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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

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The Origins of Fantasy

February 29, 2008

I just finished watching The Worlds of Fantasy, a three part TV series on BBC4 exploring the history of fantasy lierature, you can view it here on the BBC iPlayer for the next 5 days, although I’m not sure if people oustide the UK can access it (somebody put it on Youtube, please). The first episode deals with children’s literature and children heroes, Harry Potter is naturally included although not as much as the beginning of the programme smight imply, and also Alice (in Wonderland), Peter Pan and lesser known heroes From Alan Garner’s books (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Owl Service) and Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels.

I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the episodes that deal with adult oriented fantasy (expecting to see lots of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Moorcock, Peake and Howard, would also be nice to see Weiss and Hickman, but I’m not holding my breath [see my last post]) as anyone who’s read my blog will know that I think fantasy is a genre is still far too strongly assocaited with kids.

The argument underlying this epsiode was that fantasy emerged in the 19th century alongside a romanticised notion of children as pure and naive beings and as the twentieth century progressed the heroes of these books became more like the children or teens of their respective times. Okay the argument was a little more subtle than that, in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels written in postwar Britain the four heros used slang that was apparently decades out of date, but what their jaunt through the wardrobe did do was make the trauma of wartime displacement into a form of comforting nostalgia where the battle between good and evil was fought between magical beings and the inevitability of triumph was not in question. Clearly it was much easier to write this after the war than during it when the outcome was less certain. In this light Harry Potter with its nostalgically old school setting is a great comfort to kids and parents alike who are scared to send their kids outdoors for fear of stabbings and paedophiles!

It’s hard to be objective about this episode as I was happy enough that this genre was getting any coverage at all, what bothered me was that the childhood themes they discussed could be applied to non-fantasy childrens’ literature, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven share the naive and romaticised spirit of adventure as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories and show some infighting between the children in the group, yet they are set in an idealised but very recognisable Britain. When it did get to grips with fantasy as a style, it focused on the writer’s motives so we got a lot of sniffy complaints about C.S. Lewis’ use of Christian allegory and a bit about Lewis Carroll’s desire to present childhood innocence, but not why he chose fantasy as a vehicle for this message. We get even less on J.K. Rowling’s or Philip Pullman’s reasons for using the fantasy genre, which would be very interesting to hear about. Alan Garner mentions out of body experiences and using his imagination, but doesn’t describe his clear fondness for the British and Welsh mythology that permeates his work, nor the landscapes in which his books are set.

The whole thing felt a little safe for BBC4 (i.e. middle class, highbrow) – let’s focus on general historical themes that normalise fantasy literature, rather than focusing on what makes it so different to other fictional genres. What makes the series feel even more BBC4 is the fact that they’re focusing only on fantasy litertature and not other mediums such as film or games that if anything have helped bring the genre popularity with much broader audiences than books alone.

These issues aside, I wonder what they’ll make of adult fantasy literature? Howard’s stories reflected their time only in as much that they were part of the pulp fiction trend of over the top and violent stories with tough macho characters. Maybe the rich settings of characters like Conan and Bran Mak Morn gave them a sense of authenticity and heritage that was lacking in the typical macho lead which cried out to young men in Depression era America. Was it any coincidence that Tolkien was keen to construct a mythology for Britain just as the Empire was sliding away? Moorcock was inspired by the 60s counter-culture, his heroes had more in common with Howard’s than Tolkien’s often brooding and of dubious morality, but his wrtiting was generally more cerebral and often lampooned the stables of the genre itself. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what they come up with.

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Who’s the biggest geek?

