EQ Lego
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 July 2014, 2:10 pm
I have played EQ Landmark for 7 hours and don't plan to play any more at this point. I've claimed a patch of land, built a house (including a slanted roof), explored islands and mines, and crafted better picks and axes. Except doing more of all this, there currently isn't much to do in Landmark. It isn't a game yet, it is just a toy, like Lego. Now I have seen really awesome castles and building made by other players. But that isn't something I am all that interested in. I'd rather have a house with some functionality. Unfortunately I would need to mine 210,000 stone for a tier 1 crafting station (stone forge). As I only got up to about 12,000 in 7 hours, I don't think I have the patience for that sort of grind.

Having said that, I see the potential in EQ Landmark. The "prettier Minecraft" approach is going to attract a lot of people. But for me the question is in how far they are going to add an actual game to that concept, and how good the integration between toy and game will work. The possibilities are endless. You could actually build a tunnel through a mountain, although that probably would give a whole new meaning to the term carpal tunnel syndrome. I guess I will have to wait quite a while before Landmark is ready and integrated with EQ Next. But now that I've seen it, I'm quite looking forward to that.
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info@e-sonyonline.com is not fake
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 July 2014, 3:36 am
I received a suspicious e-mail with a Landmark beta invite. The mail looked perfectly real, but was sent from info@e-sonyonline.com, instead of from soe.com or station.sony.com. And the beta client download link also directed me to link.e-sonyonline.com. That looks very much like a phishing mail. So I googled it, and mostly found a lot of confused people asking whether mails from info@e-sonyonline.com were phishing mails, and some people who said yes, it was phishing, while others said no, it was legit.

So I decided to test this out. Certainly not by following the link and logging in with my true credentials. But there are two ways to test whether a login screen is fake. One is to enter fake login credentials, which a real site will reject, while a fake site will react differently. The other, which I actually used in this case, is taking advantage of a feature of many websites who won't ask you for a login if you are already logged in. So I went to the legit SOE site, logged into my account from there, and THEN clicked on the link. And lo and behold, the mail was real and I got to download the Landmark beta client without having to enter my SOE credentials on the e-sonyonline.com site.

What I think happened is that SOE outsourced sending out that sort of invitation to some marketeer, without letting him use the soe.com mail system. In an age where one gets phishing mails every day and people are highly suspicious that isn't really a good move.
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Unification failure
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 July 2014, 3:53 am
Dungeons & Dragons started its life as squad-based tactical wargame, made by people who called their company TSR for "Tactical Study Rules". The idea of acting in character was a later addition, and in fact there are a number of other pen & paper roleplaying systems which have rules that are far more suitable for roleplaying than D&D. Nevertheless Dungeons & Dragons played most of the time for most of people as a mixture of both, a tactical combat game and a game where you play-acted a role. And like with all games that have more than one core that inevitably led to conflict between players who preferred the one over the other. That conflict was fueled by the fact that over the 40 years of its existence many different developers worked on Dungeons & Dragons, and they swung back and forth between the two parts. That led to the "edition wars", which culminated in 4th edition, a version of D&D which strongly favored the tactical combat part over the play-acting part. 5th edition set out to end the edition wars and be a unifying edition that pleased and united everybody. And the one thing that is clear from just reading the basic rules is that it completely failed in that mission. 5th edition is clearly swinging the pendulum back towards a play-acting game.

It is not as if 5th edition wouldn't permit you to put figurines on a square grid to play out your combat in a tactical manner. The problem is rather that 5E made many design decisions which result in it becoming a rather bad tactical game if you want to play it that way. First of all it threw overboard the class balance that 4th edition introduced to D&D; 5E went back to a system where classes are initially not equally strong, and then certain classes that start out weaker become stronger than other classes after a certain time. That has good reasons on the role-playing side, but makes for a horrible tactical game outside a narrow range of medium levels where the classes happen to be just about equally strong.

The second problem of 5E as a tactical game is randomness. If you look at MMORPGs, you will find that in combat there you rarely miss, and the damage you deal with a single hit only takes a slice of the health of your opponent. Dungeons & Dragons always had a system where your chance to miss was around 50% at lower levels, with varying systems of how that evolved in higher levels. But where the editions differed a lot was how big a percentage of health a successful hit could deal. For a tactical game you prefer to limit that, so that tactics play a bigger role than luck. 5th edition has an extremely luck-based combat system, where not only hit and miss depend a lot on luck, but also the difference between minimum damage and maximum damage of an attack is huge compared to the health of characters and monsters.

So whatever modularity 5th edition will add to the rules later, I don't think adding more tactical rules about facing or positioning to the game will turn 5E into a good tactical combat game. Which means that people who want to play a good tactical combat game will stick to 4th edition. Which is perfectly fine, but does herald the failure of 5E as the great unifier of the D&D editions.
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About the G in RPG
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 July 2014, 2:03 pm
In the previous thread a number of people were in favor of a DM of a pen & paper RPG cheating to avoid unwanted results like random character death. The argument was that a RPG is role-playing, not roll-playing, and thus shouldn't be suffering from the randomness of dice-rolling. I don't agree. I think that argument totally ignores the G part of RPG, which stands for "game". Games generally become worse when somebody cheats. That is because games are a social contract, where the players agree for a limited time to adhere to certain rules. When you break that social contract, you destroy the very basis of the game.

That is not to say that dice are necessary for role-playing. There are quite a number of pen & paper role-playing game systems which are diceless. In that case the players agreed beforehand that they would prefer a system in which results are not randomly determined by dice. But if a group of players sits down to play Dungeons & Dragons instead of a diceless system, the social contract is a different one. The players agreed that they want a certain randomness in the game, because that can be fun. The DM cannot just opt out of that social contract, because ultimately he is a player too. His temporary god-like role in the pen & paper system are a consequence of the social contract, and do not reach beyond that agreement.

