Revolution, Evolution, Variation, Recombination

Before Arkship started, I needed food. I walked until I found a restaurant we did not have back home, which happened to be Fatburger. We do have hamburgers in Michigan, but not that chain, and friends had gushed about the place. It was indeed a quality sandwich and my first time having a hamburger with relish on it. I have had hamburgers and relish before, but not together, and the combination of ingredients was unexpectedly good.

Relatively few restaurants offer anything new. They can offer something new to you, Continue reading Revolution, Evolution, Variation, Recombination

Loot Bonuses: Bad Multiplayer Mechanic

Socializing costs and privatizing benefits is a lousy combination.

Many games allow you to increase your difficulty and your reward. This could be explicit in the form of a difficulty dial tied to rewards, but it is more often an opportunity cost. For example, you might equip an item that improves your loot, but doing so forgoes equipping an item that improves your damage. The fight is marginally harder and your rewards are marginally better. Kingdom of Loathing is an example of a game that does both: there are ways to increase monster level, and you can also equip items that have +monster level instead of (or in addition to) stat bonuses.

Kingdom of Loathing is also a single-player game. City of Heroes similarly gives you tools to adjust mission difficulty, and it gives the same difficulty increase and reward increase to everyone.

Multiplayer games that allow individuals to equip +loot items allow those individuals to increase their rewards at a cost of increased difficulty to everyone on the team. Alice is a tank using best-in-slot gear for damage resistance while Bob is a healer using best-in-slot gear for improved loot drops; Alice is working harder and incurring more repair costs for Bob’s benefits. Alice’s only way to avoid players like Bob is to stick with known companions or be That Guy and demand to see your equipment before letting you into the group. If everyone or no one is wearing +loot gear, the situation is fair and both risks and rewards are shared. Allowing individuals to unilaterally increase group difficulty for personal benefit is a solid example of anti-social design. Continue reading Loot Bonuses: Bad Multiplayer Mechanic

Work in Progress

More than other games, MMO experiences have a time stamp because the game itself changes and our experiences with the “same” piece of content might be radically different.

This is especially true in the early days. Yesterday’s dungeon discussion had some sharply divided experiences, and those could be caused by class, gear, strategy, or the dungeon’s having been updated a half-dozen times in a month. I finally tried WoW so I could see how the zones looked before the Cataclysm revamp only to find that the veterans’ experiences were radically different due to other changes that had accumulated over the years. My trip through Guild Wars: Prophecies included heroes, lots of elite skills, and PvE skills, which changed everything even if none of the Prophecies content had changed.

As a LotRO player, I recall approaches to Moria boss fights that went from “standard practice” to “exploits we patched away.” Sometimes you need the good bugs to get past the bad bugs. Some grognards talk about how hard X was during their day, and some of them did Y while it was easier, broken, bugged, etc.

The population shift is also a big change over time. The original wave of Warhammer Online players experienced public events 1.0 as intended, but as early as a month later many zones were ghost towns and you never saw the last event phases. In September 2012, players bemoaned that the Guild Wars 2 economy was broken because scraps of jute were very expensive. Come September 2014, players may bemoan that the Guild Wars 2 economy is broken because craps of jute were almost worthless. It seems to be a rare event for a game to maintain a steady population spread rather than having huge clumps at the top and bottom levels.

“Trammel” and “NGE” are extreme cases you need not mention. Everyone knows to distinguish between before and after those chasms.

: Zubon


Years ago, goldsellers were the great plague of gaming. They were everywhere, they were annoying, they were criminal conspiracies that were hacking accounts and credit cards. I flipped the eff out when WAR launched without a working /ignore function and the majority of chat was goldspam during off-hours. Pitchforks and torches appeared when one of our former writers patronized a goldseller.

I know they’re still out there, so why don’t I hear much about them? I regularly get phishing spam at an address not even associated with a WoW account. I do not know how long ago I last saw goldseller ads, because they no longer mentally register, but my sense is that I have seen them recently. Account security is still a big thing, particularly for WoW.

Is it mostly a WoW thing at this point? There is only so much profit available in niche markets. Maybe companies have gotten better about anti-goldspam techniques.

I just don’t hear much about RMT in a F2P environment, and most MMOs have gone F2P or hybrid. If a player won’t pay for the game itself, you probably will not be able to sell him much gold. If a player is willing to pay to get ahead, s/he now can usually pay the developer directly.

