Category Archives: Balance

The 150th CMP Round-Table and the Evergreens of MMO Discussion

For the illustrious 150th anniversary of their CMP podcast Roger and Brian invited a bunch of guests to discuss such trivial topics as hardcore vs. casual, sandbox vs. themepark, free-to-play and crowdfunding. It was a unique experience for me to join a podcast together with so many fellow bloggers and a pleasure to personally talk to some of my new MMO blogosphere buddies. Naturally, we never finished and could have gone on forever discussing substantial and divisive topics such as these.


A while ago I started compiling what I call the list of “big MMO Evergreens” as far as those topics go that have been the greatest cause of passionate debate (and strife) among lovers of the genre since forever. No doubt, they will be keeping us busy decades from now. Typically, these are questions that do not have one definite answer but boil down to personal preferences and opposing camps with an equally strong wish to well, enjoy the games they’re playing. I’m not always up for heated debate but then, I also believe it’s polarizing issues that are most interesting because they teach us the most about ourselves and others. I have always blogged for myself and a big part of that journey is defined by personal growth, formal and otherwise. Returning to posts I’ve written more than two years ago is often a bad idea. As for the greatest changes in my views, they have been brought upon by listening to you – to other gamers, being touched or educated by what they had to say. Of course a lot of that is timing too, maybe all of it is.

So, we should be thankful for the casual vs. hardcore debates, the holy trinity role discussions or never-ending payment model gripes; they make sure we’ll never run out of opportunities to butt some heads and more importantly, test our views and empathize with other people’s positions if nothing else. Advancing age, or rather time and opportunity to meet someone different from us, become quite the hindrance to extreme opinions (not to mistake for strong opinions). That’s why I also love to travel – international blogging is travelling in many ways and requires a similar attitude.

Where I am right now

As a personal summary of the evergreen topics we brushed in the 150th CMP episode and as reflection of where I am right now, I’ll make a few generalized statements until such a time as I feel they require revision on this here blog!

  • All future MMOs, whether subscription based, F2P or B2P, should come with a free trial/guest month (or free first 20 levels) at launch, so players can try the new game before making final purchasing decisions.
  • Sandboxes and themeparks may exist at either end of the casual-hardcore spectrum. Many sandboxes are as casual or hardcore as players make them (and as game design allows) but it’s probably also true that the big majority of not-so imaginative competetive players prefer linear games with defined progression aka themeparks. “Winning a sandbox” is a great deal more work than winning a themepark.
  • I can’t be the MMO player I was 10 years ago when WoW came out. There is a sacred magic to early MMO gaming that cannot be reproduced, no matter our longing and despite the best design efforts. Maybe it’s time we gave up the search for a “second home” and accepted new games for what they are – which is not our first MMO. We’ve grown older and better at everything at the price of blissful collective naïveté.
  • Crowdfunding is scary when it encourages every vocal player and their distant cousin to think they just bought their share of “co-developer rights”.

The future is welcome to change my views on any or all of these matters at hand. I can’t wait.

No purpose, no nothing

No purpose, no nothing – that short but poignant conclusion to so many things, coming to me once more while writing Monday’s post and then Kadomi said it again, literally, in the comments:

I don’t enjoy not having a purpose. What good is all that freedom if it leaves me feeling empty after a while?

“Who may be allowed to linger that is fulfilled by purpose?” I’ve asked that before, in slightly different context but no less relevant to this cause. A purpose is an end (hence the double meaning) and in many ways, endings bring a certain degree of linearity or at least progression to life real and virtual. Yet, purpose is also what fulfills that life lest in not be literally point-less. There is a cosmic balance here, a trade-off and even our favorite genre in video games, MMORPGs must struggle for it – that balance between the sandbox and themepark, between too much freedom and too little, too much endgame and not enough satisfaction.


To what end?

No purpose equals nothing, in virtual worlds too.

No purpose, no point for guilds.

No purpose, no point for housing.

No purpose, no point for gear.

Take GW2’s gear grind – so futile, so unfulfilling because it is not required, does not prepare you for any kind of endgame that exists. And what is endgame, by now such an unpopular term, but not a purpose or “life after”? Take LOTRO’s homesteads – beautiful but empty, forever instanced away from the world of men, not serving any purpose really. Take any other MMO you can think of that allows you to solo self-sufficiently, obtain everything on your own and then wonder why people don’t play in guilds. Having co-founded two lasting, successful raidguilds in WoW, I am very pragmatic: guilds are common ventures first, uniting people with the same purpose for that purpose. More often than not, that purpose is what keeps the best guilds alive. So what?

I made some wonderful friendships in MMOs founded on a common goal; common goals glue people together. Maybe they are the only thing that truly does. Common goals on the horizon add purpose to our stride, infuse our dreams, inspire our achievements social or otherwise.

To clarify, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as individual purpose defined on an individual level in every game and for virtually anything (even jumping puzzles! eww) – there absolutely is and it matters too. However, in isolation this doesn’t tend to create the same value on a cooperative level and not the same longterm appeal, either. Not in my experience anyway.

Give me purpose, give me endings

No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

MMOs and not just Landmark, need a ‘hard’ purpose for the features they implement. It sounds simple and yet it’s a glaring oversight in so many games, yes sandboxes and themeparks alike, and it always backfires in the mid- and longterm and affects the community most strongly.

Oh sure, a game’s early flame burns brightly like a bonfire in the night and by all means, warm yourself at that fire. Enjoy it while it lasts. In the long run however, you’ll want some meat on the bone to roast on that fire and sustain you. In the long run, you will need that.

[GW2] Gold, Gems and real Money conversion

Money is not exactly easy to come by while leveling in GW2, that much has gotten clear to most players by now. While no longer being used to “broke noob level” may play its part therein, it cannot be denied that cash flow in GW2 is considerably slower compared to other MMOs and the usual means, such as trying to make profit over the market place or grinding mobs for gold, don’t work out so well either. Azuriel recently posted a great overview on how to “maximize” your coin for the time being and like him, I am slightly worried if the economy can actually recover in any significant way, given that the MP in GW2 is a global one. If 500+ people are selling the same bow as yourself, how are you ever supposed to make a profit?

