Monday, 7 April 2014

The Happy Time

German U-Boat crews referred to the second half of 1940 as "Die Glückliche Zeit", when the Kriegsmarine had perfected their "Wolf Pack" tactics and British merchant fleets were poorly defended. They were easy pickings.

I felt a bit like a shark among the fish, a wolf among the sheep, this weekend in Hearthstone. The new season started with the official release, and after winning the obligatory three games to earn my hearthsteed, I more or less ignored it until this weekend. Too many other things going on. When I got back to it on Saturday, I realized what a great advertisement those hearthsteeds are. Practically everybody in  Azeroth is now playing Hearthstone, trying the game out (presumably having won their hearthsteed by now, and still enjoying it). And they are making all the foolish mistakes that everyone makes when they first start the game: decks that don't synergize, that ignore the particular strengths of their heroes, that are stacked with high cost cards.

We've all been there. If I could give one piece of advice, it would be this: if you're losing the early rounds due to a lack of low-mana cards, it's pretty unlikely that you'll make a comeback later. And in card-selection at the start of a game, replace any card that costs 4+ mana. Okay, so that's two pieces of advice.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Pre-ordering

As you know, Blizzard announced that you can now pre-order Warlords of Draenor now for €45 (or €60 for the deluxe version, which includes a mount and a pet). Blizzard say they'll deliver "on or before 20/12/2014", so why would anyone bother to pre-order now? Because of the free Level 90 Character Boost. Is your raid short of a particular role? Order Warlords of Draenor today, and you can probably have your new level 90 raid-ready in a week's time. I'm considering it to solve Paoquan's dilemma, and get a tank/healer for our raids.

Wilhelm Arcturus has a list of what you get with your insta-90.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Ransomware

The European Commission1 wants to stop games companies from misleading consumers about the true costs of games advertised as "free". Here's what Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for Consumer Policy says

  • Games advertised as “free” should not mislead consumers about the true costs involved;
  • Games should not contain direct exhortations to children to buy items in a game or to persuade an adult to buy items for them;
  • Consumers should be adequately informed about the payment arrangements and purchases should not be debited through default settings without consumers’ explicit consent;
  • Traders should provide an email address so that consumers can contact them in case of queries or complaints.
    [source]

One might imagine that such aims are laudable. After all, we are all well aware of how so-called "free" games (especially those on mobile platforms) have mostly morphed into the most blatant adware, trying to sell you the means to actually enjoy playing the game (through in-app purchases) you thought was free to play.

The most pernicious of these games wait until you've invested your time in the game before telling you that to continue playing you must pay money. In other words, they hold your personal investment (for instance, your character if its an RPG) to ransom until you pay them money. I don't mind paying money for games, but I do mind when a game advertises itself as free, and then asks me for money, so I'm very happy with the EC

Azuriel, who describes himself as "as pro-consumer as you can possibly get" is annoyed, though, by Mimica trying to define what "free" means. Especially that it might only be applied to "games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis".

I'm pretty pleased with the EC's proposals. If games companies want to sell stuff to us or our kids, it's right that they be up-front about the costs, rather than trying to hide behind the word free. Azuriel's view seems to be "if I can play any part of it for free, I'm happy with it being described as 'free'" (feel free to correct me if that's wrong, Azuriel). So for instance, he thinks Dungeon Keeper is a great example of a free game. Take a look at Thomas Baekdal's comparison of the current EA ransomware version of dungeon keeper and it's 1997 original version before you make up your mind.

There's no reason why we shouldn't demand that games companies be more upfront about the costs of playing a game. For instance, here's how these games could be described:


This is Thomas Baekdal's suggestion for fixing the problem. What's wrong with that?

These changes are coming. The EU is fed up with ransomware and is going to do something about it. The UK is fed up with ransomware and is going to do something about it. The US is fed up with ransomware and is going to do something about it. Make sure you have your say on what you want done. Commissioner Mimica can be contacted through http://ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/mimica/index_en.htm


1. The European Commission is basically the executive government of the European Union, and the Commissioners are the equivalent of ministers or departmental secretaries of state.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Tamriel revisited

I was back in Tamriel again, last weekend, for the second beta test of the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO). this time (unlike last), I managed to spend a lot of time 'on world' rather than in the downloader or the character creation screen. And I really enjoyed it. The quests were engaging, the difficulty level was sufficient to make it a dangerous place, and most quests didn't involve killing things, which is always a nice change in an MMO. Plenty of bugs; but the worst bug - being unable to exit a screen (for instance being unable to leave a conversation with a questgiver and return to controlling your character) could be got round with the magic mantra of /reloadui

The game plays similarly to Skyrim, but with a few changes for the better. For instance, a small action bar appears during, so you can see what keys are bound to what special attacks. Like in GW2, there are not many such bindings - Q, 1-5 and R. Which means one of your jobs is to select the subset of your abilities that you actually want to use. Contrast that with WoW wherein virtually all your abilities are bound to some button or other.

