Category Archives: Philosophy

Goldsinks

It’s all Wildstar, all the time up in this joint, but what is interesting is how many times I’ll encounter something that makes me reexamine more general MMO concepts. For example: goldsinks. Every MMO needs them, and yet Wildstar can sometimes feel like it has sinks within sinks (sinkception).

One example near and dear to my heart are AH fees. Wildstar features a 12% tax on sold goods. Having one at all is pretty standard, although wasn’t the cross-faction goblin cut 15% in WoW? Anyway, there is also a 2% or 5 silver (whichever is higher) fee on purchasing goods. And a listing fee. This can burn you pretty bad if you aren’t paying attention, as a 2s item suddenly costs 7s if you just buy the one, a 350% increase. Purchase 100 of them though, and that fee is just 2.5%.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

70 copper purchase balloons into 570 copper.

Not impressed? Okay. I’m just getting started.

A more bizarre goldsink is that of respeccing. WoW has had respeccing fees forever, right? Sure. In Wildstar though, repeccing abilities is free and quick and absolutely painless… EXCEPT when it comes to AMPs. In other words, I can take a minute and go from DPS to healer no problem. I can mix and match anything on my action bar, including moving the “tiered” ability points around. What I can’t do is rearrange all those passive AMP points without getting dinged at an increasingly large rate. At level 50, it costs 50g. At current CREDD prices on my server, that means AMP respecs costs about $4. Every time.

Or, hey, maybe you just want to dye your clothes. Hopefully you enjoy pastel colors, because otherwise you are looking at 9.26 platinum (926g) to dye your clothes red, and a similar amount with the ever-suspiciously-rare black dye. That is quite literally $80. For one channel, out of three.

Or maybe you just want to unlock the AMP that is responsible for 20% of your class’s theoretical DPS. Sorry, it’s an ultra-rare world drop. Current price? 12p on the AH. Or $100.

Isn’t it wonderful what RMT does to one’s perspective?

I am not doubting the necessity of goldsinks¹. But I do agree with the posters on the forums that there is a profound difference between, say, an absurdly priced mount versus something that directly impacts day-to-day gameplay. Repair bills are one thing, as they act as a sort of death tax, encouraging specific behavior. But what does high AMP respecs accomplish? Discouraging people from utilizing their roles, after the deliberate design choice of making every class a hybrid? If it costs to change both AMP and Abilities around, that would at least be consistent. Instead, you have the ability to… be a crappy healer/tank at any time. Gee, thanks.

And then there’s the dye thing, which just seems pointlessly cruel. There are tons of housing sinks – including weekly upkeep on each of your plugs – but this just feels different to me, for some reason. Maybe because you already had to luck into/purchase the rare dye to begin with?

I am very much in favor of goldsinks in the form of WoW-esque 100,000g vendor mounts and other such extravagances. But the reason I am in favor of those things is because they are progressive goldsinks. In other words, these are goldsinks designed to hit players who can actually afford to pay them. Contrast that with, say, respecs. That hits everyone, in an extremely regressive way (nevermind the 70c AH item getting taxed to 5.7s). I feel like repair costs are perhaps the ultimate regressive tax, hitting the poor and inexperienced harder for essentially no good reason. I have always said that failure is its own punishment; you better have a good reason for adding an injury on top of the insult.

There have been a few people mentioning that these sinks will likely become irrelevant in the coming weeks and months as the playerbase matures. “These sinks were designed for the long haul,” they say. So, uh, is that supposed to make them better design choices? Making shit extra harsh in the free month off of release, only to fade into irrelevance as the playerbase thins out? Maybe it’s fair to assume that the negative PR of jacking goldsink rates up later is worth the initial hit now.

Still, I’d much prefer that other players act as the goldsinks (in terms of profit-taking) and not core gameplay mechanics. The latter ends up feeling a bit suspicious when you sell the means to bypass it (i.e. CREDD) in the game store.

¹ If I’m honest, I do kinda want to doubt them. The goldsinks in WoW are extremely minor at basically all levels of play, and easily circumvented with daily quest income. And yet it’s not as though the AH barons with seven-figure stockpiles are locking the average guy out from necessary AH goods.

Challenge is Overrated

Rohan posted the other day that the modern MMO tendency towards making leveling alts easier runs afoul of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun¹. “Leveling alts should be harder, not easier!” Allow me to offer an alternative Theory of Fun: it’s about Novelty, not Challenge.

While I have forwarded this thesis almost three years ago, I am more convinced than ever that the Novelty theory better explains fun than Challenge. For one thing, when was the last time you were truly challenged in a videogame? When were your abilities pushed to their maximum? Okay, now think about the last time you had fun playing a videogame. Did you ever have fun without being challenged? QED.