: Zubon

Maybe it’s just me.

Shopping By Customers

I recently read An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen. Much of the book is advice on finding quality ethnic food (and barbecue) at reasonable prices, whether in the US or in their home countries. Don’t eat in the tourist district, do eat where there are several restaurants of the same type in the neighborhood (until I visited DC, it never occurred to me that you could have a half-dozen Ethiopian restaurants on one block). Being an economist, his insights focus on where the restaurants have the right incentives and efficiencies. A place with great atmosphere is selling that, rather than the food; the tourist district does not worry about repeat customers; American shipping systems are great but really fresh seafood and produce is only available close to the source.

Yes, this is one of those extended metaphor posts that takes an example from another setting and applies it to gaming.

The simplest guide is to look at the customers. If the restaurant has the right people eating there, the food is probably good. Who are the right people? The ones with interests aligned with yours. Continue reading Shopping By Customers

A Stable Bass

This is one of the occasional music posts, so depart here if those annoy you. This one gets the WoW tag: we have a five-person group with three in the flashy front roles, but I’m focusing on the two in the less visible roles. Rather than one song, our music of the moment is Pentatonix in the third season of The Sing-Off. You can see all their performances in this compilation, but I encourage you to pursue the YouTube links for videos from “mrduckbear11,” who posts clips from the show, because the judges’ commentary is actually useful rather than just “the nice one, the mean one, and the overly excited one.”

The Sing-Off is essentially American Idol a cappella, skipping the part where you humiliate the lousy singers. The winners in the third season were a small, young group that was mostly noted for their interesting and risky arrangements. Five people, three lead singers, lots of interesting sounds. Listen to at least a few, and then listen to a recurring theme in the judges’ commentary: their percussion and beat box are great and tie everything together so that their lead performers can shine. Try starting at 4:30 on OMG or 6:08 on the Forget You/Since U Been Gone mix. Shawn Stockman’s phrase is “meat and potatoes”: they are strong on the fundamentals, not just the flair. Compare that to Delilah, another group from season three that started with one of the best performances in the series but was eliminated after a performance with a brilliant lead but a failure of support. The lead on that is actually better than The Band Perry, but the commentary is on-point: it becomes discordant without a base to stand on. Compare to Ben Folds’s discussion of their first performance, when the support worked well.

Do I need to unpack the analogy at this point? We even have the perfect analogue with a 5-person, 3-DPS group. You need those big, shiny numbers to win, but they don’t matter without your tank and healer. It got me thinking about the offensive line in (American) football: it is an unglamorous role with almost no statistics to support who is better or worse, and the camera is on the guy running the ball, but you can definitely tell when the offensive line fails and the quarterback is crushed before he can try to do anything interesting. If you know to watch, you can see the tank quietly being a superstar, but good support is usually invisible. (Grabbing another game, a friend loves to watch StarCraft replays at LAN parties and should about how the player trying to do something flashy or cheesy gets crushed on fundamentals. Grabbing a third, I still play League of Legends Dominion occasionally; people chase for kills, but capping the points wins the game.)

Do you have a favorite fight where the tanks and the healer really take front stage, rather than seeing people compare kill counts and damage meters? Flip back to the mix video and try 2:53, where the background gets center stage, the a cappella equivalent of a drum solo. Part of the appeal of City of Heroes was how support could be strong, essential, flashy, and featured, while a damage source is a damage source, and then there is the difference in LotRO DPS compared to WoW.

: Zubon

This comes on the eve of the Guild Wars 2 launch, a game eliminating healers and tanks, and I’m nearing the end of my time in Guild Wars playing a ranger as a support class.

Balanced For

A level of difficulty entails certain assumptions. Problems arise when those assumptions do not obtain. Most difficulty settings assume some level of experience, either in player skill or numerical balance.

Numerically, a new raid tier assumes a certain gearscore, probably that almost everyone on your team has a partial set from the last raid tier. You could shoot lower or have a DPS check that assumes full tier 12 before you have a reasonable chance at tier 13, but that will lead to easy/difficult raids. The new raid will also assume that you already know all your class abilities and how to use them to counter common situations. Hard mode for the new raid will assume that you have beaten normal mode and know all the mechanics.