February 28, 2008

I excitedly posted about the soon to be released World of Warcraft Minis on my guild forum a few weeks back, to which I got only one response. So I was pleased that Rock, Paper, Shotgun dedicated an entire post to the subject. What was most apparent was the seething ambivalence that surrounds spin-off merchandise. Many of the responses in the comments section displayed a distinct for not buying tie-in merchandise and a n admission of shame if they claimed ever to have boughti it. Even, the author of the piece, Kieron Gillen sheepishly admitted he was snobbish towards fiction based on computer game IPs.To save you reading through the comments here are a few that stood out:

“The only bit of supplemental games related cruft I’ve ever bought outside of my callow teens is the new Warhammer 40,000 Dark Heresy rpg game book thing. No intention of ever playing it, just liked loved the background fiction it presented in its words, pictures and layout. It’s really quite classy, and, as a result of being so impressed, I’ll probably wind up accumulating all the other background books as they dribble out over the course of the rest of the year. Curiously, and this references the peculiar snobbery about the whole business, I’d never buy any of the novels or other frightful tat, though.

“I used to read D&D fiction before I came to the realization that it was mostly quite dreadful.

“I once made the mistake of Wiki-ing Dawn of War. Having never played anything in the 40k universe outside of the rather thin on the ground (story wise) Space Crusade when I was about 10, I spent the next few hours clicking around and soaking it all in. That I was actually supposed to be revising at the time was of no concern. Cracking stuff, in a very cliched, popcorn way”

“And the miniatures? Maybe. I’ll see how I feel when they do come out. It’d be nice to have a one of Thrall (<3), but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal.

As I admitted in my post about Warcraft fiction, I’ve felt exactly the same kind of condescension towards game based novels, but I’m still curious as to why that’s the case. My first thought is that sci-fi, fantasy and gaming are all subjects that are looked down upon by mainstream society. Yes gaming is gradually pulling itself up, but there is still a fair majority of genrally middle aged and up types who don’t get it and the popular media still portrays it as the passtime of choice of the lonely antisocial teenage male. Fantasy is accepted if it’s for and about kids, but the second it’s aimed at adults it’s seen as the choice of lonely antisocial twenty or thirty something males. So given the lack of credibility with which these genres are taken it’s as though the fans make up for it by creating a strict hierarchy of the credible and the uncredible. It very much reminds me of the ‘Geek Hierarchy’ diagram that was floating round the web a few years back. I’ve helpfully added a new box to it…

The quote above that most caught my eye was the last one “…but spending money on things I’ll only ever look at seems a bit banal”. This statement in a world where the album artwork from Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album is expected to sell for £2.5million. Is it that for a generation of gamers anything that isn’t programmed with AI and immersively interactive isn’t considered worth paying for, or is it an extreme form of conservatism in the vein of Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’? To filter Benjamin’s argument down to its basic point, he suggests that because the traditional artwork was unique in space and time it was unarguably ‘authentic’ and that the act of reproducing it so any old person could have a replica hanging from their wall and that this ineffect reduces the ‘aura’, in other words the authenticity, of the original. The strange thing is that computer games are commodities, digitally reproducible commodities at that, they are far from being unique pieces of artwork. But to be fair authenticity is a relative term, after all a unique pice of art is still a manufactured work. Authenticity in popular culture refers to the most original medium, in the same way that film adaptations of novels are usually seen to be inferior to the novels they’re based on. Books and models based on games are seen to be inferior to the games they’re based on. Perhaps the reason why is that these kinds of IP extensions are seen by the fans as milking the franchise, by dispassionate third parties in order to make money and therefore because they’re commercially driven as opposed to passionately created  they threaten to dilute the original work. And perhaps the other fear is that once you start buying the spin-offs you won’t be able to stop, but that’s another story.

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Games vs Books and Films

February 10, 2008

I’ve either got to write shorter posts, or learn to write faster, as by the time I get round to posting nowadays my subject matter tends to be weeks old. In this case it’s an article Gamasutra wrote about from way back January 10th. Thankfully Gamasutra and Cameron Sorden at Random Battle have also recently posted on the whole story/narrative subject, so it feels a bit more relevant to talk about my take on this one.

 
So way back in January, Tom Carroll compared the stories of Halo 3 and Lord of the Rings, a bit unfair you might think, but an interesting approach all the same. Unsurprisingly, Lord of the Rings won the contest, because in Tom’s opinion Halo 3 failed to satisfactorily tie up its storyline. Having not yet played Halo 3 (I have so many games I need to play/complete at the moment it just isn’t an option), I have to take his word for it. But is that really the definition of a good story: that it has a satisfactory resolution?

