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Vinnie's Corner

Yet another person who believes he can say something original about MMO gaming... (Generally updated once per week)

Author: Vinadil

Yes, I am wearing my pants

Posted by Vinadil Friday June 29 2007 at 9:16AM
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A totally random World of Warcraft memory popped into my head as I was browing my guild's forums today. I believe I was in Loch Modan with my little gnome mage levelling up with a Warlock guildie, who just happened to be female. It was a wierd convergence of events only made possible because of modern communication in which you have Visual (what you are seeing in the game), Text (written communication shared between limited people), and Voice (connecting people who may or may not be in the same place in a game... or even in the same game).

As we were travelling along all of a sudden She asks in Ventrilo (our voice chat server), "Vinadil are you wearing any pants?" Now even that memory brings a small smile to my face, as I have never had anyone ask me that before. We were in a public guild channel at the time, and so the comment garnered immediate response from fellow guildies.  As it turns out I WAS wearing pants (on my gnome mage of course!), but the graphic for them was quite small.  Suffice to say it is one "those" moments that will likely stick with me for years to come. It is "those" moments that keep me playing online games, the times that just kind of burn into your brain and bring a smile to your face when you remember them.

Perhaps it bodes ill for my real life that I can still remember the day I purchased Everquest1. Ask me when/where I was when I bought Dark age of Camelot, Shadowbane, Lineage 2, or many others and I really don't remember... but I remember taking two boxes up to a counter sometime in 1999 and asking the guy who took your money, "Do you think I should buy this EverQuest game or UltimaOnline?" And, just that quickly my MMO life began. It is wierd to think sometimes how things may have been different if I had merely made the other choice.

I know that intense memories are not unique to the MMO, but the fact that MMOs are social games by design means that these memories become Shared. Shared memories seem to live longer. In fact, I would bet that certain people who read this will also remember the day referenced in the opening. Some may even remember the rest of the conversation. I bet almost everyone will remember some conversation that just happened to burn itself into their minds.

I remember the first pair of Jboots (boots with + to runspeed) I got in EQ... no not the ones that came off that Giant... the REAL Jboots you got from some chick in some low-level dungeon. I remember my first Nagafen kill, the first time I "rescued a damsel in distress" on my paladin, the time I realized said damsels should be held at arms length because they will start wanting your email and phone number, the day I realized most damsels have beards in RL, the many days in DAoC I went hunting Albs and Hybs, the feeling of seeing a set of Walls go up around a dwarven city in Shadowbane... so many memories stuck in my head.

When I remember these things, I remember WHY I still play these games. More than any quest, goal, event, or character that a game designer can give me; I am looking for a new world to create new memories. Just give me and 50 of my closest online friends (most of whom I would not recognize if we passed on the street) a world that we can interact in and create some new memories... and I will keep playing. I know I am playing a worthwhile game when I don't have to think back 2 years to the last one of "those" moments.

Wouldn't it be GREAT!

Posted by Vinadil Monday June 25 2007 at 9:35AM
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This is long.  Know that going in.  But, it is a touch of my thinking on IN-Game economies and why they should more closely mirror Out-of-Game economies.
Wouldn't it be great to live in a world where nothing ever broke and it only cost a little cash to repair anything you owned? Just think about it for a minute... you never need a new washer, dryer, refrigerator, car, house, any type of tool, chairs, TV, DVD player... nothing.

Now sure, at some point you will want to upgrade your stuff, I mean you cannot be satisfied with the 32" flat screen forever. But, since things never break they also retain quite a bit of value, so sell the 32" for a decent price and grab the 50"... and know that you will have it for the rest of your life.

Perhaps it sounds like a sweet world, I mean in many ways it does to me. Our washing machine just started making a horrible sound and I am facing the very real prospect of having to go out and buy a new one or pay someone a substantial fee to fix this one. Though that may SEEM bad for me on first glance, it is actually very GOOD for me if I happen to enjoy living in a growing, successful economic world. (And I do.)