The DM in the video under discussion yesterday rolled his dice openly, and was chided for that by one commenter. But I think that the DM did the right thing, especially in the context of a training video for new DMs. Dungeons & Dragons, like all systems with a game master / dungeon master is asymmetrical, the DM has far more powers than the players. To a group of people playing a pen & paper RPG for the first time, that might well feel unusual. There can easily be a sneaking suspicion that the DM "isn't fair". Rolling dice in the open, at least at the start of a campaign, is a trust-building exercise. The DM shows that he is bound by the same set of rules as the players are. If something bad happens, it was bad luck with the dice, not the DM singling somebody out. If you have been role-playing for many years with the same people, you don't need that sort of trust-building. But this being a starter set for brand new players, trust-building is a necessary step. You don't want a first-time DM to cheat, because he probably doesn't even have the experience to know when fudging the dice would be a good idea. And you certainly don't want the first-time players to notice that their DM is cheating, because they would probably just quit at that point.

So what other options are there? Let's get back to the problem. While I did mention 1st level mages and arrows in my example, the problem of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons goes way beyond that. For example an orc (in the last playtest version, I haven't got the starter set yet and there are no monsters in the basic rules) hits for 1d12+2. Which means that if he rolls a critical hit, he can deal up to 26 points of damage. That kills any cleric, wizard, or rogue below 4th level, and any fighter below 3rd level. Furthermore if the orc has "advantage" in combat, his chance to roll a critical hit is 10%, not limited to 5% like in previous editions. Any hard-hitting monster in 5E with a large damage dice thus results in very unpredictable results, with the volatility of the results being large compared with the health pool of the characters.

The solution to that is not cheating. It is changing the rules in advance, in agreement with the players. There are various options, for example giving the players more health to start with, or letting them start at a higher level. Or, and that is even optionally supported in the rules as written, you don't roll dice for hit points and damage at all, but use always the average (rounded down). That means the orc always deals 8 points of damage on a normal hit, and 14 on a critical hit. And that most 2nd level characters can survive. But what I would really prefer is a system in which there is a better balance between the volatility of the damage rolls and the health pools of the players and monsters. Fudging dice rolls only gets you so far, for example you can't fudge your player's dice rolls. So cheating can't be the solution for a rules system in which the random numbers are too volatile.
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A first 5th edition remark
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 July 2014, 10:18 am
I have frequently joked that if you want to know what edition of Dungeons & Dragons you are playing, you only need to ask "How many arrows does it take to kill a first level mage?". I watched WotC do a demonstration of the new starter set on YouTube and the group cleric there gets one-shotted by a critical hit. And the DM mentioned that in a previous trial run of the same adventure a mage not only got dropped by a critical arrow hit, but outright killed.

I believe 5E to be rather deadly, at least in the low levels. The advantage / disadvantage mechanic makes critical hits far more likely, and player characters have much less health than in 4E. And while a critical hit in 4E does damage as if you had rolled the maximum on the dice, in 5E you get twice the dice to roll. So if you roll high, you do more damage on a crit. More crits, potentially higher damage per crit, and lower health pools. What could possibly go wrong?

As I reported yesterday my campaign is in the middle of a fight which is hard and didn't go terribly well for the players. It is possible that somebody will die in that fight. But if somebody does, that will be an accumulation of several things, tactical errors made, and health lost over several rounds, with opportunities of healing having been missed. In 5E you can lose a character to a single arrow in the surprise round of an ambush. I don't consider that to be good game design. Character death should be a strong feedback signal telling you that you did something wrong, and not a random result telling you that you have bad luck.
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5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a thing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 July 2014, 4:54 am
Previously known as D&D Next, 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is now officially a thing. You can buy the starter set in selected shops now, and everywhere else soon. Plus the basic rules are available for free from the WoTC website. Time for some comments:

First of all, my current campaign and the campaign I'm planning for next year will remain 4th edition. That is not only because me and my players like 4E more; but also because we play in French: 4E has a French translation, 5E is only available in English. Half of my players don't speak English. So our choice in this matter is inherently limited. Distribution being similarly US-centric, I don't expect to be able to pick up a D&D Starter Set before August.

I have downloaded, printed out, and started reading the 5E Basic Rules. I have watched videos on the content of the Starter Set, and seen WotC play the first session of it on YouTube. With the information I have about these two products, I have come to a conclusion: The Starter Set and the Basic Rules *together* form something which could be described as "Basic D&D", that is a full system to play a campaign of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons with somewhat simplified rules. With the Basic Rules being free and the Starter Set $19.99 official retail price, $12.65 currently on Amazon.com, that is extremely good value for money. On the other hand, if you want to play the *full* version of 5E, you will need to buy 3 books (Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual) at $50 suggested retail price each, and those haven't even come out yet.

Needless to say I consider the Starter Set / Basic Rules combo to be more suitable for new players, both from a point of view of complexity, and of price. Which leads me to my personal "5E project": I would like to look at the Starter Set and the Basic Rules together, do some simulated play sessions solo, and see how well the combo does in teaching Dungeons & Dragons to a new generation of players. That will presumably happen somewhere after the summer. I'm not in a rush. Besides telling me how good the new edition is for new players, I will probably get to understand the fundamentals of 5E enough for me to decide whether I want to buy the full books. Which, unless WotC announces a French translation, is currently not likely. 5E is now a thing, but not yet a global thing.
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The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 17
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 July 2014, 3:26 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune cleansed the main temple of Gardmore Abbey, and learned how the Deck of Many Things had caused the downfall of the abbey 150 years ago. They had killed most of the gnolls in the vaults, which left only the gnolls' rivals, the minotaurs, plus a big bronze door behind which the party suspects a dragon.