Lets’ take a game about whoch ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ have come up a lot and one that I’m far more familiar with, Bioshock. Now, my personal feeling was that the end of the game wasn’t hugely satisfying for me as a player. The reason I’ve italicized the last point, is as Cameron points out on his blog, that the player’s perspective is different to that of a viewer. In a typical film or book, the main character is controlled by someone other than you, the reader. You may empathise with them, maybe you can’t stand them, but what they do is out of your control. The other feature common to films and books is that you see the story from the point of view of other characters, you get to see what they’re thinking or plotting, whether it is beneficial or otherwise for the main character. Bear this in mind, because I think this has a big impact on my opinions of Bioshock. Like most people who played Bioshock I chose to harvest the little sisters and although I knew it was technically the ‘wrong’ choice to make in terms of the moral choices you face in the game as a player I was still quite surprised at the end that showing me/Jack attacking and killing the little sisters. It’s not that I was hugely surprised by the ending itself, but rather by the lack of pointers I was given along the way.

Cameron makes some really good points in his piece about the nature of story in games/MMOs, particularly that stories in games are often experienced over a matter of days, unlike films that are usually experienced in a couple of hours, so players tend to forget or lose interest in the storyline. Even in films however, viewers are constantly reminded about the drive of the storyline. A few months back I read Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling and the New Hollywood, a brilliant and influential book the basic premise of which is that the classic three act structure.

Attributed to Hollywood is in fact in error, and Hollywood films are better thought of as four act structures. Apart from this, Kristin analyses in great depth the craft of a number of Hollywood films from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in particular how they guide the viewer both subtly and unsubtly so that the story and character actions within the story make sense. I’ll use Groundhog Day (read this for a bit of geek humour on this subject) as an example here, because it has one very clear main protagonist, Bill Murray’s character Phil, and because of the Groundhog Day ‘curse’ his character essentially has a ‘reload’ function, sort of like a computer game. Despite the elaborate time repetition feature of the film, the underlying principle of the story is that Phil has to learn to be decent to women, if he is to have a happy and fulfilling life. Via the responses of other characters the film ensures that the audience are always able to follow which of Phil’s actions are wrong and which are right. For example there are number of scenes where Phil in his attempts to seduce Rita gets to various stages of success only to make the wrong move or say the wrong thing, to which Rita responds by storming off or slapping him – very simple but effective actions that signal failure.

 

 My point is, why couldn’t the NPCs in Bioshock given me the same unsubtle hints about the direction that my behavior was taking me? To some degree the AI in Oblivion gets this right, NPCs react differently to your character if he or she has a weapon unsheathed or if he or she has a disease. Given the more closed nature of Bioshock, adding these kind of NPC responses should have been a lot easier. In a recent Gamasutra article Bioware CEO Ray Muzyka claims that “”In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it… but it’s a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it.” But this is in the opinion of the mass market, not a good story. Every story contains subtleties, but as the outcome is dependent on the players in-game choices, the potential outcome of these choices should be more apparent.

I think it is these kinds of cues that can transform the quality of story in games. Pure sandboxes have limited if enthusiastic proponents (see Second Life) most people want to feel they’re part of something bigger and that they can have some affect on it – but they do need clues as to how they’re proceeding. And no, that’s not the way it works in real life, but games aren’t real life and they shouldn’t ever aspire to be so.

The greatest difficulty with the kind of moral story that Bioshock tells would be trying to put it in an MMO context. There is no pre-scripted end to an MMO, so it’s not easy to ‘judge’ a character’s/player’s actions, it’s expected that other players will do the judging rather than any pre-scripted response. I’ve read a few suggestions that tackle this issue in respect to WoW (although I can’t remember where). The idea that Alliance players could get reputation with Horde factions and vice versa was suggested, that would require opposing faction players to complete some very difficult tasks as emissaries for the enemy, I also assume that PvP would not be an option, maybe unless provoked. It would be interesting to implement this idea just to see how many players were willing to give it a go, or if loyalty to their faction outweighed the desire for some cool benefits and rewards.

