Archive | November, 2012

Links: Humble THQ Bundle, and Riot Games vs the jerks

The Humble THQ Bundle:

    The current Humble Bundle is a pretty good deal – it’s five THQ games, plus Saints Row 3 if you spend above the average (which is currently $5.69), plus five free game soundtracks to boot.

Polygon: The League of Legends team of scientists trying to cure ‘toxic behaviour’ online:

    Riot Games join ArenaNet and Red5 Studios in the fight to tame the jerk brigade, and they’re having quantifiable success already. This approach, with hard data and specific mechanics, may well be more effective than a general statement from a game studio about “don’t be dicks”.

The MMO edge: persistence and permanence

There’s a conversation about social play and soloing that’s been going on in the blogosphere, in one form or another, for years now. I was struck by one of Tobold’s recent posts, WoW the Single Player Game? — in response to a post from The Godmother about Cross-Realm Zones where she mentions that she “liked it when it was quiet“, Tobold asks,

[W]hy do people who “like it quiet” play a massively multiplayer online game? Wouldn’t let’s say Knights of the Old Republic be a much better game for them than Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Many of his commenters focus on the fact that WoW’s mechanics and systems aren’t set up to handle large player numbers in one area, discussing competition for quest spawns and resource nodes. Michael of Gaming for Happiness echoes my feelings, though, when he comments that “Why do I not just play KoTOR instead? Maybe it’s just me, but playing in an online world just seems to make everything seem more real. My actions more meaningful, my efforts yielding greater permanence than I can find in single player games.”

This really struck a chord with me. I’ve been playing a lot of The Sims 3 lately – I go through phases of this, and I’m well and truly entrenched at the moment. (I even bought some shiny new DLC as a birthday gift to myself.) I really enjoy The Sims 3, and Steam tells me I’ve racked up over 400 hours ingame – although I’m sure a lot of that is idle/AFK time. And yet, something about The Sims 3 feels wrong to me, and always has — it’s the fact that I’m completely alone in the game world.

Saskia's stylish pad in Lucky Palms

So my Sim is living out her life, interacting with her neighbours, winning hearts, making friends, and they’re all NPCs. In the houses I’ve never visited, NPC Sims are sketching out a rudimentary copy of sim-life, but the town is virtually stagnant apart from what I do.1 If there were other players around, even if I never socialised with them directly, my little town would feel a lot more real – I’d know that behind all those front doors, other Sims were living lives just as varied and interesting as my own Sim’s. Someone might buy the Perfect-quality fruit and vegetables I can grow. Someone might sell me a beautiful photo they took in Shang Simla.

But playing alone, nobody else’s actions will ever make an impact on my Sim’s life, and everything I “achieve” with her is equally meaningless. Any variety I encounter is just the result of a random number generator, not the dynamism introduced by other players.

Not that games automatically have to be ‘meaningful’ to be fun, of course. But I think MMOs have trained me too well to expect a certain permanence and persistence to what I do. When I make items to improve my crafting skill in an MMO, there’s someone around who’ll buy them from me. When I earn an Achievement, my progress is highlighted to anyone who cares to look. Even if I never say a word to another player, the world feels more real, more immersive and ‘alive’, because I know there are other people around all doing their own thing.

As one commenter, Josh, noted over at Tobold’s discussion, “[t]here’s a difference between quiet and silence”.

I talk to my neighbours, in RL, about once a year. Yet if they were suddenly replaced by timer switches who turned the lights on and off at the right times and robots who drove their cars off to work and back home again every day, I’d damn well notice the difference, and living in my house would suddenly start feeling very lonely and isolated. I may not want to interact with my neighbours, in game or in RL, but I want them to be there.

Saskia plays some blackjack in a nearly-deserted casino

  1. There’s actually a third-party patch that vastly improves the game’s background story progression and growth, but the patch author adamantly refuses to support the Steam version of the game, so I’m out of luck.

Plus ça change, or “hooray for stereotypes”

I subscribe to Daily Infographic, because infographics are nifty and interesting (although most infographic makers, sadly, have fallen into lazy templating instead of designing the “graphic” part to suit the “info” part, but that’s a rant for another day).

Today’s featured infographic, produced by Online University, was entitled “Gamers Get Girls“.

(Click the link for a bigger version; animated GIF warning. If it doesn’t display, try viewing it directly.)

Gamers Get Girls

Some interesting stats in there? Sure. (And the subject matter provokes other thoughts which can wait for another post, like “well duh, of course shared interests work better for forging relationships than catch-all dating sites”.)