Perhaps it is my business background (
HBP, UTAustin... the best around!), or the fact that money has just always been interesting to me, but I seem to focus on in-game economies in every MMO I have played. In fact, some games, like Lineage 2, ONLY held my interest for as long as they did due to some economic nuances. What continues to amaze me today is how SO MANY people just keep getting it SO WRONG. This is especially mind-boggling when you realize that they ALL have access to wonderful models. It is not as if there is NO game that has a good working economic model and that someone is tasked with the burden of creating some NEW thing that has never before existed. But, before we get too far, I want to throw out the basics of what I see about in-game economies and what makes them viable in the long-term (IE when everyone is max level/skill and has the highest items available in the game. It is bound to happen, it is just a matter of time.)

Pieces of Game Economies

Crafter - The person who takes Raw materials and fashions them into useful items. Can also be the person who repairs items using raw materials.
Harvester - The person who gathers the raw materials.
Market - This deals both with WHERE you sell items and HOW you sell them.
Currency - This deals with the exchange of items. Key issues are you type(s) available, its universality, and portability/accessibility.

So, with the given terms, let us talk about a couple of examples and see how they create their system. I will stay away from examples like L2 and other Eastern games... as they are rather clearly broken economies. For this discussion let us take WoW and Vanguard, since I have experience with both economies. At first glance people may think that the systems are different, but really they are almost identical (at this time).

Crafter
Both systems have the crafter who makes items from raw materials and then sells them to players. Crafters are not part of the repair process at this time outside of perhaps supplying a "Repair Bot" or a "Repair Kit". Both systems also have the "Next best thing" model that says that once I am done with Copper items I will move to Bronze, and then Iron, then Mithril, etc. And, once I am using Mithril (Pyrite, Dark Iron... whatever it is), I have NO need of the lower level metals for ANY reason.

And so, we quickly move to mistakes number 1 and 2.
1) Crafters only create, they do not maintain. That means that Demand for crafted items (or crafter TIME) is limited by a rather simple linear equation which can explain (# of players on a server) + (average time to reach max level and acquire end game items). Now, I am not saying this will be 1 week, but it won't be 1 year either. And, in this model ONLY the power-crafters are really ever viable economically. They will make the best items for the lowest cost, and they will make them first. So entrance into the crafting market is VERY difficult and unappealing. Also, since supply of currency is limitless you will see prices escalate continually, especially once the majority of players reach the End Game.

If we instead had a model where Crafters were necessary for maintenance, or even where items needed complete replacement from time to time, then Demand for crafted items would follow an equation more like, (# of players on server) + (average time to reach max level and acquire end game items) + (avg. time played per player * (item repair/replacement)). This is NOT a linear equation, but one where time and activity help determine demand. In the first equation, the only way to build more demand is to have a constant flow of New players into the economy. In the second all you need is to have the current player base keep playing the game.

So, a system where Crafters are needed to FIX items as they wear down and perhaps even Replace items when they break helps create demand for crafters even when the "End Game" has arrived. This also creates a demand for Crafters in general, moving more people into that market (So supply of crafters increases as demand of crafted items increases... which helps guard against inflation.)

2) Entry-level materials have no lasting value. This is mostly a problem for the Harvesters as it provides almost NO incentive to enter that market. In the WoW, VG model that is not such a bad thing since we have a fixed Demand for crafted good, a fixed Supply of raw materials gives the illusion of a stable economy... for a while. Again, everything breaks down once the majority of players reaches max level. New players will not become harvesters because the time and effort it takes to raise the skill is greater than the reward to be gained from doing so.

[NOTE: I realize that both Vanguard and WoW do have a couple of professions that create consumable items, and those professions do not follow these same rules. That is even MORE reason for me to doubt the sanity of these game developers as they have some professions that are viable late game and others that are not and they still don't seem to make the cause/effect relationship.]

