Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 03, 2015

Azuriel is complaining in this post that "When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.". Well, I'd be only too happy to offer an argument and explanation of gamer entitlement.

A game is an entertainment product. Somebody produces it, a process which involves cost, mostly in the form of manpower cost. Then he is trying to sell or otherwise monetize the resulting product. If he manages to make a profit, he can then produce the next game. If he doesn't make a profit, sooner or later he has to shut down shop and stop making games.

The gamer in this story is the customer. His value as a customer to the game developer is proportional to the amount of money that he is spending on the game. Whether the gamer is "a big fan", or "plays the game for hundreds of hours", or "is really skillful at this game" is largely irrelevant. It doesn't pay the developer's bills. The effect a "fan" has on sales by promoting the game is frequently rather small and insignificant.

The problem with entitlement is frequently that gamers think that the time they spent playing a game entitles them to special consideration by the game developer, in spite of them not having contributed more financially to the game than other players. They demand more content than the purchase price of the game justifies, they demand special exclusive content designed just for their needs, they even demand changes to the game that keeps other players out or restricts the content those other players can use.

I do think that there are cases where a player is entitled to be heard by the developers, for example if he spent $5000+ on the Crowfall alpha access diamond bundle. I do not think that somebody who is paying the same amount of money as everybody else, but is playing the game more, is entitled to any special consideration. That gamer already got more bang for his bucks by playing more, why should he receive any further favors without paying for them? The game is a product that is sold "as is", you take it or leave it. Game developers don't owe you anything unless you gave them a lot of money some way. It is unreasonable to demand special consideration from game developers without special financial engagement.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015
Free2Play MMORPG goes subscription-based

Now this must be a first! A Tale in the Desert changes its business model from Free2Play to subscription based. After a million headlines of games heading in the other direction, this is an interesting move.

I believe the economics of this is based on the fact that A Tale in the Desert is very, very niche. It doesn't profit much from a Free2Play approach, because it can't really hold casual players very long, being too far away from people's expectations. So for a very small and dedicated player base, the subscription model probably works better.

Minor comfort feature

So patch 6.2.2 arrived and brought flying in Draenor to World of Warcraft. Despite the huge fuzz that was made about this feature, for me it doesn't change the way I play all that much. It is a minor comfort feature to reduce travel time a bit sometimes. My first use of it was with my freshly leveled to 100 paladin traveling between the garrison and the shipyard a bit faster. Not a big deal, but rather a minor comfort feature.

Flying used to be more useful to me in previous expansions, where gathering materials was still a big deal. But even with the added chance of finding Felblight in Tanaan Jungle, I don't see myself gathering resources in this expansion. The resources you get from garrison mine and herb garden have pretty much killed the interest in gathering professions. Neverthless I am thinking ahead: On two of my now five level 100 characters I abandoned one crafting profession and went back to mining instead. The idea is that come next expansions gathering skill will be needed again, and it is easier to skill mining up now with the help of the garrison mine than to try to rush it when the next expansion comes out.

I wonder if I should take up herbalism again as well, for example with my mage who has inscription. On the other hand I don't have a character with alchemy any more, that profession felt so utterly useless in WoD. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015
Impressive Pay2Win

Usually mobile Free2Play games rarely impress me. I mean, I play them from time to time, and some of them are fun on the gameplay side; but usually they are low budget affairs of small teams. Graphics and presentation are at best "okay", usually some cartoon style (and the same looking anime style for every single game of Asian origin), with little or no animation. So I was kind of surprised to stumble upon a Free2Play game with triple A production quality: EA's FIFA 15 Ultimate Team (FUT). I was barely aware that my iPad could even display such graphics with this fluidity, the game looks absolutely stunning.

Apparently FUT is some sort of a side-project to the console FIFA 15 game for consoles and PC, which you get as added extra when you buy the $60 FIFA game. The iOS and Android versions started their life as free "companion apps", but look like a full game to me now. So there are a number of slightly different versions of it, including also a version specifically for phones. I've been only looking at the iPad version here.

