Recognizing the traps
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 January 2015, 8:44 am
A commenter this week said he was "burned by ArcheAge" and asked "How how much time and resource do you waste on a Free2Play game before you realise its Pay2Win?". My answer to that question is that this depends very much on your familiarity with Free2Play concepts. Whatever semantics you want to use, but Free2Play games definitively do want to seduce / trick / trap you into spending more than you intended. If you can avoid those traps, you can actually get more game for less money than in a Buy2Own business model. If you fall into those traps, you can get burned.

My recommendation would be to download a large number of "free" games on whatever mobile platform you have, phone or tablet, Apple or Android. As the games are not very elaborate or deep, you can easily play several of them in sequence. And you'll quickly learn how the same traps to incite you to spend money appear over and over in different guises. You can also learn a lot of those tricks by just watching some relevant YouTube videos like this one.

Once you are trained to recognize the traps, it becomes a matter of routine to avoid them. And you'll easily be able to recognize the same traps in more elaborate PC or console games.

P.S. While the Elder Scrolls Online is not going "free" to play, it will make the subscription optional from March 17th on. "Optional subscription" means that subscribers get virtual items and services that non-subscribers don't get automatically. So there will be a shop for virtual items and services, designed in a way that somebody might consider continuing to pay a subscription to get them. Which means ESO will have the same sort of seduction / tricks / traps as a Free2Play game. Buyers beware!
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Buying blindly
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 January 2015, 2:43 am
One reason why I am okay with the Free2Play business model is because I trust myself to handle it intelligently. I'm never going to spend thousands on a game, and if I end up paying as much for a "free" game as a full-price game would cost it was because I got as much enjoyment out of the game, or even more than I get from a full-price game. My buing decisions are informed, and commensurate to what I am getting out of the game. The key point is that I can start playing for free, and see whether I like the game, and gain a good estimate of the value of any virtual goods or services before I buy them.

Via the Battle.net launcher I received yesterday an offer by Blizzard to buy the $40 founder's pack for Heroes of the Storm. This is exactly the opposite of what I am describing above: I need to pay first to get beta access to the game, and I have absolutely no idea of the in-game value of the heroes, skins, and gold that is contained in the pack. I don't even know if I will like the game.

The best I can say about this offer is that it isn't quite as outrageously priced as some other founder's packs I have seen, and that I have more confidence in Blizzard to actually deliver a polished game in the end than I have in some of the other companies offering those deals. Some people already spent hundreds of dollars on Star Citizen. If that game fails to deliver on the hype, which given the high level of hype is nearly certain, some people will be severely disappointed and regretful.

Pre-purchase plans are bad enough, paying before the game comes out and you could read the reviews. But at least I've seen many pre-purchase offers on Steam where you could either get a discount for pre-purchasing or some other added value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm I am asked to pay $40 now for a game that will be free on release. I much prefer playing the game on release, when it is also in a more finished state. I'd rather miss out of some "exclusive" skin, or pay a bit more later, after having made sure that what is on offer is exactly what I need. I think buying games blindly is a bad idea, and buying virtual goods and services of a Free2Play game blindly without having first played the game is an even worse idea.
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10 minutes, twice a day
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 January 2015, 3:57 am
Over the years I have been subscribed to various MMORPGs for a long time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have played them every day during that subscription period. If you don't have much time, starting up a MMORPG usually doesn't make much sense. These aren't games that usually play well in chunks of 10 minutes, as they are designed to be relatively time-consuming. Warlords of Draenor is a big change in that respect: On a day where I don't have the time to play World of Warcraft, I would still log in for 10 minutes, twice a day.

The reason for that is the garrison sub-game, which is principally based on real time, not play time. You have a garrison cache which slowly accumulates up to 500 garrison resources, at a rate of 1 resource per 10 minutes. You have various building where you can give 7 work orders per level of the building, and each work order takes 4 hours. And you are sending followers on missions which last from 30 minutes to 10 hours. If you don't log on at all for several days, first your followers are all unemployed, then after about 3 and a half days your garrison cache reaches its cap and all the work orders of even level 3 buildings are done. At that point your garrison stops producing anything useful until you log on, send out your followers again, empty your cache, and start new work orders. Oh, and in addition your mine and herb garden spawn resources once per day.

If the reason that you don't have time is that you are working long hours with no access to a gaming computer, which is a likely scenario for an adult, you can still log in once before work and once after work and get pretty much everything set up again in 10 minutes each, shorter if you don't have alts. At this rate your garrison resource production is always at maximum, and by preferring long duration missions even your followers are productive for most of the day.

As I said, MMORPGs are generally designed to be time-consuming. At the level cap you usually need to put in quite some time to achieve some reward that is still useful for you. Compared to that the reward payout of a garrison per hour of play time invested is pretty fantastic. The downside is that by playing more, you can't advance much faster. For example it takes 1,200 resources to upgrade a barracks to level 3. With the garrison cache, lumber mill, and trading post you'll get those resources in around 3 days of just waiting around. But if you decided to get those resources by farming rare spawns, you'll get only around 15 per rare killed, and would pretty much need to kill every rare spawn in the game for one upgrade. Add all the treasures and quests that give resources and you'll have another building upgraded, and have run out of options.