Entering the room of the minotaurs the heroes found them to be not immediately hostile. The minotaurs seemed quite amused by the fact that the party had killed their rivals, the gnolls. They freely gave the group information about the layout of the vaults, and confirmed the presence of a dragon. The other unexplored room contained the mysterious new chief who had united the rival tribes of minotaur and gnoll and stopped them from fighting. The rogue suggested they might go and kill that chieftain, and the minotaurs agreed to help under the condition that they would leave the minotaur bodyguard of the chief alive and only kill the chief and the remaining gnolls. But something didn't feel right about that offer (intuition check), and the group wisely declined. Apart from "cleaning the dungeon" they actually didn't have a reason to fight the minotaurs and the gnoll/minotaur chief, and so they decided to leave instead.

Using the other entrance to the vaults they returned to the bronze door and the dragon's den. They had been told that the dragon was too fat to leave his den, and that his kobold minions were digging a tunnel for him to the outside. On opening the door they found that the kobold and the tunnel was true, but the young red dragon was not so fat after all. Fortunately the dragon was asleep. As usual the heroes stayed outside the room and started firing at the kobolds. The kobold shaman started praying to Mekkalath, the dragon, besieging him to wake up and slay their foes. So the warlock decided to cast an area spell centered on the kobold shaman to stop him from waking the dragon, but that area included the dragon. So the damage from that spell woke up the dragon earlier than the kobolds would have managed. Oooops!

At first the usual battle tactics of the group worked: The warrior and the rogue tanked at the door, while the others launched spells and arrows from behind. But the door was 4 squares wide, and the kobolds opened then second half of the bronze door so that all 4 squares were accessible. And when the wizard cast a stinking cloud on the dragon and kobolds, they started to push into the room where the group was. The group killed all the 1 hitpoint minions, but only one of the four kobold defenders. And in spite of me giving them too much information about how the kobold shaman was healing and buffing the dragon, they also didn't attack the shaman, but concentrated their fire on the dragon. Unfortunately the dragon had a huge amount of health, so that wasn't the best tactics.

The dragon also turned out to be scarier than I had thought. Monsters in 4E have the same sort of at-will and encounter powers as player characters, but they also have a kind of attack with a different cooldown that players don't get: Recharge powers; those are encounter powers with a probability to recharge each round. The red dragon's fire breath recharges on rolling either a 5 or a 6 on a d6 at the start of each round. So as luck would have it, the dragon got to use his breath weapon twice in two subsequent rounds, catching 3 players each time. He also managed to grab the dwarven warrior in his mouth with a bite attack. The dwarf had found a dragonlance earlier in the abbey, which reduced all dragon damage by 5 points. But with the dwarf in his mouth and the rogue pushed aside by the kobolds the dragon was free to storm into the room with the casters. The wizard panicked and tried to run away, getting knocked down in the process by a tail swipe from the dragon, but then using an action point to get up and flee towards the stairs.

Unfortunately we had started the session rather late, and we had to stop at that point. Stopping a session in the middle of a fight is annoying, as one has to write down all positions and effects. But with the tactical situation now being much less favorable and the dragon not even bloodied yet, maybe the group needs some time to think how to continue that fight.
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What I'm playing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 July 2014, 10:06 am
With over a hundred unplayed Steam games in my library, one might think that I would be playing those to reduce the backlog. But as I considered that notion, I realized that all week long I hadn't played a single game on Steam. What I actually played was:

  • Wildstar: While MMORPGs are a niche market, the people who do play MMORPGs tend to spend a lot of hours in these games. That seriously reduces the time they spend on other PC games. I am not playing Wildstar excessively, my "main" is only level 21. But I did spend several hours to switch my alt from relic hunter / technologist to armorsmith / technologist, crafting armor for my warrior main. It just isn't worth doing a gathering skill on an alt who is level 15 and doesn't go into the zone where he could actually gather interesting relics. Omniplasm is cheap on the AH.
  • World of Tanks Blitz (iOS): The good news is that Wargaming.net made a very good port of World of Tanks for the iPad. It is reduced in size to 7 vs. 7, with only 3 nations, and no artillery. But otherwise it plays very much like World of Tanks on the PC. The bad news is that if you have both a PC and an iPad, there isn't really a good reason to play on the iPad. The controls with a virtual joystick with no haptic feedback simply is too awkward on the iPad, even if it isn't quite as bad as in the ports of other, faster shooter games.
  • Battleheart Legacy (iOS): Syp called it the mobile game of the year, and I agree. I played the original Battleheart and found it not so great, as controlling 4 characters on the touch screen was hectic and annoying. Battleheart Legacy reduces that to just one character, with more powers, and that works brilliantly. The skill system is excellent, so while I haven't finished the game with my first character yet, I already started with an alt to see how it plays with a very different build. If you are looking for a good single-player RPG on the iPad which you can play even without internet connection, I can only recommend this game.
  • Pixel People (iOS): This is one of those games some core gamers will hate, because progress is so slow. I basically finished the game now, having found all 380 out of 380 professions. But that took me months, playing a few minutes every day, usually twice per day.
So, lots of iPad games last week, which is related to the fact that I was traveling for some days. But even at home I was playing Wildstar and Battleheart Legacy rather than playing a Steam game. I find that there is a certain barrier to entry before I start a new Steam game, because it takes some time to download and install the game, and then learn how to play a new game. Coming back tired from work I frequently prefer a game I already know to a new game, just because it requires less energy.
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Wildstar subscription numbers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 July 2014, 4:59 am
I don't have any. Do you?

Every week I look at the Nosy Gamer's Digital Dozen MMORPG XFire activity chart. Which is getting less and less statistically significant every week, due to XFire not exactly being growing. However the chart shows trends which are probably roughly correct. And Wildstar activity numbers have been constantly decreasing by large percentages each week, to the point where they are now behind Guild Wars 2, a drop of over 60% from the peak. And that in just a few weeks, we aren't even talking "three-monther" here.

