The purpose of challenge
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 July 2015, 3:40 am
I have long been puzzled by an apparent contradiction about challenges in MMORPGs: On the one side a lot of people say that they want challenging fights. On the other hand the majority of the time spent in a MMORPG is for your character to become stronger, which makes any given fight less challenging. If we want challenging fights, why do we chase after those epics that remove the challenge?

Today I had a thought, that maybe I need to approach the subject from the opposite angle. What if what we really want is character progression, getting stronger? Then the "challenging fight" becomes not a purpose in itself, but rather a yardstick, a unit of measurement. It isn't the challenge which is important, but the status of being able to overcome that challenge.
Tobold's Blog

Universal definition of the gamer identity
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 June 2015, 5:17 am
Recently there have been thousands of words written in the blogosphere on what exactly is a gamer. I don't get why there is any need for that discussion. The definition of what a gamer is is so simple:

Anybody who spends as much time and effort as I am in playing games is a gamer. Anybody who spends less is a casual n00b. Anybody who spends more is a basement-dwelling unemployed looser.

Note: The "I" in the above phrase does not specifically mean me, Tobold. It means everybody, or whoever is trying to define what a gamer is. It is an universal definition.
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How many MMORPGs can you play?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 June 2015, 4:35 am
Syp floored me with his gaming plans for 2015 mentioning 9+ different MMORPGs he is planning to play. I barely find the time to do everything I want in just one. Different MMORPG surveys consistently over the years have found that the average gamer plays just over 20 hours of MMORPGs per week. In one game 20 hours per week results in some sort of progress. Split over many games, nothing much is happening. Now I don't know how many hours per week Syp plays, and there certainly are extreme cases playing up to 100 hours per week. But I wonder if the average player even has the time to play 2 MMORPGs in the same week.

Besides time, the other issue is that MMORPGs require a lot of knowledge. You don't only have to know control schemes, but also things like spell rotations, and where to go to find what. I just spent all weekend figuring out the new zone in World of Warcraft. I'm not sure I could hold in my head all the information needed to play 9 MMORPGs efficiently.

So I'd like to hear your opinion and your experience on this. How many different MMORPGs have you played in parallel for some time? For you, what are the advantages and disadvantages of playing more than one MMORPG at a time?
Tobold's Blog

The social patch
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 June 2015, 3:01 am
Something interesting is happening in World of Warcraft: After 10 years of trying, Blizzard finally got all the elements together to make people play in groups rather than solo. I haven't been playing in so many groups for so long for years than I have this weekend. Tanaan Jungle, introduced in last weeks patch, is the perfect group place.

The first part of the puzzle is content which you'd actually want to group. Yes, you could solo for example the Saberstalker reputation. But as you need 21,000 reputation for revered (which you need for flying), and each mob you need to kill gives only 30 reputation, but has over a million hit points, soloing would take a rather long time. Find a good group and you get to revered in a day. I did.

The second part is a good group finder tool. Warlords of Draenor added the custom group finder, which makes it possible to create or search for a group for any content. You can just write "Saberstalkers reputation farming" as name of your group, set it to auto-invite, and you'll have a full farming group all the time, with leaving members constantly being replaced. And no, you don't need a healer and a tank for that, 5 dps work just fine.

The third part of the equation is the system of cross-server linking and each server having possibly several copies of the same area. Which means that your Saberstalker farming group most probably will be in a copy in which there are actually mobs to farm. Your group won't be all alone, but it won't be totally overcamped either. That is especially useful for rare mobs, like the four champions of Hellfire Citadel which drop Medallion of the Legion (gives 1,000 reputation for all Draenor factions, basically one day less dailies to get to flying). You don't have to camp the rare spawn for half an hour, you can just search for a group for that mob, and when you join the group you will be automatically transported to the server and phase where the rare is up. I recommend the addon Premade Group Finder to check every 30 seconds for such a group and auto-signup to it. Yesterday I killed all 4 of them 4 times, once each on each of my 4 level 100 alts, and got 2 medallions out of it (they aren't bind on pickup, so I could send them to my main, but you could also sell them for 20k gold).

Even daily quests are sped up with groups. One of the factions you need to farm reputation with to get flying only has a single daily quest, which is finding 10 objects you get either by finding a treasure or by killing a rare. As you can only select each of the 51 treasures once, but kill the rares every day, rare-farming is the way to go. Especially useful here is the arena for the Rumble in the Jungle quest to defeat the three arena champions of Fangri'la. Even after you finished that quest you can still buy the totems to summon those rares, which makes it easy to farm in a group. Another faction you need reputation for requires you to do 3 bonus objectives every day, and that is a lot faster in a group as well.

For me this is especially interesting in view of having 4 characters at level 100. The patch is finally requiring my alts to leave their garrison, at least for a while, to get reputation for ship blueprints, and farm rares for equipment blueprints. That means I will progress slower, as I don't have the time to play 4 characters on work days. But that is probably working as intended, as alts just producing passive income is not great game design. I'm approaching one million gold without doing much for the money.

So in summary, patch 6.2 and Tanaan Jungle made World of Warcraft a far more social place. I hope Blizzard can keep that up for future content.
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The economy of abundance
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 June 2015, 3:56 am
In 2014 Steam added 1,400 games to its library, more than 100 per month. Even if you would just spend 1 hour 59 minutes with each new game (and then sneakily refund it), that would take more hours than a full-time job. The Apple app store is even worse, it added nearly 10,000 games per month in 2014. Even if you spent just 5 minutes testing each game you couldn't possibly keep up. There aren't hundreds of MMORPGs out there, but given how much time each of them takes there are also far more than a single person could play.

Not only are there too many games to play, but there is also the problem that there are far less types of games than there are games. Of the 379,313 games in the app store, how many are match-3 puzzle games? How many are about building a base and raiding the base of other players? Steam is full of sequels, or games that while being from different companies still strongly resemble each other. The expert might be able to see the difference between all those multiplayer shooter games, but for the layman they are all pretty much the same. For example I don't play zombie apocalypse survival games, so I can't tell the dozens of them on Steam apart. Being well versed with MMORPGs I can see the difference between all those different MMORPGs, but honestly at the core many of them are very similar and have the same basic structure.

