Editorial: Random Gripes With The Passing Scene

The Final Fantasy XIV bashing will continue until morale improves.

Square-Enix, in an attempt to be as cool as other MMO developers that gently “remind” players that game companies do not need players constantly logged in to continue making money off those players, has decided to impose a penalty on players that stay logged in too longer.

MMO vets will remember World of Warcraft‘s initial, disastrous implementation of the “rest XP” principle: stay in the game too long, and players experience would rise at gradually slower rates. In effect, this penalized people for having fun.

As a facet of game design, penalizing people for fun actions is a good way to ensure no one wants to play.

IT RETURNS
Do not be afraid... it's badness has been broken up into easier-to-digest chunks.

So the rest XP principle was reworked: now, players would be given a benefit for taking a rest, like logging out, or spending time working on crafting skills in a town or village. This is good game design: if designers want players to do a thing, give players a benefit. “Rested XP,” which now grants 200% experience gained from killing monsters or turning in quests, is what keeps levelers on a fairly reasonable timeline. It is perfectly possible to work out when continuing to play will grant diminishing returns on time invested. Most of us do not do this, because we are not so great of nerds, but it is still possible.

Square-Enix, whose main offices are apparently in a cave, or perhaps some fold of space-time where it is still 2004, have decided that if players spend more than eight hours in-game, their characters will suffer a “rest XP” penalty.

Hold up.

Even for a certified casual noobycakes like myself, that is drastically low. I mean, I play games on the “easy” setting if it is there. Although I have amassed some notoriety as a “competent DPS” and “decent enough tank” in World of Warcraft, it is not like these skills were particularly burdensome to acquire. Fighting with a virtual sword is considerably easier, and usually less painful, than actual fencing, and I am not half-bad at fencing.

Still, eight hours a week would be two nights of raiding for me, not counting additional time spent in-game doing dailies, playing the Auction House, shopping, or aiding my guild members with sundry things. If Square wishes to force ultra-casual gameplay on people, there are better ways of doing it: make the time-to-awesome-reward ratio lower. Sure, it cuts down on e-peen-ism, but that is a good thing. It could also make the game drastically boring.

But an eight-hour-per-week-or-penalty mechanic punishes people, and punishes them hard, for just trying to enjoy the game. Even extending the period (especially given the 48-hour cooldown on guildleves) only lessens the bad effects. These are not bad effects that are dictated by some limitation in design, but a completely voluntary choice on the part of developers. A bonus to taking a break is infinitely better than a penalty for not, and it looks like Square is going to learn that lesson the hard way.

On the other hand, my faith that our friends in the East design, on the whole, excellent gaming experiences has been restored. The original Guild Wars and its attendant expansions were early attempts at PVP-focused MMOs that were moderately successful, being built of a subscriptionless model on top of fair-to-middling gameplay. I gave it a whirl a few years back and found it a bit dull, but only because I did not have the staying power to make it through the long and boring leveling process to the endgame.

Morale Improved, Just Not For Square

Guild Wars developer ArenaNet has apparently been paying attention to good gaming design with its dynamic quest system which apparently takes the best parts of Warhammer Online‘s public quest system and makes them an essential feature of the gameplay.

For the uninitiated, a “public quest” is a timed world event that repeats on a regular schedule. Quests range from easy difficulty (2-3 players) to hard (over 10) and usually have 3-4 objectives that must be completed in sequence before the timer runs out. Assume, if one will, that the quest involves storming an enemy encampment (the most typcial quest). Players will kill low-level enemy soldiers up to a certain amount (usually between 20 and 50). Upon successful completion of this, players will then be tasked to kill slightly more powerful lieutenants, until, during the final phase, a powerful boss character requiring careful gameplay will be activated.

Guild Wars 2
NCSoft slums it with US-based developers and... produces a promising game! YOU HEAR THAT, SQUARE? KOREANS ARE BEATING YOU!

The good parts of public quests are that they are repeatable and provide significant experience and factional standing increases. In WAR, for example, it is possible for an enterprising solo player (moi) to grind out the first steps of each easy public quest for “Influence,” a type of factional experience that leads, at the highest level, to some pretty sweet gear. While repetitive, the tuning of the reward to time allows this to go by quickly, without all of the running hither and thither to complete NPC-given quests. With a party, completing the quests becomes very fun, and the rewards range from dinky (like crafting materials) to my awesome epic breastplate I got from whacking trolls.

The GW2 model is a tweak and an improvement on this. Rather than having NPCs assign most of the quests, players will simply “walk into them” and be drawn in to participating or not at the player’s choice. Given smart use of phasing mechanics where appropriate, this system could be great.