Part of this debate is semantic – Challenge is Novel by definition, else it would not be challenging. But Challenge does not model the demonstrated ability of players to derive fun and entertainment from picking herbs, mining copper nodes, exploring the map, fishing, and so on. Neither Skyrim nor MineCraft are particularly challenging, and yet people can sink MMO-esque amounts of time into them.

What challenge is taking place in the imagination of a child at play?

The other problem with Challenge as Fun is how clearly there is a hard limit on it. Even if you avoid crossing the line into too challenging to complete, sustained challenge can be exhausting. Which makes sense, as challenge is an exertion of effort above the median. Sustained challenge also presupposes a sort of boundless limit for self-improvement. Even if I believed that everyone could do anything if they simply put their mind to it (I don’t), it’s undeniable that one’s effort hits diminishing returns rather quickly. Is it worth 15 hours of additional practice to realize 1% gains? Maybe someone thinks so. I raided with a Hunter back in ICC whose DPS improvement was literally squeezing in one, single additional Kill Shot into an eight-minute fight. But even he would be unlikely to spend 30, 60, 90 more hours to squeeze in a second one.

Plus, you know, he did end up quitting WoW despite there being plenty of challenge left.

The way I am describing Novelty is not necessarily as “a completely unique experience.” All it has to do is simply feel new to you. The subjectivity is an important facet, just as with Challenge, and it explains how someone can still have fun picking herbs when the action itself is fairly rote and well-defined. For myself, I consider Progression to be Novel; increasing in power and effectiveness is fresh and exciting to me. I start making plans for my ever-increasing hoard of Peacebloom (etc), or imagine what I could purchase after selling it. Others could see the act-in-time to be Novel – they have never picked Felweed at this particular time and place before, and who knows if a member of the opposite faction could be lurking around the corner. Of course, there is also the people-element that can make the most mundane of tasks into cherished memories.

In the end, I might almost say that the most universal quality in fun games is Engagement. Challenge can be engaging, Novelty can be engaging. However, it is not particularly useful to suggest a game be more Engaging any more than it is useful suggesting a game be more Fun. One can certainly suggest a game be more Challenging or Novel though. I would just suggest going with the latter.

¹ I have not actually read Koster’s book, so it’s entirely possible he isn’t arguing Challenge > everything. In fact, I seem to recall it being more about learning things, which puts it more in line with my Novelty argument. Nevertheless, I don’t feel like a game has to be Challenging to be fun, and I have no idea why challenge is so fetishized in game design.

(Virtual) Friends

Zubon has a post up musing on Time to Effectiveness, in regards to how long it takes between starting the game and being at the point where your bullet hits for as much damage as a veteran’s bullet. You can contribute in EVE on Day 1 whereas a level 1 WoW character would be worse than useless in a raid of a capital city (via guard aggro).

The thing that interested me the most was when Zubon mentioned this:

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

I would immediately agree that playing progression-based games is difficult with your friends, even if you happen to live in the same house as them. Everyone has their different schedules and obligations; sometimes you feel like watching Game of Thrones instead of running another dungeon tonight, or whatever. Even if you have specific characters you use when in a group, you are essentially committing to leveling up twice, and basically consigning that friend-alt to progression limbo.

But do you know who it’s pretty easy to play with? “Friends,” i.e. the people you befriend in-game. I have been talking with the same handful of people I “met” in WoW pretty consistently for the last five years. And why would that be surprising? We all were playing the same MMO on basically the same schedule in the same manner, which is how we met in the first place; you couldn’t design a better friend/compatible person-sorting algorithm if you tried. Meanwhile, I only ever talk with my best friend IRL every few months. I met that best friend in Middle School by complete coincidence, and even though we are supremely compatible personality-wise, he just isn’t into PC gaming. With that plus distance plus schedules, the opportunities to play together would be pretty low.

All of which makes for rather conflicting design structures in many games. Friends and guilds are the social glue that keeps people playing games long after the novelty has worn out. If you start playing a game with friends, you might end up overlooking the deal-breakers that would otherwise cause you to abandon a game before the social hooks had time to sink in. On the other hand, the opposite problem can occur: if your friends don’t like the game but you do, you might end up either spending less time playing with them or quit the game to play whatever they’re playing.

So, objectively, the best outcome is quite possibly coming into the game with no friends and making some in-game instead. That way, the friends you are playing with are tailor-made to correspond with your playstyle, level of interest, and long-term goals. Plus, there is the added bonus of this particular game being “sticky,” insofar as it might be the only context in which you will get to enjoy your new friends’ company. Although I still talk with my former WoW guildmates, we really don’t have many other game preferences in common; the desire to re-subscribe to WoW to spend some non-Vent time with them is pretty strong.