The economic consequence of that is that given the choice between too many similar games, players tend to flock to a few market leaders, while the rest of them distributes between all the others. There is more supply of games than there is demand for them, which is one of the reasons why people have been increasingly protesting about "too high prices" for games, in spite of the fact that inflation-adjusted even triple-A games have become cheaper over the last 20 years. But why pay $50+ for a game any longer when there are lot of viable alternatives for cheap in a Steam sale or on some app store?

In the past making computer games was a profitable business because there are lots of idiots who are willing to work twice the hours for half the pay making a game than they would get for writing banking software. But even that competitive advantage isn't cutting it any more if people aren't willing to pay much for games any longer. I recently stumbled upon a quote on Blessing of Kings saying: "Steam is essentially reverse piracy. Instead of playing games you didn't pay for, you pay for games you'll never play.". But that isn't a situation that can continue indefinitely. At some point people will stop buying, because they already have a lot of similar games unplayed in their libraries.

Now in many cases players won't care if some video game developer goes out of business. But the danger is that in the last years more and more games have turned in online services. And when the company goes broke and the servers go down, the game you bought isn't playable any more. There might be some dark clouds ahead for gaming.
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A question of identity
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 June 2015, 9:21 am
I don't blog much about my TV watching habits, but one of the shows I like to watch is Top Gear. That is a British show about three middle-aged guys behaving like immature teenagers while playing with often very expensive cars. That has a huge appeal to the predominantly male audience, so Top Gear is the BBC's biggest hit. But it was never a comfortable relationship: The loudest of the three presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, has strong right-wing opinions and isn't afraid at all to say things which aren't politically correct. That led to a series of "scandals" where Jeremy said something which offended somebody, and the BBC got complaints.

That could have gone on forever if Jeremy Clarkson at one point hadn't completely lost it. He wanted a hot meal after a day of shooting, only got offered sandwiches by a production assistant, and that enraged him so much that he hit that production assistant to the point where the guy had to go to the hospital to get his split lip stitched. Now many fans, used to that endless series of "scandals", were ready to forgive Clarkson. But the BBC fired him. Which was probably the right thing to do, as I think most employees from most companies in the world would much prefer if their boss hasn't got the right to beat them. Unless you are a professional boxer there aren't many places where you can seriously hit a coworker and not get fired.

But that situation is now leading to an interesting question of identity. The BBC holds the right to the Top Gear brand, and announced that they will continue the show with completely new presenters. Mean Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May, are going to host a new car show, presumably on Netflix. So which one of the two shows is the "real" Top Gear successor? The one with the brand name, or the one with the presenters who made the show such a hit? My guess is that the Netflix show will have far more success than the BBC show. Clarkson, Hammond, and May have a special love/hate chemistry going on between them which the BBC can't possibly reproduce. The rest of the show, expensive cars and crazy races, is easily enough reproduced. And there is no copyright on the format of a TV show. So Netflix will be able to produce a show that resembles the old Top Gear far more than the BBC can.

Which only leaves one question open: Which show will have The Stig?
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Crafting in 6.2
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 June 2015, 3:17 am
I only had a short look at the new World of Warcraft patch up to now, concentrating on the crafting part. I used to make items like hexweave essence, greater hexweave essence, and powerful hexweave essence. These now all have been replaced by the "new" hexweave essence, which can be applied multiple times to a crafted item to bring its ilevel up to 685. Beyond that you need the new mighty and savage hexweave essences, and those need the new resource felblight. (Replace "hexweave" by other terms like "truesteel" for other professions than tailoring).

Apparently the devs were of the opinion that felblight somehow would "fix" crafting in WoD. I disagree. I was seriously disappointed to find out that you can't buy felblight for primal spirits, like you can for all other crafting materials. Which means that the *only* way to get felblight is gathering resources in Tanaan Jungle. Really bad idea, as that will just lead to node camping, and people being angry at each other for "stealing" nodes, especially once we get flying. And of course a lot of people abandoned gathering professions, as those were kind of useless before the patch.

The crafting resource requirements for the basic essences has been lowered, and the production of those resources has been sped up. I don't think that actually changes anything. Prices will adjust according to the new balance between supply and demand. Although I am not yet convinced that the new production speed between the craft-specific resource, the sorcerous element needed, and the savage blood is in balance: I have the impression that I now have far too many of the craft-specific resources and not enough elements and blood to craft them into essences. Which is a problem because there is no way to "grind" monsters for elements and blood, so you can't adjust relative production speeds.

Other than the mighty and savage upgrade items the patch brought no new crafted items. Which means that we are still stuck with making the basic crafted items and upgrading them with essences. And we still can't wear more than 3 of those, which basically turns crafted items into a "filler" for slots you couldn't find other items for. I really don't see how patch 6.2 has done anything to improve crafting, it still isn't very interesting but more of a passive money maker.
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Is an expansion a form of blackmail?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 June 2015, 10:28 am
Recently several rather successful games have run into trouble when they tried to sell an expansion: People protested about prices for the expansions being equal or close the price of a full game. Now normally one would think that an overly expensive product isn't something to complain about: Steam is full of games I am not willing to buy at that price, and that causes me no distress at all. I'll just wait until I can get them for half price or less a year later. But maybe expansions are different.

If I don't buy a new game, my situation doesn't change. I didn't have the game before, I don't buy it now, I still don't have it, no loss to me. But the people who would buy an expansion are those already currently playing the game. Not buying the expansion means either stopping to play, or running around in old gear through old content while everybody else around you is enjoying the new content and getting new gear rewards. An expansion appears to be less optional, and more a must have.

