January 2009

Camelot, er Warhammer Herald, er, Vault, er, LOOK IT IS A WEBSITE AND YOU GET NEW CLASSES AND STUFF

Big news in Warhammer land!

…as for the new careers, what can I say but they are both very, very cool.  Players have asked us for a year whether we would put the Choppa back in and many have asked (especially here on the Vault) that we please add the Slayer.

Mark Jacobs, not here on the Vault.

But hey, that’s not all. Darkness Falls is back! (Which is cool, I loved Legion and he loved me, especially in a stompy sort of way.)

I think it is very safe to say that DAoC’s Darkness Falls was one of the most successful addons to the game.  Over the last few months we’ve gotten a ton of feedback and requests (once again, here on the Vault) asking us to create a next-generation DF, and we are in the process of doing just that.

Mark Jacobs, still not on the Vault.

So congrats to Mythic, er, EA, er Mythic. LOOK NAMES ARE HARD.

Answering Tom Chick: Five Easy Pieces And One Snide One

Tom Chick is one of the (if not the) most influential video game writers out there. He also doesn’t like MMOs very much. This is a problem!

He lays out five reasons why not here. You should go read. When you come back, I have some helpful suggestions!

Problem one: Subscription fees

Well, um, not every MMO charges subscription fees. Guild Wars lets you play as much as you want once you buy the box. MMOs for teens like Maple Story and Runequest pioneered the model of “playing for free until you get addicted, then pay a little more”. Games like Puzzle Pirates let you pitch in a dollar or whatever when you need to. This isn’t an unsolved problem. What is an unsolved problem is that perception that subscription fees imply a level of quality in craftmanship, and “free products” are cut-rate. This is driven largely because at the moment, that’s how the market shakes out. After all, World of Warcraft charges a subscription fee, therefore, statistically speaking, all MMOs do! Right?

Problem two: Why do I have to install Omen again?

For those of you not being drug by your nose through World of Warcraft raiding, Omen is the name of a third party threat meter used to ensure your aggro management is precisely where it should be. Aggro is a key part of the Holy Trinity that to date every DikuMUD (muds descending from Diku code bases, as Raph Koster’s magisterial analysis describes), and the core combat mechanic hasn’t really changed that much in the intervening decades. You takes the beats, you heals the beats, you mitigate the beats, you spread the beats around. It’s all about the beats. Unless, you know, you fight other players, since other players are usually immune to taunting unless it takes place on message boards. Even in DikuCombat, PvP breaks the whole aggro paradigm. And there *are* other combat systems that have been introduced. They’re rare, and usually get roundly trounced in the marketplace because people enjoy the safe, secure embrace of take/heal/deal beats. Ultima Online, for example, is entirely apart from the whole DikuMUD aggro mechanic – it has aggro, but it’s dependent on lots of bizarre things such who hit what when and whether you had a bard and the phase of the moon and whatever. But, if you play World of Warcraft, that’s what you’re going to learn, since, statistically speaking, all MMOs are actually World of Warcraft.

Problem three: Why are there so many goddamn buttons on my screen?

Because you’re playing a Warlock? Because you’re raiding? The core World of Warcraft UI is actually pretty simple. It’s player-crafted addons that hoist it aloft into a F-16 HUD. But the real core problem is the button-mashing that, again, DikuCombat is dependent on. It’s an artifact of MMOs being client-server systems at their core; more interactive combat such as Oblivion’s sword slashing imposes a huge tax on latency and percieved responsiveness. There have been hacks (such as Age of Conan’s “autoattacking into space” directional attacks) but, in the main, World of Warcraft uses the same tried and true DikuCombat which means you’re going to be pressing the 1, 2 and 3 keys on your Rogue over and over. And statistically speaking, all World of Warcraft players are in fact Rogues (soon to be Death Knights).

Problem four: Why is there a line to kill Sauron?

