Station Exchange

If you haven’t heard yet, SOE will be opening something called Station Exchange. This will be an “ebay”-like auction facility that will allow the sale of in-game items for real world dollars. I was shocked to hear about this.

Here’s some facts about the service.

  • SOE will only facilitate sales, it will not sell items directly.
  • Only certain servers will have Station Exchange enabled.
  • No existing servers will have Station Exchange enabled, at least at first.
  • Characters will be given a one-time opportunity to move to a Station Exchange server.
  • Characters will never be moved from a Station Exchange-enabled server to a Station Exchange-disabled server.
  • Before we talk about my opinion on this, I’d like to think about why people might buy in-game items. I can see two distinct reasons, one competitive, one not. The competetive reason, so the argument goes, is that folks would buy rare gear as a bid for status among other players. To be the only kid on the block with all rare tier 5 armor. This probably happens some, and I would consider such an attitude immature. The argument is that plat-buyers of this stripe won’t migrate to an Exchange-enabled server, because then they would lose their competetive advantage. I’m not sure I buy that, though.

    The other reason is impatience. This made some sense in the EQ1 world, where, as the game matured, there wasn’t much happening at the lower levels. EQ, in all incarnations, is a game centered around groups, and to get to where you could group with other players and be effective, buying a high-level character and gear could short-circuit months of work. I don’t consider this immature at all, but it’s more or less a reasonable solution to difficult situation. Presumably this sort of person would be happy to use an Exchange-enabled server. Unless they wanted to play with a friend who was not on such a server. Well, there’s always mentoring…

    Of course, an argument could be made that it was the unofficial plat-selling that made me unsuccessful in EQ1. I can’t really say the reason, but it was clear to me that in order to have the gear I needed to be successful, I would have had to farm plat for months, or else buy some, because the in-game prices were so high.

    The interesting thing is that when the bazaar was started, it created a great deal of liquidity in what had been an illiquid market, and the price of gear that used to be considered very good dropped like a stone. But when that gear became widely available, it was, in effect, too good. It made mobs too easy to kill, so they had to make better gear and tougher mobs to keep things interesting. So now you have an inflationary spiral/arms race, together with the massive 70-person raids to get equipment drops, just so you could be effective in game. I don’t call that fun.

    The postings on the discussion groups range in tone from “It’s about time”, to “I don’t care, but what the heck” to “I quit”. Which camp am I in?

    I don’t make threats to quit, I think it’s childish. However, I am something of a purist. I play the game to play the game. To develop my skill as a player, to learn about the world, to build a cadre of good friends and guildies that can help me. I’ve never paid dollars for anything but the game itself. But, before I take the high moral ground, I’ll point out that I do swap stuff between my toons, much like I’d swap stuff around with friends, and with my RL family members. Which brings real world considerations into the game only environment.

    Of course, my fear of Station Exchange is colored by my EQ1 experience. On an Exchange-enabled server, in-game prices will not be rational from the game-only perspective, which is what I play. Non-rare items may in fact be very cheap. But the fear is that it will be very difficult to play the game successfully on those servers without spending my real life money.

    However, as long as my server is not converted, the existence of the Exchange may in fact help the server environment and market, by drawing off the attention of those who do want to participate. Again, it’s hard to say what might happen to markets, though.

    But the idea that allays my fears is this: I know that rares are not needed to be successful in the game. I feel that this is by design. All gear is capped as to the benefit that it can give you, low-levels can’t use high-level gear, high levels are generally uninterested in low-level gear (Mentoring has created one hole in this, for low-tier Adept 3 spells). I’ve stated before that I think that one can play the game successfully without the use of any Adept 3. In short, they have made a game where the person sitting at the keyboard matters a lot more than the uberness of the toon.

    The SOE team wants the game to survive long-term and I’m sure are fully aware of the dangers that in-game inflation pose. If prices for starting gear are too high, it discourages new players. So they are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. In fact, the Exchange gives them a whole new path for people wanting to get in the game, which is good.

    So, I’m willing to take a wait-and-see attitude.

    Tales from the Vault

    Online selling has been around for a bit more for a week, and I for one and glad to see it. Although it must be said that it works against me a bit, since I was one of the lucky ones in the Pacific Time Zone who could begin selling after the daily reboot and stay there all day long.