As a natural consequence, the idea of just buying gold via ANet’s gem trading system comes to mind as one possible solution to the current money drought. Only, you couldn’t be more wrong there! You don’t want to trade your gems for ingame gold right now or in any foreseeable future – and that too has me skeptical at several fronts.

Oh my, precious goldz!

To start at the very beginning, you probably know that ANet has a rather unique way of handling different currency in GW2 and the way ingame and real money can be exchanged via the gem currency. While there is an item shop that requires gems to shop in, GW2 sets itself apart by allowing players to also buy gems with ingame gold; this means, if you’re a good little gold farmer, you never actually have to spend extra real money on vanity items and other shop bonuses. However, this also means the entire market and exchange rates are heavily influenced by both real money shoppers and potential “chinese farmers”. Due to this rather obscure interplay, exchange rates for gold vs. gems vary on a daily basis, as is displayed on the graph in your ingame Trading Company tab.

While it’s understandable that ANet want to control the impact of real money going into the game to avoid deflation, I find the currency exchange variables incredibly confusing. Reading up further to get into the whole deal takes considerable time and mind twisting, at least for somebody who isn’t too versed in economic theory. Considering also that the entire balance can potentially get very skewed and discourage players to spend real life money in GW2, which surely cannot be intended by ANet(?), I wonder why they chose this path rather than sticking to a more exclusive shop of real-money-only and therefore cosmetic and soulbound items only? Maybe a more economy savvy player has some insights here for me.

Either way, I decided to have a closer look at exchange rates and the status quo on my server, Desolation EU. How much ingame gold can I currently receive for gems and what is the ratio between that exchange rate and the real money I spend on buying the gems? I ended up with the following results:

  • 800 gems cost a fix 10 Euros; That’s 3.75€ for 300 gems.
  • For 300 gems you can currently exchange 56 ingame silver.
  • However, 78 ingame silver buy 300 gems

…See what happened there? While a real money buyer pays 3.75€ for 300 gems, which then yield 56s, a player can buy 300 gems with 78s ingame currency. This means there’s about a difference of 25% in buying power between ingame and real currency. Correct me if I’m wrong!

Compared to other MMOs, I don’t find this exchange rate erm, “particularly attractive” for potential real money spenders! 10€ for 1.5 gold? You gotta be kidding me!

The demand for gems is only going to go up as the player base advances and the shop adds more and more goods. What will keep the balance from shifting further in favor of gold farmers or “gem hoarders/speculators” (buying cheaper gems now, waiting for demand to raise)? Money income is slow leveling in GW2 while crafting and items are all quite pricey. One can only wonder how things are going to pan out longterm with these particular economical mechanisms in place? Am I supposed to start hoarding gems now too with the gold I don’t have? …

Eventually many players will want to buy things like more bank space or extra character slots in the gemstore and for a non-sub MMO (that we hopefully get to enjoy for a long time to come), that is a very much needed and good thing. Luckily, at least the gemstore is not affected by the exchange rates for ingame gold: you can buy gems from ANet and pay for their wares without impact from the currency game. For those looking to buy money in GW2 however, I foresee a longer waiting time; I sure wouldn’t spend any real coin on gold right now and I see little change in that department as long as the general player base hasn’t gotten richer – much richer! 

There is also the concern that the status quo favors illegal gold sales: I’ve gotten my first ingame mail linking to a shady website today and while it’s beyond me how anyone can currently farm considerable money, ANet might want to tackle the issue of gold sellers beating them on exchange rates. If you’re making currency trade available in your game, surely you want to try and make it a better deal, potentially removing competition?

I might be under a premature impression here (feel free to enlighten me), but for the moment GW2’s economy seems to invite money speculators and gold farmers more than anyone. While I’m nowhere close to max level myself yet, I am already anxious to hear how the average player is supposed to find a way around the current situation and how ANet are judging the state of their global economy!

GW2 shop: Panic much?

So there’s been information or rather a few sneak-peeks of GW2 in-game shop items swarming the internet lately and not surprisingly this has stirred some controversy on webforums and blogs antsy for the game. Which is interesting to remark at this point: just how fast players sometimes go from oh yay to oh nay! Considering the fifty or so features that excite me about this MMO, it would hardly be good perspective (or proportion) to get all doomsday about the cash shop revelations. GW2 is free-to-play and everyone knew there was going to be RMT of some sort. Turns out ArenaNet are actually trying to put their own twist on this, too.

But first things first. Which items can we actually see on those screenshots? How do they potentially affect gameplay?

I) Cosmetic items:
To no surprise you’ll be able to purchase special outfits, hats, dyes and more in the shop.
So far, so good. 

II) Convenience / commodity items:
Things like instant repair tools, portals, resurrection stones, bigger bags or EXP boosts.
They exist in pretty much every FTP MMO I have ever played, from Allods to Age of Conan. I’ve tried very hard to find indication of any seriously significant and game-changing items here and failed.

Convenience items are usually that: convenience items, not exclusive items. You can usually get the same deal by grinding or professions. Or then, if you are actually a very good or frequent player, you won’t need them. Look at experience or reputation boosts for example, these are hardly news in any MMO – when I re-subbed to Rift I got my fair share and so do WoW players these days. Blizzard does almost everything to make leveling up faster (or instant…ahem). Also: how significant are experience boosts in an MMO that features side-kicking, anyway?

So if anything, all these items offer choice: to level the usual way or a tad faster, to visit an NPC or not, to travel or take a short-cut (which are there in abundance, anyway). They cater to different play-styles. They are nowhere near pay-to-win.

III) Lottery items
Loot bags and special keys to chests that can be dropped by mobs or found elsewhere on the world.