So some people apparently perceive an expensive expansion as being a form of blackmail: If you want to continue playing, give us your money! Playing without the expansion doesn't appear to be a viable option for many people. That would explain why an expensive expansion is causing so much more protests than an expensive new game. What do you think?
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Zeitgeist : Police Academy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 June 2015, 4:11 am
My new Dungeons & Dragons campaign is going to start end August, when my players are all back from their holidays. But as we already rolled the characters and still had time to meet once before the holidays, I created a special pre-campaign adventure for the players to get to know the characters they created.

It is Summer in the year 499 A.O.V. (after our victory, the victory being of the humans against the eladrin empire, which got destroyed in the process). On Pine Island, a quarter of the city of Flint in the kingdom of Risur, the Battalion Academy is training recruits for the army, the police, and the Royal Homeland Constabulary. Recruits first go through basic training before they are assigned to one of those forces, the RHC being the most prestigious, in charge of the security of king and country. So it is with some excitement that an inspection by the Viscount Inspector Nigel Price-Hill, the boss of the RHC, is being prepared. Price-Hill, who is normally in the headquarters in Slate, the capital of Risur, is being accompanied by Lady Inspectress Margaret Saxby, the head of the Flint branch, and Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft. They are being shown around by the head of RHC training in the Battalion Academy, Colonel Sebastian Harlock.

The player characters are all recruits in basic training. After the parade and inspection, they observe Price-Hill, Saxby, Delft and Harlock in a heated discussion of a newspaper article. On approaching they can hear Price-Hill saying that "We need to do something about this! And especially we need to show the king that we are doing something about this!". On noticing that they are being overheard Lady Saxby says "I think I have an idea, but let's discuss that in private.". So the leaders of the RHC are walking off, leaving the newspaper behind. In the newspaper the characters see that apparently the article under discussion was about people disagreeing with the king's politics on progress: The king wants Risur to industrialize, especially in the military sector. He wants modern weapons like muskets and steamships, like Risur's enemy Danor has developed. But in the 4th Yerasol war, 7 years ago, the Risuri forces, more used to druidic and shamanic magic than modern weapons, failed to use those weapons to good effect and lost the war. So a faction in Risur, the primalists, want the country to return to the old ways, against the wishes of the king.

The next day the characters are being told that they have been selected for the RHC, forming a new type of squadron, the musketeers. They aren't allowed other ranged weapons than muskets, and it quickly becomes clear that this new squadron is in part a political statement, trying to demonstrate the superiority of the modern weapons over the old ways. That is why the group does not contain any druids or shamans, but only characters using arcana, divine, and psionic powers. In detail the group consists of:

  • Eldion, a deva invoker. Devas are humans who were present when during the great victory 500 years ago the human army slew the avatar of the eladrin goddess Srasama. The death of Srasama led to a huge magical catastrophe, turning Danor into a magic-dead zone, killing nearly all eladrin women in the whole world (which led to the downfall of the eladrin empire), and causing a huge explosion. The humans who were close enough to witness the death but didn't get killed in the explosion received a sliver of the goddess' immortality, and have since then constantly be reborn every time they died, retaining a part of their previous live's memories. Eldion got selected for the RHC due to his political connections. He is a pragmatic politician who wanted to get into the RHC to promote his political career, and got a recommendation by one of Flint's mayors, for whom he worked previously.
  • Merian, an elven avenger. Merian is the only one in the group with a connection to the old ways, having been born and raised as a savage in the Risuri jungle. But a secret sect of the Clergy converted him and educated him as avenger for the church. It was this conversion from the old ways to a more modern religion which got Merian selected for the RHC.
  • Aria, a human sorceress with dragon blood running in her veins. She is a spirit medium, able to talk with dead, and can sometimes be found in conversation with her dead father. Her power to speak with the dead is of obvious use for the RHC.
  • James, a human battlemind. When the current king founded the RHC 30 years ago, James' father was one of the first constables. This family connection got James selected for the RHC.
  • Artus, a half-elf ardent. Artus fought as a young man in the fourth Yerasol war, distinguished himself as a war hero, but witnessed the death of many a comrade. Drifting after the war he was selected to the RHC following a recent political effort to employ war veterans.
  • Malicia, a human paladin. She is of noble birth, related to one of the previous kings of Risur. While the kingship is handed from one king to the next based on merit, the family of current and previous kings is the nobility of Risur. The RHC being considered a distinguished career, Malicia got the job due to her family connections.
After being selected the group spends the next 6 months in special training for the RHC, especially training with the musket (all players get the musket weapon skill). Any other ranged weapons are prohibited. At the end of that training, in Winter of the year 500 A.O.V., Colonel Sebastian Harlock has planned a special demonstration event as a sort of final exam for the musketeers: They are to face two squadrons of police and military recruits in a mock battle using non-lethal damage. They are facing a squadron consisting of Sergeant Gravash, a dragonborn soldier, with 4 policemen plus another squadron of Sergeant Alduin, an elven archer, with 4 militia archers. There being a political dimension to the battle, the group is set up with their muskets at one end, and the two squadrons fighting them are placed 25 squares away. The archers having short bows with a range of 15 squares, they need to spend the first round running, while the musketeers with their range of 20 have the advantage of being the defenders.

With several members of the group having the political skills to understand that a demonstration of muskets is called for, most of them use the musket once in the first or second round. Due to luck (most of the group has low dexterity and isn't actually any good with the musket), they kill the 4 archer minions with musket balls, to the applause of Colonel Harlock. The two sergeants and the policemen aren't minions, and are such much harder to kill. But with healing from both the paladin and the ardent, the group withstands the assault and wins the battle. (Technically this was a hard encounter, level 4 encounter for level 1 characters, but the advantage of the set-up made it easier than I had thought. Still it ended up being an interesting test battle giving everybody the chance to get to know the powers of their characters.)

