SWTOR Rolls Out Unique Retention Program

It’s now November, 2013.  Almost two years since the highly-anticipated launch of EA and Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO, to fanfares and wild cheering.  And almost one year since it went free-to-play, with embarrassed shuffling of feet and a nervous cough.

One of the first eyebrow-raising features of SWTOR’s F2P model was the feature list detailing… well, take a look.  Mind you, that wasn’t some angry-fan infographic.  That was direct from their own marketing website.  A year later, it hasn’t changed much at all.

This month, Bioware’s come up with an even more innovative way to get players to log into the game: come back to your toons now or we’ll take their names.

No, really.  I recently received this email (oddly, they don’t have this on their website, so here’s the text I got):

Hello,

We wanted to let you know that on November 12, 2013, we will be initiating a “Character Name Renewal” program which could affect some of your characters.

If you are a Free-to-Play player:

  • If your character is below level 10, and you have not played that character in the last 60 days, your character will be flagged for rename.
  • If your character is below level 30, and you have not played that character in the last 120 days, your character will be flagged for rename.
  • Characters level 30 and above will be unaffected.

If you are a Preferred Status player:

  • If your character is below level 10, and you have not played that character in the last 90 days, your character will be flagged for rename
  • If your character is below level 30, and you have not played that character in the last 180 days, your character will be flagged for rename.
  • Characters level 30 and above will be unaffected.

If you are or become a Subscriber:

  • You will be unaffected by this Character Name Renewal program.

So no, this will not affect most “main” toons.  But Bioware was always telling us how they envisioned endgame content to be “go back and play alts!”  Trying new classes and storylines was part of the appeal.  I’d imagine many players, like myself, had a number of alts they started, enjoyed, and rather liked the names of.

Never have I seen a program that threatens a player to return to the game now or else.  Incentives are, ah, somewhat more common.  But as of this writing, all my alts’ names are gone.

When they first went free-to-play, I decided to return and take a look around.  I had a few million credits on my main character.  After logging in, I noticed that I had 300,000.  Apparently, they’d instituted a credit cap of 300k for all free – or even “preferred” – accounts.  They just truncated my credits to the limit, which was buried in their interminable F2P FAQ somewhere.  Who the hell would have suspected such a thing?

When I got this “all your names are belong to us” email, I reached out to customer service via email and asked them, if I returned, would I get my swiped credits back?  I never received a response of any kind.

This is the core of the EA / Bioware MMO philosophy. Elsewhere, all over the Interwebz, game companies are attempting to build engaging reasons to stay in the game and make it part of your online home.  To draw you in; to provide a fun setting that makes you say, yes, I want to come here with some of my valuable and limited free time!

But BWEA laughs at such silly notions.  Their concept seems to revolve around:  if we make playing an annoying experience, the player will be forced to buy addons to make it less annoying.  This was absolutely in-line with everything we ever heard from Riccitello, prior to his departure.

If you navigate to the Support section of the website and scroll down the “Free to Play FAQ,” you’ll see a long list of questions with no answers.  Each answer is found only when following the link.

Why is this important?  Because a FAQ is meant to be an at-a-glance resource for quickly gaining the info you want.  It’s for fast answers to simple questions.  This exploded view requiring back-and-forth navigation is designed to prevent precisely that.  It’s meant to discourage learning the gritty details.

Also buried in a maze of FAQ and Support links is the current version of that laughable chart.  I said it hadn’t changed much; judge for yourself.  And it doesn’t even tell the whole story of just how annoying all those neutered features really are.

For example, a primary feature of the crafting system in swtor was the ability to queue up a number of items at once; crafting is time-consuming but essentially a non-action.  You pick what you want from your menu, and time passes, and then it’s done, provided you had the materials.  As the system can take real-time hours, its saving grace is the ability to queue up a bunch of stuff and then go do something else for a OH GOD

Please note that Preferred Status and Free-to-Play Players  will be able to send fewer Companions on Missions and may not craft more than one item per Companion at a time.

I could go on (oh COULD I EVER) with specific examples – sprint is a good one, let’s make the free players WALK REAL SLOW for 10 levels, that’s sure to make them want to give you money – but it’s not a matter of a few features to be tweaked, a few mechanics to be fixed.  The issues with SWTOR go right to their core philosophy, their entire style and approach to F2P.

