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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When No Doesn't Mean No: Update

There's a flurry of reaction to my last post about the Eve fracas. (Or is it a rumpus?)

Brian "Psychochild" Green, in comments says to be careful:

It's also kind of unfortunate that this was "leaked". Often developers discuss a design topic openly to get information. It might be that design issues are discussed with direct, declarative statements in the company culture. "Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization:" might really be a suggestion. Hard to say how an Icelandic company's culture affects the discussions.

The first article, the "pro" and "con" definitely felt this way. I considered the possibility of the second, written by the Director of Content, as advocacy, but it's hard to support that. Given his name and where the magazine states that he lives, he's clearly a native English speaker as well. I don't think it was advocacy.

Brian also mentions another issue:

One comment: Here's a company where getting scammed in the game is not against the rules, and even allowed. So, you're surprised when they compare something to prostitution and don't find it to be a negative? :)

Dang, there's a big difference between doing stuff in-game and out. Which is why I (and most Eve players from what I can tell) still think that account hacking, keylogging, client mods and so forth are unacceptable.

Last Friday CCP Zulu posted on his blog:


Therefore we dedicated an entire issue to exactly that topic. It‘s worth mentioning that the topic of the issue was "Greed is good?" as a way to ask a question that would then be debated back and forth and often exaggerated purposefully to draw contrasts and make points. The result of that is now widely available on the internet.
[I got that the point of the magazine was debate, by the way. I simply could not reconcile the tone of one article with advocacy, as opposed to, done deal]

The opinions and views expressed in Fearless are just that; opinions and views. They are not CCP policy nor are they a reliable source of CCP views as a company. The employees who submitted articles to that newsletter did exactly what they were asked to do, write about theories and opinions from an exaggerated stand.

While it‘s perfectly fine to disagree and attack CCP over policies or actions we take, we think it‘s not cool how individuals that work here have been called out and dragged through the mud due to something they wrote in the internal company newsletter. Seriously, these people were doing their jobs and do not deserve the hate and shitstorm being pointed at them.

Well, I read the issue of Fearless and responded to it. I mentioned by name the authors of articles. I expressed my feelings in a way that was direct, but less abusive than what you will see in Jita local in any given 5 minute period.

The tone of CCP Zulu's post is pretty defensive. After that came an email purported to be from CCP President Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, sent to a mailing list called ccp-global. This looks like an internal memo, but since it's provenance is very unclear, I'm not going to reprint it. The tone of it is "We did a great job, and don't worry about the pushback, it will die down, it always does." He goes on to say that they have sold 52 monocles so far.

If you don't understand that this is an internal memo, it looks like the most tone-deaf message ever written, comparing well with "Well, despite an unfortunate disturbance at tonight's performance of An American Cousin, the gate receipts are way, way up!"

Today CCP Zulu has another blog post up. It begins:

The tone and demeanor of my blog on Friday did not correctly portray my emotions towards the community and player base at large. I love and respect EVE and its community on a level that's hard to really do justice in words. However I let my frustration take charge of me, fueled by emotions that had built up due to a breach of trust we at CCP have been experiencing over the past few days. I know that sounds ironic considering those are the exact same feelings you have been having towards CCP.

For that I am sorry.

He goes on to announce that they will be holding a special meeting with CSM (the player representative's council) to discuss this issue. I presume the "breach of trust" he mentions refers to the leak of not only the issue of Fearless, but Peterssun's internal email.

Ok, my other commenter on the last post, Sara Pickell, has an interesting hypothesis. She begins

Your also taking as rote someone who was completely ignored in the actual implementation as we have it. Paragraph 3 is literally him suggesting the polar opposite of the current pricing structure.

Hmm, start small and innocuous and widespread. Which isn't what happened. Fair point. That seemed odd to me, too. Sara goes on to note a progression in the language.

"we must sell our units of virtual currency" - "First, we don’t want to" - "Instead, we
want to" - "we will most

If you pay attention, the times when he gets the most technical and becomes the most confident he uses the least strong language. The last one was a strong contender for answering a problem he clearly understood well and he used his softest language.

Hell if you get the mental tone right, it sounds a lot like satire... Holy shit, I think it is satire... Wow... just... wow.

I think Sara is right. Satire is very tricky business and depends on the audience and the comic being on the same page, and having some trust. As well as some very precise tonal indicators. Way back when I was a brand-new professor, I had an inclination to joke when students asked me what would be on the midterm, "Oh, if you can do all the problems in Chapters 1-10 in less than 30 minutes, you'll probably pass..." Nobody laughed at these jokes. So I developed a rule which I stated: "Students don't find jokes about tests to be funny."

