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An Ongoing Tribute to my own lameness.....

General random thoughts about gaming, both within and outside of the MMO genre.

Author: Jimmy_Scythe

RMT, Item Shops and Real Life Money Games....

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Sunday October 21 2007 at 10:32PM
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This topic has been on my mind for a long, long, long time. Mostly it has to do with item shops but I think that RMT also figures into this equation as well. After much thought and analysis I've come to the conclusion that, ethically, there is nothing wrong with either item shops or RMT. The following explains why.

In real life there are many games that revolve around money. Not just poker, although that has direct bearing on this issue as well, but also things like car racing, CCGs and most fantasy miniature games like Warhammer and Mage Knight. Let's start with poker.

In poker, you have a set amount of money and the object is to be the last person at the table with all the money in play. The environment changes in a casino where people can come and go at will. At a casino, it's not uncommon for someone to sit down with a stack of tokens bigger than anyone else's in play. It's also not uncommon for people to decide to cash in their winnings rather than giving you the opportunity to win back what you've lost. With the game being this unfair, why would anyone play it? Aside from the unlikely occurrence of winning a huge sum of money, that is.

It all has to do with the fact that money alone doesn't dictate who wins and who loses. It has more to do with how the cards shuffle and who can hold a mask of indifference while manipulating the way that other people bet. I could roll $1000 dollars onto a Hold 'Em table at Vegas, but I'm probably not going home with it. Let's take a look at some other RL money games and investigate this "unfair" advantage that money implies.

In Motorsports, you have to buy the vehicle and the upgrades. You'd think that the guy with the most expensive vehicle made of the nothing but top 'O the line parts would always win right? Wrong! With enough money, I could buy the most advanced open wheeled race car on earth. I'd be very lucky to not get killed while racing in it. I could hire a professional race car driver, but he'd still have to be the best driver on the track and know how to work that particular track in order to win. Seriously, there's a whole tactical metagame to racing that puts American football to shame, and only those with intimate knowledge of racing can play it well. So again, money doesn't translate into an instant win or even much of an advantage.

Magic: The Gathering has a special name for money players: "Mr. Suitcase." With enough cash, I can purchase four of every card in the entire set and make any deck that I want! Unfortunately, You're confined to 60 card decks and with the volume of cards available under the Type II M:TG tournament rules, it's very unlikely that you'll find the most broken 60 card combination before the next set comes out. You could always buy a ready made champion deck off of ebay, but you'd be facing two obstacles right out of the gate:

1) You'd have to understand the strategy behind the deck

2) Everyone already knows about this deck so it's more than likely that someone has designed a deck specifically to counter the threats in it.

Hmmmm...... Money games: 3, "unfair" advantage: 0. Let's keep playing.....

The last real life game I'm going to look at is Warhammer. This game is one expensive hobby. Not only is the rule book alone $50, but you can find yourself spending hundreds putting together an army and buying the supplies to paint and decorate your plastic and pewter minions. Let's not forget that Games Workshop is constantly adding new units and running limited edition figures all the time. And yet, just investing more money doesn't mean that you're going to win every time. Each figure in your army has a point value and each scenario you play limits you to a set number of points on each side. As with CCGs, having more money simply means that you have more options. Not that you are any better than any other player.

So now we come to the part where I have to answer the common rebuttals to these examples. Don't worry, this won't turn into a FAQ.

Let me start by answering the obligatory response: "You can't compare real life with a game!!" Can't I? Especially if it's a sim that sells itself as an accurate approximation of a real life <whatever>. As for MMORPGs...... The people playing the game are real. The social interaction is real. The items, even though they are just entries in a database, are real in the sense that there is a limited number of them and they are owned by actual people. When you really look at MMOs, they're more of an extension or real life rather than a completely separate reality.

Now let's move on to RMT over ebay. Buying gold, buying items, buying characters, etc., is usually perceived as both dishonest and lazy by most of the community. Question: If you've been playing the game for two weeks before I start, don't you have an unfair advantage over me? How is it more "unfair" for me to buy gold, items, characters, etc., than you having an advantage from time invested? Let's really take a good look at this.