A good start would be ditching all the outdated systems it stole directly from World of Warcraft. Blizzard had, itself, around the same time as the SWTOR launch, been dumping those systems as outdated and not very fun.  Microtransactions, pay to be less annoyed, cheap plastic versions of other companies’ systems… all these are the legacy of Riccitello’s reign.  This makes his recent rant against poorly placed micro and copycats especially ironic… or perhaps simply delusional.  Whatever the real source of these terrible design decisions,  it’s not something that can be fixed with any patch or update.  It needs a complete rebuild from the ground up.

SWTOR and CoH

So.

I can’t help but notice that Star Wars: The Old Republic has, just yesterday, finally gone Freemium. It’s adopted the same “free to play but please sub anyway and we’ll throw you fluff and never mind the complete lack of MMO basics” model as City of Heroes… which, itself, is finally closing down for good at the end of this same month, having failed to get anywhere for a couple years under the same model.

Bioware’s really taken an admirable stand against learning lessons, hasn’t it?

Defense Grid 2 on Kickstarter

Friends, I have news of vital importance to share with you.

Forget Zynga and Facebook stock deathspirals, or the upcoming legal brawl between Zynga and EA.  Never mind Star Wars the Free Republic, or how many subs Blizz didn’t even notice they lost, or the sad yet strangely admirable hope displayed by Mass Effect fans upon learning of yet another upcoming ME3 DLC.

No, screw all that.  There’s going to be a new Defense Grid.

Or at least, there should be.  Hidden Path has a project on Kickstarter to fund Defense Grid 2, and gives us a roadmap of different funding milestones they hope to hit, and what we can expect to get as content in return.  This is an important event in a couple ways.

First, let’s back up a bit.  Never heard of Defense Grid? It’s a great little tower-defense game that reminds me of an immobile RTS, in look and feel.  It’s got a great little story that doesn’t take one second of stop-game-cutscene to tell, with Tim Ward as the voice of your narrator / advisor.  Have you watched or played any excellent animated films or games in the last forever?  Then you’ve heard Mr. Ward’s voice.  And speaking of voices, it has GlaDOS guest-starring in DLC available on Steam.

I’ve seen a number of triple-A disappointments from major publishers over the last year and a half, and I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment.  I’ve been ranting about how games like Bastion, developed by indie studios and released to the world via platforms like Steam, is the way out of the rising-price, shrinking-gameplay, corner-cutting quality we’re being offered with alarming frequency.

I won’t bother waving my arms and yelling about how Kickstarter’s the way to a future golden age of crowdsourced, consumer-driven utopianess, because even if it is, you’re probably sick of hearing about it and only time will tell, anyway.  So let’s get back to the subject at hand: donate!

Steam’s been a source of great deals on amazing games.  Here’s taking it a step further: contribute just 15 bucks to the Kickstarter project, and you’ll get DG2 when it comes out.  You’ll also get the original Defense Grid immediately, as soon as they confirm you as a paying backer.

Think about this: on Steam, you can by the orignal DG for around $10.  But by funding the Kickstarter project at $15, you’ll get both games.

If for some reason you’re unfamiliar with Kickstarter, take a look at the link I keep plastering around this post and note the “pledge-reward” list down the right-hand side.  $30, for example, will get you both games, all DLC for DG1, the soundtrack to DG2, and more.  One drily notes that this implies the soundtrack to DG2 will have more than one tune.

Really, I’m trying hard to resist just pasting the link to the Kickstarter project down the rest of the page.  Anyone know the length limit on a WordPress post…?

There’s a video there you should watch, with endorsements by some gaming luminaries as well as a pitch by Hidden Path themselves.  With 6 days to go, they’re just short of the $250k mark, the first milestone.

But why is this important?  Well, not because this is a potential shift in industry dynamics, or a paradigm change, nor is it indicative of changing priorities in the casual gamer market, nor any other Gorram buzzword-laden catchphrase.