In any case, as I have argued in the comments to Zubon’s post, this is pretty much a systemic problem inherent to RPGs and other games with character progression. The moment you commit to XP and levels is pretty much the same moment you commit to stratification, which by definition drives wedges between players. Unless, of course, you go ahead and make friends with those you find in your strata.

Fake Edit: Zubon and a few others have pointed out that other MMORPGs have solved this issue with scaling levels. The examples used were GW2, EVE, and City of Heroes. While I agree that the first two allow you to play together, they do not allow you to play together on the same level. Your Day 1 friend can tackle spaceships, but he/she is still stuck in a frigate while you’re flying around a supercarrier. It’s perfectly true that two friends can play the GW2 equivalent of BGs together (instant cap, full gear), but I really consider GW2’s sPvP system to be a completely separate game tacked on; it’s entirely possibly it’s changed in the last year, but unless there’s overlap between the two systems (e.g. you get XP/etc for doing sPvP) then I don’t see that as a solution. Chances are good that you bought GW2 in the first place to play the “real” game, e.g. the ones with levels and XP and such.

As for City of Heroes, I’ll have to take your word on it that there was meaningful character progression in an environment that perfectly scaled up and down. Because honestly that sounds like a complete contradiction in terms.

All of this is somewhat besides the point of this post though. It kinda doesn’t matter if you can play with the friends you brought into a game in a perfectly scaled environment, if they don’t match your own playing habits and level of interest in the new game. If you like City of Heroes and they don’t, then it really doesn’t matter how good the game is – your options are basically to quit, divide your time, or make new friends. Stratification makes the situation worse, of course, but it’s more of a symptom of a larger problem IMO.

FFXII

In the midterm period inbetween steady access to the internet, I decided now was as good a time as any to actually get around to playing some of the PlayStation games I own but never bothered turn on. My first choice? As the title suggests: Final Fantasy XII.

All I can say is… yikes.

To say that I was a Squaresoft fanboy growing up is an understatement of the decade(s). Indeed, Final Fantasy 7 remains my #2 game of all time – and that is despite having first played FF6 on the SNES when it came out. While the “back to the roots” FF9 nearly derailed my fanboism outright, FFX quickly set things back on the right track. Sadly, when I heard that FFXI was going to be an online-only MMO, I pretty much cut ties with the company; I stayed long enough to pick up FFX-2, but that had the dubious distinction of being the only FF game I ever sold back to a video game shop for store credit (after beating it, of course). Looking back, I think my lack of engagement with the series had more to do with college and life changes than feelings of “betrayal,” but regardless FFX-2 was the last FF game I played.

Now, I’m not saying anything necessarily about the gameplay of FFXII. To be honest, in the 30 minutes I’ve been “playing” I haven’t seen all that much of it. And if I recall correctly, FFXII was widely criticized as being non-interactive. But a more pressing concern right now is how awful the game looks on my TV. The default view is double-letterboxed such that it easily loses 15″ off the TV screen. And even then the pixelation is horrendous.

I technically bought FF7 on a Steam sale a while back (because, you know, FF7) and it’s entirely possible I will encounter similar graphical issues. But to an extent I almost see this as an existential threat to older games. Or, rather, older games that were straddling the cutting-edge for their time. Things that seemed ground-breaking for its time in comparison to more sprite-based games have looped around into barely-playable nonsense graphics in less than 10 years.

It kinda makes you wonder though, whether or not this will be a recurring issue as time goes by or if it was a specific moment in computer graphics history. Personally, I’m leaning towards the latter. After all, the original Crysis has held up exceptionally well and even the original Far Cry wasn’t that bad. But have you tried playing KotOR lately? I muscled through that a few years ago, and it left me sore with the effort. It wasn’t even the graphics really, but little things like not being able to pan the camera upwards. It’s Star Wars and you got huge alien cities and you can’t look much farther than the main character’s low-polygon ass.

Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.

Dungeon Keeper App: A Study in Bad Game Design

Your first thought might be: “Obviously!”

No, not obviously. When the Dungeon Keeper (DK) app first came out, the entirety of the criticism revolved around EA and the bastardization of a beloved (?) franchise into a time-n-money sink exploitative F2P game. Here is the thing few people might know: DK is perhaps the best entry into this sub-genre. This might sound a little be like being called “the best STD,” but the game itself is surprisingly good.

At least, it was good.

My original design.

My original design.

What made DK good (and still does) is the fostering of creativity and depth through constraint. As you might already know, DK is a downtime management game – you spend more time not doing things than actually doing them. The basic principal is to construct a dungeon filled with traps to safeguard your own stockpile of resources while raiding the dungeons of others. Everything takes time to complete: summoning minions, constructing traps, upgrading traps, excavating rock tiles to make room for traps, and so on. On release, the excavation was particularly lampooned in that the map was filled with tiles that took 4 hours and 24 hours apiece to dig out. Or, you know, you could spend Gems (an RMT currency) to dig them instantly.

