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Eclipse Phase disproves the need for DRM

So, I haven’t been around these parts much lately — Kris and I have been busy launching Astrek Association, our Firefall fansite and blog. I’ll have more to say about Firefall later, but for now, I wanted to talk about a very interesting Kickstarter.

A couple of weeks ago, Greenheart Games was all over the news for their indie tycoon game, Game Dev Tycoon. In order to prove a point about piracy, Greenheart’s Patrick Klug seeded a cracked version of the game to various torrent sites, with a twist: the cracked version became unplayable after a certain amount of time, thanks to in-game piracy destroying your revenue. Cute, but ultimately it felt like a bitter stunt instead of a genuine opportunity — it was just an opportunity to lecture people about piracy, instead of looking for a way to convert pirates into customers.

I much prefer the approach taken by Posthuman Studios, publishers of the hit pen-and-paper RPG Eclipse Phase. I’ve talked about Eclipse Phase before, as a setting I’d love to see as an MMO, but it’s also a fantastic (and award-winning) tabletop game. Eclipse Phase is set in a high-tech post-apocalyptic future where humanity has abandoned Earth and spread throughout the solar system, and it covers everything from transhumanism, horror and conspiracy to straight-up sci-fi adventure.

Eclipse Phase, art by Stephan Martiniere

And what makes Eclipse Phase really special, IMO, is Posthuman’s approach to its customers and fans. Eclipse Phase is licensed under Creative Commons, which means that fans can freely hack the game, modify it, post their work online, and even share the entire game with anyone they think might like it. Hell, Posthuman themselves even seeded the full core book to various file-sharing and torrent sites.

And it’s worked. Despite being available for free, with no stigma of piracy and active publisher encouragement to share copies of the PDF, players and fans of the game have been happily handing over their money both for PDF and hardcopy books ever since Eclipse Phase first launched. In the words of Adam Jury, a Posthuman Studios founder,

[N]o publishing company can successfully fight piracy. The RIAA hasn’t, the MPAA hasn’t. Piracy is going to happen unless we say “nope, you can’t pirate our stuff, cuz we’ll just let you give it out!” — and that makes the file-sharers like us and buy from us. I don’t think pirates are evil and immoral people. I know many people who pirate many things and these people also buy many things. They just tend to buy only things they already like. So, of course, giving away your material will only work if your material is good quality!

I’d much rather have someone read our game for free and not like it than buy our game and not like it. In the first case, they’re only out their time. In the second case, they’re out time and money and are more likely to resent us and/or not buy any other games we may release.

Furthermore, Creative Commons isn’t just about “downloading for free;” it’s about giving fans permission to hack our content and distribute those hacks. Permission to do the things that gamers naturally do, without fear of lawsuits or complex legalese or requiring our approval. Our fans have built and distributed complex character generation spreadsheets, customized GM Screens, converted our books into ePub/mobi format, and all sorts of neat things. When they do things like this, that gives us guidance as to what we should be doing: because fans aren’t just saying they want something, they’re putting their time where their mouth is … a strong indication that they and other fans would be willing to pay for those things if we produced them.

This has always struck me as both a smart business decision and a humane one, and Eclipse Phase’s success has proved that it’s the right way to go. Treat people with respect, and it pays off. There is no need for gamers to pay for Eclipse Phase, but they do, because people are willing to pay for what they like.

And this point is proved with Transhuman, the Eclipse Phase Player’s Guide (and next EP release). This is the first Eclipse Phase Kickstarter and it’s been handled with Posthuman’s typical approach to operating their business. Transhuman is in Open Playtesting, so Kickstarter customers can check out the book before they pledge. The pledge rewards packages are generous and well-considered bundles. And one of the early Stretch Goals was to give Transhuman’s freelance contributors a 15% pay raise – a very humane and generous offer in an industry where freelancers (and most creators) earn very little for their work.