To somebody familiar with city building / village building / farm building games on mobile platforms like The Tribez or Hay Day, that 10 minutes, twice a day mode of gameplay will be very familiar. But then these games don't have a subscription. While I would consider having to wait for hours for progress to be better than having to grind trivial content for hours for progress, the question is nevertheless how good this model works for World of Warcraft. 10 minutes, twice a day, makes 10 hours per month, which at $15 per month seems pricey. So the garrison is unlikely to be the sole reason for anybody to keep on playing. Even if you can get epic gear and other rewards for your character, those rewards aren't doing you any good if you don't play that character. But for a "weekend adventurer" with little time during the work week, the garrison is certainly a big plus.
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Keeping the lights on
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 January 2015, 3:19 am
Clockwork from Out of Beta is talking about commercialization of games. Quote: "I think it comes down to the intention of the developers when they are making the choice as to whether or not include a piece of content. If the developer is genuinely out of money to dedicate and needs to release, I see no problem with cutting content that they simply can't pay for. ... However, if the developer has already finished the majority of the content piece and will have it ready for release soon after and hold it back purely to sell it for more later, then I start to get a little annoyed."

Basically Clockwork wants game studios to only make as much money as is needed to keep the lights on. Which is a rather bad idea, I'd even go as far as calling it dangerous. What we need is spectacularly successful games where the game companies make money by the boatload. And selling more content over time is one valid strategy to get there.

The reason why we need those blockbuster games is the reality that so many games fail financially. If a company sets out to make a game, they are aware that there is a very real possibility that the game will never even pay for the development cost. If the best they could hope for was to break even, why would they even bother? The reason why we have such a big choice between many different MMORPGs to play today is that Blizzard at one point made a billion dollars of profit per year. If the financially most successful MMORPG in the world would just have kept the lights of the development studio on, many of today's games simply wouldn't exist.

To make a game you need capital from investors, and you need manpower. Investing in a business like games or movies is a high risk venture. The reason why you risk your money in that instead of buying treasury bonds is that there is a chance to get filthy rich. And the reason why developers program games instead of software for a bank is because they too dream of becoming famous for having created a blockbuster title or even rich.

I am opposed to a culture of entitlement where players want games and more content, but do not want to pay for all that. Let game companies pursue whatever commercialization strategy they want. If a game comes out at a certain price with a certain amount of content, you should decide whether that content is worth that price. Whether the development studio is profitable or not should not figure in that decision.
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What is difficulty?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 January 2015, 2:50 am
2014 was a good year for indie games, there were literally thousands of them released for PC and / or mobile platforms. In several cases the reviews or even the advertisement of the game itself praised the game for being "difficult", an attractive proposition for game veterans tired of trivial games. But my experience with those "difficult" games was a disappointing one; apparently I have a different definition of what "difficult" means.

In my definition a person who is more intelligent or more skilled in gaming would do better on the first try in a difficult game than a person who is less able. I found remarkably few games to which that description would fit, although for example some puzzle games certainly qualified. But in the overwhelming number of cases I found games in which the basic gameplay was exactly as trivial as in mainstream games; and then the game hit you with an unfair surprise you couldn't possibly have foreseen, and then put a harsh penalty for failing on that. The so-called "difficulty" then is remembering the unfair traps the next time.

I have no problem with for example the difficulty of a jump-and-run sequence being that you need to jump at exactly the right point in time, with a very narrow window of opportunity. That is difficult. If the game then forces me to replay the 15 minutes up to that jump before I can try again, that is not difficult. It is just annoying. Jump-and-run sequences are also a good example of the game giving you good feedback: You usually can tell if you fail whether you jumped too early or too late. Far too many games have failure modes which don't give you much or any feedback. You fail, but you don't know why, so other than random trial and error you can't improve.

I like difficult games. I don't necessarily like unforgiving ones. And I certainly don't like having to replay the same trivial shit over and over, just because there is one unforgiving bit at the end of it.
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WoW status report
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 January 2015, 3:04 am
My current "main" character, a fury warrior, reached level 100 this weekend. I had the resources to upgrade my garrison to level 3 and fill the new slots, but not yet to upgrade the buildings. You can get resources from rare spawns or treasures, but that is rather limited, so the main way to get the resources for your garrison is just waiting in real time. I have a level 2 lumber yard and a trading post, both of which produce resources, but still I'll have to wait quite a while until everything is level 3.

Other than the garrison I'm not really enchanted by the possible activities at the level cap. I still haven't done a single dungeon, which tells you how low my interest in group PvE is. And other than that there isn't much. I can do a daily slow grind for Apexis crystals, and get an epic after nearly 3 weeks. This and similar game design elements suggest to me that everything is designed with having in mind that the next expansion is 2 years away. Progress slowed to a crawl, I'm not all that interested.

My other two characters are level 95, because I had decided they both needed a level 2 lumber mill. The frost mage is fun to play, the shadow priest not so much. Sometimes I'm doing the same content with all three characters, like getting a specific follower, and the shadow priest definitively is weakest in solo combat. He is also the only one who is really waiting for cooldowns, doing ineffective Mind Flays while waiting for the decent spells to be active again. In comparison the other two classes constantly have their hotkeys light up to show yet another bonus spell / power they now can do instantly and without resource cost. Resource cost is a joke anyway for the spellcasters, I have never seen my mana bar other than 100% full on either caster. Anyway, both level 95 characters now also got their barracks to level 2, and the bodyguard certainly will help that shadow priest. The bodyguard is kind of overkill for the other two.

While I did the same quests in the first zone with all three characters (which you kind of have to for your garrison), after that there are enough quests for at least 2 different paths to level 100. By choosing different outpost buildings you get different quests, so there isn't too much overlap. While questing I also gather timber, treasures, and rare spawns, so there is a good deal of variety. Overall I'm having fun, but mostly with the leveling part. Not sure how long I will keep playing once all three characters are at the level cap.
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Veteran rewards
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2015, 7:28 am
Apparently Blizzard is sending out real world packages with a physical object as reward to people who started playing World of Warcraft within the first 60 days and then never unsubscribed. Unsurprisingly that causes a controversy. Quote: "There is certainly merit to a company like Blizzard wanting to thank players who have given them somewhere around $1800 in subscription fees and $200-$300 in box purchases. That's a damn loyal customer. At the same time, however, this can tacitly sending a message to newer players that they just aren't quite as special or held in as high of esteem as the older ones. There's a tough balance to be struck".