Unfortunately, none of the stats or conclusions were interesting enough to compensate for the ho-hum clichés and sexism of all the surrounding commentary. Dear Online University, the 1990s called and would like their stereotypes back, please. “Gamers get girls”? Gamers, increasingly, are girls – as of 2011, the Entertainment Software Association reports that 42% of gamers are female.1 Didn’t you get the memo? Because I thought I’d seen a lot of people talking about it – loudly.

That is, of course, to say nothing of the logical inconsistencies in their stereotypes. The infographic makes the point that a huge number of WoW players are dating another player. So… only the male players actually qualify as gamers, apparently; the female players are just girls, their purpose to be “gotten” by the male players. Like a reward.

Oh, you know what? We’ve had this discussion before – repeatedly. It’s pretty ridiculous when we have to keep shouting just for some basic visibility and recognition. Consider this my turn at the megaphone.

  1. I realise, of course, that there will be plenty of girl gamers who’d like to “get girls” themselves, but I somehow don’t think that’s what Online University was talking about.

Taming the jerk brigade

Trolls: Shadowrun, WoW and D&D Style

Trolling on the internet is nothing new; it’s long been a given that the internet is full of asshats. There’s a reason many people cite “Don’t Read The Comments” as Rule 1 of the internet. Online games are no strangers to this effect; sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty are proof enough. We can’t police the entire internet, but we don’t have to put up with our communities becoming – or remaining – toxic wastelands full of bullies and trolls.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. One of the best examples of the wrong way is, I think, Blizzard’s moderation of the World of Warcraft communities. There are a couple of problems with their approach:

    Forum alts: You’ve always been able to use a level 1 throwaway alt for posting on the WoW forums, which diminishes any accountability and allows the trolling-inclined to be jerks to their heart’s content. Blizzard’s attempt in 2010 to enforce RealIDs on the forums was ill-thought-out, but requiring a consistent forum identity wouldn’t have been an unreasonable move and, I believe, would have cut down on the most obnoxious forum behaviour. Plenty of other game studios do it, and it works just fine.

    Speed of response: When you report harrassment, it takes Blizzard a long time to do anything about it. For example, Genowen at Untamed Hellcat recounts an incident where she was repeatedly harrassed by an entire guild, yet multiple tickets achieved nothing; it took two hours on the phone to Blizzard to see any action. Three days (or more) of harrassment while waiting for Blizzard to step in is simply unacceptable, and gives far too much power to the bullies.

    Lack of commitment: What do harrassers get, in WoW? A three-day ban if they’re really egregious? How often are people permabanned from the game for being asshats that make everyone consistently miserable? That’s right: pretty much never. Blizzard is too willing to forgive their customers for making other players — other customers — miserable.

So that’s the wrong way. What’s the right way?

Honestly, I think it just comes down to “being willing to put your foot down”. This responsibility is twofold, I think. In part, it’s the community’s job to enforce its own standards, which means more of us need to be willing to speak up and say “shut up, you’re being an asshat” when people are making the community toxic. And we need to do it on behalf of the people being victimised or harassed, not just in our own defenses when it happens to us. This is the spirit informing Navi’s Anti-Asshat Week, which I heard about via Stubborn at Sheep the Diamond, and enthusiastically endorse. LotRO’s a good example of this; it’s renowned for having a relatively pleasant community, because the community self-polices and good behaviour is rewarded while the jerks are generally shunned.

But it’s hard – it’s exhausting – to fight the jerks every day when you’re there to play and relax; doubly so if you’re one of the gaming minorities like women or gay gamers whose mere existence is used as hate speech. The ultimate responsibility lies with the game studio, IMO, because they’re the only ones who have the power to enforce actual punishment on people who aren’t swayed by whatever social pressure the community can impose.

I can think of a couple of cases of this done right in recent memory. ArenaNet attracted a lot of attention by banning the first wave of racist, homophobic bullies from Guild Wars 2 within a few days of the game’s release, back in August – and then they took to Reddit to explain why, with specifics when banned players challenged them. Their opening statement:

We want to clear up some of the confusion about GW2 name and behaviour suspensions. To keep Guild Wars 2 a pleasant place to be, we take action against racist names, hate speech and other unacceptable behaviour. We have suspended some accounts involved in the use of offensive character names or inappropriate chat. The number of account blocks is miniscule: less than .001 per cent of our total player base.

Of course, a number of commentators pointed out that ArenaNet had little incentive not to ban players, since their revenue model relies on box purchases rather than subscriptions — although this doesn’t address the issue of lost revenue from microtransactions the banned players might otherwise have made. Still, I have to admit that it warmed my heart to see bullies and trolls being dealt with sternly — and called out for their inappropriate behaviour when they complained. Pleasingly, some banned players even admitted they’d been in the wrong and apologised for being asshats — something I never expected to see, personally.