The first argument is that it invalidates the time you've put into a game when a newbie can just pay for all the things you had to "work" (more like wait) for. I see this as a statement about the arguer more than the practice of RMT itself. If you measure your progress in comparison to others, then this becomes completely offensive. Never mind the fact that you are just as free to purchase things as the gold buyer that you're bashing. You don't have the money? The exchange rates are actually very reasonable. You can get one hell of a lot of plat for a dollar. From a purely PvE point of view, this is a lot like casino poker. People come and go, to and from the table. Sometimes they show up with more money than you and sometimes they show up with less, but it's your own progress that you should concern yourself with.

The next argument is that it give a PvP advantage to the RMT buyer. This has more to do with the developers naively ignoring the fact that RMT is going to happen regardless of EULA restrictions and designing the game without RMT in mind. Although this has it's own little caveats that I'll discuss when we get to item shops.

The final argument is that it's like stealing from the game developers. This is just plain weak. There is no reason why Blizzard or Mythic or SOE can't get some payment from the practice of RMT. In fact, SOE already does. How hard would it be for a developer to put up an RMT auction site and charge sellers something like 25 cents for each thing they auction? If you think WoW's subscription numbers are high now, imagine how much higher they would be if they allowed and made a profit off of RMT! Bots and hordes of professional gold farmers? You already have those and just having a whole crew of Blizzard employees banning accounts left and right has done next to nothing to stem the tide. Can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Now, before I move on to item shops, I need to point out the main contributor to their origin. Piracy. Item shop games seem to have started in South Korea. In comparison to the US, South Korea has a much lower minimum wage and a much higher cost of living. As with most entertainment, most people would rather steal than go without. Incidentally, this is the main reason why most games on this side of the pond are going console. I can find and download any major release PC game using Google and Bit Torrent. Console games require me to break out a soldering gun and mod my console with the very real danger of "bricking" the system. Item shops get around both problems by requiring that you play online and charging the player a couple of bucks here and there for in-game stuff. This doesn't get around private servers, but that a subject for a different entry.

At any rate, item shop games were designed to make money off of players that didn't want to spend a whole lot at once and were prone to pirate games that they wanted rather than pay for them. You could also say that MMORPGs are taking over all PC releases for the same reason. The question here is which business model is better or worse. On closer inspection, there isn't a whole lot of difference.

Both models use grind and addiction to bleed their player base. Subscription games use a shorter grind to get players to spread the game out till the next expansion where they can hit them for another $40 box and, hopefully, another three to six months of subscription fees. Item shop games use a heavier grind that doesn't kick in until the player hits a significant level, usually their first job change. After this, item shop games hook the thumscrews of grind up to a Hemi and revs the engine  until you cry uncle and pay for some stuff in the item shop to reduce the pain. considering that the gameplay in most MMORPGs gets stale in about two hours, which model is more dishonest? Trick question, they're both sleazy.

That's not to say that people don't have canned responses to item shops and bogus reason as to why they suck. But, as with the arguments about RMT, there isn't a lot of substance to these responses. Actually there's less substance since many item shop items are only temporary or consumable items.

As and example, I'll use Archlord. This is currently the only "true" MMORPG that I have installed on my PC even though I haven't played it in a couple of weeks now. Yes, I still have Guild Wars installed, but purists will cry foul if I call it an MMORPG. Moving right along....

Like all item shops, you trade money for item shop credits. In Archlord, you buy these in lots of $5, $10, or $15 which gets you 1000, 3000, and 4,800 credits respectively. I invite you now to take a look at the list of items sold at this shop. Notice how most of these items are either one-time use or limited to a number of days that they can be used. Notice how the most expensive thing in the shop is the storage expansion for 1,800 credits. The next most expensive thing, ringing in at 1000 credits, is The Talisman of Awakening PLUS which increases XP and gold drop for the space of 14 days.

Let's do the math here. Let's assume that the ToA+ increases the XP you gain by 50%, ditto for the gold drop. We know that players that group advance 30% faster than those that don't. So by paying $10 and grouping, you can decrease the grind by 80%!!! That's $5 less than what you pay to play WoW, Eve, or Vanguard. It's funny how people bust on F2P gamers because they're too cheap to pay $15 a month, but those same trolls think that paying $10 a month to keep up is too much.

Speaking of in-game arms races, that's the second most common criticism of item shop games. I actually have two responses to this one and I've already stated one of them. Worry about your own progress and less about the progress of others. Next, realize that levels serve a very clear purpose both in PvE and PvP in these games. I may be able to buy tier 3 gear for my character at this or that level, but that same gear is going to be totally useless after I've leveled up a couple of times. Also, you don't have to fight anyone outside of your level range. With most of these games giving players items and skills that allow them to teleport out of an area instantly, the chance of getting ganked by a much higher level character is pretty much nil if you're paying attention. This is why you have the automated, color coded CON as a feature of all MMORPGs. This keeps you from getting into a fight that you can't win.