World of Warcraft is, by its very nature, intentionally a static amusement park. You get on the ride, you experience thrills, chills, the occasional spill, and get to the end, at which point you get to do it all over, but for reputation points.  This is because if someone came before you and saved Bloodmyst Isle from the Sun Elf threat, you’d have a pretty damned boring time getting your space goat to level 20, wouldn’t you? There have been many attempts to address this problem – having player-generated content (such as UO’s Seers), having player-vs-player content (such as Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer’s Realm vs Realm fighting), or having procedurally generated content (such as Anarchy Online’s early stab at instancing and World of Warcraft’s current iteration of ‘phasing’). But… hey, I bet you know how this will conclude, and I won’t spoil it for the next 50 people doing this quest line. (Hint: ‘statistically speaking…’)

Problem five: I can’t go raiding with Bob with my level 6 paladin

That’s because, for whatever reason, World of Warcraft never implemented sidekicking or mentoring – the ability to temporarily boost yourself or lower your friend’s levels so that they can match, which is a key feature of pretty much every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft. Unfortunately, statistically speaking, every MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft doesn’t exist, so that’s probably why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Tom Chick’s core problem: MMO = World of Warcraft. This isn’t really a fair cop, as I have it on good authority that he’s fond of LOTRO, too. But still. Every screenshot in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every problem in his story is from World of Warcraft. Every time he says MMO, he really means World of Warcraft.

And you know, when one of the most influential game writers in the industry makes this mistake, and essentially writes a piece on “Why is World of Warcraft Like World of Warcraft?”, I think we have a problem bigger then aggro management.

Statistically speaking.

I Can Never Die. I Can Only Watch. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. As The Wheel Turns. And Time Continues Its Inexorable Path. And I Will Be Here As The World Flickers And Dies. And I Will Remember Hyperjump Is Shift-9.

A Brief History Of Computer Gaming

Battlecruiser 3000AD, 1997

Battlecruiser Millenium, 2001

Universal Combat, 2004

Universal Combat: A World Apart, 2005

Universal Combat: Collector’s Edition, 2007

All Aspect Warfare, 2009

I never have – and never will – design, fund and develop games for the masses. I cater to the same like minded folks who keep buying my games. Invariably, as with all games, you win some, you lose some. Doing what you love and being able to pay your bills so you continue to do just that, is the key to success.

So yeah, go ahead, laugh. Your Pink slip (to go with the Pink tutu) is just around the corner. Me? I get to make games.

— Derek Smart, game developer eternal.

Patch Day Goes Poorly For Some, Well For Others

Poorly: Blizzard, which decided Lich King’s release was going so well it was time to remind people what haphazard maintenance looks like.

Better: whitehouse.gov: Few complaints, still some class balance issues

Vice President

  • The Vice President has been correctly reclassified as a pet.
  • No longer immune to damage from the Legislative and Judicial classes.
  • The Vice President will no longer aggro on friendly targets. This bug was identified with Ranged Attacks and the Head Shot ability.
  • Reveal Identity: this debuff will no longer be able to target Covert Operatives.
  • Messages to and from the Vice President will now be correctly saved to the chat log.
  • A rendering bug was affecting the Vice President’s visibility, making him virtually invisible to the rest of the server. This has been addressed.

Note the developer response to QA testing, helpfully posted in the comments thread of that post a few down.

Reputation with various factions are being rebalanced. The gradated reputation scale was erroneously being overwritten by the binary For Us/ Against Us flag.

–Legacy scale has been restored. Please note that this use of fuzzy logic closely resembles the v.2000 and previous, which led to the v.2001.9.11 disaster, which, even if handled incorrectly, still has not been solved.

(Thanks to Darius at Tiny Subversions for the link)

RMT “Inevitable”? Not So Fast…

RedBedlam/Roma Victor founder Kerry Fraser-Robinson, previously best known for crucifying his user base, gives an interview where he makes controversial statements to gain publicity on blogsexhorts game developers who dislike gold farming to suck up and deal with it.

The closer you get to having a virtual world that has any kind of trading, barter or value system you have to take virtual economics very seriously. I strongly recommend that people at least allow for purchase and sale of gold within their game, otherwise third parties will and that will ruin their game. Even if it’s not their central revenue model they’ll still need to do that, if it’s a subscription game, they’ll still need to have at least the awareness and preferably the capacity for people to buy and sell currency in their virtual world.


I think part of the resistance to that is the same thing I was alluding to earlier, it’s another discipline and no company really wants to accept that there is a missing area in their knowledge that is required before they can embark upon a project.

I tend to agree with his source assumptions, but not his conclusions – for example a subscription MMO is not compelled to create currency out of the ether and sell it (as Roma Victor, Fraser-Robinson’s title does) simply because gold farmers exist. And Eve Online, which Fraser-Robinson praises effusively, is not the end-all and be-all of virtual economic thought in MMOs. For example, the “grey market” in game time cards for in-game currency, I suspect, is not a savvy co-opting of gold farmers so much as, I suspect, an accidental consequence of an unrelated marketing decision. Of course, accidental design in MMOs has a long and glorious history – raiding is born from Everquest adding monsters effectively impossible to kill and players deciding that no, actually, they’d be killed anyway.