It is my personal belief that Wildstar is doing rather badly regarding subscription numbers. I am basing that opinion not only on Nosy Gamer's activity charts, but also on my personal experience of servers being much less busy now, and the fact that no new servers have been opened since release. I also noticed on my character selection screen a message which was basically begging me to stay subscribed and try out the new content patch. Furthermore the complete absence of any bragging about subscription numbers by Carbine makes me think that there is not much to brag about.

Of course by simply not publishing any numbers Carbine makes it rather easy to adapt a position of denial; pretending that everything is going just fine. Ultimately what matters is how much money Wildstar is making. And Carbine is owned by NCSOFT, who aren't known for their infinite patience with games that don't make money. There is something inherently unhealthy about a big budget MMORPG made for a niche population in a niche market. Things are going to happen in the coming 12 months to address that, including introduction of a free trial, price reduction of the box cost, and possibly even a Free2Play conversion.
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Get disappointed in your life
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 July 2014, 3:06 am
The title of this post is the label of the Steam Calculator, an online tool that calculates the value of your Steam game library. Here are my results:

Worth: 2495,32€ (808,04€ with sales)
Games owned: 188
Games not played: 134 (71%)
Hours spent: 988.6h

You can see where my recently mentioned reluctance to buy any more Steam games on sale is coming from: 71% of the games in my library are unplayed. The thousand hours played appears low, but I do have a laptop with Steam installed in offline mode to play some games, so the number might not be complete.

The one value that I would take with a large grain or shovel-full of salt is the first one, the "Worth". This is actually what it would cost me to buy those 188 games today. I'm not 100% sure where the "with sales" value is coming from, maybe they do have a list of the lowest price every game was ever on sales for. What the number certainly doesn't reflect is what price I paid for these games. Because some games I bought on release, where they were cheaper. Others I bought at some sale. So my real spent money might be anywhere between the 808 € with sales number and a number which is even higher than the current worth of the games.

If you want, feel free to post your Steam Calculator results in the comment section. If you consider that data to be private and don't want anybody to know, you might be interested to hear that right now everybody who knows your Steam name can look up this information. You would have to go to your Steam account settings and change your Steam account profile from public to private to hide the information from the world.

Am I disappointed in my life? Certainly not because of the Steam Calculator. What that shows is that I have more money than time. And seeing on my Steam account that I've been on Steam for 6 years already, and given my disposable income, 2500€ is certainly not a worrisome amount of money for me. The Steam Calculator only tells me what I already knew, that I should tread softly with Steam sales, and spend more time actually playing the games I already bought.
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A question for Gevlon
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 July 2014, 9:44 am

You want to remove the 90% of players who are not playing good enough (from your point of view) from your MMORPGs of choice. Assuming that the game companies would quite like to keep the same revenue, would you be willing to pay a 10 times higher subscription fee for that priviledge? You can't just shove the 90% into second-rate content and expect them to keep paying the same subscription fee as you do.
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Is MMO group content salvageable in today's AAA MMOs?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 July 2014, 11:14 am
Of course I couldn't leave Hagu's "meta question" of yesterday unanswered. Not only do I believe that group content in a modern AAA MMORPG could be salvaged, I also have a bunch of ideas how. The solution is actually quite simple once one understood the problem, so let's talk about the problem first: Group content today is designed in a way that if you group with the "wrong people", your overall reward of your activity becomes negative. Most frequently in the form of "I group with incompetent players, I fail to complete the group content, I wasted my time".

The solution is therefore to make the reward for grouping always positive. You might still want to group with a more competent player for getting even more reward, but as long as grouping with anybody is better than soloing, most of the toxicity is gone. It would be very hard, if not impossible, to implement such a solution in MMORPG dungeons today, but who said that we have to? We can simply make questing in a group give a better reward than questing solo. If grouping with random strangers day to day was beneficial, people would be a lot nicer to each other, and make friends more easily. We could even have levelling guilds, which I sometimes hear advertised in chat, but which under current game design are unable to deliver.

In its most basic form my solution would be a simple multiplier to the reward of questing depending on whether you were grouped when you did the task or not (with your group partner being in the vicinity). Note that this isn't only possible for xp while levelling, you could also hand out better gear; it would also work for end-game daily quests that hand out some currency to buy stuff with. For xp this is easiest, and you can also give more xp per kill done together, which prevents grouping with afk players. With Wildstar having moved the genre back towards somewhat slower levelling, many people would be interested in faster xp.

If you want to expand on the idea, you would have to modify quests a bit. No more phasing preventing players from doing a quest together to start with. And it might be a good idea to have quests with flexible goals: Not "kill 10 wolves in the forest", but "kill wolves in the forest". When you come back to the quest giver, you get a reward proportional to how many wolves you killed, with each wolf killed in a group counting for more.

Note that currently most games, including WoW and Wildstar, are designed to make questing in a group slower than soloing. Which very much contributed to the "massively single-player online RPG" genre that we have today. Change the incentives, and playing together (and thus paying for playing online) actually makes sense again.
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Relying on random strangers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 June 2014, 9:19 am
I personally have opted out of Wildstar group content, because I consider it counterproductive to the true goal of playing a game: Having fun! But I keep reading about it, usually reporting bad design decisions. Apparently the best rewards of a dungeon could be had by gaining a gold medal, for which the requirement was doing the dungeon without a single death. And some people ran dungeons with pickup groups and then got extremely angry about not getting that perfect score, resulting in groups getting dissolved early or people getting kicked or other forms of toxicity.

But the good news is that even Carbine realised that this was an idiotic design. Azuriel reports that the system has been changed, now giving the best reward for the actual purpose of a dungeon run: Finishing it. But then of course the hardcore players started complaining about the "nerf", as finishing a dungeon is obviously much easier than a perfect run, so now the unwashed masses can get the good gear.

As Azuriel remarked, requiring a perfect score for a reward is incompatible with a LFD system that groups you with random strangers. By definition a random stranger on average is averagely skilled, and you can't do content with them that would require more than average skill. In particular you can never do content with a random pickup group which requires nobody ever to do a mistake. Even good players make mistakes.

