Does your Bartle type determine your attitude towards Free2Play?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 February 2015, 4:10 am
Dr. Richard A. Bartle showed in 1996 that players in the same persistent virtual online world / game can have very different motivations for playing. The concept was later much simplified as the 4 "Bartle types": Achiever, Killer, Socializer, and Explorer. During this week's discussion on Free2Play I stumbled upon some comments where people considered Free2Play as being rather harmless, as they couldn't see how somebody would spend too much money on them. Other people thought that it was perfectly possible to ruin yourself financially with such a game. And I began to wonder whether this difference in opinion could be explained with the Bartle types.

The games where we have evidence that some people actually spent thousands of dollars in a short time on are all PvP games, like Clash of Clans or Game of War. It appears obvious to me that these people are of the Killer Bartle type. And I can understand that somebody who has strong tendencies towards that Bartle type can consider Free2Play games as dangerous: If you can buy power with money, and use that power to win over another player, that easily can lead to a spiral in which your opponent then spends more money to strike back, forcing you to spend even more money, and so on, until somebody gives up or is broke. Games where you can buy power only at lower levels, but not infinitely to beat high-level human opponents are considered by Killers to be much less dangerous.

For an Achiever buying power to win is also attractive. But as the challenges the computer opponents pose are fixed, there is more likely to be an upper limit of how much money you can spend. Even if raid epics were for sale, one set of the highest level epics would obviously suffice for an Achiever. The main concern that Achievers have with Free2Play games is that they consider the epic gear to be not just the necessary equipment, but also as the reward for their previous achievements, a trophy showing their achievement to the world. If somebody else can buy that, it cheapens their achievements.

Socializers are a lot less interested in buying power, and are more likely to buy cosmetic items and fluff. It isn't impossible to overspend on that, especially since some cosmetic items are rather expensive (WoW sparkly pony $25, EVE Online monocle $70). But there is not so much pressure on a Socializer to spend money, as even for him the items remain more in the nice to have category than in the must have category.

In a way the Explorers are the luckiest of the Bartle types with regards to Free2Play. Sometimes companies just plain forget to try to monetize them. I don't know if it is still the case, but I was struck at the time how Explorers got the best deal out of the move of Star Wars: The Old Republic to Free2Play: Everything an explorer wanted, like the full story content, was for free. What you can sell to an Explorer is mostly more content, like DLCs or expansions. Again those don't come cheap, but as it takes the developers quite a lot of time to produce more content, Explorers don't have to pull out their wallet all that often. Explorers are most likely to be annoyed by day 0 DLCs and similar moves. But as long as they buy really new content, they usually feel they get a fair deal. Offering fresh content is also the least specific possibility, as all the other Bartle types will probably want the new content too, for different reasons.

Ultimately much of the conflict about Free2Play models is often about the fact that everybody would prefer somebody else to pay. When you hear somebody demanding that games should only sell cosmetic stuff, that person sure isn't a Socializer. If the item shop contains nothing that you actually want or feel you need, you can actually play for free. But I think that for fairness it would be best if Free2Play games sold many different items, appealing to all different Bartle types, so that the cost of running the game is spread around fairly.
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Joe Nobody
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 7:59 am
j3w3l claims that Free2Play games are financed by "Joe “I am stuck at the laundromat because the parents cut me off” Nobody is bored enough not to wait another five fucking minutes, so he spends a dollar anyway. It can’t hurt, he thinks before racking up enough credit card debt to make his student loans look thin in comparison. Fuck you Joe Nobody, you just subsidized an evil, manipulative, and horrible monetization model." leading to a future where "every MMO will just be a store where you spend globs of cash just to show off how cool your avatar can dress while your house rots, your husband leaves you, and the kids get tired of pizza for dinner every fucking night and move in with grandma who smells".

I see two major problems with that assertion. First of all I don't think that Joe Nobody actually contributes much to the profit of Free2Play games companies. Journalist looking into "whales" have more frequently found examples of bored businessmen with an income in the six figures. Somebody who has more than enough money is more likely to spend it on something not terribly useful than somebody who has very little of it. Research also suggests that the typical Free2Play whale is over 30, and is not an impulsive spender, but a long-time fan of the game.

The second major problem I see is that if Joe Nobody played let's say World of Warcraft, he would still be extremely likely to arrive at the situation where "your house rots, your spouse leaves you, and the kids get tired of pizza for dinner every fucking night and move in with grandma who smells". If you have an addictive personality disorder and no self-control, a game where you advance by spending too much time in it is as unhealthy as a game where you advance by spending too much money.

In the end the attempt to paint Free2Play players as Joe Nobody's is exactly the same as pretending that hardcore gamers are unemployed losers who moved back in with their mother and play in the basement all day. What makes both of these assertions so unlikely is that games have become mainstream, with Free2Play games like Hearthstone having 75 million players, and that results in the players being a lot closer to national demographics than to some select niche group of losers or addicts.
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A thought experiment on game design
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 5:39 am
Let's compare two theoretical and very simple games:

Game A: Roll a 20-sided dice. You win if you roll higher than a 5, you lose if you roll 5 or lower.

Game B: Roll a 20-sided dice. You win if you roll higher than a 15, you lose if you roll 15 or lower.

Question: Is game B more difficult than game A? Does your answer change if the method of determining a number between 1 and 20 changes from dice to let's say throwing a dart at a dart board?

Please only answer if you understand the question. I don't need a comment to tell me that all versions of games I describe here are extremely stupid, I know that. The question is about comparing a player performance that is a result of luck, skill, or a mix of both with an arbitrary win condition.
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The business of creating content on the internet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 2:54 am
I am old enough that my first steps on the internet happened on a university mainframe with text-only terminals. In 1993 the eternal September began with AOL opening Usenet to the masses. At that time, AOL was not just an internet service provider, but also a major content provider. It is very hard to sell internet access if there is no content on the internet, so this totally made sense. Of course the amount of content on the internet quickly exploded, and that business model went out of the window.