So what is FUT? At the heart is is a trading card football manager game. The most important cards are players, and you build a team out of them to then play football (soccer) with. That is done in two alternative modes, either you controlling a player on the field directly, or in simulation mode. The two very different modes mean that you can play FUT in a "kick a ball around" mode as a football action game, or you can play it as a pure football manager game, or something in between. The action game part is quite well done, especially if you consider that you can get that for absolutely free.

The trap is of course the trading card football manager part. Cards exist in bronze, silver, and gold, plus "rare" versions of each of those, plus some exotics. While your starting team will be mostly bronze and all sorts of nationalities and leagues, there is an advantage to putting together a team from the same nationality or league, as that adds to the team's "chemistry" and increases success chance. And unless you want to grind a lot of games to get the gold to buy the players on the transfer market, you might be tempted to buy bronze, silver, or gold boosters. Which you can buy for in-game gold, but also for a second currency available for cash. I have a strong tendency (out of interest in monetization schemes) to buy "something" in any Free2Play game I like and play for more than a day, so in this case I spent $15 which got me 10 gold boosters (opening 10 gold boosters happened to be a "quest" that awarded another gold booster). But with that investment and all the boosters I got from basically doing tutorial "quests" I am still far from even scratching the surface: There are 10,000 players from over 500 licensed teams in the game. A nightmare for completionists! :)

If collecting players doesn't get you to spend money, then maybe the other types of cards will. There are cards for your stadion, your team name, your home and away kit, various staff like managers, and various consumables. For example each player has a number of games he is contracted to play, so once those run out you need to use a consumable contract card on your player to further use him. There is some strategy involved in that: Why use your best player and use up his contracts if for the tournament or season or match you want to play a lesser player will suffice? What players do you use your training cards on? But the main activity besides playing is getting your squad right, putting players on their preferred position and linking them up with players they have "chemistry" with. FUT works quite well as a football manager game if you don't go overboard and start spending too much real money to get better players.

There is also another game in FUT: An economic game of buying and selling cards. There is a very active market with around half a million cards being traded at any given moment. Boosters give you random cards, so if you are building a team of a specific nationality or club, you need to trade away the players you don't need to get the gold to buy the players you need. That economic game uses the same currency of gold which is also given out as main reward for playing matches and can be used to buy boosters, so a good trader has a different source of income.

Overall FUT is quite a good game, at least as long as you play it for free or are good at limiting your spending. Server stability is sometimes a problem, and on the iPad version I was very happy to have linked the game to Facebook, because that saved my collection from a glitch that had reset the game. I also have open questions about FIFA 16 being released in three weeks with a new version of Ultimate Team on consoles and PC. Will I just get an update of FUT on my iPad, but keep my old collection? Or will there be two separate versions (which isn't ideal)?

Monday, August 31, 2015
Old and out of practice

Nearly a decade ago for some time I was doing raiding in World of Warcraft, for some time with a rather hardcore guild. So hardcore in fact that they kicked me out later when I went on an announced summer holiday, as that sort of lack of commitment wasn't allowed. So during vanilla WoW I got up to Nefarion in Blackwing Lair (BWL) while most other raiders where still struggling with Molten Core. And I was good at it. I was playing a holy priest and at the time where healing still had aspects of mana management I was one of the top healers in that guild.

From vanilla on I got less and less interested in raiding. I was and technically still am in a much more relaxed guild, signed up for raiding less and less frequently, and got more and more disenchanted by changes to raiding which turned it from a series of interesting decisions into a Simon Says memory game of dance steps. I think I was still okay though at that time as a healer. I remember a Malygos raid where everybody was still alive at the moment that he enraged and killed us all, and as a healer one couldn't do better than that.

I didn't play much Mists of Pandaria, and in Warlords of Draenor I did very little PvE group content. I did the one dungeon needed for the first stage of the legendary ring in normal, and a few LFR raids just to have a look. But nothing which required any serious skill. But this weekend I was thinking that maybe I should do some more dungeons on heroic, and do the rest of the legendary quest line. For that I had to visit the proving grounds and as a healer beat the silver level of the proving grounds to be allowed to heal in a heroic dungeon. With memories of past skills and an iLvl of 680 I thought that wouldn't be much of a problem. And was proven very, very wrong.

