Tobold's Blog
Monday, May 04, 2015
 
The Newbie Blogger Initiative

Like most years I am not formally participating in The Newbie Blogger Initiative. I dislike the focus on MMO blogging, and I consider "hey, you should totally write a blog about MMOs" to be particularly bad advice to give to anybody. Having said that, I do have advice for anybody considering blogging, so this might be the moment to write that advice down.

You can roughly divide the life of an average person into three main domains: The private domain of family and relationships, the work domain of your studies and job, and the hobby domain of what you are doing for fun and relaxation. Blogs work for the last of those three. Your thoughts about your private domain are better held in a private diary with no public access. And blogging about your job is potentially prohibited by your work contract, and could get you into trouble or even fired. Blogging about hobbies is fine, because there are other people out there who share the same hobbies and might want to read about your thoughts, and you aren't likely to reveal private or sensitive information.

The main lesson that I learned about blogging about hobbies is that a blog has value to me as long-term archive of my thoughts. Everybody changes, but usually that change happens rather slowly. You are not the same person today than you were 10 years ago, nor than you will be in 10 years. Writing down your thoughts now helps the person you will be in 10 years to remember who you were today, or to document that slow process of change.

So my most important advice is to take future change into account. Don't make a blog about a specific class in a specific game, because as much as you might be concentrated on that today, that class or that game is *not* your hobby. Your hobby is probably a lot wider, at least different games, different types of games, or even things outside games. Do not write a "WoW Hunter blog", or even an "MMO blog"; write a blog about the totality of YOUR interests. Write for yourself, not for a hypothetical audience. Write what YOU think, what YOU feel, and don't worry if you consider that the same thought has been written before by others. The one person who might be very interested in what your thoughts on your hobbies are today is yourself, so write for an audience of one, yourself. Everybody else reading your blog, or willing to discuss your thoughts with you, is a bonus.

 
What if there were several World of Warcrafts?

A decade later, with many people having long grown bored with World of Warcraft, and many MMORPGs having been released since, it is hard to remember the impact WoW had when it was released. By being far more polished and far more accessible than its competitors at the time, World of Warcraft singlehandedly changed the landscape of MMORPGs forever. A few months before WoW a financial analyst calculated that the overall market size for MMORPGs in Europe was 280,000. Then WoW came and sold 380,000 copies on the first weekend. Everquest II came out a month before WoW and people at the time considered that as a scoop that might "win" the war for SOE, but once World of Warcraft was released it just left EQ2 in the dust. As much as some people would like to deny it today, at the time World of Warcraft was far above its competitors in quality as well as accessibility, and we still feel the impact of that revolution today.

But what if World of Warcraft had been released onto a market where the already existing competitors were not so much different in quality? Sounds like a stupid hypothetical question, but I feel that something like that is happening now: Blizzard is soon to release Heroes of the Storm on June 2. It is a nice, accessible, polished game like pretty much all Blizzard games are. But it isn't much better or much more accessible than the competition. Yes, there is a training mode against the AI to test out new heroes, and some rules changes are designed to limit asshattery between teammates during a game. But it competes with a League of Legends with 27 million daily players, not an Everquest with 400,000 subscribers.

I am pretty sure that Heroes of the Storm will get millions of players, and that some people for different reasons will prefer the Blizzard version over the Riot version. But I don't see Heroes of the Storm being a "LoL killer". It will be somewhere in the list of the top 5 MOBA games, but not necessarily number 1. Blizzard is really late to this market (which is somewhat ironical, seeing how they could be said to be involved in starting the genre), and the existing games are already highly polished and accessible for a multi-million player mass market. The WoW/Hearthstone effect of "I'm taking a niche genre and make it accessible for the mass market" just isn't going to happen here. And thus I doubt that Blizzard will have such a huge impact on the future of this genre than it had on MMORPGs.