After finishing their training with distinction that way, the group joins the RHC branch of Flint, and they each receive a magical RHC badge (amulet giving +1 to defenses, and allowing them to use their second wind as a movement action instead of a standard action. That is basically a disguised house rule, as the experience of the previous campaign showed that the second wind self-healing wasn't used much if it meant not attacking that round. As a movement action it isn't quite as good as the dwarven racial power that allows second wind as a minor action, so it still isn't a complete no-brainer but demands a tactical decision.). They are being told that in 6 weeks, in Spring 500 A.O.V. (the Risuri calendar has no months, just 4 seasons), the king will come to visit Flint for the launch of the first Risuri-built steamship. They are assigned as security for that event, and will spend the next weeks canvassing the area of the royal shipyard, performing background checks on the guest list, etc. The next session (the actual start of the campaign story) will be that event.
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Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 June 2015, 4:55 am
Every MMORPG has a lot of content that requires mostly time, and not much skill. While a game like World of Warcraft might use words like "epic" or "achievement", fact is that the achievement often isn't all that great, nor is the reward all that epic. However some of those achievements can serve some useful purpose as a milestone. In a game without end it can be useful to get a signal that you have finished some chapter.

It is with that in mind that I am happy to report that I have done all the pre-patch achievements and tasks necessary to acquire flying in Draenor. I'll just need to do the reputation grind in Tanaan Jungle once it opens. While of course I am interested in being able to fly, I also think this is a good milestone for this particular expansion. It tells me that I have done all the significant solo content of the expansion. That is more than I can say of some previous expansions, although those didn't necessarily contain an equivalent milestone.

On the other side of the coin this milestone means that there isn't much left pre-patch that I am still interested in. And I assume I'll cover the post-patch new content in something like a month. However, where I was previously always thinking "why should I spend a monthly subscription on a game where I don't play much any more?", the introduction of the WoW Token changes that part of the equation. I'm much more willing to continue playing occasionally and paying with in-game currency of which I have tons of, than to pay with real money. There is less of a feeling of obligation to play when I didn't pay real money for the subscription. So I'll see how that works out for the rest of the year, and presumably most of next year, before we get the next expansion.
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Why we can't have nice things on the internet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 June 2015, 2:58 am
There is an eternal fight in the MMO blogosphere about business models, which is usually a conflict between fans of the subscription model and fans of the Free2Play model. Up to now I have read very few complaints about the buy once, play forever business model, which seemed to be everybody's favorite. That is until Guild Wars 2 announced the pricing for its first expansion. At that point the internet turned ugly, got out the torches and pitchforks, and attacked ArenaNet full force. Sigh!

There are two main complaints here: One is that the Guild Wars 2 expansion at $50 is slightly more expensive than let's say a World of Warcraft expansion at $40. That blatantly ignores the fact that playing a WoW expansion over two years costs $40 + 24 x $15 = $400, which is a hell of a lot more than $50. Really, ArenaNet charges you just one-eighth of what Blizzard does for a comparable service, and you are still complaining that this is too expensive?

The second complaint is that the expansion comes bundled with the base game. Gasp, horror, somebody who didn't buy Guild Wars 2 yet can get the game and expansion for less than you paid! That is absolutely scandalous! Nobody else in the history of video gaming has ever reduced the price of a three year old game or bundled it for free with the sequel or expansion! No, wait, in fact I get a similar offer from Steam about once a week. Blizzard sells you the base game of World of Warcraft plus all the expansions up to Mists of Pandaria for $9.99. Which means that $50 buys you the game plus all expansions, just like Guild Wars 2 does.

In short, the whole uproar is from the usual entitlement kids who want not just to pay for a game only once, but also want an endless stream of added content and updates for no money at all. ArenaNet just can't win under conditions like that. At some point in time all those video game developers working for peanuts will give up on that ungrateful bunch of their customers, and we will be reduced to getting only as much game as we are willing to pay for. Which apparently for many people isn't very much.
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Steamed under
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 June 2015, 3:04 am
There is currently a Steam sale going on, and I couldn't help but buy some games. That brings my total of games bought this year to 11 games, for an average of 14.16€ per game. The problem with that is that I only played one of those games, Pillars of Eternity. Which is also the only game I paid full price for (you can now get it for 33% off). The rest was all much cheaper, usually at some big discount of 50% or more. But even the cheapest game is too expensive if you don't actually play it.

The chief culprit here is World of Warcraft. I am still having fun playing that, since the WoW Token was introduced I get to play for free, and when I decide each evening what I want to do, WoW has the lowest barrier to entry. It's a bit like a comfortable old slipper. The fact that I am buying other games shows that I am still interested in other games, but it takes a certain amount of activation energy to actually do so. With every new game you have to put in some effort to learn how to play it, and after a long day at work that energy isn't always there. A secondary problem is that I have this huge new Dungeons & Dragons campaign to prepare. So whenever I have energy, I rather make progress with that campaign than starting a new video game.

The good news is that I do expect things to change in the summer. Patch 6.2 is expected for next week, and after a few weeks of toying around with the new features and doing dailies to get flying in Draenor, I expect my motivation to play WoW to decrease. And my D&D campaign is starting with a pre-adventure next week, and in earnest after the summer holidays. Once that gets going the preparation work is getting less.
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Human breeding simulator
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 June 2015, 12:39 pm
I'm not exactly an ultra-feminist. I do believe in gender equality, but don't agree that the best way to get there is forcing quotas for women in every job, or turning half of the Warlords of Draenor into Warladies. Having said that, it does happen that I object to some particularly sexist content. And it is with some surprise that I found Fallout Shelter to be offensively sexist.

Fallout Shelter is a mobile game which falls into the same general category as let's say Tiny Tower. You manage a vault in the world of Fallout and need to keep a balance between resource production and resource needs. Your shelter is inhabited by "dwellers", and shortly after the start of the game you stop getting dwellers from outside. You can attract outside dwellers with a radio station, but I haven't had much luck with that yet. You can get rare dwellers from lunchboxes, which aren't that frequent either if you don't buy lots of those lunchboxes with real money. So as you need quite a lot of dwellers, for example to unlock new room types, Fallout Shelter quickly degenerates into a human breeding simulator.