Okay, so I didn't have any addon like healbot, and used the standard interface for healing, which certainly wasn't optimal. But mostly it was a question of feeling old, slow, and out of practice. At some point I was supposed to dispel stuff, and had no idea where my dispel button even was. And just brute force healing didn't do the trick as I had thought it would. After failing the third attempt I gave up. Not because I didn't think I wouldn't eventually succeed with addons and such, but because I concluded that if the proving ground was a problem, I probably wouldn't be a good group healer any more. And you get already enough nasty remarks if you heal perfectly and some idiot stands in the fire and then complains.

I think my hardcore endgame days are really over.

Saturday, August 29, 2015
Fusion games

At the recommendation of Bryksom I tried out Knights & Dragons and found that it is one of the many games in a very specific mobile games genre which I call fusion games. They all work the same way: There is some combat mechanic, which on winning rewards you with something, like new monsters if it is a game about controlling monsters, or new weapons and armor if you fight with characters. Doing many fights you will find a lot of stuff. But the trick is that unlike MMORPG gear, which just gets outdated and sold to a vendor, the stuff in these games can always be fused together to form new stuff. So you put on your best armor and fuse it with all the junk armor you have to give a higher level armor. Or you combine small monsters into higher level monsters. Usually stuff has a rarity rating which determines how far you can level it by fusion, and then there is often another game mechanic which can increase rarity, but much more expensively.

Because you can use all the stuff you find and nothing is totally worthless, fusion games usually work quite well on motivation, better than eternal upgrade games like Diablo or MMORPGs. On the downside the mobile games pretty much always are very much Pay2Win, and use exploitative sales methods like selling random chests with a chance to find really awesome stuff, or a chance to blow all your money on nothing much.

The most curious thing about these games is that there are so many different combat mechanics used for them. Knights & Dragons has a very simple single attack, which charges a stronger attack once every few monsters killed. But I have seen match-3 puzzle games, card games, or strangest of all a game called Dragon Coins (now defunct) which had a carnival coin dozer as basic combat mechanic.

I can't say I have found any fusion game yet which had held my attention for very long. Many have very simplistic combat mechanics, which you can frequently even set to auto-combat. No interest at all in those. The ones that have more interesting combat frequently annoy me by having a deliberately steep difficulty curve, trying to force me to buy random chests and stuff to advance further. But then there are thousands of these fusion games, and I have just scratched the surface. So if any of you can recommend one of these games which has interesting combat and isn't too exploitative, I'd be interested.

Friday, August 28, 2015
Guild Wars 2 goes Free2Play

According to a leak this is one of the headlines you will read coming from Pax Prime. And I just wanted to comment that I'm considering this a non-event. Wildstar going Free2Play means I will be able in the future to play Wildstar for free. GW2 I already was able to play for free, having bought it long ago. And as you could already get the base game heavily discounted in the past, it isn't such an enormous change at all. The base game also is free if you buy the new expansion. So I really don't see this move gaining Guild Wars 2 all that many new players.

Server outages and other players

I understand the interest for game companies to put their games online. Games as a service instead of games as a boxed product avoids a lot of problems with piracy and the like. And you make a business out of selling virtual stuff and store it server-side, so customers don't lose anything if their computer crashes. On the other hand I have two specific problem with online games: Server outages and other players.

The first for example is a recurring problem with Magic Duels. The PC version is affected more than the iOS version, but even on iOS I need a good WiFi connection to be able to play. On 4G I can't, which makes the game a lot less mobile than I wished to. Server problems are quite frequent in games that just came out. A smooth launch for a MMORPG is a rare beast. And in spite of server problems being so predictable, customers are frequently treated with obscure error codes instead of a message which explains clearly what is going on with the server.