Friday, May 01, 2015
 
Now accepting donations in WoW gold

A reader came up with another interesting idea based on WoW tokens: Instead of using the buy Tobold a coffee button to donate money to me, he offered to donate WoW gold. Enough gold to buy 2 WoW tokens in fact. So although his gold was on a different server, as long as it was in the same region (Europe) that worked just fine: I made a level 1 character, he gave me the gold, and I bought 2 WoW tokens (plus a battle pet with the change) on the auction house. Thank you!

Thursday, April 30, 2015
 
Breaking the 4th wall the wrong way

When Frank Underwood in House of Cards turns towards the camera and speaks directly to the audience that is called breaking the 4th wall, an expression coming from the idea that a stage has 3 visible walls around it, and an "invisible" wall towards the viewer. Breaking the 4th wall in that direction, from the actor towards the audience, can be interesting. But sometimes that wall is broken in the wrong direction, with the real world intruding on the imaginary world. Ald shot first has a post on how he got an epic shield from the salvage yard and couldn't help thinking how that could pay for his WoW subscription if he sold the shield and bought a token for the gold. What used to be a game is suddenly a financial transaction. There are already addons out that directly translate gold prices into money prices. You might have been willing to pay 120,000 gold for a Reins of the Grand Expedition Yak, but are you willing to pay $120 for it?

[Tangent for the nitpickers: There is no actual fixed number for the exchange rate between dollars and WoW gold. Not only is the price fluctuating, but it also depends on which region you are in: In Europe the equivalent of 120,000 gold is just €60. Furthermore there is an endless discussion whether you should count 1 WoW token as being the equivalent of $20 (it's purchase price) or as being the equivalent of under $15 (what you save on a subscription by using the token instead of money). I'll use $20 for a WoW token, exchanged for gold at a rate of 20,000 gold per token on a US server, because that gives an easy $1 = 1,000 gold exchange rate. I'll count €1 = 2,000 gold for the same reason. YMMV]

This intrusion of the real world has some consequences. At first I wondered why a WoW token would go for twice the gold in Europe than in the USA. But then I realized that "Europe" in the Blizzard sense of the word includes Russia and other eastern countries which have a lower GDP per person than the USA (or the EU). The thing is that $1 doesn't have the same value for each of us. The question is basically what percentage of your disposable income a subscription to WoW represents. As in Russia that is presumably a higher percentage, the WoW token is more valuable, and people are willing to give more WoW gold for it. The Chinese realms just introduced the WoW token and there it goes for between 50k and 75k, because the token is worth even more there, relatively speaking.

At 30k to 40k gold for a WoW token in Europe I am pretty much indifferent to it. I can see myself both buying and selling, depending on my current needs. Yes, I have plenty of gold on some characters. But all my gold is only about a year worth of subscription, while the money I have in my bank account would easily pay for my subscription until death do us part (either mine, or WoW's). I don't need the addon to translate gold to €/$, because I am just as comfortable with spending 5,000 gold for a battle pet as I would be with the idea of spending €2.50 for it. But I am aware that depending on ones situation in life that might not be the case for somebody else. I can see how it would break immersion if something happened to you in game which translates into a dollar value you would actually care about.

 
Improving the auction house

World of Warcraft is over 10 years old. And at some places that shows, with some game design elements being somewhat dated and far from optimal. I would argue that one of these outdated game design elements is the WoW auction house.

Basically MMORPGs have two major opposed concepts of player economy. One is the individual concept, where trade is supposed to strengthen social bonds between players. The best example of that would be games like Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies having player-run shops. If you wanted the best armor, you had to go to the shop of the best player blacksmith. People could make a name for themselves as master crafters. The opposing concept is the one of maximum convenience: A centralized auction house manages trades, and connects buyers and sellers as quickly and efficiently as possible.

While the WoW auction house leans towards the latter, it carries with it some elements of the former: Each auction is individual and shown with the name of the seller. Unfortunately this middle way ends up being no good: Nobody cares who the seller is, and the individual listing makes the auction house less efficient. Anonymous auction houses are frequently far superior, for example in Wildstar.