No, it isn't.

If you give somebody $2,000 you *are* special to him and held in high regard. If you used the donate button on my blog today to give me $2,000, you would be special to me, and I would have no problem sending you a parcel with a gift, assuming the gift plus shipping costs me less than $50 and I get to keep the remaining $1,950. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
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A comment on the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2015, 6:01 am
As I said before I will not be able to play any 5th edition D&D in the foreseeable future, because that edition only exists in English, and half the players in my group only speak French. I proposed to run the Starter Set with them anyway, but they preferred sticking to 4E. Okay, but I got the 5E Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for Christmas anyway, more out of a theoretical interest in where D&D is going. I understand 5E is selling very well, and I assume that this is because it is effectively a much better edition for new players than previous editions were. Less math, less rules, more imagination, and that without most of the silliness that OSR offers.

But one thing struck me as rather strange in the Dungeon Master's Guide: If you open a page at random, chances are that there will be a table on that page with instructions on how to produce a random result from that table by dice rolls. Do you need a NPC villain for your game? Roll one up randomly from a series of tables! Need a complete dungeon? We have random tables for that too! And for the monsters you'll meet, the treasures you'll find, the diseases you will contract, or what objects you'll find flushed down in the toilet.

I hate random tables. They result in a play experience for the players that is not very coherent, for example by creating a dungeon full of random monsters where it is hard to explain why they would live together in this form, waiting for the players to arrive. Random collections of rooms with monsters and treasures do not form any sort of sensible ecosystem. And if the content of the next room is random, players don't need to think or plan ahead.

Of course you'll tell me that rolling randomly on these tables is optional, and selecting NPC traits on purpose instead of rolling a dice is still possible. But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination. Ultimately a game like that could better be played with a computer as dungeon master, as the system eliminates the need for the DM to create a story. Random tables work directly AGAINST the main advantage of a tabletop RPG over a computer RPG.
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Free isn't free
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 January 2015, 12:13 pm
If you are a very literal minded person, you might wonder why MMORPGs that failed to attract a sufficient number of subscribers then go "free to play". Surely free is less than a subscription, so the game should make even less money, shouldn't it? Well, free isn't free, and a move to Free2Play can triple revenues.

One of these very literal people is Keen, who is stating that we're willing to pay for value, so we don't need "free" MMORPGs. Like anybody with an interest in economics, I very much agree that people are willing to pay for value. Keen says: "Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.". Right, but what exactly do game companies charge for, and under what circumstances will that dissuade people from playing?

Subscription games charge for access to the game after the usual first free month. Meaning you bought a game for full price, and then they charge you extra for actually playing it after one month. It is pretty easy to see how that can dissuade players, who feel they should have the right to play a game they paid full price for. "Access to the game", paid for by month, also doesn't have the same value to every potential customer. Obviously if you play few hours per month, that monthly access might look rather expensive. If you disagree with that, try to think of the reverse case: What if the game charged you for access by hour? In that case the person playing a lot would find access more expensive than the person playing very little.

In a Free2Play game, access to the game is given away for free. But that is where free ends. If that is all you need, that is obviously a great value proposition. But if you want a larger inventory space, more characters, sparkly ponies, and other virtual goods in the game, you will need to pay. To somebody who plays not very much, that could well still look like a great value for money. In the subscription game he could very well have to pay WITHOUT getting the virtual goods he wants, because they are locked behind a time wall, for example by requiring a certain time investment into raiding.

Free isn't free. It is pay what you want for whatever from the shop that you want. That dissuades a lot less people than the paying for access business model. MMORPG players aren't cheapskates, they know what they want, and are willing to pay for value. Which is why we are discussing when the 2014 crop of subscription games is going Free2Play. Most people decided that just access to the game wasn't value enough to pay for.
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The dream of community
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 January 2015, 3:46 am
In response to my previous post on increased interaction with the world of WoW, Gerry Quinn asked whether there was also increased interaction between players, presumably the selling point for a multiplayer game. The answer is clearly that there is less and less interaction between players over the history of multiplayer online role-playing games. Many games go to great lengths to minimize player interaction, and many players think that hell is other players. How did that happen, and why didn't these games live up to their promise of community?

Now many people who were active in the early days of online games in the 90's will tell you that something went wrong over the last 20 years, and will maybe offer one of several different explanations of what it was that went wrong. Personally I believe that it was the original promise that was wrong from the start, and things moved from an unrealistic idea towards reality. The reality is that people don't necessarily want to form a community in an online game.

In the early days of the internet, the population of the internet was unnaturally homogeneous: The only people with access were those who had access to a mainframe in an university. I played LPMUDs on a  green (or amber) text on black background mainframe terminal, or used that terminal to chat on BBS bulletin boards. The people I met online were from different countries, but they were predominantly young, well educated, and not poor, because that is the kind of person going to university. If your experience of the internet is one of a place where everybody you meet is socially compatible to you, it is easy to start dreaming of the type of community you could build. But that dream is built on a bad premise, a false experience with a too narrow and not representative sample size.

Then "AOL ruined the internet", as it was said at the time, by letting in everybody else. Suddenly you had a much wider diversity of ages, education levels, and social classes than before. And the history of mankind is one of constant segregation, often self-segregation. People naturally tend to form communities with others who are like them, and avoid people who are not like them, or even consider people not like them as enemy.