The first is the type of random chance “carneval ticket” that only a group of players usually fall for. It’s a way to burn real coin for sure, but the randomness of it guarantees that you’ll likely end up with many duplicates or silly, trade items (in my case with nothing). We don’t know that anything of significance can drop here (I find it unlikely) or if the items will be soul-bound. I could imagine it to be similar to archeology rewards in WoW maybe.

The keys might present a bigger attraction, depending again on how rare the boxes are and what they potentially contain (anything exclusive?). There’s again the randomness factor. It reminds me of lockboxes in WoW that only the rogues could open; to tell you the truth, I vendored mine most of the time without even checking. I put them up on the AH a few times for little gold, but nobody wanted them. Whether the mystic boxes in GW2 will be the same type of gimmick or more serious business is complete speculation at this point. However, the mark of all lottery systems is actually that REALLY good and useful items are also REALLY rare! A lottery doesn’t look for winners.

“Bad and good items”; The cooperative lookout

A while ago I wrote a lengthy article on why I don’t consider RMT systems in FTP MMOs any more or less fair than traditional subscriptions and I hold to that opinion. As long as in-game shops deal in items of no greater consequence, I do not consider them a deal-breaker.

A “bad” cash-shop item needs to severely impact on the balance of gameplay; it needs to affect the outcome or success of end-game, be it in PVE or PvP, in a way that makes purchase an almost mandatory feature in order for groups and players to stay competitive. Items are however not bad just because they prevent l33t players from feeling special, as is often an underlying issue in such debates (not all, but often enough). Besides, I imagine a “true dungeon drop” would still be told apart from a cash-shop item and offer a degree of satisfaction or “fame” to a player who might desire it.

So yes, just to pursue hypothetical thought, I wouldn’t even mind if the GW2 cash-shop offered equal (not better) or almost equal weapons / gear to a dungeon drop! Too extreme for you? As GW veterans know and are happy to point out, gear progression is not the same deal in Guild Wars as it is in WoW for example. Once you’ve obtained your dungeon tier items, there won’t be an endless curve of upgrades but only similar gear with different stat weighting. In PvP, gear even gets leveled to focus on performance and not gear differences between teams.

I love this focus on performance and how the overall theme of GW2 seems to be cooperation, rather than segments and segments of “players with better stats” at endgame. There are numerous ways in which ArenaNet push player cooperation rather than disparity or “distance” –

  • The side-kicking feature and dynamic leveling / quests, events
  • The missing role restrictions / enforced holy trinity
  • The connected home cities / starting areas

If a player bought his gear with real money for whatever reason, time or other, how would it harm cooperation or competitive outcome in GW2? I can’t think of any good reason to be worried. Even less so for stuff like convenience items or lottery boxes – and these are what we’re talking about for the moment! Not only are they not mandatory, but they really do not affect me as someone uninterested in most. Besides, items are not accomplishments in themselves, even if they usually go with reward (but they’re not in fact what makes a reward).

Seems to me the entire concept behind GW2 makes pay-to-win a very unlikely scenario. As long as there is no more and different information on the RMT items, it’s a little early to tell the color of the cash-shop’s underpants.

On difficulty in WoW and social control in MMOs

The following article is a follow-up to this topic by Klepsacovic. For full context, please head there first (including comments). I would like to second his clarifications on using (relative and problematic) terms such as ‘good/top’ or ‘bad/sub-par’ players for the second half of this argument. No player is always just good or bad and good players always benefit from the presence of someone a little weaker.

Difficulty in WoW for the average player, lvls 1-80

On social control in MMORPGs
Admittedly, I have omitted one more lesson of WoW’s current “difficulty syllabus” in the above picture: heroics. If we look at the stark discrepancy between WoW’s leveling game from 1-84 vs. the huge step-up of entering a serious raiding scene, we must give credit to the implemented bridge between the two. In theory, WoW players are supposed to stick to this schedule:


5-man dungeons and heroics are the “gate-keeper” to raiding; or at least that’s how it’s intended. At the very latest, this is when a new player is introduced to cooperative group-play. Here he is pushed to learning his class and role, here he is questioned, here he is geared up for the challenges ahead. Here he understands the importance of strategy and communication before class is dismissed.…If only!

No matter how Blizzard have tried to hard-tune their raid-entry dungeons in Cataclysm, heroics do not fulfill their assigned role as necessary stepping stone between noobland and the unforgiving reality of many raid encounters. Getting into a raid is relatively easy, but many are ill prepared for the individual challenge and pressure that awaits. For guilds and recruitment this means a big crowd of potential candidates with the barest pre-selection.

For one thing, there are too many ways in which players can avoid challenging and maybe stressful/frustrating 5-man runs (for example by gearing up in other ways). More importantly though: in an MMO with cross-server LFG no reliable means of player selection or preparation exist. The purpose of the training phase is undermined in a game of anonymity. Here’s why:

Let’s have another look at yes – vanilla WoW. Back then, we had 5-mans too at lvl 60 and hard ones they were (hello Stratholme 1.0 & Co.). We didn’t have heroics, normal modes were bad enough. Gear was important and there were no ways around acquiring your starter raid-gear (8-piece sets on random drop!) from in there. Then, there were also attunements and resistance gear which kept sending you back in frequently, not just for yourself but those you were trying to help out.For the MC raidguild looking at a potential, ready-looking candidate at the time, this meant the following: not only had this person leveled from 1-60, he had also jumped all hoops in order to gain entry and had made it through all essential lvl 60 dungeons (many times) to gather his gear sets. More so, he had succeeded in finding/organizing and finishing runs with groups of your own server continuously. If you hadn’t heard of said player in negative terms up to that point, if he wasn’t on any spoken or unspoken blacklist by that time, there was a pretty good chance that this was your guy! Even if not quite that – at the very least, there was full confirmation of this player being incredibly motivated and experienced enough to raid.

