Ancient Greek Punishment, The Game


The science blogger Jennifer Ouellette linked this on Google+ and I just had to share.

Pippin Barr, a lecturer and researcher at Center for Computer Game Research at IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark studying “video game values,” created this devious little game. Players take on the role of different characters from Greek myths (and, oddly, the non-mythological philosopher Zeno) and act out their punishments: Prometheus shakes off the vulture that tries to eat his liver; Tantalus reaches for fruit and water pulled just out of his reach; Sisyphus rolls a rock up a hill. It seems winning is dependent on your masochism — or your ability to write an auto-playing script.

However, I have read claims that an auto-play script doesn’t, in fact, help. Still, I’m getting really, really close on the Sisyphus level.

If that isn’t art, I’m not red headed…

Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition

On Christmas Eve, someone on my Google+ stream mentioned that Skyrim was on sale for 33% off. (For the next 3 hours or something). I was lost at that moment.

The rest of my family had already been playing it on their gaming computers. Lobilya and Thing2 had been playing it since launch. (And swapping stories about it at shared mealtimes, too.) Thing1 spent her savings on an XBox360 and the game. Given she plays her XBox on the TV in the same room where my gaming computer is, I could hardly not stop and watch her while flying cross-country on Randolph the Reindeer in Vanguard doing the latest Unicorn Rescue.

So I was primed. It took most of the evening to download, which was fine, because Christmas Eve was otherwise taken up with presents and food and general celebration. At your left you see the PC version of Toldain Darkwater, Skyrim Edition. Unfortunately my fabulous red hair is covered by that hood. It’s cold, you see…

The game is achingly beautiful. For example, the lighting effects. That shot was taken at the top of the mountain on a cloudy, stormy day. The light is very white, and very dim. It’s different at other times and places. The walk up the 7000 steps made me very nostalgic for the backpacking trips I took as a teenager.

********

One of my favorite novels by Roger Zelazny is Roadmarks. It describes a road that is a time travel mechanism, traveling along it moves one through time and space and there are exits at many interesting places in history. Chapters are labelled either One or Two. Here’s what Roger said about it:

“I did not decide until I was well into the book that since there was really two time-situations being dealt with (on-Road and off-Road—with off-Road being anywhen in history), I needed only two chapter headings, One and Two, to let the reader know where we are. And since the Twos were non-linear, anyway, I clipped each Two chapter into a discrete packet, stacked them and then shuffled them before reinserting them between the Ones. It shouldn’t have made any difference, though I wouldn’t have had the guts to try doing that without my experience with my other experimental books and the faith it had given me in the feelings I’d developed toward narrative.”

Bethesda is no newcomer to making Fantasy RPG games, and the world of their games has been developed over several titles. Skyrim’s full name is Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim after all.

Skyrim reminds me of Roadmarks for two reasons: First, it’s full of non-linear storytelling. There is a Main Plot, much like chapters labeled One in Roadmarks. But that is such a small, small part of what makes the game interesting and engaging. It’s not so much that there are a lot of side quests to choose from as there are entire lifestyles to choose between. You can develop and express your character by joining the Empire or the Rebels (they are called Stormcloaks). You can marry someone and set up a household (or many!)[EDIT: You can have many houses, not many spouses. You only get one of the latter, but it can be of whatever gender you wish.] You can aspire to political power, stay in an ivory tower or be a hermit, it would seem. You can aspire to be a master smith or enchanter. You can try to collect all the books in the game. There’s no reward for it particularly save for the satisfaction.

The other similarity with Roadmarks? Dragons. In the case of Skyrim, lots of them. I’m hoping to write another post about the battle I had with a Dragon this morning.

But this post is about the sandboxiness of Skyrim. After the initial stuff, which is pretty linear, I went over to a den of bandits to clear it out on behalf of the Jarl of Whiterun. When I finished it, I looked up at the mountain it was on and thought, “Hey, that sort of looks like a path up that mountain, I wonder if I can go up it.” I could.

