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Changing Hearts (of Thorns) and Minds

Remember when I said MMOs are like relationships? ArenaNet just put on the Barry White:

Veteran Player Appreciation

For our long-standing fans and loyal players, we would like to say thank you and show our appreciation. For all players who registered the core Guild Wars 2® game prior to January 23, 2015 and who upgrade their account by prepurchasing and registering any Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns edition before Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns‘ launch, we will add one additional character slot to your Guild Wars 2 account.

But wait, that’s not all!

For all players who purchased the Guild Wars 2 core game from our website and registered it between January 23, 2015 and June 16, 2015 in anticipation of Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, we will automatically refund what you paid for the core game should you decide to pre-purchaseGuild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns from our website or in-game store any time through July 31, 2015. If you take advantage of this refund and pre-purchase Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, all of your current account progress will be kept intact. We’ll provide further details on when refunds will be processed in the next couple weeks as we set up this process.

ArenaNet then went even further by explaining the business model moving forward: each new expansion will include all prior content. So we got the character slot for veterans, refunds¹ for the people who bought the base game during the miscommunication period, and concrete details on how things will work in the future. You literally could not get a more reasonable response from a company. I am completely impressed.

Not impressed enough to reinstalled GW2 and pay $50 for an expansion, of course. But impressed nonetheless.

¹ I believe this is limited to those who bought direct from ArenaNet, and not those who bought from Amazon, etc.

Players and Relationships

If you have not been following the latest high-profile MMO PR disaster, the short version is that ArenaNet is selling their latest expansion for $50, and bundling in the base game.

That’s it. There is no long-version.

While Tobold (as always) decries player entitlement and Ravious wants us to think of the children, what is lost in the shuffle is perhaps why the “Don’t preorder the expansion” became the top-rated thread in the GW2 reddit forum (indeed, the top 3 are currently about this issue). Specifically, because ArenaNet failed Relationship Rule #1: it isn’t what you say, it’s how you say it.”

In many ways, MMOs are relationships between players and the developers. It is a business transaction first and foremost, of course, but rarely are MMOs successful without fostering a sense of familiarity and engagement over the long-term. There are feelings of investment, especially considering the game you are playing continues to be in active development. “The devs are listening,” and hey, they sometimes do in fact change things based on feedback. You as the player feel in the loop.

That is why feelings run so high over “betrayals,” real or imagined.

Objectively, there isn’t anything wrong with ArenaNet’s actions. The expansion was going to cost X amount, they chose $50 as the baseline, and that was that. The decision to bundle in the base game was obviously made at the financial level, as there are likely some costs incurred in stocking store shelves with two boxed products, one of which requires the other to function anyway. Plus, there might not be a way to purchase just the base game anymore, basically upselling new players who might not even play long enough to get into expansion content. All very straight-forward business decisions.

Subjectively, though? I agree with subtext many players are reading into the situation, if for no other reason than a corporation (and the developers) should know better by now. First was the (intentionally?) misleading statements that the expansion would require the base game to play, a subsequent sale of the base game, and now the base game is bundled with expansion for free. Then the introduction of a new class without a free increase in the character slots available. Are players entitled to free character slots with a MSRP of $10 apiece? No. Does it look suspicious as hell to not include them? Yes. I would feel the same way if SWTOR’s expansion included five new buttons to push when they already charge money for additional hotbars.

Tobold suggests you cannot win with the kind of players that complain about these things. This is incorrect. In fact, it is very easy to win in this scenario: either sell the expansion as a standalone for $40, or include a free character slot for anyone who purchases Heart of Thorns and already has a GW2 license. Bam! You win the moral high ground. Hell, if ArenaNet is worried about losing all the extra money their current scheme generates, they could tie these elements to the preorder prepurchase prepay only – they would likely recoup their costs on the interest generated between now and whenever the expansion will actually be released.

MMOs are social games, and companies need to manage social expectations in the same way you would in relationships. Or choose not to, I suppose. In which case all your carefully spent millions of dollars in advertising will run directly against a bunch of jilted lovers who will trash talk you in public for weeks for free. And while there will always be some people you cannot please, you damn better make sure that the narrative they present is as crazy as they are.

Because if they have a point? You’ll never hear the end of it.

Out of Game

You may or may not have been following the Gevlon + Rohan argument about whether PLEX-selling – that is purchasing a RMT item that confers 30 days of game time in exchange for in-game currency – constitutes cheating in EVE, or is “unfair,” or skipping content, or is ruining the simulation, etc. It has been a fascinating series of posts precisely because I find it almost impossible to relate to their worldview at all. Parts of the argument have the contours of unassailable logic; see Rohan’s near prose when it comes to inconveniences. And yet some part of my mind reels backwards each time I get too close to accepting their premises.

So, let us back up a bit: what constitutes out-of-game resources/thinking?

