Sunday, September 28, 2014

Punishing Bad Behavior out of Game

James 315 has an interesting article up on The Mittani. It's about the history of bannings in Eve Online. The upshot of the article is that player bad behavior has started on out-of-game voice comms, and CCP has started handing out bans for such behavior. However, unlike inside the regular game, CCP has no real power to truly determine what happens on out-of-game channels. James 315's argument is:
CCP's decision to police a realm where they have no ability to monitor, log, or control was a mistake. GM decisions for EVE-related matters already grapple with inconsistency and confusion. CCP's preference for secret, undefined rules, coupled with an apparently growing reliance on permabans instead of lesser punishments, can only lead to bad outcomes for everyone.
There is a lot of sense in this argument.

Personally, I find this aspect of the Eve community confounding. To me, voice comms are something to be used with allies and teammates. I would never jump on an enemy's voice server. I don't see any case where that ends well.

Part of the issue here is that there is a concept in Eve called "birthday ransoms". A pirate offers to let a victim go if they go onto the voice server and sing Happy Birthday or another song. These ransoms are generally regarded as innocuous and a "fun" part of the game.

James 315's general argument about the arbitrariness of banning based on out-of-game behavior is sound. However, there's no denying that a lot of negative behavior has migrated to those out-of-game channels. I think CCP is wise to attempt to put a stop to it.

I would suggest a different approach, though. The point of making recordings of voice comms, and publishing them is humiliation. It might be small humiliations, such as the birthday ransoms. Or it could be larger ones, as when a spy publishes voice comms of an enemy alliance.

I think Eve would be better off with a blanket ban on such recordings. Something like: publishing recordings of voice comms, where post-recording permission has not been obtained from all parties, is a bannable offense. This eliminates all such recordings, and makes it much easier for CCP. Instead of having to determine whether a recording is true harassment or is "fun" doesn't matter. All that matters is permission, and that is easier to determine.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Using the Base Currency for Features

As all the comments on the last post pointed out, capping the base currency will destroy the player economy. Or at the very least, force the economy to shift to something more liquid, like cloth or barter.

So then, is it better for MMOs to avoid using the base currency for features?

I think the TOR experience this past year is instructive. When TOR introduced Galactic Starfighter, it also introduced two new currencies: Fleet Requisition and Ship Requisition. You earn Requisition by doing Starfighter activities. To upgrade your ship or get new ships you spend that Requisition (or Cartel Coins, because F2P).

In contrast, when TOR introduced Strongholds, the price of a Guild Capital Ship was set at 50 million credits.

There were no complaints about pricing for Galactic Starfighter. There were tons of complaints about the price of guild ships. Would TOR have been better off introducing a new Housing Currency, and having all the costs of housing use that currency instead of the base currency?

Perhaps it would be best to avoid setting expensive prices, and just leaving the base currency for the player economy and "small" stuff. That makes all items sold by NPCs to have "affordable" prices. All features would use their own unique currency, with separate rules and caps on acquisition.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Cap on the Base Currency

Continuing our discussion on base currency, what would happen if the developers instituted a cap on earnings in the base currency?

All the other currencies generally have caps, and that helps keep the population together in terms of what is affordable. What would be the effect of extending this cap to the base currency of gold/gil/credits?

For the cap to work, it would have to restrict income purely. You would only be able to earn, say 1000 gold per week, no matter how much you spend.

The immediate effect I can see is that the market become a lot less liquid. Buying 500g worth of raw materials, and crafting finished materials worth 600g is only 100g of profit. But it would count as 600g towards the cap. If it doesn't, if spending money increases the amount of cap room, then a player could use an item as a store of value, and effectively evade the cap.

The game devs might have to eliminate a lot of gold sinks. Take repairs. Wiping a few dozen times is okay because the repair cost is negligible. But with a hard cap on gold, wiping and repairs become a large source of friction. The best solution might be to eliminate item damage altogether. Consumables like potions and flasks would be another issue.

But with a cap, the gap between experienced player and new player is much lower. A few thousand instead of potentially millions. Caps work well with all the other currencies. Surely it would be beneficial on the base currency as well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Latest in Anti-Bot Techniques

Archeage has a pretty cool anti-bot program. There's an ability you can use to report a bot. This ability costs 25 Labor. Trion checks the report and squashes the bot. If it is a bot, you get 50 Labor back, for a net profit of 25 Labor.

Since Labor is scarce for F2P players, this has encouraged a number of them to take up bot hunting as a sport for fun and profit.