There are no similar pre-raiding hoops in today’s WoW and heroic gear tells us very little about a player. Maybe he is a complete fail who only ever made it by jumping from one LFG group to the next while being an anonymous ass, ninja-looter, rage-quitter. Who knows – you certainly don’t! Who can say how somebody behaves in a cross-server group? Who can judge how well a player truly performed in order to gain his gear? Even if he let himself carry (or cooked his dinner during runs), he certainly didn’t need worry about not being re-invited to a next group (as tank/healer within the next 5 minutes). No social pressure – no social control.

We need the concept of social control for functional communities. We need the dynamic of reputation. We need small enough server communities for social interaction to become meaningful and transparent. We need consequences. The last thing we need is anything cross-server or bigger. Guilds and smaller groups don’t benefit from quantity, they benefit from quality.And so does the individual player, by the way; black sheep aside, it’s not exactly fun to be the “weak link” in a raid guild. It’s not a nice awakening to realize you are ill prepared. It’s disappointing and stressful to end up in a place too early. In a game of unforgiving raid mechanics (which is the situation I base this argument on), you want and need proper hoops early.

How I became a different person
I used to be the raider who loved vanilla raids for being 40man; the scale, the epic kills and also the hilarious chaos (and challenge to order the same). I loved being part of a mixed crowd and running raidguilds that had colorful characters in them. I liked having merry minstrels and jokers along for the ride, to share good moments and laughs on our way.I liked being able to afford “clowns” in our raids.I was never a l33t player and I don’t consider myself “hardcore”, despite having always been a core member and healing coordinator in dedicated top guilds. Fame, loot and kills are all nice and dandy, but I want to share them with good folks and have fun together. I want both, the close-knit team and serious raids. If this means I need to cut back on the first and heroic kills in order to have that – fine in my books (as long as I still experience most of the content). I don’t seek the affirmation that comes from being nummero uno on a ladder, nice as it may be. I frankly also never wanted more than three raid nights.The guilds I ended up in (founded in vanilla & early TBC), were therefore more or less always composed the same way:
20% top players & figureheads / 60% average & good players (wide spectrum) / 20% players you’d carry more frequently, but who’d in return bring other qualities and talents to the table. I’m fine with such a guild and for myself, ideally I want all three groups present.

  • You need the top players; you need them to pull and push the group. You need them to be your guides, guild leaders, coordinators and analysts. You need them too because very often, they’re simply the consistent show-ups with the most time available (which is why they make great guides or leaders).
  • You need the solid good players who are dedicated but down to earth; You need them for a healthy, balanced guild culture that is neither too casual, nor too hardcore. You need them to be the pendulum that swings in between. They are your main executive force.
  • You need the sub-par players; You need them for social qualities, for wisdom and humor that may be indispensable and unique. You need them so your top players get their occasional extra challenge and feel needed. You also need them because somebody always needs to be the weakest link – it’s better to know yours than to constantly look for a new one.

I don’t wish to be in a guild where every person is exactly like me (despite a healthy narcissism, that’s just boring). Nor do I mind slower learners or players who simply fail at the odd mechanic, and those who might fall behind a little due irregular playtime – as long as you can compensate for them somehow during specific encounters. (Assuming of course that they’re otherwise awesome).

Only, this gradually stopped being the case in WoW after the 40man era. Encounters became highly technical, focused on individual performance and unforgiving in ways that wouldn’t let us make up for lower bracket players – there was suddenly a hard line that wasn’t summary. We could only stand by and watch with increasing frustration as they went through the motions, again and again. We became helpless spectators of our guildmates’ ordeals, despite all guidance given. Worse: they started to become the “enemy”. If 100+ wipes into a boss, the same few people are still stuck at beginner mistakes, it’s human to start feeling resentful.I never wanted to become that other person or find myself in that well-known dilemma of so, so many raidguilds out there. But if I am pushed into the corner of choosing between keeping the bad player and not seeing larger parts of the game’s content in time (which was my motivation to play WoW at all) – then yes, I want the bad players out! I even want established people out who I used to appreciate and tried to support for as long as possible (my guilds have always tried longer than many would). I will make the unhappy choice if forced to; I won’t see an entire raidguild fall apart because the other 80% (and especially top 20%) will start looking elsewhere some time into the stagnation. Hesitating forever is not an option. If you’ve tried all you feel you could and if you intend to stick to the established raiding pace, you must make the choice as a leading team.

It’s no wonder so many good leaderships crack under the pressure of this decision; it sucks beyond comparison (add the issue of recruitment). It will always be one of the big sores for me when looking back on an otherwise great raiding run in WoW. It cured me of being too judgmental about how some guild leaders will act, too (“wear my shoes and see”).Sometimes raidguids change their original philosophy because they are catching the “success bug”; it’s a dangerous place to find yourself in, the upwards spiral of success that many fall for, becoming something else, someone else, forgetting how they started off and with whom. I fully acknowledge this problem. But what we experienced like so many others from the 25man era on, was not of our making; it’s nothing you choose, only what you roll with as good as you can.

To this day, I am deeply resentful; resentful of Blizzard, of the game’s later raid designs that presented my own guild with such a reality. I resent them for putting the focus on the weaker players, without any chance for the rest to step in and make a difference. I resent them for cornering us  – for making us choose like this, again and again as the game took its course. Most of all, I resent them for making me that different person. A person with less and less tolerance for team diversity.

What is fairness?


Much in this argument is relative, depending on your own personal approach to an MMO like WoW. Maybe you’re the type of raider who wants to be in zero-tolerance guilds and who has always managed to keep clear of such problems. Maybe you’re not even interested in raids. However, for a big number of “mid-bracket raiders” that form the majority in WoW’s endgame and who are in constant competition for recruits, the missing pre-selection mechanisms and highly unforgiving raid mechanics on individual level, are presenting a real struggle and dilemma. There is also the added pressure of the ever-looming next content patch.