What this is, is a right-now effective way of saying, hey, I heard you liked this game?  We’d like to make another.  Instead of getting up-front large publisher funding, then trying to frontload sales of a product that then gets rushed out on an artificial deadline, with overpriced trinkets packed up in a Collector’s Edition… here’s a chance for you to essentially piece together your own, personalized CE of the game.  You can get some, none, a few or a bunch of goodies in, and about, the game.

Or, you can just toss them ten bucks because you’re a gamer and you want to see this sort of thing happen more often.

Kiss My Mass: Bioware’s Starchild Flip-Off

So here’s a funny story.  This is full of spoilers about the end of ME3 and especially the EC, obviously.

Bioware’s greatly anticipated (and slightly feared) Extended Cut for the end of Mass Effect is here.  Oh, is it ever here.  It’s had the effect of making new ripples in the pond less akin to a pebble and more closely resembling a tactical nuke.

What the EC does right is marred by the fact that Bioware pretended it wasn’t going to fix anything, wasn’t going to make changes.  This was stressed so often and so clearly that many folks following the story – myself included – felt it was a signal to give up; no new gameplay, no new choices, no changes to the plot.  “Clarity and closure,” they said, to show us what happens to Shepard’s squadmates and the galaxy.

Well, that all turned out to be absolutely untrue.  This is not doing anything good for Bioware’s track record on truthful communications, but the manner they chose to go about it is… interesting.

Firstly, what’s done right.  If you don’t want to replay the last 3 hours of the game, the Forbes triad of game tech and industry bloggers have covered it extensively (have a gander at my sidebar to the right there).  For a nice convenient grouping of all four endings, see Erik Kain’s reaction.  We’ll get to that fourth ending in a minute…

[Update to that: Erik's linked to Raymond Neilson's excellent analysis and a slightly different perspective on the whole thing.  I'm not sure their humility was all that intentional, but it does give one the ability to reject the whole thing beyond just quitting the game.]

You – okay, I – can divide the problems with the ending into two categories.  Let’s call them the mechanical and the philosophical.  What the EC fixes are some of the mechanical issues.  For example, legions of players were horrified at the destruction of the Mass Relays and the detonation of the Citadel above Earth.  Isolated colonies, stranded military units, displaced refugees, and not all of them able to eat each others’ food… the galaxy of Mass Effect depends on the Relays, and their sudden removal would kill billions.

This is, by the way, a critical plot point of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series.  It is not similar, it is identical.  Evil machines, who are parasites to us, have made us dependent on this technology We’re Not Ready For, so it Must Be Destroyed, no matter the cost in lives and upheaval to civilization.

Well, the EC retcons that right out.  Just like that; the relays are now “severely damaged, but can be rebuilt.  Everything can be rebuilt.”  The Citadel does not vaporize.  The character of Admiral Hackett (voiced by Lance Henrikssen) stresses this so often it’s almost comical, really.  It’s a direct result of players having pointed out the deep flaws with the original ending, and, despite protesting that they never would, Bioware changed the ending.

Less central to the plot, but still amusing, are the changes to Joker as the Normandy flees the shockwave of the energies released when one of the Bespoke choices are made.  In the original, he’s a frantic mess, and the Normandy is coming apart at the seams; in one odd moment, he looks behind him, like he’s trying to check the rear window to see if the shockwave is gaining on them…

That’s fixed too.  His movements are more precise, controlled, a bit grim but not wildly panicked.  This is a good change.  He does not, of course, look over his shoulder.

There are some slideshows showing “and everyone got to go home.”  This is not ideal, but not a major problem.  The retcon that leaves the Relays usable (somehow) and the Citadel unexploded makes this possible, so that’s fine.

What’s not fine is the new, fourth choice.

You have to have some background for this: all along, a vocal group of creative, motivated fans have tried to get some desperate sign from Bioware that they understood the criticisms of the Starchild; the literal Deus Ex Machina (which creates a ME3 ending choice identical to the game Deus Ex from 2000, down to the three colors) that suddenly, in the last 10 minutes of the game, appears out of nowhere and hijacks the game from the player.

You can’t argue with him, you can’t shoot him in the face.  You can’t point out how deeply flawed his logic is; every point he raises, you have, as the player, disproven through gameplay.   The flaws of the Starchild are well documented all over the web.  Hell, there’s a half-hour Youtube video that says it all perfectly.