This is clever because it utilizes humans for the computationally difficult task of differentiating bots from regular players. This is a task that humans are quite good at, and are especially good at continuing to identify bots as their behavior changes. Botting, as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, is something that "I know it when I see it".

It's also quite meta, in that it makes a mini-game out of removing bots, which is highly appropriate in a game.

Well done, Trion. Let's just hope that this doesn't go to the next stage:
Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats—and then people were suddenly queuing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”
- Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day One Pricing for the Base Currency

Pretty much all MMOs have a base currency: gold, credits, gil, etc. This is the currency that the most transactions use, as well as the currency used between players. It's also the currency which is the most constant from the beginning to end. Here's something I've been wondering about base currency lately:

If the game offers something purchasable for base currency in an update, must it be affordable on Day One?

Both FFXIV and TOR offered player housing for what seemed to be exorbitant amounts of base currency. There were a lot of complaints that the prices were not affordable. But I did not think they were completely out of reach. It might have taken a few weeks, but I think everyone could earn the necessary amounts.

However, there seems to be an expectation that if something is offered for gold or credits, you should be able to buy it as soon as it comes out. This is in stark contrast to the other currencies. If an item costs 5000 Valor, no one bats an eye that it will take you a few weeks to earn enough Valor to purchase the item. But have the item cost 500,000 gold, and players will howl.

Not to mention that these items with exorbitant prices sell. In FFXIV, many of the servers have sold out of the limited personal housing supply. That strongly implies that the prices were not high enough.

Why do players treat the base currency so differently than the other currencies?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Queue System Design

Archeage Queue Issues

The major news from the Archeage launch are the queues. The queues are very long at the moment, especially for F2P people. I have not been able to play my first character for several days as the queues are always upwards of a thousand players. I made a second character, an archer, on a newer server. Since the server seems to be primarily made up of F2P people, the queue times for me as a patron are negligible.

Still, it's interesting to see how Archeage's game design has interacted with the queues. There is one significant design element which is making the queues much worse than they should be. For all non-combat activities in Archeage, there is one primary resource: Labor. All crafting and gathering activities cost Labor, which regenerates over time. Labor is shared across the entire account, not per character.

However, for F2P accounts, Labor only regenerates when you are online! So that provides extra incentive for people to stay online. Not only do they avoid the queues, but they get the resource needed to play the game. So naturally Archeage is now full of people AFKing and making macros to avoid being kicked off. This, of course, makes the wait time for the people in the queue longer.

In some ways, Archeage would be better off right now if this design had been reversed: if F2P people only regenerated Labor when they were offline. That would give people incentive to log off, and let new people onto the server.

The problem here is that the queues are temporary, for the launch rush. For general play, when the population is at a steady state, it's better that the F2P players have an incentive to stay online to provide content for the paying players.

Finally, because Archeage is an open world where players can obtain property, Trion cannot use the "normal" method of opening up extra servers or extra instances and then merging them together. Merging claimed property would be a nightmare.

My Queue System

Here's my design for a queue system for a game:
  1. A queue to enter the game always exists, and players always go through the queue when first connecting to a server. Of course, if the server is not full, going through the queue is pretty much instantaneous.
  2. When a player reaches the front of the queue, the game assigns the player a "window" of X hours, and lets them log into the game proper. If you reach the front of the queue at 6pm, your window might be from 6pm to 8pm.
  3. If you disconnect and reconnect anytime during your window, you bypass the queue and automatically enter the server.
  4. When your window closes:
    1. If there are people waiting in the queue, you are logged off the server and re-enter the queue at the end.
    2. If there are no people in the queue, you are issued a new window of X hours and can continue playing. You are not logged off in this case.
  5. If the server goes down for Y minutes, all current windows are extended for Y minutes.
I think this is a reasonably fair queue system. It guarantees that you get to play for X hours once you sit through the queue. You can log off for a few minutes, and then log back on. But after you've played for a bit, you have to log off and let someone else play. It's like taking turns on the playground.

Because everyone has a window at all times, even those who logged in when there were no people in the queue, people start getting logged off naturally once a queue forms.

The major issue with this system that I can see is that the number of people who are currently logged into the server is now different from the number of people who could be logged into the server. For example, if you play for an hour, then log off and go to sleep, the system doesn't know that you are not coming back. It has to make the assumption that you could come back. Thus you have to be careful when determining how many active windows you can have, and the length of a window. But those are variables which can be tuned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Parity of Time

Azuriel has an interesting post on Parity as Entitlement. He's discussing entitlement, F2P, money and time. At one point his discussion touches on the different amounts of time people have available:
Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”
Many players and MMO developers do not agree with this perspective. If it was feasible to enforce parity of time, many games would do so.