I climbed to the absolute top of that mountain. On the way up, I ran across a Vigilant of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). He invited me to visit their lodge on the other side of the mountain. When I got near the top of the mountain, there was a little shrine there, with fires burning and offerings made. I’m not sure to whom. The peak was nearby. I climbed to the top of the rocky outcrop, just because it was there. Just below the outcrop was none other than Talsgar the Wanderer, a bard who likes to get out of the inn and have adventures, dammit! He had apparently just bested two bandits. On that mountaintop.

Continuing down the other side I found a temple to Mehrunes Dagon, which was locked. And well it should be, since, as I found out later (through reading in-game books!) that Dagon was at the center of the Oblivion Crisis (Elder Scrolls IV, I think), and must needs be safely locked away. I kept walking.

I visited the lodge of the Vigilants of Stendarr (The God of Mercy). Their slogan is “May Stendarr have Mercy on you, because the Vigil will not!” Yes, they’re crazy. But they were nice enough to me.

I kept walking. I fought a few creatures and ended up on the northern coast in Dawnstar. The Jarl there was Skald the Elder, but he acts like a child, and everyone says so. When they aren’t talking about the nightmares they are having. There was a priest of Mara there, and Toldain is a follower of the Goddess of Compassion, regardless of her name, so I helped him. We set things right at the Nightcaller Temple, but he had a habit of saying, “Oh, did I forget to mention…?” In the end, the nightmares were ended.

There are so many more adventures. Those all were Two. Eventually I got back to One.

When the Nintendo64 came out, it brought 3D graphics into everyone’s living room. Miyamoto Shigeru, in making Mario64 demonstrated that 3D meant a lot more than something looking nice. That game had a lot of non-linearity in it, along with a dose of “whatever works, works.” There were known solutions, but not prescribed ones.

Skyrim adheres to this and makes it so much bigger. Combat isn’t about memorizing a sequence of button pushes to get you through a game level. But it does have a fair bit of “fast-twitch” to it, more so than DDO. It’s definitely heir to FPS games. Aiming matters, unless you aren’t an aimer but a summoner or a basher. Then it doesn’t matter. Much.

I’m nowhere near an expert on this kind of game, I’ve focused mainly on MMO’s and economic sims. But it seems that the accomplishment of Bethesda on this game can be summed up in three maxims:

1. If you can see it, you can go there.
2. When you go there, there will be something to do.
3. If you can do it, it will work.

Most of my very considerable RPG experience has been with other people. My only wish is that I could do this, or something like this, with other people.

(UPDATE: “Morrowind” corrected to “Oblivion” Crisis in reference to Mehrunes Dagon, a very Lovecraftian name, by the way).

The Face is the Most Important Part

I just finished reading the best post ever about female plate armor, a topic of long-standing interest here. It’s written by someone who makes armor. No doubt for SCA. Via the most-worthy tumblr Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.

Here’s a taste:

Any artist working with human subject matter will tell you that the face is the most important part of the character. A headshot by itself can tell you everything you need to know about who a person is and how they feel. Sex appeal can come entirely from a beautiful face, the body doesn’t need to be naked as well.

I argue that this:

is more appealing than this:

The bare chest and boob plate add nothing to the femininity, sexiness, or appeal of the character. Focus on the face for character appeal, let the armor be a reflection of the setting and her role within it.

Well, that’s kind of hyperbole to make a point. I wouldn’t say they add nothing. But the face and the eyes, as he says, rule.

And the red hair. I’m just saying…

So, the question I’m pondering is: If it doesn’t add anything, why do we keep doing it? Is it because the artists/medium in question can’t do the former?

No Rez Options for You!

SOE announced today that Everquest II will go “Free to Play. Your Way”. I don’t think they are talking about me. I like the DDO FTP model much better than what SOE is offering. All servers will convert to a FTP model wherein aspects of gameplay are restricted except for those accounts paying the monthly fee.

