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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Our second Tremaynelet was born yesterday – so I’m now the father of two daughters and thinking of changing my online name to Abu el Banat

Hopefully, the new arrival will join her big sister in good time watching the little hobbit woman on daddy’s computer run around the Shire.

I had been planning a blog post about group sizes in MMOs, but for some reason I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to write…

There seem to be a lot of blog commentary today about Gabe Newell’s comments on pricing games – props to Spinks for drawing my attention to the topic. Since two of my nerdy obssessions are MMOs and economics, I figured it’s time for me to weigh in 🙂

The standard for MMOs has been, at least until recently, the flat subscription fee. Easy to administer and arguably the “fairest” way of doing things – everyone pays the same to enter the virtual world and once you’re there your Earthly wealth means nothing (unless you break the rules and buy gold – but that’s a whole other debate). The flat fee, however, isn’t ideal for two reasons, both of which boil down to “not all players are created equal”. The first is that each player has their own level of subscription that they’re willing to pay. If I charge too much, I lose that player – if I charge too little, I’m “leaving money on the table” and my MMO doesn’t make as much profit as it could. Note that the MMO making a profit is a good thing – it gives the developers money for artists and content designers and something to show to investors to say “please put up the funds to make our next, even better game”. If you want improvements to your game, and even better games down the line, you want your favourite MMO to show a profit.

The second difference between players is the externalities – fancy economics term there. Basically, it means the stuff you do that affects others but you aren’t paying for (or reaping the benefits of). Passive smoking is an example – I get the benefits of enjoying a cigarette, you pay a price for my pleasure by getting lung cancer. Government, in this case, evens out the externalities by putting a load of tax on tobacco, so I pay a price for my pleasure and the NHS pays for treating your lung cancer (note: this isn’t a perfect solution!) In gaming terms – some players are high maintenance. A ganker’s fun comes at the expense of other players. A content-devouring progression raider requires more dev resources than a casual who still hasn’t hit level 60 in WoW despite playing for 6 years. And some players generate positive externalities – just having this guy on your server makes it a better place and makes other players more likely to stick around and keep paying subscription fees.

Imagine two players – Adam and Bob. Adam is a griefer with a lot of money to burn – he costs me $20 per month (in lost revenues from his victims plus GM time dealing with the complaints) but is willing to pay $50 per month to feed his habit. Bob is a nice guy who would actually be worth me paying $10 per month to keep him in the game entertaining people (thus driving retention) but he can only afford to pay $10 subscription.

Now, with a flat $15 subscription I lose money on Adam and Bob can’t afford to play… I haemorrhage $5 per month until I go bankrupt (this could take a while). If I set the sub at $10 then I lose $10 on Adam and net $20 from Bob ($10 from his sub plus $10 of him being a nice guy and making other players sub), making $10 per month profit. Actually, I’m better off banning Adam’s account and just taking the $20 of Bob benefit. I can make even more money by jacking the sub up to $50 per month to take every penny Adam is willing to pay, offsetting the $20 of grief and still making $30 profit. But my best case is to find some way of charging Adam $50 and Bob $10 – then they both stay and I pocket $50 every month.

The differential pricing thing is coming in as more games use microtransactions, either on top of a sub or instead of it. MTs let players pay as much as they’re willing to. That’s great, at least from the dev point of view – all I have to do is provide enough stuff that players think is worth buying at prices they’ll accept. What’s still missing is fixing the externalities – I need to make anti-social activities expensive and ones that foster community and benefit other players cheap (or even reward them). I could charge some points for players using the convenience of the LFD tool instead of talking to each other to form a group, for example. Maybe tank and healer characters get a discount in the store, or I jack the store prices up by 5% for an individual player every time he uses the word “carebear” on the official forums. The possibilities are endless!

This is a late post and I’m tired, so apologies if this doesn’t come out as clearly as I’d like it to… it seems to me that there are three different sorts of “difficulty” used in MMOs.

A) Statistical difficulty, AKA the numbers game. Difficulty as measured by the character stats that are the bread and butter of these games. Difficulty that is beaten by doing THIS much DPS, or having THAT much armour and hit points on the tank to survive spike damage. This is the sort of difficulty that optimising gear and character builds is intended to beat.

