but I am far from sure that it will actually deliver.

I do believe the key approach is first to design the way in which players interact, before even thinking about the single-player experience. First make sure that people will WANT to have other players around them in that new virtual world, and not just as victims for killing. If it is clear from the start how the game is built up on the interaction between players, the single-player experience will follow naturally. If you can't do that, design a single-player game instead and don't slap a monthly online subscription on it.
Tobold's Blog



Can you change a brand?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 February 2014, 2:43 am
In yesterday's thread, Woody remarked:
"It seems that TESO has become the game that is cool/trendy to hate on. Amongst the more rational and balanced of observers there are two theories as to what is going on here. The first is that a number of ES fans went into the beta expecting Skyrim 2 and having never played an MMORPG before got something they were not expecting/wanting. Many of the criticisms I have read could have been applied to any MMORPG on the market. Indeed for the life of me I absolutely cannot see why people are complaining about the start of TESO when compared to other MMO's."
I found that funny insofar as it completely summarizes a previous discussion on this blog: Replace "Skyrim / TESO" with "Dungeon Keeper" and "MMORPG" by "mobile multiplayer strategy game", and you have exactly the discussion from two weeks ago here. It isn't as if the new game was an exceptionally bad incarnation of the new genre, but it receives a ton of hate because it switched genres. The majority of complaints are about features that are inherent to the new genre. And thus to the other fans, the fans of the new genre, the complaints sound rather silly.

One problem here is that it wouldn't even necessarily help if the developers would choose a different name for their new game. Zenimax could have called their MMORPG "Blobfitz" and people would still have expected a spiritual successor to Skyrim. If Rockstar would announce tomorrow a MMORPG about gangsters stealing cars, it wouldn't matter whether they called it "Grand Theft Auto Online" or something else, the expectations would be the same. If you have a history of making games of a certain brand, people expect the next game to be true to the spirit of the series.

Curiously enough this doesn't appear to happen every time. I don't remember ever reading anybody complaining that World of Warcraft was not a real-time-strategy game any more. Many long-standing series of games started out as single-player games and acquired multi-player game characteristics over the years. That didn't always work out well (think SimCity), but in general that sort of change doesn't get disputed so much. It isn't really obvious why switching from single-player role-playing game to massively multi-player role-playing game is so problematic.

In a way that is rather sad. I kind of like game studios making different sorts of games instead of an endless series of sequels. I think it is great if a company like Blizzard can decide to make a trading card game instead of a sequel of one of their existing series. But the cases of Dungeon Keeper and The Elder Scrolls Online show that it isn't just a few rabid fans, but also many so-called game journalists which are willing to give a game a bad review just because it isn't a sequel. And with bonuses tied to Metacritic scores, that sort of behavior might well end us in a world where nothing but sequels is ever produced. Do we really want that?
Tobold's Blog



The ESO tutorial controversy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 February 2014, 3:23 am
I haven't played The Elder Scroll Online yet. But my newsreader is overflowing with people fighting over the game on various blogs since the NDA dropped. Basically a lot of people played the game for an afternoon, didn't like it, and said so. And then the fans got into an angry rage at all those negative reviews and started shouting at the reviewers that they hadn't tested the game long enough. Apparently the tutorial of The Elder Scrolls Online is very long and significantly different from the rest of the game. And the fans and devs apparently don't understand why that is a problem.

Now to some extent you could say the same thing about every MMORPG. If for example you believe that the *real* World of Warcraft is endgame raids, it obviously is impossible for a new player to get a realistic experience of the game through a few hours of testing. On the other hand, the raiding endgame is only used by a minority of players. And your first day in World of Warcraft will look pretty much like your second. And third. And fourth, etc., so the tutorial can well be said to be representative of the main part of the game.