Game companies like their games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, because more possible customers usually results in more money. But trying to force more interaction between people who wouldn't naturally have formed a community tends to fail. The core beliefs of one group of people might well be offensive to another group of people and vice versa. And real world conflicts like the political strife between left-wing and right-wing people can spill over into game communities. And if all ages can be online, there is the eternal worry of "we have to protect the children" from real and imagined dangers. As a result we get games in which chat is at the very least filtered, or even totally disabled. We get game systems in which things like "kill stealing" or "ninja looting" are technically impossible. And we get group content where players need neither talk to each other to set up a group, nor to play together as a group. The player economy is handled with an auction house system, so people do not need to talk to each other to trade. And most of the content of most MMORPGs is best played solo. Playing a multiplayer player game alone is more and more enabled, and direct player interaction isn't encouraged.

As I said, interaction between people online today is now more similar to interaction between people offline, and thus in a way more "natural". That is bad news for the utopians, but I don't see that trend reversing. We simple don't have the same pre-screened population any more that would have made a larger community possible.
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Interacting with the world of World of Warcraft
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 January 2015, 3:58 am
Warlords of Draenor is the 5th expansion for World of Warcraft, so a lot of people who aren't playing assume that it is pretty much like the original game and the other 4 expansions. But when playing through the leveling content of Draenor, a subtle but important change is visible: There is far more interaction between you and the world than in the previous 10 years.

Of course that is "far more" compared to not much at all. The world of WoW always had mostly monsters to interact with, and some gathering nodes. Other than that there were very few items you could interact with. Basically if you could click on something, it was part of a quest you had. Apart from a few treasure chests, the world was barren of things you could touch. The quest focus also was very true for monsters. Yes, you could always kill monsters without having a quest for them, but usually there was not much reason to do so. Rare spawn monsters did not necessarily drop anything interesting, and as they had long spawn times, you didn't come across them all that often.

In the new zones of Warlords of Draenor, this has much improved. The most visible aspect (because they show up on your mini-map), are the rare spawn monsters, which now aren't rare at all any more. Compared to previously they now offer more interesting fights, feeling a bit like soloable dungeon bosses. And they drop more interesting loot, plus garrison resources. Cleverly they do so only the first time you kill them, so people don't farm the same spawn repeatedly.

In addition to that there are now lots of hidden treasures, recognizable by a purple glow. Some of them are quite good, offering better quality items than you would get by questing in the same zone. There are also resources, toys, and other interesting fluff items. Which means that today it makes sense to actually look around in the ancient ruin you are exploring for some quest, because by looking you might find some nice extra rewards. On the other hand I must say that some of these treasures are a bit too well hidden. But of course there are addons which show all Draenor treasures, as nothing ever remains hidden or secret in a massively multiplayer game.

While I unlearned all my gathering skills, which have become obsolete in this expansion, I still spend a good amount of time gathering timber. So between rare spawns, treasures, bonus objectives, and timber, there is now quite a lot of extra stuff other than quests to do in the WoW zones. A clear improvement, and one has to wonder why it took them 10 years to get there.
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Everything is Pay2Win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 January 2015, 3:02 am
One of the big lessons of the last years in online gaming is that the business model that works for the market leader does not necessarily work for the average game, because market leader benefits from economies of scale which are not easy to reproduce. Monthly subscriptions work very well for World of Warcraft, but not so well for all other MMORPGs. And the business model of League of Legends, which only requires a very small amount of money from each player because there are so many millions of them, isn't recommended for other games. That poses a problem for many online game companies. How exactly are they supposed to make money? Quote from SOE's John Smedley on Twitter (via Azuriel) about a Planetside 2 monetization feature: "sorry but we are actually trying to make money. I don't consider it a money grab.".

The discussion about game monetization is full of loaded terms like this "money grab", and "Pay2Win". But as there are no clear definitions, every attempt to make money can be called a "money grab", and everything sold in an online game can be called Pay2Win. I mean, World of Warcraft is obviously a Pay2Win game. If my goal in life is to collect the maximum number of mounts and pets and get the achievements for that, the fact that many mounts and pets can only be had for real money gives a clear advantage to the "wallet warriors" of the mount collecting community. Even clearly cosmetic items can turn an online shooter game into a Pay2Win Hat Fortress 2.

This has to do with the fact that games don't have unique win conditions any more. A clear win conditions implies that there is a way to lose a game, and because people hate losing game developers have been removing clear win conditions from games for quite a while now. Only 1.3% of Wildstar players have killed even just one raid boss last year. Even World of Warcraft's casual-friendly LFR raids didn't turn a majority of WoW players into raiders. So as much as people discuss it, raiding and gear progression clearly is just "a" win condition among many others, and games are full of "achievements" for pretty much any possible activity in an online games these days.

Economics tell us that players maximize utility as a consumer, that is they spend money on what is of utility for them. A sparkly pony is of more utility to a mount collector, which makes a mount collector more likely to buy one. But if everything in a game can be a win condition, then everything you can buy in a virtual item shop can be Pay2Win. If looking great is your win condition, buying cosmetic fluff items is Pay2Win.

People saying "online games should only sell cosmetic items" are in fact saying two things: That their personal win condition doesn't involve cosmetic items, and that they don't want their personal win condition to depend on real money. The hat collector with the same attitude might say that he prefers the item shop to sell guns instead of hats. The WoW mount collector would prefer Blizzard to sell epics instead of mounts, and so on. Ultimately what everybody is saying is that they want somebody else to pay for the game they are playing. And obviously that can't possibly work.
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Blogging and mass market games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 January 2015, 3:53 am
Over the past months I've regularly been playing a game called Spellfall on my iPad. And I haven't blogged about that at all, because chances are that you never heard of that game. On the other hand, going back to World of Warcraft has visibly increased my output of blog posts, because everybody knows WoW. When blogging about WoW I don't feel as if I am talking into a vacuum or an audience of blank stares. It isn't as if my experience in some mass market game is in any way more meaningful than my experience in some unknown game; but it sure is easier to write something your readers can relate to if you write about a game that millions of people are playing or have played.