 

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World of Lorecraft

December 31, 2007

Being too busy to play WoW really sucked, I actually missed Azeroth/Outland as well as worrying about how far my guildmates had progressed ahead of me in the raiding stakes. I mentioned in my last post that WoW/Warcraft has a huge transmedia presence and I decided in the absence of WoW time that I was going to investigate it in more depth, so I picked up the first three Warcraft novels, Day of the Dragon, Lord of the Clans and The Last Guardian. I have to admit that I was fairly ignorant of the history and lore of Azeroth, I’d played the original Warcraft RTS game way back in the early 90s, but not being a big RTS fan hadn’t touched the sequels. Like many WoW players I’d picked up little bits of Warcraft lore from quests and tidbits from websites, but was truly shocked when I discovered that Medivh of Karazhan fame was once the physical host to Sargeras, a corrupted Titan – the beings who formed and defended the universe from demons – and essentially the ‘Satan’ of the entire Warcraft saga. I always struggled to remember which of the marks of Kil’jaeden and Sargeras were of most value, now of course it’s very obvious. Having read and enjoyed the books I moved on to Warcraft III and although I’m only on Thrall’s campaign it’s been great to follow Arthas’ descent into madness, and undeath. One of the aspects of Warcraft III that most impressed me is the way in which the story is foregrounded. According to the Wikipedia entry to Warcraft III one of the complaints launched against the game was that players weren’t given a choice about Arthas’ fate, but to be honest I found it far more entertaining and epic to participate in his unfolding tragedy.

One of the biggest obstacles to successful transmedia is the problem of ‘specialism’ – the implication that an IP or brand’s success with one medium or product might not be replicable in another medium. Warcraft was a successful game series, but did that mean that it would be capable of producing good fiction books? I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a little snobbish about buying books based on a computer game IP and I’m not remotely shy about the fact that I’m a gamer. It’s not like I even have a problem with fantasy literature, I read it more regularly than any other kind of fiction, it’s just that there’s a mental obstacle when it comes to taking the narrative from one medium and moving it to another, film adaptations of books are often treated the same way by critics. In all honesty the Warcraft books are not Tolkien, or even Moorcock, they’re probably not even Weiss and Hickman, but they’re not intended to be, they’re intended to flesh out a fantastically rich mythos and at that they’re very good. Which is not to say they were lacking in the story department. Lord of the Clans had me reading into the wee hours of the morning in order to see just how Thrall gained the trust of his washed out species and took them across the sea to Kalimdor.

I’m sure there is still much I have to learn about Warcraft lore, I’ve read through The Sunwell trilogy and have just finished the first book of The War of the Ancients trilogy and then I’ve got the World of Warcraft novels to read, then I have to track down the new WoW comic. In between Warcraft novels I’ve been reading Ted Castranova’s latest book Exodus to the Virtual World and he discusses some interesting ideas about ‘lore’ in virtual worlds in particular he states that ‘a well designed lore allows every player to find her place within it. The lore excludes no-one.’ This isn’t a million miles away from what I suggested back in July, that in virtual worlds people need to be able to orient themselves in order to give their presence there some kind of purpose. The lore I’ve picked up from reading the Warcraft novels and playing Warcraft III has actually changed my mindset when playing WoW. I play on a PvP server (Horde side) and although I’m not an especially aggressive player when it comes to taking on the Alliance, I feel less animosity toward these one time allies and I’m really enjoying taking down demons and servants of the Burning Legion far more knowing that they are truly thoroughly corrupt, it certainly makes Ogri’la dailies more fun anyway.

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MMO figures and Raph Koster (again)

December 28, 2007

Christmas at last, which means that I actually have time to sit down and write a post. First thing I want to talk about is this post by Raph Koster and this response by Tobold. I’ve written stuff about MMO figures in the past and although I tend to agree with Tobold on this one, I admit that Raph is making a valid point about the gaming industry in general, I just think that he has a particular goal in mind and that this goal has theu nfortunate distinction of winding gamers up. So what is Raph on about?