If there is a discontinuity between how the game plays in the tutorial and how the main game plays, that is far more of a problem. The Elder Scrolls Online is an expensive game which you will normally need to buy before playing, and then pay for a subscription on top of that. So a great number of people will use the beta as a free sneak preview to make a purchase decision. If what you'll see in the first few hours of that sneak preview doesn't correspond to how the game really plays, people end up making the wrong decision: Those who don't like the style of the tutorial won't buy the game although they might have liked the real game. Those who like the style of the tutorial buy the game, but then quit after the free month when they found out that the rest of the game isn't like that. The whole story reminds me a lot of Age of Conan. That game had a level-limited beta, and the experience in that part accessible in the beta was significantly different from the rest. I bought the game because I liked the beta, and then quit as soon as I found out that the rest of the game didn't work like that.

What is missing from most MMORPGs is an option to skip the tutorial. That would help a lot with a beta / preview experience. People like to try out different classes or races in a beta, and if they have to play through the same or similar experience every time, that isn't much fun. And then they are being told that the part they played through repeatedly doesn't resemble the actual game at all.
Tobold's Blog



Rails and memories
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 February 2014, 3:09 am
I played a perfectly good new MMORPG in beta this weekend. But after trying 4 classes with 4 races and 4 paths in 2 factions, I was already bored with the game. Like in nearly every other MMORPG released in the last decade, everything was on rails: You get a quest right after character creation, and then its quest, quest, quest, until you reach the next zone, where it all starts over again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Or presumably ad raideam, which isn't much better.

And it struck me that when I think back on all the MMORPGs I played, that my memories are never about those stories on rails. The things I remember are rather those moments of emergent gameplay, the kindness of strangers, doing stuff you aren't supposed to do at that level, and all that. The canned quest stories are most of the time trite and not very memorable. People remember Mankrik's wife not because of the quest story, but because of the effect it had on Barren's chat.

What I find even worse is that modern MMORPGs appear to be designed to minimize social interaction. Every class is completely independent and needs nobody until the level cap. In fact over the weekend I was sometimes annoyed to see other players, because there were challenges that required you to kill a certain number of monsters within a time limit, and those only worked well if you were alone without other players killing "your" spawns. That independence does funny stuff to class balance: As your ability to level pretty much depends solely on your damage output, a healer or tank these days has the same damage output as a dps class, making the latter somewhat nonsensical.

While the game I played was perfectly crafted and well executed, I believe that like most modern MMORPGs this playing on rails contains the seeds of its own destruction. Even if you add side-activities like crafting, housing, or jumping mini-games to the MMORPG, there are only so many quests a person can do before becoming bored. And it isn't as if there was a huge difference between doing quests in one game or another, there is just a handful of quest types, most of them involving killing X mobs or clicking on Y glowing spots. Even if the game is new, the combat system is somewhat different, and the game looks different, you find yourself in the same old sequence of running around and killing mobs day after day after day. The large majority of players will be bored with any of the new games that work like that after 3 months. And then the shrinkage of player numbers creates a negative network effect and economic problems. A while later the game goes Free2Play, then you hear of layoffs a few years later, and ultimately the game closes down.

While I learned not to trust too much in Smed when it comes to actual delivery, I do believe that he is right when he says that the future of MMORPGs is in sandbox games with more emergent gameplay. In the end, that is what memories are made of. The rails will be forgotten.
Tobold's Blog



The foolishness of the crowd
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 February 2014, 2:54 am
Steam introduced a new system which lets gamers "tag" Steam games. So you could for example tag games as being "trading-card" or "tactical shooter" or whatever else you think would be a helpful description of the game, enabling other people to find the games they like more easily. Alternatively you could tag a game with spoilers, insults, or racist remarks. Guess which one actually happened.

Of course much of that can be explained by the G.I.F.T.. If somebody is anonymous and doesn't need to fear any consequences, then he can express even a mild annoyance he might have with a game in the most extreme terms. And if a big company decides to give him a big audience for even his vilest thoughts, that actively encourages him to write all sorts of offensive stuff. The more offensive, the better, because it attracts an even bigger audience.