Harvester
We covered some of this issue above, but it is worth its own section. In a game where resources and crafting have ANY place, there is a great potential for harvesting to become a good "entry-level" profession for new players. It provides them with an immediate way to become a part of something much bigger and to feel like an important part of the greater game world. This only happens if demand for beginner harvesting items stays high. Since most current games use the "Next Best Thing" system, you quickly find that the market for beginner level harvested items dries up... to the point where people just trash the stuff they harvest or sell it to vendors for almost nothing.

This means that most of the people who pick up harvesting late-game are NOT new players, but rather established players who don't need the money and are just interested in supplying their own materials. That is fine, they should be able to do so. But, the market should always be friendly to new entries as well, and should be available to beginner players.

Market
When you think of an in-game market, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Well for the Eastern games we are not delving into it may be the horrible town scene of 1,000 player-stalls scattered all over. For games like WoW and VG it has more to do with they Auction House. For our discussion market will have two definitions:
1) The AREA in which you sell an item. This deals with the question of whether I should be able to sell an item to anyone from anywhere. The current WoW model says "yes" (in the old world anyway), and the VG model is close in that it says "yes" if you are on the same island. They have opted for near universal markets. This definitely has some benefit for players as it makes things much more convenient. But, it also kills a very viable, profitable, and often enjoyable part of the game... namely Transportation of Materials. Let us think through what would happen if materials were localized, meaning that they could only be purchased in the same area that they were put up for sale.

The first thing that would happen is that people would begin centralizing their crafting efforts due to efficiency. No crafter wants to spend half of their time running around gathering materials from all over the world. But, how do you go about enticing the harvesters to bring their materials to you instead of you going to them? Raise the price you offer of course. All of a sudden you get a new pressure on prices that allows for more competition. New decisions are entered into the equation. And, perhaps a completely new profession is birthed... the Transporter.

Also, often Crafting centers are not located next to Harvesting centers, especially in the current MMO world. And, since crafters want to craft (that is where they make their money) and harvesters want to harvest, neither of them is particularly interested in spending the time it takes to move resources from one area to the other. All of a sudden there becomes a new Demand that can be satisfied by a player who is willing to merely Move items from one location to another. This may not sound interesting, but think about it... WoW and VG already have you do this in their "quest" system, and the items you move have NO value at all. In an economic model, the items you move are very important. You become the lifeblood of the economy... like the modern day truck driver in
America.

[NOTE: The idea of Localized markets also raises a LOT of PvP possibilities and problems, which we may discuss later.]

2) Market also means the actual Method of how items are sold. Again, take WoW or VG as an example and you have an Auction House where people put items for sale. It is very easy to use, to search, to compare prices, etc. Beyond the fact that these houses are much too universal, they also have one other HUGE, glaring omission; the Buy Order. We have a completely one-sided supply-demand equation going on where Sellers constantly have to compete with each other over how low they are willing to drop their prices in order to tempt buyers. If you put the option for Crafters (or anyone) to place Buy Orders, then all of a sudden you introduce a new supply-demand equation in which buyers compete on how HIGH a price they are willing to pay. Having both systems available on the same market interface helps regulate prices in the long-term and ends up creating a more viable market for all parties. It also makes things MUCH more convenient.

This is one thing that truly boggles me about the current Market system. The coding is already in the games for the Buy Order, but the developers choose to keep it out. Even if they limited buy orders to some of the basic harvestable resources it would be better than the current systems. But, most systems have such a robust search engine that you could limit it to things like, "Level 35 Blue swords", or even a range of "Level 30-35 Blue weapons". A simple construct like this makes a market 100x more fluid as items are able to be exchanged instantly from seller to buyer and back again.

