Archive for March, 2008

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Gender ‘swapping’ in MMOs

March 26, 2008

As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental – I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.

Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.

This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.

(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)

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Worlds of Fantasy: fantasy… “…the biggest thing in our modern culture”??

March 17, 2008

gandalf-for-president-2.jpg

So, the final episode of BBC4’s Worlds of Fantasy series aired on Wednesday night (I caught it on the recently cracked BBC iPlayer) and it was easily the most interesting of the lot, managing to pack pretty much everything I complained about the absence of in the first two epsiodes. Under normal circumstances I’d have moaned about the overabundance of Terry Pratchett (as a teen I preferred Piers Anthony’s Xanth series) but in his favour he’s done a good job of popularising the genre and given that he just donated $1 million to Alzheimer’s research and is sadly suffering from the disease itself I think he deserves all the attention out of sheer respect, if nothing else.

It all began very well with some clips from World of Warcraft at long last, then drove straight into the subject of the post-war fantasy boom, with interviews from Michael Moorcock, who explains that coffee and sugar where his drugs of choice during the 60s, and, get this, Lemmy! While discussing the hippy movement’s love for Lord of the Rings the narrator, quite unintentionally states the funniest line on the whole series, when he says that ‘fantasy thrived in an underground scene of radical thinking, wild imagination and the kind of drugs that made people want to befriend elves’.

Moorcock draws an interesting parallel between rock’n’roll and fantasy genre, a point he explores in more depth in Wizardry and Wild Romance, the emphasis being on the ‘romance’ element. Given the penchant for fantasy imagery amongst ‘power metal’ bands like Blind Guardian, Doomhammer, and my personal favourite Crystal Viper this seems particularly relevant. We finally get to see some D&D in action with what appears to be a very young Steve Jackson and some very dodgily painted miniatures. We get a bit of Hollywood in here too in the form of Guillermo del Torro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and even MMO’s own great grandfather Richard Bartle.

But the statement quoted in the title of this post is what surprised me most. Maybe I’m a bit out of touch here, but despite the popularity of The Lord of the Rinsg films and Harry Potter I thought that being a fan of this genre was nigh on the worst social stigma conceivable. Okay, so commuters unabashedly read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings on the tube, but this falls a long way short of encompassing the genre as a whole. Perhaps it would be fair to say that ‘fantasy’ in the broadest sense is having a major impact on our entertainment preferences, especially if we count superheroes, supernatural horror and the ‘magic realism’ of shows like Pushing Daisies as well as the continuing production of more conventional fantasy releases like The Spiderwick Chronicles and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that most of the conventional fantasy films are aimed at younger audiences, I’m doubtful we’ll see an Elric or Cugel the Clever film anytime soon, more’s the pity. MMOs are used to illustrate that people want to do more than just read about fantasical quests, they want to do them. We get lots of nice shots fro World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, but again, in the UK at least there is still social stigam attached to these games, even more so than single player games. This isn’t to say that fantasy isn’t appealing, I’ve noticed the strange gleam in friends’ eyes when I show them my Dungeonquest and Talisman boardgames, I’m sure I can see their inner struggle, their curiosity to know if it will be just as exciting to pretend to be a barbarian or magician as it was when they were kids, so perhaps the fantasy is better described ‘guiltiest pleasure’ in our modern culture.

The last part of the programme briefly discusses ‘The New Weird’ and its more gritty take on the genre, asking the question is fantasy popular because of some millinerian anxiety, a need for a escapism or an abstract lense through which to view the great fears of the day? It’s a difficult call really and I’m dubious that a single factor alone can have such impact. The Harry Potter series began in 1997 four years before 9/11 and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began its run in cinemas a year before that, so fantasy was rising in popularity before our fears became apparent. Could it have been a general response to the turn of the millenium? Well, give that prior to 2001 the greatest conceived threat was the ‘Millenium Bug’, a disaster movie concpet so unconvincing that even the most desperate Hollywood studio wisely ognored it, then I would say, no. Harry Potter probably has as much in common with The Famous Five as it does Lord of the Rings, maybe even more, and I think its popularity has as much to do with the reclamation of romanticised British culture from nationalism (and football) something ex-colonies, and probably most of the globe can appreciate. The Lord of the Rings films made the most of the amazing special effects available today and conicided with two other epic ‘fantastical’ trilogies (Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films) and is as much a part of their heritage as fantasy litertaure. Likewise the popularity of MMOs has as much to do with improved computer graphics, simplification of gameplay and the rapid spread of broadband than some underlying ideological pressure. Fantasy will probably always be there, it’s popularity like that of sci fi will wax and wane depending on the quality and relevance of media to societies tastes and preferences. Whether it will ever be accepted in the world of formal institutions is up to the next generation of those who find themselves in a position to champion its cause. I know I’ll be doing my best.