It probably comes as no surprise that Transhuman reached its funding goal in twelve hours and is at 530% of its goal as I write this. The success of Eclipse Phase’s business model is a counterpoint to – and lesson for – publishers in any industry. Treat your customers with respect, don’t assume they’re going to rip you off, don’t try to wring every cent out of them, and sell them a quality product: your customers will become fans, and they’ll throw money at you.

As a postscript, I encourage you all to check out the Transhuman Kickstarter. If you’re interested in pen-and-paper games or simply good science fiction, a twenty dollar pledge will net you the Eclipse Phase RPG and the Transhuman Player’s Guide in PDF format, and there are a range of other pledge rewards offering more of the Eclipse Phase product line as well. Frankly, I’d have given them money even if I weren’t a fan of Eclipse Phase, because I strongly believe that their approach to business is the right one, and I think that deserves my support. And the more success enjoyed by Eclipse Phase and other games like it, the more likely other publishers are to sit up and take notice, and accept that you don’t have to treat your customers like criminals to make money.

Note: There’s just over four days left on the Transhuman Kickstarter as I write this, so if you’re interested, don’t forget to check it out this weekend!

Antici…pation: the new games I’m waiting for

Although the industry is in flux, I can’t help but feel that it’s never been a better time to be an MMO gamer, with a ton of interesting games either just released or on the way. Here’s a list of some of the stuff on my radar; I’d be really interested to hear what everyone else is looking forward to.

Warframe: Me and my fellow Tenno on an elevator

Path of Exile
This MMOaRPG just entered open beta. It’s a very well-done Diablo clone with a massive skill progression tree, from an indie development studio in NZ. If DIII let you down, PoE might be what you’re after. I can’t speak to its entertainment value any more than that, as I’m only five levels in, but development seems active and it looks promising.

Warframe
This also just entered open beta as of last weekend. (Or, at least, everyone who was in last weekend’s open beta weekend gets to stay in the beta.) It’s a lobby-based third-person shooter with solo and co-op mission-based content; I’ve been playing it with friends, and it’s surprisingly fun. Like Firefall, you can change your “class” just by buying a new suit of power armour, although unlike Firefall a lot of the gear is locked away behind either a long grind or RL money pricetags. The Founder Pack program is still running until March 16th, and if you’re enjoying the game it’s quite good value.

Defiance
Defiance is an MMOTPS (third person shooter) currently in closed Alpha, with closed Beta weekends, due to launch in April. It’s by Trion Worlds, in tandem with a SyFy TV series. Reports from beta testers say that it’s a third persion shooter, console-compatible (with the associated UI limitations), and mechanically similar to Borderlands. It’s mission-based with a massive world and dynamic events called Arkfalls (much like RIFT’s Rifts), with some (consensual?) open-world PvP thrown in.

Neverwinter
This MMORPG is currently doing closed Beta weekends. You can get beta access by buying a founder’s pack, otherwise they’re scarcer than hen’s teeth. It’s the MMORPG followup to the very popular Neverwinter Nights; it’s based on the 4th Edition D&D ruleset (in the same way that NWN was based on 3rd Edition) and seems to be quite a good port of tabletop rules to an MMO environment. It comes from Cryptic; I suspect they got the license because they have experience with player-created content from the Star Trek Online Foundry, and player-created missions are an integral part of Neverwinter’s heritage.

WildStar
WildStar is currently accepting beta signups, although I don’t think the beta has started yet. They’re aiming for a balance of themepark and sandbox content, with variations to suit different playstyles. It’s an MMORPG, with a steampunk/fantasy flavour, from NCSoft’s Carbine Studios. Looks fun.

ArcheAge
A Korean MMORPG from the creator of Lineage, ArcheAge has been in closed beta in Korea for a while, and Trion has signed a deal to bring it to Western markets, hoping to launch it later this year or early 2014. It’s another sandpark game, with a fascinating and complex class system (it’s a bit like Rift’s “souls” system, except there are a ton of souls and you can mix and match any of them, not just a subset of them).