I've had lots of occasion to refer to this rule in the past few weeks. Lous CK has a joke that goes like this, "I would never rape a woman unless I had a good reason, like I wanted to have sex with her and she didn't want to." I find this funny, but discussions in the past week or two indicate that many women don't find it the least bit funny. The humor depends on understanding that the point of view is exaggerated and offered for mockery.

In yet another example, I went to see Jonathon Coulton in a live performance in early 2009 in San Francisco. (JoCo is a musical humorist, or is he a humorous songwriter and performer?) The show was fronted by Paul and Storm, another duo combining music and humor. In one of Paul and Storm's songs, the punch line in one verse was based on the van that the Mexican was driving was full of illegal aliens.

Said punch line was met with stony silence on the part of the audience, and that included me. "Aww, come on! It's satire!" called out Paul and Storm. More stony silence. They moved on, and the rest of their act was enjoyed by all. At the time, I thought to myself, "They have no idea how painful the immigration debate has been here in California over the years, have they?" Some jokes just don't work with some audiences.

At least here in America, we are used to corporations taking every advantage of us that they can. There is little that is sacred to them, and when we buy a car, for example, they love to keep adding things on that we must buy. There are no human feelings that go unexploited. For example, someone's love for his family turns into a need for expensive life insurance.

And during the last two-plus years, the unemployment rate has seen lots of Eve players out of work due to no fault of their own. The ones that have kept their jobs have very likely seen their hours stretched while their pay been as stagnant as that pond just outside of Qeynos. The one with the meteorite in it. And we are also accustomed to corporations not so much outright lying but exercising creative loopholes. And sometimes outright lying, and worse.

Make no mistake, Eve players love Eve, and are terrified that CCP will try to exploit that love, and ruin the game in the process. So, this joke isn't funny. However, it wasn't meant for them.

I assign about an 90% probability to the article in question being satire, and meant ironically. It's only 90% because living 3 million years has given me some skepticism about everything. (The fabulous red hair doesn't make me skeptical, just sexy).

If it's really satire, then it's very reassuring, by the way. It shows that it was expected that every CCP employee would understand immediately that the program described - the selling of ammo, ships and faction through RMT - was way beyond anything CCP had any intention of doing. As Gandalf would say, "That's a very comforting thought."

Update: Corrected spelling from "Sarah" to "Sara" Pickell.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When No Doesn't Mean No

Eve Online recently launched its latest expansion Incarna. As part of the expansion it introduced a microtransaction market, through which players can purchase items by spending a currency known as Aurum. Aurum, as I write this, can only be obtained by purchasing a PLEX, the same ingame item that can be redeemed for play time, and instead redeeming it for Aurum.

The market is thin, and mostly consists of vanity items, boots, skirts and, of all things, monocles.

As it turns out, Incarna introduced full-body 3d avatars for the first time to EVE. However, in the game as it is today, these avatars are only used in your Captain's Quarters, which can only be occupied by you. So, it seems, nobody can see these vanity items, with one exception - monocles. To add insult to injury, the real world cost of said items is pretty stiff - upwards of $50 to $80. There are no low priced items, and nothing that seems functional.

As if this weren't enough, a copy of an internal newsletter (with the title Fearless) was leaked to the general public. This particular issue was titled "Greed is Good?" and had a picture of Gordon Gekko on it. On page 7 is a pro-con debate on having microtransaction items available that enhanced gameplay in Eve Online. You can download it here.

Kristoffer Touffer is described as "a driving force in CCP's game design department" Kristoffer says

I would like virtual goods sales in EVE. In fact, I’d like to sell a lot more than vanity items. Does this mean I’m an evil capitalist that, unless stopped, will cause the entire company to catch fire and be buried at sea by a secret team of Navy SEALs?
Let’s hope not, although that’s the impression I get sometimes when interacting with our customers. There is a pretty overwhelming perception amongst EVE players that these changes are bad. I think they’re brilliant, but our players
don’t. We’re going to face an uphill struggle, and the reason many of us never talk about this publicly is that we’d be burned at the stake by the players.