Take Raph’s new project, Metaplace, it’s clearly an attempt to break out of the ‘walled garden’ MMO concept of which even the ‘casual’, browser based MMOs he mentions so frequently are guilty, it also eschews multi-gigabyte client downloads and claims that users ca build whatever virtual world they like. Now, why would he come up with an idea like this? Well, the answer is clearly, accesibility. Raph wants to make an MMO (or at least provide the software for an MMO) that will appeal to as many people as possible, and from reading through his GDC Prime presentation this appears to be his goal for the game industry as a whole. I don’t think this is a bad thing and I particularly liked the way he highlighted how badly successful women can be treated in the largely male dominated world of gamers, yeah that’ll teach you to be attractive Jade Raymond…

I have done several presentations about gaming, MMOs, virtual worlds etc. to large multinationals over the last year and while they can just about get their heads round Second Life, the second you show them a picture of an orc or a dragon or whatever you generally lose them. Sure, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass can top the movie charts but playing a game where you pretend to be a character from one of these IPs is a whole different kettle of fish (unless you’re a kid, then it’s ok). So I understand that when Raph states that Habbo Hotel has a userbase that rivals WoW, he’s trying to normalise a genre or a medium that to most people is still quite weird. I understand that this sounds weird to gamers, can people really be so behind the times that they are oblivious to the steady growth and popularity of gaming over the last decade. The answer sadly is ‘yes’. I think it’s actually worse in the UK than it is in the States, where at least WoW crops up regularly in popular culture. This attitude towards gaming goes some way to explaining why Second Life has persisted in the media for so long despite its relatively low number of active users – it presents a very human face versus the WoWs, EQs, LotROs etc. By claiming that gaming/MMOs are now about branding (when have they ever not been?), celebrity and lifestyle maketing Raph is using langugae that is familiar, if not entirely unambiguous, to a mainstream marketing audience. Add to this Raph’s insistence that you can make great ROI on browser-based casual games vs the triple As of gaming-dom then Raph’s entire stance becomes apparent. I’m also unsurprised that many of the MMOs Raph namechecks are aimed at or have predominantly pre-adult user bases – as I’ve already mentioned it’s far more acceptable for kids to play computer games than adults, in fact I know some adults who won’t even admit to gaming in their workplaces for fear of ostracisation.

I certainly feel that games publishers/developers limit their audiences and can be more experimental with revenue channels, but I can also see why Raph’s spin on things can get gamer’s backs up, despite our growing numbers we’re still considered an odd lot – the lonely, male, loser stereotype predominates – and then along came WoW which proved all the naysayers wrong, has inserted itself into popular culture (moreso in the US than Europe I’m afriad) and is inherently social, and even then it’s being dismissed as second place to some crappy browser game with shit graphics and an audience of faddish 8 year olds who’ll happily gravitate to the next big thing in three months time.

And I think this last point is something Raph should remember. Facebook might be huge now, but so was Myspace three years ago and Friendster two years before that. Already I hear people I know saying that they’re bored of Facebook, that there are too many useless applications cluttering up profile pages. Relatively new MMOs like Club Penguin, Barbiegirls and so on have yet to prove themselves over the long term and although Habbo has made it past the seven year mark I have rarely encountered concurrency greater than a few thousand suggesting it might have an infrequent if large user base. At the moment the way in which ‘eyeballs’ are measured is very crude, but as more money is invested in these mediums they will become more sophisticated and then these kinds of figures will struggle to stand up, while the figures for a game like WoW will look very impressive indeed. It’s interesting that the new Nielsen Ratings of time spent already prove that Second Life users spend far more time in Second Life than Facebook users spend on their pages, the same can only be truer for WoW.

I’d like to write a big long paragraph on transmedia, given what Raph presented at the GDC Prime. WoW is one of the most interesting  transmedia MMO brands out there, what with a TCG, novels, a new comic, toys, boardgames and a film on the horizon. It’s certainly up there with Halo in my opinion and given its openness to popular culture I can only imagine it becoming more transmedia-like as time goes by. As much as Raph is keen to push the games industry in a more progressive direction he should probably focus on the fact that in the AAA world of MMOs WoW remains the exception not the rule.