The game did not start off like this; raid teams had more leeway, partly due to the nature of bigger 40man raids, partly due to different encounter design. And while many asked for a more even share of responsibility and target focus after WoW 1.0., I don’t believe that Cataclysm raiders benefit from today’s very different situation – no matter what player group they belong to in their own guild. It’s the broken overall streamlining of difficulty combined with a lack of social control that impact negatively on everybody. They present today’s raidguilds with greater struggles than ever, logistically as much as socially and emotionally.

Deep down the mineshaft I saw the light

The cardboard boxes are starting to pile up left and right in my apartment which is also why I’ve been a little quieter. There are only five more days to go at my current workplace. Only two and a half more weeks in this canton I’ve been living in for five years now and desperately long to leave. Waiting and preparing are such an ordeal sometimes.

Between that and not playing much of anything right now (because in this too I am waiting, waiting for GW2), I didn’t plan for much distraction until the big move end of January. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself deep, deep down the cubic rabbit hole that is Minecraft – had you told me only three weeks ago, I would’ve laughed at your face. But then Minecraft happened, brought to me by the sneaky, little voice of an old friend. I’ve mocked him for the first hour, until gradually I shut up. Then, I started obsessing.

This is only the beginning.

Who would’ve thought that oldschool pixel graphics could be that much fun? I’m a little late to the party, I know, but then the game has only just launched “officially” two months ago with v1.0. I had never really paid it an awful lot of attention before. Well…consider me pixelated!

Minecraft is a goldmine of creativity, simple complexity and many of the basic concepts me and other MMO veterans have been missing for a very long time. I find myself utterly fascinated by the game’s simplicity which creates such powerful, emergent gameplay. Then it struck me; after my Skyrim high of several weeks ago, this was only a next logical step. This vast, open world sandbox game, so diametrically opposed to Skyrim’s graphical splendor, succeeds in areas many current MMOs are failing me, stilling a deep hunger (and it has multi-player!). Obviously, Minecraft has one significant advantage there: it doesn’t need to look good (which means the world can be vast and generate random maps). And yeah, I use a texture pack too, mostly to display my own paintings, but this stands: if any game proves how graphics become secondary to otherwise fun and engaging gameplay (I’m saying that as someone deeply in luv with the eye candy), then it’s Notch’s little gem. Within a refreshing loading time of 10 seconds, Minecraft (in survival mode) gave me (back) all the following things:

  • Monumental scale; a vast scary world forever dwarfing me in size.
  • No sense of direction; there is no world map, there are crafted, lackluster zone maps (that you must uncover and better not lose). Prepare to get lost often and worry continuously about wandering off too far. Landmarks, the sun and moon become your friends!
  • Impact; solid proof that I am leaving a mark on the world I inhabit (and its co-inhabitants).
  • Scary adventures; annoying, sneaky, backstabbing, sometimes frustrating mobs killing me on a regular base.
  • Punishment; dying comes with potential loss of all EXP levels you might have accumulated, as well as all your carried inventory (unless you are able to retrieve it in good time).
  • No shortcuts, no rides, no teleports or portals (other than into the underworld). No “hearthstone” besides death…
  • Complex, comprehensive crafting, resource gathering and an almost endless list of combinations when it comes to creating and inventing your own space.
  • Cooperative multi-player.
  • Player hosted servers.
  • Different levels of difficulty and play-style/server modes. Console commands if you so desire.
  • Randomness, bugs, imbalances….lots of running and screaming in terror.

How do they do it? By doing very little. By setting the stage only, with few parameters and limitations. By not creating content (much) and instead letting you do it. By controlling as much as necessary, as little as possible. There are no consumers in Minecraft, only creators.

I can’t say how long I will play this game, but right now I am deeply satisfied. The huge castle above the sea I am working on, with the magic library, the round table and Minas Tirith style balcony (including a white tree…GEEK!), will take lots of time to complete. I am still discovering new crafting combinations, under what conditions different crops will grow or how to tame and breed certain creatures. Then, there are all the areas of the game I’ve hardly yet brushed: mine carts and the automation system, the enchantments and spells, the random dungeons you can only find by traveling the world, the Nether world through the dark portal, the Ender dragon, PvP….and I still need to find a zone that features snow!

The best of it all though: coming online and finding the environment changed, again, because your friends have been busy while you were offline. Screaming for help as you are starving down that deep mineshaft. Getting lost, crying for an escort, sharing resources and setting up trade channels. Leaving a little surprise at your neighbor’s doorstep. The world feels alive.

Closing circles in a square world

Funny how often we need to go back, to move forward. In this, even game design seems to follow a basic truth of life; how we need to set out on long journeys into the wild, only to return to our own doorstep. Only then to behold it truly, for the very first time. They say man’s culture has always run in waves of ups and downs and individuals too, run circle after circle in their lifetime, or so it seems.

Yet, something is different when we arrive that second time: we’ve gone the distance and hopefully gained some wisdom, we’ve seen other things – maybe things we originally believed we needed, but mostly just wanted. Things that made us see and appreciate what we used to have. Experiences that made us want to go back. Maybe we can only ever truly perceive truth from a distance, when we’ve moved further away. That’s why it’s so hard to judge yourself (fairly) or a status quo, before you’ve lost some of it. Looking back is always easier.

In many ways, the features I’ve listed as Minecraft’s virtues would’ve been considered weaknesses and difficulties 10 years ago. Back then, all we ever shouted for was to remove the “frustrating aspects”: the long walks, the randomness, the imbalance, the punishment. The devs heard our plea, they polished away. Then came WoW and showed us how different it could be; how much smoother, more convenient, optimal. Later, it showed us how the polish and optimization could be overdone, ruining all sense of world.

Now, all we want is to get back. Not quite back to pre-WoW maybe, but to return to old values with new eyes. Maybe we even need to thank Blizzard for accelerating the insight. Concepts and features we used to complain about, have become what we crave the most. Does this not strike you as a little ironic?