Existing MMOs have many mechanics which push towards parity of time. The most blunt example is raid lockouts. Play a little or play a lot, you can only do the latest raid once per week. WoW even tried limiting attempts per boss. It didn't go so well, but they did try.

Often there are extra rewards for the first instance you run per day, or the first X instances per week. This pushes towards parity of time by front-loading most of the reward onto the first few hours. You still get more reward as you play more hours, but the majority of the reward is concentrated in the first few hours.

The Old Republic does something similar with daily quests. The daily quests can be done each day, but there's also a weekly quest that requires you to do each daily once. The presence of the weekly makes the first set of dailies more rewarding.

Pretty much every currency after the base currency has a cap. Maybe you can only earn 1000 Endgame Currency a week, and can only bank 3000. Again this plays into parity of time. After a threshold, playing more hours simply does not help you.

Finally, there's rest XP. If someone plays fewer hours, the hours they do play become more valuable than the hours played by high-playtime player. The value per hour played effectively scales with the number of hours that are not played.

Far from players and developers accepting the disparity in time played, they actively add mechanics to mitigate that disparity. It is unfeasible to enforce true parity of time, but that doesn't mean that devs and players see the disparity as desirable.

(Admittedly, it would be pretty funny to see a game try to enforce true parity of time. Imagine a game which limited you to 10 hours per week. It would be interesting to see the audience's reactions.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Archeage Impressions

Archeage headstart was this past weekend. Recalling that I had (perhaps foolishly) bought a Founder pack, I decided to join the fun.

The launch hasn't been the smoothest launch, but it also hasn't been the worst launch either. There are pretty long queues at the moment, but I think they will die down after the initial rush.

There's a somewhat similar situation with land. Archeage is a "sandboxy" game, with crafting and farming right in the world. It's a non-instanced world too, which is something I have greatly missed. In any case, the open world means that land is valuable and can be used up. Right now, it's almost impossible to find space for a small farm in first few zones.

On the one hand, that's a bit annoying. But it does make the world feel more like a world. Land also has taxes that need to be paid, so I'm fairly sure some plots will start to be freed up in a few weeks.

Personally, I decided to skip the crafting, farming, and trading. I just focused on the questing. This may have been the wrong decision. The non-combat parts of the game are what make Archeage special.

The questing is decent enough. It's very clearly an Asian import. The main story, at least the Nuian one, is actually kind of interesting so far.

Combat feels good. It's tab-target, not action. But a lot of abilities put debuffs on mobs, and then have combos if a debuff is present. So you can figure out and set up chains of abilities, each combo-ing off the last one. It feels quite impressive when you find a decent chain.

The skill system is similar to Rift's, but without classes. Instead you pick three trees from a set of 10 or more. Then you spend skill points to pick up abilities in each tree. Each combination of three has a special name. I went Battlerage + Defense + Vitalism, giving me a class of Paladin (naturally!). I'm using a charge, a filler, and a whirlwind attack from Battlerage, an HP buff and a shield bash from Defense, and a Heal-over-Time from Vitalism.

You can spend gold to change your trees, so you can try many different builds on one character.

Still, though, there's nothing super amazing about Archeage's questing and combat. If you've played any MMO since WoW, you've probably seen these mechanics.

Other than that the only interesting things so far are your mount, a boat, and a glider. The mount levels as you ride it places, and unlocks abilities so you can fight from horseback. As for boats, you get a small rowboat at level 10 or so. It handles well, and feels like a small rowboat. The glider is pretty interesting too. Gliding is fun, though it's annoying when you're trying to glide to a specific location and you're still too high up when you reach it.

As I noted above, it's the non-combat aspects which are the main hook for Archeage, and unfortunately, it's the part of the game that I haven't really gotten to try out. On the whole, Archeage is worth trying. However, if a player doesn't get hooked by the crafting and farming, or possibly the PvP around those activities, I don't think she will stay. So far at least, the PvE alone isn't enough to satisfy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Upcoming Schedule for Warlords of Draenor

Warlords of Draenor is being released in a few months. Since I'm not actually playing WoW these days, I've lost track of exactly when things are occurring. So I thought I'd list all the upcoming events that I know about.

Oct ??Patch 6.0 released. No formal release date yet, but it's usually about a month before the expansion proper.
Nov 7-8Blizzcon
Nov 13Warlords of Draenor released.
Nov 21 - Jan 6WoW's 10th Anniversary. Remastered Molten Core (for level 100) and Southshore vs Tarren Mill (for level 90-100).
Dec 2Rated PvP season starts.
Dec 2Normal and Heroic Highmaul raid opens.
Dec 9Raid Finder and Mythic Highmaul opens.