While saying that blogging is dead is somewhat exaggerated (nothing that isn't centrally organized ever dies on the internet), the best years of game blogging certainly appear to be behind us. There are fewer blogs around, and fewer people reading them. Google inadvertently (or on purpose to promote Google+ ?) delivered a severe blow on blogging by shutting down Google Reader. And other less erudite platforms for self-expression, like Twitter, are flourishing at the expense of blogging.

But in the specific field of game blogging, and even game journalism (which isn't doing so great either), I am wondering in how far the decline is related to the splintering of the market for games. 2014 wasn't exactly a great year for mass market games, and many of the most hyped titles ended up on lists of the greatest disappointments. Meanwhile the number of games on Steam and mobile platforms exploded. Nobody has the time to play all the critically acclaimed indie games, and however great they are they rarely reach mass market status. And if we all play different games, it becomes a lot harder for us to talk about shared experiences.
Tobold's Blog



Blogging and mass market games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 January 2015, 3:53 am
Over the past months I've regularly been playing a game called Spellfall on my iPad. And I haven't blogged about that at all, because chances are that you never heard of that game. On the other hand, going back to World of Warcraft has visibly increased my output of blog posts, because everybody knows WoW. When blogging about WoW I don't feel as if I am talking into a vacuum or an audience of blank stares. It isn't as if my experience in some mass market game is in any way more meaningful than my experience in some unknown game; but it sure is easier to write something your readers can relate to if you write about a game that millions of people are playing or have played.

While saying that blogging is dead is somewhat exaggerated (nothing that isn't centrally organized ever dies on the internet), the best years of game blogging certainly appear to be behind us. There are fewer blogs around, and fewer people reading them. Google inadvertently (or on purpose to promote Google+ ?) delivered a severe blow on blogging by shutting down Google Reader. And other less erudite platforms for self-expression, like Twitter, are flourishing at the expense of blogging.

But in the specific field of game blogging, and even game journalism (which isn't doing so great either), I am wondering in how far the decline is related to the splintering of the market for games. 2014 wasn't exactly a great year for mass market games, and many of the most hyped titles ended up on lists of the greatest disappointments. Meanwhile the number of games on Steam and mobile platforms exploded. Nobody has the time to play all the critically acclaimed indie games, and however great they are they rarely reach mass market status. And if we all play different games, it becomes a lot harder for us to talk about shared experiences.
Tobold's Blog



Game individualization
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 January 2015, 3:25 am
Once upon a time games were played on computers and consoles that weren't connected to anything. Those games got pirated a lot. So with the internet and broadband access becoming more prevalent, games became more connected as well. Game companies told us that this was to enable online multi-player, but in reality this was mostly a move against piracy and the resale of games. If a game is not a product but a service, it is easier to control that only people who paid play it, and it is easier to block reselling.

But this connected gaming had an effect on game design as well. Previously games frequently had lots of options with which to individualize the game, for example difficulty settings. Much of that has been lost. If you are online with several other players in the same virtual world, the world cannot be individualized easily to each player. In a single-player game you can imagine a difficulty setting which alters how much health an orc enemy has, in the multi-player version the orc has the same health for every player.

Of course if you make the virtual world big enough, people can still to some extent individualize their game by choosing to do different activities. One player is raiding in World of Warcraft, another is fishing, and the two activities don't have the same degree of challenge or the same need for time investment.

But overall I think the lack of individualization is a real loss. Just this week there was a discussion on this blog how some people felt that leveling was too fast, others thought it too slow. And there is an eternal discussion whether some specific content like heroics or raiding is too hard or too easy, whether the rewards are handed out too quickly or too slowly, and so on.

So I was wondering whether this lack of individualization in virtual worlds is really necessary. Why does the orc has to have the same amount of health for every player, and give the same amount of xp? Why can't I have a difficulty setting in my online game where I play through the same content as everybody else, but can choose whether I want the monsters have only half their normal health, or up to twice as much? Why can't I choose an option to level at half speed or double speed? Why can't I get soulbound epics faster or slower than normal? It isn't as if one could actually "win" a MMORPG in PvE, so why should I care if another player has an easier or harder time than me in the game, if that is what he prefers?
Tobold's Blog



Level compression
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 January 2015, 3:37 am
I leveled my mage from 85 to 90 in a weekend, and that without playing excessively. Most of the speed clearly came from the changed math of Pandaria xp gain. But I also noted another interesting effect: The Mists of Pandaria expansion has only 5 levels, like Cataclysm, but unlike the 10 levels of Warlords of Draenor. But Draenor isn't twice as big as Pandaria, they just cut the same amount of content into bigger or smaller level chunks. And that makes a big difference on rest xp.

Rest xp are given in "bubbles", each being 5% of a level, with a maximum of 30 bubbles, or a level and a half. As rest xp apply only to monster kill xp, but not to quest xp, and you get about as many quest xp as kill xp, my overall Pandaria xp looked like this: I got from 85 to 86 by the math changes, which left me just 1 xp short of 86. And then I didn't even manage to use up all of my rest xp in Pandaria, as I got 1.5 levels worth of rest xp for my 1.5 levels worth of kill xp and 1.5 levels worth of quest xp.

In Warlords of Draenor your rest xp are worth less, as a level worth of rest xp is just 10% of the expansion, while in the previous two expansions it was 20%. On the other hand Draenor is handing out more xp in other ways: You can get character xp from follower missions, and you get xp for mining or collecting herbs in your garrison without even having those professions.