The Repopulation
This is a sci-fi sandbox MMORPG currently in alpha, from indie devs Above and Beyond. It looks like it’s going to be focused on a lot of non-combat play – which isn’t to say there won’t be combat, but there will be meaningful non-combat stuff to do too. Honestly, it looks like they’re trying to hit the same notes as the original Star Wars Galaxies, which would suit me just fine.

Pathfinder Online
This is the upcoming MMORPG based on Paizo’s hugely popular RPG spun off from D&D 3rd Edition. Again, they’re going for the ‘sandpark’ balance, with a crafting economy, player settlements, offline skill training… you know what; it sounds like they’re trying to make Fantasy EVE. Whether or not it works is yet to be decided, but if it works, it’ll be glorious.

So that’s what I’m keeping an eye on. What about everyone else?

How RMT broke EVE Online

I started playing EVE months ago, and with the complexity and depth of the game’s systems and setting, you’d think I’d be all over it. Weirdly, though, I’m not. I do enjoy EVE, and I’m still subbed to allow my characters to train their skills, but I very rarely actually play, and that’s because of a combination of two factors: offline skill training, and legitimised RMT.

A low-sec system in my Retribution

I’ve got a few posts brewing on RMT, F2P and related subjects, but the Cliff’s Notes version: I don’t actually have anything against microtransaction-funded gaming when it’s done right. The problem is that in the case of EVE Online, it removes the point of playing the game, at least for me.

I was first introduced to buying ISK, via PLEX, not long after I first subscribed. Naturally Kris mentored me through my introduction to EVE, and as someone with disposable income and less free time than he’d like, he’s the target market for in-game cash shops and RMT. As Dee once put it,

8. People who are time-rich-cash-poor can “afford” to spend in-game time grinding for benefits and bonuses. People who are time-poor-cash-rich don’t have this luxury.
9. People who are time-poor-cash-rich can “afford” to spend real-world dollars for benefits and bonuses. People who are time-rich-cash-poor don’t have this luxury.

Or, as Kris puts it, “I could spend hours and hours mining or running missions for forty million ISK an hour. Or I could spend half an hour’s worth of my pay and buy a PLEX worth half a billion ISK, and spend those hours doing something more fun than grinding for money”.

It’s hard to argue with that logic, if you’re cash-rich and time-poor, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So what do you do instead of grinding for money? Well, in most games you’d spend your time doing something satisfying – something that gives you a sense of progress. Unfortunately, you can’t spend time making progress in EVE, other than accruing resources or fighting other players. All your character skills are trained in realtime and nothing you do in-game affects them. Very little is gated by your corporate standings1, other than access to Jump Clones2, and everything you could buy with Loyalty Points3 you can buy on the market with ISK anyway. Of all the (PvE) things you can do in EVE, almost all of them are rendered pointless if you have the money to buy the ISK you need.

I’ve played other games with legitimised RMT – Guild Wars 2, for example, where you can buy gems with RL money and sell them on the Auction House for in-game gold. That didn’t break the game, because you couldn’t buy XP or reputation or Karma or any of the other “progress” mechanics in the game.

And I’ve played other games with offline skill training – Glitch, for example, where your skills trained in real time just like in EVE. That didn’t break Glitch, though, because you still had to play the game to accrue currants 4 and imagination and crafting materials and all the other resources in the game.

But that doesn’t work, in EVE. If I’ve broken the seal on buying ISK with real money, and there’s nothing I can do in-game to “skill up” my character, then there’s little left for me to do, and thus little reason for me to bother logging on. I’m not a PvPer, either by inclination or by ability, and anything I can do in PvE is rendered meaningless — if it weren’t for that offline skill training, I really would have no reason to remain subscribed. And sooner or later, the appeal of paying money to improve my characters in a game I have no incentive to pay is going to fade entirely.

Legitimate RMT? Fine by me. Offline skill training? Sure! Just not together in the same game, please.