From a pure minmax perspective, if not all of the women in your vault are pregnant, you are playing it wrong. You need to drag each woman into the living quarters together with a man who isn't a direct blood relative, dress them both up in gear that increases their charisma the most (which in my game weirdly is a bishop's outfit for the man and a baby doll nightdress for the woman), and a few minutes later the two will disappear into the bedroom in the background, from which the woman will come back pregnant. Repeat until every woman is pregnant, and you will soon have enough dwellers in your vault. There are even quests ("objectives") like "Have 12 Male and Female couples dance in the Living Quarters", with "dancing" being an euphemism, you can't dance without a pregnancy resulting. Oh, and "dancing" is also the best way to increase the happiness of your dwellers. As much as that is represented in a humoristic way, that sort of gameplay isn't exactly in the best of taste.
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Games, toys, and balance
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 June 2015, 3:24 am
Lego has no rules other than the rules of physics. Nobody is telling you that you can't but that blue brick on that red brick, or whatever you want. Monopoly has rules that prevent you from doing whatever you want, for example you can't move counterclockwise around the board. That is because Monopoly is a game, or structured play, while Lego is a toy, or unstructured play. The problem is that in some cases, for example MMORPGs, you're not quite certain whether you are playing a game or playing with a toy.

MMORPGs sure have a lot of silly rules. Many of them have to do with the limitations of the engine: Most of the things you see in your environment you can't interact with. You can't pick a flower unless it is of a specific group of herbs, and you have a specific skill for picking that herb. You can't climb a wall, or even a fence. You can chop through a 5 meter high treant, but a vine only as thick as your arm is an impassable obstacle. And the same flying mount can either fly or not fly depending on where you are, and whether you fulfill certain conditions.

The latter is not so much a case of limitation of the engine, but one of game rules. Games have rules mostly to create a structured and balanced environment. In computer games there is frequently the notion that an activity has to provide a certain degree of challenge, and overcoming that challenge is then rewarded. If you circumvent the challenge, for example by installing an aim-bot in a shooter game, you are considered to be cheating, because you get the reward without doing the challenge within the rules. If the challenge is having to get through a bunch of mobs, or using a glider to reach a specific location, flying can also get you to the reward without doing the challenge. Thus from a game perspective it makes perfect sense to only allow you to fly once those rewards aren't relevant to your character any more.

But then of course some people don't consider MMORPGs to be games, but rather toys. Nobody forces you to follow a specific cycle of challenges and rewards. You can just go out and ignore much of the structured play and do something less structured. For example the character I am currently leveling is basically not doing quests. Instead he is visiting all zones and is collecting all pets. And because the xp requirements today are so low, the xp from exploring, pet battles, and the occasional fight with a mob that is in the way is enough to level him. Not a terribly efficient leveling method, but then that isn't really the purpose of the exercise. I sure wished he could fly sometimes, but at level 33 that isn't possible yet. The game gets its rules in the way of my toy.

There certainly are a lot of similar cases, where playing around with the toy that is a virtual world gets hindered by the rules necessary for the game part of that MMORPG. And I wonder if one of the reasons of the decline of the genre isn't that developers concentrated too much on the game, and restricted the toy too much in the process. Toys can have a much better longevity than games, because you don't reach a goal and are done with it. I would very much like to see a MMORPG in which I could interact more with my environment, even if that doesn't serve a huge purpose for the game. While I am skeptical that Daybreak can actually pull it off, the concept of EQNext / Landmark is very promising in that regard. We sure don't need yet another "level to the cap, then raid" MMORPG out there. In the words of Monty Python, it is time for something completely different.
Tobold's Blog

Fallout Shelter
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 June 2015, 7:26 am
Recently somebody assured me that Bethesda was not one of those game companies that would milk a franchise for all that it's worth. Today they released Fallout Shelter for iOS, a Free2Play vault management game with in-app purchases. Now some fanboi will probably explain to me that this is so totally not the same a Dungeon Keeper for iOS. But from where I stand, without rose-tinted glasses, I must say that this looks mighty suspicious. My personal guess is that The Elder Scrolls Online created some cash-flow problems for Bethesda; the mobile Fallout Shelter and the 2-years-in-advance pre-purchase offer for Fallout 4 suggest that they are rather desperate for cash.

Or to say it in other words: You would be suspicious as well if this had been EA.
Tobold's Blog

Kickstarter fraud
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2015, 9:39 am
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the first time got involved with a Kickstarter campaign, finding that the person who ran the crowdfunding campaign "never hired artists for the board game and instead used the consumers’ funds for miscellaneous personal equipment, rent for a personal residence, and licenses for a separate project.". Well, obviously that is good news if there is somebody watching out for consumers against such fraud. Although I'd say that the fraudster got off extremely lightly: While he settled with FTC on paying the money back, that payback is suspended because of his inability to pay. Other than having to promise not to lie next time, nothing happens to him. Not exactly a huge win for consumer protection. Not sure it will actually discourage anybody from trying something similar.

Fraud is mostly a matter of intention. While the FTC might come after somebody for fraud, they won't sue somebody for being an idealistic idiot with no clue in project management. Which is probably a fair description of most cases of failed Kickstarter projects. That is somewhat unfortunate for the consumer, because for the consumer the results of fraud and of incompetence are pretty much indistinguishable. You're out of your money and didn't get the game you funded.

I wonder if Kickstarter would still work if there were no backer rewards. What if the project creator could *not* promise you a free copy of the game and other rewards in return for your donation? What if it was, *gasp*, an actual donation, with no strings attached? Before you say that this would never work, think about the consequences: If we say that a Kickstarter project could not possibly be financed by real donations, but has to have an element of pre-purchase, then is a Kickstarter project a campaign for donations at all? Or is it rather some sort of sales agreement, which would necessitate far better consumer protection than we currently have?
Tobold's Blog

How to become a Draenor Pathfinder
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 June 2015, 3:41 am
I think the subject of the new achievement / "attunement" Draenor Pathfinder necessary to get flying in Draenor merits closer examination. How hard is it to do, and who is it for? Previous implementations of attunements, "you have to do this in order to be allowed to do that", have not always been a huge success. So how about Draenor Pathfinding.