As in other Elder Scrolls games, you still move around by moving the mouse around on your screen to orient your viewpoint, and then you character runs to the centre of your screen when you press 'W'. Like in many First Person Shooter (FPS) games. Combat is also about making sure the enemy is in the centre of your screen which is where your attacks hit (again like an FPS). This means that your character's skill in killing enemies is a combination of your character's abilities (special attacks, stamina, and so on) and your own hand/eye co-ordination.

I imagine there'll be some sort of trading post or auction house, but if it was in the beta, I didn't find it.

Crafting is what you would expect from an Elder Scrolls game. You must go to a crafting station (for instance, a forge) with the ingredients you need, and if you have learnt the recipe and have sufficient skill to make it, you can make the base item, and you can add improvements (which you learn in the first place by "extracting" it from an item that already has the improvement, in the process destroying the item). Because there's also a time element to learning, I imagine it will take a long time to reach perfection!

So all in all, I liked the game. But here's the thing. Is it beautiful? That's the secret sauce that WoW has, that GW2 has, that Eve has, that many other games don't have. Their beauty. I'll be seeing these characters , these settings, these zones for months. Are they pleasing to look at? Skyrim is beautiful. WoW is beautiful in its cartoony way (though of course there are ugly zones we all can name and to which we will never return (Tol Barad, Isle of Thunder, Dread Wastes, Blade's Edge, I'm looking at you)). GW2 is beautiful. Rift? Attractive gear, attractive character models and attractive scenery are important in making us want to return day after day, week after week, year after year. The bits of ESO that I've seen so far have pleasant-looking surroundings, but I'm having a problem liking the character models in ESO. Some of the NPCs look like they were smashed in the face by with a frying pan. Of course, they can make the baddies as ugly as they like, since we're going to kill them. but you can't kill the "friendly" NPCs, so you've gotta put up with them (tell me again why anybody wants to be undead or an orc in WoW? I just don't get it).

That reminds me. In Skyrim, you could kill almost everyone (except the children), and live as an outlaw. Not so in ESO. I guess that would be too much like an invitation to grief. Shame. Some of those NPCs would look better with an axe through their skulls.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Enchanting and ilvl

I'm sure you noticed in a recent patch that the ilvl restrictions on enchantments (and other item enhancements) have been dropped. I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect it originated in the problems of enchanting heirloom items.

The problem with heirloom items is this: they are all nominally ilvl 1. That meant that enchantments that had ilvl restrictions could not be placed on heirloom items. Blizzard had three options in dealing with this:

  • Do nothing. Leave heirloom items and item enhancements as they are. This wasn't a terrible option, as a matter of fact. It would have meant that heirloom items couldn't have used the latest enchantments, because they were all targeted at ilvl 417 or better items. People had to make do with vanilla enchants and enhancements. While these may have been fine for low-level toons, they were not so useful at higher levels.
  • Scale the ilvl of heirloom items with character level. So, a level 10 character's heirlooms might be level 10, instead of level 1,and the same heirloom items on a level 80 might be ilvl 200, for instance. This would mean that the character could progress in the same way as every other character, re-enchanting gear as the gear they had breached the various ilvl barriers for enchanting and other enhancements.
  • Remove ilvl restrictions on enchantments, and instead scale the effect of the enchantment with character level. This is the solution that Blizzard chose. It has one big advantage for heirloom wearers: once a top-level enchant is applied, it need never be replaced. It just scales with character level, so it is very convenient for such characters. However, the scaling has a limit. For instance a Burning Crusade enchantment, originally designed for a level 70 character, never scales beyond level 70. It is capped at its effect on a level 70 character.

I'm sure that this convenience is the desired outcome for Blizzard. However it has had one or two unintended consequences. It starts with rare enchantments (such as Enchant Weapon - Spellpower, for instance) that were highly desired, as they were the best enchantments you could get for both heirlooms and low-level twinks. This meant that enchanters actively sought those rare enchantments and would pay dearly for them, which in turn drove adventurers to hunt them down in the world (in effect, it encouraged people to play content that they might otherwise not have seen). In particular, PvP players keenly sought out such enchantments.