My apologies for the six weeks (ugh) of radio silence. My work arrangements changed just after Christmas, and with a long commute and a busier week than I’ve been used to, I’ve had very little time or energy for personal projects. Hopefully things are back to normal now, or what passes for normal around these here parts…

  1. Factional reputations, basically.
  2. A means of getting from one side of the galaxy to the other very quickly instead of spending hours in transit
  3. A currency earned by doing corporate missions and spent on factional rewards.
  4. Currants-y. Get it? Glitch was full of puns like that. I miss it so.

WoW ghost towns: why Blizzard’s not helping

As I return to WoW, I’ve been adapting to their latest changes aimed at normalising player numbers: cross-realm zones. Now, I’m not a fan of CRZs for various reasons but they do at least help keep deathly-quiet servers from dying entirely. That’s not, however, necessarily a good thing. Azuriel from In An Age recently discovered that, in his absence, his server had gone from ‘quiet’ to ‘desolate’.

For the past three expansions, Blizzard has been solving all the problem elements of low-pop servers except the one that matters: the server itself. Play BGs with everyone else, run dungeons with everyone else, raid with everyone else, and now even quest with everyone else. Isn’t it about time you let us be with everyone else?

As Azuriel points out, Blizzard’s been putting a lot of work into normalising player populations, easing the strain on overcrowded servers and providing playmates for underpopulated servers. Unfortunately, it brings as many problems as it solves.

Silvermoon City - frequently a ghost town

Personally, I don’t like cross-realm zones because I like having the opportunity to farm for resources or rare spawns in peace, and because they’re fundamentally unnecessary. WoW levelling rarely requires the assistance of another player (unlike, say, GW2 dynamic events, RIFT dynamic events, SWTOR heroic quests, etc) so the lack of players in levelling zones isn’t a handicap. And, on the flipside, overpopulation is rarely a problem outside the two-week period immediately following an expansion. Cross-realm zones are a drastic solution to a problem that doesn’t even exist for 102 weeks out of every 104.

And they have costs. As others have pointed out, WoW’s model isn’t set up to accommodate lots of competition for mobs or resources. Guild Wars 2 highlights the opposite model, where everyone can harvest the same resource node and you can still get quest credit and loot from mobs ‘tagged’ by other people. In this model, cross-realm zones work fine; in WoW’s selfish “everyone get your own stuff” world, CRZs just make peoples’ lives harder.

Add to that the impact on the community. During the most recent Darkmoon Faire, Goldshire on my server was suddenly a hotbed of ERP and idiot epeen-swingers when it had never been like that before – because it wasn’t my server any more, it was a generic server with people from anywhere and everywhere. Talk about destroying one’s sense of community. CRZs really fall apart when you’re looking at areas where players stand around and chat instead of get on with the business at hand, because the more you weaken peoples’ ties to their community, the less incentive they have not to act like jerks.

Unfortunately, I think we’re out of luck. As Azuriel says, “Blizzard isn’t ever going to bite the goddamn bullet and put realms like Auchindoun out of [their] misery.” And we have ourselves to blame for that, because of the way that the MMO community reacts to anything other than constant growth. Server closures and server merges are the number one sign, in most peoples’ minds, that a game is struggling, and Blizzard can’t afford to be seen as struggling, given its position at the top of the pile. Most games are forced into server closures and merges anyway, by the necessity of providing a playable environment for their customers, but Blizzard have had the resources to develop technologies that prop up ailing servers without merging them. It’s logical that WoW would have some underpopulated servers, after eight years and waves of growth and shrinkage. In their case it wouldn’t actually be a sign of failure to consolidate lower-population servers; it’s fairly clear that WoW may not be the only game in town any more, but it’s not even remotely in trouble. But WoW has a special cachet as the constant success story in an otherwise marginal industry, and I suspect that Activision-Blizzard aren’t willing to sacrifice that for the sake of player satisfaction.

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.