Kristoffer gives an example of what kinds of things he'd like to see sold in game:

I’ll give you an example of something I think provides value to our customer, which I’d like to sell. Right now, you can store 50 personal fittings on our servers. That’s more than enough for the average EVE player, but for a subset of our users, it’s too small a number. Why not be able to add more storage space for a small amount of money? You’d even be able to upgrade it multiple times if you needed and permanently add this benefit to your character, making it even more valuable. And you know what? If you don’t like paying for this, you can always buy a PLEX off the market, and never have to get your credit card out. I think that’s pretty goddamn cool, and I’m not entirely sure why that makes me Hitler to some EVE players.

Which touches my first question: Why have Aurum at all? Why not just make everything ISK based? You can already buy ISK in game from CCP by buying GTCs, converting them to PLEXes and selling them on the market. I have a guess at why they introduced Aurum: So they can sell it or give it away directly eventually, and set their own price for it, rather than letting the market decide, avoiding in-game market arbitrage as well.

On the same page, John Turbefield is described as a "Renowned master of spreadsheets and works his Excel magic in the Research and Statistics department". He is "worried that the rules are changing:"

Virtual goods sales can be positive in certain circumstances. However, when you introduce something that can create an imbalance where others can’t compete with their spending power, you inevitably decrease their satisfaction with your product. As such it is essential that a game is designed from the ground up to incorporate any major virtual goods sales that fall outside of this. PLEX (and time codes before that) work extremely well as they not only largely replace a black market for ISK, but provide substantial benefits to other players in the form of offering additional subscription options. The negatives caused from the ISK for real money trade such as hacking and botting are reduced as their profitability declines. PLEX differs from typical virtual goods sales because we allow players to pay their subscriptions this way using in-game currency.

To me, virtual goods sales are far less appealing when the gameplay is affected and they aren’t replacing a black market. When we’re adding additional things into the game that enable users to gain an advantage over other people for real money in a way they simply wouldn’t be able to if we hadn’t done so, then it becomes an issue. I feel that if people have already paid a subscription fee then unless there is a good reason for the overall community to introduce a gameplay-affecting virtual goods
sales (such as with PLEX), then gaining an in-game advantage isn’t justifiable. More revenue is of course an aim, but making our customers feel like they are being ‘double billed’ to be able to play on the same level as others is just a step too far.

The most visible example of another game introducing virtual goods sales is certainly LOTRO. It is worth pointing out though that they made almost everything microtransaction based and at the same time removed subscription fees. Because other games with very different communities and very different gameplay styles are able to do something it doesn’t mean we can do the same thing with the same levels of success. EVE is a far more complex game with significantly more social interaction, which changes a great
deal about how you can approach virtual goods sales. While it’s true that others, such as Blizzard have gone down the microtransaction path, they have not implemented any gameplay affecting items. They also do not offer a microtransaction to gold conversion as we do with PLEX. [Actually, Eve offers a gold to MT conversion, not the other way -toldain]
I don’t oppose the concept of virtual goods in the case of vanity items, merely in cases where the monetization of items impacts the balance of the game.

Well, that was kind of long, but I wanted you to really get the argument being made. John touches on the idea of "double-billing", which is pretty important to overall sentiment. He also tries to explain something that puzzles me as well.

CCP already sells currency within its games, via the PLEX mechanic. ISK can be used to buy things that enhance your gameplay, and gain an advantage with. I've heard players respond to someone complaining about how long it took to earn enough ISK to buy a carrier with, "Sell some PLEXes!"

Furthermore, characters can be bought and sold for ISK. So if you want an "endgame" character, capable of flying Titans, let's say, you can. Buy a crapload of PLEXes and buy both a Titan and a character who can fly one. Be careful that its in space where it's safe to log on, though.

Ok, so why are the playerbase so upset? First, players, because they are people, really resist change. And they are wary of being ignored because that's what big companies do, right?

However, the worst is yet to come.

On page 9 of the same issue of Fearless Scott Holden writes an article called "Delivering the goods: virtual sales in Incarna" Scott Holden is described on Page 3 thus: "As Director of Content Design, Scott works from the Atlanta office overseeing all content for the EVE property; he regularly shuttles between our offices and his homeland of Canada."

CCP is in the process of adopting a virtual sales model for its game products. While this model has
always been intended for World of Darkness and DUST 514, you may be wondering how this will
work in EVE Online. Specifically, how will this new strategy unfold in Incarna?

In short, it’s the same in Incarna as elsewhere: we give players the means to buy stuff in addition to their base subscription, offering things like new “nano-paints” that allow one to customize ships while docked; new articles of virtual clothing, tattoos, and other avatar customizations; tokens for customizing Captain’s Quarters and so on. Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization: some will simply be new items, ammunition, ships, etc. that can be purchased outright. The devil, as always, is in the details.