What’s new here is you can now shoot him in the face.  For the less violent, you can argue with him; you can tell it you reject its choices.

Put yourself in the shoes of one of these dissatisfied customers for a minute.  You get to this point, and exactly what you wanted is there.  Against all hope, against everything Bioware said they would do, here is your option to disbelieve the Godboi.  Faith restored!  Joyful celebrating!

Finally, you tell the Godboi to piss off for the last time, and suddenly the antagonist of the series – Harbinger – says, “SO BE IT,” and the Godboi fades.

If you don’t know the story here, it cannot be stressed enough how important that is.  It is what a strong faction of fans have maintained all along; the Godboi IS the wrong choice, rejecting it IS what you should do.  It’s a last-ditch attempt by the Bad Guy to derail the hero when he’s beat half to death and within sight of his goal.

If you’re one of these players, you, at that moment, have just had your dreams come true.

And then everyone dies you lose ha ha the end.  Roll credits.

Seriously, just like that.  There’s some mealy-mouthed exposition at the end about how “and later, we won thanks to Shepard!” which is not supported by anything remotely resembling an explanation.  And that’s that.  Now go back and choose one of our A-B-C endings like a good little fan.

It gets better, though.  There have been a few people on the Bioware ME3 forums who’re asking, “WTF?”  Why the insult, Bioware?  After all this, after all the things you said were cut from lack of budget, you produce a fully voiced, animated ending just to tell us to go to hell?  Really?

It’s a shame Bioware felt the need to stoop to such childish, petty shots.  A Bioware employee came into one such thread to deflect it.  I’m going to end this post by reproducing my replies to his post in their entirety; I think it speaks for itself.

Alan Shumacher of Bioware asked:

Just to be clear, would you have preferred there to be no refuse option at all, to what was provided?

It IS shorter, but is it really dismissive?  If it was just to be a shot at the fanbase, wouldn’t it have been better to just say “oh well you lose” and wrap it up there?

Instead we get a video showing Liara talking about our past experiences and even get a unique sequence with a Stargazer where Shepard’s legacy lives on based on what the future cycle learned from all of his hard work.

In fact, even with the refuse ending, the galaxy is still ultimately able to break free of the Reapers and largely holds Shepard responsible for being able to do so.

 

Does this post bother you in a way you can’t quite put your finger on?  Let’s break it down.  Here’s my reply to Mr. Schumacher, verbatim from the boards:

Allan Schumacher wrote…

Just to be clear, would you have preferred there to be no refuse option at all, to what was provided?

False choice.

You cannot be unaware of every issue brought up with the ending by now.  It is very telling that your first question is “well if it was that or nothing, would you really want nothing?” instead of addressing why a large number of people could interpret such a thing as a cheap shot.  Would you prefer I ignore you, or kick you in the nuts?  That’s no kind of choice at all, and I’m pretty sure you know that.

It IS shorter, but is it really dismissive?  If it was just to be a shot at the fanbase, wouldn’t it have been better to just say “oh well you lose” and wrap it up there?

False logic.  “If we were going to insult you, wouldn’t we have done a more efficient job of it?”  Again, sidestepping the issue of the content of the 4th ending and deflecting it to “huh? what? why would we do such a thing?”  But let me answer your question: yes, it is dismissive.  You sucker us in to thinking, holy crap, they’ve really pulled off something amazing here…. Harby is Godboi like the Indoc folks said he was!  Shep’s rejecting the IM and Saren choices, and refusing to commit genocide on the Geth!  And then, you just pull the rug out.

Are you really proud of this?  Will you look back on this moment in your career, and think, you know, we really did something worthwhile there?

Instead we get a video showing Liara talking about our past experiences and even get a unique sequence with a Stargazer where Shepard’s legacy lives on based on what the future cycle learned from all of his hard work.

In fact, even with the refuse ending, the galaxy is still ultimately able to break free of the Reapers and largely holds Shepard responsible for being able to do so.

Right.

We get a bunch of exposition saying “and then we win.”  How?  So someone else made the choice that Shepard rejected?  Makes his choice kind of hollow, doesn’t it?