The second problem for me with online games is that game companies frequently decide that as they are online anyway, it would be better to make the game PvP instead of PvE. I just had a look at the Pokemon Trading Card Game Online, but most of its game modes are against other players, and the game modes against the AI are limited to specific decks. No interest for me to build my own decks if I don't want to play against other human beings. And playing against other human beings isn't always an advantage. You never know who you get paired against, and that can be people who play very slow (a problem in a turn-based game), quit half-way through the game, or use the game communication tools for insults and trash talk. For a quick game, especially mobile, I much prefer a computer opponent.

I also find it highly annoying that the majority of city/empire building games on mobile platforms are exclusively PvP, in the Clash of Clans mold. First the game puts you at risk of having your progress destroyed by raids from other players, and then they sell you "protection" against that for real money. Sounds like a right mob racket to me!

And I'm pretty sure I am not the only one who would prefer less PvP and more PvE in various online games, especially on mobile platforms. I think game developers are missing out on a bunch of potential customers by not offering both options for the same game. Playing against real human beings can be fun under certain conditions, but for a casual game it often causes more problems than advantages.

Thursday, August 27, 2015
There are no girls on the internet

Not a game story, but nevertheless an online community story: Boing Boing reports that the recent leak at Ashley Madison, an online dating service of extra-marital affairs, did more than embarrass a few politicians and celebrities (all male). It also revealed that the whole site was a huge scam: For over 20 million men who checked their Ashley Madison messages there were only 1,492 women who did the same. Apparently the leak only showed that many of the female profiles were simply fake. At least in this case the old meme that there are no girls on the internet proved to be quite true; at the very least girls on the internet aren't there in order to have extra-marital affairs.

Habit forming

I own over a thousand games. Or rather, as a lawyer would tell me, I own limited licenses which allow me to play those thousand games I bought on different platforms. Plus there are thousands and thousands of games I could play for free or little money if I wanted. Supply definitively isn't the problem. The problem is having a real life which limits the time per day I can spend playing. The problem is coming home tired from work and not wanting to deal with anything too complex any more that day. The problem is learning curves of games, especially if you wanted to flit from one genre to another for more variety.

All these reasons result in that there is a high probability that the game I play on day N is the same game I played on day N-1. That usually requires the least mental effort, and it is likely that when I closed down the game yesterday there were still things I wanted to do in it. So let's play it again, Sam!

Game companies know that. And because they know that, they add "daily" features to their games. That isn't some new-fangled invention of the Free2Play age, already Ultima Online gave you double progress in the first hour you played every day. World of Warcraft introduced daily quests, daily crafting cooldowns, and in this expansion a bunch of stuff in your garrison which is on a daily timer. Of course Free2Play games also use that sort of feature a lot, you usually get some bonus for login in every day, and the longer the chain of daily logins gets, the more rewards you receive for that.

The idea is to form a habit with players login in every day. As long as players login every day, they are more likely to be willing to pay subscription fees or whatever is on offer in the item store. If you don't play, you're less willing to pay. But like all features the "daily" features have a risk of being overused and showing their downsides: At some point the daily login becomes a chore, which hardly isn't the way to endear the game to you. Miss a day, and it will feel like a punishment to have broken the reward chain or at least missed out on a day of easy to get rewards.

But as Zubon reports, there is a new trend to make daily quests a bit less of a chore: Accumulating daily quests. Magic Duels gives you a new quest only every second day, and the previous ones are stored on a list which can hold 3 quests. Thus if you only play Magic Duels every weekend, you still haven't missed any "daily". Apparently Heroes of the Storm also has a way to accumulate quests (I'm not currently playing that, although I logged in today to get a free Diablo hero). Even World of Warcraft has introduced weekend events with a very wide definition of weekend to accommodate people who are on a slower schedule than daily.

You might see that as yet another brick in the wall of the ongoing casualisation of games, but I do think that accumulating daily quests and having weekly stuff as well is a good idea. Personally I'm getting sick and tired of the daily garrison maintenance in WoW, even if that pays for my subscription.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 01

After a warm-up session before the holidays, yesterday my new D&D campaign started in earnest. The player characters are members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary of Risur. Risur has been at war with Danor repeatedly. The nation of Danor is a magic-dead zone, so they developed steam age technology and guns, which proved to be superior to Risur's druidic magic. So Risur has been industrializing over the last 40 years to catch up technology-wise. This is the background for the first assignment of the players: Providing security at the launch of the RNS Coaltongue, the first Risuri ship completely powered by steam, with no sails at all.