From what was announced the Draenor Pathfinding achievement is based on 4 already existing / doable achievements: Exploring Draenor, Draenor Loremaster, Securing Draenor, and finding 100 Draenor treasures. While that might be subject to change, let's have a look at those:

Exploring Draenor and Draenor Loremaster are both very easy. You need to visit every sub-zone on the map of Draenor for the former, and do all the main zone story lines for the latter. Unless you had some very unconventional way to level your character to 100, chances are that you already completed most of the requirements of both of those achievements. There might be some more exotic sub-zones missing on your list, but they tend to be the same exotic sub-zones for everybody, and if you type the name of that sub-zone into the YouTube search interface, you'll certainly find a video showing you how to get there. The Draenor Loremaster achievement doesn't count number of quests done, but certain main story quest lines from the different zones. Those are the same main story quest lines you needed to open your garrison outposts in the various zones, which makes it not unlikely that you already did them. If not, you'll have to do some regular questing designed for characters below level 100, which should be trivial enough.

Finding 100 Draenor treasures is a bit more weird. The already existing achievements asks for 200 treasures, so this has been reduced for the Draenor Pathfinding achievement. I call treasures weird because they have been completely optional, and somewhat of a change to how the world previously worked. As a consequence some people might conceivably not have found a single treasure on their way to level 100. In vanilla WoW and all previous expansions a broken down cart on the side of the road was always just a piece of decoration; there was never any interaction with it. In Draenor you are suddenly supposed to check out that broken down cart closely, and find a rather small clickable object in it or under it, which is a treasure. Treasures can be pretty much everywhere, under trees, in small niches in buildings, on top of mountains. A few need a sort of jumping puzzle to get there, but most don't, and you can easily get 100 treasures without jumping once, if you know where they are. For that you either need a treasure map in game, or, far easier, an addon that marks all treasure locations on your map and mini-map. With the addon the 100 treasures are easy enough, even if you haven't done any during leveling.

In my opinion the most work is the Securing Draenor achievement. There are 12 places distributed all over Draenor with level 100 mobs which are part of a series of daily quests from the garrison to get Apexis crystals. If you are one of the three people in WoW who love Apexis crystals and hunted for them daily, you'll already have this achievement. But I'd guess that most of us don't. The problem up to now was that the daily quest was the same for everybody, so the one place of the 12 that was the target of the day was usually overcrowded with players competing for mob spawns, which made these daily quests not really enjoyable. But the good news is that you don't need the daily quests to do the achievement. And if you have a surplus of garrison resources you can even buy the 12 quests from the quartermaster in your garrison. If you do the ones that *aren't* the quest of the day, there should be a lot less competition for spawns. If you have been playing for a while and got a decent iLevel above 640 from whatever you did, even from just doing follower missions, none of the mobs should pose a serious threat. Overall this quest does however require several hours worth of farming mobs in the 12 locations, so it isn't quite as easy as the other requirements.

Beyond those four achievements, in order to get the Draenor Pathfinder achievement you also need to be revered with 3 new factions in the Tanaan Jungle. Right now that is my biggest worry. I'm not a huge fan of reputation grinds, and I'm not sure how many hours it will take to get three factions to revered. I guess we will have to wait and see for that part. But the good news is that the other parts of Draenor Pathfinder are soloable by an average player in a reasonable number of hours. Flying in Draenor will not be an ultra-rare achievement for a tiny elite. Given how much time and money some people spent on collecting flying mounts, that is a good thing.
Tobold's Blog

Comforting Azuriel on flying in Draenor
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2015, 9:24 am
Azuriel is somewhat disappointed by the seemingly chaotic way that Blizzard decided on flying in Azeroth. Me, I don't believe a word of this story of how they came up with this decision. I believe the *real* story went like this:

A Blizzard designer presented the plan of unlocking flying in Draenor in a later patch via an achievement already early in the development phase of Draenor, and everybody agreed.

Somebody remarked that there would probably be a lot of complaints about having to do a bunch of achievements to unlock flying. They needed a plan to make this achievement unlock more popular.

Blizzard decided to first keep mum about flying in Draenor, then make a fake announcement that there wouldn't be any flying at all in Draenor or any future expansion.

They wait for the predictably protest and then present their original plan as a "compromise". Everybody is happy.
Tobold's Blog

Launch issues
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 June 2015, 2:43 am
This week The Elder Scrolls Online launched on consoles, and the launch didn't go well. Destructoid joked "The Elder Scrolls Online suffers totally unexpected launch issues", basically classifying the event as non-news: Pretty much every MMORPG has launch issues. The underlying problem is pretty basic: On normal days the peak concurrent users of a game constitute only a small percentage of the overall players, industry rule of thumb is about 10% for a subscription game. On launch day *everybody* wants to play, so the servers are overloaded. Basically launch day is pretty much indistinguishable from a distributed denial of service attack on the game. So launch issues are "normal". But is that really an excuse?

If you told a big internet company today that there was a distributed denial of service attack expected on their servers next month, they would be able to prepare and either negate that attack or at least mitigate the damage. So if everybody knows that launch day is a problem, why shouldn't it be possible to handle that problem as well? You would probably need additional server resources, but as you can rent cloud-based solutions that isn't impossible. It has a cost, but that should be weighed against the positive marketing effect of the really surprising headline of "MMORPG launches without problems".

At the very least a game company should provide enough login server resources to sort the mess into an orderly queue, because that by itself already solves part of the problem. If a player tries to login and gets an undecipherable error message, he will try again and again. If he logs in and gets told that he is in a login queue of 2 hours, he knows what is going on an might decide to give up and try the next day instead.