I'm sure there are still some of you begging the question: "isn't it unfair that a person that pays in the item shop advances faster than a person that plays for free?" Um..... No. No it isn't. Why should a freeloader get the same advantages as someone that actually pays for their entertainment? Are you saying that you should pay the same amount of money for front row seats as you pay for spots in the nosebleed section? Are you saying that I should get a five star meal for the price of McDonald's? Are you saying that I should be allowed to play WoW for free because you being able to play is unfair to those of us that aren't paying and aren't allowed? Exclusion is a part of life. Don't practice one form of it then pontificate to others about their exclusionary practices. We call that sort of thing hypocrisy.

The last thing I'm going to say on this regards free trials in subscription games. Most subscription games let you try a game for 14 days. Most veteran MMORPG players will tell you that you need at least two months to experience the most aspects of any given game. This means that you have to buy the box (between $20 and $50) plus pay the subscription for one month ($15) before you've seen most of what the game has to offer and be able to make a truly informed choice about whether to continue playing or not. That's $65 just to see if I like the game or not......

Item shop games generally don't crank up the grind until you've hit somewhere between level 20 and 40 which is usually the point where you've gotten to the meat and potatoes of the game. That's as long as I want without paying a dime.

<shrugs> Let the flames begin I guess ;-P

The Answer.... sort of.....

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Wednesday October 17 2007 at 2:29AM
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I want to kick this one off by venting an unrelated frustration of mine....



Whew, glad I got that off of my chest! In case you're wondering what that was all about, I recently took on the project to convert the first level of God of War into a 2600 ROM. Yeah, I know it won't be very much like the <cough> PS2 version, but that's kind of why I chose to do this. I wanted to see how close I could come to the spirit of the original while still operating within the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware. You'd think this would be totally easy. You'd be mistaken.

Everything on the Atari 2600 has to be done in 6507 assembly language with 4K of ROM and 128 bytes, yes BYTES, of RAM. For those of you that don't know, the 6507 only has three registers and can't multiply or divide. Visa vie, I've only been able to get the TIA (Television Interface Adapter) to draw a single chunky box on the screen and move it according the joystick input. As soon as I have an actually screenshot of the finished product to show, I'll be posting it here.

But enough of this stupidity, on with the show!

I think I may have a way to please most of the people, most of the time. Given, no solution will please everyone but I'm fairly certain that if these next ideas were implemented correctly there would be an 80% decrease in the pissing and moaning that currently infects the MMORPG community. Before I get into one of my ever annoying lists, I want to state a few recent observations that bear directly on the solution I'm about to present.

To begin with, the more people that are involved in a project, the less impact an individual can have on the project. It isn't hard, for example, to make a difference in a Football or Hockey game because there are only about 20 people on your team and 40 players on the field total. It's would be almost impossible to do the same thing if you were playing the same game on an expanded field with 100 players to a side. Even with multiple balls / pucks in play, most people would still be just standing around waiting. With the volume of goals / touchdowns being scored, no individual play or show of talent would really influence the outcome.

As another example, I play a lot of speedball at the local paintball field during the season that it's open. Speedball is a 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 CTF game, and it's not uncommon for one player to carry his team through a round or 10. In larger scenario games that involve 100 or more people and multiple objectives, it becomes very easy for me to get lost in the shuffle or just fall into a place between firefights with no idea of where to find the action. This was probably the number one complaint against Planetside from it's launch day.

So what does that tell us about MMOs? It tells us that the "living breathing world" thing is a catch-22 of averages. You can impact the world in little ways, but your overall effect on the world is minimal due to the sheer number of other players that are also impacting the world. Individual glory dies in this environment. Not saying that it can't happen, but most of us spend our entire day trying to chip away at a world where we are statistically insignificant and really don't want to be reminded of that in our recreational activities.

The next observation is that we generally hang out with people we already know. Most of the people we meet are either co-workers or relatives. Yes, we occasionally meet people while trying to find the bathroom at a concert or the movies, but for the most part, we stick to people that we already know.