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I’m a Neutral Good Halfling Druid/Bard…

March 14, 2008

At least I am according to this ‘What D&D character are you?’ test I read about on Psychochild’s blog. Here are my stats:

Ability Scores:
Strength- 13
Dexterity- 17
Constitution- 13
Intelligence- 15
Wisdom- 18
Charisma- 12


Alignment:
Neutral Good- A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Race:
Halflings are clever, capable and resourceful survivors. They are notoriously curious and show a daring that many larger people can’t match. They can be lured by wealth but tend to spend rather than hoard. They prefer practical clothing and would rather wear a comfortable shirt than jewelry. Halflings stand about 3 feet tall and commonly live to see 150.

Primary Class:
Druids- Druids gain power not by ruling nature but by being at one with it. They hate the unnatural, including aberrations or undead, and destroy them where possible. Druids receive divine spells from nature, not the gods, and can gain an array of powers as they gain experience, including the ability to take the shapes of animals. The weapons and armor of a druid are restricted by their traditional oaths, not simply training. A druid’s Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that they can cast.

Secondary Class:
Bards- Bards often serve as negotiators, messengers, scouts, and spies. They love to accompany heroes (and villains) to witness heroic (or villainous) deeds firsthand, since a bard who can tell a story from personal experience earns renown among his fellows. A bard casts arcane spells without any advance preparation, much like a sorcerer. Bards also share some specialized skills with rogues, and their knowledge of item lore is nearly unmatched. A high Charisma score allows a bard to cast high-level spells.

I’m not sure how I became a Halfling given that when it asked me my height I ticked ‘tall’ but apart from that I’m fairly happy with being a hybrid class Druid/Bard although my Bard spellcasting abilities will suck, because I have very average Charisma. But not to worry as I’m a long way from casting any decent spells being a mere level 2/2. One thing it doesn’t tell me is how many Hit Points I have, assuming this is AD&D (did they eve have Druids and Bards in basic D&D?) I guess I’d get 1D8 + 1D6/2, right, meaning an average of about 4 hitpoints per level, so roughly 8? Probably enough to take out a Kobold, maybe two if I used my healing spells. Can a Druid’s animal companion attack at this level, anybody(My D&D books are in my mum’s garage)?


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Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.

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The Great PvP Debate

March 8, 2008

The PvP debate is not by any stretch a new phenomenon in World of Warcraft, but some of the recent announcements made by Blizzard concerning the rewards that will come with the next patch and an e-sports dedicated server suggest that PvP will play a bigger part in WoW’s future. If players had a sneaking suspicion this was the case, the evidence becomes even stronger following last week’s report on Activision on Gamasutra. At the Goldman Sachs Technology Investment Symposium 2008 Conference (sounds like fun, eh) Bobby Kotick, Activision’s CE, bragged about the future success of his company following on from their merger with Vivendi. Of particular interest to this debate is this quote “They [Blizzard] have a model that is very well developed, they have a very keen understanding of their audiences, and they’re just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas” and “The business has grown so much… that [Blizzard], like us, have tried to prioritize opportunity, and that probably has been at the expense of expanding [average revenue per user] to the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.”

There have been some pretty shocked reactions at Kotick’s assertions about WoW and the MMO industry, particularly his statement that it would cost anywhere between $500million and a $1billion to successfully compete with WoW which has been derided on almost every blog I’ve read on the subject. So what is Kotick on about in the quotes above? The bit where he says ‘they’re (Blizzard) just scratching the surface of opportunity in a lot of areas’ sounds very much like a nod to the continued emphasis on PvP. The second quote however seems to suggest that Blizzard are realising that they’re pissing off some hardcore players by making rewards (which let’s face it are the heart of the game for most players) easier for less hardcore players to get their hands on, leading WoW Insider to ask the question: are raiders obsolete?

