Human breeding simulator
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 June 2015, 12:39 pm
I'm not exactly an ultra-feminist. I do believe in gender equality, but don't agree that the best way to get there is forcing quotas for women in every job, or turning half of the Warlords of Draenor into Warladies. Having said that, it does happen that I object to some particularly sexist content. And it is with some surprise that I found Fallout Shelter to be offensively sexist.

Fallout Shelter is a mobile game which falls into the same general category as let's say Tiny Tower. You manage a vault in the world of Fallout and need to keep a balance between resource production and resource needs. Your shelter is inhabited by "dwellers", and shortly after the start of the game you stop getting dwellers from outside. You can attract outside dwellers with a radio station, but I haven't had much luck with that yet. You can get rare dwellers from lunchboxes, which aren't that frequent either if you don't buy lots of those lunchboxes with real money. So as you need quite a lot of dwellers, for example to unlock new room types, Fallout Shelter quickly degenerates into a human breeding simulator.

From a pure minmax perspective, if not all of the women in your vault are pregnant, you are playing it wrong. You need to drag each woman into the living quarters together with a man who isn't a direct blood relative, dress them both up in gear that increases their charisma the most (which in my game weirdly is a bishop's outfit for the man and a baby doll nightdress for the woman), and a few minutes later the two will disappear into the bedroom in the background, from which the woman will come back pregnant. Repeat until every woman is pregnant, and you will soon have enough dwellers in your vault. There are even quests ("objectives") like "Have 12 Male and Female couples dance in the Living Quarters", with "dancing" being an euphemism, you can't dance without a pregnancy resulting. Oh, and "dancing" is also the best way to increase the happiness of your dwellers. As much as that is represented in a humoristic way, that sort of gameplay isn't exactly in the best of taste.
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Games, toys, and balance
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2015, 3:24 am
Lego has no rules other than the rules of physics. Nobody is telling you that you can't but that blue brick on that red brick, or whatever you want. Monopoly has rules that prevent you from doing whatever you want, for example you can't move counterclockwise around the board. That is because Monopoly is a game, or structured play, while Lego is a toy, or unstructured play. The problem is that in some cases, for example MMORPGs, you're not quite certain whether you are playing a game or playing with a toy.

MMORPGs sure have a lot of silly rules. Many of them have to do with the limitations of the engine: Most of the things you see in your environment you can't interact with. You can't pick a flower unless it is of a specific group of herbs, and you have a specific skill for picking that herb. You can't climb a wall, or even a fence. You can chop through a 5 meter high treant, but a vine only as thick as your arm is an impassable obstacle. And the same flying mount can either fly or not fly depending on where you are, and whether you fulfill certain conditions.

The latter is not so much a case of limitation of the engine, but one of game rules. Games have rules mostly to create a structured and balanced environment. In computer games there is frequently the notion that an activity has to provide a certain degree of challenge, and overcoming that challenge is then rewarded. If you circumvent the challenge, for example by installing an aim-bot in a shooter game, you are considered to be cheating, because you get the reward without doing the challenge within the rules. If the challenge is having to get through a bunch of mobs, or using a glider to reach a specific location, flying can also get you to the reward without doing the challenge. Thus from a game perspective it makes perfect sense to only allow you to fly once those rewards aren't relevant to your character any more.

But then of course some people don't consider MMORPGs to be games, but rather toys. Nobody forces you to follow a specific cycle of challenges and rewards. You can just go out and ignore much of the structured play and do something less structured. For example the character I am currently leveling is basically not doing quests. Instead he is visiting all zones and is collecting all pets. And because the xp requirements today are so low, the xp from exploring, pet battles, and the occasional fight with a mob that is in the way is enough to level him. Not a terribly efficient leveling method, but then that isn't really the purpose of the exercise. I sure wished he could fly sometimes, but at level 33 that isn't possible yet. The game gets its rules in the way of my toy.

There certainly are a lot of similar cases, where playing around with the toy that is a virtual world gets hindered by the rules necessary for the game part of that MMORPG. And I wonder if one of the reasons of the decline of the genre isn't that developers concentrated too much on the game, and restricted the toy too much in the process. Toys can have a much better longevity than games, because you don't reach a goal and are done with it. I would very much like to see a MMORPG in which I could interact more with my environment, even if that doesn't serve a huge purpose for the game. While I am skeptical that Daybreak can actually pull it off, the concept of EQNext / Landmark is very promising in that regard. We sure don't need yet another "level to the cap, then raid" MMORPG out there. In the words of Monty Python, it is time for something completely different.
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Fallout Shelter
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 June 2015, 7:26 am
Recently somebody assured me that Bethesda was not one of those game companies that would milk a franchise for all that it's worth. Today they released Fallout Shelter for iOS, a Free2Play vault management game with in-app purchases. Now some fanboi will probably explain to me that this is so totally not the same a Dungeon Keeper for iOS. But from where I stand, without rose-tinted glasses, I must say that this looks mighty suspicious. My personal guess is that The Elder Scrolls Online created some cash-flow problems for Bethesda; the mobile Fallout Shelter and the 2-years-in-advance pre-purchase offer for Fallout 4 suggest that they are rather desperate for cash.

Or to say it in other words: You would be suspicious as well if this had been EA.
Tobold's Blog



Kickstarter fraud
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2015, 9:39 am
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the first time got involved with a Kickstarter campaign, finding that the person who ran the crowdfunding campaign "never hired artists for the board game and instead used the consumers’ funds for miscellaneous personal equipment, rent for a personal residence, and licenses for a separate project.". Well, obviously that is good news if there is somebody watching out for consumers against such fraud. Although I'd say that the fraudster got off extremely lightly: While he settled with FTC on paying the money back, that payback is suspended because of his inability to pay. Other than having to promise not to lie next time, nothing happens to him. Not exactly a huge win for consumer protection. Not sure it will actually discourage anybody from trying something similar.

Fraud is mostly a matter of intention. While the FTC might come after somebody for fraud, they won't sue somebody for being an idealistic idiot with no clue in project management. Which is probably a fair description of most cases of failed Kickstarter projects. That is somewhat unfortunate for the consumer, because for the consumer the results of fraud and of incompetence are pretty much indistinguishable. You're out of your money and didn't get the game you funded.