Here’s the thing though: being time-locked forced you to construct novel dungeon designs with whatever you had available. Since everyone starts on the same map, we could imagine there being X variations of the perfect defensive layout had all the squares been filled with soft dirt (takes 3 seconds to dig). Instead, we have X * Y variations because different people are at different levels of excavation; some concentrate on digging out all the 4-hour tiles instead of the 24-hour ones, some are the opposite, and still others concentrate all their time on upgrading traps instead of excavation. Creativity through constraint. Yes, technically this also enables the designers to wheedle in-app purchases out of you. But! It’s a compelling gameplay mechanic nonetheless.

Somebody just got sent home.

Somebody just got sent home.

Before I move on, I also want to mention that the other end of the creativity came from watching the replays of your own dungeon getting sacked. Given how attacking players can use magic to bomb open your walls or remotely disable your traps, sometimes it feels like there is nothing you can do to stop attacks. But what you can do is make your dungeon punishing. Magic regenerates very slowly, such that a player looking for enough resources to purchase an upgrade are unlikely to blow their entire load just to sack your one dungeon when they could split it up inbetween juicier, less-defended targets. It is a particularly novel delight watching a replay of someone throwing 2+ hours of congealed time at your defenses and see them go home with nothing. It’s part of the reason why I have played DK for so long.

The problem(s) with DK really came with their Update #2 several weeks ago. There are other fundamental problems, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In short, Update #2 destroyed the in-game economy.

Prior to Update #2, you unlocked bomb-proof walls as you upgraded various rooms and the Dungeon Heart. The number of such walls you could place were extremely limited, so you really had to think about the best location to place them. Did you want to protect a particular room? Force minions down a particular corridor? Or did you want to prevent people from digging a tunnel from the South part of the map? What the Mythic devs decided was to up-end the entire mechanic: instead of bomb-proof, they made walls upgradable. Instead of 20 bomb-proof walls at the end, you could have 100 not-bomb-proof walls that could sustain various amounts of magic damage depending on level.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

For example, my current Bomb Wall spell deals 500 damage in a 3×3 square. A level 1 wall has 300 HP, and each level beyond that increases wall HP by +150. It costs 10k Stone to place a level 1 wall, 30k to upgrade to 2, 60k to 3, 120k for 4, and so on. As you might imagine, this whole “wall update” introduced a Stone sink on a massive scale. The game already had sinks of sorts – my current rooms now cost 2 million Stone apiece to upgrade – but I can imagine there may have been a need at the higher end. Or, perhaps more cynically, the devs wanted the DK Premium “subscription” (+40% resource gains from raiding) to be more appealing.

The Stone sink though has set off a cascade of fail throughout the game. The amount of resources that can be stolen from your dungeon is 30% of your stockpile (up to a maximum determined by your Dungeon heart level) + 10% of your unclaimed resources from quarries/mines around the map. Although there was always an incentive to “hide” your Stone in upgrading traps and such, there simply weren’t all that many locations; you can only have X number of Fire Traps and doors and such. Update #2 introduced 100 more to the pile, e.g. walls, and made it a high priority to upgrade them, e.g. to help prevent more Stone from being stolen via Bomb Wall spells. But since all the high-level players are now Stone deficient, the only people who have Stone laying around are… low-level players.

So the current “metagame” in DK is sandbagging, which means intentionally lowering your Trophy score (i.e. ELO) to get matched against noobs who either don’t know what they’re doing or have already abandoned the game and are simply letting their resources rot. Since they are low-level, it’s easier to steal their resources with your high-level minions given how their traps/layouts aren’t difficult. Since it’s not difficult to invade, you can send in less advanced troops that have quicker build times (e.g. 40-second Trolls instead of 20-minute Ghosts). Since you have quicker build times, you can raid more often and likely not need to use magic at all. Since you’re raiding more often, you are in-game for longer, which prevents your rapidly accumulating Stone reserves from being vulnerable to theft. And because of all of this, you are more likely to hit whatever Stone target you were going for and then spend said Stone, putting you back down to near-zero and safe to log off.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don't spawn inside the killbox.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don’t spawn inside the killbox.

The Mythic devs have responded on the forums that Update #3 will fix all of this and punish the sandbaggers, but the preview we have gotten is woefully naive. Their “solution” is the introduction of PvP tiers of sorts based on ELO. The higher the tier, the more bonus Stone you receive for a win. At my hypothetical tier, I could see an additional… 35k Stone. For fighting someone tooth and nail as advanced as myself. Who isn’t likely to have 35k Stone laying around to begin with. Compare that to someone at a lower ELO would could easily have 200k sitting around just waiting to be stolen.