    Online selling definitely increases the liquidity of EQII markets. More stuff is available more often. And usually at a better price, since there is more competition. That’s good news for buyers. The good news for sellers is that you don’t have to give up play time to sell. That’s good news for sellers who don’t have dedicated sales accounts.

    But those folks can have a reason to be relieved, at least. There is still an advantage to selling with a character versus selling via the vault, namely, a customer can come to your room and buy from you direct and avoid the transaction costs. This means that your prices can be more competetive, at the same profit to you, your price is going to be more attractive to a consumer. Also, with another account you’ve lots more inventory space.

    But it hasn’t fixed everything. There are still opportunities for arbitrage, by moving stuff through time, buying when it’s cheap, and selling when it’s dear. I do this with commodities that I also use for my tradeskill, since I’m inherently interested in them. Of course, arbitrage is made easier by vault selling, too.

    And there still seems to be a marked difference in the price/availability of one spell versus another. Some Adept 1 upgrades are abundant and cheap, while others can’t be found.

    I suspect this exists for two reasons. Probably not all spells of a given tier or level drop off of all mobs, there might be variation there. And certainly some spells are not valued the same either. Some, like Breeze for enchanters, are seen as core spells that are critical to performance, while others are seen as more peripheral. But I don’t think this can account for the wide variations I’ve seen on the broker, since for example Daunting Gaze usually has many copies on the broker, and it’s extremely valuable, one of the best tools in the tier 2 enchanter toolbox.

    Vault selling serves the interest of the game designers in that it takes more coin out of the game. One of the problems with managing a game economy is that the money comes from nowhere. There is an endless supply of mobs, which drop stuff that can be sold to vendors for coin. Vendors will buy skeletal hands for the same price no matter how many people have sold to them recently, and they never run out of coin to pay. So, money flows into the game.

    The game designer then is faced with the problem of taking money back out of the game. Buying things from other players doesn’t take either the item or the money out of circulation. However, attunement does take things out of circulation. Buying permanent items from vendors, such as mounts, paintings, furniture, takes the money out of the game, but not the item, which can be sold, though often at a discount.

    The brokerage fees simply go away, leaving nothing of value in their place. This is also true of consumable items, such as arrows, potions, food and drink. Spell upgrades are like attuneable items, only better, from the game design point of view, because attunable items can be sold back to NPC vendors for some coin, but spell upgrades (and tradeskill books), once scribed, cannot.

    I took the position a few months ago that the lack of offline selling represented a point of view that espoused that if a player wasn’t online, then they had no right to be making money in-game. An extension of the “a person must be sitting in the chair” philosophy. Only that isn’t what I was doing.

    When I wanted to sell, I’d set up the seller, and go off doing something else. Sometimes I’d be at home and be able to see my screen and hear the clink of coins when someone bought something from me. But I wasn’t sitting at the chair.

    In all fairness, it doesn’t really seem appropriate that the timezone you live in should have an effect on how well you can be a merchant in-game, but it did. If you could start up your merchant after the daily reboot because you didn’t have to already be at work, that gave you a big advantage. Vault selling just cancelled that out, and I think that’s a good thing.

    The Ancient and Mystical Language of the Lawyers

    SOE has taken dramatic action against plat sellers in the last week, including action that I predicted earlier that they would not.

    Last week, the SOE team completed a sweep of plat sellers and multi-boxing bots using some new tools (presumably these were in the form of statistical software), to ferret these people out. It appears that they took their time and followed the chain of connections between characters, since the day after the crackdown, many servers did not have plat for sale on the IGE website.

    Since I said before that I thought the group platbots were within the Terms Of Service, though just barely, I dug into the TOS to see what justification they might have used to shut down the actual bots. Remember when you read this that I am not only not a lawyer, I’m a fictional character!

    Anyway, selling accounts or items or plat, for real-world money is less a clear violation of TOS than I thought. Two clauses seem to apply. Clause 7 says

    7. Subject to the terms of this Agreement, we hereby grant to you a non-exclusive, non-transferable, revocable license to use the Software solely in connection with playing the Game via an authorized and fully-paid Account. You may not copy (except to make one necessary back-up copy), distribute, sell, auction, rent, lease, loan, modify or create derivative works, adapt, translate, perform, display, sublicense or transfer all or any portion of the Software…

    As an aside, I know of retail locations that offer “lan party” services, where customers can come in and play Everquest 2, or Quake or whatever on very-well equipped computers owned by the operator. I presume that these operators have permission from Sony, since it appears to be regulated in the TOS. Although interestingly enough, the operator of such sites may never have clicked through the TOS themselves, so that contract may not be binding.