I wonder if Kickstarter would still work if there were no backer rewards. What if the project creator could *not* promise you a free copy of the game and other rewards in return for your donation? What if it was, *gasp*, an actual donation, with no strings attached? Before you say that this would never work, think about the consequences: If we say that a Kickstarter project could not possibly be financed by real donations, but has to have an element of pre-purchase, then is a Kickstarter project a campaign for donations at all? Or is it rather some sort of sales agreement, which would necessitate far better consumer protection than we currently have?
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How to become a Draenor Pathfinder
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2015, 3:41 am
I think the subject of the new achievement / "attunement" Draenor Pathfinder necessary to get flying in Draenor merits closer examination. How hard is it to do, and who is it for? Previous implementations of attunements, "you have to do this in order to be allowed to do that", have not always been a huge success. So how about Draenor Pathfinding.

From what was announced the Draenor Pathfinding achievement is based on 4 already existing / doable achievements: Exploring Draenor, Draenor Loremaster, Securing Draenor, and finding 100 Draenor treasures. While that might be subject to change, let's have a look at those:

Exploring Draenor and Draenor Loremaster are both very easy. You need to visit every sub-zone on the map of Draenor for the former, and do all the main zone story lines for the latter. Unless you had some very unconventional way to level your character to 100, chances are that you already completed most of the requirements of both of those achievements. There might be some more exotic sub-zones missing on your list, but they tend to be the same exotic sub-zones for everybody, and if you type the name of that sub-zone into the YouTube search interface, you'll certainly find a video showing you how to get there. The Draenor Loremaster achievement doesn't count number of quests done, but certain main story quest lines from the different zones. Those are the same main story quest lines you needed to open your garrison outposts in the various zones, which makes it not unlikely that you already did them. If not, you'll have to do some regular questing designed for characters below level 100, which should be trivial enough.

Finding 100 Draenor treasures is a bit more weird. The already existing achievements asks for 200 treasures, so this has been reduced for the Draenor Pathfinding achievement. I call treasures weird because they have been completely optional, and somewhat of a change to how the world previously worked. As a consequence some people might conceivably not have found a single treasure on their way to level 100. In vanilla WoW and all previous expansions a broken down cart on the side of the road was always just a piece of decoration; there was never any interaction with it. In Draenor you are suddenly supposed to check out that broken down cart closely, and find a rather small clickable object in it or under it, which is a treasure. Treasures can be pretty much everywhere, under trees, in small niches in buildings, on top of mountains. A few need a sort of jumping puzzle to get there, but most don't, and you can easily get 100 treasures without jumping once, if you know where they are. For that you either need a treasure map in game, or, far easier, an addon that marks all treasure locations on your map and mini-map. With the addon the 100 treasures are easy enough, even if you haven't done any during leveling.

In my opinion the most work is the Securing Draenor achievement. There are 12 places distributed all over Draenor with level 100 mobs which are part of a series of daily quests from the garrison to get Apexis crystals. If you are one of the three people in WoW who love Apexis crystals and hunted for them daily, you'll already have this achievement. But I'd guess that most of us don't. The problem up to now was that the daily quest was the same for everybody, so the one place of the 12 that was the target of the day was usually overcrowded with players competing for mob spawns, which made these daily quests not really enjoyable. But the good news is that you don't need the daily quests to do the achievement. And if you have a surplus of garrison resources you can even buy the 12 quests from the quartermaster in your garrison. If you do the ones that *aren't* the quest of the day, there should be a lot less competition for spawns. If you have been playing for a while and got a decent iLevel above 640 from whatever you did, even from just doing follower missions, none of the mobs should pose a serious threat. Overall this quest does however require several hours worth of farming mobs in the 12 locations, so it isn't quite as easy as the other requirements.

Beyond those four achievements, in order to get the Draenor Pathfinder achievement you also need to be revered with 3 new factions in the Tanaan Jungle. Right now that is my biggest worry. I'm not a huge fan of reputation grinds, and I'm not sure how many hours it will take to get three factions to revered. I guess we will have to wait and see for that part. But the good news is that the other parts of Draenor Pathfinder are soloable by an average player in a reasonable number of hours. Flying in Draenor will not be an ultra-rare achievement for a tiny elite. Given how much time and money some people spent on collecting flying mounts, that is a good thing.
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Comforting Azuriel on flying in Draenor
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2015, 9:24 am
Azuriel is somewhat disappointed by the seemingly chaotic way that Blizzard decided on flying in Azeroth. Me, I don't believe a word of this story of how they came up with this decision. I believe the *real* story went like this:

A Blizzard designer presented the plan of unlocking flying in Draenor in a later patch via an achievement already early in the development phase of Draenor, and everybody agreed.

Somebody remarked that there would probably be a lot of complaints about having to do a bunch of achievements to unlock flying. They needed a plan to make this achievement unlock more popular.

Blizzard decided to first keep mum about flying in Draenor, then make a fake announcement that there wouldn't be any flying at all in Draenor or any future expansion.

They wait for the predictably protest and then present their original plan as a "compromise". Everybody is happy.
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Launch issues
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2015, 2:43 am
This week The Elder Scrolls Online launched on consoles, and the launch didn't go well. Destructoid joked "The Elder Scrolls Online suffers totally unexpected launch issues", basically classifying the event as non-news: Pretty much every MMORPG has launch issues. The underlying problem is pretty basic: On normal days the peak concurrent users of a game constitute only a small percentage of the overall players, industry rule of thumb is about 10% for a subscription game. On launch day *everybody* wants to play, so the servers are overloaded. Basically launch day is pretty much indistinguishable from a distributed denial of service attack on the game. So launch issues are "normal". But is that really an excuse?

If you told a big internet company today that there was a distributed denial of service attack expected on their servers next month, they would be able to prepare and either negate that attack or at least mitigate the damage. So if everybody knows that launch day is a problem, why shouldn't it be possible to handle that problem as well? You would probably need additional server resources, but as you can rent cloud-based solutions that isn't impossible. It has a cost, but that should be weighed against the positive marketing effect of the really surprising headline of "MMORPG launches without problems".