In the case of The Elder Scrolls Online it has also to be remarked that this is the second launch of the same game. Oscar Wilde would say that "To lose one launch may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.". Online games aren't exotic any more. Even games that previously would have been considered single-player games in this day an age are often designed as online games, and thus frequently also suffer from launch issues. It is time that the industry finds technical solutions to this problem.
Tobold's Blog

Complaining about not enough Win 4 Pay
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 June 2015, 3:44 am
There has been an interesting development in the ongoing discussion about Pay2Win. Usually it is an endless chorus of people complaining about feeling obliged to pay money for items that give them an advantage in the game. These people would prefer purchases to be completely cosmetic, so paying has no influence whatsoever on the game. Now Blizzard did exactly that in Hearthstone, and now the other side is complaining: The new heroes in Hearthstone, which are entirely cosmetic and cost $10 are considered to be bad value for money, because they don't give you any advantage in the game for your $10.

That isn't exactly the first time that happened. The $25 sparkly pony in World or Warcraft, or the $68 monocle in EVE Online were exactly the same problem: Outrage over pricey cosmetic items that have real use in the game. You can say a lot of bad things about Blizzard selling expensive flying mounts and then removing flying from the game, but it certainly isn't Pay2Win.

The fundamental problem, as usual, is that different people care about different parts of a game. Expensive cosmetic items means that people who care about looks subsidize other players who don't. Of course most players have an attitude of "I don't care who has to pay for this game, as long as it isn't me", but expensive cosmetic items aren't exactly fair.

A fair business model would somehow have to link how much a person gets out of the game to how much he pays. And no, that doesn't mean subscriptions, because being given the opportunity to play and being actually able to play and get entertainment out of a game is not the same. Surprisingly the place in which a MMORPG like World of Warcraft is priced the fairest might be China, where people pay $5 for 2700 minutes of game time, or 11 cents per hour. A fixed cost per hour of entertainment derived from the game is more fair than any of the business models available over here, where some people pay significantly more per actual hour of WoW played than others.

But as long as we stick to Free2Play models, which by definition have to support a lot of freeloaders, making people pay for additional content, comfort functions, or other advantages to me appears more fair than making them pay for cosmetic items. I'd rather have the cosmetic stuff be a reward for achievements, so that running around looking special actually means something more than just being rich. If some players have to pay the game for other players, it is only fair if they receive something a bit more substantial for that payment than just cosmetics.
Tobold's Blog

The roleplaying in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 June 2015, 4:39 am
There is an interesting discussion started by Syp and taken up by Rowan Blaze on what your characters in an MMORPG are: Are they puppets, whose personality is the personality of the player, but the abilities are determined by game rules? Or is their personality determined by their role in the game?

I think this is a question that is better understood when looking at other forms of roleplaying games, like pen & paper tabletop games. In 35 years of experience with Dungeons & Dragons and similar games I am sure that the personality of the player always shines through, but you do get occasions where a well-played character makes decisions that are more based on his place in a fictional world than on the player controlling him. Many players are trying to roleplay their characters, but can't completely switch off modern ways of thinking. It just is very hard for somebody from the 21st century to think like a medieval person, for example regarding beliefs, or what is right and wrong.

Computer games have the additional complication that in most cases you are not free to make any decisions you like. Especially MMORPGs frequently only offer you the options to accept or decline the quest as prepared by the developers. With the rewards tied to the accept button there isn't really a decision to take, thus players end up performing a torture quest without even thinking about the issue. The "decision" is more like "I'm going to do all quests in this zone for leveling", and the result is a story which is completely controlled by the developers, and the player is reduced to watching the story and pressing buttons only for game mechanics reasons.

On the other hand this pre-written story of following the quest-lines is mostly for players who either want to experience those zone stories, or who consider doing quest-lines to be the most pleasant form of leveling. The game doesn't actually force you to follow the quests. I am currently playing a level 30 dwarf hunter in World of Warcraft who is more interested in visiting all the different zones of Azeroth and collecting all battle pets in these zones than doing quests. The "story" of his voyages might not have the drama of a quest line, but it is certainly a story based on my decisions, not on something pre-fabricated by the developers. But even here the decisions aren't based on the personality of my avatar, but rather on "what do I need to do to achieve a certain personal goal".

The D&D campaign I am currently preparing is exceptionally rich in options for taking decisions based on personal philosophy and beliefs, to the point where the fate of the game world rests on the beliefs of the players and their decisions made according to those beliefs. We spent more time than usual on character creation and I provided more tools and options. I don't know if ultimately the beliefs of the players or the beliefs of the characters they play will become more important, but I think the two are sufficiently aligned to work either way. This is promising to be interesting. A MMORPG will never offer us as much opportunity for real decisions or to really change the world. Despite of looking humanoid and being able to express emotions on command, our MMORPG characters don't really have much personality than PacMan or the paddle in Pong.

The one place where personalities are most visible in a MMORPG are in chat, whether that is voice chat or typed. And it turns out that "in character" chat is extremely rare in MMORPGs, usually just some of the time on a few selected roleplaying servers. The vast majority of the chat going on is completely based on the personalities of the players, and not their characters at all. And because of the disinhibition many people display in a pseudo-anonymous environment, that ends up with interaction which is frequently not very pleasant. So that a growing trend in multi-player online games is to limit opportunities for any sort of free chat, as well as disallowing various player interactions that can be considered to be griefing. Instead of asking the question who exactly controls the personality of our avatars, we might end up in a situation where avatars don't have any personality at all.
Tobold's Blog

Win to not pay
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 June 2015, 10:07 am
I just cancelled my World of Warcraft subscription. When you do that you get an exit interview, which completely failed to cover my case: I only cancelled my subscription, but have no intention whatsoever to stop playing. I have enough gold to buy a year's worth of WoW tokens, and just don't want my credit card to be charged in case I forget to hand in a token in time.

Recently there was a lot of discussion whether it was "fair" that somebody with a lot of money could buy WoW tokens, exchange those for gold, and buy epics with them. But what about the person who like me is exchanging his gold for WoW tokens: Is it "fair" that I get to play for free when most other players have to pay for their subscription? Is it "fair" that somebody else is basically paying for my subscription? I don't think so.