    But the prohibition against sublicense probably covers selling your account name and password to someone else. But does it prohibit selling plat for real-world money? Not that I can see.

    The main bulwark against plat selling appears to be in clause 8.

    8. We and our suppliers shall retain all rights, title and interest, including, without limitation, ownership of all intellectual property rights relating to or residing in the CD-ROM, the Software and the Game, all copies thereof, and all game character data in connection therewith. You acknowledge and agree that you have not and will not acquire or obtain any intellectual property or other rights, including any right of exploitation, of any kind in or to the CD-ROM, the Software or the Game, including, without limitation, in any artwork, music, character(s), item(s), coin(s) or other material or property, and/or any compilation or copyrightable arrangement of any of the above (collectively, “Rights”), and that all such property, material, items and Rights are exclusively owned by us.

    By the great Marr! Was that written in the Ancient Language of Magic? This poor Illusionist didn’t know, among other things, what a “right of exploitation” might be, so I used my scrying device (also known as Google) to do some research.

    It turns out that “right of exploitation” is a term of art used to describe how someone might use something for profit that isn’t necessarily theirs. For example, the ocean does not belong to an individual fisherman, it is typically owned (within the 12 mile limit) by a government. But, assuming he’s done the proper paper work, the fisherman can still fish in the ocean, and aquire ownership of the fish he pulls aboard his boat. This is a right of exploitation.

    In intellectual property, the situation is analagous. A right of exploitation is the ability to use something for profitable activity. So, by clicking through the TOS, you have agreed that just because you’ve paid for your account, that doesn’t give you any right to try to make some money off of it. (Hmm, probably I should contact SOE if I ever want to sell advertising on this blog.) Coin is mentioned specifically. Now that’s what we’re talking about!

    Violation of copyright in and of itself is somewhat weak in the case of plat selling, since the assertion that coin, in particular platinum coin, is a unique creation of SOE seems a bit weak to my poor, non-lawyered, red and extremely well-coiffed head. But explicit denial of any right of exploitation seems pretty specific and on-target. Once I decipherd the Ancient and Mystical Language of the Lawyers, that is.

    So, they have a pretty clear field to go against the accounts that sell plat. And if they take their time, they can trace transaction patterns and find not just the “bagman” accounts, but roll up a whole network. Presumably they are using statistical methods to analyze transaction size and frequency and other behaviors, since every communication and every transaction is recorded, or can be recorded and reviewed by SOE. Reports are that dedicated vendor accounts were closed as well, along with the 6-character farming groups. Under what clause of the TOS were these accounts closed?

    Clause 9 addresses “botting” among other things:

    9. You may not use any software to modify the Software to change Game play. You may not create, facilitate, host, link to or provide any other means through which the Game may be played by others, such as through server emulators. You may not decrypt or modify any data transmitted between client and server and you may not use, post, host or distribute macros, “bots” or other programs which would allow unattended game play or which otherwise impact game play…

    The phrase “otherwise impact game play” is somewhat elastic, but I don’t think that’s what they used to justify the action. As I mentioned earlier, one of the trouble with the bot hunting groups is that they will hunt in specific areas, train other players, and generally behave in an anti-social manner. Still the multi-boxed bots are only questionably covered by this clause, since the linking of them is done entirely through means of hardware, e.g., wireless keyboards.

    So, I think in the end they must rely on clause 6:

    6. We may terminate this Agreement (including your Software license and your Account) and/or suspend your Account immediately and without notice: (i) if you violate any provision of this Agreement; (ii) infringe any third party intellectual property rights; (iii) if we are unable to verify or authenticate any information you provide to us; (iv) upon gameplay, chat or any player activity whatsoever which we, in our sole discretion, determine is inappropriate and/or in violation of the spirit of the Game; or (v) upon any violation of the Station Terms of Service and/or the Game Rules of Conduct – both of which are posted at a hotlink at www.everquest2.com.

    Moorguard’s comments on the message boards supports this. He said that the plat-farming groups caused all sorts of problem with their anti-social play. They monopolized areas, and generally made a nuisance of themselves.