At the very least a game company should provide enough login server resources to sort the mess into an orderly queue, because that by itself already solves part of the problem. If a player tries to login and gets an undecipherable error message, he will try again and again. If he logs in and gets told that he is in a login queue of 2 hours, he knows what is going on an might decide to give up and try the next day instead.

In the case of The Elder Scrolls Online it has also to be remarked that this is the second launch of the same game. Oscar Wilde would say that "To lose one launch may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.". Online games aren't exotic any more. Even games that previously would have been considered single-player games in this day an age are often designed as online games, and thus frequently also suffer from launch issues. It is time that the industry finds technical solutions to this problem.
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Complaining about not enough Win 4 Pay
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 June 2015, 3:44 am
There has been an interesting development in the ongoing discussion about Pay2Win. Usually it is an endless chorus of people complaining about feeling obliged to pay money for items that give them an advantage in the game. These people would prefer purchases to be completely cosmetic, so paying has no influence whatsoever on the game. Now Blizzard did exactly that in Hearthstone, and now the other side is complaining: The new heroes in Hearthstone, which are entirely cosmetic and cost $10 are considered to be bad value for money, because they don't give you any advantage in the game for your $10.

That isn't exactly the first time that happened. The $25 sparkly pony in World or Warcraft, or the $68 monocle in EVE Online were exactly the same problem: Outrage over pricey cosmetic items that have real use in the game. You can say a lot of bad things about Blizzard selling expensive flying mounts and then removing flying from the game, but it certainly isn't Pay2Win.

The fundamental problem, as usual, is that different people care about different parts of a game. Expensive cosmetic items means that people who care about looks subsidize other players who don't. Of course most players have an attitude of "I don't care who has to pay for this game, as long as it isn't me", but expensive cosmetic items aren't exactly fair.

A fair business model would somehow have to link how much a person gets out of the game to how much he pays. And no, that doesn't mean subscriptions, because being given the opportunity to play and being actually able to play and get entertainment out of a game is not the same. Surprisingly the place in which a MMORPG like World of Warcraft is priced the fairest might be China, where people pay $5 for 2700 minutes of game time, or 11 cents per hour. A fixed cost per hour of entertainment derived from the game is more fair than any of the business models available over here, where some people pay significantly more per actual hour of WoW played than others.

But as long as we stick to Free2Play models, which by definition have to support a lot of freeloaders, making people pay for additional content, comfort functions, or other advantages to me appears more fair than making them pay for cosmetic items. I'd rather have the cosmetic stuff be a reward for achievements, so that running around looking special actually means something more than just being rich. If some players have to pay the game for other players, it is only fair if they receive something a bit more substantial for that payment than just cosmetics.
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The roleplaying in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 June 2015, 4:39 am
There is an interesting discussion started by Syp and taken up by Rowan Blaze on what your characters in an MMORPG are: Are they puppets, whose personality is the personality of the player, but the abilities are determined by game rules? Or is their personality determined by their role in the game?

I think this is a question that is better understood when looking at other forms of roleplaying games, like pen & paper tabletop games. In 35 years of experience with Dungeons & Dragons and similar games I am sure that the personality of the player always shines through, but you do get occasions where a well-played character makes decisions that are more based on his place in a fictional world than on the player controlling him. Many players are trying to roleplay their characters, but can't completely switch off modern ways of thinking. It just is very hard for somebody from the 21st century to think like a medieval person, for example regarding beliefs, or what is right and wrong.

Computer games have the additional complication that in most cases you are not free to make any decisions you like. Especially MMORPGs frequently only offer you the options to accept or decline the quest as prepared by the developers. With the rewards tied to the accept button there isn't really a decision to take, thus players end up performing a torture quest without even thinking about the issue. The "decision" is more like "I'm going to do all quests in this zone for leveling", and the result is a story which is completely controlled by the developers, and the player is reduced to watching the story and pressing buttons only for game mechanics reasons.

On the other hand this pre-written story of following the quest-lines is mostly for players who either want to experience those zone stories, or who consider doing quest-lines to be the most pleasant form of leveling. The game doesn't actually force you to follow the quests. I am currently playing a level 30 dwarf hunter in World of Warcraft who is more interested in visiting all the different zones of Azeroth and collecting all battle pets in these zones than doing quests. The "story" of his voyages might not have the drama of a quest line, but it is certainly a story based on my decisions, not on something pre-fabricated by the developers. But even here the decisions aren't based on the personality of my avatar, but rather on "what do I need to do to achieve a certain personal goal".

The D&D campaign I am currently preparing is exceptionally rich in options for taking decisions based on personal philosophy and beliefs, to the point where the fate of the game world rests on the beliefs of the players and their decisions made according to those beliefs. We spent more time than usual on character creation and I provided more tools and options. I don't know if ultimately the beliefs of the players or the beliefs of the characters they play will become more important, but I think the two are sufficiently aligned to work either way. This is promising to be interesting. A MMORPG will never offer us as much opportunity for real decisions or to really change the world. Despite of looking humanoid and being able to express emotions on command, our MMORPG characters don't really have much personality than PacMan or the paddle in Pong.

The one place where personalities are most visible in a MMORPG are in chat, whether that is voice chat or typed. And it turns out that "in character" chat is extremely rare in MMORPGs, usually just some of the time on a few selected roleplaying servers. The vast majority of the chat going on is completely based on the personalities of the players, and not their characters at all. And because of the disinhibition many people display in a pseudo-anonymous environment, that ends up with interaction which is frequently not very pleasant. So that a growing trend in multi-player online games is to limit opportunities for any sort of free chat, as well as disallowing various player interactions that can be considered to be griefing. Instead of asking the question who exactly controls the personality of our avatars, we might end up in a situation where avatars don't have any personality at all.
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Win to not pay
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 June 2015, 10:07 am
I just cancelled my World of Warcraft subscription. When you do that you get an exit interview, which completely failed to cover my case: I only cancelled my subscription, but have no intention whatsoever to stop playing. I have enough gold to buy a year's worth of WoW tokens, and just don't want my credit card to be charged in case I forget to hand in a token in time.