The argument for addons

I was struck, when awaiting SWTOR’s launch last year, by the vitriolic debate for and against addons that raged within the fan community. Some fans — and I count myself among their number — were keen on addons; some hated the very thought of them.

Me, I love addons. I like the ability to tweak my interface to present me with the kind of information that’s important to what I’m doing. If I’m spending a few weeks grinding faction, I want to be able to see my faction standings onscreen without opening my character sheet. If I’m raiding, I want not just raid frames but easily-viewable buffs and debuffs and other important alerts. If I’m recruiting I want more social tools to hand. And I have a big monitor; I’d much rather keep that info onscreen instead of having to open up windows repeatedly to find it. I want to be able to put my action bars where I want them, and have different bars of different sizes depending on their function. I like being able to put all the elements where they suit me, style them how I like them, and hide the bits I don’t want.

For example, my WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage:

My WoW UI, Cataclysm-vintage

Allowing players to move and resize interface components (in the style of LotRO, SWTOR, and RIFT) goes some way towards meeting the most basic needs of UI customisation, but it falls far short of allowing proper UI modding.

There are a number of reasons I like addons, both personally and on general principle:

1. Comfort

I don’t mind a single-player or multiplayer game with a locked-down UI because those games are generally limited experiences – you get in, you play, you log off. But MMOs are ‘home’ for so many of us – we log in to chat, to relax, and to socialise (and to do ‘chores’ like gathering consumables or doing dailies) as well as to actually play. The success of MMOs relies, in the long term, on players feeling ‘at home’ in their ingame environment, and UI comfort is a huge part of that. There’s a big difference between a hotel room and my own house, and uncustomisable UIs feel like the hotel rooms of the gaming world.

2. Accessibility

One of the reasons why I’m pro-addons is that they help solve accessibility issues. Not everyone is able to play with a stock UI, whether it’s vision impairments that mean you need elements bigger and more visible, hearing impairments that mean you need subtitles or onscreen warning instead of alert sounds, or physical impairments that mean you can’t move the mouse around easily while clicking so you need mouseover macros or click-to-cast addons — or some other issue. A robust addon engine means that, while devs aren’t off the hook in terms of addressing accessibility issues, players with uncommon needs or specific impairments have a much better chance of finding a solution that lets them play the game in comfort.

3. Customisation

We don’t expect everybody to play MMOs the same way or for the same reasons, and different playstyles need access to different controls and different information. It’s like buying clothing — “one size fits all” usually doesn’t fit anyone apart from those people who are within one standard deviation of the median. 1 The stock UI simply can’t be all things to all people, nor meet the needs of every facet of the (hopefully large) user base. Addons can help to make the game experience a lot more pleasant for people who fall outside the catered-to “norm”.

4. Reversion

Sometimes developers make choices that are simply ugly to your eyes, or leave you scratching your head wondering what they were thinking. (Personally, I think the unmodded original WoW UI was a simply terrible design that really doesn’t hold up to the huge screens of modern gaming computers, for instance.) Allowing addons that modify the interface means that hapless players can undo the dev choices that seem insane to them.

(Unsurprisingly, some devs are so attached to their precious interfaces that they cite the “user experience” as the reason they’re disallowing addons. Pal, if your interface design is so great, your players wouldn’t want addons to change it. Take the hint, yes?)

Customising the SWTOR UI

5. Inspiration

A vibrant addon-creating and -using community is effectively a volunteer workforce refining and playtesting the best (and worst) interface changes that addons can offer; the developers are then free to incorporate that sort of functionality into the game proper — which is good for everybody, as native features are almost always smoother and faster than those from third-party plugins. WoW has a long history of incorporating the most popular addon functionalities into the game itself, and I think other games miss out by not doing the same.

Countering the counterarguments

Unfortunately, all too many people have a kneejerk DO NOT WANT reaction to addons; to them, “addons” are synonymous with “elitist assholes who use DPS meters as a tool to put other people down”.

