Toldain Talks

Because reading me sure beats working!


Toldain started as an Everquest character. I've played him in EQ2, WoW, Vanguard, LOTRO, and Zork Online. And then EVE Online, where I'm 3 million years old, rather than my usual 3000. Currently I'm mostly playing DDO. But I still have fabulous red hair. In RL, I am a software developer who has worked on networked games, but not MMORPGS.

Friday, July 30, 2010

How Much For My Incredible Fashion Sense?

Unless you live under a rock, you've probably heard something or other about Everquest II Extended. Hey, I like rocks as living quarters, but the internet connection for them is a little shaky.

It can be maddeningly difficult to sort out what it means for me, the long-time player, with multiple characters above level 80. There are multiple subscription plans, and upgrades for races and classes. I note that Illusionist is a premium class, which you would have to pay extra to get under the new scheme. And High Elf is a premium race. Which is as it should be. I didn't see where they charged extra for a fabulous hairstyle and color like mine, but if they don't they are missing a bet.

This was all put into perspective by an interview IGN did with the games executive producer David Georgeson.

There will be new servers for the new free-to-play model. It is possible to copy your characters from the old servers to the new, on a one-time basis, but not possible to copy the other way, at least for now.

First off, why did they do this. Well, to get new customers, stupid! David puts it more diplomatically, though.

[EQ2 is] a really good game, but getting gamers to look at something that's been around for a while is a difficult task so the Extended service is aimed at breaking down walls and setting it up so you don't have to buy a retail box or pony up for a monthly subscription. So they can come in and find out that holy crap, this is really a good game! EQ2 really does stand head and shoulders above all MMOs and it's a shame that the only people that know about it are the ones that are playing it currently.

Ok, it's a bit of hype to say that it "stands head and shoulders above all MMO's" but the game really is of high quality. The development/release cycle is executed faster and more consistently than anyone else I've seen. The latest expansion does things with quests, crafting, instances and storytelling that are highly original and fun.

The world is rich in lore and location. Why not open it up to new players to play for free, so they can get a taste? Well, there's always the question of how the existing player base will feel.

Here's what David had to say about the impact on the existing game:

We have an existing player base of folks that like the game exactly the way it is. They don't want that to change. They were very resistant to the idea of microtransactions and stat-based items or power items to get you ahead. They don't want to see that stuff in their game because basically they wanted to feel proud about having achieved level 90 with all this great gear and they wanted to be able to show it off. And we respect that. We get that. We set up the separate servers so that when the new people come in, it will be a normal experience for them, and the existing customers who like it the way it is will not be impacted.

Yeah, I get it. When I look at the FTP plan options I see myself having to spend money all over the place to get what I have now for my 15 bucks a month. At 15 bucks per month over on the Extended servers, I would have to pay extra for my class, my race, my level, the latest expansion, to carry the amount of cash I have, and to keep the master spells that I have.

For some, the taint of "buy your way ahead" will ruin it for them, though David says that the best gear will remain as drops, as well as the best-looking gear. (Though that sounds kind of subjective). This doesn't bother me so much personally, not as much as it did once.

What worries me, though, along with a lot of other folks, is that there will be a migration away from the classic servers to the FTP servers. People won't have to keep their subscriptions up, and will haul out the characters and pay for upgrades when it seems useful and appropriate to them. And when it isn't, they don't have to pay anything at all.

Furthermore, if EQ II Extended is successful, it will bring in lots of new players. And we will likely never see those players on our servers. I think that in the long term, that likely means slow death. Here's what David says:

I think this is a natural fear that the players have right now. I'm not certain how much of that will really happen. People have existing friend circles. They have established guilds. They have guilds that they've leveled up for months and months. They spent countless hours outfitting their guilds. It's not something to just easily wad up and throw away. There will certainly be people that transfer over because some people would really like to play that way. But I really think that the majority of players, and especially the ones that have been so vocal on the forums about what they do and don't want in the game - I really can't see them transferring. The populations should stay fairly stable on the existing servers, and we'll figure out ways to keep them alive and thriving as we go forward.