Recently there was a lot of discussion whether it was "fair" that somebody with a lot of money could buy WoW tokens, exchange those for gold, and buy epics with them. But what about the person who like me is exchanging his gold for WoW tokens: Is it "fair" that I get to play for free when most other players have to pay for their subscription? Is it "fair" that somebody else is basically paying for my subscription? I don't think so.

I think this is a fundamental problem of games that use the PLEX/CREDD/Token system. There are some people in the game which are more interested in making gold than others, and with a bit of practice those tend to get rather good at it, because game economies have lots of exploitable flaws. Gevlon sure isn't paying to play EVE. I'm not paying to play WoW, nor presumably does Flasteria, the new gold goblin in WoW. I have no idea what the percentage of players in a game like World of Warcraft is that can easily make enough gold every month to pay for a WoW token (especially since in Europe it costs twice as much gold as in America). But I do know that I personally don't even need to make any particular effort and still end up with enough gold for two WoW tokens every month.

In a genre which is full of individual and subjective win conditions I just happened to be one of the players whose win condition now makes him exempt from having to pay a subscription. That seems somewhat arbitrary to me. You could imagine playing for free to be coupled to some completely different win condition, for example WoW Tokens dropping from mythic raid bosses, or being a price for arena fights. Players who like to make gold are just one sub-group, and not a particularly glamorous one, of the many different players of World of Warcraft. Why do we get to play for free?

What is even weirder is that we get to play for free for making gold in the World of Warcraft expansion in which making gold is the easiest. I don't even need to leave my garrison these days to make enough gold to pay my subscription, the bulk of my income is rather passive. Gone are the days where you needed tons of clicks to make money by glyph selling. Today I produce and sell stuff which costs thousands of gold per item, so making the tens of thousands of gold for a token is fast enough.

I'm not complaining about my good fortune, but honestly I don't consider it fair. My apologies to the person or persons unknown who are paying for my subscription. I didn't set out to grab your money, Blizzard just changed the rules in a way that unfairly favors me and the way I've always been playing.
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Steam refunds provide pre-order purchase consumer protection
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 June 2015, 5:43 am
This week Steam changed their refund policy and is now offering to refund you for any purchase for any reason as long as you didn't own the game for more than 14 days and didn't play it for more than 2 hours. So in the light of the recent discussion on pre-purchasing games, I checked the fine print of that refund policy: The 14 days period starts on the day the game is released, not on the day you purchase it. Which means that if you pre-ordered a game due to marketing hype and it turns out that the game is shit on release, you can get a refund. Now that should prevent some of the worst shenanigans of marketing departments.

I am honestly surprised by the amount of articles that I have read who find fault with the new Steam refund policy. Apparently many developers and so-called video game journalists believe that if customers are given even the most basic consumer rights, they will abuse those rights to the point of destroying the market. For me that is just yet another example of developers and journalist focusing too much on a small number of "hardcore" players, who admittedly are a bunch of evil miscreants willing to screw everybody by gaming the system. But the average customer of a video game today isn't a hardcore gamer any more. And regular honest customers deserve protection, because there are also enough developers who are basically just criminals out for a quick buck.

Really, if I am ever going to use the Steam refund policy it will be because I think I have been cheated by some developer whose game is far from working as promised. I would never try to get a refund for a game just because I managed to play through it in 1 hour 59 minutes. And if that refund policy leads to developers making DLCs which have actually more than 2 hours worth of content, that is to be applauded. I don't want to buy a salami thin slice by thin slice, ending up paying double or triple for what the whole salami is worth. The refund policy has an abuse clause, so for me that is sufficient protection for developers; somebody systematically using the system to get a refund for every game he buys is going to end up being banned from Steam, which is how it should be.

I fully applaud the new Steam refund policy. I should go a long way to improve their "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau. And consumer protection is certainly one of the steps needed to raise games from being "niche" and "special" to becoming grown up and a media product like all others.
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Please boycott Fallout 4 pre-purchase!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2015, 3:33 am
Yesterday Fallout 4 was announced. Simultaneously the offer to pre-purchase the game on Steam went up. I am launching an appeal to everybody to please boycott that pre-purchase. If we as customers make it clear that we are willing to give companies money for simply *announcing* a sequel with unknown content and release date, it is our own fault if those game companies fleece us in the future.
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Hell level nostalgia
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2015, 2:40 am
The original Everquest, before 2002, had a complicated formula to calculate xp requirements per level which led to certain levels needing far more xp than others. These levels were known as hell levels. At the time leveling was a very slow process, so while a regular level could already take a week of playing to achieve, a hell level could take a month. And at the time you also suffered an xp loss on dying, so dying during a hell level could set you back a week of progress. The xp curve was smoothed in 2002. And today, on the new progression servers Ragefire and Lockjaw, the xp requirements per level have been significantly lowered. You can now level up in hours, not days or weeks or months.

It is my personal belief that the way people play MMORPGs depends very strongly on the incentives and requirements. Thus as much Ragefire and Lockjaw might resemble the old Everquest, and the advertising says "play like it's 1999", I think that playing on these progression servers with their fast leveling is fundamentally different from playing the original Everquest with slow leveling and hell levels. Furthermore from the descriptions I read it appears that EQ today is far more solo-friendly than EQ 1999, and that again has a huge impact on social behavior of players.

I'm not saying that I want my hell levels back. But I would say that the often bemoaned phenomenon of people "playing alone together" is very much a product of the xp requirements curve and the ease of soloing. If you made a new World of Warcraft server on which gaining a level would take 20 times as long as it does today, and you increased the group xp bonus significantly, you would end up with a version of World of Warcraft where lots of people would group during leveling, and where leveling would be far more prominent than end-game raiding.