One advantage of anonymous auction houses is the efficiency of buying some crafting material. The WoW AH frequently has goods listed in a quantity of 1. If I want to buy 200 Sumptuous Furs, I sure as hell don't want to buy 200 individual auctions of 1 fur each. And the standard interface without addons doesn't even make it easy for me to find the 200 least expensive ones. In more modern auction houses I'll just give an order for 200 fur, and the AH interface sorts out the price for the 200 cheapest ones for me.

The other advantage of anonymous auction houses is that it can be slightly less precise in order to prevent micro-management. For example it can show the price of the last item that sold, instead of showing the price of the cheapest item on offer. In the WoW auction house you frequently get the case of a seller seeing all the prices of the other sellers and then underbidding them by 1 copper piece to become the cheapest. Then another seller logs in, cancels his now more expensive auction and posts it at another 1 copper cheaper. You can get long 1 copper underbid wars that serve absolutely nobody, because they don't really decrease the price, but force everybody to keep watching the AH.

It is probably not a priority for Blizzard, but I would hope that at some point they patch in a more modern, anonymous version of the auction house. It would be more efficient and practical for both buyers and sellers.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
 
Spectator eSports

Belghast has an interesting article up on whether eSports are sport, and how that leads to controversy when eSports arrive on ESPN. For me the whole problematic of eSports boils down to the question what exactly you show, where you point your camera, so to say. In any "real" sport the camera tends to point where the athletes are, because that is the most interesting part of the image. In eSports the athletes are either shown somewhere in a corner as tiny picture-in-picture display, or not at all. The interesting part of eSports to watch is not the athlete (who doesn't move much), but his avatar.

This difference points towards a huge missed opportunity in displaying eSports: Currently games are typically shown in the same view that the player has. Now imagine a game of football which you could only watch via the helmet-cameras of the players. Obviously not the best view a spectator could have. And to the limits to which I understand 3D graphics engines, it shouldn't be too hard to display a different view. If you can send a different view of the scene of a multiplayer game to each of the players, then surely you could produce one more view of what is going on in spectator mode. League of Legends already has a spectator mode. Develop that a bit further and apply it to all eSports games, and they could become a lot more viewable.

Personally I watch neither sports nor eSports, I prefer doing to watching. I might not run as fast as Usain Bolt or click as fast as Hai Lam (now retired at the age of 22), but I am a lot more connected to that sport or to that game by doing it at my own pace than the connection I could get from watching the best doing it on a TV screen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015
 
For the children!

Yesterday evening I had planned to sort out my various alts in World of Warcraft and decide what character I would create and level from 1 to 100. But while I was still doing garrison stuff with my level 100 characters, somebody in trade chat mentioned that Children's Week had started. Hmmm, isn't that one of those events which gives pets as rewards? Me being very much into battle pets at the moment, I couldn't resist and changed my plans. I spent the rest of the evening doing Children's Weeks quests on different continents.

As I was planning to do the quests on different characters to get more pets, I started with the character I was currently on, my priest. Thus doing those quests too me some time, as I had to take various portals or zeppelins to travel from one continent to another. At one point I was in Orgrimmar and didn't have a hearthstone ready to get me anywhere where I could use a portal to Undercity, so I took the zeppelin. And then realized that I had forgotten where exactly the entrance to Undercity was in the Ruins of Lordaeron. Must have been many years since I last entered Undercity without using some means of fast travel. Usually I do travel-related stuff with my mage who just portals everywhere.

Overall I have mixed feelings about the event. All that traveling makes the quests somewhat long and tedious, with me playing on my iPad while waiting for some flying mount to make it to the destination. Not really the most fun activity. And somehow it is a sort of trap: I felt as if I was being suckered into a not-so-fun activity by the combination of a reward I wanted (the pets) and the time restriction (you can only get these pets during this particular week every year). So in the end I wasn't sure if it was actually worth it. The pets aren't even of rare quality, so I'm not even sure I'll ever use them. They just help with the achievements to collect hundreds of different pets. And most of them are tradable, so I might be able to get them for cheap this week on the AH.