Ways like server merges, I presume, should it come to that. But what the heck, we get to keep playing the game we love in the way that we have played it, how could we possibly complain?

Somehow it reminds me of the idea that one of the greatest curses that can be laid upon someone is "May your every wish be granted".


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ghosting Through Venal

Last night I conducted a survey through the region known as Venal. My CEO, Eperor, asked me to look for a moon producing a particular raw material that was unoccupied. So I spent several hours flying around cloaked, looking at said moons, and pondering the state of the economy in EVE.

Venal is NPC space. The Guristas Pirates hold sovereignty in every system. Which means that basically, its up for grabs. My survey shows that it is mostly populated by blues, and has a fairly vibrant marketplace, with significant quantities of goods, at least raw materials up for sale.

I visited 30 moons which, according to the database at DOTLAN, provided the desired material. Every single one of them were already being worked. All but about 5 by the same alliance, all save about 10 by the same corp within that alliance.

One of my first reactions was, "Good Lord, there's a lot of work going into servicing all those POSes". You see, with the Planetary Interaction feature that started about six weeks ago, all the fuel to power those stations is made by players. It's somewhat time-consuming, too.

The first reaction of most corps that have POSes was to sign up a few, or maybe several players to provide the fuel for the corp's POSes. This has led to burnout, and complaints about "clickiness". These complaints typically come from people who have 8 characters each running 5 planets, and resetting extractors daily. I run 5 planets with one character, resetting extractors takes about 10-15 mins. However, the goods must be hauled somewhere as well, and so the owning character must visit the planets where the goods are being produced to gain access to them. So there's more time.

I get it. I wouldn't think that doing this times 8 every day would be much fun, either. There's a simple alternative, though. The fuels can be bought on the market from other players, decentralizing the economy.

But apparently, human beings come with a built-in desire to not do this. "That's not the way we do things" is a phrase I've heard when I bring this up. Vertical monopolies may have worked well for Andrew Carnegie, but I don't think they do all that well in general. There's too much diffusion of effort, lack of specialization.

That corp that has 25 moon-mining stations in Venal does not produce fuel for those stations itself. Guaranteed. Those POSes produce an enormous amount of value, at least, if they are mining the valuable thing at the moon, and not some junk. And now, some of that value is going to go to other players, to pay for the fuel that runs the poses that mine it.

Furthermore, those other players aren't necessarily the rich and powerful senior members of EVE. No, it takes maybe two weeks to train up the skills for a fairly robust operation - five planets with advanced command centers. So the lowliest carebear can run a planetary operation and make some cash. Given where prices are, it's a decent bit of cash. And it's clear that many of the wealthier, more senior players of EVE don't like it.

Control of their own destiny has been taken out of their hands and put into something called "the economy". Apparently trusting in the marketplace is a hard thing to do.


CCP is on record as saying things like "we want to see more people in 0.0", and "we will be seeking to provide alternate pathways into 0.0". The space where my alliance has Sov, in Deklein, is reasonably well populated, but nothing like the major high-sec systems. The space I flew through in Venal was very sparsely populated. I flew into one cul-de-sac where the entrance was bubbled off and a few people were in there, presumably mining the highest-value ore. It may be "NPC" space, but it's their llittle private dominion, just the same. There is a great deal of value there. Large value divided by small population equals great riches for a few people. That's something worth fighting over.

And CCP of course wants to give people something to fight about. The question is then, why aren't these POSes attacked more? Most of them were small, it wouldn't take that long, or that much effort to put several of them in reinforced mode in one night. However, the mobility that titan bridges provide make the defense able to mount a mobile response. Hence, it's all about who can field the biggest fleet at any given time.

Now there's something very EVE about the rich getting richer. However, nobody should be getting a free ride, and nothing should be safe. I applaud CCP's efforts to spread the wealth around. PI certainly does that, and I'm looking for more.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The LARP Ascending

(With apologies to Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Angela Webb posted today at about LARPs, and how they might be of interest to MMO developers. To her, they represent player-generated content.