Needless to say, this is bad game design. It is not bad simply because I dislike it; it is bad because it will not accomplish what it set out to do, or worse, have the opposite outcome.

I am not especially surprised at this non-solution, as the devs have yet to address a similarly counter-intuitive decision vis-a-vis intentionally not opening mines/quarries. There are 8 mines along the outside of the map, and unlocking them means getting free resources each time you click them; at the highest levels, you can get 200k+ Stone every 32 hours or whatever. However, enemy Keepers use these same mines as spawn points. Thus, the more mines you open, the more vulnerable your dungeon. The less mines you open, the less vulnerable your dungeon (just stuff all your warehouses in the corner), the easier it is to keep resources you steal from others, and the better off you are in general. Also? You can’t close mines you have opened. Basically, if you’re like me and open all the mines, you’re just screwed, permanently.

This shit is so stupid.

There is close to zero downside to this.

There is a similarly counter-intuitive punishment mechanic in upgrading your Dungeon Heart. You gain access to more traps and rooms by upgrading the Heart, but each level increases the maximum amount of resources that can be stolen from you. Thus, the only sane strategy is to make the Heart the last possible thing to upgrade. If you upgrade early, whoops, permanently screwed with hardmode.

My solutions to these issues? Well, first, I’d levy a 20k (or 20%) penalty to resource gains for each mine you do not unlock, down to some minimum – if your raid would have resulted in 100k Stone, you actually only get 60k if you have three mines unopened. Considering how the only players worth attacking are those with 100k+ Stone up for grabs, this would hopefully encourage people to open their mines, making more targets available. On a related note, the second change is one’s ELO score should be commensurate with the amount of Stone that can be stolen, not Dungeon Heart rank. Thus, the sandbaggers can get “easy” Stone, but significantly less such that they might have been better going after equally-skilled players.

Third, mine/quarry resource gains should double, minimum. Fourth, flip the numbers: 30% of unclaimed Stone is vulnerable and only 10% of one’s stockpile, not vice versa. This encourages more periodic log-ins during the day and makes people feel safer in saving up their Stone rather than immediately sinking it into walls. There is nothing more demoralizing than logging on and seeing someone having stolen 100k Stone, knowing that you would have been better off upgrading a door or whatever.

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to an evil, bastardized mobile app, but… I think you’d be surprised. I have long since deleted Castle Clash and feel like another game in this sub-genre would have to get a lot of things right to surpass Dungeon Keeper in terms of fun and strategery. Is it annoying waiting all the time? Sure. Then again, a 4-hour excavation only takes 2 hours if you slap your imps, and thus each time I boot the game up during my breaks at work there is something new to do. I spent two hours (!!) “playing” last night (in 6-minute increments) trying to scrape up 500k Stone to hit 2 million without risking getting bled dry overnight. The app definitely has an expiration date at some point – the thought of trying to get 6 million Stone for an 8-day upgrade is just obscene – but the same could be said about a lot of games.

So, yeah. Dungeon Keeper. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

EVE is Real (Evil)

I don’t play EVE, but I have been following the developing story of Erotica 1 (E1) with a particular interest this past week. The drama itself is interesting enough, but the entire episode asks a lot of compelling questions on the nature of games, social interactions outside of the game but still concerning the game, and the role (if any) of the developers.

EVE, as you might already know, is just about the most hand-off MMO on the market. Scams, extortion, and piracy are not only allowed, they are encouraged. “Be the villain,” and all that. One such scammer took things to another level though. Basically, the deal was that E1 ran an ISK-doubling scam that actually did pay out occasionally, such that it was ambiguous as to whether you could make a bunch of money. After passing the first tests, there was a “Bonus Room” in which you could quintuple your winnings again. The catch? You had to hand over 100% of your in-game assets and then jump onto a Teamspeak server for hours (!) of recorded humiliation.

You can read the full breakdown of what transpired in this particular Bonus Room on Jester’s Trek. In fact, the two hour, seventeen minute SoundCloud file is also linked. The victim has a speech impediment which is fully exploited, and when he finally snaps, E1 and his crew drive the victim’s wife (who showed up to ask what was going on) into a panic attack.

I doubt this is what CCP envisioned with their “EVE is real” campaign.

The reactions to this incident have ran the gamut. I was first made aware of it at all by this post on Greedy Goblin. Gevlon’s take? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. Spoiler: Gevlon blames the victim. And in a certain light, it is something you can almost get behind – why didn’t the guy just turn the computer off? Well, for one thing, he had already given away 100% of his in-game assets at that point. And for another, it doesn’t fucking matter. The only truly relevant point (for CCP) is whether or not someone like E1 is worth having in your game.