You don't have to read much further than this to get the picture. New items, ammunition and ships? The player base of Eve is not naive. They've seen other games. The MT items are always just a little bit better than the normal items. Ammunition and ships really hits Eve players in the gut. Put this together with the perception that the current items are really overpriced and what is the prediction that a reasonable player will make?

Currently one round of T2 ammunition costs something like 200 ISK, depending on just what kind. That's less than one cent, probably that's 100 of them for a penny. My math may be wrong, but it's tiny, when put in terms of Euros or USD. Will that be true of the MT version of ammunition, which you know will be just that much better than even faction ammo?

But that difference is really really important to Eve players. A battle could turn on that difference, and losses of billions of ISK could turn on that battle. So of course they would have to buy it, regardless of whatever insane price is charged through the MT store. Either that, or quit playing the game. So when the Director of Content Design for Eve says, "we're going to sell ammo and ships", that seems like a done deal, doesn't it?

The player base has been very clear that it doesn't want this, as is evidenced by Kristoffer Touffer's remarks shown above.

Many of the players I've met in 0.0 are pretty much all-in when it comes to playing Eve. They have multiple accounts. They play long hours. At least one appears to be logged in all day long while at work. They play so much that they fall asleep at the keyboard. And now the feel that CCP is trying to squeeze more blood from that turnip. As I write this there is a serious rage on the forums and some sort of protest flash mob in Jita 4,4.

Every aspect of Eve is PvP. Even the most carebeary (careberry?) of carebears is enmeshed in economic PvP. There's competition and cooperation. The competition is what makes the cooperation so delightful. So even the non-hardcores sense that the game would be deeply changed by what Mr. Holden suggests, strike that, he didn't suggest it, he flat said "it's happening".

Holden goes on to describe another item contemplated for sale through MT, faction standing.

One other service we’re looking at is selling faction standings. We want to offer convenience for a price. As an example, your friend might give you free tickets to see her band play simply because the two of you are friends; meanwhile, other fans have to pay for a ticket because, well, that’s how it normally works. The more noteworthy the band, the more those friendships (and thus the tickets) are worth. If that doesn’t seem quite an accurate analogy, think of it like this: you can develop a friendship by “spending” your time, or you can pay to get the same benefits that friendship would otherwise allow. (I’m sure you can think of a few other situations where one might temporarily “buy” services otherwise gained only through social interaction.)

Wow. Just wow. He's comparing (correct me if I read this wrong) what they want to do to prostitution, and saying, "That's why we should do it!" Do you seriously believe that people like this, as opposed to merely tolerating it? And why they might not want to see it intrude on their precious leisure time, fantasy world? Do you have a shred of empathy for those players who play Eve because they can buy PLEXes with ISK, play for free, and still remain competitive? Can you understand why players might prefer a game where their ability to play the game matters rather than the size of their bank account? If you can't, you should be fired immediately, do not pass Go, do not collect 2 million ISK. No "Director of Content" should be so clueless about what players want in their virtual worlds.

Imagine you had ground missions and spent tons of ISK on building faction with the Caldari. Now all that means nothing, and you feel like a sucker. Is this what you want to have happen to your game? I don't.

What makes this much, much worse is the fact that CCP said, to the Council of Stellar Management that there would be no gameplay-affecting items available through the MT store. Pretty much at the same time Holden was writing this, I think. Mr Holden clearly believes that it will blow over and players will drop their opposition over time. Why do I know that? Because he says so:

First, we don’t want to glut the virtual market with too many offers right out of the gate. Instead, we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time, allowing cus- tomers to sample and purchase as they get used to the new model. We want to cater to long-term customers who will gradually acquire a taste for our wares.

It's never pretty to see someone openly plotting a seduction. Or is that the right word? Do you really think we'll get used to that in time, or that we'll go away only to be replaced by other people who don't care? Will we embrace ships, or merely be so beat down that we won't put up much of a fight. Scott, "no" really, really means "no".

There's another paragraph he writes that's nearly impenetrable. I'll reproduce it for you.

Regarding the notion of “virtual sales in Incarna,” though, I’d like to elucidate one point before closing: Incarna cannot be considered a product distinct from other parts of EVE. Incarna and “flying- in-space” (and in due course DUST 514) are merely aspects of the EVE Online experience; in virtual sales, as in development as a whole, we must all adopt this way of thinking. Thus, we will not and cannot focus on virtual sales only within the In- carna environment, nor build that environment around such sales; rather, we will effect a universal strategy of micro-sales throughout the EVE experience. So, as a play- er, while you are inside a station, you will find gameplay that links to other aspects of the game and that also presents you with virtual purchasing opportunities — just as you will while you are in space or on a planet fighting as a DUST merc.