I understand that many people are interested in fast leveling. If you believe the game starts at the level cap, you might be in a hurry to get there. In the case of my mage I appreciated not having to spend much more time in old content before being able to enter Draenor. On the other hand I am more of a "the game ends at the level cap" guy, I'm likely to unsubscribe once my three chosen characters are at level 100. And in Draenor I feel like I'm already leveling too fast, I'm only half way through the second zone with my warrior and already level 96. I find it somewhat annoying that I'm outleveling the available quest content. Especially since some things like gaining followers are linked to the main story advancement and there is a disadvantage to skipping whole zones.

While World of Warcraft has an option to totally turn off xp gain, I would love an option to only slow down leveling, for example by turning off only the rested xp bonus. I don't think that is currently possible.
Tobold's Blog



Crowded Pandaria
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 January 2015, 4:41 am
As I listed in a previous post, my general plan for Warlords of Draenor is to level 3 characters to 100: Warrior, Priest, and Mage. The Warrior got boosted to 90 for buying the expansion and is now level 95. The priest was the only character I leveled to 90 in the previous expansion, and is now level 93. But the mage was only level 85, although apparently through patch changes he ended up being 1 xp away from 86. Now as there is an obvious advantage of getting all three garrisons going, I decided to play the mage to level 92 and the level 2 garrison.

I already leveled him from 85 to 87 in the Valley of the Four Winds in Pandaria, and am now in the Kun-Lai Summit. But what was really surprising to me was that I constantly run into trouble with quests because too many other players are after the same quest objectives, and I have to wait for stuff to respawn. At first I thought that was a local phenomenon, and moved somewhere else in the Valley of the Four Winds, but whatever quest I took, other players where there as well. And that continues in the Kun-Lai Summit now. I am meeting far more people in Pandaria than I meet in Draenor, which is really strange.

I can see how some people could be in the same situation as me, having not played Mists of Pandaria extensively and not willing to spend $60 to get a level 90 boost. But why would Pandaria be more crowded than Draenor? I'm not sure where World of Warcraft is technically right now, with the "connected realms" and such, but I don't think I saw anything suggesting that the zones are now all instanced and exist in several copies, like other games do. Anybody have an idea?
Tobold's Blog



Poaching in enemy territory
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 January 2015, 7:22 am
There isn't much of a difference between Alliance and Horde in World of Warcraft, they are usually very well balanced regarding gameplay aspects (not necessarily from the lore side). But one minor difference in Warlords of Draenor is that the Horde starting zone has no timber at all (except for one quest tree), while the Alliance starting zone has a full quarter of all small timber in Draenor. As a Horde player you are likely to get your lumber mill before finishing with the starting zone, which means having to go the next zone to find timber. Gorgrond at that point is not only slightly higher in level than you are, but more importantly it isn't the easiest place to navigate. While your character can fell 10 meter high treants, he can't cut through a vine as thick as his arm, creating a lot of impenetrable walls in Gorgrond. (Later you can get the Mechashredder, which allows you to jump over those).

Anyway, I'm the kind of player who thinks that if you playing a MMORPG as intended, you are doing it wrong. :) The obvious solution to the Horde timber shortage is finding your way to the Alliance starting zone. That is easy if you used the level 90 boost, which for no good reason gives you many Draenor flying points without you having to walk there. Your other characters need to walk through Gorgrond and Talador into Shadowmoon Valley to grab the Exile's Rise flight point manually.

Apart from the timber, getting to Shadowmoon Valley as Horde has the added advantage that you get a full new set of level 90 to 92 rare spawns to kill. That is always worth doing, not just for the rare loot, but also because they all drop some garrison resources. The disadvantage of exploring Shadowmoon Valley is that you might run into Alliance defender NPCs which flag you for PvP and attack you. But you'll quickly learn to avoid those settlements.
Tobold's Blog



Toying with garrisons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 January 2015, 6:44 am
The first building you get for your garrison is the barracks. As that takes up your only large spot at the time and you don't get another large spot until level 100, many people tend to just keep the barracks forever. But I like to toy around with stuff and see if other options aren't as good. And I think that during leveling, at least for certain character classes, the War Mill / Dwarven Bunker is superior to the barracks.

At level 1 the barracks just gives the occasional patrol mission, which slightly speeds up leveling for your followers. But I found my followers level up fast enough anyway, and the barracks at level 1 really don't make an impact. You might not even notice those patrol missions in your mission overview. The War Mill / Dwarven Bunker on the other hand doubles your chance of getting random upgrades for quest rewards, and gives higher upgrades, and an unexpected epic upgrade is sure something you will notice!

At level 2 the situation is more ambiguous. The barracks at level 2 permit you to take one of your followers as bodyguard with you. For my warrior that isn't all that useful, he can withstand hits on his own. And classes that already have pets might not benefit all that much from a bodyguard either. But for my shadow priest or frost mage I think the barracks at level 2 are not a bad option. In comparison the War Mill level 2 bonus is relatively weak. The armor / weapon upgrades for followers might be helpful, but farming iron scraps for cosmetic armor transmogrification probably appeals only to some specific players.

The other three options for large building appear to be more niche. Stables are nice for mount collectors, and help on resource gathering runs, but I'm not sure that they are worth it for most players. The Goblin / Gnome Workshop produces limited numbers of items with limited use. And the Magetower / Spirit Lodge gives you some fast travel option on a continent that is relatively small and already gives you 2 hearthstones. Did you try any of these?
Tobold's Blog



Leveling a new profession to 700 in Warlords of Draenor
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 January 2015, 3:27 am
I ditched herbalism and alchemy on my fury warrior yesterday, and learned mining and blacksmithing instead. The reason for that was that I had noticed that alchemy was extremely weak in Warlords of Draenor, and that the potions and flask sell for less than the herbs in the AH, while crafted armor sells for thousands. So I started leveling up mining and blacksmithing the traditional way, moving from copper to bronze to iron. You can find lots of guides on the internet on which recipes to do for the fastest way. It turns out that all those guides are wrong. Leveling a new profession to 700 in Warlords of Draenor is much, much faster than that.