I’ve talked before about how MMO companies need to re-examine their business models, and explicitly how gold farming tends to be an inevitability of a free market. To wit:

No reputable subscription-based MMO will sell you gold because, well, you’re already paying them money. Charging for in-game money or items is double dipping, right? No one would stand for that. But clearly the market is there regardless. And as long as that market is not served internally by the game developers themselves, it will be served by people who not only do not act in the best interests of the game as a whole, but have a very real financial incentive to act contrary to the interests of the game as a whole – gold duping, hacking the client, farms of unattended macro bots, whatever. Whereas a game who has gold selling as a revenue model (and it can be done without making a Entropia Universe-esque ponzi scheme of gameplay – dual currency models being IMHO the best way of hitting this from the design standpoint) puts those bad actors elegantly out of business, because no matter how low salaries are in whatever sweatshop, a gold farmer will never be able to compete with a SQL query for the cost of doing business.

But being open to RMT does not equal being compelled to enable RMT. A successful market implies the availability of options; there is a fairly large segment of the market that wants nothing to do with microtransactions. These people should not be told to go hang, any more so than the people who dislike subscription fees and prefer more granular per-access transactions should be told to go hang. A truly free market requires a minimum of managing intervention and the availability of options.


And most importantly, the viability of virtual gold sales as a business model does not mean that it should be added to all business models. Players who do not mind microtransaction-level virtual currency transactions in a free to play title would – quite correctly in my view – feel double-dipped if hustled for cash in a title they already paid for, and pay on a monthly basis to access. Virtual gold sales is a business model. It is not all business models. Tossing it in willy nilly, regardless of the impact on the game’s economy, simply will convince your customers that you’re out for short term gain at the long term expense of your game’s health. And they’d be correct.

Simply throwing up your hands and saying “farming happens” is as much an abdication of development responsibility as deciding your customer service staff will just deal with it in their free time. Much as how the great majority of free to play games have been hindered in the Western marketplace not so much due to their business model as to their lack of quality in comparison to better funded and executed traditional games, a solution to gold farming and RMT will require a bit more forethought and design than “screw it, open up a shopping cart on our web site!”

Or, as Linden Lab just announced yesterday, buy shopping carts that other people came up with.

The Real Hitler Problem

Strategy gaming blogger Troy Goodfellow links and comments on an article talking about a subject that often comes up in gaming, especially the strategy variety – how do you tell the story of the Greatest Generation without, well, its antithesis?

The point is made specifically in reference to Total War, which ironically, already deals with the Crusades, which has one or two parallels with certain latter-day events already.

When it comes to gaming, some pussy-footing around the subject of Hitler is actually a legal requirement – at least if you want to sell your game in Hitler’s adopted homeland. Modern Germany, which is a very, very different place from the Third Reich, has some pretty strict laws about the depiction of Nazi propaganda – which although from a libertarian stance may be theoretically objectionable, is entirely understandable given German history. From a gaming standpoint, this means that games set in World War 2 actually take place in an alternate history where Germany is run by the Kaiser, or his Prussian spiritual descendants, with the safer Iron Cross standing in for the objectionable swastika.

Goodfellow mentions this history, and I’ve written in the past both about overwrought gaming journalists decrying politically incorrect gaming subjects and the equally idiotic tendency of some mouth-breather members of the wargaming community to make a fetish of the German war machine. And ‘Poisoned Sponge”s article correctly notes the fallacy of a sterilized history in a “historical game”:

So the game has been arguably neutered to appease the PC (bad kind, not good kind) brigade, and will perhaps be lesser for it. I’m sure shooting huge lumps of metal at wooden boats will keep me interested, though. The point is, slavery is still very much an issue for a good deal of people in the world, mostly visible through the rampant racism still very much a part of many people’s lives. So it has been removed, in favour of keeping everyone happy. The problems with a Total War game held in the 20th or 21st Century is that instead of one political mine, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds.

The problem, though, that everyone seems to be dancing around: what, exactly, is *wrong* with depicting evil in gaming? Is it always a forbidden zone, to depict the other side of the coin, for a primitive fear that it might send a “message” that racist genocide is acceptable?