So Carbine's only alternative would have been giving the highest level of rewards out only to guild group, and thus preventing PUGs to be able to go for that sort of reward. But I guess by now a sufficient number of players has cancelled their subscription to make Carbine realise that a casual-unfriendly game might have some drawbacks. Expect more of those "nerfs" in the coming months.
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Hating Wildstar challenges a bit less
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 June 2014, 11:04 am
During the beta and first week of Wildstar I absolutely hated challenges: The way the game suddenly shouted at me and forced me to change my plans. The way they turned a leisurely activity into a rush. The way they were designed to make me hate other players, who caused me to fail the challenge (and get shouted at again). And finally the way how the challenge offered me a choice of rewards, only to then give me one of the things I didn't want. I still believe most of this is just bad game design, but I'm starting to get used to challenges and hate them a bit less.

The first thing I found out which helps a lot is that there is no penalty for just cancelling a challenge. Then when that challenge is more convenient (no other players around, or need to kill the same mobs for a quest) I can just restart the challenge from a tab in the quest log. The second good thing is that even if I succeed a challenge and don't get the reward I wanted, I can restart the challenge after half an hour. Which I do sometimes, because some challenges offer much better gear rewards than quests of the same level.

While I prefer to make gold by crafting and trading on the AH, I also need to remark that challenges aren't a bad way to make gold. Once you outlevel a challenge somewhat it gets very fast to complete. And some of the rewards, especially decor, sell for good money. I've seen websites describe gold farming routes involving series of challenges on a circular path that takes just enough time to reset the half-hour counter.

So even if they can be somewhat annoying, I have learned to not completely ignore challenges. Some of them can actually be fun, usually those that don't involve killing regular mobs.
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Not doing that Steam Sale
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 June 2014, 4:10 pm
Recently Ars Technical data-mined Steam and found that 37% of games that people had bought then stayed unplayed in their libraries. I'm afraid my personal Steam library has even more unplayed games in it. I tend to pick up games that look interesting for cheap in a Steam sale, and then never find the time. So this year I don't participate in the Steam summer sale, because I simply don't need any more unplayed games.

Between Steam sales and cheap iOS games, I have reached the point of game saturation. Neither money nor availability of interesting games is a limiting factor any more, the only limit to the number of games I can play is the time I have for games. How about you?
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Are CREDD Pay2Win?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 June 2014, 2:35 am
In the previous thread Gevlon commented that buying gold is a form of cheating. Basically "Pay2Win", you pay real money, you get virtual gold, and the auction house permits you to leverage that virtual gold into a power advantage in game. But when I pointed out that you could buy gold "legally" via CREDD, Carson opined that Carbine makes the rules, so buying gold via CREDD wouldn't be cheating. Okay, but putting that legalistic definition of what "cheating" is aside, isn't buying gold still Pay2Win, regardless which path you use to convert your real money into an in-game advantage?

In case you don't play Wildstar, you might need to know that in Wildstar crafted gear is exceptionally good, compared with other games. I can't speak about the level cap, but during the leveling process I am convinced that "best-in-slot" is more often than not a crafted item. As a weapon-crafter I have never seen a drop or quest reward which is anywhere near as good as the weapons I can craft for myself. Not only is the quality very good, you also get to choose what stats to put into the crafted item.

So if for example you wanted to start PvP and did so in typical quested for / looted gear, your gear would be far from optimal for PvP, and it would take you quite some time to get decent PvP gear from doing PvP. Especially since if you did this while leveling, you get good xp from PvP, and thus constantly outlevel your gear again. But if you bought a CREDD for real money, and transformed it into virtual gold, you could start your first PvP battle with gear which was not only of much higher quality than quest gear, but you could also buy that gear with specific PvP stats and blow an equally skilled player without that advantage out of the water.

While you can't technically "win" the PvE part of a MMORPG, most people would consider having more power at the same level and thus leveling faster quite an advantage. CREDD can buy you that. So whatever way you look at it, CREDD to me look very much like Pay2Win. And Carbine is making money from it, because CREDD are more expensive than a regular subscription, so Carbine effectively slapped a $2+ "tax" on CREDD subscriptions.

Now I understand the concept of trying to prevent "illegal" gold-selling by offering a legal version. But that didn't work out all that well for Diablo 3. Because it isn't JUST the fact that gold sellers are a shady bunch that cause all sorts of secondary problems that makes real-money trade (RMT) of dollars versus gold a problem. There is a reason why government decided that you can't legally buy heroin in a pharmacy, even if that might put heroin dealers out of business. Legalization isn't a perfect solution to every problem of that kind. If a large part of the motivation in a MMORPG comes from collecting better gear, and you can just pull out your wallet to buy the best available gear, you destroy much of the game in the process.
Tobold's Blog

Wildstar botters
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 June 2014, 10:11 am
Carbine pulled out their ban-hammer for the first time and banned a large number of botters. I can't be absolutely certain if that was the cause, but on the AH of my server the number of titanium chunks for sale dropped from 14,000 to 6,000 over night. Wildstar's Executive Producer Jeremy Gaffney said:
"(An aside, from a place of honesty here - I sincerely don’t understand the player that tries to level up by AFK botting - they make instanced Battlegrounds less fun, and we’re going to ban healthy percentages of them. This wastes money and time (both ours and theirs). And pisses you, the honest player, off. Lose-lose-lose. That being said, I don’t gotta understand the reasons behind such actions – they’re still going to get banned, we’re going to focus heavily on those going forwards.)
(Gold farmers I hate too, but at least I can understand the reasons behind their actions. They’re trying to make money by spamming, ripping off accounts, and gold, and wasting our support/dev time, which is unethical and borderline evil but at least rational. I really suggest not buying gold from them if you actually care about such things)."
I understand the sentiment and the ranking: If your goal is to do well in a game, using a bot is just plain cheating and completely defeats the original purpose of playing a game. On the point of gold farmers, I would be more careful with my language. If you call them "gold farmers", I don't consider their actions unethical or evil. Annoying, sure, but as they never actually accepted the premise of the game as being *a game*, but consider it as a form of making a living, I have a hard time condemning them. They don't "cheat", because they don't play, they work. Of course as soon as we talk about "account hackers", which is not totally the same thing even if there is obviously an overlap, we clearly get into the domain of illegality. But somebody who is just farming gold, with or without bots, and then selling it, with or without spam, isn't breaking any real world laws. In fact a gold farmer quite frequently does exactly the same actions as a regular player in need of gold, only they do it more intensively.