There are still other players of course, those who will disagree with me here. Maybe they are still in the middle of walking their own circle – maybe the disagreement is genuine and will last. I’m not claiming in any way that Minecraft can replace a classic MMO or that it doesn’t have its shortcomings (java eugh), it sure does have room for much improvement (and I’m not talking graphics) which I trust will happen to some extent in the future. However, these things are not the focus of this article.

We’re talking about a game that is about to hit the 20 million mark for registered players, of which 4 million have already paid for an account. And they’re not nearly all of them of the “Sims”-persuasion; there is something to be learned and had in Minecraft that reaches far beyond building furniture or harvesting crops. Something we’ve lost in other corners of the online, multi-player world. A ingenuity and responsiveness that has magically managed to close a circle for me in an otherwise square world.

I can only recommend the journey.

Less time doesn’t mean I feed on burgers

I’m having a jolly good time reading some of the MMO veteran rants currently out there. It’s a topic that comes back in waves and is always simmering in the background, for those of similar conviction anyway. Epic Ben is on a delightful roll, pointing out one important misconception that is particularly infuriating –

“It’s not about my TIME. It’s about my desire to SUCCEED”

He’s spot on there. Yes, the future MMO audience will be made out of the oldschool generation with maybe less playtime and the younger crowd of generation twitter. The genre will face a more mixed audience like that and handle it one way or another (pick me, pick me!). Then, there’s also been the point about transient and extended players lately which categorizes MMO players in a general sense.

Both notions are true – yet, in combination not so much. I have a feeling that correlation is being mistaken for causality here and there.

There is an age gap and time available can influence gametime, but not necessarily playstyle. The older players with less time are still often veterans who want the requirements and restrictions – the punishments and “timesinks“. In contrast, it’s often younger players or genre newcomers who won’t deal with restrictions and frustrations, gravitating towards faster gratification in a themepark MMO full of baby rides and cheap roller coasters. But younger players have more time in general and therefore better options to play extended, in theory.

So, time does not affect our gameplay wishes and motivations in the same way – there are different answers to that problem. I have less time now, but still love “oldschool“; I don’t wanna play MMOs catering only to a transient crowd . I’m not transient. I will still play MMOs like an extended player in the future – or at least I hope they will let me. So, in case any of you important dev people out there are listening, let’s make sure once and for all:

I’m COOL with missing out compared to teens with 20+ hours gametime a week, knock yourselves out (I did too)! I’m COOL with advancing slower, I’m COOL with getting lesser or later rewards! Yeah, my life gets busier, but PLEASE don’t take my age as an indication! PLEASE don’t let me have everything the easy way! PLEASE don’t remove more and more roleplay and sim aspects from your games to optimize my time for me. I don’t want that!

I WILL cope! I am not a whiny old wreck. And I still don’t want to eat fast food, I will always cook my own dish over a small fire. Less time available doesn’t make the transient player. Just like more rewards don’t equal bigger accomplishment felt. Free rides, they don’t fool me.

On Matchmaking in MMOs (and Bartle)

Once upon a time, in February 2004, I embarked on a journey into the vast world of Azeroth, knowing little about just how long my stay there would last. I did not start this adventure alone, no – I brought my trusted tank with me, so he would be my shield on the battlefield. You know, it’s such jolly good fun to play the game with your RL friends and family. Such an advantage too for leveling up together.

Yeah, riiiiiight!

Let me tell you that none of this is true. I’ve been there done that and while I still love them all (most of the time, anyway) “playing with teh friends&family” is vastly overrated. What’s saying that what clicks in most areas, needs to work for all? Sometimes it’s better NOT to share every hobby together!

Now, my partner and I have hugely different gamer profiles to begin with and a completely different history when it comes to genre. Playing WoW as long as he did (vanilla raiding) was a bit of a freak accident as far as his FPS and RTS heart is concerned. When he nicked my beta account though, I figured he needed a key of his own – and why should we not play together? Truth be told, we had some epic laughs in those first weeks and months when the game was very young. However, we also realized rather quickly that we were erm….not meant to do much questing together. Or anything much outside a raid really. Some ideas only work on paper – and some I gladly let go of in favor of a peaceful relationship.

I’m exaggerating of course, but not by much. There’s such a thing as opposing playstyles and oh, we haz them! Although you’d think a holypriest and furywarrior are the perfect leveling match (and we really looked great on paper), our adventures together would develop like this within a few minutes:

B: Where did you wander off to, now?? I am still fighting here!
Syl: I was just gonna talk to that NPC!
B: Great, now I’m dying!
Syl: Why do you always have to pull everything? We don’t need to clear everything here!
B: It’s faster, it’s money, it’s loot, it’s EXP!
Syl: We get more EXP and gold from actually pursuing the questline!
B: AAuGgh…..&%!*”!/%ç – Can you rez me?!
Syl: No I can’t! There are respawns here now and I just took a boat to check out the other side of the river!
B: I hate this shit!
Syl: …..did you loot the staff at least?
B: What staff??
Syl: ……………………
Syl: You were supposed to pick up the staff from the boss we killed. For the quest!
B: I hate this shit!
Syl: *SIGH*

….From there the bickering would continue, an equally frustrating experience for both sides. Some people claim that what happens ingame stays ingame (lol), but I’m sure that many of you who have played together with a partner or person they live with, will know how quickly a foul mood can spread from the screen into the living room……..(Right?) As silly as such arguments might be, they can wear you down when you were supposed to wind down. No thanks, not worth it. You can still play the game together without playing it together.

Why good matchmaking changes everything

What this little anecdote shows in vivid colors is that gamer profiles matter. You can bring your best person to the game and it might still not work out in terms of cooperation. Now imagine this with strangers you’ve never met before and care about little: are you even surprised if a group falls apart?