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From ‘Awe’ to ‘Order’: Changing Percptions in MMOs

November 25, 2007

Like many MMO players my first (AAA) MMO was World of Warcraft, and I remember distinctly just how excited I was as I finished creating my character, hovered my cursor over the ‘enter world’ button and, with some trepidation left, clicked. After a deep breath, I think I said something outloud to my girlfriend along the lines of ‘Ok, I’m going in’. The music kicked in with its now overly familiar drumroll the loading screen appeared and the empty bar began to fill up and I was finally dropped into the vivid orange environs of The Valley of Trials. It’s difficult to describe in words how thrilling my pre-70 days in Azeroth were, I was playing pretty casually and didn’t join a guild until I’d explored by myself for a while. Even a six hour slog through the Wailing Caverns with the ‘PUG from hell’ didn’t damage the feeling that I was exploring a ‘whole new world’. One of WoWs greatest achievements in my opinion was the way in which virtually every ‘zone’ felt so different and unique, it hardly mattered that the climates of neighbouring zones were often inappropriate, instead it just increased the anticipation you felt about going to the next zone. Even relatively quite areas like Dustwallow Marsh and Desolace oozed atmosphere and danger. It wasn’t just the zones that made Azeroth so awe inspiring: the first time I visited Orgrimmar I literally just had to stop and stare, it was like seeing something out of the coolest dream I’d never had, walls that must have been hundreds of feet high, festooned with spikes and dragon bones from which hung huge red banners. And then I saw ThunderBluff…

Having hit level 70 some time ago I see the world through very different eyes. I’ve seen pretty much every zone (having rolled Alliance characters just so I could look around their starting areas, have been into most instances outside of raiding content and completed the majority of quests relevant to my class. Azeroth, or rather Outland, as that’s where I spend most of my time, isn’t so much a land of adventure any more but an optimisation project. Completing daily quests isn’t a matter of how or if, but how quickly and efficiently I can do them. From there the next task is to loacte the best location to farm, based on proximity to where I completed my dailies, auction house prices and number of other players operating in the same area.

It brings to mind an interview I read recently on Ugo Trade with Cory Doctorow, in which he discusses the internet as a ‘reverse surveillance’ society: “Surveillance is all about when people in authority know a lot about you. Instrumentation is when you know a lot about the world”. And coincidentally he uses Joi Ito’s World of Warcraft screenshot to demonstrate what he means.

joichiitowowpost.jpg

 

In this image the actual 3-dimensional world is almost entirely obscured by abstracted information (you can see the full-size image here). This image reminds me of the metaphor for cognition Maturana and Varela use in their book The Tree of Knowledge: Biological Roots of Human Understanding. They argue that perception isn’t constructed through internal representation of the outside world like a camera obscura, but is governed by an autonomous nervous system that is constantly attempting to maintain a balance that maintains life. They use the metaphor of a person who knows the world only from the inside of a submarine (i.e. no windows) who knows the world only through the dials and measures within the submarine, such as fuel gauges, depth monitors and the like and responds to the world through these abstract mediums. Raiding being one of the most intensive online activities there is, this example is of course very extreme, but conceptually it’s no different from ‘feeds’. Feeds don’t just filter web content, they rationalise it – they can be ordered into categories, they can show images and text or just titles and so on. You can argue that social networking sites do something similar with one’s friends, Youtube does something similar with video and so on.

The interesting thing about what Cory suggests is of course its ‘Bottom-Up’ nature. Traditionally the rhetoric of rationalisation – science, industrialisation, capitalism etc – have been ‘Top-Down’ concepts enforced on society from above and his point is that this is exactly what attracts people to virtual worlds. At the same time this rationalisation of virtual space also removes the ‘romance’ of the experience, the escapism and immersiveness, although there is no doubt that the rationalisation process can be equally as immersive as anyone who has participated in a raid encounter will tell you. However many gamers find rationalisation frustrating, sometimes players want to feel theyhave just saved the world from a demonic invasion, rather than just successfully completing a series of pre-determined tasks. Which is something I’ll be covering in my next post…