I've been in the corporate world for years, and can usually translate corp-speak. But this kind of has me baffled. Could this mean he was thinking of Dust514 (which will be F2P) when he said "ammunition"? No, because he said "ships", too. Maybe this is just cross-selling.

Eve as it stands, drives away the instant-gratification crowd. I will never forget an exchange I witnessed in the noob channel on my first night playing Eve. Someone asked, "How long does it take to skill everything up and go PVP?" The reply was "Twenty years!" To me, that felt good. It felt like I had found a home. But selling stuff like ships via MT? That's instant gratification land, and would be a massive change to Eve.

It's as if just anybody could have fabulous red hair, just by dropping some cash, rather than cultivating one's style over the course of 3 million years.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mass Effect 2: When the World Doesn't See Your Gender

Slowly catching up to the MMO world, Mass Effect 2 allows players to customize their avatar - Shepard - with a variety of looks and either gender. Here's a YouTube video paying tribute to FemShepard:

Lesley of writes about what it's like to play Mass Effect 2 with an avatar that's a lesbian woman of color.

When Brown Lady Shepard is rude, or curt, or dismissive, the reactions she receives from others are not to her gender or her race, but to her words. Why? Because the character was written with the expectation that most people will play it as a white dude, a character for whom reactions based on gender or race are inconceivable. He’s “normal”, y’see. In real life, and in most media representation, we are culturally conditioned to respond differently to a big ol’ white dude with no manners than we do a woman of color doing the exact same thing. The white dude is just a jerk, but there’s often a built-in extra rage factor against the woman of color, for daring to be “uppity”, for failing to know her place. This distinction is often unconscious and unrecognized, but it’s there. In Mass Effect, no matter what my Shepard says or does, not only is the dialogue the same as it would be for the cultural “default”, but the reaction from the other non-player characters is the same. (The only exception to this is the handful of times that Lady Shepard is called a “bitch” — I suppose Dude Shepard may get called a bitch too, but I doubt it. I find it fascinating that they would record specific name-calling dialogue in this way.) Brown Lady Shepard waves her intimidation up in a dude’s face and he backs the fuck down, just like he would if she were a hyper-privileged white guy. My Lady Shepard faces no additional pressure to prove herself because of her background; if she is dismissed, it’s on the basis of her assertions, and not because she’s a queer woman of color from a poor socioeconomic background — even though that’s exactly what she is.

There's a joy here that I find very appealing. This is the joy of liberation. I would take nothing away from this, but I have one thing to add: the "big ol'" part of "big ol' white dude" matters.

I'm a white dude who is decidedly not "big ol'". I still enjoy male privilege, but people feel a lot more free to let me know they don't like what I'm doing than they would someone a foot taller than me. Of which there are quite a few in the world. I would like to, you know, feel that I exist.

Tall guys make more money and have more sex. You can manipulate how aggressive people are in the ultimatum game just by altering the size of their avatar in a virtual reality. You can put numbers on it.

Actually, it's even more subtle. Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailensen manipulated a virtual reality so that subjects thought themselves to be taller than their counterpart, even though their counterpart in the ulitmatum game percieved them as the same height as themselves. Under these conditions, the subjectively taller person would make more agressive splits, and reject unfair splits more frequently as well - just because they perceived themselves to be taller.

Yee and Bailensen make no report on the effects that having fabulous red hair might have, however.

Biology isn't destiny. Napoleon and Jet Li come to mind. As a martial artist, I have physically dominated men who were much larger than myself. It was in training, but still, some of these men had a serious mental block about whether I could do this, even as I was doing it. This experience is not that dissimilar to the experience of some women martial artists I know.

Anyway, I don't play many console games these days. But I'm really getting tempted by Mass Effect 2.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Instances are Better?

Dan Ariely talks about an experiment that addresses questions of human meaning and purpose. I got about two thirds of the way through this when I realized that this is quite relevant to MMO's, and suggest that instances will keep people coming back a lot longer.

If you kill the boss and watch him respawn before your eyes, it kills your sense of accomplishment much faster.


Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Scratch Your Neighbor, What's Underneath

A cleric, or a fighter, or a thief rogue?

Labels: ,