In Warlords of Draenor the profession trainers in your garrison and those in Ashran sell scrolls like "Draenor Blacksmithing", which you can also get from quests if you have the profession with at least 1 skill. The gathering scrolls drop the first time you gather something of that type in Draenor, as long as you have at least 1 skill. The scrolls raise you profession skill cap to 700 and the crafting ones teach you a number of basic Draenor recipes, as long as you are at least level 90 and regardless of your current skill level. Which means that crafting low level recipes with low level resources is now completely obsolete! Even with just 1 skill you can craft the Draenor recipes, which will remain orange until past skill 600 and skill up very quickly using only Draenor materials.

For blacksmithing the daily Truesteel Ingot alone raises your skill by 10 every time you use it, and the daily recipe research by 1. Crafted epics bring 10 skill points, crafted rares 5. You can also mix things up and do some skill ups the old way, with recipes from an old world trainer, and then use the Draenor recipes to skip difficult or expensive passages. For mining there are no recipes I could do, but my level 2 mine in my garrison brings a lot of free skill ups every day, and again can be mined regardless of skill. So can the other mining nodes in Draenor.

Ultimately you don't actually need to skill up to 700 any more, unless you want to make recipes from previous expansions. All professions in Draenor with all Draenor recipes can be done with just 1 skill. And some recipes can even be done without that, as long as you have the right profession building. The only requirement is level 90, so you can't use this for low level alts. Guess that enables Blizzard to sell more level 90 boosts to crafting alts.
Tobold's Blog



Would you recommend World of Warcraft to me?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 December 2014, 2:33 am
28 hours left on my "free" Warlords of Draenor subscription, and I will soon need to decide whether I want to pay for a regular subscription again. I already bought the expansion, and the $15 per month doesn't make a financial difference to me. But I'm still somewhat undecided.

What I would want to do if I subscribed would be:
  • Play my fury warrior through all the Draenor quests
  • Change his now useless alchemy profession to blacksmithing.
  • Get my priest far enough into Draenor so that he can have his own garrison
  • Play my frost mage through Pandaria and into Draenoer
  • Ultimately get all three of those characters to level 100
I'm certainly not going to start raiding or anything like that, and I'm unsure how interesting the end game activities for non-raiders are in this expansion. But I sure like the garrison mini-game. And even if questing isn't the most interesting thing to do, it isn't in any way hard, so it can be kind of relaxing too.

The alternative to World of Warcraft would be to give up on MMORPGs until EQ Next comes out, and play through my large library of unplayed Steam games. Which I will do in any case, just a lot slower if I also play WoW. Even casually played, World of Warcraft eats up a lot of time.

So what do you think? Would you recommend me to keep playing World of Warcraft?
Tobold's Blog



Something strange happened on my way through Frostfire Ridge
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 December 2014, 11:42 am
I am still on my free 10 days of Warlords of Draenor, without level cap as I have bought the expansion to get the character I wanted to play to 90. Currently questing in Gorgrond, I noticed that while I appeared to have done all the quests in Frostfire Ridge, I hadn't uncovered all of the map. So I made a tour through Frostfire Ridge for zone completion. I found some level 100 mobs, and the entrance to a dungeon, Bloodmaul Slag Mines. And the strange thing is that I instinctively reacted with revulsion to the idea of doing a dungeon. It used to be that this was my favorite part of World of Warcraft, but today I can't stand the idea of running one any more.

I believe that this is because everybody agrees that everybody else in a random group is a complete moron. The only difference is that some people would like to play dungeons normally, and believe that the chain-pulling speedrunners on amphetamines are the morons; while the speedrunners believe that the rest of the group that can't keep up with their chain-pulls are the morons. Or in math-speak, if any given random player in your group has a 50% chance of being incompatible with your play style, there is a 93.75% chance of any random group to end in unpleasantness.

On the one hand that is a problem of human nature, and people having different goals. On the other hand that is a problem of game design, or more specifically the inability of the group finder to actually group people together who fit together from their playstyle. Which in turn is connected to the problem of World of Warcraft still running on "realms" aka separated servers, even if there is some connection between them. The larger the pool you have to select group members from, the quicker you could find a group. And that would enable the LFG system to have a few more playstyle switches, where the people who would like to explore a dungeon for fun and the people who want to rush dungeons in the fastest possible time don't end up grouped together.

I did a search on the US WoW forums and found 24,000 results when searching for "vote kick". I think it is safe to say that when one of the biggest concern about a tool that groups people together is how to get rid of some of people you've been grouped with, that tool isn't working all that great.

I started playing MMORPGs over a decade ago, and my overall impression of the genre is that it has become less social with time. I do think it is a good idea for a MMORPG to have solo content, but that has to be balanced by social tools which make playing together less of a bad idea. The garrison is a fun mini-game, but it's a solo mini-game. Why not have a guild garrison as well, and have more reasons for being in a guild than just raids? I do believe there are a lot of people out there with similar play-styles, who would be quite happy playing together. It's just that the game doesn't make it easy enough for these people to connect.
Tobold's Blog



Epic crap
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 December 2014, 4:23 am
I think there is some serious imbalance with crafted gear in Warlords of Draenor being far too good. Example: I have a War Mill in my garrison that sometimes turns rare items found into epics. So I was killing a level 92 rare mob and he dropped a weapon which got such an epic upgrade: Smashalupagus, a 2H mace with a minimum level of 92, iLevel 547, doing 138 damage per second, and giving +77 Strength. Sounds good, doesn't it? Certainly the best weapon I found or got as quest reward in WoD yet.