I'm really happy that raids are not being opened right away. At least there will be a few weeks so people can take their time levelling.

It seems like a short time between the start of the expac and the 10th Annversary. However, you only have to do the content once to get all the rewards, so that should make it a lot easier. As well, Blizzard does have data on how fast people normally level.

Still, the holiday season occurs at the same time. I expect that Blizzard to be monitoring what percentage of the playerbase has done the anniversary content. My guess is that they will extend the availability of the content to the end of January.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Old Republic: Forged Alliances and Conquests

Forged Alliances

Patch 2.10 for Star Wars: The Old Republic came out today. It contained the third part of the Forged Alliances story, which turns out be a prelude to the next expansion.

The tactical flashpoint was well done. It seemed a little bit easier than the previous flashpoint, but felt like the correct difficulty for a tactical (no Trinity). The previous Manaan flashpoint was a touch too difficult.

The upcoming expansion storyline looks to be very interesting. It's actually pretty hard to talk about without spoilers, and as this is Day One of the new patch, I'll avoid them.


All in all, TOR is good shape these days. Since the introduction of Conquests and decorations, we've been doing a lot more random stuff as a guild, including flashpoints and old operations. Today we did a random guild run of the Story Mode Karagga's Palace operation, just because it was worth 4000 conquest points.

It's sort of odd though. Conquests are just a list of existing activities with points and a leaderboard attached. Yet that's enough to get us doing things we never did before. Having the list of activities rotate from week to week was an excellent design.

As well, because the guild earns points for the leaderboard, the competition is guild versus guild, and that encourages the formation of guild groups.

Perhaps people want to group up, but just "to have fun" is not a good enough reason. Perhaps all that's really needed from the devs is just an excuse to do stuff.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Wildstar Woes

Apparently Wildstar isn't doing too well. It's losing players at a rapid rate and is switching to a single megaserver.  There's a 700+ comment thread at Massively discussing the issue. Massively blames it on the focus on raids and very difficult endgame content.

It's interesting to watch this from outside. I was in the Wildstar beta, but did not get the game at launch.

However, I'm not so sure that raiding and endgame are to blame, precisely. Sure, it's where a lot Massively readers--who are core MMO gamers--washed out. But my rule of thumb is that there are people who are ten times better than you are, and people who are ten times worse than you are. If the core MMO gamer group washed out at endgame, where do you think the casuals washed out?

I think the basic leveling game was too difficult. I actually wrote a post on the Beta forums when I was just level 15 or so, saying "I don't think I'm good enough for the game you are making." I found that just basic leveling quests in the Wildstar beta required a lot of intensity and avoiding telegraphs. I think having that reaction--for a fairly experienced gamer--at level 15 was a bad sign, because the game would only get harder.

Personally, I think it's instructive that two of MMO success stories of the past decade, WoW and FFXIV, have featured very simple leveling.

I also think Wildstar suffers from the "veto" problem. Let's say that you have a group of friends who want to go out for lunch. You have to find a place which all of you can agree to, or at least a place that no one cares enough to veto. I think Wildstar was different enough--both in tone and mechanics--that many groups had one individual feel strongly enough to veto it. And that means that the entire group falls away from the game.

Of course, though, this is just my view as an outsider and beta tester. Perhaps those of you who played the game at launch or over the last few months have a different perspective.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Log Horizon

There are many shows and books about people trapped in a virtual reality: Sword Art Online, Tad Williams' Otherland, The Matrix, many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes about the holodeck, etc. Most of the time these stories share a common element: if you die in the virtual reality, you die in the real world. Thus the story usually revolves about the protagonist trying to avoid the dangers of the virtual world.

Log Horizon is different. It is about a bunch of people trapped in an MMO, but with all the MMO mechanics intact. This includes resurrection when people die. This immediately removes the default danger of stories like this, and results in a far more unique show.

The basic plot is that on the eve of the latest expansion of the MMO Elder Tales, which has been running for eight years, all the players wake up in a world which is identical to the world of Elder Tales. They wake up as their characters, and can access all their abilities. They're just physically "in" the world, and have no way to leave.

The protagonist is Shiroe. He's an Enchanter, a non-healer support class that specializes in control, buffs, and debuffs. The show follows him and his group as he comes to terms with the new situation, and as he and others attempt to build a society in this new world.