And indeed, CCP, perhaps finally realizing the potential media shitstorm brewing, came out and issued a statement:

While the content of online interactions between players cannot realistically be gated within our game worlds, CCP strongly disapproves of clear and extraordinary levels of real life harassment against our players in the outside world.

CCP, in collaboration with the CSM, have agreed and would like to state in the strongest possible terms and in accordance with our existing Terms of Service and End User License Agreement, that real life harassment is morally reprehensible, and verifiable examples of such behavior will be met with disciplinary action against game accounts in accordance with our Terms of Service.

While they didn’t announce anything specific, we know from other sources that E1 was permanently banned. I don’t actually recommend going to that second link there unless you’re a fan of sadism, or want to see a rather frightening example of the sort of players EVE’s mostly hands-off policy attracts.

Still, I feel like there were some arguments surrounding this incident worth deconstructing. Gevlon and a lot of other commenters argue that this issue could be solved by not falling for the scam in the first place. Plus, they argue, what’s really the difference between a prank and a bully? Given how tomorrow is April Fools Day, it’s even somewhat topical.

My response would be: there really isn’t one. The difference between assault and a scuffle is someone filing a police report. The prank example that was offered was blocking someone’s door with phone books. Prank or bully? That’s two different questions. First, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest it wasn’t a prank at all, but rather harassment – again, with the difference being simply the victim’s decision. As to whether someone is a bully for doing that depends on their intentions. We can imagine a scenario in which a guy constantly “pranks” people who shrug it off when, in fact, he derives pleasure from the misery he creates. As I mentioned in the comments on his post, someone is a liar regardless of whether anyone believes them.¹

Gevlon then claims that we cannot prosecute people like E1 with intention-based arguments because no one can prove intention. Except the courts do it all the time via mens rea. There is a rather instructive scenario outlined in a related Wiki article:

For example, suppose that A, a jealous wife, discovers that her husband is having a sexual affair with B. Wishing only to drive B away from the neighbourhood, she goes to B’s house one night, pours petrol on and sets fire to the front door. B dies in the resulting fire. A is shocked and horrified. It did not occur to her that B might be physically in danger and there was no conscious plan in her mind to injure B when the fire began. But when A’s behaviour is analysed, B’s death must be intentional. If A had genuinely wished to avoid any possibility of injury to B, she would not have started the fire. Or, if verbally warning B to leave was not an option, she should have waited until B was seen to leave the house before starting the fire. As it was, she waited until night when it was more likely that B would be at home and there would be fewer people around to raise the alarm.

The Bonus Round victim could have turned off the computer at any time. So too could E1. And this is besides the point that there isn’t a jury in the world that would say the outcome was not exactly what E1 and company were intending to occur.

Where things get really amusing is when people argue that E1 can’t get punished because it’s not against the EULA. Except the EULA includes the ToS, of which the very first goddamn entry might be instructive. Or that E1 shouldn’t get punished because it sets a “chilling precedent.” Or the line is too ambiguous, as Gevlon states. Or it somehow would obligate CCP to start banning all such offenders. Or that it opens the doors to nefarious individuals impersonating people and getting others banned. And a number of similar armchair philosopher attempts at rules lawyering.

That sort of nonsense might work on religions and in college electives, but it doesn’t pass muster in the real world. Items #25 and #26 in the ToS give CCP carte blanche to permaban anyone for any reason. Arguments towards precedent and a nebulous obligation to do a full crusade sort of remind me of the Buridan’s ass paradox. On paper, it “makes sense” that a donkey inbetween two equally distant piles of food would starve to death because it can’t decide between them. In the actual real world, people have the ability to make arbitrary decisions and judgment calls. Just because E1 is banned does not necessarily mean CCP has to, by some mysterious logical mechanism, ban the EVE guild that threatens to blow your ship up unless you sing to them on their chat channel. So very few people understand the Slippery Slope is actually a fallacy; it’s entirely possibly to (subjectively!) determine that one is a more egregious example than the other and stop on the slope.

Then again, hey, that singing extortion thing is pretty fucking weird and exploitative and maybe they shouldn’t be doing that either. If these are the sort of examples people point to concerning how “EVE is real,” perhaps it’s time to re-examine whether that tagline actually relates a positive quality. We don’t have to abandon every game in which someone’s feelings might get hurt, but how about we aim for, as Jester points out, the ballpark figure of “your mother can listen to this without thinking you’re a psychopath.”

______________________________

¹ Gevlon’s counter-argument to this is that a liar no one believes is an actor or comedian. Err… no. Those professions do not rely on untruth to scam or exploit out of wealth, power, or security; the intent is to amuse, surprise, and entertain. It’s a nonsensical argument akin to suggesting a torturer and a dentist are similar because they both hurt you.