The downside might be the downside that plagues every game with significant amounts of levels: a glut of people participating and bogarting the rewards at high levels, while new players are left out in the cold from completing more involved low-level quests.

I have, in the past, suggested two solutions to this problem: either provide an incentive for higher-level characters to do old quests, or to help out others (points or item currency assigned for “mentoring” low-level characters that goes to mounts or gear or whatnot); or to provide a robust “leveling” mechanic that equalizes everyone’s base level (health and base stats, but not gear-based stats and abilities) to the lowest level of the group, with appropriately-tailored rewards. This allows even end-game ready players to “tune it down” to make low-level fights balanced, while still providing them with rewards commensurate with the difficulty.

Listening, ArenaNet? I have ideas; you have (presumably) some need for them. We can do a deal.

All Used Up

The other news of gaming moment this week is that the industry really hates the used-game trade.

Oh wait, that is not news at all. That is fucking obvious.

I hate the used game trade… sort of. When I was young, I would always sell my old console games in garage sales or to friends to raise money to buy new games. But, and here is the catch, I sold them at really low prices to people that would otherwise not be able to afford them.

GameSlop
Abandon all hope all ye who enter here.

I know in this age of downloadable content (a move I support) and one-time use special edition codes, used games provide much less in value than new games. And so, a tiered pricing model suggets itself: if I want, say, the Assassin’s creed: Brotherhood collector’s edition, what with maps and item codes and a creepy fucking jack-in-the-box, then I have to buy it new, at $70. If I want just the game, but I want it new, I have to pay the usual $50-$60. If I want a digital download copy, through Steam or Ubisoft’s website, I may pay a little less (reflecting no manufacturing/shipping cost).

But if I want the game on the cheap, I have to accept that I will not obtain any of added value of buying a new game… and I should be charged accordingly, no more than $10-$15 for a recently-released game, and certainly no more than $5 for an old game.

I do not think, however, that the used game pushers (of whom Target is the latest, bizzare entry) will accept this model. While Gamestop might (might) be willing to give me $10 on a trade-in of a new game, they will never turn around and sell it to the kid behind me for less than $30. That kind of profiteering is wrong.

But to be against used game sales, in general, whether of veritable classics on eBay, or to the kids down the street at one’s garage sale, is to be against the consumer’s right to control the disposition of their own property.

That said, if companies really want to put this trade out of business, the answer is to go the way of Valve and use digital distribution as a model, with Valve’s attendant pricing and useful platform. Imagine if one’s saved games could be stored remotely on a company’s server and synched across platforms, from Xbox to PC to PS3. “Playing a game” then becomes more fun as the game is portable, allowing a wider audience to be exposed. It allows friends to share games, to play together in various venues, and to have the same sort of freedom that memory cards and physical discs currently give us.

9 comments

  1. Ah, I see you’ve only written a SMALL article this week.

  2. By Lanian standards, this article is microscopic.

    Once again, your insight into MMOs is generally spot-on, though I’m fairly (as in almost 100%) certain that rested state in WoW doesn’t double the XP bonus from quests, just monster kills–I say this having levelled several characters to 80 over the years, including one this past month. But, I could be wrong! There’s a first time for everything.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Steam digital distribution gives us the same sort of freedom that memory cards and physical discs do, but it is certainly a better future than many industry giants would design for us if they were given their wicked way.

    At any rate, the argument against used games is from ignorance. Used game sales have consistently driven the sales of new games. Trying to do away with them will only result in developers shooting themselves in the foot in the long run. We talked about this in detail on the podcast, before I deleted it all.

  3. @Lusi: Agreed about the used game market. Like Lane, I’m fine with DLC or one-time-use codes and the like, but the games industry seems to be the only one (or one of the few) where content creators seem to think a second-hand market is somehow underhanded or sneaky (referring specifically to the now-infamous THQ exec’s quote). I don’t understand that aspect of it at all (and like I’ve said in the past, I’m usually pretty sympathetic to content creators’ stances).

    @Lane: I love the idea of having your save game following you around between platforms (obviously with a local copy for cases when you want to play offline). Steamcloud is a good start (if it’s ever rolled out in full). I think a logical extension of that would almost be something like a OnLive model (without the outrageous pricing), where you buy a game once and can play it on any platform you desire. I’m really hoping that’s where Valve wants to go with Steamworks on the PS3, but even if they do, it’s still a long way off. Maybe it’ll be a feature of the PS4 or 5 somewhere down the line.

  4. Digital Distribution isn’t a notion that I find personally useful or desirable.

  5. As I’ve said before, I don’t want it to be the only option, but I usually prefer digital distribution to physical media these days. I find I’m much less inclined to misplace/damage my digital copies of games (and, until the service shuts down, I can always re-download things if need be). In an ideal world, though, I’d like all games to be available in both formats.