This is exactly how I started LARPing. At my first event, I was given a boffer weapon and a costume, a few instructions, and off I went to terrorize the town as a level-2 goblin. I had a blast ambushing players on dark trails with my foam weapon that did a crappy two points of damage. I was such a noob. But, I learned how to use a sword, contributed to the fun of others, and figured out some basic rules of the game.

One of the things I say to my friends about EVE Online is that humans make much better villains than computers. I think Angela's run at being a goblin supports that.

One of the commenters to Angela's post recalls the guide program in Everquest, where volunteer players assumed unusual avatars and carried out heavily scripted and supervised events.

I recall that Everquest, at least at some point, gave players the option to play a low-level mob, much as Angela did. I'm not sure whatever became of that.

I myself have some background in LARPing, but not of the boffer-sword variety. I played in games run by Steve Balzac and Aimee Yermish through the Society for Interactive Literature West (SILWest). They began by running LARPs at MIT while they were students there, and continued when they came to Silicon Valley to work. Now they are back at MIT, and I haven't talked to them for a few years.

Steve and Aimee's games did not use boffer swords. There was a combat resolution system which typically was turn-based, and gave you a few tactical options. As often as not, there would be magic abilities, or lasers or something else. There were costumes, most definitely. They would run their games at hotels, first as part of a sci-fi convention, but later, as its own event. We had very strict rules that we could never, ever, utter the word "bomb". We used a substitute word, I think it might have been "banana". Gameplay would last a weekend, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon, with a group dinner and rehash Sunday night.

The GM's had hours, and combat and thieving were only allowed during those hours, even though the game depended on an honor-system, where low-scale conflicts could be resolved without a GM. But you could stay up all night and talk with people or work on puzzles.

Each player got a premade character with an elaborate background and motivations. Also some items and abilities. Games were constructed with many different groups with different interests, divided loyalties, and potential for spying and intrigue.

Furthermore, there was a "big plot" that developed over the course of the weekend, typically something that threatened everyone, or nearly everyone in the game world. So players had reasons both to cooperate and to compete, to trust and to suspect.

The games were incredibly engaging, exhilarating, and exhausting. I miss them.

The content was enormously expensive to create, and didn't leverage all that well. Every character had a 3-ring binder full of background information, a good portion of which was specific to that character. As a commercial enterprise, I don't think it works. However, the lesson remains: Human beings make much more interesting adversaries than computers.

As a sidelight, I note that we had many women playing in our games, far more than you see in net-based pvp games. Even though there was a decided pvp content. I don't care to venture a guess as to why, but I note that the game was a lot richer than a "I beat your brains out" format such as exists in first-person shooters. Negotiation, spying, manipulation, and simply chewing scenery were all part of the fun. And my, oh, my, it WAS fun.

That's a high bar, and it won't work as such, in an MMO format where you log in at any time, and play casually. Part of the appeal is the "I'm going to do this and nothing else for the next 48 hours. Maybe I'll sleep a little."

In order to make player-generated content really work in an MMO, the entire structure needs to be changed, I think. Humans as gnolls outside of Qeynos have limited appeal and a bunch of problems. I mean, it seems like something that might be fun for a little while, but ultimately boring. What would make life interesting is if the gnoll faction had some goals of their own, which put them in sometimes in conflict with the humans of Qeynos, but also with the centaurs in Thundering Steppes, and with orcs everywhere.

Players in a game in which the content revolves around doing quests will resent the intrusion of other players ruining their day, and mucking up their plans. So the point of the game would have to involve goals that are intrinsic to the factions somehow. The best goals would be only partially overlapping, as in, I want to destroy Qeynos, but I also need to gather components for a cure to the plague that's making all the gnoll children sick. That is, you don't want a binary, all-or-nothing, mutually exclusive goal.