At the headquarters of the RHC the group received instructions and information from their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft. They got an itinerary of the event and a guest list. The elf of the party also received from the RHC skyseer Gaethan a vision of what she saw in the stars the night before: A crowd, a purple ribbon, the Beran city of Seobriga, an empty bed, a broken tin whistle or flute, and a girl with a lisp singing the Risuri royal anthem.

At the event there was a big crowd waiting to be let in. The regular police was charged to let in only 800 people to not overcrowd the docks. The RHC was in charge of making sure that among those being let in there were no troublemakers. They started that well, by identifying the groups that were most likely to cause trouble: The dockers, who are angry how the city treats them in the growing social conflict brought on by rapid industrialization. The primalists, traditionalists of the old Risuri druidic ways, unhappy about modern technology. Agents of the fey terrorist known as "Gale", who has a history of attacking industry. And finally the veterans of the 4th Yerasol War, who aren't happy that it is a Danoran tiefling who is building the Coaltongue.

With a series of skill checks the group identified 20 possible suspects among the 800 people let through the first security checkpoint. One of them was standing next to a tree with a purple ribbon around it, and got visibly nervous when the constables eyed him. Another was the only one not looking towards the checkpoint before being let in, instead apparently being very interested in a map of Ber in the shop of a cartographer. The group didn't look out for the girl with the lisp, but the vision had provided them with some clues.

Now there would have been a possibility to approach the suspects one by one, and send away those not deemed to be safe. Instead the group opted for a different method, letting through the 780 not suspect people through the second checkpoint, while detaining all the 20 suspects at one spot. Of course that group wasn't really happy when the constables started to question and search them. A few were found to be harmless enough, a war veteran who was willing to hand in his sword until the end of the event, a druid who still was royalist in spite of the king's passion for technology, and so on. A few suspects got fed up and wanted to leave. At that point Eldion, being an eager constable, decided that they should search the people wanting to leave, which caused some commotion. And during that commotion a group of 4 dockers, including the guy next to the tree with the purple ribbon and the guy at the map shop, made a dash through the second checkpoint and onto the bridge leading to the quay. The group went after them and combat ensued.

The dockers were armed with belaying pins, and later pulled knifes, but still managed to deal some serious damage with a few high rolls. But they didn't have much armor or defenses, and also missed a lot of attacks. In spite of me reminding the players that the event was on a schedule and there was no possibility to take a long rest after the fight, Aria the sorceress used her daily power in the first round and her action point later. That is the same player who used this alpha strike tactic consistently in the last campaign, and then always nagged the group to rest after every fight. I think he will find that in this campaign this will work a lot less well, as events are frequently on a tight schedule. The group used non-lethal damage on three of the dockers (in 4E D&D that decision is made on the last hit that brings the enemy down). Only the healer, annoyed at having received two serious knife wounds, decided to kill the one docker he brought down. The other defeated dockers were handed over to the police to be thrown in jail and to be presented to a judge the next day.

After the fight another docker turned up, who was known to Eldion, the deva invoker and politician of the group. Eldion had worked for one of the district mayors of Flint and had come in contact with this docker, Thames Grimsley, before. Thames is trying to organize a union, and is preferring less violent methods of class struggle. He came to warn the constables of a potential threat by a group of 4 dockers, but came too late. At least that confirmed that there weren't more docker troublemakers in the crowd that the party might have overlooked.