Or did they win in some way that did not use the Crucible and the Godboi?  If it was based on Shepard’s work, why didn’t, you know, the people directly involved with Shepard’s work win?

There’s no mechanism here and I’m sure there’s no answer to it, because it’s easy to type “and then we win” into a script without knowing, yourself, how that would happen.

Your attempt to deflect this, and the entirety of the 4th choice ending, does not stand up to the slightest amount of logical scrutiny.  Just like the original endings.  So no; nothing has been achieved other than a very expensive slap delivered to people who actually cared about your company and your story.  Well done.

Why work for Zynga?

Over at Quora.com, this question is answered by Zynga’s own Chief Engineer, Kostadis Roussos. It’s a long and interesting answer, and along the way, he provides an excellent insight into what “paradigm shift” really means when it’s not a bloody catchphrase used to euphamize “let’s stop screwing up now.”

38 Studios: Speaking Ill of the Dead

If you look at the varied coverage of 38 Studios’ incredible meltdown, two pictures emerge.

In one, we have a company that would’ve pulled itself out of the fire if only the government hadn’t sabotaged them.Gamasutra has an article where anonymous former employees absolve Schilling of any real responsibility, faulting only his “naive optimism.”  It cites “outraged sources” blaming politics for the demise of the studio, and claims no financial wrongdoing on the part of 38.  The Providence Journal cites Schilling’s claim that “state economic-development officials reneged on a deal to approve film tax credits to which 38 Studios was legally entitled.”  There’s also the repeated claim that Governor Chafee’s statements regarding 38′s solvency ruined deals in the making.

Overall, we have a founder well-loved by his employees, who was misled by the government and whose venture might have attracted more investment had the state not scared them away.

There’s a number of things wrong with that picture.  Here’s another one that starts with some questions:

Why was the company in trouble to begin with?  Why were we at a point where it needed yet more angel investors and payment deferrals from the government in order to stay afloat? Scott Jennings at Broken Toys notes that it’s a bit questionable when you’ve been as rabidly anti-government and anti-stimulus as Schilling has, but are okay with them when you can get some – when you’re on Fox News talking about how you’re tired of people blaming others for their own lack of success – to then try to sell the story that your own failure is the Gummint’s fault.

So 38 Studios managed to kill its cash flow, then sought outside help to fix it.  There’s some evidence that these tax credits Schilling complains about weren’t really handled well.  Specifically, they may have been depending on income from selling tax credits they hadn’t been issued yet.  When you create a chain where you sell something you haven’t gotten yet, using future sales to pay off prior purchases, that’s called a Ponzi Scheme.

Even the ex-employees cited in that Gamasutra article don’t seem to understand this.  They innocently reveal that Schilling’s MO was to chase after funding to avoid 11th-hour shortfalls:

Employees never had warning when the company was going to miss its payroll because apparently Schilling had been all but certain another investor was coming through, up to the last minute. Employees say they later learned that on two occasions the threat of being unable to make payroll had been alleviated by savior investors, so on that third occasion, Schilling had just been counting on something to manifest — and that didn’t happen in time.

There are just so many things wrong with all this.  His grand plan was “just counting on something to manifest?”  This is not the business model of the fiscally responsible.  For someone who considers himself a conservative, it’s just odd.

It gets even odder when you take a look at a Gamasutra article about the initial loan.  This was two years ago, in June 2010:

State Treasurer Frank T. Caprio, who is also the Democratic candidate for governor, also challenged the loan independently of Chafee by sending a letter to the EDC board requesting that the state be allowed to attend 38 Studios board meetings and hold equity in the company. He also prepared a list of recommendations for the deal that includes a penalty if the company eliminates jobs too rapidly.

Democratic general treasurer candidate Gina M. Raimondo also voiced strong feelings against the loan and the high risks involved, specifically because 38 Studios have yet to release a title. She also noted that there are a large number of venture capital firms in the area and that she felt it was worth noting that Schilling’s project did not attract backing from any of them.

So… we had two state officials involved with finance who were really not into this idea AT ALL.  Raimondo’s final comment is interesting as well, and worth considering further, I think.