Me, I'd rather play on that hypothetical server. I am currently playing a level 29 hunter not using heirloom gear, and doing a lot of pet battles. And I can't help but outlevel any zone shortly after I entered it, in spite not having the heirloom xp bonus and in spite of not resting in an inn. My WoW leveling experience today is as far away from the original WoW as the Ragefire / Lockjaw servers are from the original Everquest. For people who actually like taking their time to explore zones and level slowly, there don't appear to be many games on offer. Anyone know a game where people still group to level, because leveling solo is too slow?
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World of Tanks: Generals and Heroes of the Storm
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 June 2015, 3:05 am
Wargaming, makers of World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, World of Warships, ... (you get the idea), is also making two World of Tanks spinoff games for mobile devices: World of Tanks: Blitz and World of Tanks: Generals, which just entered open beta. Although I haven't played World of Tanks for some time, I consider myself a fan of that game, and I am looking forward to World of Warships. But neither of the two mobile games appealed very much to me.

World of Tanks: Blitz is a simplified version of the PC World of Tanks. The reason I don't play it is the controls. Shooters in general work extremely well with mouse and keyboard. They already work less well with a gamepad on consoles. And the touch screen controls are probably the least adequate way to control a shooter, even if it is a "slow shooter" like World of Tanks. The lack of haptic feedback is killing the game for me.

Cue World of Tanks: Generals, a "turn-based tactical card game" for which the touch-screen control scheme is a perfect fit for the gameplay. Of course that gameplay doesn't have anything to do with the other World of ... shooters. WoT: Generals is a game where you have a hand of cards drawn from a deck. Many of those cards represent tanks (including artillery tanks), and are placed on a small board of squares where they can move and fight each other. So overall you collect cards, build decks, and battle with those decks like in many other tactical card games, just with tanks instead of fantasy characters.

I could happily play a tactical card game for hours, but I don't play World of Tanks: Generals. Because once you are through the tutorial, where you play against the AI, World of Tanks: Generals is a pure PvP game. You can't play offline, and every battle that counts for anything is against another player in real-time. Only practice matches can be played PvE. Now for the regular World of Tanks PC game I can understand the need for the game being PvP: Anybody who ever played a PvE shooter knows that the AI always has serious limitations. And the 15 vs. 15 gameplay of World of Tanks limits the impact of bad behavior of any single player. The same can't be said about a 1 vs. 1 tactical card game: The AI is perfectly adequate, and a human opponent isn't necessarily more interesting to play against than an AI opponent; and any bad behavior of your opponent like stalling impacts your enjoyment of the game very much. In short, WoT: Generals would be a much better game if it had a solo PvE mode beyond just practice. I'd play it solo PvE, but I'm not playing it PvP.

I have a very similar reaction to Heroes of the Storm. Blizzard added a feature of practice against AI which clearly demonstrates that a solo PvE game can be much more enjoyable than a PvP game: The matchmaking is clearly much better, there is a lot less chance of an easy win or unavoidable loss due to players quitting or not really playing. And you don't need to suffer the toxic community of MOBA games if you play against the AI. I think somewhere Blizzard missed the boat on that one: They made it to the top of the MMORPG heap by pushing the soloable MMORPG, but failed to do the same for the MOBA genre. Given how in MOBAs hell is other people, a completely soloable Heroes of the Storm would have taken a much bigger market share from League of Legends and Dota2 than the PvP Heroes of the Storm with just a PvE practice mode.

I'm not saying that PvP isn't a big market. But PvE is an even bigger one, and a better business opportunity. A lot of people with more money than time prefer games which can be played offline on a mobile device, or online against an AI that doesn't get pissed off if you have to quit for real-life urgencies. If you have a game with a perfectly working solo practice mode, you already have all the elements needed to make a game that can serve both PvP and PvE markets. Why limit yourself to just PvP?
Tobold's Blog



Can't keep real life out of games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 June 2015, 4:52 am
I recently argued that I would prefer game review scores not to be affected by politics. Most commenters responded that it is impossible to keep real life out of games, that a reviewer can't switch off his political opinions which then automatically change his impressions of a game. Okay. If we all accept that, then why is there such an uproar about about another intrusion of real life facts into games, money?

If two people live in the same area and work in the same company, we accept that it is possible that one of them lives in a nicer house and drives a nicer car to work. It is a fact of life, and economic models that tried to make everybody equal have clearly failed. It turned out that communism in practice isn't actually more fair than the free market, it just is a different bunch of people who end up with all the advantages.

The same now happens in games, especially MMORPGs. Flat payments models have failed, because they are in practice not actually more fair than models with variable payment, they just favor a different bunch of people. So all games now allow paying more for getting something more. Even subscription games allow you to get ahead faster by buying multiple accounts, or by buying in-game currency and lots of different nicer stuff. Just like the two guys from the same area, who still are equal in some ways like taking the same amount of time to drive to work but differ in how nice the car is in which they drive, two players of the same game now differ in function of how much money they spent on in-game comfort.

Just like the old apparatchiks weren't too happy with the fall of communism, because communism favored them, there are now people who were favored by the flat payment model because they had more time to spend than others, and these people are now complaining about "Pay2Win", as if that was any worse than "Grind2Win". Making success in games completely independent from success in real life favors those who aren't successful in real life. It was always clear that this was a situation that wasn't tenable in the long run, because game companies aren't charities. The people who make games need to be paid, and the people who invest in games need to get some return on investment. If game companies would somehow be forced to keep a flat rate for MMORPG, that flat rate would have needed to go up considerably to be able to finance the increasing cost of game development with decreasing numbers of players per game due to the overcrowding of the market.

A shopping mall that offers luxury goods isn't "exploitative" or "predatory". Some people can afford those luxury goods, others can't and are limited to window-shopping. Games with item shops are exactly the same, because let's face it, everything sold in an item shop is a luxury good which isn't necessary for survival. Sure, that provokes jealousies from the have-nots against the haves. But successful companies don't build business models which are primarily concerned with the sensibilities of the have-nots. Especially since we aren't talking about exclusion of the 99% here, we are talking $25 sparkly ponies and $70 monocles, not million dollar yachts. You only need a modicum of real world success to be able to afford most of the things on offer in an item shop.