Need-Based Socialization

Keen has a rather curious post asking “Should Everyone Craft Everything?” The premise of his argument is that specialization is the root of socialization, and as such, a proper MMO would not allow everyone to craft everything. In fact, anyone who suggests that they should be allowed to have some level of self-sufficiency is “an entitled xenophobe” better left to single-player games, and the catering to whom is a “dumbing down” of a MMO to the “lowest common denominator.”

Which, along with the Free Space, is a full Bitter MMO Vet Bingo.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, and Tobold for the inspiration.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, Tobold, and their commenters for the inspiration.

The fig leaf proffered is that perhaps everyone can make all the basic recipes, but that only specialists can make the best items. However, the whole notion is ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

First, you cannot “force” specialization in any game that allows alts. It wasn’t even much of a commitment on my part to develop a full stable of crafting alts in WoW because I wanted the ability to switch up my endgame play-style anyway. Even if you imagine that your perfect MMO limited you solely to one character per account, people could bypass the restriction via multiple accounts. That is, after all, exactly what EVE players do when they circumnavigate the restrictions of real-time skill gains (itself a way of forcing specialization). I suppose on the plus side, this makes your subscriber numbers look pretty peachy.

Second, you don’t actually need mutually-exclusive specializations in order to have a robust economy, as Keen claims. Within the beginning chapters of every Economics 101 textbook is an explanation of comparative advantage. The simple version is that two villages can produce both rice and fish, but at differing ratios: Island A can produce 10 units of rice or 5 units of fish in a day, and Island B can produce 10 units of fish or 5 units of rice. The ideal proposition is for Island A to produce rice, Island B to produce fish, and then trade half for half with one another, leaving both the richer for it. In fact, an economy between the two islands works even if Island A can produce everything more efficiently than Island B.

Or, perhaps more simply put, there is an opportunity cost to every action, regardless of whether or not you can do everything yourself. Any in-game economy will continue humming at full speed as long as one person is willing to mine ore and another more willing to farm gold than ore. Even though I could make everything myself in WoW, I still bought huge sums of materials and even finished goods because it was faster than doing it myself. Indeed, the existence of an AH at all will typically create entire economies by itself (barring ghost town populations).

Finally, there is a curious sort of bluntness to the dispassionate thought that people need to be forced to interact with one another via extreme limitations. Don’t get me wrong, I am someone who is thoroughly behind the idea of Divine Trinity and other forms of implicit specialization. But I feel like these sort of roles should be arrived at organically, rather than at the character select screen. I am a tank because I enjoy being a tank, not because I happened to pick “Paladin” in 2008. If I had stuck with Warlock, my first WoW character, how much less value would I have brought to the game, to the friends I made, and to my own game experience? As WoW has proven time and again, and even in the largely role-less GW2, just because everyone can be a tank (or tank-like), doesn’t mean they are willing to step into that role. So what possible good can come from shackling a potential tank to a dreary DPS-only experience? “So specialization matters”?

Further, the days in which I am inclined to make new friends out of perfect virtual strangers is largely in the past, and no amount of cumbersome game mechanics will get me back to that place. Even if extreme specialization is for the next generation of MMO player’s sake, I’m rather skeptical that such methods would at all work out the way people imagine they would. As Tobold recently pointed out, our generation of gamers were playing MMOs before the advent of Facebook and other social media – our games were our social media, our place to meet like-minded individuals. MMOs these days are 3-monthers not because they lack in content or design, but because we’re unwilling or unable to invest the social capital necessary to maintain our interest. And why would we? Either we brought along all the friends we already have, or they didn’t make the jump with us. In both cases, we’re full-up on social interaction, thanks.

So, essentially, I say let people do what they want, and they will sort themselves out according to their predilections.

Language of Action

This amusing comparison was posted on Reddit the other day under “Morrowind vs Skyrim vs Dark Souls”:

/slowclap

/slowclap

The implication here is (presumably) that games these days are being dumbed down, or at least are not being made as challenging as their predecessors (Dark Souls aside). This sort of “hand holding” is pretty much the de facto standard in MMOs as well, in the form of highlighting of the questing areas and the like. ¹

To which I say: “Good.”

If there is one particular scenario I despise more than anything else in videogames, it is when I sit down to play one and then can’t. I do not mean that I try and fail and am unable to progress – that part is good! It’s gameplay, it’s doing things, it’s actively engaging my faculties. Rather, I mean when the game is not even allowing me to try anything because I am missing something and don’t even know it. Or maybe I am not missing anything and the game is at fault. Indeed, whenever I get stuck in a game, these are the usual possibilities:

  1. I cannot solve the puzzle.
  2. I missed an invisible quest trigger.
  3. I cannot locate the quest objective.
  4. I do not know where to go next.