Another thing that doesn't work is the sense of time in an MMO. Time moves very slowly in an MMO or not at all. They are like the old style of TV show, where every episode leaves you exactly where it started. This is antithetical to LARPs and also tabletop roleplaying, where it is axiomatic that what you do matters. Your success or failure has consequences to the world.

Because of this put me down as thinking that should multiplayer games incorporate more ideas from LARPS, it's going to have to involve a lot more rethinking of the genre. In fact, they will likely be enough different that we might not call them MMORPG's at all.


Friday, July 09, 2010

Hello, My Name Is...

I think Wilhelm2451 is on to something. He's been writing about the RealID thing going on with World of Warcraft. In a nutshell, soon you will be required to log in to the WoW official forums with RealID, e.g., your real name.

There are lots of issues with this, that TAGN has posted about before, along with many others in the WoW community.

But now, Wil has found a press release describing how Starcraft II will be tied in with Facebook. Facebook, you see, requires that you use your real name as part of its terms of service. He figures that, while there is as yet no press release for the equivalent for World of Warcraft, it's only time. I think he's right.

This seemed to me to be a good opportunity to explain why I am anonymous. One main reason is much the same as his: I don't really want prospective clients or business associates to know that I game, and that I have as an alter-ego a redheaded, 3 million year old high elf. There are also some things about my personal life that I'm not particularly eager to share with just anybody that happens to run into one of the many faces of Toldain. It would be a distraction, at best, and a security risk at worst.

I'm not a big fan of Facebook either. There are many reasons for this. First, Facebook carries out a level of social engineering that offends me. I've had friends send me cute little things, and when I try to respond in kind, Facebook demands my cell phone number, or payment of some other kind. That's where it ended for me. They are using the Law of Reciprocity to get me to disclose information of value to them, a third party. This is like the telemarketers who talk to you like they are your best friend. They aren't, and I won't.

There's another thing about Facebook: context collapse. I have friended many people from my high school days. You know, 2.5 million years ago. Lots of the stuff I'd like to talk/write about wasn't interesting to them then, and probably wouldn't be now. I don't really want to play the chatty geek to an audience that doesn't care.

Furthermore, I'm sure that there's a few of them that consider Dungeons and Dragons demon-worship. Last week, I was at a family reunion in Montana, visiting a cousin that is very dear to me. She is a Mormon, and there are some topics that are just better avoided, though, and she and I do that for the sake of our familial connection. I can't do that on Facebook.

As I write this, I have become aware that this is the "closet". It is parallel to the experience of someone who is gay, or transgendered, but probably with a lot less at stake. Nobody has been beaten or killed for playing D&D, as far as I know. So I have to entertain the possibility that maybe I should come out of that closet. After all, geeks rule the world now. On the other hand, nobody really wants to be forced out the closet by other people.

One of the claims for RealID is that it will tone down the trolling and abusive posting in the official forums. I think it will probably tone things down some, anonymity has some effects. Jamie Madigan is eager to measure the effect, and there is likely to be some effect here.

EQ2 solved this by simply deleting posts and banning posters. Thus EQ2flames was born. Interestingly though, you must register and post in EQ2flames as an in-game character, and any accusations or humiliating stories must name names, and must be posted as the character who witnessed them. Swearing is allowed.

Is that anonymity, or not? Toldain is a persistent, transportable identity. I have a reputation that I care about. I have things that I stand for. There are things I won't post or write about or say as Toldain. Some of it is a constructed persona, but that persona is constructed from me.

I think we need to stop thinking about anonymity as a binary. While there are things that I feel freer to write about as Toldain, there are other things I avoid writing/talking about in that persona. I think of it as a channel, and I try to keep communication on that channel focused.

In any case, the EQ2 forums have long since ceased to be of interest to me. They are far too bland. So, should they try something like this, it will be disappointing, but have little impact on me. Should it develop that my online identity would be forced into the public via Facebook or something else, I would probably quit playing Everquest 2. And no, you can't have my stuff.

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