We know how much good matchmaking can increase our fun in playing – to an extent where the boundaries between “people you like for themselves” and “people you like because it’s fun to play with them” become very fluid. Personally, I need both to wanna teamplay with somebody long-term. I strongly suspect too that I am not the only one out there who will only ever befriend a stranger in MMOs when my “basic playstyle check” is positive. After all, I’m not just here to socialize; I’m here to vanquish and conquer, arrr!
Funny enough, it works the other way around too: our tolerance to do “boring content” will increase if we’re doing it with or for certain people. As long as it’s not all the time, mind; our profiles don’t have to be a 100% match, but they need to be similar enough.

One logic answer to the matchmaking dilemma in MMOs are guilds. The guy who only wants to “roleplay” in Deeprun Tram, the gal who wants to clear every raidboss on hardmode – they can find a suitable place for themselves as long as they aren’t hoping to stay together. The more transparent a guild will make its goals and requirements, the better. Not to say that everyone in a guild always gets along brilliantly on a personal level heh, but you have a few fundamental hurdles out of the way, at least.

Still, a lot of cooperation fails in MMOs, inside guilds and outside. Blizzard reacted to grouping issues by implementing meeting stones and later the dungeon finder, by cross-server grouping and arena rank matchmaking. Oh yes, and such joy did people find in LFG….We’re provided with groups fast now maybe, but in terms of quality, or rather matching our intents and purposes, WoW has not solved any issues, no matter how tanks are getting bribed. Even the arena matchmaking is poor (and there you’d think it’s relatively easy).

What to do here? MMOs are all about cooperation, so this is a big deal. Considering where things are going in this genre, there will only be more MMO players in the future and many more people playing solo and casual, therefore relying on spontaneous grouping.
It was Tesh who called my attention to this issue in recent design debates: what if many current player grievances are not so much about a lack of variety and dynamic content etc., but a lack of matchmaking tools first and foremost?

The challenge that is matchmaking

I’ve thought about possible ways to create matchmaking on a “quality level” in MMOs and frankly I find it difficult. How do you make good intentions work in practice where so many individual and conflicting factors coincide? For a moment, I had this image in my mind of a person filling out ten tedious pages of personal questionnaire at a dating agency, just so the likelihood of meeting the right partner increases by 1%.

Luckily, finding the perfect MMO “date” is not quite as complex. We’re not looking to find prince or princess charming to get married with kids after all. However, there are various external and intrinsic factors determining every player’s outlook, goals and preferences and while the game can do little about external circumstances, it can try and bring people together who have the same purpose and playstyle for a specific activity. Chances are, if you end up in a group a little more tailored to yourself, you will add one of them to your friendlist rather than your ignorelist.

One obvious solution could be to add more search parameters to LFG tools. In addition to asking for roles and dungeon mode, offer check boxes for things like “speed run”, “achievement run”, “casual/fun run” and so forth. Maybe even allow players to create their own criteria. But then, how do you avoid misunderstandings? How do you prevent a casual run from translating into a lol-fail run for somebody? Does a speed run include content skipping? So, I wonder how much this really solves; and how many questions does the average player want to go through in order to join a group, anyway? How do you prevent freeloaders? It also raises a question about how restrictive parameters should be – would you like to see “GGG?” among them?

Another option might actually be a detailed personal profile you must fill out at the character / menu screen, maybe even per toon. Have the game store this intel towards any future matchmaking, similar to how some MMOs will ask for individual history or attributes when creating your character. Maybe run a refined version of the Bartle test even? I think you could do worse.

No matter what you come up with, there’s still the issue of numbers: how do you handle profiles that won’t correspond with enough available players? This strikes me as the biggest dilemma. If the system cannot find a match, it will go for the next best or random match. Before you know it, you’re back with GOGOGO-guy, the rogue looking for a particular achievement and the two mages who only came in to look at the tapestry. True story. /doom

I clearly lack imagination in this area, so please help me out: How could future MMOs implement a smart way of player matchmaking, without doing more harm than good? Any suggestions? Also: would you even want features as the above mentioned – or should we rather go back to good old, simple general chat grouping? Maybe I am over-thinking this.

To finish, two fun links

I am convinced that there is a lot of untapped potential for matchmaking in MMOs; not just on a grouping level, but content in general. Far too often do we mistake general design issues or errors with an actual lack of matchmaking / successful grouping opportunities. The discussion leaves a lot of questions though and at this point I cannot quite conjure up enough ideas that might stand the test of time and practice. To be fair, if it was such an easy undertaking, somebody would have succeeded by now. At the end of the day, no matter how intelligent the system is, a lot still comes down to social skills and communication between individuals.

Matchmaking, I look forward to see more of you! I am sure you can provide much in terms of more enjoyable, individual experiences but also cooperation in MMOs. Some oddly hilarious encounters too maybe, once the system “fails”(?)

Unfortunately you won’t be able to solve my initial, most pressing issue here: what can we do if our playstyle and our partner’s simply won’t match? Oh, well – some frustrating or silly experiences still make for fun memories in retrospective. Maybe even the best (yes, that’s us in that video!). A little disaster here and there lets us remember and appreciate the really smooth runs. And also how much it matters to have good company with you, nevermind how bad things are going.

The Four Travellers (and Bartle)

Art by GC Myers

In the middle of all things there is a secret place. A place of comings and goings, where all roads meet up eventually before parting again for distant and strange lands. And in the very middle of that crossroad stands an oaken table, an ancient work of formidable craftsmanship inviting the weary traveller and offering him a place to rest for a while. There is a tin cup too, filled with the sweetest water to cool the thirsty and wash the journey’s dust from their throats. So potent is its effect that some say it holds magical powers.

It so happened that one day, against all odds, four travellers from the four corners of the world would reach the mighty crossroad of all things together. Each grabbing a wooden chair, they eyed one another suspiciously as they took a seat at the massive, round table. Almost simultaneously they realized that there was only water there for one. Their moods darkening, the four men started measuring each other up more closely. Each man looked curiously exotic to the next: different complexions, different hair, different eyes. They wore different colors and clothes, their bags carried different treasures. A different weapon dangled from each traveller’s side.