Red 5, the developers of Firefall, are another studio doing it right. The Firefall Beta Test Agreement includes the following clause:

6. You agree to be nice to everyone else playing the game. No foul language, no insults, no griefing, no cheating, etc. Red 5 Studios, Inc. retains the sole right to determine if you are being a jerk, and to take action on your account, which may include the loss of the characters, items, and any other virtual property within the game that is associated with your account. You may appeal this action through the informal process in clause 5.

I beamed when I read that for the first time. No shying away from the issue, no weasel words; instead we get a straight-up acknowledgement that being decent to other players is the required behaviour, not a statistical outlier. And I don’t think it’s a coincident that Firefall has a pretty decent player community, either. I haven’t heard anyone complaining of being banned, the incidence of general asshattery in zone chat is pretty low, and the forums are both lively and low on abuse. It doesn’t hurt that Firefall’s devs are actively engaged with the community, of course; they talk frequently with their player base, post frankly on the forums, and are happy to join in more casual and friendly discussions as well as the serious meaty developer posts. All of this adds up to an active and pleasant player community; people have little incentive to be toxic assholes to their fellow players, and it’s clearly stated that they’ll face heavy sanctions if they transgress.

I suspect it’s too late for games like WoW and communities like the XBox Live community so depressingly chronicled at Fat, Ugly or Slutty. The atmosphere may well be too entrenched to shift, short of massive (and massively unpopular) intervention on the part of the companies with the power, and those companies’ long-time silence and inaction has set a precedent they may not be able to break. But examples like GW2 and Firefall demonstrate that we don’t have to tolerate assholes in our part of the internet if we’re supported by game studios with the will to keep their games non-toxic and jerk-free. Here’s to ArenaNet and Red 5 and the other studios choosing to take a stand for their communities. Call it naive, but I dream of a day when level 1 forum alts and constant harassment are a cautionary tale from the past, not a reality thrust in the face of all too many of us who’d rather just game in peace.

SWTOR’s F2P is an unsatisfying compromise

(Sorry for the radio silence; I’ve been away with my tabletop gaming group. Gaming holidays ftw!)

So, SWTOR’s F2P patch has hit the test servers, and finally we’re starting to see the details people have been wondering about ever since the F2P announcement first hit.

One recent Google search term that hit my page: “swtor horrible f2p implementation”. Sadly, I’m forced to agree with the anonymous searcher. The best I can say about it is that it’s less horrible than it could have been.

Dulfy.net has, as usual, a good round-up of the facts. Of particular note is the fact that SWTOR will indeed have a premium feature level, applicable to anybody who’s ever spent money on the game (either as a former subscriber or via the cash shop). This is common among F2P games; SWTOR’s version is called “Preferred Status”.

So let’s have a look at SWTOR’s F2P implementation in detail, shall we?

The Restrictions

Character Creation

  • Free players: Human, Zabrak and Cyborg are your only options, for a maximum of two characters per server.
  • Preferred Status players get to keep species they’ve unlocked via Legacy.

This seems fairly reasonable – it’s restrictive, but not unduly so. Presumably you’ll also be able to access a character created as a subscriber even if they’re another species, though I haven’t seen confirmation of that.

Communication & Social

  • Free players get 1 message per minute in public channels, can’t send mail at all, and can’t use /who. (Say, ops, groups and tells are unrestricted.) They also can’t hide head slot, unify armor colours, show a title or legacy name, use most emotes.
  • Preferred Status players have a higher quota for public channel messages, can use /who, and can send mail with up to 1 attachment.

Again, fairly standard practice, although limiting free players from using /who seems rather excessive; it’ll make it harder for them to actually meet up with their friends, thus making the game less appealing. The lack of emotes is a giant WTF, at least to me. I can understand selling some ‘premium’ emotes separately, as LotRO does, but not being able to /cheer at the person next to you is just ridiculous.

Items and Money

  • Free players can’t expand their inventory using credits, no access to the Cargo Hold (bank), vendor items cost 25% more credits or tokens, no trading, only 2 sale slots on the GTN (sales network), can’t equip purple gear or event gear, Cartel Coin items are locked for longer, capped at 200k credits, caps on all commendation types.
  • Preferred Status players can trade, can use the Cargo Hold, retain any inventory or Cargo Hold expansions they’d purchased, get 5 GTN sales slots, and have a higher credit cap.