The next big idea, which led to the dot.com bubble was that you created content in order to attract "eyeballs", and that those eyeballs would then create revenue via advertising or direct sales. So AOL was still in the content creation business. While online advertising annual revenue in the USA alone is a $40 billion business, that revenue is very dispersed. Some companies like Google get a big slice of it, but there are millions of small sites that just earn pennies.

This week AOL decided to close several sites which operated on this "we create content and get ad revenue" business model. While those sites weren't really huge, they were big in the niche they operated in: Writing about computer games, and specifically the MMORPG niche. Gone are Joystiq, Massively, and WoW Insider. The overall interest especially in MMORPGs has waned, and apparently these sites weren't sufficiently profitable for AOL. Of course the people who ran those sites disagree and claim that AOL is just making a huge mistake by shutting them down. But from the outside, without having access to the numbers, it is very hard to criticize business decisions like that.

More interestingly it appears that the people who ran WoW Insider decided to go independent and change their business model. They now call themselves Blizzard Watch and want their readers to finance them via Patreon. They say their "minimum operating requirements are $8,000 per month", with additional content like class columns being posted if they can get $9,000 or $10,000 per month. This should be interesting to watch. As the new content will not be behind a paywall, people can just freeload and get the content without paying a monthly subscription via Patreon.

Personally I am a bit skeptical that this will work. While my blog is certainly in a much smaller league than WoW Insider, in my experience the willingness of people of donate money for content they could also get for free is quite limited. There might be a first rush, and then the contributions wind down. Patreon might actually work better than my donate button, because people sign up for it and then just never find the energy to cancel. But that is not a business model under which I would like to operate, counting on people's initial enthusiasm followed by inertia to get money.
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Grind2Win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 February 2015, 3:26 am
So some people are declaring the sale of SOE being a result of them making "horrible Pay2Win games". First of all that is blatantly and provably untrue: There is not a single SOE game where I could start today and with a budget of a million dollars get a guaranteed win. The much more accurate term would be Pay4Power, because I can in many games buy gear that improves my power. And in the overwhelming majority of cases I can get exactly the same gear, or at least equivalent gear, by grinding.

The sad truth is that most modern games went down a route where you would be rewarded for playing by receiving gear upgrades and the like that increase your power and make you more likely to win. Most online games today are Grind2Win.

And that is exactly where the protests are coming from: The so-called hardcore gamers absolutely *love* Grind2Win games. A Grind2Win game enables somebody who has too much time on his hand to rise to the very top of a game, and feel all smug and superior about his "leet skillz". When in reality leet gear with average skillz tends to do better than average gear with leet skillz. And Pay4Power game shatter exactly that illusion of superiority. If an average player with money can buy exactly the same gear that the hardcore gamer did grind for, suddenly the competition is actually really about skill. And many a hardcore gamer finds that he is in fact not really so much superior when the gear is equal.

Yes, of course, if somebody beats you just because he bought better gear than you have, that is unfair. But it is exactly as unfair as if you beat him because you did grind for better gear than he has. Games that are really about skill do not allow gear differences.

For example World of Tanks has a special sort of ammunition which can be bought either rather expensively with in-game currency, or it can be bought with real money. Yes, if your opponent has that "gold ammo" which penetrates armor better, you are at an unfair disadvantage. If you otherwise have the same tank and equal skill, the "gold ammo" can make the difference between winning and losing. But why would it make any difference how the opposing player acquired that gold ammo? If he got it by grinding a lot of in-game currency or by spending real money, the effect is exactly the same. Grind2Win is exactly as bad as Pay2Win.
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It's your fault
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2015, 8:22 am
SOE has been sold to an investment company and renamed to Daybreak Game Company. While the official press release is "pleased to announce" their future as "independent game development studio", the reactions from the blogosphere are less optimistic. Investment companies don't buy game development studios because of their heartfelt belief in the value of good games. They buy them to make money. SOE made $60 million of losses last year, it sounds unlikely that the investment company bought them to continue exactly like before.

The latest headlines about SOE before that were all about gamers complaining about various monetization ideas SOE had, e.g. the H1Z1 airdrops, or Planetside 2 being called Pay2Win. Basically people would like to play some of SOE's games, but they don't want to pay for them; they don't even want to allow other people to pay the games, not if those payments result in any nice rewards for those who pay. This is exactly the customer attitude that will kill a lot of game studios.

I am sick and tired of entitlement kids complaining about "Pay2Win", only to then complain some more when a game gets shut down. If you don't contribute enough money for a game to survive, but are contributing to the game's "bad press" by complaining about its monetization, the resulting failure of the game or studio is your fault. SOE will either have to shut down some expensive long-term projects like EQ Next, or it has to monetize its games even more aggressively to pay for those development projects. Game companies aren't charities, and if Sony ran SOE like one, they were negligent in their fiduciary duty towards their shareholders.

"We want great games, and we want them for free!" is just plain stupid. We need to encourage game studios to make money with their games if we like those games and want those studios and games to still be around tomorrow.
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 10
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2015, 3:21 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had vanquished both the alchemist who had created the powder that had transformed them into svirfneblin and the assassin who had first applied that powder, and then tried to kill them. They also had found an incriminating letter in a female handwriting, which the commander of the guard, Prince Ular, identified as being that of his sister, Princess Taidra.

This session started with the good news that the players now had accumulated enough experience points to reach level 11. In D&D 4E that is kind of a big thing, as you go from the "heroic tier" to the "paragon tier". You select a kind of sub-class which gives you new powers and abilities, and your stats go up. While it isn't in the rules anywhere how exactly that happens, I ruled that the players would need 1 month of training for this, but all the trainers they needed could be easily found in the town they were in (or outside, in the case of the druid).

First of all the group concluded the negotiations they had been sent out as ambassadors for by the svirfneblin king. They already had done two successful rounds of negotiations on peace guarantees and trade terms, and just had the miscellaneous demands left. I left them to decide what they wanted to ask for, they drew up a list, and then their chief negotiator managed to roll a natural 20 on his diplomacy roll and got all of his demands approved.