I think this is a fundamental problem of games that use the PLEX/CREDD/Token system. There are some people in the game which are more interested in making gold than others, and with a bit of practice those tend to get rather good at it, because game economies have lots of exploitable flaws. Gevlon sure isn't paying to play EVE. I'm not paying to play WoW, nor presumably does Flasteria, the new gold goblin in WoW. I have no idea what the percentage of players in a game like World of Warcraft is that can easily make enough gold every month to pay for a WoW token (especially since in Europe it costs twice as much gold as in America). But I do know that I personally don't even need to make any particular effort and still end up with enough gold for two WoW tokens every month.

In a genre which is full of individual and subjective win conditions I just happened to be one of the players whose win condition now makes him exempt from having to pay a subscription. That seems somewhat arbitrary to me. You could imagine playing for free to be coupled to some completely different win condition, for example WoW Tokens dropping from mythic raid bosses, or being a price for arena fights. Players who like to make gold are just one sub-group, and not a particularly glamorous one, of the many different players of World of Warcraft. Why do we get to play for free?

What is even weirder is that we get to play for free for making gold in the World of Warcraft expansion in which making gold is the easiest. I don't even need to leave my garrison these days to make enough gold to pay my subscription, the bulk of my income is rather passive. Gone are the days where you needed tons of clicks to make money by glyph selling. Today I produce and sell stuff which costs thousands of gold per item, so making the tens of thousands of gold for a token is fast enough.

I'm not complaining about my good fortune, but honestly I don't consider it fair. My apologies to the person or persons unknown who are paying for my subscription. I didn't set out to grab your money, Blizzard just changed the rules in a way that unfairly favors me and the way I've always been playing.
Tobold's Blog

Steam refunds provide pre-order purchase consumer protection
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 June 2015, 5:43 am
This week Steam changed their refund policy and is now offering to refund you for any purchase for any reason as long as you didn't own the game for more than 14 days and didn't play it for more than 2 hours. So in the light of the recent discussion on pre-purchasing games, I checked the fine print of that refund policy: The 14 days period starts on the day the game is released, not on the day you purchase it. Which means that if you pre-ordered a game due to marketing hype and it turns out that the game is shit on release, you can get a refund. Now that should prevent some of the worst shenanigans of marketing departments.

I am honestly surprised by the amount of articles that I have read who find fault with the new Steam refund policy. Apparently many developers and so-called video game journalists believe that if customers are given even the most basic consumer rights, they will abuse those rights to the point of destroying the market. For me that is just yet another example of developers and journalist focusing too much on a small number of "hardcore" players, who admittedly are a bunch of evil miscreants willing to screw everybody by gaming the system. But the average customer of a video game today isn't a hardcore gamer any more. And regular honest customers deserve protection, because there are also enough developers who are basically just criminals out for a quick buck.

Really, if I am ever going to use the Steam refund policy it will be because I think I have been cheated by some developer whose game is far from working as promised. I would never try to get a refund for a game just because I managed to play through it in 1 hour 59 minutes. And if that refund policy leads to developers making DLCs which have actually more than 2 hours worth of content, that is to be applauded. I don't want to buy a salami thin slice by thin slice, ending up paying double or triple for what the whole salami is worth. The refund policy has an abuse clause, so for me that is sufficient protection for developers; somebody systematically using the system to get a refund for every game he buys is going to end up being banned from Steam, which is how it should be.

I fully applaud the new Steam refund policy. I should go a long way to improve their "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau. And consumer protection is certainly one of the steps needed to raise games from being "niche" and "special" to becoming grown up and a media product like all others.
Tobold's Blog

Please boycott Fallout 4 pre-purchase!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2015, 3:33 am
Yesterday Fallout 4 was announced. Simultaneously the offer to pre-purchase the game on Steam went up. I am launching an appeal to everybody to please boycott that pre-purchase. If we as customers make it clear that we are willing to give companies money for simply *announcing* a sequel with unknown content and release date, it is our own fault if those game companies fleece us in the future.
Tobold's Blog

Hell level nostalgia
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 June 2015, 2:40 am
The original Everquest, before 2002, had a complicated formula to calculate xp requirements per level which led to certain levels needing far more xp than others. These levels were known as hell levels. At the time leveling was a very slow process, so while a regular level could already take a week of playing to achieve, a hell level could take a month. And at the time you also suffered an xp loss on dying, so dying during a hell level could set you back a week of progress. The xp curve was smoothed in 2002. And today, on the new progression servers Ragefire and Lockjaw, the xp requirements per level have been significantly lowered. You can now level up in hours, not days or weeks or months.

It is my personal belief that the way people play MMORPGs depends very strongly on the incentives and requirements. Thus as much Ragefire and Lockjaw might resemble the old Everquest, and the advertising says "play like it's 1999", I think that playing on these progression servers with their fast leveling is fundamentally different from playing the original Everquest with slow leveling and hell levels. Furthermore from the descriptions I read it appears that EQ today is far more solo-friendly than EQ 1999, and that again has a huge impact on social behavior of players.

I'm not saying that I want my hell levels back. But I would say that the often bemoaned phenomenon of people "playing alone together" is very much a product of the xp requirements curve and the ease of soloing. If you made a new World of Warcraft server on which gaining a level would take 20 times as long as it does today, and you increased the group xp bonus significantly, you would end up with a version of World of Warcraft where lots of people would group during leveling, and where leveling would be far more prominent than end-game raiding.

Me, I'd rather play on that hypothetical server. I am currently playing a level 29 hunter not using heirloom gear, and doing a lot of pet battles. And I can't help but outlevel any zone shortly after I entered it, in spite not having the heirloom xp bonus and in spite of not resting in an inn. My WoW leveling experience today is as far away from the original WoW as the Ragefire / Lockjaw servers are from the original Everquest. For people who actually like taking their time to explore zones and level slowly, there don't appear to be many games on offer. Anyone know a game where people still group to level, because leveling solo is too slow?
Tobold's Blog

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