Because of the strenuous objections of the current playerbase to anything that smells of “pay to win”, SOE is not going to offer the following items in the RMT store which had been in the FTP-dedicated servers:

  • Power potion
  • Health potion
  • Self-rez scroll
  • Wand of Obliteration
  • Rune of Devastation
  • Mastercrafted Equipment (all)
  • Tradeskill Components

Some of the items on this list are standards in DDO. Rez tokens, power and health potions, for example. Mastercrafted equipment seems kind of a problem for those hoping to make ingame currency from selling these items. So I can see dropping that. Tradeskill components? As in raw materials? That’s kind of crazy that they sold that, but sure, spend your money if you don’t want to go gathering.

I just don’t care about this stuff the way I used to. But lots of the EQ2 players seemed to still. At a guess, they are operating out of a sense of competition (in a PVE game). It’s not like EVE where every aspect of it is PVP. If someone else has success by spending more money, so what? How does that impact you? Prestige I’d guess. But we’ve had people cheating – remember the ghosting scandal? – in EQ2 for a long time for nothing but the prestige of being the first or the “uber” guild on the server.

The thing that really kills the FTP plan for me is the restrictions on Silver accounts. See below:

[I'm stealing bandwitdth from The Ancient Gaming Noob for that chart. Wilhelm, let me know if my meager traffic is a problem and I'll self-host. I'm mostly feeling lazy.]

With a Silver (never mind Free) account, I can pay extra if the package doesn’t include the race or class I want. (But the fabulous red hair comes for free!). However: I can’t have Master-level abilities. I can’t get Legendary and Fabled drops. I can’t have more ingame coin than 20 gold (!) per character level. I can’t have more than 40 quests in my journal. My access to the broker would be “Restricted”. And I can’t send in-game mail.

In short, Toldain would very hamstrung as a Silver toon. Most of his gear and abilities would downgrade. Most of his fabulous wealth (which came from manufacturing and playing the jewelry/spells market) would be gone, or maybe just inaccessible.

So, for him, my choice would be: go back to the old subscription, at what appears to be a slightly higher price, or go home.

Ok, I kind of get that they are worried about spam from gold-sellers. But wow. You can’t send mail on a Silver account? Can’t you just charge a few coppers for an ingame mail?

*******

Back to that competition thing. Today the news also broke that Zynga executed a “take-back” of stock options from some of its early employees. There’s this story, which says that the executives were motivated to avoid a “Google Chef” moment. [If you didn't know, Charlie Ayers, the first chef Google hired, left the company after its IPO with $20 million. I say, good for you, Charlie!]

But this story says that the motivation was to make Zynga a “meritocracy”. [Hat tip to Psychochild for pointing it out.] I’m doubtful. The story isn’t sourced, but it reads like it came straight from the keyboard of Zynga’s president, Marc Pincus. According to it, Pincus was deciding to demote people rather than fire them. What a great guy! Let’s just say that he has a track record of being psychologically manipulative, given how their games work.

In Silicon Valley, early employees get bigger stock grants. That’s just how it works, and when a company IPO’s some people will get more money than other folks think they “deserve”. And that bothers some people. Let’s set aside whether Marc Pincus is one of those people who is bothered.

It has been my impression that game companies have sort of a license to abuse their workers, based on the fact that the workers often think that working as a gamedev is the greatest job in the world, and something they would do for free. But the particulars of this case, only the employees at Zynga know.

I play DDO now (and I’ve started back with Vanguard, but that’s another post). The idea that someone is buying RMT hirelings and rez potions and buffs doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It doesn’t take away from my accomplishments at all. That’s what’s at the core of the “Free to Play. Your Way”. Current players don’t want to see their accomplishments cheapened. But that’s inevitable, it happens even without rez potions, as people level up.

I once was on their side, but I don’t see the point any more, not in a PVE game. Your game is not my game. Live and let live.

In Which I Am Schooled

[Warning: I'm not going to talk about gaming at all in this post. If you aren't interested in art and culture in general, drive on. I'll have a gaming post up soon.]