At the start of the adventure the Favorites of Selune had just been passing through this town on their way to Moonstairs, where they wanted to find a portal to the Feywild. Now they heard that there was trouble with trolls around Moonstairs, and that the prince would soon go there with a squadron of soldiers to sort the problem out. But as they had to stay for a month to train for their new level, they still had plenty of time to investigate who was behind the murder and their transformation, with Princess Taidra being the most likely suspect.

They managed to get another document in her handwriting to compare with the incriminating letter and found that it was in fact the same handwriting. But they had no absolute proof that the letter wasn't forged, and the sorceress of the group wasn't convinced that this wasn't all some sort of setup. Different players proposed different approaches of how to proceed, but they couldn't agree on anything. So the adventure ended in a damp squib, with the group finally deciding to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. :( They left town and decided to do their training with the svirfneblin.

Unlike computer games where not resolving a story can totally block you from advancing to the next chapter, in a tabletop RPG doing nothing is always an option. Forcing a resolution by the DM risks to be perceived as railroading, which I am trying to avoid. But of course resolving the story of an adventure tends to give rewards, in addition to being a reward of its own. And as a DM I'm sure not to give out rewards for deliberate inactivity. So ultimately the evil princess got away with her crimes, defeating the players by the simple device of not confronting them head-on like many fantasy villains tend to do. Kind of disappointing, but giving freedom to the players also means giving them the freedom to do disappointing stuff.

A game month later the players returned to town, to take a boat to Moonstairs. They met Belina, the prince's secret lover, who asked them to look for Prince Ular in Moonstairs. He had gone there with his soldiers weeks ago, and after a first letter had failed to give any further news, so Belina was worried. She also told them that she had sent Beatrice, the guard of the seamstresses's guild, with the prince to watch over him.

The players found a river boat that was leaving for Moonstairs the next morning and was willing to take them. The trip was three days, and on the third day, just hours away from Moonstairs, the boat hit a hidden underwater chain that somebody had spanned from one river bank to the other. At the same time magical tentacles sprung up from the mud of the closest river bank and started to attack the boat. With this cliffhanger we ended the session.
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A lupine change of plan
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 February 2015, 5:41 am
I got my second character in World of Warcraft to level 100, the frost mage after the fury warrior. Now my original plan was to now level the shadow priest, but I feel no desire to do so. The priest just isn't fun to play! By necessity you have to do some quests with all your characters, and there it really becomes painfully obvious how much less fun the priest is to play than the warrior or the mage.

Now there often is some confusion in MMORPGs between difficulty and time requirement. I found that my characters leveled a bit too fast for my preference, I would have like leveling at half the speed. But that doesn't mean that I want to play an underpowered character who struggles with fights that other characters can do easily. If I say I want slower leveling, I mean I want to do more quests before I level up, not that I want to lose time in slow fights or by getting killed.

Weirdly enough my warrior has better in-combat self-healing than my shadow priest does. The priest can shield himself and do desperate prayers with a long cooldown, but as he takes far more damage than the heavily armored warrior that is barely sufficient. The real healing spells are too slow for combat, and drop my priest out of shadow form. So in direct comparison the warrior deals more damage, resists damage better, and has better in-combat healing through victory rush and enraged regeneration which heal him without stopping his damage output. The frost mage on the other hand just deals far more damage than the shadow priest, and has better means of keeping the enemy at a distance. Both the warrior and the mage in combat frequently get bonus spells, which makes the combat a bit more lively. The priest rarely ever does, and is often reduced to having to use an ineffective Mind Flay spell because all the good spells are on cooldown. Even in isolation the priest isn't much fun to play, and in comparison even less so. I need a different third character.

I am using an addon (Wholly) that tells me which quests I haven't done yet, as this expansion has some quest-givers in not obvious locations. As the addon doesn't work very well and can't tell that I am Horde and can't do Alliance quests, I see that the Alliance has a somewhat different main story line. I'm being told the Horde story is better, but I've already explored that one on two characters, so for a third character an Alliance character would be better.

Now I do have a level 85 human paladin on a different server. But after some consideration I was thinking that I would prefer a ranged dps class. So I made a worgen warlock and started leveling him. The idea is play him at least through the worgen race content, and maybe a bit beyond, to see how I like the warlock class. But as I positively hate the Burning Crusade content, I'll probably either abandon that character or buy him a level 90 upgrade if I really like him. That way I could experience the Alliance quest lines of Warlords of Draenor.

As I didn't want another underpowered character, I looked up whether a warlock was any good in this expansion. Unfortunately the only information of that type available is about raid dps performance, where demonology warlocks are doing quite well. I'll have to get a feeling myself for how the character performs in solo questing and leveling content. I'd be grateful for any comments on which character classes / specs you liked or disliked leveling in Warlords of Draenor.
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Plastic isn't easy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 January 2015, 6:32 am
I am not a huge user of Kickstarter. Many people who promise to create the game of your dreams are either downright frauds, or they are kidding themselves on the complexity of such a project. Good game designers are quite frequently bad project managers, because those two skills require very different mindsets. So I tend to stay away from video game Kickstarter projects. After all, if the game succeeds, I can still buy it later.

The same isn't necessarily true with projects that involve physical objects. Last year I backed two projects: Tinker Gearcoins and Rollable 4-sided dice. As both of these are small private initiatives, it isn't obvious that one could buy these products later, at least not easily. Being a backer is sometimes even the only way to ever get that product.

Nevertheless the problem of project management doesn't go away if you deal in plastic instead of bits and bytes. The dice were funded in May last year, and had an estimated delivery date of September. The coins were funded in August, with an estimated delivery date of November. Guess what? I haven't received either yet. But the updates suggest that both projects are still advancing, they are just late, not stopped.

The real test will be whether the products, once they arrive, will be as good as promised. I'll keep you up to date on that when it happens.
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Inexpensive content creation
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 January 2015, 2:07 pm
A reader who was moved by the rumored closing of Joystiq (and by extension Massively), decided to "vote with his wallet" (his words) and send me a donation. I appreciate the sentiment, but the situation of my site and Joystiq isn't the same. Not only that, I might actually be part of the problem that sites like Joystiq have.