While the first of the invited guests arrived, the group had a debriefing meeting with their boss, Stover Delft. He introduced them to Harkover Lee, Principal Minister and closest advisor of the king. Both congratulated the group on having handled the troublemakers without causing any inconvenience to the guests, and apparently nobody was much troubled by one dead docker. The group was invited to provide further security on the ship, once it was christened by the king and the guests embarked. Right now only crew and staff was allowed on the ship, the group saw for example a halfling chef bringing a tray of chocolates on board, and some crew members carrying instruments. Due to the vision of the broken tin whistle or flute, the party checked whether any of the instruments were in fact disguised weapons (think blowgun), but found that the marching band actually used rather larger instruments than a flute.

A lot of invited guests assembled close to the ship, waiting for the king to arrive. There was the tiefling engineer Geoff Masarde who had built the Coaltongue; Captain Rutger Smith, who would captain one of the escort ships, the Impossible, which was actually a ship of the Royal Homeland Constabulary; Flint Governor Roland Stanfield; Principal Minister Harkover Lee; Industrialist Benedict Pemberton; and Duchess Ethelyn of Shale, the king's sister. A lot more NPCs than in my previous campaign, and there were signs that the players suffered from a bit of information overload and started to worry how to keep track of all of them.

When briefing the constables, Harkover Lee had mentioned that some guests might be not too pleased about the king's speech, looking at the king's sister, who had arrived with an elven handmaiden in tow. The duchess waved to Malicia, the paladin, because her family was close with the royal family, and Malicia knew the duchess and the king since she was a child. When Merian, the avenger and only character in the group with some connection to the Unseen Court of the fey from his childhood, went to check out the handmaiden the duchess gave her servant some instructions, and the handmaiden called Merian over to talk to the duchess. Duchess Ethelyn was feeling tired, and requested that the constables would organize a room for her on the ship to take a nap.

From that request the players jumped immediately to conclusions, thinking that there was a danger of the duchess being assassinated and started making plans on how to prevent that. This was interrupted by the arrival of the king, who christened the ship. Then the king went onto the ship, and the guests began to embark. At this point we stopped the session, and the next one will cover the events during the maiden voyage of the RNS Coaltongue.


Monday, August 24, 2015
World of Warcraft has 100 million players

I think Blizzard is doing a really bad job of marketing here by reporting accurately the actually relevant number of subscribers (and then still being attacked because subscribers in China don't pay as much as subscribers in America / Europe). Other companies are doing a much better job by *not* telling you how many active players they really have, but instead giving you a much larger number that can easily be confused with a player number. For example EVE Online counts the number of "accounts", which because you can only gain xp on one character per account is pretty much equivalent to the number of characters. Imagine how much better Blizzard's number were to look if they reported the number of characters instead of that of players!

The latest example is Final Fantasy XIV reporting the number of registered accounts. I am pretty sure that World of Warcraft has somewhere around 100 million registered accounts. I mean, that is counting everybody who ever tried the game, even if he never subscribed after the free month! As Syncaine assures us that a registered account is the same as an active player, so if that is true for FFXIV than it must also be true for WoW. Would you have thought that World of Warcraft has 100 million players? Thanks, Syncaine, for that information!

What really is going on is that after all those years World of Warcraft is still by far the market leader, and the real numbers of WoW make all the real numbers of the various competitors look bad. World of Warcraft has more players resubscribing for an expansion and then quitting again a few months later than most other MMORPGs have subscribers. You just need 5% of those 100 million registered accounts deciding to check out the new expansion to get 5 million players coming and going in a short time span. As those numbers are then all over the news, the competitors are reluctant to post how proud they are to have 1 million actual subscribers, because that sounds like small change (which it really isn't).

I think it is an achievement for EVE Online to have 100,000 players, but that number doesn't look good enough in marketing, so they have to multiply it by the number of accounts each player has. I think Final Fantasy XIV is really very successful with 1 million subscribers, but Square Enix inflates that number by reporting registered accounts. As you can't unregister an account, that number can only ever go up, so marketing has never the problem having to report players leaving. And as only Talarian does the math, they aren't afraid to report that each of those registered accounts played over 50 hours a day, what an achievement!

In short, player numbers have gone from being a useful information to being a marketing tool and subject to a series of lies and manipulations. Blizzard should join the club and also use those inflated methods of reporting player numbers to even the playing field!


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