Issues and Questions
One of the questions often raised when you talk about Localized Markets is, "How do we compare prices between markets?" There are a number of answers here, and all of them are good for the economy and game in general. The first option is, of course, to actually MOVE between the markets to compare their prices. This is what your average player will do, which encourages him to get out and see the world... if the economy is something he is interested in. The second option is to allow some sort of skill (in the order of a crafter/harvester) like Investor that allows someone access to a growing Circle of market awareness. Use whatever reasons you want to make it "realistic", say a network of ship captains or whatnot, but basically this person would have access to PRICES of numerous markets from Any particular market terminal. So, if I was in Ironforge I could also see the Market info as far away as the Wetlands if I had a certain Skill, perhaps as far as
West Plaguelands if I had a higher skill. Different skills might actually allow these players to Buy items from such locations, or even set up Buy/Sell orders remotely. But, since the items themselves are localized, the Investor will either have to travel himself or higher a Transporter to move the item(s) he buys and sells.

Another issue often arises from people who play on PVP worlds, especially those with FFA type PvP in which anyone is fair game, even crafters inside of cities. The idea of creating Central crafting sites or Harvesting dump sites seems like it would just be a huge signal saying, "Hey... come PvP me HERE!" While that may be true, there are several, EASY ways to combat this. The first and easiest is some sort of faction system where players of High faction receive protection from NPCs and players with Low faction get harassed by them. So a dwarf crafting inside a Dwarf town will get some help if a group of Dark Elves or even Dwarf-killin Dwarfs try to come get him. The second way to combat this is for the Crafters themselves to band together and plan their own protection. This is not really as hard as it sounds... as in a meaningful economy the Crafters will be in High Demand, which equals High Value. If you have them all in one location it DOES make it easier for the bandits and such to know where they are... but it also makes it easier for the Protectors to watch over them. Generally you have a much smaller Bandit population than Protector (even in your FFA PvP worlds), especially if you are dealing with Localized Markets (This is assuming mass, instant transit is not easy/possible). So, the reason that the bandits seem so powerful is that they can hit Anywhere and Anytime. But, if there is only ONE location for them to hit, then there is only ONE location that needs to be defended. The bandits quickly find themselves killed anytime they even think about going near that location... forcing them to live as actual bandits, out in the woods and such. In any case, there is no viable PvP reason against localized markets.

Currency
Some people have tried to make the argument that any form of currency by default leads to an ever-increasing inflation for any in-game economy. This is simply not true. Anyone who lives in the real world should be able to see why this is not true, but I will spell it out here and then add a few additional remarks on currency.

Currency does not create inflation because currency is NOT a resource, it is merely the system we have for assigning value TO resources and for making the Transfer of resources as efficient as possible. Currency is to an Economy as Words are to a Language. The "money" gets its meaning from items it represents, not the other way around.

So, if you have a problem with inflation, it has nothing to do with your currency... it has to do with your economic model (those things we have previously discussed.)

I actually think the modern currency model is workable. It is fairly simple in that it allows people to move large sums of money across large distances easily. EQ1 had the brilliant idea to make Exchanging money and Carrying money difficult. Sure, it added some type of game play, but mostly that type was called "annoying". The modern system where after I loot 100 copper I magically have 1 silver appear and the 100 copper disappear is much more friendly and does not really have any bad side-effects as far as the economy is concerned.

Whereas I am AGAINST universal items as far as banking or marketing, I have no problem with universal coin transfer in either of the above. If items stay localized, then money need not do so. Some people have tossed out ideas of localized Coin that you can access anywhere in the world for a fee. The fee would be determined by distance from your Local Bank. I am not really against that model, but I do not see it as being necessary. Again, localized items/materials will solve most of your economy problems, making localized money unnecessary.

Taxation without Representation!