It used to be there was a huge barrier to entry to getting your opinion published. The internet removed that barrier to entry. While that did lead to the publishing of lots of opinions of the type "Lol, look at my funny cat photo!", it also led to some people who could actually write publishing some opinions worth reading. For free. Meanwhile gaming sites never found a good way to get a really good income, so much of the stuff they publish is basically a disguised press release. Which made some of their readers suspect that the opinions published on those sites, especially reviews, were paid for by the game companies.

Unless you *want* to read all the latest press releases that news sites offer, a well chosen collection of blogs can today offer you more honest opinions and better writing than many professional gaming sites. With less or no advertising. As a business it is hard to compete with that. As a blogger I can live perfectly well with a monthly revenue of zero (which is quite often the case). I write out of passion. Public, but principally for myself, like an online diary. That sort of content creation is very inexpensive.

While a specific sort of "gamer" is joyfully dancing on the not-quite-yet dug grave of Joystiq, one should notice that the game industry is heading towards the same sort of problem. Already mobile games are extremely cheap to produce. And some game mods surpass the quality of the original game. The more game engines become cheap and widely available, the more people will create games, and some of them will be good. When you discover that the $10 indie game from Steam is more fun than the $60 so-called triple-A game, that doesn't bode well for the financial future of the gaming industry.
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 9
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 January 2015, 2:45 am
In the previous session we ended the year in the middle of a combat, which we now continued. The Favorites of Selune had investigated a murder and their transformation into svirfneblin, found evidence that the assassin was a certain Honrak who lived in a boarding house nearby, and had then decided to not yet act on that information. That gave Honrak the opportunity to react, and the assassin attacked them at night in their sleep in the tavern.

Now Honrak is a high-level assassin, but as he had so easily transformed them into svirfneblin earlier, Honrak wasn't aware that the group was also nearly as high level as him. That, plus the fact that this night the group had put up a guard, made the assassination less easy than he had thought. He did do some serious damage, especially in the first rounds when the group was still scrambling to get into their armor. But as the Favorites of Selune only had a single opponent in this fight, their concentrated fire was too much for Honrak, who went down after a few rounds of combat, not having killed a single group member. Honrak had used a flaming dagger, which the rogue of the group happily recovered.

Having learned that inactivity wasn't a good option, the Favorites of Selune then tackled their second clue in the morning, going the alchemist's guild. They had by then searched Honrak's room at the boarding house and found two poison darts, one apparently used to kill Belina, with instructions signed "Y.". That fit with their information that there was an alchemist named Yengo doing necromantic alchemy in the basement of the alchemist's guild. As they had talked to the head of the guild at the state dinner and gotten an invitation to visit, they now were able to take a tour of the guild. In the basement Yengo was behind a locked door and told the guildmaster to go away, but the guildmaster had the master key and opened the door. To everybody's surprise Yengo had created a flesh golem, and sicced it on the adventurers. The guildmaster fled, and the group was in their second fight of the day against Yengo and his golem.

The golem was doing serious damage with a rampage attack. That was an attack with a recharge dice roll, and due to luck the golem could use that twice in a row. Meanwhile Yengo was throwing various bottles with alchemical attacks. The priest was caught in the crossfire and went down, but the druid revived him. The Favorites of Selune cleverly concentrated their fire on the alchemist, basically ignoring the golem. That worked out well, as the golem stopped functioning when his master was dead.

Meanwhile the guildmaster had alerted the authorities and Prince Ular came with a squadron of guards. Searching the room the prince found an unsigned letter to Yengo instructing Yengo to provide Honrak with the transformation powder to get rid of the Favorites of Selune. The prince recognized the handwriting as that of his sister, Princess Taidra. But as the letter wasn't signed, he didn't think that to be proof enough to persuade his father, Duke Ruwan. That left the players to decide what exactly they wanted to do to conclude this adventure in the next session.
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Dog eat dog games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 January 2015, 5:38 am
Stabs is playing Magic the Gathering Online, and says: "Of course the thing about pecking order games is that those at the top become very invested while those at the bottom tend to leave so it's always a pool of players that are refining themselves by success. But dog eat dog is kinda fun, nothing like seeing people rage when they lose :)". His statement of "Magic is an extreme of competitive gaming, the game is built around redistributing assets from unsuccessful players to successful ones." is a good description of why I left. Not that I was completely unsuccessful, but the whole atmosphere of the game was too much like swimming in a tank full of sharks to be enjoyable.

Of course there are still ways to have fun in such games, especially by subverting them. For example MtGO has a format called "draft", in which players each open a booster, pick the best card for their deck, and pass the rest to the next player, in a circle. The player who picks the best deck that way will then probably win the draft tournament and get more boosters as reward than he needs to continue playing. If you are good enough, you can endlessly play for free, while the unsuccessful players pay for boosters and entrance fee and go home empty, except for the cards they picked. The way to subvert a draft is to rare pick, that is not taking the cards that win the tournament, but taking the cards that are worth most to other players. As rare cards rarely are the best to build a winning deck, a good player passing you his leftover cards means he probably didn't pick the rare of his pack. Of course rare drafting messes with the draft tournament, as the rare drafter nearly automatically loses, giving a free win to his lucky opponent. But it is a great way to redistribute assets from successful players to unsuccessful ones, in reverse of the normal situation.

By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average (median, to be precise). More modern and more successful online games have managed to keep those less successful players playing, by having a reward structure where there are only winners. You don't actually "lose" a game of World of Tanks, you just "win less". Note that the reward structure is external to the rules of the game, Magic the Gathering Online could just as well have used such a reward structure which doesn't overly punish the losers. As a result the most successful physical card trading game in history managed only a disappointing online success, with just a fraction of the number of players that for example Hearthstone has.