Take the example of Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Everyone knows the story of Columbine, and like everyone else at the time I posted an overwrought essay in shock exhorting everyone to take off their black trenchcoat and be excellent to one another. The author of SCMRPG had a signally better idea – he tried to make sense of it by exploring the motives and thoughts of the perpetrators and people surrounding them through a prism he was familiar with: a 1980’s era console RPG.

The mass media response was scathing. “A subculture that worships terrorists.” “A monstrosity.” “One of the worst games of all time.” And my favorite: “Exploitative”. This, from a media that usually sees little if anything wrong with an entire genre of music devoted to caricaturing urban black youth as hormone-driven thugs, or an entire genre of film devoted to ensuring that women who decide to have sex are punished with violent and cruel death. Exploitation is OK, it seems, if you don’t have anything to say.

And the same is true of gaming. It’s OK to deal with the age of colonization if you don’t depict slavery. It’s fine to depict World War Two if you purge it of the very Nazi symbology that helped make it such a horrible singularity of evil.  It’s OK to make games about the Iraq war if they’re set anywhere besides Iraq. And so on.

There are parallels in other media, of course. MASH was set in the Korean war because a TV comedy set in Vietnam wasn’t acceptable in the 1970s. But the accepted insistence that all history must be scrubbed and made kid-safe is not only in my mind unnecessary, it’s dangerous.

When Schindler’s List was released to theatres, it was the first time that many people had seen a graphic depiction of the Holocaust. And some teenagers laughed during screenings. Not only was their education so criminally deficient that the concept of Germans burning a race of people to ash was new to them, but they saw it as a well-made slasher movie.  Now of course, the great majority of people know what the Holocaust is, and the great majority of people who watched Schindler’s List teared up at the appropriate moments. But – do the reaction of the idiotic few mean that Schindler’s List should never have been made? Was there a danger that people would sympathize with Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of an SS officer? Was there even a serious discussion that this might be an issue?

Of course not, but the response might be that games, inherently interactive, have a greater responsibility not to play slasher movie tricks and ask the gamer to take the mind of the Evil. Which is also a fallacy. We have no problem making first-person shooters where players can commit their own little genocides. Although America’s Army magically ensures that players are always on the Good Guys Team, most shooters, such as Battlefield 2, have no problem allowing players to take the ‘role’ of the Chinese or the Middle Eastern Generic Bad Guy Coalition. And most role playing games let you make some quite evil choices, indeed.  Are strategy games different because they are more serious?

One game that helps answer that question is a bit more relevant of late than usual. Peacemaker, which I reviewed on its merits as a game earlier, is a ‘serious game’ that allows you to take the role of an Israeli prime minister or a fictionally technocratic Palestinian government. Its strength isn’t as a classic strategy game, but as a teaching tool that educates its player about the stark choices and consequences facing either side.

Yet here again, we see the backing from the abyss of “objectionable content”. Peacemaker was released in 2007, when Fatah was fighting with Hamas over control of the Palestinian Authority (a battle they would lose, first at the ballot box, then later reinforced at gunpoint). The Palestinian player does not take the role of either Fatah or its Hamas rivals, but a ‘third way’ government that seeks to make Palestine a safer, better place. It’s a nice, Western-leaning, comfortable role. And it’s utterly at odds with the reality of Palestinian politics, where ‘moderates’ poll in the single digits.

Perhaps it was thought that Western players would not sympathize with a Palestinian government that sent suicide bombers off to die. But the game was released not only for the Western market, but also translated into Hebrew and Arabic. The makers had the worthy goal of educating each side how the other side lived. And they got Israel’s dilemmas mostly right – the eternal balance between the iron glove of security smashing all it encounters and the loose embrace of those who want to kill you. But the Palestinian side is mostly wrong. You win by investing in infrastructure and flooding the streets with troops to stop Hamas and Fatah from attacking Israel, at which point Israel says “Ok, we’ll give you everything you want.” But this isn’t accurate at all. Israel doesn’t want to give Palestine everything it wants, even if Palestinians embrace peace, and Hamas and Fatah won’t be stopped by police – they ARE the police. The goal of education here fails because of a desire to make the message safer.

Messages aren’t always safe. They shouldn’t always be safe. And as long as we shy away from the unsafe messages to make serious points, such as the horrors of World War 2 (be it German ethnic annihilation, Soviet slave labor, or Allied terror bombing) or the alien-to-us motives of Islamic fundamentalists, we will continue to be defined as the industry where the best we can come up with are thugs and orcs.