I strongly suspect that game companies hate gold farmers mostly because the gold farmers expose one of the big lies of virtual worlds: That the items and currency in these games are just pixels, a form of art protected by copyright, and not something of real monetary value to the player. The fact that there is an exchange rate, as well officially (CREDD for plat) as inofficially (dollars for gold farmer plat) suggests to any economist that we are dealing here with things that have real world value. Game companies absolutely hate that idea, because they fear that they could be held responsible if their actions lead to a loss of virtual goods. On the one side the game companies would love to extract a maximum amount of money from players who value virtual items, but on the other side they refuse any responsibility for guarding those values. If today someone buys a sparkly pony for $25, and tomorrow the game shuts down or patches mounts out of existence, shouldn't there be some sort of consumer protection for the hapless buyer?
Tobold's Blog

Don't outsource your core business
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 June 2014, 3:26 am
MMORPGs are not like other computer games. A developer studio making a single-player game might well consider their core business to be developing games, and leave the distribution to somebody else. A MMORPG is more akin to an ongoing service. Game design is important, but the infrastructure around it is at least equally important. Your brilliant game is no good at all if for example on release your account creation website is dead and nobody can log in.

Sony Online Entertainment took two years to learn this lesson. They had outsourced the handling of their European customers to a German TV company which had a few browser games, ProSiebenSat1, and was thus eminently unqualified to handle massively multiplayer online role-playing games or shooters. Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and the European players felt left out in the cold. I haven't played any SOE games in that time, just because of PSS1 and region locks. This week SOE cancelled the contract, and will migrate the games back into SOE management. Better late than never! I now might get to play Everquest Next and Landmark!

I hope other game companies are watching and learning the lesson: Customer handling is a core business for MMORPGs, don't outsource it!
Tobold's Blog

Serious gameplay vs. serious looks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 June 2014, 3:06 am
I played every Final Fantasy game from FFVII on. If you look just at the single-player role-playing games of the series (and thus ignore the MMORPGs and tactics and whatever spinoffs), you'll notice that on gameplay they are variations around the same design. But on graphics style there are huge differences between the different Final Fantasy games, from more comic book and colorful to more realistic and dark. Thus in my experience there isn't much of a correlation between looks and gameplay.

But apparently that isn't the perception of everybody. Many people believe that a more serious, closer to photo-realistic, and darker look correlates with more serious gameplay, while candy colored funny furry animals are for casual games. As a result they tend to have problems wrapping their head around Wildstar, which is extremely colorful and not serious at all in style, but very serious in gameplay. You hear a lot of comments from hardcore players who like the idea of Wildstar gameplay, but are turned off by the graphics style. Would Wildstar have an easier time marketing itself to the hardcore audience if it looked more like let's say The Elder Scrolls Online?

Surprisingly when I thought about factors of correlation between looks and gameplay, it appeared to me that if I wanted to make a very serious game, I would go for a comic look, like Carbine did. For me better gameplay correlates strongly with a better user interface. And highly visible user interface elements fit better into a comic world than into a photo-realistic one. You only need to play five minutes of TESO combat versus five minutes of Wildstar combat to know what I mean: The core mechanics of combat are very similar, but in Wildstar you always know exactly what is going on, while in TESO the feedback you get is far from optimal. If you added telegraphs and floating damage numbers to TESO, it wouldn't look good, but that is exactly what you need to do to get combat right.

I believe that Carbine did the right choice when choosing the looks of Wildstar. It is a lot easier to make a game with serious gameplay with the graphics style they have.
Tobold's Blog

Wildstar crafting imbalances
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 June 2014, 3:10 am
In my opinion a MMORPG crafting system should do two things: Produce useful items, and be at least cost-neutral, if not provide a small profit. Wildstar is doing very good on the first count, the weapons and armor you can craft are frequently better than the gear you find questing. On the second count Wildstar is simply unbalanced: For some professions like tailoring the cost of the necessary vendor bought material to craft an item is higher than the vendor sales price of that item, so you not only need to provide the other resources, but also lose money on each craft. For other professions, like architect, it is just the opposite, with the crafted items selling at a huge profit to NPC vendors.

I didn't want to switch tradeskills to architecture to try this out, but after doing the numbers I found that if I crafted refined sapphire power cores from auction house bought resources, and then made titanium weapons from them with AH bought titanium chunks, I could make up to 40 silver per weapon in profit. Not something I would want to do all day, because it involves a lot of boring clicking. But for proof of principle I did that for one hour and ended up making 1 platinum piece (100 gold). If I wasn't such a lazy bastard, at the current CREDD prices of 5 platinum I could earn a monthly subscription by crafting one day. I suspect there is a nerf coming, or the CREDD prices are going to go up a lot.

My previous money-making scheme, making refined sapphire power core and selling them on the AH, is inherently slower, as you rely on other players to buy your crafted stuff. And the more you try to sell, the lower the profit gets, as the AH prices come under competitive pressure. The new scheme is a lot more solid, as this time it is only the buying that is done on the auction house. For example I need 7 chunks of titanium for one weapon, and on the AH on my server there were 14,400 chunks on offer. I could craft a long time before the AH runs out of resources. And the NPC always buys at the same price, regardless how many swords I sell him.