"Seeing people rage when they lose" might be fun for Stabs. But I believe that as a business model it is inherently self-destructive. Successful competitive games make life easy for the losers, because you just can't run a game without them.
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Recognizing the traps
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 January 2015, 8:44 am
A commenter this week said he was "burned by ArcheAge" and asked "How how much time and resource do you waste on a Free2Play game before you realise its Pay2Win?". My answer to that question is that this depends very much on your familiarity with Free2Play concepts. Whatever semantics you want to use, but Free2Play games definitively do want to seduce / trick / trap you into spending more than you intended. If you can avoid those traps, you can actually get more game for less money than in a Buy2Own business model. If you fall into those traps, you can get burned.

My recommendation would be to download a large number of "free" games on whatever mobile platform you have, phone or tablet, Apple or Android. As the games are not very elaborate or deep, you can easily play several of them in sequence. And you'll quickly learn how the same traps to incite you to spend money appear over and over in different guises. You can also learn a lot of those tricks by just watching some relevant YouTube videos like this one.

Once you are trained to recognize the traps, it becomes a matter of routine to avoid them. And you'll easily be able to recognize the same traps in more elaborate PC or console games.

P.S. While the Elder Scrolls Online is not going "free" to play, it will make the subscription optional from March 17th on. "Optional subscription" means that subscribers get virtual items and services that non-subscribers don't get automatically. So there will be a shop for virtual items and services, designed in a way that somebody might consider continuing to pay a subscription to get them. Which means ESO will have the same sort of seduction / tricks / traps as a Free2Play game. Buyers beware!
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Buying blindly
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 January 2015, 2:43 am
One reason why I am okay with the Free2Play business model is because I trust myself to handle it intelligently. I'm never going to spend thousands on a game, and if I end up paying as much for a "free" game as a full-price game would cost it was because I got as much enjoyment out of the game, or even more than I get from a full-price game. My buing decisions are informed, and commensurate to what I am getting out of the game. The key point is that I can start playing for free, and see whether I like the game, and gain a good estimate of the value of any virtual goods or services before I buy them.

Via the Battle.net launcher I received yesterday an offer by Blizzard to buy the $40 founder's pack for Heroes of the Storm. This is exactly the opposite of what I am describing above: I need to pay first to get beta access to the game, and I have absolutely no idea of the in-game value of the heroes, skins, and gold that is contained in the pack. I don't even know if I will like the game.

The best I can say about this offer is that it isn't quite as outrageously priced as some other founder's packs I have seen, and that I have more confidence in Blizzard to actually deliver a polished game in the end than I have in some of the other companies offering those deals. Some people already spent hundreds of dollars on Star Citizen. If that game fails to deliver on the hype, which given the high level of hype is nearly certain, some people will be severely disappointed and regretful.

Pre-purchase plans are bad enough, paying before the game comes out and you could read the reviews. But at least I've seen many pre-purchase offers on Steam where you could either get a discount for pre-purchasing or some other added value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm I am asked to pay $40 now for a game that will be free on release. I much prefer playing the game on release, when it is also in a more finished state. I'd rather miss out of some "exclusive" skin, or pay a bit more later, after having made sure that what is on offer is exactly what I need. I think buying games blindly is a bad idea, and buying virtual goods and services of a Free2Play game blindly without having first played the game is an even worse idea.
Tobold's Blog



10 minutes, twice a day
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 January 2015, 3:57 am
Over the years I have been subscribed to various MMORPGs for a long time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have played them every day during that subscription period. If you don't have much time, starting up a MMORPG usually doesn't make much sense. These aren't games that usually play well in chunks of 10 minutes, as they are designed to be relatively time-consuming. Warlords of Draenor is a big change in that respect: On a day where I don't have the time to play World of Warcraft, I would still log in for 10 minutes, twice a day.

The reason for that is the garrison sub-game, which is principally based on real time, not play time. You have a garrison cache which slowly accumulates up to 500 garrison resources, at a rate of 1 resource per 10 minutes. You have various building where you can give 7 work orders per level of the building, and each work order takes 4 hours. And you are sending followers on missions which last from 30 minutes to 10 hours. If you don't log on at all for several days, first your followers are all unemployed, then after about 3 and a half days your garrison cache reaches its cap and all the work orders of even level 3 buildings are done. At that point your garrison stops producing anything useful until you log on, send out your followers again, empty your cache, and start new work orders. Oh, and in addition your mine and herb garden spawn resources once per day.

If the reason that you don't have time is that you are working long hours with no access to a gaming computer, which is a likely scenario for an adult, you can still log in once before work and once after work and get pretty much everything set up again in 10 minutes each, shorter if you don't have alts. At this rate your garrison resource production is always at maximum, and by preferring long duration missions even your followers are productive for most of the day.

As I said, MMORPGs are generally designed to be time-consuming. At the level cap you usually need to put in quite some time to achieve some reward that is still useful for you. Compared to that the reward payout of a garrison per hour of play time invested is pretty fantastic. The downside is that by playing more, you can't advance much faster. For example it takes 1,200 resources to upgrade a barracks to level 3. With the garrison cache, lumber mill, and trading post you'll get those resources in around 3 days of just waiting around. But if you decided to get those resources by farming rare spawns, you'll get only around 15 per rare killed, and would pretty much need to kill every rare spawn in the game for one upgrade. Add all the treasures and quests that give resources and you'll have another building upgraded, and have run out of options.

To somebody familiar with city building / village building / farm building games on mobile platforms like The Tribez or Hay Day, that 10 minutes, twice a day mode of gameplay will be very familiar. But then these games don't have a subscription. While I would consider having to wait for hours for progress to be better than having to grind trivial content for hours for progress, the question is nevertheless how good this model works for World of Warcraft. 10 minutes, twice a day, makes 10 hours per month, which at $15 per month seems pricey. So the garrison is unlikely to be the sole reason for anybody to keep on playing. Even if you can get epic gear and other rewards for your character, those rewards aren't doing you any good if you don't play that character. But for a "weekend adventurer" with little time during the work week, the garrison is certainly a big plus.
Tobold's Blog



Keeping the lights on
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 January 2015, 3:19 am
Clockwork from Out of Beta is talking about commercialization of games. Quote: "I think it comes down to the intention of the developers when they are making the choice as to whether or not include a piece of content. If the developer is genuinely out of money to dedicate and needs to release, I see no problem with cutting content that they simply can't pay for. ... However, if the developer has already finished the majority of the content piece and will have it ready for release soon after and hold it back purely to sell it for more later, then I start to get a little annoyed."

