Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 24, 2015
 
Not leaving the house

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 So how is the player base going to react if in the next expansion the garrison becomes outdated, and players are basically losing that convenience and housing?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.

Friday, May 22, 2015
 
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing

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.

 
Outside battery limits

In engineering there is an important distinction of things being either "inside battery limits" or "outside battery limits". On an engineering plan there is often a dotted line showing that "battery limit", which is the border between "the plant" and "the rest of the world". I think that concept needs more attention when talking about games, especially multiplayer online games. The limits are often not clearly defined, and that leads to dangerous situations.

In Canada a 17-year old League of Legends players has plead guilty to a range of charges: "According to what [prosecutor] Bauer told the court, the teen would often target fellow League of Legends players and their families when they denied friend requests or he felt slighted by them over some minor offense. He would retaliate, according to Bauer, by shutting down their internet access, posting their personal information online, calling them late at night, or calling the police to call in an imaginary emergency situation.". To me that is an extreme example of that League of Legends player having stepped outside battery limits. You are supposed to beat your opponent *inside* the limits of the game; stepping outside of those limits is problematic, and in some cases criminal.

There are some games like EVE Online or Crowfall where the developers deliberately obscure the limits to what is out of bounds, and in consequence serious breaches of those limits happen. There is a whole school of thought among some PvP players where it is not sufficient to beat your adversary in the game, it is necessary to make the person behind the keyboard cry. I have been criticized for calling such behavior "evil" because "it is just a game", but I believe that from a certain point onward it stops being just a game and goes outside the limits of the rules of the game. And not just swatting, which constitutes a serious danger to the life and health of the target, but also lesser forms of cyber-bullying, harassment, and humiliation. If the target is a person as opposed to his avatar or other representation in the game, these actions are evil. That they take place because of a game is not an excuse; rather I find it worrying that somebody would be willing to inflict harm on another real person for something as trivial as a game.

I do believe that game companies and developers have a duty to make the limits of their game very clear, and to strongly react to transgressions that step over those limits.

Thursday, May 21, 2015
 
Legacy websites and Chrome stopping to support plugins

Google decided that their browser Chrome should stop supporting plugins, especially the Microsoft Silverlight plugin, because well, it's from Microsoft and not from Google. A number of websites are affected by this. And while there are lot of sites with a lot more traffic, the one site where this affects me is the Wizards of the Coast D&D Insider archive with the 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons online tools.

I'm not quite certain why, but official computer and online tools for Dungeons & Dragons have always been a sad story. Usually you get a lot of promises for those tools when a new edition of D&D comes out, and then the whole plan falls apart and you get very little. That is what happened with the current 5th edition. For 4th edition, although the tools never lived up to the promises, at least WotC had two programs that worked quite well, a character creator, and a monster builder / database. And because my group like tactical combat and half of my players don't speak English and 5E isn't on offer in any other language, I am still using those online tools and pay a subscription for them.

But of course WotC isn't providing any new additions or support to the legacy website of D&D Insider. We can be happy enough they didn't shut it down yet. And as the tools work with Microsoft Silverlight, I now need to use Internet Explorer instead of Chrome. And I wonder how many other legacy sites there are out there that got created with plugins, and there is nobody to redo them in the new standard that Google is trying to impose on us. I would imagine that people are much more faithful to their preferred websites than to their preferred browser. If Chrome doesn't support your favorite websites any more, then goodbye Chrome! Google might well be shooting themselves in the foot with this more than hurting Microsoft.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015
 
Neverending content

On MMO-Champion I stumbled upon an interview with ex-WoW developer Ghostcrawler who says: "Neverending content leads to making things so difficult you can't progress or asking you to run the same content 100 times.". I feel that is very true. Nevertheless I don't think that is an unsolvable problem, because you can design content in a way that running it a 100 times isn't boring.

For example look at games like Tetris or Candy Crush Saga (which will now come preinstalled with Windows 10). These are clearly games in which players run the same content far more than 100 times. But because there are minor variations, some randomness, and a slowly increasing difficulty level, players don't mind doing that same content hundreds of times.

Saturday, May 16, 2015
 
Battle.net Launcher

Not much blogging this week as I am traveling. I must say that the Battle.net launcher is a big improvement when you are away from home: I get to play World of Warcraft without having to take my authenticator with me, something I was always reluctant to due to the danger of losing it. Of course now somebody stealing my laptop could theoretically access my account, but I'm pretty certain that laptop thieves and WoW account thieves are two very different types of criminals with not much overlap.