In all those scenarios aside from #1, we can entertain the possibility that it is the game designer’s fault. And that’s the problem! Sure, occasionally it is my own damn fault for not reading the quest text correctly or I didn’t pan the camera 110° to the right or whatever. But after 20+ years of playing videogames, I can assure you that my default assumption is not that these designers do everything on purpose. Games are art, but if you set out to evoke a particular emotion with a piece and it generates the exact opposite, we can say that that piece of art failed in its goal. Sometimes mistakes can make a game better (like… Gandhi in Civilization), but an equal or greater amount of time they are simply mistakes.

Things can go too far the other way, of course. In the opening scenes of The Witcher 2, as you approach the ominously empty bridge, you get a prompt telling you which buttons to press to avoid dragon fire. “What dragon? Oh.” Quests in Skyrim which ask you to find the artifact that has been hidden for centuries… and there’s a very visible quest marker that appears directly over it. I can concede that something like this other Reddit picture is too much:

I hated Navi anyway.

I hated Navi anyway.

At the end of the day, though? I am playing videogames to do things. I do not consider walking around a room pressing the Interact button every few steps as doing something. There is a place for games in which the “doing” is figuring out where to go or what to do next. And that place is “Pile of Games I’m (Literally) Not Playing.”

¹ I still remember the river of tears that resulted from WoW adding quest givers to the minimap back in Patch 2.3. Yes, seriously, tears.

Gaming Verisimilitude

On Thursday, I popped The Last of Us (TLoU) into the PS3 just to see if I needed to do some sort of lengthy install, but ended up playing for 5 hours straight. The game, simply put, is quite amazing thus far. However, I am experiencing some game design tropes that are grating on me to a higher degree than normal, perhaps precisely because everything else is so good.

Early on, you are basically told that while you can treat the game like a cover-based shooter to some extent, sneaking around is likely the best method given the chronic lack of supplies. That’s fine, sure. What is less fine is when you silently take down an entire warehouse full of guys very clearly armed with guns, and only happen to scrounge up 3 bullets of ammo from nearly a dozen corpses. Were the guns just for show? The last two guys were fine with shooting the conveniently-placed, waist-high obstruction I was hiding behind for almost a full minute, but in a moment of extreme bad luck, must have been killed right after they fired their last bullet.

I understand that this is One of Those Things in gaming in which we are supposed to suspend disbelief. I remember running a D&D campaign a few years ago in which I decided early on that I was going to rebel against gaming tropes and having the party’s human opponents drop everything they were carrying. In retrospect, it ended up being a perfectly foretold disaster: the party became understandably obsessed with looting each body clean and making frequent trips to Ye Olde Item Shoppe to peddle their warez. If I were able to loot full clips of ammo from each enemy I downed in TLoU, it would likely ruin the resource-tight mood by the end of the first hour of gameplay.

I am finding myself less sympathetic towards two other semi-related aspects that are not exactly TLoU’s fault but nevertheless somewhat jarring. First, the game is not and has never appeared to be an open-world sandbox or anything of the sort, which is fine. However, I feel subtly punished for exploring when the designers take the time to add in secret caches of goods in off-the-path locations. See, the issue is that I do not ever know if this “secret” door I’m opening isn’t actually the trigger for a cutscene or the path to the next area. I want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world! And yet I feel like I can’t, because I’m paranoid about inadvertently moving the story forward and being unable to backtrack. I’m seriously starting to miss the “Chrono Footsteps” feature from Singularity which highlighted the exact path you should take, so you know for certain which areas you could explore safely.

Compounding this issue is when I’m in the opposite scenario in which the game is clearly telling me where those story triggers are. “Oh, you want me to hurry up and walk over to that door? Good, now I know I can explore this whole half of the city instead.” The game is not Fallout, has never pretended to be Fallout, but I simply can’t help myself from treating every open building as an opportunity to scavenge for supplies. It’s the post-apocalypse! Let me spend hours combing the area for scrap metal and duct tape! I do this shit for fun.

Finally, Naughty Dog, really? I have a hunting rifle, shotgun, bow, two pistols, three Med Kits, a metal pipe with scissors taped to the end, three Molotov cocktails, a few proximity mine-like explosives, and a goddamn brick in my backpack… but I can’t carry more than 7 rifle rounds? Or more than four pairs of scissors? Inventory management is one thing, but limiting ammo to this degree is so overtly gamey that it sucks me right out of the narrative and back into optimization mode. “Hmm, if I use the shotgun to clear this next room instead of sneaking through, I can double-back and pick up those shells I left behind.”

Although I am complaining quite a bit, I need you to understand that it is only because these (ultimately minor) issues stand out in brilliant contrast to an otherwise amazing game. This isn’t so much a fly in the ointment as it is a hangnail the day after a big promotion. You know, minor, almost trivial annoyances that you nevertheless can’t quite stop thinking about.