Rohan says:

I still think PLEX is unfair. All the arguments for PLEX have sidestepped the basic unfairness issue, and pointed to the good effects that PLEX has. But at it’s heart, Eve permits one faction of players to skip content for real money, but does not do the same for other players. It weakens the fidelity of the economic simulation that is Eve Online. […]

PLEX is like the designated hitter rule in baseball, or shootouts in hockey. It’s legal, it’s in the rule book. It’s popular, the crowds enjoy it. It might even be necessary for the continued health of the game. But baseball without the designated hitter is a purer form of baseball, as is hockey sans shootouts.

See what I mean about contours of unassailable logic? PLEX can exist within the game, in your cargo hold or on the AH, but it is not of the game, so to speak. You cannot be mining an asteroid and a PLEX fall out; you cannot assemble a PLEX from a blueprint. Every PLEX that exists came into being from a cash transaction outside of the game. In a very real way, it is a breaking of the 4th wall. Rohan is essentially correct.

…and yet, I cannot shake the nagging feeling of the arbitrary.

Across the main post and comments, Gevlon says:

You can only skip grind. If you skip competitive elements, you are cheating. Skipping any competitive element is cheating. Otherwise you are on the slippery slope of “I just skip one more element” until the point of you skip it all and buy a pilot with top killboard stats and peacock around without actually killing anyting yourself. That’s not against the ToS either. […]

@Ephemeron: true that for most people getting E15 is probably just as long as solo mining 500M ISK but it’s an out-of-game skill. Again, if we accept this, the conclusion is “the best way of winning EVE is being good in RL money making”

And also:

@Azuriel: you are an inch from being banned from here for being an idiot.

The second account ship obeys the same rules as the first. With 2 hulks you can mine twice as fast, true. But can lose two times more ISK to a ganker.

Real life money is real life money. Buying things in real life with it is normal. Having lot of money is winning RL. But a game is separated from RL for a reason. Buying an EVE-ship by having RL money is just as bizzare as buying a car from ISK.

Putting aside the unfounded belief in the objectiveness of sandbox competition, I see the contours in this argument as well. The ISK from the sale of the PLEX cannot be affected by anything Gevlon does; the credit card which creates the PLEX cannot be ganked, unlike the ship earning 500m ISK mining Veldspar.

But let us go back to our question: what constitutes out-of-game resources/thinking?

Where things break down for me, in both arguments, is when it comes to the arbitrary natures of the distinctions being made. Gevlon, for example, is perfectly fine with multi-boxing. He himself has three accounts running so as to have three separate characters gaining skill points… in an apparently competitive game. But at what point did a second and third account not count as buying advantage using real-life money? Those additional accounts are supporting the primary one: his original “competitive goal” of buying and piloting a Titan is only becoming a quicker reality due to the additional skill point paths he is paying a premium for. Using just one account, his goal would be months (if not years) farther off, as he cannot train Trading and Combat skills at the same time.

I find Rohan’s argument similarly arbitrary. What makes PLEX so especially odious and disrupting? The nakedness of purchasing it from CCP? Consider for a moment other out-of-game transactions. Does multiboxing reduce the fidelity of the economic simulation? Although both of your spaceships exist in the “pure” game world, the reality is that you are paying for an advantage over those with one account. A normal player cannot be in two places simultaneously, nor specializing in two separate skills, nor being able to jump around and trade on six different stations. And let us not pretend opening a 2nd account is any less naked than PLEX.

For the moment though, let us assume that multiboxing is fine.

Is it fine to accept ISK from a friend whom also plays the game? Is the competitiveness of the game intact, should he simply pay for all of your ship fittings and cover all of your losses? Does that constitute out-of-game? Let us even assume he received all of his ISK “legitimately.”

Suppose that instead of simply gifting you the ISK, your friend grants it as payment for letting him copy your homework. Or for driving him to the airport. Out-of-game? What if you offered to pay his EVE subscription for a month, in return for 500m ISK? Your friend still risked his ship getting ganked, still had to undercut Gevlon’s Veldspar by .01 ISK on the AH, and so on.

Rohan and Gevlon’s arguments have such shapely contours because they imitate the elegance of Plato’s Forms: the “pure” EVE is such, and self-contained. But it’s not. Other people exist, and the relationships can cross over between in-game and out-of-game. Ever play Monopoly? You may not have been able to buy Boardwalk by slipping the Banker a real $20 bill, but in the last game I played every single one of us brought in out-of-game resources in the form of favors, grudges, and so on. I gave my friend Andreas a railroad essentially out of spite; he had done nothing in-game to warrant such a one-sided transaction, but I was tired of Aaron winning all the time.

Point being, I can understand how PLEX appears as an “obvious” case of Pay-To-Win (assuming you subscribe to the notion of ISK = winning)… but I see no rational reason to draw such otherwise arbitrary distinctions. Using a Vent or Mumble server to coordinate attacks is an out-of-game maneuver. So is helping a friend with ISK, either freely or for services rendered. I would even argue that reading gaming blogs and Wikis and other 3rd party websites are absolutely out-of-game resources regardless of whether you can open up a browser in-game or not.

Where is the clearly delineated line? Does it start at the cash shop, or at the relationships you bring to the game? Is there one at all?