Monday, April 27, 2015
 
The economics of zero marginal cost

Why isn't Ford attracting more customers by giving out cars for free and then charging for additional stuff later? And if that model wouldn't work for cars, why would it work for computer games? The answer is in what an economist calls the marginal cost of an item, which is the cost of producing and selling one more of it. Once your game is finished and you have a distribution platform and everything, the marginal cost of selling one more copy is pretty close to zero. The same isn't true for cars, because even when the car is designed and the factory is built and set up, it still costs thousands of dollars to produce one more car and sell it.

The "culture of free" on the internet is very much linked to that zero marginal cost. Even piracy depends on zero marginal cost, because it doesn't cost the pirate more to make a copy of a game or other content than it costs the developer / owner of that game or content. Free2Play wouldn't work without zero marginal cost. But a lot of people confuse zero marginal cost with zero cost. It does not cost nothing to produce content, because it always costs time, and that time has an opportunity cost. However there are people on the internet who voluntarily produce content for nothing, me included. And that leads to an interesting economical question: What is the difference in quality between free content and paid-for content?

There are two sides of that: People who produce content for nothing are by definition "amateurs", which comes from the Latin word for love, they do something for the love of it, without payment. It can be argued that in certain cases such a work of love can be superior in quality to content produced by "professionals", who only do it for the money. In an environment of zero marginal cost a "professional" might be tempted to steal or rip off successful content from somebody else and sell it to you, like for example many cloned mobile games. On the other hand, if you car had a problem with its brakes, would you prefer a professional garage to fix it, or would you go to somebody who has a sign on his yard "amateur repairing cars for free for the fun of it"? Without financial incentive, an amateur might not be willing to invest too much time and money into a creation. Thus there is a viable economic theory that some very high level content will only be created in the first place if the developer thinks he can make money out of his creation. You can make Flappy Bird for free, but not Destiny, Battlefield, Bloodborne, or Grand Theft Auto.

Last week Valve announced a scheme which would allow people making mods to sell those mods on Steam. Most people reacted very badly to the idea, because they believe that they will have to pay to get the exactly same mods that previously were free. And of course the freeloaders made an immediate appearance, trying to sell mods based on the free work of others. But what about the long run? Isn't it likely that at some point a mod will be made *because* the modder was confident in his ability to sell it, a work he wouldn't have undertaken for free? Up to now very few mods end up being better than the original game. But with a mod economy in the future we might very well see a lot more high quality mods.

What I find curious about game economics is that there appears to be a large population that is always defending the status quo, even if that status quo is contradictory. Thus among the people complaining most loudly that mods are best if they remain free we also find the same people who previously argued that games are better if they are not for free.

 
Colossal time sink

I bought Shadow of Mordor on Steam this weekend, as it was on my wishlist and there was a half-price promotion. On that occasion I noticed that I hadn't bought anything on Steam since restarting World of Warcraft. It isn't that there aren't any good games in my Steam library, I would love to continue playing Pillars of Eternity for example. But World of Warcraft ends up being such a colossal time sink that I simply can't find the time for anything else.

To some extent that is good news, as it means that I am having fun. I had a good time this weekend basically doing all the battle pet content of the Mists of Pandaria expansion: Beating all the pet masters, the pandaren spirits, the beasts of fable, and finally the celestial tournament on Timeless Isle. I also went on my very first LFR raid, with my priest spec'd to holy, as I was annoyed of his ineffectiveness in shadow spec. LFR is silly easy, although we managed to wipe on Operator Thogar by being run over by trains. I did several "raids" and got two epics, albeit for the same slot. Not something that I'll do a lot, as the epics aren't actually better than what you get without raiding from your garrison, but an interesting change of pace.