Don't believe me? Then ask yourself what guilds are for. Ask yourself what multigame guilds are for. Ask yourself why few people are still playing Everquest and why fewer people are still playing UO. The answer is because people want to play (at least in co-op) with their friends. When EQ got released, people left UO and took their friends with them. When WoW was released, people left EQ and took their friends with them. Show of hands: How many people are still playing a game they're bored with because all their friends play it?

Now this changes a little bit with competitive play. When you're just out to kick ass and takes names, any opponent will do. This is why FPS deathmatches, arcade fighting games, and online sports games are so popular. It's all about individual glory and cooperation is kept to a minimum. More recent FPS games like BF2 and Quake Wars are small enough that one person can go Rambo without every acknowledging that the people he / she is playing against are anything more than really clever AI. Likewise, I can go to the local YMCA and find a game of 1-on-1 or even 3-on-3 without having to know anyone there.

With these two (three) things in mind, I've come up with some guidelines that I think will clear up most of the problems that people have with MMORPGs. These don't cover all the bases, just the most glaring problems.

  • Stop designing content for groups larger than eight people. Again, most people only play with friends and family. I don't have 40+ friends and even if I did, it's highly unlikely that I could get them all together at the same time. On the other hand, if I have 10 friends then it would be fairly easy to find two or three of them to play with at any given time.
  • No more level restrictions on grouping! Ever lose a friend because they were higher level than you or vice versa? Allow players to gain XP regardless of who's grouping with them and the problem goes away due to the law of averages. For instance, you're level 1 and you group with a lvl 50. You both get level appropriate XP for each kill the party makes. So the Level 50 gets full XP for the level 48 mob he just killed and you get XP that is appropriate for a level 1 that just killed a level 48 mob. This allows you powerlevel to the same range as your friends with a minimal timesink.
  • Dungeons or GTFO! I could usually crank out a 10 to 20 level dungeon ,or equivalent area, for NWN in about a week. A professional MMORPG dev team should be able to add two or three such areas a week. Yes, most of these would be instances and wouldn't take the players more than a couple of hours to blow through, but you'd be missing a major factor to dismiss this idea on that basis. Current MMOs are timesinks that devour whole days of player's lives. If we design with the philosophy that players will likely play with their friends at their convenience then we can assume that two hours, every couple of days is how most will play. When we shift to this format, MMOs become more like cable TV than blatant scams for cash. You're getting new content all the time and you aren't required to play 24/7 to see it all.


Damn! Out of two basic observations we made three rules and came up with a design that is completely different from the current MMO model. Given, there are some games like this already. Guild Wars, DDO, Phantasy Star Online BB, etc., but none of these games really deliver content in the way outlined. By the time they got done making GW and DDO, the devs should have had enough art assets and solid enough design tools to just keep adding content on a weekly basis. This, IMO, would have justified the monthly subscription fee. Currently, Dungeon Runners is trying something similar but .....

And I know that about half of you reading this want to skin me alive and wear my face as a mask as you drag my flayed, yet still living body down a gravel road behind your truck for even suggesting that we shift to a model of mostly instances. That's all fine and good, but I don't think I ever stated that we needed to abandon persistent worlds altogether. I merely said that we need to redesign these worlds for smaller groups and add to them on a weekly basis. Some of the content will be instanced, that can't be helped. However, not all of it has to be. PvP zones and objectives, obviously, would benefit from being part of a persistent world. Live events would also have to be hosted in persistent areas that everyone could get too. In fact, live events have actually been done as part of periodic content in many MMORPGs.

If it takes me a week to make a two hour scenario for NWNs, think of what a dedicated team of 10 or 20 level designers could do per week. And wouldn't it be nice to not feel like you absolutely have to dedicate four hours a night to get your money's worth? As a man with a wife and full time job, I find it a lot easier to spare six hours a week than 20+.




A Four Hour Dungeon Crawl and Other Randomness....

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Wednesday October 10 2007 at 7:58PM
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So I recently had to take a rather long train ride and to pass the time I took along my Nintendo DS and a bunch of games. Out of the five games I took, only one got played over the entire four hour trip. That game was Etrian Odyssey.

Those of you that have followed my blog and read most of my posts probably already know about this game. For those of you that don't, it's an olde skool dungeon crawler of the Wizardry variety. There is no epic story, no cut scenes, not even the pre-made characters that we're used to seeing in console RPGs. You make as many characters as you like, form them into a group, outfit them, then send them into the dungeon in search of money and.... well... mostly money. You don't even actually see your characters except for the still pictures on their status and equipment screens. Town is a menu with all the different places you can visit. The dungeon itself is displayed in first person and you can only move forward, backward, and turn either left or right. No strafing. Battles are random and done in the original Dragon Warrior style. You see a still picture of the monster, or group of monsters and a minimal animation for each attack. Did I mention that you have to draw your own map of the dungeon? Yeah, the game has a pretty nifty software tool you can use for that.