To me the huge quantity of resources on the AH suggests that collecting resources might be somewhat too easy. It is not only that the vendor prices for some crafted goods are too high, but also that the AH prices for some resources are too low. If I can make 1 plat in 1 hour with a level 18 character (and I could have done it with a level 10), you can imagine what kind of virtual money the sort of people who do this for a living can make. We'll have to rename the Chinese Gold Farmers into Chinese Gold Crafters soon.
Tobold's Blog

Wildstar Journal - End
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2014, 5:16 am
No, I'm not going to stop playing Wildstar already. But the journal is over, after me having taken some decisions regarding this game. I consider the solo game of Wildstar to be one of the best currently available, and in its challenge level more fun to me than World of Warcraft. Crafting and the auction house are also very well done. Housing is "nice to have", albeit not something I'm going to spend hours on. On the other hand I consider that the combat system which works so well in solo mode breaks down in multi-player. And yes, I also tested PvP. With multiple players fighting multiple opponents, mob or player, there are simply too many telegraphs and things going on too quickly to allow for a decent degree of tactical control. Combine that with the decision of Carbine to make dungeons and raids inaccessible for the majority of players, and I just can't see myself doing much, if any, multi-player content.

On the negative side that means that reaching the level cap in Wildstar for me will be equivalent to a game over screen. And due to the low number of zones in the game, I'm not going to play a large number of different characters; currently I play 2, and the maximum I could imagine if I decide to play an Exile alt would be 3. And chances aren't good for me to play Exile, unless I would be allowed to send mail from Dominion to Exile, as I find having to start the economic game over from zero to be too annoying.

On the positive side, having decided to opt out of the multi-player part of Wildstar means I am under absolutely no pressure to be at a certain level in a certain time. At first my instincts kicked in, where I was thinking that if I pay a monthly subscription, I need to play a significant number of hours per month to make it worth paying. I had already considered unsubscribing from Wildstar after the first month, just because I will be away on holiday for three weeks in July, and Wildstar doesn't play well on a laptop. But now I think I will just keep that subscription active, and maybe play a bit of Wildstar during the holidays in activities that aren't affected too badly by low framerates, for example crafting and trading. It isn't as if I couldn't afford to pay for a Wildstar subscription for the up to 6 months it will take me to "finish" the game if I don't hurry.

I find that my enjoyment of Wildstar increases if I don't pursue traditional goals like fast leveling. This weekend I spent an afternoon farming all the weaponsmithing tier 1 recipes in the two level 6-14 starting zones. Such activities fulfill the basic formula for fun in a MMORPG: I set myself a goal, I pursue that goal over a limited amount of time, and I'm happy to achieve the goal at the end of the day. I don't consider MMORPGs to be competitive games, even if lots of people try to artificially introduce competitive elements like "server firsts" into it. If you don't exclude activities which give a sub-optimal amount of rewards per hour, there is a lot of things to do in Wildstar. And I intend to enjoy Wildstar until inevitably I run out of content.
Tobold's Blog

MMORPG life cycles
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2014, 4:21 am
In last weeks thread there developed a side-discussion on how short the life cycle of MMORPGs are. And because people generally are bad at math, they couldn't agree on whether World of Warcraft was the most stable MMORPG ever, or the most volatile. Quote Hagu: "WoW lost 4-5 million customers, probably more than all other MMOs have in the West, so "just fine" might be overselling it slightly.". The fact that a quarterly report of Blizzard can easily show a up or down movement in player numbers of WoW which exceeds the total player number of any other MMO in the West makes it appear rather volatile, so "WoW loses a million players" is a frequent headline in gaming news.

I think it helps to not calculate in absolute numbers, but in percentages. Basically just draw a curve, ignore the scale, and see how steep the rises and drops are. So on the one hand we have World of Warcraft, which rose to its peak subscriber number in 6 years, and then lost about a third of those subscribers in the 4 following years. On the other hand we have the games of the "post WoW era", with one famous example of the short life cycle behavior being Warhammer Online, which rose to 750,000 subscribers in a month, and then lost two thirds of those in the following 6 months. Or Star Wars: The Old Republic that went up to 1.7 million subscribers in the first two months, and then also lost about two thirds of those in the following 6 months, before going Free2Play to stem the fall.

If you look at this that way, the most stable MMORPG is EVE Online, which took nearly 10 years to peak. Although, just like WoW, opening Chinese servers in a later point of the life cycle certainly helps against volatility. Second place after EVE Online is then World of Warcraft. Every other game, even earlier games like Everquest, lost higher percentages of subscribers in shorter periods of time.

I believe that the MMORPGs of 2014 will peak in less than 12 months after release, and will lose more than half of their subscribers in the 12 months after the peak. But it isn't certain that they will release any numbers. I haven't seen any numbers published for The Elder Scrolls Online; there have been "best guesses" based on physical box sales that put subscriber numbers in the first month at 1.2 million, which sounds nice until you consider that they had 5 million players signing up for beta. TESO might have peaked *before* release. I don't have any numbers for Wildstar either, but they wisely restricted beta access much more. But while many people consider Wildstar's "endgame is for the ultra-hardcore" design to be exactly what they want, I don't think anybody believes that a lot of the 95+% of excluded players will stick around for a long time. The arguments typically are "they will leave anyway", rather than that this design will make them stay.
Tobold's Blog

A question for the hardcore
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 June 2014, 2:33 am
The hardcore vs. casual debate is getting increasingly ugly on the Wildstar forums. A lot of people who didn't think of themselves as "casual" made it to level 20, tried the first dungeon, and found out that Wildstar in fact considers them to be part of the unwashed masses not worthy to do group content. So they complain, and get shouted down by those who like the Wildstar difficulty as it is. But in all that discussion I am missing one rather essential point. And so I am asking it here:

Imagine that all what the hardcore players say is true, and that ultra-hard content and 12-step attunements and all that is good for the game. But what exactly would be the harm if we take all that group content and duplicate it, providing an "easy mode" copy with lesser rewards?