Posted by Vinadil Friday June 15 2007 at 9:14AM
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Gotta love mottos that rhyme. Even in the good ole days they came up with catchy slogans before they went to war. And my mind was turning to things political this morning as I was getting ready for work. As I argued with myself about national politics I came to the sad realization (allow) that our government just won't ever be what I want it to be without some major changes. And then, I realized that once again my mental wanderings applied to the current MMO world too. The issue that seems to plague me the most with government is how power seems to be moving to the Federal and away from States... something I see as a very bad thing.

And, one thing that continues to plague the MMO industry is that power is held by the dev's/publishers and taken away from the people... you know the players that pay for it. It is very different in single player games for one reason; once a person purchases the game the dev really loses any control over how that game is played. Take something like D&D for instance. Imagine if Wizards of the Coast had attempted to police EVERY group of people that EVER played the game making sure they followed EVERY rule exactly as intended. How successful do you think that would have been? The fact is that every person who played got to decide for themselves what ruleset to follow and how closely. The rules were their to add fun by providing boundaries, much like the lines on a basketball court. They were not there to force the desires of the game's creator onto the players.

But, the MMO does not work this way. The developers have constant control over the world's they create, and they seem to think that THEY alone are the guardians of "fun" and "good". If they see players acting in a way that was not intended (but still allowed with the programmed mechanics) then they can just toss down a "patch" and change the world. Sure many times the player base as a whole does not mind because they are getting rid of "exploits" and such, but the principle behind it all is that the Developers OWN the world... and we all just rent space there for a while. In fact, that is it in a nutshell... they are the landlord, and we are the lowly renter. And we are not even treated like good renters most of the time, but like the scum who at any minute might skip out on next month's rent. I get the feeling that Developers think I will screw up their game if I am given the opportunity to actually AFFECT it in any real way.

That is why they don't give dynamic quests, that is why they don't allow player-created and destroyable content, and that is why MOST of them still shy away so much from things like PvP and full-loot. Deep down they must have a fear that their precious little game will be taken and shaped into something they don't like. So, in the end, it is really not about US... it never was. It is about THEM. They want money, so they need us for a time, but they also want some IDEA of a game that they can put on a pedastal and look at each day. It is a wierd merging of Capitalist and Artisan. Perhaps that is why you HAVE two sides... the Producer and a Dev team.

In the end I think people miss out on what could be truly beautiful and wonderful worlds. I happen to think that the REAL world has turned out pretty well. Sure you can find problems when you look globally, but look at your own neighborhood. I like mine, and if there are things I DON'T like, well I have the ability to change them. Its not like it is hardcoded somewhere that the neighbor's kids have to be punks that trash my mailbox... I have a choice in the matter too, as do my neighbors whose mailboxes share the same dents. We, as a community, get to decide what our "world" looks like, and we have made it look pretty good.

I don't know why game developers feel that we would make a mess of their games, but I am starting to feel more and more like I am being over-taxed and under-represented.

More Hitpoints, More Adds

Posted by Vinadil Thursday June 7 2007 at 12:45PM
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Ok, in general I will be updating this blog weekly.  But, since we just started and everyone is all excited right now... here is a second post for the 12-15 of you who actually follow the link to this blog.  Enjoy!

Answer this question for me, "How can you make an encounter more difficult and/or interesting for our players?" I have to believe that this question has been asked numerous times by countless gaming companies over the years. And yet, it seems that only ONE answer has prevailed through them all. It goes something like this, "I know... lets give the monster MORE hitpoints, and... put MORE monsters in!"

This seems to be the solution to all of your problems when designing a more interesting, or more difficult, encounter. One might be tempted to say, "Surely this cannot be the case after 10 YEARS of design!". But, one would be so very, very wrong.

I know that each game has its own little variety, and some boss encounters contain some interesting tidbits here and there, but when you get down to it, what separates an Epic encounter from a Daily encounter usually consists of the Number of Mobs you have to kill and the Number of Hitpoints on those mobs.

I often wonder... why can't the mobs sheep/mez/stun/CC us? Why can't they see who is healing and focus on that person? Why can't they move, root, dodge, break LOS? Why do they just get more HP and more Adds?