Specifically by Rita / Karaya / Jaqueline Heat. She said, in response to my offhand jibe at Death Metal…

Easy there, slugger. Let’s not turn into the very people we’re trying to admonish. Some of the best, most supportive people I know happen to be death metal heads. I myself keep a few death metal favorites on my iPod. That Cannibal Crap guy speaks only for himself.

Then, in a later comment, she mentioned this song – We Will Rise, by Arch Enemy

The sum total of my experience with Death Metal consists of two or three songs on Rock Band III and this. The songs on Rock Band III gave me the following impression: Fantastic chops, not much musicality. A deliberate pose of ugliness and transgression. Deliberate distortion of vocal sound to the point where it doesn’t really sound human. I presume it is meant to be heard as demonic, but maybe that’s a holdover from the days of Black Sabbath?

The above track is better. The chops seem to serve a musical idea, which is linked to an idea in the lyrics. Transgression is definitely a tool in Arch Enemy’s arsenal, and an important one.

I am the enemy
I am the antidote
Watch me closely
I will stand up now

So I see the attraction of this art that someone who is a member of a marginalized group might feel.

So, when I said, of Cannibal Corpse, “What do you expect from a Death Metal head?” I was thinking of the transgressive pose that seems a defining feature of Death Metal. But here’s the thing: The “transgression” in his rant is of the most superficial and banal sort. The guy’s handle is “Cannibal Corpse” for pete’s sake. If I saw someone in an MMO named “Cannibal Corpse”, I would think, “Wow, that guy has no imagination at all, and is desperate to impress everyone with how badass he is.”

And the sentiments expressed in the video – that the Alliance is weak and foolsh – is likewise squarely in the mainstream, and uses a mainstream mode of expression – taken to the extreme. It was so far taken to the extreme, I read it as satire.

I don’t know that I’ll have any DM on my iPod going forward, but I’d like to revise my comment:

Instead of “What do you expect from a Death Metal head?” I emend that comment to “What do you expect from someone who calls himself ‘Cannibal Corpse’?”

A Whole New Kind of Gamification

The problem of determining the exact structure of a certain protein of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) has eluded scientists for 10 years. We know the chemical formula for such proteins, but not their shape. M-PMV, which is closely related to HIV, and produces AIDS in monkeys, produces its proteins in a big block, like most viruses. It then cuts them apart into usable components with a protein called a protease. Proteases are built like scissors, having two parts that are joined together. If we could figure out what the halves looked like before they joined together, we could come up with ways to prevent them from joining, and thus shut down the virus’ operations completely.

However, scientists have bee working on this problem for 10 years with no success. Complex computer programs and tons of computing resource couldn’t crack it. Until Firas Khatib, a researcher at the University of Washington (Go Dogs!) took the problem to the players of a protein folding game called Foldit.

The Foldit players had no such problems. They came up with several answers, one of which was almost close to perfect. In a few days, Khatib had refined their solution to deduce the protein’s final structure, and he has already spotted features that could make attractive targets for new drugs.

Foldit is a game, full-stop. It’s a massively multiplayer game, but not a roleplaying one. Collaboration is possible, and there are message boards and wikis about it.

I feel that the best approach to “intelligent” tasks is that of human-machine partnership. Foldit is a computer program that doesn’t solve protein folding at all, but instead reduces it to a task a human being can easily comprehend and fiddle with. Many of the players of Foldit have no technical background at all. The operations on proteins have names like “tweak” and “shake”.

Furthermore, by having lots of teams work on the problem, when some of them go down a bad path, it doesn’t sink the whole project. They just get pwned by other teams, learn from it and move on.

Phritz sent this to me, but the quote is from Ed Yong’s blog at discover.com, which I highly recommend

When No Doesn’t Mean No: Update

There’s a flurry of reaction to my last post about the Eve fracas. (Or is it a rumpus?)

Brian “Psychochild” Green, in comments says to be careful:

It’s also kind of unfortunate that this was “leaked”. Often developers discuss a design topic openly to get information. It might be that design issues are discussed with direct, declarative statements in the company culture. “Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization:” might really be a suggestion. Hard to say how an Icelandic company’s culture affects the discussions.