A good argument can be made that life isn't fair. People are born with different social backgrounds and different degrees of talents useful for real world success. As we can't keep real life out of games, the unfairness of real life gets reflected in the games. If you can't afford the nicest house and the nicest car, it becomes possible that you won't have the shiniest gear in a virtual world either. That is just the reality of life, and railing against it serves very little. Suck it up and deal with it!
Tobold's Blog



If you can't define, you can't discuss
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 June 2015, 5:04 am
Apparently there is yet another discussion about Pay2Win in MMORPGs. "Pay2Win" is quickly getting to the top of my list of least favorite terms, because nobody has a clear definition of that term. My personal opinion about Pay2Win in MMORPGs is that it is technically impossible: You can't possibly "win" a MMORPG, there is no universal win condition; thus you can't buy a win either. The alternative is to allow *anything* as a win condition, which includes for example mount collection, so a game that sells mounts is a Pay2Win game, and pretty much every MMORPG becomes Pay2Win. So what's it to be? Everything is Pay2Win or nothing is Pay2Win?

As I stated previously I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn't involve money. And that is impossible. If you list all existing MMORPGs, subscription games now make less than 10% of the games on offer. And even subscription games like WoW and EVE Online have ways to buy in-game currency legally with money, and offer other things in an item store. Anybody still know a game which doesn't sell anything at all?

In economic theory there is the concept of Utility. Basically people only ever spend money on something that satisfies their wants. Even a donation to charity has "utility", because it makes a person feel better about themselves. Under this theory it is obvious that everything you can possibly buy in a MMORPG has "utility", even if it is just a hat or mount. The most common utility sold in these games is ways to save time. That could be a "double XP scroll", or that could be buying gold in WoW to buy a rare pet with on the AH which otherwise would have required hours of farming. But there are many forms of utility which are only of utility to a niche of customers, and considered to be "fluff" by others. Nobody minds if the guy next to him buys "fluff", but some people do mind if the guy next to him buys something which would also be of utility to himself.

But utility isn't a "win". There are some items in some PvP games which do in fact increase the probability of the buyer to win, for example gold ammo in World of Tanks. But frequently the possibility exists to get exactly the same item by grinding in-game currency. The guy on the receiving end of that ammo probably doesn't care whether his opponent bought it with money or grinded for it, but considers both to be an unfair advantage. And in a game where you can buy better equipment for in-game currency, does it matter whether that in-game currency was earned by playing the economy, by buying the currency from the game company, or by buying the currency from another player in exchange for game time? I'd feel very uncomfortable splitting hairs here, because to me either all of them are Pay2Win, or none are.

Ultimately the current definition of Pay2Win is "something sold in the item store of the game which I don't like". And that is very subjective and not very helpful at all. Right now nobody could possibly make a list of games and say which of them are Pay2Win and which of them aren't, because there is absolutely no common definition.
Tobold's Blog



Dungeons & Dragons without alignment
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 May 2015, 2:49 am
My Dungeons & Dragons campaign is currently on hold due to various personal things preventing all players to be available at the same time. And this is Europe, with many people going for 3 weeks or more on long summer holidays, so we'll only start the campaign after that. However we did the introductory session and are now building characters, and this is promising to become interesting.

Dungeons & Dragons has always used a very simplistic good vs. evil system of character alignment to chart characters' beliefs. That gives a nice justification for the players' murder hobo behavior. Because it is obviously totally okay to break into a castle or cave, kill all the inhabitants, and steal all the loot if those inhabitants are like evil, man! That might be a good enough system to give basic motivation for a group of teenagers, but for adult players it quickly becomes too simple, and can actually get into the way of telling certain stories with investigative aspects. In some editions you could find an assassin in a group of civilians by casting a detect evil spell! 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons already toned down the alignment system considerably, there are nearly no powers that use alignment. So for my new campaign I decided to simple remove the alignment system altogether.

That doesn't prevent characters from believing in good and evil. A paladin can still see himself as a fighter for good. But others might see him more like a Templar, whose participation in a crusade isn't quite as morally lily white as he might believe. And without alignment on a good vs. evil, lawful vs. chaotic scale there is now room for more different philosophical differences. Which is what the Zeitgeist campaign is all about. If there is for example a conflict between an old faith and a new faith it is far better to not label those with simplistic good or evil tags.

Looking at the characters my players have created, I can see good possibilities for role-playing. In a country torn between traditionalist and progressive forces, the players seem destined to be on the progressive side: Their religious members are all of the new faith (that is divine powers, not primal); their themes chosen mostly paint them as modern, ambitious, young men and women, kind of like early yuppies. Half of them have chosen classes whose main ability score is charisma, with skills like diplomacy and insight being very prominent. And with them being members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary they aren't murder hobos, but servants of the state. The stipend system of the campaign even allows me to get away from the "we murder monsters for treasure" aspect of D&D. Several characters are pretty clearly motivated by a career.

I do think this will work very well in the context of the Zeitgeist campaign. I don't know yet how it will play out in detail, but the campaign is designed to leave room for philosophical differences and personal development. I won't need the crutch of an alignment system to give players a motivation, they can decide for themselves what is right and wrong.
Tobold's Blog



Politics in review scores
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 May 2015, 7:08 am
Imagine that you created a game playing in 2015 Europe. As a dev your bonus from the publishing company depends on the Metacritic score of the game. And then you read a review in a major publication where the reviewer gave you a lower score because he didn't agree with a map in the game showing the Crimea as being Russian (or alternatively as being not Russian). Bonus gone because of a difference in political opinions. How would you feel?

In reality the game developer in question, Adrian Chmielarz, and the reviewer from Polygon had a political difference about sexism and equal representation of minorities in the game The Witcher 3. But otherwise the story remains the same, the reviewer gave a lower score to The Witcher 3 than other reviewers because of politics. And because this is the post-Gamergate era, any discussion of gender / minority politics in games always ends up exploding in a huge shitstorm. The problem with those shitstorms is that people only ever discuss minor details like some statement not being 100% accurate, or the credibility of this or that person, and totally fail to discuss the core issue.

I have no interest whatsoever in discussing the details of the Chmielarz / Polygon spat, and will delete all comments trying to derail this thread towards those details. What I would like to discuss is whether it is justified to give a worse review score or better review score to a game because you disagree or agree with the politics of the game.