And the current Governor, Lincoln Chafee? The guy Schilling wants to blame for his current failures?  He had something to say in 2010 as well, when he was just recently a senator:

The Providence Business Journal reports that Chafee had made a request to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation to reconsider and suspend their support of Schilling’s project until the board has properly investigated public proposals from other companies in the area, citing “high risk” as one of his key reasons for the appeal.

(Chafee was elected as an Independent, in case you were hoping for a partisan angle.)

All of these concerns were overridden, apparently.

Then there are the “former employee sources,” who want to paint Schilling as an innocent victim here.

Firstly, there’s a simple matter of professionalism.  There are a few things about publicly bad-mouthing a former employer in a tight-knight industry.  One, it’s bad form.  Two, it’s potential suicide.  Three, it may negatively impact any future legal action.

Oh hey look over here!  We have some potential legal action:

Workers said the company, which laid off its employees on May 24, stopped issuing paychecks after April 30. The firm had more than 400 full-time employees and contractors in Rhode Island and Maryland.

Laura Hart, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, said Wednesday that the agency was conducting “an active investigation” into the wage situation at 38 Studios. “If there are unpaid-wage complaints, we are going to pursue them,” she said.

See, here’s the thing.  The story about employees continuing to work after not getting paid?  Sounds very heart-warming, and it seems to me like it was certainly spun that way.  But step back a moment and consider the reality.

One thing no one disputes is that employees were kept in the dark right up until the layoffs.  If your job is having financial issues, but no one gives you any indication of how bad things really are, do you just quit and go home?  Leave what you still think is going to be gainful employment?

Apart from that, this paints a far less-rosy picture of the environment at 38:

Some employees felt they had to continue working without pay for fear they would be fired and not qualify for unemployment benefits, said the former manager, who asked not to be named.

“Fear” is not usually associated with an environment where you feel like the boss has your back.  It’s also, um, kind of illegal to just not pay your employees.  A more common (and legal) tactic is an across-the-board pay cut; it sucks, but it’s meant to show investors and creditors that you’re serious about tightening up your financials, as well as save on payroll.  However, just not paying people anything, without warning, is not legal.  An upcoming audit may reveal where all the money went.

I’d like to take a similar step back from the idea that Schilling had investors lined up who were “scared off” by the Governor’s public statements.  This is just face-palmingly ridiculous.  Investors do not read blogs to research potential companies to send money to.  There’s this thing called Due Diligence where they conduct a thorough investigation of the company’s financial state, management, business plan… you don’t just throw away a multi-million dollar deal because the guv’nor said some unkind things.

Lastly we have a bit of Stockholm Syndrome; those who want to believe that Schilling is above all blame.

Schilling was the boss.  The big cheese, the guy on top.  There is no higher position of responsibility in the company.  If the upper management he hired wasn’t performing, it was his task to correct or replace them.  If you claim the position of highest authority and privilege, you’re where the buck stops.  This really should be self-evident.

I’m sorry for the hardships being endured now by some talented folks who thought they’d be starting a new voice in the industry.  I hope they can move forward without nostalgia and do what needs to be done to protect themselves.

In the meantime, I am extremely disinclined to lend any weight to Curt Schilling’s proclamation of victimhood.

UPDATE: It looks like at least some of the developers from 38 Studios will have a home at Epic Games.

Authenticators: Time to Make Them Mandatory

Paul Tassi at Forbes Games sparked a pretty intense debate over his account’s security.  It’s unknown whether this was an account compromise or an actual hack, and calling the firestorm that swept through his comments section a “debate” is cleaning it up quite a bit.  Browse through them, but they’re not for the faint-of-heart.

Through all the heat, Paul raises one question I don’t think anyone has a good answer for: if Authenticators are really the last effective line of defense, in an environment where even a savvy user can be infected through no fault of their own (see the bottom of my Security for Gamers for some examples), why aren’t they required?

Some folks may know that seatbelts were once an option on new cars.  You had to request them, and pay for them.  My dad, who was an ambulance crew chief at the local volunteer FD, once told me the guys at the station had a saying: “I’ve never unbuckled a dead body.”  Someone who doesn’t like seatbelts will tell you some horror story about being trapped in a burning wreck or other nonsense, but the fact is that seatbelts not only save lives, they let you keep control of the vehicle if things start to go wrong (by keeping you in the driver’s seat).