Because it is easier for the Devs, thats why. Games like Counterstrike have proved that human-scripted AI's can actually move and "think" pretty well even in the FPS genre. There is no reason, then, that games like WoW that use completely instanced content for 5-10 man raids could not have the same types of AI. Its not like the Devs would have to create a script that responds to 100 different inputs... just 5 or 10.

Now, some people might say, "But... if the mobs could mez/stun/root and focus on healers and such, then it would be too HARD." Sure, that would be true IF you kept everything else constant. If you don't allow MORE ways to break things like mez/stun/root, if you don't allow more ways to taunt/distract mobs, if you don't bring the HP/Mana on the mobs more in line with what players have, then sure... it would be near impossible.

But, if you have SMARTER monsters, then you don't have to pump them up with ridiculous amounts of HP and Mana. When a team of 6 attacks a group of 6 mobs it would be more like attacking 6 other players... making the Strategy and Response the key to victory... not just the perfect mix of characters who are able to repeat the right set of moves necessary to kill Type X-1 mob.

Some games claim that their AI is going to be new, dynamic, etc... and I hope that they can pull it off. But, if history of design is anything to go by, then AI will get smarter by getting beefier.

LFG (Looking For Gamers)

Posted by Vinadil Wednesday June 6 2007 at 9:37AM
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I have to admit that only a certain few people in my "crowd" that I normally socialize with know that I am a "gamer". That is by design as the term "gamer" still carries with it some negative connotations. People still picture the comic book guy from Simpson's or some equally pitiful picture of social inadequacy. The implication is that the gamer has lost all touch with the "real world" and has become enthralled with one or many purely fictional worlds.

I used to think that was a bad thing. I always thought of myself as the "cool gamer". Yes, I know, such a thing does not exist. I have heard it time and time again. But, really, I AM the cool gamer. Still, I suppose I may trend more towards the "gamer" than the "cool" when you get down to it. Two simple conversations made this more clear to me just today.

The first was at a lunch appointment that I have every Tuesday with the same group of guys. One of them is also a "gamer" (or claims to be anyway) and the other two are Not. Well, today the other gamer and I arrived first and so we talked about Heroes, Spider Man openings, and other such topics of import finally leading up to our current MMO of choice. Both of us were offline this last weekend due to Real Life issues. So I voiced my surprise at not seeing him Monday night, knowing that his RL issues were over, and to my even GREATER surprise he said, "Well after not playing for a few days I find myself not missing it all that much." Not missing it? Not missing the GAME? You realize that the last 4 days your real life IMPOSED itself in such a way as to make gaming Impossible, and we all know such things happen, but now you are FREE, Free I say. And now that he had the choice to play he simply chose not to. I am struggling with calling him a gamer anymore... he just seems to be fading away into adulthood.

Well when I got back from that lunch I find a PM on these very boards telling me that another of our group would be missing tonight in MMOland as well... due to a BASEBALL game. Baseball? Does he realize that this takes place Outside? That he will be surrounded by thousands of other people? That it might take the Entire evening? Now, I have come to grips with the fact that we all need jobs... I mean you cannot play MMOs for free. (Well, not any worth playing anyway) But, we have moved beyond the realm of "Have To" into "Choose To". And now we see what is REALLY important don't we... "friends", "recreation", "enjoying my city and family"... blah, blah, blah.

These people act as though our characters will just log in and level themselves! And the fact is that the current gaming market is FULL of these part-time "Gamers" who really don't look anything at all like comic-book-guy on Simpson's. Today's gamer chooses to play games as One of Many possible recreation activities. Gamers are getting older, and Gaming is becoming more embraced by the market.

And in the end it leaves the true gamers (like us!) online and tossing up the *LFG* tag wondering when "spending time with the family" and "doing stuff outside" will finally get boring and our old gamer friends will come back home.

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