What I still haven't even really started yet is a grand project to level a character from 1 to 100, while simultaneously collecting pets everywhere. I have a low level hunter and a low level monk, but I'm not sure whether I don't want to start over from scratch with a hunter of a different race and combine the hunting for battle pets with the hunting for rare hunter pets. To get that started I should probably reduce further the time spent on "maintenance" of my 4 garrisons, which eats up too much time.

So as long as I have lots of stuff to do in World of Warcraft, I can't find the time for other games. Technically I am in the beta for Heroes of the Storm, and I have downloaded the client, but never even started it. There is a much higher barrier of entry to starting a new game than to deciding to just play good ol' World of Warcraft. A new game requires you learning controls and what the game is about, and playing a game you know very well is much lower effort. Maybe I'm just in a low-energy phase, but right now this means that WoW is taking up all my time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015
 
Speculation

I couldn't resist the opportunity for speculation: I bought a WoW Token for money on one of my poorer characters and exchanged it for over 40k gold. The idea is to use a rich character of mine later to buy a WoW Token for less than 30k (prices go up and down quite a lot). The overall effect is 5€ extra paid for a month of subscription, but gaining 10k gold and having it transferred to where it is needed.

Friday, April 24, 2015
 
Europeans buy less gold than Americans

Curiously the price of the WoW Token is rising again in Europe, hitting nearly 40k, while the US WoW Token is down to just above 20k. As the price reflects the relative supply and demand, it appears as if the players on the US servers are far more enthusiastic in buying gold, while the Europeans are more interested in selling their gold. I find it hard to explain why there should be such a huge difference, with the tokens twice as expensive (and thus gold being half the price) in Europe. Any ideas?

Thursday, April 23, 2015
 
Semantic collision

A role-playing game is a semantic collision of two very different activities: Theatrical "role-playing" and playing a game with dice and rules ("roll-playing" or "rules playing"). Different people enjoy those two parts to different degrees, and they are prominent to different degrees on different platforms: Computer RPGs often concentrate on the game part, which then makes the role-playing part an "unique selling proposition" for tabletop RPGs. But there are definitive synergies between the two parts, especially in the heroic fantasy genre or other genres where action and combat are very much part of the story. The inherent randomness of determining success or failure by rolling dice creates a source of neutral input and impulse to the story-telling. And in the other direction clever role-playing can create advantages for combat later or generate more interesting gameplay situations.

On blogs and forums people frequently exchange ideas how games "should" be designed and played. But the truth of the matter is that those blog and forum posts have little or no influence on game developers. In a computer game the developer determines the laws of physics and possibility in the game. You might be able to pursue different goals and activities in a MMORPG, but you cannot change game design. But as the Dungeon Master / Game Master of a tabletop game it is YOU who determines what is possible, and that makes you a game designer to some extent, even if you use a pre-made rules system like Dungeons & Dragons.

This is why the design of my next D&D campaign is very important to me. There are game design principles I believe in, and this is my opportunity to realize them and see if they work. And the balance between the role-playing part and the game part is a very important piece of that. I am not saying that I have an universal solution, but I do what I like, and I do play this campaign with people I have been playing with for years, so to some extent I know what they like. Thus the goal is to find a balance which is the most fun for all of us.

I recently joined another D&D group of people I didn't previously know, where I play a character in a 5th edition D&D game. I don't want to dis that game, but I can certainly see that between the personal style of the DM and the 5E system this makes for a system that I am not overly fond of. In two sessions we only had one single fight, and that one was over in 5 minutes. As much as I want more story for my game, I don't want to fall into that extreme either. I'm pretty sure my players would get bored, they do like tactical combat. I am far more inclined to target an overall 50:50 ratio of time spent in combat and time spent role-playing. Not necessarily per session, but at least per adventure. I don't want just a "role-playing", nor do I want just a "game"; I want the complete thing, a role-playing game.

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