Certainly, every game community has its share of assholes, but despite the common arguments, addons don’t make the community toxic. Community size (plus its demographics and the basic asshole-amplifying nature of the internet) makes the community toxic. Gearscore, Recount and Omen didn’t make the WoW community a horrible place – 12 million players (and poor community policies and the proliferation of “level 1 forum alts” did that). Addons are just tools, and I can honestly say that my community experience in WoW, RIFT, TSW or LotRO (which all allow addons) was not any worse than my experience in SWTOR or GW2 (which do not).

The bottom line

What it boils down to for me is that having addons shouldn’t make life worse for the people who choose to play without them, but not having addons does make life worse for people who want (or need) to play with them. Provided I’m able to do my job in group play, and I’m not an asshole, it has no impact on anybody else whether or not I’m using addons.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to download some addons for RIFT.

  1. And this article is, totally tangentially, an interesting look at why off-the-rack clothes fit so badly.

Mechwarrior Online: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mechwarrior Online

Over two months ago, I mentioned that I was in the closed beta for Mechwarrior Online. Since then, my love affair with the game has fluctuated rather wildly, and now that they’ve lifted the NDA, I can talk about it.

My apologies that none of my screenshots show the game from the perspective of an experienced character; they’ve wiped the game repeatedly during closed beta, and I haven’t played since the last wipe, so I’m back to 0 XP, no unlocked abilities and no money.

What is it?

Mechwarrior Online is a free to play FPS from Piranha Games set in the Battletech universe. You take on the job of battlemech pilot, driving around giant mechs — twenty metres tall and bristling with weapons — in an attempt to defend or destroy strategic objectives.

Trouble right here in River City

Battletech has a rich story background as a tabletop miniatures game originally developed by FASA Corporation with the same development and licensing history as Shadowrun1, but at this stage in MWO’s development that background setting is almost entirely invisible, acting merely as a justification for blowing each other up in giant mechs. Piranha Games have promised future play modes involving more of the politics and story of the setting, but so far all we’ve seen is the default team deathmatch mode.

When you start the game you’re limited to one of four Trial Mechs, one from each weight category – at the moment the offerings are a Jenner (Light), a Hunchback (Medium), a Catapult (Heavy) and an Atlas (Assault). Trial Mechs are very limited; you can’t change their equipment in any way, and games played in a trial mech offer less money and XP than a normal mech.

Buying a mech

Of course, you can bypass these limitations (and the need to grind endless matches to save up for a ‘proper’ mech) by dropping some cash on the game; you can buy new mechs with C-Bills (ingame currency) or Mech Credits (bought with RL money), and purchasing one of the high-end Founder’s Packs gives you access to Founder’s Mechs which can be customised like a normal mech — and Founder’s Mechs also earn extra XP and cash compared with a normal mech.

Customisation in the Mech Lab

Once you’ve got a customisable mech, whether a Founder’s Mech or one you purchased, you can use the Mech Lab to change its fit-out to suit your preferences. There’s a wealth of options, all derived from the tabletop game, and unfortunately the game obscures some stats. Kris painstakingly combed through the game’s XML files to produce a very handy MWO reference spreadsheet to help with mech customisation. (Although it’s a patch or two behind at the moment thanks to the siren call of Firefall.)

So that’s where your money goes – that, and rearming, and repairing your mech after you get blown to smithereens. XP, on the other hand, is spent unlocking bonuses for the mech in which you earnt the XP – faster acceleration, faster turning speed, better heat dissipation, and so on. For now those boosts are token values, but they’ll be tweaked to get the balance right.

Unlocking mech bonuses in the Pilot Lab

The good.

There are a couple of great things this game has going for it:

First of all, Piranha are fans themselves of the tabletop game, which means that there are few glaring inaccuracies and they’re trying to replicate the tabletop experience as much as possible. (At least, inasmuch as they can when turning a third-person tactical miniatures game into a first-person shooter.)