The parallel is obvious.  Authenticators are internet seatbelts.  Nothing will make you 100% safe, but I think 99.9% is pretty good, yes?  Let’s also consider your bank account.  Do you bank online, ever?  Do you play internet-connected games from the same computer you do your banking from?  Does your bank offer an authenticator?

Whatever happens with Diablo III, and whether or not this was really a breach against Blizzard or a string of account compromises, it’s time to make authenticators mandatory for high-value targets.

Security Breach

There’s been a lot of rage and misinformation regarding Diablo III.  On the Blizzard official forums and many industry sites, rumors and finger-pointing have quickly escalated to the point where real information is hard to come by.

There’s so much static that customers new to these events rightly question any new piece of information they run across.  More unfortunate are the players who are not questioning the conspiracy of the day, or who smugly believe themselves immune to compromise because they “don’t click on dumb links.”

I’ve written a security primer for gamers.  I named it that mainly because “stuff everyone should know” sounds a lot more vague… there’s a startling lack of basic concepts being flung around, and it’s worrying.

For starters, no one has demonstrated any hack.  People have latched onto the phrase “session key!” and flung it around with no proof-of-concept, meaning, “reasonable example of how such an exploit would work in a real-world scenario.”   What we have are account compromises.  There’s also a severe underestimation of the state of the internet, and what a hostile environment it is.

World War III is being waged on the internet right now.  Much of it is simply economic; there are independent thieves and vandals, but more often than not, there are organized and widespread criminal groups who decided years ago that some of the billions of dollars on the internet should find its way into their pockets.  Aside from that, there’s real state-actor espionage and sabotage occurring on a daily basis.

As an example of how nuts it is out there, I’d like to introduce you to Flame.  This isn’t science fiction.  This is real, and happening right now, and you are not immune to it.  Not at work, not at school, not at home.  Not at your small business.  No one thinks they’re part of a botnet, because that’s how botnets work.  They’re ineffective if they’re detected.  They work in stealth mode, and they let you keep using your computer for the most part, and if you notice things running a bit slower than they used to, or the odd crash now and then… hey, that’s Windows, right?  Or you blame it on your game client.

Among Flame’s many modules is one that turns on the internal microphone of an infected machine to secretly record conversations that occur either over Skype or in the computer’s near vicinity; a module that turns Bluetooth-enabled computers into a Bluetooth beacon, which scans for other Bluetooth-enabled devices in the vicinity to siphon names and phone numbers from their contacts folder; and a module that grabs and stores frequent screenshots of activity on the machine, such as instant-messaging and e-mail communications, and sends them via a covert SSL channel to the attackers’ command-and-control servers.

You are a target because you own a computer that’s connected to the internet.  Educate yourself.

Why Trying to be Warcraft Will Probably Fail, While Eve Online Points and Laughs

The fastest way to curse an MMO is to hail it as “the WoW killer.”

Despite the World of Warcraft’s standing as a bizarre mutant outlier, new MMOs still chase after Blizzard’s income and subscriber base.  New MMOs are analyzed by its estimated playerbase; backers want to see big numbers there, and all of them quietly hope they’ll rival Blizzard’s.  Is this realistic?  Is it even desirable, as a goal to chase?

Comparing Warcraft and Eve Online usually goes badly.  The vast differences in play style between the two, and the infamy of Eve players’ antics, overwhelms the topic.  Developers balk at its play style and perceptions of its playerbase, and overlook some important lessons CCP could teach them.

Consider: Six months after launch, SWTOR seems to be struggling. EA declared that half a million subs would keep the game profitable.  It currently claims around 1.3 million, and yet there have been layoffs, and an increasingly discontented customer base.

CCP, by comparison, had bought back the publishing rights to Eve Online within seven months of its launch.  They did this while not being affiliated with any of the major game industry players. This speaks volumes about relative costs of development, efficiency, and management

I see some strong parallels between the SWTOR launch and Google+.  Some looked at G+, decided it was too much like Facebook where they were already established and invested in, and abandoned it.  Others became fanatical adherents of G+ and seem to repeat a theme of it being not Facebook; that is, despite their similar function and structure, negative feelings about Facebook make them feel better about G+, to the point of frequent G+ memes being a smug and self-congratulatory declaration of not being Facebook users.