    Apparently, many seller-only accounts were banned as well, under the same grounds. Plat sellers have a clear mandate to try to monopolize markets in game so as to drive up prices, making the plat they sell more valuable in game. The driving reason Sony has to fight them is to keep the game accessible to new players, and players that don’t play that often. If you have to stop playing for three weeks because of a crunch at work, or because your spouse is sick and you need to deal with the children or whatever, it’s pretty discouraging to come back and find that the prices of everything have doubled.

    That leads to unhappy players, cancelled accounts, and loss of revenue for Sony. The Everquest 2 continues to show a marked willingness to take action for the long-term benefit to the game, even when it might ruffle some feathers. Highly creative people , such as the Everquest 2 team, often find it difficult to mount a sustained, consistent program, since well, it’s kinda boring. The first big sweep isn’t boring, but after that it may become boring. Here’s hoping that SOE can implement “the miracle of ‘and’”; bringing us both highly creative game content and mount a consistent program against players who, for whatever reason, make the game less enjoyable.

    What’s the Story?

    I’m really impressed with the way that Everquest II employs writing in a way that gets players interested in reading it. In Everquest, the writing was always there, although most players didn’t end up reading it all. There was a whole bunch of back story about the return of the Frogloks, and other lore. There was always the quest text. But that went into a chat window and typically scrolled away unread. Later, there was a whole window or two devoted to tracking lore, but somehow, that didn’t get read much either.

    There are two mechanisms in Everquest 2 that drive story and put writing in front of players. First comes the quests. These can be clicked through, but often they have entertaining audio tracks, and even without them, the text appears in word balloons, and is often entertaining. Of course, talking with ghosts can be tedious, as they tend to be long-winded and slow-talking, but that’s just part of the fun.

    Related to quests are instanced zones. These feature their own story line, which is often started outside the instanced zone, and have tie ins to the greater lore of the game. A great example of this is the quests in Qeynos Catacombs that ultimately lead you to Fippy Darkpaw in an instanced zone. It’s not the original Fippy, it’s a descendent from the Fippy in EQ1. In the old game, Fippy would spawn, say a few threatening things, attack and die quickly to either players or guards.

    Now his descendent is hidden away, and involved in smuggling certain contraband into Qeynos. After doing a quest to gain access, you finally encounter Fippy in an instanced zone, and you can talk to him and do a quest that will give you, in addition to a nice quest reward, some clues as to what that contraband is, namely Blackburrow Stout.

    There are probably a dozen quests in the game that intersect with this plot element in one way or another. You can carry some stout from a guy at the dock to his brother in Starcrest. You can get some stout for the gnome in the hidden cave in Blackburrow. You need to get stout for the Zek access quest. You need to go there for the Dwarven Work Boots heritage quest. All of them reinforce this plot element, and this gives us a much richer, more interconnected world. Which is more interesting.

    The other mechanism which drives writing into the game is the quest books. The cataloging quests and the Lore and Legend quest require you to read a book or at least flip through the pages. This is moderately effective, though impatience has a way of taking root in theses cases. But the real fun is in the narrative book quests.

    In these quests, you buy a book that has “pages missing”. In order to recover the pages, you have to go and kill some mobs, at which point you have to read the next page. Reading the next page involves flipping through all the pages you’ve already read, but since all you have to do is read one new page, that seems to curb the impatience factor. Not to mention that the books are pretty entertaining.

    There’s one I highly recommend: An Old Cookbook, which is available in Freeport. If you are Qeynos-based, you can still do this, but you need to sneak into Freeport, and have a hide or an invisibility going. Under these conditions, the book seller will sell to you, and you can obtain the quest. This book was apparently written by a troll, and contains many preparation tips for, well, let’s just say taking the standard troll diet to a new level.

    But many others are entertaining too, and as literature that are part of the world of Norrath, can reference points of lore, history, and legend, thus bringing it to the players attention. At some point this knowledge of the world becomes useful, but in an age of internet spoiler sites, I don’t think that’s the primary purpose. Rather it enriches the world, and gives it a sense of interconnectedness, depth and age. In that sense the EQ2 team is following in the steps of Tolkien, who created languages, history, geneology and whole lost civilizations to enrich Middle Earth.