Small problem: My fury warrior is wielding two crafted Steelforged Greataxes, 2H axes with a minimum level of 91, iLevel 630, doing 300 damage per second, and giving +167 Strength. And even characters without the blacksmithing profession can create those in a level 2 garrison forge. Yes, it takes 100 Truesteel Ingots, and thus takes some time, but you can get all the materials without even leaving your garrison. So there are a lot around, and on the AH they weren't all that expensive. I would be surprised if I found any better weapon in the game before reaching level 100.

So by doing something sensible, checking out the AH for gear and buying crafted gear, I basically made myself overpowered and removed all possibility of being happy about a lucky weapon drop for 10 levels. I don't think crafting systems should work that way.
Tobold's Blog



Ahead of the curve
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 December 2014, 4:32 am
In fields where it really matters, like education or job performance, there is an ongoing discussion whether all natural talent is distributed along a bell curve. But the criticism is more about in how far one can shift one's position on that curve, and in how far for any particular field the extreme ends differ from a perfect Gaussian distribution. The bell curve suggests natural inequality, and inequality is always a hot topic. What we know from a scientific point of view is that if you take a large enough group and measure something like an IQ quotient (as flawed as that may be) or reaction speed or any similar natural ability, you will get something close to a bell curve, where around two-thirds of the group are within one standard deviation from average.

If you tried to measure gaming skill, you'd quickly realize that the matter is complicated by the factor of experience. Gaming skill is something which can be learned, and effect of experience on performance is large compared with the natural talent distribution. Gaming skill measured among a large group of gamers of one game would not follow a bell curve. The very low end of the curve would be underrepresented, as people who don't manage the basics of a game would be likely to stop playing. And the higher performance end is more populated than in a bell curve, due to people with a lot of experience in this or similar games. Due to the effect of experience the overall distribution would be broader than a bell curve, with the best players considerably outperforming the average ones.

All of this leads to some problems in game design. Games tend to be most enjoyable if they are neither too hard, nor too easy for the person playing. If you have a broad distribution of performance, it gets rather hard to make a game which is enjoyable for everybody, especially if there is no way for the individual player to adjust difficulty settings. As games have frequently been designed by people who are gamers themselves, and who through their experience are at the high end of the curve, many games have been designed to be most enjoyable by the best performers. But there is some indication that this is changing.

The video games industry is suffering from overproduction leading to low prices, leading to lots of financially failed games and games studios closing. So the investors are looking for the recipe for success, and today that appears to be the Blizzard model of casual, accessible games (note that Forbes is a business magazine, not a games magazine), maybe even Free2Play. However distorted the bell curve of gaming skill has become by experienced players, there are still far more average players out there than good players, and it makes financial sense to target the largest group. Especially if you consider that gamers are getting older, and with age reaction time goes down, but disposable income goes up.

The obvious problem with that is that experienced gamers can get ahead of the curve and drop out of the target audience for a game. I've been playing games for a very long time, and there are some Blizzard games I can't enjoy because they are too simple for me. I've played Magic the Gathering for a decade, and proved intricate knowledge of the complicated rules by becoming a DCI judge, so a simplified game like Hearthstone isn't enjoyable to me.

Not only can veterans find casual, accessible games too easy, there is also the added problem of games recycling so much stuff from previous games. Veterans can get hit by a "been there, done that" sensation very early in a new game. That is pretty much my reaction to Warlords of Draenor. I can see that Blizzard did a good job on that expansion, but do I really want to go out on another quest to kill 10 monsters? On the upside the trend to more accessible games means I can now play genres of games that I previously neglected. I am not good at all with first person shooter games, being slow and not very experienced. But I can enjoy an accessible FPS game like Destiny.

This trend towards more accessible games that are financially more successful also explains the paradox that lately the games that sold best got mixed critics reviews. There are a lot of experienced gamers among game journalists, and just like me they can easily find themselves ahead of the curve for which a game was designed, and not enjoying it all that much. But in as far as the game journalists aren't representative of the skills of the average game buyer, it becomes questionable whether their reviews are actually still relevant.
Tobold's Blog



Visiting Draenor
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 December 2014, 4:58 am
As I have some extra time over the Christmas holidays, and I hear a lot of good things about Warlords of Draenor, I decided to take up Blizzard on their offer to test the expansion out 10 days for free. Up to now I'm level 92 and got my garrison up to level 2. But somehow I feel my experience with mobile games is working against me: The garrison sub-game of World of Warcraft is nice if you never have played anything similar. But the Apple app store and Google Play store are full of games that works like that, based on real-time resource gathering and gaining levels and experience for not actually doing very much. I've seen games that are better than the garrison game, even if I appreciate the integration with the main game.

It doesn't help that the character with who I am testing this has alchemy and herbalism as his professions. As it turns out the garrison is a lot more useful to other professions. Alchemy is pretty weak in WoD, and the alchemy building basically allows you to make improved flasks which give 250 in an ability instead of the normal version which gives 100. In comparison the stuff you can make with blacksmithing or tailoring or leatherworking now is far more powerful.

Apart from the garrison, Warlords of Draenor is okay for an expansion, but not great. It's the same old, same old questing game. I like that the zones aren't as linear as they were in some previous expansions, and I liked visiting Nagrand (in spite of that not being level-appropriate) in its new version. But of my guild with 568 characters in the roster I've never seen more than 4 online now. So I found the guild message about the limited time remaining for the Molten Core remembrance raid somewhat depressing, we used to have 40 people online to raid Molten Core with. Without the people the game just isn't the same any more. I don't think I'll stay beyond the 10 free days.
Tobold's Blog



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