The first article, the “pro” and “con” definitely felt this way. I considered the possibility of the second, written by the Director of Content, as advocacy, but it’s hard to support that. Given his name and where the magazine states that he lives, he’s clearly a native English speaker as well. I don’t think it was advocacy.

Brian also mentions another issue:

One comment: Here’s a company where getting scammed in the game is not against the rules, and even allowed. So, you’re surprised when they compare something to prostitution and don’t find it to be a negative? :)

Dang, there’s a big difference between doing stuff in-game and out. Which is why I (and most Eve players from what I can tell) still think that account hacking, keylogging, client mods and so forth are unacceptable.

Last Friday CCP Zulu posted on his blog:

Therefore we dedicated an entire issue to exactly that topic. It‘s worth mentioning that the topic of the issue was “Greed is good?” as a way to ask a question that would then be debated back and forth and often exaggerated purposefully to draw contrasts and make points. The result of that is now widely available on the internet.
[I got that the point of the magazine was debate, by the way. I simply could not reconcile the tone of one article with advocacy, as opposed to, done deal]

The opinions and views expressed in Fearless are just that; opinions and views. They are not CCP policy nor are they a reliable source of CCP views as a company. The employees who submitted articles to that newsletter did exactly what they were asked to do, write about theories and opinions from an exaggerated stand.

While it‘s perfectly fine to disagree and attack CCP over policies or actions we take, we think it‘s not cool how individuals that work here have been called out and dragged through the mud due to something they wrote in the internal company newsletter. Seriously, these people were doing their jobs and do not deserve the hate and shitstorm being pointed at them.

Well, I read the issue of Fearless and responded to it. I mentioned by name the authors of articles. I expressed my feelings in a way that was direct, but less abusive than what you will see in Jita local in any given 5 minute period.

The tone of CCP Zulu’s post is pretty defensive. After that came an email purported to be from CCP President Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, sent to a mailing list called ccp-global. This looks like an internal memo, but since it’s provenance is very unclear, I’m not going to reprint it. The tone of it is “We did a great job, and don’t worry about the pushback, it will die down, it always does.” He goes on to say that they have sold 52 monocles so far.

If you don’t understand that this is an internal memo, it looks like the most tone-deaf message ever written, comparing well with “Well, despite an unfortunate disturbance at tonight’s performance of An American Cousin, the gate receipts are way, way up!”

Today CCP Zulu has another blog post up. It begins:

The tone and demeanor of my blog on Friday did not correctly portray my emotions towards the community and player base at large. I love and respect EVE and its community on a level that’s hard to really do justice in words. However I let my frustration take charge of me, fueled by emotions that had built up due to a breach of trust we at CCP have been experiencing over the past few days. I know that sounds ironic considering those are the exact same feelings you have been having towards CCP.

For that I am sorry.

He goes on to announce that they will be holding a special meeting with CSM (the player representative’s council) to discuss this issue. I presume the “breach of trust” he mentions refers to the leak of not only the issue of Fearless, but Peterssun’s internal email.

Ok, my other commenter on the last post, Sara Pickell, has an interesting hypothesis. She begins

Your also taking as rote someone who was completely ignored in the actual implementation as we have it. Paragraph 3 is literally him suggesting the polar opposite of the current pricing structure.

Hmm, start small and innocuous and widespread. Which isn’t what happened. Fair point. That seemed odd to me, too. Sara goes on to note a progression in the language.

“we must sell our units of virtual currency” – “First, we don’t want to” – “Instead, we
want to” – “we will most
likely

If you pay attention, the times when he gets the most technical and becomes the most confident he uses the least strong language. The last one was a strong contender for answering a problem he clearly understood well and he used his softest language.

Hell if you get the mental tone right, it sounds a lot like satire… Holy shit, I think it is satire… Wow… just… wow.

I think Sara is right. Satire is very tricky business and depends on the audience and the comic being on the same page, and having some trust. As well as some very precise tonal indicators. Way back when I was a brand-new professor, I had an inclination to joke when students asked me what would be on the midterm, “Oh, if you can do all the problems in Chapters 1-10 in less than 30 minutes, you’ll probably pass…” Nobody laughed at these jokes. So I developed a rule which I stated: “Students don’t find jokes about tests to be funny.”