Second, their movement engine feels good to me. Assault mechs are ponderous juggernauts with terrifying momentum when they get moving; light mechs are zippy and responsive. Apart from a few glitches, the mechs ‘feel’ like they’re the right weight. It’s not just like driving a human body in a normal FPS.

Thirdly, the pace of the game feels good – again, that’s subjective. But Battletech is fundamentally about tactics – careful positioning, terrain advantage, line of sight, and so on. MWO doesn’t have the fast-and-furious pace of most shooters, and to me that’s a good thing, because it feels more like Battletech than a faster game would.

And most importantly: you’re driving a giant weaponised mech, raining down death upon other giant weaponised mechs. That is, inherently, pretty damn awesome.

The LRM rain of death

The bad.

Unfortunately, I see two huge problems with the game as it is now, and one smaller problem.

The first problem is that there’s only one game mode at the moment: Assault, which is an 8v8 no-respawn team deathmatch where victory comes from eliminating the other team or capturing their “base”, a small unremarkable area of flat terrain. (Matchmaking for this involves balancing by weight class, so a team with seven Jenners and one Atlas should end up facing a team of seven Light mechs and one Assault.) There may be internal playtesting of other game modes, but so far they haven’t been tested in beta at all, and all the beta balancing is using Assault mode as a basis.

The River City assault

This is an issue because — assuming equal player skill — heavier mechs are better for straight-up combat than light mechs, because they can pack more weapons, more ammo and more armour. So there’s no incentive to take light mechs (unless you really like them), and the devs are treating the Light › Medium › Heavy › Assault path as progression, as Bryan Ekman (the Creative Director) says:

There will be some progression – Light to Assault by virtue of how we’ve designed the economy. This is a good thing.

He doesn’t, however, explain how it’s a good thing, and I don’t think it is. In the tabletop game, mech classes have different jobs and different strengths, and light mechs aren’t at such a disadvantage because you can use heavier mechs to support and cover them. As it stands in MWO, you get one mech to pilot per game and if you want to play a light mech, you’d better hope that your teammates are coordinated and interested in backing you up.

To a certain extent that’s an unavoidable problem when you’re turning a squad-based tabletop minis game into a first-person computer game where the player only controls a single mech, but I’d been hoping that other game modes would mitigate the power differential somewhat by giving more value and tactical advantage to the scouting and evasion abilities of lighter mechs. However, the devs treating Assault mechs as inherently ‘the best’ mechs (which is the logical result of Ekman’s ‘progression’ attitude) does not bode well for the playability or balance of other potential game modes. Obviously this is still a case of wait-and-see, but it has shaken my confidence somewhat.

The other – more serious – problem is a mechanics issue. In order to make the game ‘feel’ right as a first-person shooter, the devs reduced the cycle time of mech weapons (and doubled mech armor to make sure people weren’t falling over within seconds of being targeted). However, they didn’t adjust other numbers to compensate for this. To clarify the problem, I should explain some mechanics of the tabletop game:

  • You can fire every weapon once per ten-second turn.
  • Each weapon builds up heat in your mech; as you reach certain heat thresholds you suffer negative effects up to total shutdown and often-fatal ammo explosions.
  • Your mech has heat sinks; there are some built into the engine, and extras in other parts of the mech.
  • Each heat sink dissipates one point of heat per ten-second round (or twice that if they’re submerged; eg. they’re in your mech’s legs and you’re standing waist-deep in water).
  • So, as an example, if you’ve got a stock HBK-4G Hunchback with 13 heat sinks, you can fire off both its Medium Lasers (3 heat each) and its Autocannon 20 (7 heat) indefinitely while stationary without building up any heat. If you fire its final weapon, a Small Laser (1 heat), you’d slowly build up heat every turn until you shed some by not firing all your weapons for a turn or two, or by standing in water for a while.