In any case, even at home I am happy that I don't have to enter my password and authenticator code every time I log in. Logon screens are so last year!

Thursday, May 14, 2015
 
Brexit

So the conservative party won the UK elections and will now hold a referendum about the British exit from the European Community, the so-called "Brexit". As politicians are unable to explain why an economy with no industry that is living of trade would be better off in a free market, it is likely that Britain will vote for the Brexit. And it is only in that wave of splendid isolation that I can explain the decision of the BBC to close down their global BBC iPlayer.

The global BBC iPlayer was a simple deal: While UK citizens get free access to BBC content, for which they already paid for with their annual television licence fee, Europeans and Canadian get to watch that BBC content on their iPad in exchange for a monthly subscription fee. Before Netflix came to Europe, this was the only TV on demand service working on my iPad. And it still has some advantages over Netflix, as the iPlayer allowed you to download films and watch them when you didn't have a network connection.

And now the global BBC iPlayer is shutting down at the end of the current subscription month with no replacement. The BBC says it has "plans" for new global digital services, but given their usual speed that could take years before those plans become a real service. So right now the BBC is refusing what was essentially free money, because they simply sold already existing content to more customers and now refuse to make that sale. For the BBC the Brexit is already happening, and the rest of the country can't be far behind. I wonder if they'll ever realize that they aren't a global superpower any more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015
 
Does betrayal scale?

People who behave make for boring stories. The most famous World of Warcraft player is Leeroy Jenkins because he was clearly misbehaving. But as WoW has relatively strict behavior rules, it doesn't really produce all that many stories worth reading. Not like EVE Online, which is a great source for stories of scams, betrayal, and assassination. The people who make Crowfall would like to imitate said and announced their rules: "A key component of politics is the concept of betrayal. We envision many relationships being formed and broken in the game. Whether it be a subservient guild who who overthrows their master, an infiltrator who loots the entire guild cache and delivers it to their sworn enemy, or an alliance that breaks falls apart at a key turning point of a campaign… We consider these to be “fair game” tactics." As there is no lack of people who would like to misbehave, we can be sure of getting stories of betrayal from Crowfall.

But how does such betrayal scale as a form of entertainment? Clearly the idea is to allow all sorts of dirty politics in Crowfall for the fun of the players. And I always had the impression that this works better in theory than in practice: Betrayal is not an activity that you can do very often, and it usually doesn't involve a large number of people in the know. If everybody is aware that betrayal is allowed by the rules of the game, people will be paranoid and not easily trust each other. And that includes that if you plan a betrayal, you can't tell many people about it, because they might reveal your plans to your enemy.

Scree lists some stories of EVE Online, like the Titans4U scam which netted the scammer 850 billion ISK, worth $45,000. Great story for readers, but consider for a moment the inherent fun of that for the players. The scammer presumably acted alone, so he was the only one actually having direct fun from the betrayal. And while that netted him a lot of real world money, I guess in the game he was finished, because nobody will ever trust him again. With lots of people on the losing side it seems to me that fun-wise the betrayal story is a negative sum game. How many people are going to stay in your game because it allows them to regularly betray somebody, and how many players do you lose who quit in disgust?

While I don't know how many people actually play EVE (CCP only lists accounts, and most players have several accounts), I have trouble believing that many of these players play EVE only because they want to betray others. It isn't as if there were a lot of non-betrayal space trading MMORPGs out there, and I'd assume that more player are interested in the more repeatable direct PvP than in slowly building up the trust of others in order to betray them once. So I'm not sure that betrayal scales well as a activity of entertainment in a MMORPG.

Saturday, May 09, 2015
 
Blizzard is pumping gold into the economy

Real markets move in unpredictable ways. The advice to buy low and sell high is a joke, because you don't actually know whether the price is going to be up or down tomorrow. The WoW token market is not a real market however. As you can see on WoWToken.info, the price goes up and down in a very predictable sinus curve. By observing the rate of change you can even predict future prices. So unless you are completely oblivious, you are going to buy low or sell high. There is absolutely no reason to sell when prices are low, or buy when prices are high, as you just need to wait some hours for the next peak or valley.