Basically Clockwork wants game studios to only make as much money as is needed to keep the lights on. Which is a rather bad idea, I'd even go as far as calling it dangerous. What we need is spectacularly successful games where the game companies make money by the boatload. And selling more content over time is one valid strategy to get there.

The reason why we need those blockbuster games is the reality that so many games fail financially. If a company sets out to make a game, they are aware that there is a very real possibility that the game will never even pay for the development cost. If the best they could hope for was to break even, why would they even bother? The reason why we have such a big choice between many different MMORPGs to play today is that Blizzard at one point made a billion dollars of profit per year. If the financially most successful MMORPG in the world would just have kept the lights of the development studio on, many of today's games simply wouldn't exist.

To make a game you need capital from investors, and you need manpower. Investing in a business like games or movies is a high risk venture. The reason why you risk your money in that instead of buying treasury bonds is that there is a chance to get filthy rich. And the reason why developers program games instead of software for a bank is because they too dream of becoming famous for having created a blockbuster title or even rich.

I am opposed to a culture of entitlement where players want games and more content, but do not want to pay for all that. Let game companies pursue whatever commercialization strategy they want. If a game comes out at a certain price with a certain amount of content, you should decide whether that content is worth that price. Whether the development studio is profitable or not should not figure in that decision.
Tobold's Blog



What is difficulty?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 January 2015, 2:50 am
2014 was a good year for indie games, there were literally thousands of them released for PC and / or mobile platforms. In several cases the reviews or even the advertisement of the game itself praised the game for being "difficult", an attractive proposition for game veterans tired of trivial games. But my experience with those "difficult" games was a disappointing one; apparently I have a different definition of what "difficult" means.

In my definition a person who is more intelligent or more skilled in gaming would do better on the first try in a difficult game than a person who is less able. I found remarkably few games to which that description would fit, although for example some puzzle games certainly qualified. But in the overwhelming number of cases I found games in which the basic gameplay was exactly as trivial as in mainstream games; and then the game hit you with an unfair surprise you couldn't possibly have foreseen, and then put a harsh penalty for failing on that. The so-called "difficulty" then is remembering the unfair traps the next time.

I have no problem with for example the difficulty of a jump-and-run sequence being that you need to jump at exactly the right point in time, with a very narrow window of opportunity. That is difficult. If the game then forces me to replay the 15 minutes up to that jump before I can try again, that is not difficult. It is just annoying. Jump-and-run sequences are also a good example of the game giving you good feedback: You usually can tell if you fail whether you jumped too early or too late. Far too many games have failure modes which don't give you much or any feedback. You fail, but you don't know why, so other than random trial and error you can't improve.

I like difficult games. I don't necessarily like unforgiving ones. And I certainly don't like having to replay the same trivial shit over and over, just because there is one unforgiving bit at the end of it.
Tobold's Blog



WoW status report
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 January 2015, 3:04 am
My current "main" character, a fury warrior, reached level 100 this weekend. I had the resources to upgrade my garrison to level 3 and fill the new slots, but not yet to upgrade the buildings. You can get resources from rare spawns or treasures, but that is rather limited, so the main way to get the resources for your garrison is just waiting in real time. I have a level 2 lumber yard and a trading post, both of which produce resources, but still I'll have to wait quite a while until everything is level 3.

Other than the garrison I'm not really enchanted by the possible activities at the level cap. I still haven't done a single dungeon, which tells you how low my interest in group PvE is. And other than that there isn't much. I can do a daily slow grind for Apexis crystals, and get an epic after nearly 3 weeks. This and similar game design elements suggest to me that everything is designed with having in mind that the next expansion is 2 years away. Progress slowed to a crawl, I'm not all that interested.

My other two characters are level 95, because I had decided they both needed a level 2 lumber mill. The frost mage is fun to play, the shadow priest not so much. Sometimes I'm doing the same content with all three characters, like getting a specific follower, and the shadow priest definitively is weakest in solo combat. He is also the only one who is really waiting for cooldowns, doing ineffective Mind Flays while waiting for the decent spells to be active again. In comparison the other two classes constantly have their hotkeys light up to show yet another bonus spell / power they now can do instantly and without resource cost. Resource cost is a joke anyway for the spellcasters, I have never seen my mana bar other than 100% full on either caster. Anyway, both level 95 characters now also got their barracks to level 2, and the bodyguard certainly will help that shadow priest. The bodyguard is kind of overkill for the other two.

While I did the same quests in the first zone with all three characters (which you kind of have to for your garrison), after that there are enough quests for at least 2 different paths to level 100. By choosing different outpost buildings you get different quests, so there isn't too much overlap. While questing I also gather timber, treasures, and rare spawns, so there is a good deal of variety. Overall I'm having fun, but mostly with the leveling part. Not sure how long I will keep playing once all three characters are at the level cap.
Tobold's Blog



Veteran rewards
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2015, 7:28 am
Apparently Blizzard is sending out real world packages with a physical object as reward to people who started playing World of Warcraft within the first 60 days and then never unsubscribed. Unsurprisingly that causes a controversy. Quote: "There is certainly merit to a company like Blizzard wanting to thank players who have given them somewhere around $1800 in subscription fees and $200-$300 in box purchases. That's a damn loyal customer. At the same time, however, this can tacitly sending a message to newer players that they just aren't quite as special or held in as high of esteem as the older ones. There's a tough balance to be struck".

No, it isn't.