There are counter arguments of course (here and here) and Blizzard *are* gradually making raiding easier by removing attunements, improving badge rewards and even nerfing some raid bosses like Magtheridonut but there is no doubt that PvP rewards are getting better, and it’s easier to do battlegrounds and join an arena team than it is to get a 25 man or even a 10 man raid together. Raiding is costly (potions and repairs), requires dedicated blocks of time, a lot of setup time and organisation and requires success on the part of players, very little is gained for ‘losing’ to a raid boss, other than experience.

As Tobold rightly points out, there is no fundamental reason there are a lot of WoW players doing PvP, it’s just that it’s easier to get better items because you odn’t need to go through the hell of trying to organise raiding parties week in and week out and pay the earth in gold for potions and repairs. Tobold sees the root of the problem as the difficulty players have in getting committed groups together, which is undoubtedly an issue, but only the start of the solution. Sure you’d quickly find 10 or 25 or even 5 players do tackle some group content, but what if you wipe seven times on the raid/instance boss (or even worse, the trash)? Cameron on Random Battle thinks an entirely seperate WoW PvP game is the answer.

For me it isn’t so much about the rewards that players get, but the ease with which they can get them, this is the beauty of PvP, you win even if you lose. Blizzard would do well to design raid rewards so that they players get something worthwhile even if they only take out the trash. Take Gruul’s Lair for example a small pots Karazhan and Zul’aman 25-man raid. The trash should drop enough gold to cover wipe repairs, say 250 gold between the first three trash ogres and should also drop a selection of potions and flasks (or maybe just the ingredients required for them) that could either be sold on the Auction House or kept in the guild bank for future raids, this might annoy alchemists a little, but I know for a fact there is often a shortage of flasks and pots on the AH, at least there is on my server. If this continues to be a problem, make the pots/flasks specific to an instance (like the Ogri’la reputation rewards). My first rule would be: make sure trash covers the basic costs of raiding. Even if the raid group doesn’t down a boss, they shouldn’t feel as though they’ve actually lost anything. Raid bosses should give staggered rewards, so if the party manage to take out Kiggler the Crazed and Blindeye the Seer then wipe they should get gold to cover most of the cost of the wipeand maybe a BoE blue or two (for less advanced players or for disenchanting), if on the second attempt they manage to take out all of Maulgar’s Council but wipe on Maulgar himself, the gold rewards should be significantly higher as should the potions or ingredients, maybe another half decent blue as well. Taking out Maulgar would of course drop the desired epics. With a raid boss like Gruul, the party should be rewarded even if they wipe based on the percentage of hit points he has remaining. For example, at 25% 125gold and 2 pots/flasks, at 50% 200 gold, 3 pots/flasks a blue BoE item, at 75% 250 gold, 4 pots/flasks, two blue BoE items etc. So my second rule would be: reward improvements against raid bosses even if they are not defeated.

Sure, this idea could be exploited by players who have the instance on farm, but limiting the number of times you can get these rewards would go someway to solving this problem and yes there would be more gold floating round the WoW economy but I’m sure Blizzard could think of a new time/gold sync to soak it up (player/guild housing anybody?).

The other point I wanted to make was what the hell was Kotick on about when he talks about “the few million hardcore, rabid hobbyist enthusiast World of Warcraft fans who would pay substantially more than probably what they’re paying today for enhanced services like character transfers.” Does he seriously think anyone would pay a higher subscription fee for this kind of ‘service’? A one off payment, sure, but $20 instead of $15 – no way. What hardcore players would like is to have their dedication recognised, not get taken advantage of for their loyalty.

I can almost picture the scene:

WoW player 1: ‘See that Tauren in the T6 with the legedary weapon’

WoW player 2: ‘Yeah, what about him?’

WoW player 1: ‘Total noob’

WoW player 2: looks confused

WoW player 1: ‘hasn’t got an enhanced services premium account, see?’

WoW player 2: looks confused