B) Execution difficulty. This is the “dance of the raid bosses”. It relies on players observing and reacting in accordance with a script and has nothing to do with character stats. It doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing quest greens or tier 97 epics… if you stand in the fire You Will Die. It’s also a bit of a cheat in my opinion because it tends to be an encounter-specific skill, not a measure of how good you are at playing this game in general. Have you learned the boss encounter? Do you know where to run when special move X is announced? If yes, you get epics. If you screw it up through ignorance, poor situational awareness or straightforward clumsiness you get a repair bill. Personal view – I hate this type of difficulty simply because I KNOW I’m slow and clumsy. I had enough years of being the last to be picked for any sports team at school (with one exception, see below) – I don’t need my escape into a fantasy world to rub my nose in it too 🙂

C) Decision cycle difficulty. The art of doing the right thing under pressure. This is where a player has a number of different choices, all of which might be beneficial to the group. Doing well consists of choosing the MOST beneficial action without wasting time. Prime example of this is playing my LotRO loremaster – at any point in a fight I can throw a damage skill, heal an ally, transfer power to an ally so they can keep using their skills, top off my own power by draining an enemy, cast one of my debuffs, use one of several crowd control skills, cure wound or disease effects, give an instruction to my pet, or self-heal if my pet has triggered the correct status on the enemy. Good loremaster players are the ones who can take in the whole situation, pick the best option off that list, and execute it without wasted time. Poor loremasters either get paralysed by the number of choices and dither, wasting time – or they make poor choices (doing DPS when CC needs refreshing, for example). You know how I mentioned there was one sport I wasn’t completely useless at? Fencing is as much about anticipating your opponent and choosing tactics – fast – as it is about simple dexterity. The combination of being mentally agile, left-handed and actually being able to keep my glasses on raised my ability in this one sport to, oh, almost average :p

In WoW, there’s a lot of type A and B difficulty but not a lot of type C… DPS players simply don’t have to make many actual decisions in normal play. Healers and tanks do, on the other hand. This might be one reason why playing these roles is less popular – having to make a constant stream of decisions is hard work. LotRO has slower gameplay but a lot more decisions to be made from moment to moment on all (or at least most) of its classes. Even the hunter class in LotRO has combat skills above and beyond raw damage (crowd control, cure poison) and a Hunter who maximises DPS at the expense of those other skills isn’t lauded by the community as a godlike being for topping the damage charts.

So I guess what I’m getting at is – are game designers using the wrong kind of difficulty in their games? Would players prefer a different mix? Can you have a raid progression game based around players getting better at playing their class instead of getting better at having big number on their character sheets? And how would we know who the best players are if we can’t tell by inspecting the gens and enchants on their shoulderpads?

According to Raph Koster’s theory of fun, a game is fun if it has something for us to learn and master. The whole “you must have maxed out your character and know how to do the instance blindfolded before you are allowed to join my group” crowd are effectively saying – only do dungeons once you have completely mastered them. Therefore, are they saying that running dungeons should not be fun? 🙂

Really, the whole issue arises because Blizzard apparently made a design decision in the Wrath era to reward people for running dungeons that are well below their level of gear progression (you could be overgeared for a dungeon but the badges were still worth earning). That resulted in maxed out players running content that a gear progression model means they should have moved on from… resulting in very fast, safe (and I would imagine boring) runs. And THAT created an expectation amongst players that all of their runs should be so easy and profitable, so they were less pleased to get teammates at a gear level for which the dungeon would be an actual challenge.

The interesting question for me is why LotRO has less of a problem with this attitude, even though the skirmish mark system also allows players to get rewards for doing trivial content. I’m not going to ascribe this to the magical qualities of a “better community” (although LotRO players on average do seem more mature than the WoW crowd) – more likely it’s because the game is much less based around gear progression.

Commenting on Stabs’ thoughts about Expert Rifts reminded me of an old train of thought I had about “inclusive” and “exclusive” content. ‘Inclusive’ content such as world events is all comers welcome, feel free to join in, even a guy who’s not a GREAT help is still SOME help. Instances with a hard cap on players participating are probably the classic example of ‘exclusive’ content – if you can only bring ten people to fight the Epic Overlord Of Doom, better bring the best ten you can find. Random Joe Schmoe in green quest gear need not apply.

Both types of content have their advantages. It’s hard to make inclusive content that isn’t a zerg-fest. Now personally, I happen to like big mass battles, but I recognise that isn’t to everyone else’s taste. Instances may be exclusive, but by defining exactly how many heroes are fighting the dragon in advance the game designers can build a challenge that’s tailored to that size of team. Also, some players LIKE exclusivity – the knowledge that they are good enough to get on the team that does the epic content and that by definition puts them head and shoulders above the common herd of players.

However, the problem for me is that too much exclusivity seems to kill any wider sense of community. In an exclusive game, you only need a set number of comrades to tackle the end game. Everyone beyond that number is at best a potential recruit if you ever need a replacement; at worst a rival you’re measuring your success against; and most likely just an irrelevance. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the best in-game community I’ve seen was in DAoC, where both PvP and PvE were inclusive. I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that WoW’s community has become less welcoming and tolerant as the game has focused on smaller and smaller raids.

The flip side, of course, is that inclusive content offers a lot more scope for freeloaders. People might joke about AFK hunters with macro’d shot rotations, but I remember the Caer Sidi raid where one paladin asked me if he could /follow me and go AFK for two hours and he’d be back when the loot was distributed. A community has to police itself and deal with the bad actors, but that still seems a lot better than no community at all.