That was then. Now PvE heirloom wearers just buy the top level enchantment, for convenience. It scales all the way to 90, whereas as noted, mid-level and low-level enchantments stop scaling before then. For PvP players, the calculation is a little more tricky, but their exact level will often lead them to pick the top-level enchantment, as well. The demand for mid-level and low-level enchantments is seriously reduced. Not to put too fine a point on it, sales of such enchantments have fallen off a cliff. As a result those already crafted were (and still are) being sold off much more cheaply than they used to be, and the crafters are not making any more.

This doesn't only apply to rare enchantments, though it is more pronounced with them. It applies to all low-level and mid-level enchantments. Even those who aren't willing to pay top-dollar for the rarest and best enchantments for their level, and would previously have bought a common mid-level enchantment are buying top-level enchantments, which are more easily found at auction and scale all the way to 90. Or they aren't buying enchantments at all. For levelling has become so much easier nowadays that fewer and fewer levellers are bothering to enchant their gear at all.

So the first consequence is that crafters are not crafting these enchantments (much). Nobody wants them. This reinforces the impression that crafting from level 1 to level 599 is a waste of time and money. There are few enchantments left at lower levels that are selling well (though some still survive, for their beauty rather than their utility). And of course, fewer people are hunting for the recipes.

The second major consequence is that with lower demand for lower level enchantments, there is lower demand for lower-level enchanting materials. But the supply hasn't changed much. The result is that the price of such enchanting mats is also in freefall. And it isn't just enchantments that this applies to. It's all permanent enhancements, such as spellthreads, gems, armor kits and so on. Low level characters are earning less from instances because the mats aren't pulling in as much money as before. Of course, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I expect this trend to continue, and for Blizzard to extend it to other items. What's to stop potions, elixirs and flasks being treated in the same way? Under the covers, heirloom gear is already being scaled, and its ilvl is also being scaled in a hidden way, so heirloom wearers can queue for dungeons that have ilvl restrictions on them. What's to stop armour being scaled in the same way?

Monday, 13 January 2014

Tamriel

Last night I dreamt I went to Tamriel again. It seemed to me I stood by the launcher leading to the login screen, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

The Elder Scrolls Online's weekend beta, and on Saturday morning, I remembered I hadn't downloaded it, so I went off with my weekend beta key to create an account and try it out. I didn't count on the size of the download. The launcher downloaded fast enough, a mere 5 minutes. But when I went to run it, and it started the download proper, I knew I was in for a long wait. It was huge! I'm not sure exactly how huge now, but it was a couple of dozen gigabytes. And it was downloading at a mere 200 kB/s. It took the whole weekend to download. I finally got in on Sunday night - well Monday morning is more accurate - when I should have been in bed.

But it had the familiar look and feel of the Elder Scrolls: WASD movement, body rotation using the mouse, 'E' for interactions. Combat (I only tried melee) similar Skyrim. And a dark setting, both figuratively and literally. For you begin your journey as a dead body. A wretch sacrificed to the Daedric prince Molag Bal. Awakening behind bars in the caverns of Coldharbour, missing something. Ah yes. Missing ...  my soul.

A breakout! Running into the caverns with the others, looking for weapons, searching every urn and chest for an advantage. Most of them only contain broth or porridge. How do you equip things again? Ah, that's it. Now I remember. Run now, run! Run towards the 'V'. Run toward your quest's end.

The opening scenario is very much in the MMO lone hero tradition (thousands of people playing a single-player game together). As far as I could tell, each of us lost souls was on their own quest, unable to help each other. I didn't mind. My big fear of about the Elder Scrolls Online is not Molag Bal's hell. No. L'enfer, c'est les autres. My big fear is other people breaking the immersive virtual world that is Nirn with anal jokes and lolspeak. There was none of that last night - I logged on too late to see many others, and I never figured out if there even exists a zone chat channel. Of course, I want to engage with others in Tamriel. But I hope the introduction sets us all in a frame of mind that will help us stay in the world, in character.

You/'ll remember that Skyrim has a lot of voice acting. So it was in Coldharbour. I'm sure I recognized the voices of John Cleese and Michael Gambon.

By the time I got out of the caverns, I was too tired to continue. And this morning, I can no longer access the server. The beta weekend is over. Was it a dream?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

On Choice

Dàchéng the mage in Azeroth was discussing morality yesterday. Today it is my turn. Me, her alter ego on Earth.