Part of the problem is that the internet is full of opportunities to express your opinion. And most people don't want to spend all day writing what they think about a product on dozens of different sites. So while a game might sell a million copies, only a few hundred people will bother giving it a review score or tag on any given site. That makes those "user reviews" and tag systems extremely vulnerable to attacks by small groups. A single person with good writing skills on a popular gaming forum can organize a review attack on a game for any minor perceived failing or just for fun.

Now Valve probably imagined that by allowing users to tag games on Steam, they had found a cheaper solution than to hire some people to give tags to games. I think they are wrong. Sooner or later they will be forced to introduce a system of reporting for inappropriate tags and tag moderation. Which in the end probably takes up more man-hours than coming up with their own tagging system. The internet is an evil place full of jerks and idiots. You just can't give them uncontrolled freedom of expression.
Tobold's Blog



Pricing games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 February 2014, 6:02 am
Derek Smart is a game developer who achieved the unlikely feat of being more famous for the flame wars he produced over the years on the internet than for the games he made. His latest game Line of Defense Tactics - Tactical Advantage just came out on Steam and iOS / Android. On Steam the game costs $24.99 with 25% off for a limited time. On iOS and Android the exactly same game is Free2Play: Download for free, play the first three missions, then buy the rest of the campaign for $4.99, plus there are other options in the shop. This difference in pricing has made some people very upset. And Derek Smart being Derek Smart replied to that with a sarcastic calculation on how you get from the mobile game price to the Steam price:
Base game campaign on mobile: $4.99
Skirmish NightBridge mode: $1.99
1000 CEP: $3.99
Advanced Weapons Pack: $4.99
All the above bundled into the Steam release: $15.96
+ PC forums (like this) pain and suffering rider: $4.99
+ because it's PC and we don't care about Linux: $2.00
+ just because we can (due to the inevitable Gold rush): $2.04
Grand Total (without tax): $24.99
And, get this, for a limited time only, you get it for 25% off!!! So what on Earth are you complaining about?
Sarcasm doesn't travel well on the internet. So now there is another flame war ongoing about this.

What I found most interesting is that apart from the snarky remarks the story proves that you just can't please people. If you release a game with a Free2Play business model, you will get attacked for that display of greed, and everybody says that the game should have a single price. But if they hear that single price, they all are even more unhappy.
Tobold's Blog



Maybe we aren't complaining about the right thing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 February 2014, 9:59 am
Over the last few weeks I've read a lot of blog posts on The Elder Scrolls Online in my newsreader. I've repeatedly seen mentioned that the game cost $200 million to make, a number that I consider to be unconfirmed. I've seen multiple people complaining about the monetization of the game, for example the collector's edition, or having both a subscription and an item shop. And from some people breaking the NDA I've read comments that the game isn't actually all that good, or at least nothing special. Overall all those comments don't affect me at all, other than reminding me that pretty much the same was said about many other MMORPGs before: They cost too much to make, are too expensive for the players, and aren't all that good. And I was wondering if there isn't a common link behind all those complaints, other than that this is the internet and people always rant on the internet.

As I mentioned before, a game needs to create revenue which is greater than the sum of the development cost and the running cost. And while pretty much every number you've ever read about the development cost of a MMORPG is disputed, we do know that making MMORPGs is rather expensive. If you make a game that costs over $100 million to make in development cost alone, and add the cost to run the game and do customer support, you need a lot of players paying a lot of money for a long time before that pays out economically.

Now I never ran a game studio or developed a game myself, and I am well aware that it isn't easy. But from various stories one hears, especially when a studio goes belly-up, there is a lot of bad project management going on in game development. There is feature creep, stuff being added to the game before the core is even finished. There are sudden changes of direction, with lots of work being thrown away. And there is a lot of bad communication, turning potential customers off from the game before it is released.

I wonder if we should start complaining about bad project management instead of complaining about the symptoms of bad project management. If a game isn't all that good, but did cost so much to make that the devs are forced to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of every player, that to me appears to be just a consequence of bad project management. If games were better planned and made, they result would be better games that cost less to make and can thus be cheaper. Maybe competence is more important in a game developer than just passion.
Tobold's Blog



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