The man of the North was the first to speak, nervously drumming his fingers on the polished wood. “I should get to drink the water. I have a long way to go still and no mount to carry me there fast”, he said. At this, the man of the East sitting beside him, replied: “I need the water to deliver it in the next town where a young maiden is lying sick with pox fever!” But the man of the South had already raised his voice, “The king of my country is paying every man his weight in gold who will bring him proof of this strange crossroad. I cannot return from my journey without this!” To which the man of the West was only shaking his head, “No. The water belongs to me. I arrived here first and I might as well kill my horse without any water to refresh him and ease his mind.”
And so a great argument arose among the four about who had more claim to the water and whose were the best reasons. As their quarrel dragged on, the sun began the second part of her day’s journey while the cup on the table remained untouched. All the while, quietly and unnoticed, the water within started fading away.

It was near dusk when the shriek of a strange night bird woke the four travellers to their surroundings. Only then they realized with a shock and gasp that the water had evaporated completely from their midst. The man of the North rose furiously from his seat, eyeing the three others with seeming disgust – “Now I will have to shorten my road and miss half of my journey!”. – “I should have left the water to you three. A great deal of good has this fighting done me”, the man of the East murmured gravely. The man of the South was already on his feet, “Wish I had grabbed the cup quickly while you were quarrelling and ridden fast for my homeland!”. Only after a longer silence did the man of the West add with the darkest stare: “I should have slit your throats. That way, one of us would have some water”, he hissed before leaving the table.

And with that the four travellers turned their backs on each other, leaving the great crossroad behind. Each was bound for his own destination, following down a different road, in his own pace. Soon their dark silhouettes were lost on the horizon, fading into the distant lands beyond, towards a different life, a different future.

On crossroads and gamer blood types

There is a strange quality to the atmosphere of crossroads. For a moment it seems as if we were indeed stood at the middle of the world, the middle of all things – and that everything is possible from there. Life is holding its breath as we consider the options before us. We can almost hear the distant rolling of our destiny. There is magic here, in allegory if not always in reality.

In online worlds more than ever, the player becomes the traveller. We are drawn towards the unknown that’s waiting at each bend of the road. We are the master of our steps. Every now and then, we chance upon another adventurer, sometimes to share a part of our journey, sometimes to part ways soon enough. Most of the time, we don’t get to know who the other person is, where he is from and where he’s going.

I’ve always been fascinated by gamer archetypes. No doubt most MMO players have heard and maybe taken the famous Bartle Test based on Richard Bartle, in search of a basic attempt to categorize their own playstyle in comparison to others. And while there is a lot more to be said about such categories and there are many more, complex aspects and variables factoring into a personal gamer profile, it is not a bad way to define four larger groups of players and player motivations. Most of all, there is a basic truth to be found here that we easily forget when we discuss our wishes and preferences. A truth that we might not even consider to be a reason for more fundamental disagreements between ourselves and other players; be it that we loathe skipping parts of a dungeon in a party, be it that we come to entirely different conclusions on our blogs sometime. We are different; and this reaches a lot further than just the mere subject of subjectivity, or things like demographic and external factors. We come from a different place and we are headed into a different direction. Everything we discover on the way, we look at with different eyes. We might simply not share the same gamer “blood type”.

It is an intriguing thought that more than anything else, it is fundamentally diverging intrinsics that present MMO developers with their greatest design challenges. While many aspects of game design can be discussed objectively and only leave room for few or even one best solution, different gamer blood types are an inevitable fact, an undeniable reality to deal with.

When I took the Bartle Test for the first time, I was surprised at the accuracy of my result. Sure, the questionnaire is rather straightforward and predictable in places – that’s not really the point though. I never attempted to profile myself or my gaming buddies in such a way before. We always knew there were discrepancies in our playstyles here and there, but we never thought to try and pin them down in such fashion, evaluating basic mindsets and outlook. The test was a good laugh too, and a lot got clearer as each of us received a spot on analyzis. I can say for myself that my outcome couldn’t be truer, especially in terms of percentage spread.

The test never gets old. Now that we see so many interesting, basic discussions on MMO design while an increasing part of the audience is turning away from WoW, I feel it has regained some significance. If you’ve never taken it, I suggest you have a go sometime out of curiosity if nothing else. It’s not too long and a fun thing to do on a boring Monday morning. Maybe it will sharpen your sense for other people you play with in MMOs a little, be it a guild mate or simply random acquaintance, and remind you that while the water on the table cannot be denied, we all want it for different reasons and to do different things.

As for the achiever, killer, socializer and explorer in my little tale – I leave it to you to spot them.

Requirements, Restrictions, Read my lips

Today, just briefly.

You want meaningful choices in your MMOs?
Then you have to accept that the game will come with requirements and restrictions.
It will have hard caps and benchmarks, it will have overall lower accessibility and bigger punishment. To some extent. Choices have no meaning when anything goes, no matter what the variety in choice is before you. If everything is flexible, your choices matter shit and it ain’t even their fault.

You want memorable content?
Then you have to accept that the game will come with requirements and restrictions.
Content feels less generic if it appears to be more unique – to state the obvious. How can it feel unique? For example by being unexpected, random, less obvious, limited, exclusive, not easily accessible, especially taxing or God forbid, almost out of reach. Oh, you don’t want to miss anything and you don’t want to deal with random or taxing? Then don’t expect anything to stand out in your memory. It doesn’t work that way.

You want rewards to be epic?
Then you have to accept that the game will come with requirements and restrictions.
An epic reward is the opposite of easy and numerous. If you want items to be special, expect them not to be a dime a dozen. Expect to work long and hard. Expect to miss out because you cannot always own everything that is special out there. If you did, it means everybody else does too and we both know you don’t want that.

…You want everything always with everybody?
Then you have to accept that the game will come with requirements and restrictions.
You can’t have any of the things mentioned above. But hey, at least you got everything always with everybody, right?

Balance, such a beautiful thing. Almost we forgot that everything comes at a price.