Pixel click bosses assume that you already know everything the bosses can do. Well, no, they don’t assume that, but beating them is balanced around that. You are expected to research or fail the first few times until you know what that icon means. If you have the time and resources to spend on first-hand research, you can be a trailblazer. If not, the wiki and Youtube are there for you. If difficulty were tuned to give you a reasonable chance walking in blind, you would probably find the fights trivial when you did not need to spend two minutes reading abilities and thinking about how they interact. (LotRO’s “In Their Absence” update did many things very well, including hitting this balance of fair bosses.)

When I say that Guild wars expects you to have the wiki open, I mean that the difficulty of encounters is tuned around players’ already knowing what those encounters are. You can beat many/most of them going in blind, and the mastery reward almost certainly involves knowing the encounters once you are past the tutorial missions. Later missions are balanced around the assumption that you have capped your equipment and that you have taken time to farm elite skills. With the right skill setup, missions can go from a 5% chance of success to a 95% chance of mastery. Even the hardest missions are not balanced around the assumption of the perfect build, so the perfect build can make it trivial, but an all purpose build may not work for all purposes, and it certainly might not get you to the mission bonus needed for the titles.

Most of us come from a single-player game background, and the “gotcha” moments there are so common that it is actually shocking to have a one-phase final boss. Oh look, I needed to bring two entirely different weapons to the final fight, and I lost half my health for not leaping away from the boss the instant he died. Yawn. Okay, learn how phase two works, then re-load and re-do phase one. Let’s hope we didn’t waste too much time on phase one. Do I sound bored? I’m bored with it. It’s both obvious and nigh impossible to plan for, so the game is effectively taxing you X minutes by not having a save point between boss phases. You know it’s going to try to screw you over, just like you knew a big fight was coming when you found the stack of health and ammo.

That moment is far worse in multi-player games because it needs to be balanced around everyone knowing, so being the one guy who does not know means ruining it for everyone. That’s not fun design. You face lots of situations where there is a briefing before the fight and half the players are just following orders while trying to get some sense of what is going on here. That’s not a lot of fun as either the leader or the follower, and there is a narrow window for groups that already know each other to explore collectively without anyone feeling dragged along or held back … but you’ve already heard my rants about games that need you to bring all your own friends and fun to work (short version: so you might as well play anything because the game is not carrying its weight).

The numeric balancing is clearer. You can demonstrate that X DPS or Y gearscore is needed to reasonably beat a fight. The developers could even post that on the entry screen. Skill and knowledge balancing is much harder.

: Zubon

Differing Dailies: Reliable, Rotating, and Random

In our world of quest-based PvE MMOs, repeatable content is a necessity for extending longevity. If there is nothing to do, players go elsewhere. The most popular approach to this is daily (or occasionally weekly, twice weekly, etc.) quests, and that is our compare-and-contrast essay of the day. (Do not steal it for high school English class unless you define many of the terms we are taking for granted.)

More specifically, the topic is how you structure those daily quests. I call some “reliable” in that they are unvarying. The same daily quests are available every day. “Random” dailies will have a pool from which some unknown ones are pulled each day. “Rotating” is the halfway point: a pool that moves in a consistent manner, so what is available is reliably known but not constant.

World of Warcraft is the trope codifier for dailies. When I played (late WotLK), they limited you to 25/day, and everything was always available. That is one of the great merits of reliable dailies: everything is available. There is no artificial scarcity. If you want it, it is there. If you like X, X will be there for you every day. You can set up a routine, and as a developer, you want to promote having your players log in consistently. Consistency is a kind of virtue. WoW also included some randomness, like the daily fishing and cooking quests. Didn’t they extend that with the Cataclysm solo endgame, with so many of the daily quests available per day?

I find randomness good for mixing it up, breaking up routines that lead to doldrums, but it is frustrating when you want something to come up and it does not. If you are randomly picking one of four quests, there is a 53% chance that one of them will not appear in a given week. When instant gratification takes too long, this can be bad. It forces on the player what is probably a good plan (not doing the same thing every day), but players resist being forced into anything.

The Lord of the Rings Online™ is another “always everything” game. Skirmishes extended this by giving a daily bonus to a menu of instances you could pull up. That content was usually available at all times, but the quest bonus was 1/day. (I say, “was,” but I presume this continues in Isengard.)

The daily or weekly bonus seems to be the easiest approach. You can get a bonus for doing each piece of content over each time period X. The numerically equivalent but less friendly-sounding version is to have diminishing returns for repeating content.