Warcraft causes a similar phenomenon in new MMOs.  Many WoW players come in, look around, see the same activities – level grind, go kill 5 wolves, and so forth – and aren’t really interested in starting from scratch just to do it all again.  Meanwhile, many of those who love to hate WoW forgive or overlook these similarites, and become a core group of dedicated customers who may be performing many of the same actions, and even using similar mechanics, but feel it’s a superior experience because “it’s not WoW!”

What does that mean?  It means any developer who tries to imitate WoW’s success by imitating WoW is doomed.  There’s already a Facebook; there’s already a World of Warcraft.  If there’s no compelling reason to move, no one’s going to abandon what they’ve already gained, just because you paint the same landscape in different colors.  Those who will stay with you just because you’re “not WoW” probably can’t support you by themselves.  Those who like Warcraft already have it; those who don’t, don’t want a reskin of the same gameplay.

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Diablo III and Real Money Auctions: Design Conflict?

There’s been a lot of anger and confusion in the Diablo III community over some design choices in the game.  Particularly interesting is the game’s item design.  The loot system is standard stuff: kill monsters, take their stuff, equip stuff to fight tougher monsters, get better stuff, repeat.  The problem is that D3 has departed a bit from the “better stuff” part of the cycle.

After checking it out myself, reading some of the complaints, and paying through a couple of games with an eye on the stuff I was getting, I’m starting to think the seemingly bad design of how you get stuff in D3 is intentional, and intended to drive usage of Blizzard’s upcoming Real Money Auction House.  While currently you can buy fake stuff with fake cash, Blizzard intends to integrate an Auction House that lets players buy the fake stuff with real-world currency.  And that’s where a design compromise may have snuck in.

In most non-MMO games (and even in MMOs at low levels), you expect to be somewhat self-sufficient.  That is, the stuff you get is an upgrade: it’s better, mostly, than the stuff you have now.  Maybe not a lot, and sometimes not at all, but by and large it’s better stuff.

This is important for reasons beyond customer expectation: it provides a sense of accomplishment, a sense of progress, an incentive to keep going.  Without that, there’s a sense of frustration of not getting anywhere, of not being able to meet the harder challenges.  That’s where the RMAH comes in.

If players are largely self-sufficient, who’s going to use the RMAH?  Certainly some players would a lot, and many would a little.  But there’s no real need to do so.  Giving the players bad stuff creates that need.

To clarify: “bad stuff” here isn’t entirely subjective.  Stuff you get is rated by the level of your character.  Usually, though less so in D3 than in other games, stuff for a level 10 character is not as good as stuff for a level 35 character.  And so the key here was making sure any given character gets stuff that is not useful to their current level, but might be useful to someone of lower level.

By keeping good items rare, and by dropping items to players that are underlevel, Blizzard creates an economic driving force.  A player is not getting what they want, and not getting that sense of “I have new powerful stuff!”  So they turn to the Auction House.  Player level X buys items that player of level 2X got but can’t use; player level 2X in turn is looking for better items, which player level 3X got but can’t use.  In turn, the better items sold as you go up increases the buying power of the higher level players, who need it to, in turn, buy the best items.

This means that the first few players to complete the game were doing nothing but seeding the economy.  The more skilled players, who could progress without great stuff, threw items into the economy for the players coming along behind them to use.  There’s also lateral movement:  a player of a given class may get a good item that’s of no use to any character they like, or will use any time soon, so that gets sold too.

Is this really the driving force behind the loot scheme in Diablo III?  Blizzard’s been at this too long to be ignorant of how the geting-stuff-cycle works.  What they may have underestimated is the amount of user frustration and loss of progress many players are now experiencing: the kind of idea that fails to correctly assess the limits of player tolerance.  You can push the envelope, but too hard and too fast breaks it.  That’s what Blizzard may be facing now.  Whether or not they choose to modify their system of stuff in response remains to be seen.

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