The market also uses an algorithm that guarantees the token seller the amount of gold the token was worth when he decided to sell it, while the token buyer only pays the price at the moment when he decides to buy. That leads to a curious market anomaly: The token seller is selling when prices are high, but there are no buyers at that moment. The buyers strike when prices are low, buying up whatever the sellers put on the market during the previous peak. And Blizzard is making up for the difference. With every WoW token sold, Blizzard is pumping thousands of gold into the economy, because of their price guarantee to the seller. The buyer is always paying less gold than the seller receives, because everybody knows whether the current price is high or low, and acts accordingly.

I don't think this is working a planned by Blizzard.

Friday, May 08, 2015
 
NBI and Gamergate

The NBI launched a Talkback Challenge to write about Gamergate. I do think that this is a bad idea. I very much agree with Jeromai that it would be better not to feed the trolls.

But I would like to take the opportunity to talk about freedom of speech, because I believe a number of Gamergaters horribly abused the term to the point of it becoming unrecognizable. In short, freedom of speech gives you the right to communicate your opinions and ideas without needing to fear legal consequences. Freedom of speech does not A) force anybody to listen to your opinions or ideas, nor B) does it give you the right to any specific platform for your opinions and ideas.

Thus in particular, somebody blocking your Twitter feed and not reading it any more is not a violation of freedom of speech. Somebody not allowing you to post your opinion on *his* website, or have a stand on *his* convention is not a violation of freedom of speech.

As an example, you have the freedom of being pro-slavery. If you write a pro-slavery blog without falling into the trap of writing anything that is legally considered to be "hate speech" or "inciting racial violence", you are free to express your pro-slavery opinions without legal consequences. That doesn't make you less of an asshole. You might not have legal consequences, but other people reading your revolting opinions and ideas might well spit at you. And you don't have the right to publish your opinions on the cover of Ebony, or give you the right to a stand at the National Baptist Convention.

Saying "I support Gamergate because I believe in freedom of speech" is just plain wrong. You would need to also support every other group that holds revolting opinions, because they all tend to always clamor for freedom of speech.

 
Nitpicking

You know that feeling you get when somebody is wrong on the internet? I got that reading several blog posts about the fall in WoW subscription numbers. I'll just quote one from Belghast, because he made the statement very explicit, but the same thing was reported by several other people. What Belghast said is "what we are seeing is a lot of people who came back and played the game for the month that came with their boxed copy, decided that they did not really like what they saw and left again all without actually subscribing.".

That is factually wrong. Only the original game of World of Warcraft comes with a free month. Somebody who bought the box of Warlords of Draenor either already was subscribed or decided to "actually subscribe" before being able to play, because WoW did not come with a free month of subscription included.

So, I did it, I fixed the internet. :)

Of course that doesn't change the fact that the people who came and subscribed just in order to play Warlords of Draenor then went and unsubscribed a month or two later. Personally I am still subscribed, but A) that subscription is now paid in gold, and B) the content I am mostly playing is pet battles and leveling through Cataclysm content. Besides garrison maintenance I am not actually playing Warlords of Draenor content. So I don't disagree with the view that WoD had only 1 or 2 months worth of content, and lots of people came, saw, and didn't stay to conquer.

Thursday, May 07, 2015
 
Back to base

In 2007 Raph Koster published a post on how open big virtual worlds grow. The post describes an universal curve of growth and decline of MMORPGs. While for each game the time scale and the peak number is different, the overall shape of all curves is the same. Expansions are basically peaks added on top of a universal curve, which do not change the underlying fundamentals. So once you got past the headlines of "Oh my god, WoW is dying (again)!" and "WoW loses 3 million players overnight", you will discover that World of Warcraft is perfectly aligned with Raph's theory and just got back to exactly the same base curve it was on before the Warlords of Draenor expansion.

The expansion peak might have been a bit bigger than usual because the further along the decline curve you go, the bigger the number of ex-WoW players becomes. People tend to use any available number to support their pre-existing opinion, but I think there isn't really anything interesting going on here. Until end of Q1 2015 World of Warcraft simply followed a predictable trajectory, because the fundamentals didn't change.

So the interesting data point is going to be the next one. Because obviously a move like going free to play is changing the fundamentals and will change the basic shape of the player number curve. So if you consider the WoW token a form of free to play, it could be expected that there is a visible impact on player numbers rising again in Q2. But if you think that only very few people buy and sell WoW tokens, you'd expect a slight decrease in Q2. We will see!

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