Games have come a long way from Pong, Pac-Man, and Tetris. So when a game stops being about the interaction of abstract shapes, but instead shows cinematic quality stories, it is only natural that the reviewer has an opinion about the stories that are being told. And it is nearly inevitable that those stories in some way touch on political issues, because everything in life does. Would you expect a book review of "Capital in the 21st Century" by Thomas Piketty (or the earlier incarnation "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx) to be politically neutral and only talk about whether the book is well written or not?

On the other side threatening a developer with bad review scores if he isn't politically correct is clearly a form of censorship and attack on artistic freedom. I remember people complaining about the promotional material for Warlords of Draenor, because it showed only male orcs, and they wanted equal representation: Some male, some female characters, and preferably two gay orcs holding hands and another one in a wheelchair to represent the handicapped demographic. Personally I don't think we should repaint Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" to include apostles of different skin color or gender. I believe that any artist, including game developers, should have the artistic freedom to say that *his* vision of warlords is one of blood-thirsty male brutes that just aren't very inclusive as a club. In particular I believe that if you tell a historical story, you should have at least the freedom to depict gender and race relations in a historically correct way, even if we all agree that those relations have progressed since. If gender and race relations in medieval times weren't very enlightened, that isn't exactly the fault of the artist who depicts those times. You *can* create a story based on the premise "what if people in medieval times would have been totally enlightened", but you shouldn't be forced to.

I think that while a reviewer could well mention his politics and his political opinion on things shown in a game in the text, it is somewhat unfair to then let those politics affect the review score. Review scores are simple numbers that don't reflect the details of how a reviewer got to them, especially once they are aggregated. The most common use of a review score is for a customer to decide whether a game is any good and whether he should buy it (thus the link to bonuses). Personally I prefer reviews without scores, but if you have to put a score, that score should say more about the quality of the game than about the politics of the reviewer.
Tobold's Blog



Anyone remember Aion?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 May 2015, 4:14 am
I love it that Azuriel's blog has a tag for "impending doom". His latest post on that subject discusses the financial situation of Wildstar, which dropped by half from Q4 2014 to Q1 2015. Wildstar is now making less money than City of Heroes before it was shut down. Thus "impending doom". But maybe NCSoft should consider another alternative than just shutting down Wildstar.

Anyone remember Aion? I barely do. I found it to be not a particularly good game at the time, rather generic, and then it went free to play. But this "free" game is now making 7 times as much money for NCSoft than the subscription game Wildstar. "Free" Guild Wars makes even more money. To me it appears obvious that it is the business model of Wildstar that is weighing the game down like a dead albatross around it's neck, far more than any issues of content or gameplay.

In my mind Wildstar is a far better game than Aion, it has a lot more character, and some strong features like the great player housing system. I don't see why it wouldn't make as much money as Aion if it had the same business model. I'm even playing World of Warcraft for free these days, so why would I consider paying a monthly subscription for any game at this point? I believe the monthly subscription model is way past the point of "impending doom", with The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar having clearly demonstrated that the business model is dead.
Tobold's Blog



Endowment effect
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 May 2015, 3:52 am
The endowment effect is a psychological phenomenon where people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. It appears that Blizzard developers aren't very well versed in psychology. They caused a huge uproar by announcing that flying isn't going to be introduced to Warlords of Draenor, nor any future expansion. People pointed at their $25 flying mounts and felt cheated. Mount collection is a huge part of the game for some people, with players willing to run old dungeons and raids many times in order to get some rare flying mount. But those flying mounts usually look horrible waddling on the ground, so being told that they will become forever useless is hurting some people big time.

There are good arguments for and against flying, but I consider all those arguments to be irrelevant. The point is not whether World of Warcraft is a better game with or without flying. The point is that because of the endowment effect you cause more damage taking away a feature than you created by introducing it. I'm very much convinced that exactly the same thing will happen when the next expansion doesn't have garrisons or some equivalent form of player housing. People get used to features, adjust their gameplay to them, and then get angry when those features are taken away. It doesn't matter how good that feature is. Devs need to make the decision of whether a feature is good for the game *before* announcing and introducing it. Constantly adding features and then removing them again just makes it appear as if the devs don't have a plan and are simply working on trial and error instead of with some vision or design philosophy.
Tobold's Blog



To discourage their purchase
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2015, 11:13 am
This post deliberately has the same title as Azuriel's post on the subject. That is because it basically is just a small addition to the discussion of Azuriel. The issue at hand is Apexis crystal items in patch 6.2 costing gold instead of Apexis crystals. Which makes the crystals pretty useless, and opens up Blizzard to conspiracy theories linking the move to the new WoW tokens.

Azuriel quotes a dev saying: "The high pricing is deliberate to discourage their purchase in favor of crafted items or raid BoEs.". Now I make a lot of money with little work by producing armor upgrades, e.g. Hexweave Essence, from the resources that my garrisons produce. And when I see the price list of the "Apexis" gear in gold, I must say that they are not highly priced at all. If you bought a crafted epic, then applied first an Essence, then a Greater Essence, and then a Powerful Essence to it, you'd probably end up paying more for about the same iLevel. I don't think the prices "discourage their purchase in favor of crafted items" at all, and in many cases the Apexis items are also cheaper than popular raid BoEs. The move is more likely to destroy my crafting profits than to discourage buyers.
Tobold's Blog



Everything old is new
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2015, 10:50 am
The latest MMORPG from this month is the original Everquest, a new "progression" server called Ragefire with the advertising slogan "play it like it's 1999". There is obviously a huge demand for such back in time servers that promise to bring back our MMORPG past. I just don't think that is actually possible.

I have fond memories of the original Everquest. It is second only to World of Warcraft in the length of my subscription. And its basic philosophy of "you have to play together with other or perish alone" is fundamentally different from World of Warcraft and most other modern games. But a large part of the attraction of EQ at the time was that it was one of the first mass-market MMORPGs and the most graphically advanced in 1999. Sixteen years later we aren't the same people any more that we were in 1999, our tastes and expectations have evolved with all the games we played since then. And the graphics standards have evolved too, so today EQ is just downright ugly.