So that’s how it works in the tabletop game. If you were playing the same Hunchback variant in MWO, and fired both Medium Lasers and your AC20 under the same conditions at every opportunity, you’d shut down or blow up in short order — you’d build up 44 heat over ten seconds (or 53 heat if you fired that Small Laser as well), and you’d still only be able to shed 13 of that. That’s because they’ve reduced the cycle time of all the weapons, meaning you build up heat much faster, but they haven’t increased the heat dissipation of heat sinks to compensate.

Shutdown sequence enabled

This wouldn’t be such a problem if it applied uniformly — it’d just mean everyone has to ease off on the trigger now and then. However, based on the tabletop rules, heat is just one balancing mechanic, and not every weapon generates significant heat. Energy weapons like PPCs and Lasers have high heat to compensate for the fact that you don’t have to pack ammo for them, while ballistic weapons like Autocannons and Gauss Rifles have low heat because you’re limited by ammunition. This means that high-heat weapons are very problematic in MWO — energy weapons are at a serious disadvantage compared with other weapons, especially ballistics — and yet I’ve never seen the devs explain why they haven’t beefed up heat sinks to cope with the faster pace of MWO, and the game has had patch after patch without a single tweak to (or even mention of) this fundamental imbalance.

If you try mentioning this on the forums, however, you get a chorus of yes-men shouting you down with “it’s a beta, it’s not done yet”. Of course it’s a beta; of course I’m not judging it like a finished game. But there’s a difference between “this is buggy and incomplete” and “this is a fundamental design problem that the devs seem to be happy with”. This is the third problem with the game: the community. It’s entirely too full of mindless fans eager to applaud Piranha for everything they do. (Today on the forums I saw a long, detailed post of criticism and suggestions and the first response to it was literally “don’t worry, it’ll all turn out fine”.) I’m all for positivity and giving a game a fair chance to succeed, but this is meant to be a closed beta; this is the time to improve the game and solve the problems. Uncritical backpatting does nobody any favours.

The bottom line.

Right now, I have serious concerns about the long term playability of MWO. I want it to be a success, but some of the balancing decisions seem absolutely mystifying, and without more game modes and more tactical options I fear MWO will devolve into a mindless Assault mech slugfest that’s only satisfying to let off a bit of steam at the end of a long day.

  1. It also spawned a pen-and-paper roleplaying game and a series of very popular video games.

The trap of linearity

Tobold is experiencing Mists of Pandaria largely spoiler-free, and is concerned that MoP is shaping up to be just as linear as Cataclysm.

Blizzard is making most of their money from people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.

Mists of Pandaria might well turn out to be the worst expansion ever to level alts in. It has the linearity of Cataclysm zones, but where Catalysm had two possible zones to start in, Mists of Pandaria only has one. The Jade Forest might end up being more hated than Hellfire Peninsula, because in Hellfire at least you could skip the quests you didn’t like. All the talk you heard about Blizzard making MoP more casual-friendly is going to come to nothing if those casuals become bored of leveling alts due to linear questing.

An SWTOR mission

This is exactly the problem I encountered with SWTOR. The class quests are unique to your class, but the rest of the zones are incredibly linear, with very little room for deviation. The best you can do is try to get ahead on XP and skip side quests, but you can’t just ignore a zone planet completely even when you’re totally burnt out on it.

This pretty much killed any desire I had to play alts in a serious way in SWTOR, despite my interest in the different classes and their individual stories. It is, I think, probably the single biggest flaw with SWTOR: the replayability is very low1, which means that there’s little motivation to continue subscribing2 after you’ve played both factions to level cap. Even raiders need something to do outside of raid times.

Tangentially, The Secret World has the same problem — however, it’s less of an issue in TSW because you can do everything on one character (except experience the very small amount of faction-specific content), so a) there’s less impetus to play alts, and b) you’ve got a lot more to keep you busy on your main character anyway.

Totally linear quest progression is, I think, a design mistake for a traditional MMO. It may enable the devs to tell more interesting, engrossing and epic stories, but it’s at the expense of replayability, and replayability is where the MMO money is.

  1. Relative to most other MMOs.
  2. For most people.