If you give somebody $2,000 you *are* special to him and held in high regard. If you used the donate button on my blog today to give me $2,000, you would be special to me, and I would have no problem sending you a parcel with a gift, assuming the gift plus shipping costs me less than $50 and I get to keep the remaining $1,950. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Tobold's Blog



A comment on the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2015, 6:01 am
As I said before I will not be able to play any 5th edition D&D in the foreseeable future, because that edition only exists in English, and half the players in my group only speak French. I proposed to run the Starter Set with them anyway, but they preferred sticking to 4E. Okay, but I got the 5E Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for Christmas anyway, more out of a theoretical interest in where D&D is going. I understand 5E is selling very well, and I assume that this is because it is effectively a much better edition for new players than previous editions were. Less math, less rules, more imagination, and that without most of the silliness that OSR offers.

But one thing struck me as rather strange in the Dungeon Master's Guide: If you open a page at random, chances are that there will be a table on that page with instructions on how to produce a random result from that table by dice rolls. Do you need a NPC villain for your game? Roll one up randomly from a series of tables! Need a complete dungeon? We have random tables for that too! And for the monsters you'll meet, the treasures you'll find, the diseases you will contract, or what objects you'll find flushed down in the toilet.

I hate random tables. They result in a play experience for the players that is not very coherent, for example by creating a dungeon full of random monsters where it is hard to explain why they would live together in this form, waiting for the players to arrive. Random collections of rooms with monsters and treasures do not form any sort of sensible ecosystem. And if the content of the next room is random, players don't need to think or plan ahead.

Of course you'll tell me that rolling randomly on these tables is optional, and selecting NPC traits on purpose instead of rolling a dice is still possible. But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination. Ultimately a game like that could better be played with a computer as dungeon master, as the system eliminates the need for the DM to create a story. Random tables work directly AGAINST the main advantage of a tabletop RPG over a computer RPG.
Tobold's Blog



Free isn't free
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 January 2015, 12:13 pm
If you are a very literal minded person, you might wonder why MMORPGs that failed to attract a sufficient number of subscribers then go "free to play". Surely free is less than a subscription, so the game should make even less money, shouldn't it? Well, free isn't free, and a move to Free2Play can triple revenues.

One of these very literal people is Keen, who is stating that we're willing to pay for value, so we don't need "free" MMORPGs. Like anybody with an interest in economics, I very much agree that people are willing to pay for value. Keen says: "Charging for a game is absolutely acceptable, and it won’t dissuade people from playing.". Right, but what exactly do game companies charge for, and under what circumstances will that dissuade people from playing?

Subscription games charge for access to the game after the usual first free month. Meaning you bought a game for full price, and then they charge you extra for actually playing it after one month. It is pretty easy to see how that can dissuade players, who feel they should have the right to play a game they paid full price for. "Access to the game", paid for by month, also doesn't have the same value to every potential customer. Obviously if you play few hours per month, that monthly access might look rather expensive. If you disagree with that, try to think of the reverse case: What if the game charged you for access by hour? In that case the person playing a lot would find access more expensive than the person playing very little.

In a Free2Play game, access to the game is given away for free. But that is where free ends. If that is all you need, that is obviously a great value proposition. But if you want a larger inventory space, more characters, sparkly ponies, and other virtual goods in the game, you will need to pay. To somebody who plays not very much, that could well still look like a great value for money. In the subscription game he could very well have to pay WITHOUT getting the virtual goods he wants, because they are locked behind a time wall, for example by requiring a certain time investment into raiding.

Free isn't free. It is pay what you want for whatever from the shop that you want. That dissuades a lot less people than the paying for access business model. MMORPG players aren't cheapskates, they know what they want, and are willing to pay for value. Which is why we are discussing when the 2014 crop of subscription games is going Free2Play. Most people decided that just access to the game wasn't value enough to pay for.
Tobold's Blog



The dream of community
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 January 2015, 3:46 am
In response to my previous post on increased interaction with the world of WoW, Gerry Quinn asked whether there was also increased interaction between players, presumably the selling point for a multiplayer game. The answer is clearly that there is less and less interaction between players over the history of multiplayer online role-playing games. Many games go to great lengths to minimize player interaction, and many players think that hell is other players. How did that happen, and why didn't these games live up to their promise of community?

Now many people who were active in the early days of online games in the 90's will tell you that something went wrong over the last 20 years, and will maybe offer one of several different explanations of what it was that went wrong. Personally I believe that it was the original promise that was wrong from the start, and things moved from an unrealistic idea towards reality. The reality is that people don't necessarily want to form a community in an online game.

In the early days of the internet, the population of the internet was unnaturally homogeneous: The only people with access were those who had access to a mainframe in an university. I played LPMUDs on a  green (or amber) text on black background mainframe terminal, or used that terminal to chat on BBS bulletin boards. The people I met online were from different countries, but they were predominantly young, well educated, and not poor, because that is the kind of person going to university. If your experience of the internet is one of a place where everybody you meet is socially compatible to you, it is easy to start dreaming of the type of community you could build. But that dream is built on a bad premise, a false experience with a too narrow and not representative sample size.

Then "AOL ruined the internet", as it was said at the time, by letting in everybody else. Suddenly you had a much wider diversity of ages, education levels, and social classes than before. And the history of mankind is one of constant segregation, often self-segregation. People naturally tend to form communities with others who are like them, and avoid people who are not like them, or even consider people not like them as enemy.

Game companies like their games to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible, because more possible customers usually results in more money. But trying to force more interaction between people who wouldn't naturally have formed a community tends to fail. The core beliefs of one group of people might well be offensive to another group of people and vice versa. And real world conflicts like the political strife between left-wing and right-wing people can spill over into game communities. And if all ages can be online, there is the eternal worry of "we have to protect the children" from real and imagined dangers. As a result we get games in which chat is at the very least filtered, or even totally disabled. We get game systems in which things like "kill stealing" or "ninja looting" are technically impossible. And we get group content where players need neither talk to each other to set up a group, nor to play together as a group. The player economy is handled with an auction house system, so people do not need to talk to each other to trade. And most of the content of most MMORPGs is best played solo. Playing a multiplayer player game alone is more and more enabled, and direct player interaction isn't encouraged.