The boundaries of Dàchéng's world are set by Blizzard. Within those, she must make moral choices. But she can only make choices that are allowed by Blizzard. She can no more choose to attack King Varian Wrynn than I on Earth can choose to cast arcane barrage on a passing cyclist. The physics of these two worlds are different, and so are the moral choices available to the inhabitants of these two worlds. Like Saxsymage's rogue Saiphy, Dàchéng would like to help Vanessa Van Cleef. They cannot. The choice to do this is unavailable to them, just as the choice of taking Lordaeron back from the undead is not available to us, despite the efforts of many RP guilds on many realms. Though the adventurers of Azeroth wield unimaginable power, and can kill gods with the power of their thoughts, they cannot fix the gate in Lordaeron. They can't even chop a nearby tree down to fashion into a door. Those choices simply do not exist in Azeroth.

Sometimes we, the players on Earth, are reminded that some of the choices we can make on Earth are not available in Azeroth. That's when the game reminds us that we are just playing a game. That's one of the ways in which immersion breaks. The art of creating a great virtual world is to minimize these moments, by making it seem as if we have sufficient choice in Azeroth to direct our characters as our Earthly morals would dictate such a character would behave, or as we would behave if we were that character. And when we have the ability to make such choices, this is when we feel flow most, this is when we are most immersed.

Importantly, we bring our earthly morals into the make-believe world of the game, and (when we are fully immersed in the game) imbue the characters of the game with reality. We believe that these coloured dots on the computer screen are people. For of course it is not immoral to press F1 and make some coloured dots disappear. It's only when in the flow of the game that we can suffer moral quandaries by confusing these coloured dots with real people, and by confusing pressing F1 with ripping out their hearts.

A few years ago, Brenda Romero (Brenda Braithwaite as she was then) made a very interesting game called Train. In this game, you load yellow figurines into boxcars of a train, and then move your train along its course to its destination. Impeding your progress are a number of randomly drawn cards that can slow you down or derail you, free some of the figurines, and so on. When you reach your destination, its name is revealed as Auschwitz.

When described baldly like that, it may not evoke the same strong emotions in you as it did in the players. That's because they were immersed into the milieu by the board and its setup and by the gameplay, which were chosen to subconsciously evoke the Nazi era and put the players in the zone. You can read and watch an interview about it on the Wall Street Journal. What is fascinating to me is that, when players discovered what was going on in the game, they reacted as if those yellow figurines were real living, breathing people. They felt guilty about transporting the figurines to Auschwitz, and they tried to use the rules to free them. They were in the flow, immersed.

Of course, nobody dies. They are yellow figurines, not real people. But when you are immersed in the game, in any game, you treat it as real, and its rules as immutable like the laws of physics. Thus is is that people cry when their figurines reach the final destination, and are elated when they can use the rules to free the figurines or redirect the train. Yes. Even when they understand what's going on, they often still stick to the rules, trying to use them to subvert the final solution (rather than simply picking up the boxcars, emptying the figurines out, packing up the game and going home).

It is the same in Azeroth. We players are immersed in the game to the point of imbuing the citizens of Westfall with real lives, and of feeling evil when we kill the innocent. In fact, the point of the game is immersion in the virtual world of Azeroth, it certainly isn't for the exciting game-play.

But how do the inhabitants of this world feel? I know this is rather like asking if the yellow figurines are afraid or not. And yet it's a question that makes sense. If you were, in real life, in the situation that your toon is in, and you had her powers and abilities and history, what would you do? The answer to that is what pushes us to continue to play (rather than moving on to playing Tetris, for instance, whose moment-to-moment game-play is rather more intricate). We want to be immersed, but we can't help being Earthlings.

So when we are faced with a ludic choice that does not include the option we would like have (such as giving free candles to kobolds, and arranging to buy their ore), we players feel frustrated, and sometimes are brought out of our immersive state. But would our characters feel frustrated? Would they feel any more frustrated at not being able to help Vanessa  Van Cleef than we would at not being able to polymorph our neighbours? It just never occurred to me (before now) to want to polymorph my earthly neighbour. Perhaps in a world where the gods (Blizzard in the case of Azeroth) have not made some choices physically possible, our characters would be as unaware of the missing choice as we are about polymorph. That is to say, they might hypothetically amuse themselves imagining how great a world would be that allowed such a choice, but they know that in their world, it's all just fantasy.