So for me the most likely scenario is that people will start playing on this Ragefire server out of nostalgia, and then relatively quickly discover that their selective memory made them remember all the good things and forget about all the bad stuff. It simply isn't 1999 any more, and we can't bring 1999 back. Most players will give up after only a few levels, because today the original EQ leveling speed will appear extremely slow.

Having said that, I do believe that Blizzard could get a million or more subscribers for a month or three by offering a "vanilla WoW" server with 40-man raids to Molten Core.
Tobold's Blog



Indicators
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 May 2015, 5:48 am
We know from official data that the peak of subscriptions from the release of the Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft is over. But subscription numbers aren't reported frequently, and you always get into discussions on whether the changes happened on the servers you are playing on, or somewhere in China. What we need is indicators of how active our server cluster is. Now sometimes those indicators are anecdotal, like previously crowded spots feeling less crowded. So an objective indicator, a number, is preferable.

Now I am using the auctioneer addon to scan the AH once a day to get a database full of prices and know when an item is cheap or expensive. And that scan tells you the number of auctions scanned, as a number and as number of pages with 50 auctions each. And I noticed that these numbers are down, from 1,000 pages with 50,000 auctions down to 700 pages with 35,000 auctions.

So I wonder in how far the number of auctions is a representative indicator of player activity. Or whether somehow I could find an even better one. What do you think?
Tobold's Blog



Not leaving the house
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 May 2015, 4:13 pm
As I have some other things going on I am currently not playing so much World of Warcraft. Basically just garrison maintenance, which still brings in more gold than I would need to pay for the subscription. But that has to be temporary, either the patch will give me fresh stuff to do, or I'll just quit, because I don't just want to make gold to pay for the subscription I need to make gold.

Anyway, I was playing the auction house speculating with Universal Language modules and parts, and ended up getting a module cheap. And then I decided I had too much gold anyway, might as well spend it on some luxury. So I bought the other parts and handed them in for the "quest" that gives you an auctioneer in your garrison. As going to Warspear for the auctioneer was pretty much the only thing I still did regularly outside the garrison, I'm now able to play without ever leaving my player house. And that probably isn't a good idea to allow that in a multiplayer game.

The garrison is rather big for a player housing system in a MMORPG, and has more functionality than most. I understand the attraction of all that convenience, but in the end the result is isolation, and player harvesting and crafting having been ruined. It is also very hard to take away convenience from the players, they are still complaining about having lost flying in Draenor. So how is the player base going to react if in the next expansion the garrison becomes outdated, and players are basically losing that convenience and housing? Already in patch 6.2 players will discover that they need harvesting skills again, what happens when that comes back as being the standard method of gathering resources? The patch adds more content to the garrison, so people will feel it even more when they don't get anything equivalent in the next expansion.

While I think that the WoW garrison has been worked very nicely into the story and continent of Draenor, I am wondering if a flying house like the starship in SWTOR or the floating island in Wildstar isn't the better way to go. And I think that there can be too much convenience in player housing, because you don't want a massively multiplayer game where most players are sitting alone in their instanced housing most of the time. Player housing in MMORPGs has some big inherent problems, and Blizzard is far from having solved them.
Tobold's Blog



This started out as a comment on my previous blog post, but ended up getting too long for a comment, so I made it into another blog post. Michael commented that "Tobold, it's not that I at all disagree, it's that I question the point of continuing to talk about it.". I believe that this touches a rather fundamental and recurring problem of all forms of public writing, including blogging and journalism: Should you engage with and write about people and organizations you strongly disagree with, or should you ignore them?

I've always been with Edmund Burke on this one, see title. Even when I am fully aware of the dangers and unwilling to feed the trolls, I'd rather post to point out where I disagree than just keep silent. So I would like to discuss a recent example:

The Noisy Rogue, a self-proclaimed pro-GamerGate blogger, posted a very hateful post full of personal attacks and insults about how the Newbie Blogger Initiative "has gone full George Orwell. You shall not go against the group think. You shall have the correct opinions. All those who do not have the correct opinions shall be cast out and shunned. For we have the numbers and all agree with us.". I disagree with the post and would have ignored it, if I hadn't also disagreed with the response of a circle of pro-NBI bloggers: They first exchanged a long series of tweets between themselves (but visible to everybody) on what an idiot The Noisy Rogue is, and then wrote a blog post on the same subject starting with "It seems that a certain blogger—whom I will not link to here...".

To me that appears to be the worst possible way to respond. You neither engage or even acknowledge the person you disagree with, but you also don't ignore him and keep silent about the issue. I would always prefer to link to dissenting posts than this sort of half-way treatment. To some extent I blame Twitter, which has a strong culture of "let's talk badly about somebody behind his back" school yard behavior, while making the shared insults publicly viewable, maybe in hope that the object of the insults finds them later. In this particular case The Noisy Rogue might well point out that this is exactly the sort of behavior he complained about in the first place.

Moving smoothly from my previous blog post on games spilling into the real world, I think it is best to understand GamerGate as a political right vs. left conflict spilling into the world of games and game writing. In my opinion the left won a moral victory by using somewhat less objectionable means in the conflict, reducing the right to their standard "all mass media are controlled by the left" excuse. Which gets rather thin when even Fox News comments "Recently, an online campaign dubbed "GamerGate" has led to the harassment of women in the video game industry for criticizing the lack of diversity and how women are portrayed in gaming.".

But the point is that the fundamental right vs. left conflict is never going to go away. And as nobody ever admits defeat on the internet, even GamerGate is probably going to stay with us for years to come. In multiplayer games, griefing is not going to go away. Ignoring everything I don't like isn't really a viable strategy. And there is the danger that I recede into a shell of just reading the sites I know that I will agree with, which leads exactly to the sort of group think that can justifiably be criticized. This is why I link to posts I disagree with. This is why I moderate comments only for personal insults, never for dissenting opinions (although obviously that means deleting comments which have both). Acknowledging the other side and speaking out against things I disagree with is a value in itself, even if it can't possibly change anything.
Tobold's Blog



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