These are fairly standard limitations, although the lack of a bank is a bit restrictive. (The trouble is that the basic Cargo Hold is pretty generous even before you expand it; there’s no half-measure they can offer a free player.) I’m ambivalent about the restriction on artifact-quality gear, too, especially given that it’s very expensive to unlock.

Travel

  • Free players can’t use Fleet Pass, Quick Travel cooldown is 2 hours.

Inconvenient, but not unexpected. This will likely be a huge annoyance to former subscribers, but F2P players probably won’t mind it too much.

Combat

  • Free players only get 5 field revives total, and must buy more when they’re used up. Free players also only get 2 quickbars (increased from 1 due to community outcry).

Even 2 quickbars is horribly limiting for ACs like the Jedi Sentinel/Sith Marauder. Ugh. This seems like such a petty restriction.

Companions & Crew Skills

  • Free players can only deploy 3 companions, and only get 1 crew skill. Lockboxes from crew skill missions aren’t received.
  • Preferred Status players get an extra crew skill.

This is pretty reasonable — it’s the kind of thing that won’t be horrible for free players or former subscribers, but is still a good carrot to get people to subscribe as they get more involved in the game.

Content

  • Free players don’t get access to Section X (the new content coming in Patch 1.5); only 3 space missions per week, only 5 warzones per week, no Operations, no lockboxes from mission rewards, only 3 loot rolls per week.

The lack of lockboxes, as with crew skill missions, is another one of those petty restrictions that just chafes without seeming reasonable. I think it’s a mistake to restrict free players from Operations content – this seems like something that would be ideal for Preferred Status players. As it stands, restricting Operations to subscribers doesn’t really encourage anyone to subscribe other than those who are regular raiders already — it doesn’t give free players a chance to sample an Operation or two and get hooked. Then again, they couldn’t wear the purple loot from an Operation anyway.

My Thoughts

As I’m sure you can tell already, my thoughts aren’t complimentary.

A good F2P system, in my opinion, doesn’t force people to subscribe — it lets you unlock most game features piecemeal, so if subscribing looks like a bad deal for you (because you’re not interested in some content, or because you have limited time to play) you’re still encouraged to spend money in microtransactions on the parts of the game you do want.

SWTOR nearly hits this mark — it allows you to spend RL money (via their Cartel Coins currency) on unlocking content, but it’s only on a periodic basis. You can buy weekly content passes to remove the limitations on warzones, space missions, flashpoint loot rolls and operations (although if you win any epic gear on those operations, you’ll have to pay 1200CC for an Artifact Equipment Authorization to actually wear it). 1

But there’s not enough incentive to purchase these passes in the first place, in my opinion. Raiding is a particularly egregious example – without the weekly pass, you can’t do a single Op. Who’s going to spend 240 Cartel Coins just to see if they like Operations? Far better, I would think, to allow Preferred Access players one Operation per week for free, to whet their appetite and encourage them to spend more or subscribe. This would also have the side benefit of making server communities healthier, by providing a larger pool of potential Ops recruits.

Ultimately, I think the most offputting thing is the pettiness of some of the restrictions. Some make sense – limited chat, trade and cash caps, for instance, to stop the potential floods of spammers and scammers. Restrictions on bag space, crew skills, and the like? Fair enough. But too many of the restrictions are offputting, not enticements — massive restrictions on emotes and moods? Can’t use /who? Can’t use extra quickbars? These come across as unreasonably petty, nickel-and-dime nonsense, and I think a lot of people will find them hostile and offputting. I wouldn’t want to subscribe to a game that restricted even the most basic emotes, or stopped me making UI customisations.

And yet they’re steadfastly refusing to restrict access to their greatest selling point – their story. If they let you do Act I for free, to get you hooked, and then sold permanent access to Acts 2 and 3 (separately), they’d be drowning in players throwing money at them. As it is, they’re giving you all the good stuff for free, and then putting really annoying obstacles in front of you that you have to pay to remove. Just skip the obstacles and charge for the stuff we want to spend money on — the content that’s what Bioware is best at.

In my experience, successful and enjoyable F2P transitions involve more carrot than stick. Don’t punish the free player for being a free player – encourage them to spend by showing them the tasty goodness that’s out of their reach, rather than taking away the staples most players have come to expect as part of the basic play experience. If you give Fred the story content for free, but make him pay to do all the trivial stuff, and you give Jane the trivial stuff for free and make her pay for the story, I’m willing to bet that Jane will spend just as much as Fred, and she’ll be a lot less annoyed to boot.

Carrot, Bioware, not stick. Please.