Guild Wars goes for pure “rotating.” The wiki has a list of when everything is coming up for the 7 dailies. This contains some of the merits of the other two approaches, in that what is available is known in advance and can be planned around but is not a constant each day. Embark Beach is a Schelling point; hundreds of options would spread the players everywhere, while a small set of daily options focuses grouping. Of course, as with random, if you do not like the daily option (any of the 7?), you are out of luck, and everyone with whom you might want to group is being channeled away from you. You do not even get the hope that your choice will randomly come up tomorrow; you can see on the calendar that it will be up in mid-March, that day you will be on a business trip. Guild Wars has the additional interesting bit that you can pick up but not complete the Zaishen missions and get to them tomorrow. I am a new player still going through the campaigns, so if the mission of the day is one I expect to get to later this week, I can store that bonus.

League of Legends has a generic “first win of the day” bonus. You get it for any map, PvE or PvP. That seems to be just a “come back every day!” incentive, as it cannot channel the players anywhere, although there are few enough options that channeling seems unnecessary.

Because I have not played every MMO, the door is wide open for reader commentary on how game X did it. The hard part on doing the comparison is that daily content is usually at the level cap, and how many MMOs have you played at the level cap for any meaningful length of time? Oh wait, you read MMO blogs.

I know which site I am writing for, but please resist the urge to say, “Guild Wars 2 events will solve this” unless you can tie it back to the daily-specific focus. You know how much it pains me to have skipped City of Heroes because their repeatable content has (had?) no time limits on repeatability, although there is a task force of the week bonus.

: Zubon

Newb Boon

You do not need a comparative advantage to be the best at something [FTFY] to enjoy the benefits of trade, nor does your trading partner. Even if you can do absolutely everything better and more efficiently than I can, it will still benefit you to trade with me because you do not have the option of doing everything at once. I may shovel well, but if I am also a pretty good obstetrician, it will probably be more productive for me to pay someone with fewer high-value options to dig.

If you were to start playing World of Warcraft right now, you could make decent money farming copper. The enemies are not gray to you, so you would not be the most efficient farmer, but people who earn lots of gold per hour are happy to give you a bit of it on the auction house. On a non-trade example, when I went back to Asheron’s Call with a fresh account, I financed several dozen levels by hopping a portal to a high-level hunting zone and scavenging a pack of trash loot that players left in their wake. If I had thought of it, I could have made a service of being the town-visiting pet from Torchlight, if anyone would trust a new character with their stuff/money.

The past weekend was Canthan New Year in Guild Wars. This is an amazing source of money for a new player. Offering to sell Lunar Tokens for 200g and Fortunes for 600g, I was deluged with buyers. There were quests that rewarded 25 Tokens, and the established players had run them in previous years; they were effectively level 5 quests that awarded 5 platinum. I financed my first set of prestige armor off those. If you could get your newb to Lion’s Arch, you could convert Tokens to Fortunes profitably (if slowly) playing Rock-Paper-Scissors.

An economy that is orders of magnitude above where you are can be daunting, but if you can get involved in it at all, the profits to be reaped are huge.

: Zubon

Forward Progress

The Guild Wars death penalty is wiped when you head back to town, so there are no permanent setbacks. At worst, you can fail to gain. You will usually come out at least marginally ahead: a little gold in your pocket and experience toward a skill point. After an evening of utter failure, you still gained a bit of rep, added 0.3% towards Cartographer, and banked some change.

Item wear is a minor death penalty and gold sink, but it can lead to your losing progress in a night of play. However many hundred times you are supposed to fail a raid, you are losing each time you do unless the raid comes with enough trash to pay for your repair bills (and that is just wrapping in the farming you could do outside the raid). You have heard of people hitting their heads against a wall so hard that all their armor broke and they could not afford to fix it. Then there are the expected consumables of potions, food, scrolls, etc. that get burned for each attempt. Those are dispiriting evenings, when you leave with less than you started with, and that experience cannot be wholly beneficial for player retention (which is funny when the game that avoids it does not have subscribers).

EVE Online is a game where you can lose everything you own but keep making progress because skill training is time-based. You are supposed to lose ships over time. Don’t get attached. Even if you are down some ISK, your skill points keep increasing.

There is something to be said for a lack of consequences. It’s a game.

: Zubon