The thing about this show is that the writer clearly plays MMOs. For example, one plot thread involves several newbies. In Elder Tales, characters below level 30 get an XP potion each day to help them level. So one guild tricks a bunch of newbies into joining them. They then imprison the newbies and force them give up their XP potions each day, and spending their days crafting. The guild then sells the XP potions to the highest level characters who are rushing to get to the new level cap.

When I saw that plot thread, I knew that the writer understood the MMO gamer subculture.

Another element the show does very well is showing how MMO players are different from one another, through the guilds. There are the crafting guilds, the merchant guilds, the small elite guilds, the large zerg guilds, and the small friends & family guilds. Guilds are a very important part of MMOs, and are a very important part of this show.

The final major element in Log Horizon are the NPCs. The NPCs, called the People of the Land, are the real inhabitants of the world. They're like normal people, who live and die. But now they have to contend with these immortal (and bored) adventurers.

The key thing about this show is that it is not about a virtual reality, but is about an MMO. The game mechanics are important, especially the Trinity and group mechanics. In fact, I rather think Log Horizon uses the Trinity as a metaphor for how society should work.

Now then, Log Horizon isn't a perfect show. It's low-action, though there is some. It has a lot of dialogue, and can be fairly slow. It's also Japanese anime, which means its sensibilities are slightly askew from Western ones. The pacing is a little bit off, especially in the last three or so episodes.

However, overall Log Horizon is a very good show, and nails the MMO subculture in a way that no other show or book has.

Log Horizon is available at Crunchyroll. You can watch it for free (with ads). A second season will be airing in the Fall.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Letting Go?

Green Armadillo has a good post on Scott "Lum the Mad" Jennings' talk about the lifecycle of the MMO player.

I think I'm with Green Armadillo in not really understanding what Jennings is trying to get at. Yes, people will get tired of your game and move on. But I'm not sure what advice he is offering the developers. Is it just emotional advice? Don't take it to heart when a player quits after several years? Assume your MMO will die after 4-5 years and plan accordingly?

The only other interpretation I can make is that Jennings is telling devs to avoid doing excessive work, or avoid trying for "Jesus features", which you think will keep people playing.

Maybe he is trying to say that an MMO developer should concentrate on their core gameplay. For example, if your game is about PvE group content like dungeons and raids, maybe you should stick to dungeons and raids, even if you know that people will eventually tire of it and move on. Maybe he's saying that you should not spend time and effort developing new gameplay modes like Pet Battles or Galactic Starfighter to reignite a player interest.

I don't know if that is what Scott Jennings is saying. I don't know if avoiding new gameplay modes is a good idea or not. Or if Jennings is trying to get at something completely different.

If I could give gamers, programmers, and developers one piece of advice when it comes to talks and posts, it is to be blunt and obvious. Assume that we the audience are stupid and hit us over the head with your thesis. Don't allude to it or try to be clever.

Monday, September 01, 2014

More on Gevlon's "4 fun ppl" Theory

A couple of commenters expressed skepticism about Gevlon's "4 fun ppl" theory. I thought I'd elaborate on what I find most compelling about it, compared to Penny Arcade's GIFT theory.

The first different part is "normal people" versus "basement dwellers". In the GIFT formula, everyone is a potential bad guy. This means that there is no hope of removing the bad element, because you'd have to remove everyone. But if Gevlon is correct, it is a specific subgroup of people who are cancerous. That means that you can target that subgroup specifically. As well, instead of binding the entire player base with rules, you can set specific privileges for specific groups.

For example, let's take vote-kicking. Under GIFT, we have to hedge vote-kicks with lots of defensive rules, because any normal person might abuse it. But under 4FP, it's only a tiny subgroup of people who abuse vote-kicking. So a better solution might be to have a broadly available vote-kick, but certain people are simply not allowed to vote-kick at all.

The second different part is "anonymity" versus "lack of clear rules/authority". Under GIFT, to clean up the internet, we have to remove anonymity and link virtual identity with real world identity. But a lot of people like anonymity and even feel safer with it. It is very unlikely that we will get rid of anonymity on the Internet anytime soon.

Under 4FP, anonymity isn't an issue. 4FP is perfectly fine with pseudo-anonymity. As well, removing anonymity is no guarantee that people will behave. I think Gevlon massed enough evidence that some people behave badly even when they are not anonymous.

However, I do think there is a partial link between anonymity and lack of rules. Very often, anonymity signals that a lack of clear authority exists.

I admit that I like Gevlon's 4FP theory because I believe in Broken Windows theory and the idea that people respond to their environment and push the edges of that environment. By setting the bounds of acceptable behavior closer than the absolute maximum required by law, I think it's more likely that the resulting community will be acceptable.