As I said, interaction between people online today is now more similar to interaction between people offline, and thus in a way more "natural". That is bad news for the utopians, but I don't see that trend reversing. We simple don't have the same pre-screened population any more that would have made a larger community possible.
Tobold's Blog



Interacting with the world of World of Warcraft
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 January 2015, 3:58 am
Warlords of Draenor is the 5th expansion for World of Warcraft, so a lot of people who aren't playing assume that it is pretty much like the original game and the other 4 expansions. But when playing through the leveling content of Draenor, a subtle but important change is visible: There is far more interaction between you and the world than in the previous 10 years.

Of course that is "far more" compared to not much at all. The world of WoW always had mostly monsters to interact with, and some gathering nodes. Other than that there were very few items you could interact with. Basically if you could click on something, it was part of a quest you had. Apart from a few treasure chests, the world was barren of things you could touch. The quest focus also was very true for monsters. Yes, you could always kill monsters without having a quest for them, but usually there was not much reason to do so. Rare spawn monsters did not necessarily drop anything interesting, and as they had long spawn times, you didn't come across them all that often.

In the new zones of Warlords of Draenor, this has much improved. The most visible aspect (because they show up on your mini-map), are the rare spawn monsters, which now aren't rare at all any more. Compared to previously they now offer more interesting fights, feeling a bit like soloable dungeon bosses. And they drop more interesting loot, plus garrison resources. Cleverly they do so only the first time you kill them, so people don't farm the same spawn repeatedly.

In addition to that there are now lots of hidden treasures, recognizable by a purple glow. Some of them are quite good, offering better quality items than you would get by questing in the same zone. There are also resources, toys, and other interesting fluff items. Which means that today it makes sense to actually look around in the ancient ruin you are exploring for some quest, because by looking you might find some nice extra rewards. On the other hand I must say that some of these treasures are a bit too well hidden. But of course there are addons which show all Draenor treasures, as nothing ever remains hidden or secret in a massively multiplayer game.

While I unlearned all my gathering skills, which have become obsolete in this expansion, I still spend a good amount of time gathering timber. So between rare spawns, treasures, bonus objectives, and timber, there is now quite a lot of extra stuff other than quests to do in the WoW zones. A clear improvement, and one has to wonder why it took them 10 years to get there.
Tobold's Blog



Everything is Pay2Win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 January 2015, 3:02 am
One of the big lessons of the last years in online gaming is that the business model that works for the market leader does not necessarily work for the average game, because market leader benefits from economies of scale which are not easy to reproduce. Monthly subscriptions work very well for World of Warcraft, but not so well for all other MMORPGs. And the business model of League of Legends, which only requires a very small amount of money from each player because there are so many millions of them, isn't recommended for other games. That poses a problem for many online game companies. How exactly are they supposed to make money? Quote from SOE's John Smedley on Twitter (via Azuriel) about a Planetside 2 monetization feature: "sorry but we are actually trying to make money. I don't consider it a money grab.".

The discussion about game monetization is full of loaded terms like this "money grab", and "Pay2Win". But as there are no clear definitions, every attempt to make money can be called a "money grab", and everything sold in an online game can be called Pay2Win. I mean, World of Warcraft is obviously a Pay2Win game. If my goal in life is to collect the maximum number of mounts and pets and get the achievements for that, the fact that many mounts and pets can only be had for real money gives a clear advantage to the "wallet warriors" of the mount collecting community. Even clearly cosmetic items can turn an online shooter game into a Pay2Win Hat Fortress 2.

This has to do with the fact that games don't have unique win conditions any more. A clear win conditions implies that there is a way to lose a game, and because people hate losing game developers have been removing clear win conditions from games for quite a while now. Only 1.3% of Wildstar players have killed even just one raid boss last year. Even World of Warcraft's casual-friendly LFR raids didn't turn a majority of WoW players into raiders. So as much as people discuss it, raiding and gear progression clearly is just "a" win condition among many others, and games are full of "achievements" for pretty much any possible activity in an online games these days.

Economics tell us that players maximize utility as a consumer, that is they spend money on what is of utility for them. A sparkly pony is of more utility to a mount collector, which makes a mount collector more likely to buy one. But if everything in a game can be a win condition, then everything you can buy in a virtual item shop can be Pay2Win. If looking great is your win condition, buying cosmetic fluff items is Pay2Win.

People saying "online games should only sell cosmetic items" are in fact saying two things: That their personal win condition doesn't involve cosmetic items, and that they don't want their personal win condition to depend on real money. The hat collector with the same attitude might say that he prefers the item shop to sell guns instead of hats. The WoW mount collector would prefer Blizzard to sell epics instead of mounts, and so on. Ultimately what everybody is saying is that they want somebody else to pay for the game they are playing. And obviously that can't possibly work.
Tobold's Blog



Blogging and mass market games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 January 2015, 3:53 am
Over the past months I've regularly been playing a game called Spellfall on my iPad. And I haven't blogged about that at all, because chances are that you never heard of that game. On the other hand, going back to World of Warcraft has visibly increased my output of blog posts, because everybody knows WoW. When blogging about WoW I don't feel as if I am talking into a vacuum or an audience of blank stares. It isn't as if my experience in some mass market game is in any way more meaningful than my experience in some unknown game; but it sure is easier to write something your readers can relate to if you write about a game that millions of people are playing or have played.

While saying that blogging is dead is somewhat exaggerated (nothing that isn't centrally organized ever dies on the internet), the best years of game blogging certainly appear to be behind us. There are fewer blogs around, and fewer people reading them. Google inadvertently (or on purpose to promote Google+ ?) delivered a severe blow on blogging by shutting down Google Reader. And other less erudite platforms for self-expression, like Twitter, are flourishing at the expense of blogging.

But in the specific field of game blogging, and even game journalism (which isn't doing so great either), I am wondering in how far the decline is related to the splintering of the market for games. 2014 wasn't exactly a great year for mass market games, and many of the most hyped titles ended up on lists of the greatest disappointments. Meanwhile the number of games on Steam and mobile platforms exploded. Nobody has the time to play all the critically acclaimed indie games, and however great they are they rarely reach mass market status. And if we all play different games, it becomes a lot harder for us to talk about shared experiences.
Tobold's Blog



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