  6. Re: Guild Wars 2’s dynamic events – actually, the leveling mechanic you suggest is very close to what ArenaNet is doing. If a high-level character wanders back into the lower level events, they will be leveled down to a more appropriate tier – say, in a level 1-5 area they would be ranked down to level 8 – so as to retain some power but not be able to dominate the event for the players in that region.

    Second, the rewards for participating in events is not loot, but a small amount of gold and karma, which can be used at any level to buy things like consumables. Therefore the high-level character can always obtain something that is valuable to them from participating in even a low-level event.

    There will be no phasing used for dynamic events, rather the events will scale up or down based on the number of participants. Soloers will find mobs coming at them in groups of 2-3, while groups of 5 may find mobs coming in packs of 7 or 8, etc. Bosses will gain new abilities such as devastating AoEs based on the number of people attacking.

  7. The game publishers crying about used games is greed, pure and simple. When they start making a their entire back catalogs available for purchase in perpetuity, then they’ll have a feeble leg to stand on regarding used sales.

    Intellectual Property laws exist in the US to “encourage science and the useful arts” not because people have an inalienable right to “dessert” because they made something nice. Comparisons between used sales and “piracy” (i.e. unauthorized copying which are a lot like robbing a crew, murdering them, and scuttling their ship), and “piracy” and theft are either appalling lazy thinking or flat out intellectual dishonesty (a.k.a. being a lying bastard).

    Bobby No-dick and the THQ asshat (the latter of which could try getting his company to at least make good games before crying about not being paid for them everytime a copy changes hands) can go read up on the First Sale Doctrine while eating a dick. And I’m inviting them both over to my house for a play-date. I’ve got some rocks in my backyard they can go makebelieve are gamers they can try and squeeze blood from.

  8. First sale is a minefield when it comes to software.

    The problem is that the doctrine was initially conceived during a time when books and “phonorecords” were the most easily fungible types of copyrighted works people might come into contact with. It is outdated for modern purposes and the law has been really slow in catching up.

    One of the problems with the used game business is that a third party (neither the first-sale purchaser nor the copyright holder) is getting very, very fat off the trade (Gamestop), so fat that other brick & mortars are deciding to get in on it. The question is whether you, as the consumer, ought to have the liberty to transfer your first sale rights (such as you have) to a third party that is going to profit off of it.

    That aside, “clickwrap” or “shrinkwrap” agreements have never been held to not apply to video games, and at least one case I am familiar with, the Lineage II addiction case out of Hawaii, held that the clickwrap agreement was valid. If software (like Photoshop) has no true online component, I see courts continuing to hold, as they have, that clickwrap agreements are not valid. But as games continue to have larger and larger online components where much of the data is never stored on a user’s machine at a given time, and frequent interaction with servers owned by the copyright holder is (MMOs, games with online cooperation, etc.) then I see clickwraps being upheld more and more.

    In short, we are moving away from the model where you are sold a fungible copy of electronic software that you can play on a specialized machine that is not, in the ordinary course, able to copy the data. That was a design consideration given to early video game machines that helped them stay square with the law. But games, in the ordinary course of their life, have outgrown that limitation, and first sale is going to have to play catch-up.

    That is one of the reasons I like digital distribution: it is easier to navigate thorny waters of who owns the copyright when it is account-bound. For instance, my wife has a Nook ebook reader. It has a nifty “lend to friend” function, where she can lend a book purchased on her B&N account to me. I get to download the book, and then for fourteen days I can open it and read it as usual. At the end of those days, the software locks me out of the book (though I can still keep it in memory) until she either lends it to me again or I purchase the book myself. During those 14 days, she cannot read her copy without my “returning” the book to her.

    In essence, that would be the same as if I had lent a friend a copy of a book I own.

    This could be a feasible way of negotiating “lending” software among friends to test it out, which is something I fully support, while easing back DRM requirements that hurt the first consumer.

    As to how to set up a used market that avoids the evil of GameStop, I am not entirely sure. While I agree that I, as the original purchaser of a product, should have a greater right to alienation than others, I am not sure that it benefits me or the content producers to allow me to sell it to GameStop and have them have full resale powers, which they will then use to fleece their customers.

  9. Trading in games benefits me greatly, and I would purchase fewer new games without the ability to do so. Abolishing the second hand trade would be worse for everyone, not just worse for Gamestop, and not just consumers, but everyone. There would be less purchasing power and intent washing through the system, and that’s just bad for the industry. Period.

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