To me it appears that for a raiding guild to function, there needs to be a pool of potential candidates out there. And it would be much preferable if those candidates had already SOME knowledge and training in the content that the raiding guild wants to tackle. Furthermore one of the motivations of the hardcore appears to be wanting to be a role model that other players look up to. But a real casual player who is interested in decorating his house and his mount collection or whatever isn't going to look up to a raider strutting around in epics. Somebody who is doing easy mode raid content is much more likely to see a hardcore raider as a role model.

But most of all I consider the financial implications. If there is a large population who would like to do group content, but isn't able to, they are likely to quit Wildstar. It would cost very little of money and developer time to provide them with an easy mode copy of the dungeons and raids. And then they would stay at the very least some time longer, contributing more money to Carbine's ability to produce future content for the game.

The only possible argument I can see how easy mode would be bad is that some people would shy away from hardcore raiding if easy mode raiding was available. But honestly, is that really the sort of player you would want in your hardcore raid?

So I really can't understand why anybody would be against the *additional* provision of easy mode content, after giving the hardcore raiders all the ultra-hard raiding content and shiny epics they desire. If you know any good arguments, please tell me!
Tobold's Blog

Wildstar Journal - Day 7
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2014, 3:04 am
As reported yesterday, I found that there was a good profit margin in doing refined power cores, buying the materials at the commodities broker and selling the power cores there. So I pushed heavily into that market. That significantly lowered the prices and profit, but I ended up with 40 gold (four times the cost of a mount). Fortunately buying, crafting, and selling doesn't take too much time, so I spent most of that session doing quests with my esper alt.

The reason I was playing my esper is that I noticed that his rest xp were low. In fact, after playing him for a while and using up his rest xp, I found he didn't gain ANY rest xp over night. Strange, the information I had about rest xp was that you get *some* everywhere, twice the number if you are in your capital city, and between three and four times the number in your house, depending on decor. In any case, it seemed worth it to level up the alt to get to level 14 and be able to park him in his house when not needed. In this session I made it from level 11 to 13, so this goal is getting close.

In the process I observed another weird thing: In Wildstar you don't get a talent tree, but you get AMP points. And to get to the higher levels of AMP abilities, you need to find those skill AMPs as a drop or buy them from a vendor. And it turns out that the distribution of the AMPs you can find is seriously skewed. My warrior is swimming in AMPs. My esper can't find any AMPs for the assault branch of the AMP talent tree. That is reflected also in auction house prices, there are hundreds of those warrior AMPs for cheap in the AH, while the esper assault AMPs are not available, or have a single one in the AH for 10 to 100 gold.

Besides the random drops, you can get AMPs from vendors. So I looked up the AMPs I needed for my esper. Bad luck, there aren't any assault AMPs in the zone I'm in. I would need to switch to the other newbie zone and grind reputation to buy one of them there. A second one is in the capital, but only sold for prestige points, the PvP currency, in spite of not being a PvP-specific AMP. And the other three are in much higher level zones. So in the end I decided I couldn't put my points in the assault tree as I wanted, and went for the utility tree instead. The support tree (healing) is useless for soloing.
Tobold's Blog

An interesting theory on the Wildstar business model
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2014, 4:23 am
Green Armadillo has an interesting theory on the Wildstar business model: He believes that Carbine is counting on most players leaving the game in the first 90 days anyway, and trying to retain just the top 1% to 5% of hardcore raiders. Quote: "Five percent of WoW's over ten million peak would be over half a million subscribers, which would put Wildstar in solid territory by any measure."

While as a theory this is interesting, I do have a problem with the math. Because the 5% Carbine could possibly retain are not 5% of WoW peak numbers, but rather 5% of Wildstar peak numbers. Which are probably closer to 1 million than to 10 million. And to the best of my knowledge of MMORPG economics, 50,000 subscribers aren't enough to keep a triple-A MMORPG afloat.

Numbers can be deceptive. If you look at a graph of World of Warcraft subscription numbers over time, you get the impression that for some time people joined WoW, then it peaked, and then people started to leave WoW. But imagine you had the possibility to track each individual WoW player. Imagine you knew exactly what the 8 million players of World of Warcraft during let's say Burning Crusade are playing now. It would be totally wrong to assume that just half a million of them quit WoW and 7.5 million of those 8 million are still playing. Chances are that the numbers are closer to reverse: Half a million people of those 8 million during Burning Crusade still play WoW, the other 7.5 million quit. The overwhelming majority of people playing WoW now are people who joined the game much later. WoW doesn't necessarily KEEP players, it replaces them by new ones.

I believe that for most people hardcore raiding is a phase, not a permanent lifestyle choice. For me certainly it was. You can't point at the 8 million people of Burning Crusade, of which 1% to 5% played raids with attunements and think that these people are still around, only waiting for another game with raid attunements. Raiding is fun, but it does have inherent disadvantages: You need to be online for a large block of hours simultaneously with your raiding friends, and while your personal performance might be important to you, it is not the deciding factor to whether the raid succeeds. You can fail because your raid companions failed, and that causes inherently unstable social situations. "Guild drama" is a term we are all familiar with because of raiding.

And, let's face it, we aren't getting any younger. World of Warcraft is approaching its 10th anniversary, and if you started raiding even earlier, in Everquest, even more time has gone past. The years are likely to have a negative effect not only on your reaction time and raid performance, but also on your availability for raiding, due to things like growing work and family responsibilities and competing claims on your time. And for most of us the years also did a good job of putting our priorities into perspective: We now have other goals in life than being a top raider in this or that MMORPG.

Thus I do not believe that it will be possible for Wildstar to attract a stable pool of half a million hardcore raiders and keep them playing (and paying for) the game for several years.
Tobold's Blog

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