At this point you're probably wondering what the hell compelled me to play this game for four hours straight. To be honest I couldn't tell you. I'd like to think it was the difficulty since I only mapped out about two dungeon levels in that amount of time and had to rez a couple of my characters. However, I don't think that was it. I could claim that I was addicted to getting my characters to advance, but being interrupted by a character leveling up was almost as annoying as being interrupted by random battles with monsters that my party could beat in one turn, and selling the loot and gearing up between dungeon dives was more chore than reward. Was it the Mapping then? I'm not sure but trying to fill in the whole level before the train pulled in did feel pretty compelling.

I've been noticing something similar to this about my gaming habits lately. I find some of the older games more enjoyable than the more recent stuff that's come out. It isn't just nostalgia either. I remember being bored with God of War after about twenty minutes, but then spending a whole afternoon pummeling my way through the Streets of Rage Remake that combined all three games into one coherent story arch. I even went back through the game to take all the alternate routes that I missed the first and second time through!! Recently I obsessed over the Goldeneye 2D "de-make" that turned the first level of the N64 Goldeneye into a Gameboy game. The three most played games on my Nintendo Wii right now are Super Mario Bros., the original Legend of Zelda, and Super Punch-out.

It's more of the same with PC games. Since I haven't upgraded to Vista yet, I'm still able to use DOSbox. My most played PC games right now, besides the smattering of indie and doujin games that clog my desktop, are Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire, Red Barron, Jagged Alliance, and Master of Magic. Clearly, something is amiss....

Unfortunately, I don't know what that "something" could be. I do notice that I enjoy more recent FPS and RTS games as much as the old stuff. Well.... let me clarify that: I enjoy the multiplayer component of more recent FPS and RTS games as much as the olde skool stuff. I have no use for the Bioshock or the single player parts of Gears of War. Interestingly enough, I was totally into Zelda: Twilight Princess and Metroid 3. With Twilight Princess, they didn't stray at all from the puzzle solving / exploration formula of the Zelda franchise, so that is no big mystery. Metroid 3 however, was more of a shooter than any previous Metroid game ever was. There was still some puzzle solving and exploring, but not to the same extent as Super Metroid or the first Metroid Prime game. I will point out that Metroid 3 isn't trying as hard to be a movie as say..... Halo 3 and that may be a contributing factor to why I played Metroid 3 to the end.

Right now, I'm just chalking it up to the fact that I'm 33 years old and have a totally different set of expectations about games than the 19-25 demographic that the industry currently targets. In my day, games weren't meant to devour your life whole. I've actually heard this from people slightly older than me that played games up until the early '90s and then quit. After the games started demanding that you spend more than a half an hour per session, they just found something less taxing. The gamers grew up, but the games didn't. The developers just kept catering to an audience that had nothing better to do with its time than sit on the couch and play video games. Right now we're seeing the end result of that evolution.

I actually heard a reviewer complain because a game only lasted about eight hours. I'm going to ignore the fact that said reviewer plays video games for a living and probably got through the game much faster than an ordinary person would and just focus on the "too short" argument. This is a time where we expect games to last us 40 hours. Why? When's the last time you actually completed a game that took 40 hours or more to complete? I normally run out of patience with an RPG around the 20 hour mark myself. Action games get dull right around the six to eight hour mark. And yet, the industry is flooded with games that demand 60+ hours of your life. You do realize that you only have so many hours before you're dead right?

I'm not really sure where this is headed since I didn't really plan this blog out at all. I'm just at a loss as to why games that are 15+ years old seem to hold my attention more than more recent, and heavily produced, games. There are a few exceptions to this, but not nearly enough. I'm also wondering if I'm the only person experiencing this. Is everyone really this fuckin' content with Oblivion and Halo 3? Am I just some kind of freak? Or have game developers lost sight of something fundamental to what video games actually are? If so, What?

That's really all I have for this week. I probably won't be posting for some time since I'm thinking about making an Atari 2600 version of the first level of God of War, just to see if it's really the game that's lacking or my expectations of the game.