I’ve had lots of occasion to refer to this rule in the past few weeks. Lous CK has a joke that goes like this, “I would never rape a woman unless I had a good reason, like I wanted to have sex with her and she didn’t want to.” I find this funny, but discussions in the past week or two indicate that many women don’t find it the least bit funny. The humor depends on understanding that the point of view is exaggerated and offered for mockery.

In yet another example, I went to see Jonathon Coulton in a live performance in early 2009 in San Francisco. (JoCo is a musical humorist, or is he a humorous songwriter and performer?) The show was fronted by Paul and Storm, another duo combining music and humor. In one of Paul and Storm’s songs, the punch line in one verse was based on the van that the Mexican was driving was full of illegal aliens.

Said punch line was met with stony silence on the part of the audience, and that included me. “Aww, come on! It’s satire!” called out Paul and Storm. More stony silence. They moved on, and the rest of their act was enjoyed by all. At the time, I thought to myself, “They have no idea how painful the immigration debate has been here in California over the years, have they?” Some jokes just don’t work with some audiences.

At least here in America, we are used to corporations taking every advantage of us that they can. There is little that is sacred to them, and when we buy a car, for example, they love to keep adding things on that we must buy. There are no human feelings that go unexploited. For example, someone’s love for his family turns into a need for expensive life insurance.

And during the last two-plus years, the unemployment rate has seen lots of Eve players out of work due to no fault of their own. The ones that have kept their jobs have very likely seen their hours stretched while their pay been as stagnant as that pond just outside of Qeynos. The one with the meteorite in it. And we are also accustomed to corporations not so much outright lying but exercising creative loopholes. And sometimes outright lying, and worse.

Make no mistake, Eve players love Eve, and are terrified that CCP will try to exploit that love, and ruin the game in the process. So, this joke isn’t funny. However, it wasn’t meant for them.

I assign about an 90% probability to the article in question being satire, and meant ironically. It’s only 90% because living 3 million years has given me some skepticism about everything. (The fabulous red hair doesn’t make me skeptical, just sexy).

If it’s really satire, then it’s very reassuring, by the way. It shows that it was expected that every CCP employee would understand immediately that the program described – the selling of ammo, ships and faction through RMT – was way beyond anything CCP had any intention of doing. As Gandalf would say, “That’s a very comforting thought.”

Update: Corrected spelling from “Sarah” to “Sara” Pickell.

When No Doesn’t Mean No

Eve Online recently launched its latest expansion Incarna. As part of the expansion it introduced a microtransaction market, through which players can purchase items by spending a currency known as Aurum. Aurum, as I write this, can only be obtained by purchasing a PLEX, the same ingame item that can be redeemed for play time, and instead redeeming it for Aurum.

The market is thin, and mostly consists of vanity items, boots, skirts and, of all things, monocles.

As it turns out, Incarna introduced full-body 3d avatars for the first time to EVE. However, in the game as it is today, these avatars are only used in your Captain’s Quarters, which can only be occupied by you. So, it seems, nobody can see these vanity items, with one exception – monocles. To add insult to injury, the real world cost of said items is pretty stiff – upwards of $50 to $80. There are no low priced items, and nothing that seems functional.

As if this weren’t enough, a copy of an internal newsletter (with the title Fearless) was leaked to the general public. This particular issue was titled “Greed is Good?” and had a picture of Gordon Gekko on it. On page 7 is a pro-con debate on having microtransaction items available that enhanced gameplay in Eve Online. You can download it here.

Kristoffer Touffer is described as “a driving force in CCP’s game design department” Kristoffer says

I would like virtual goods sales in EVE. In fact, I’d like to sell a lot more than vanity items. Does this mean I’m an evil capitalist that, unless stopped, will cause the entire company to catch fire and be buried at sea by a secret team of Navy SEALs?
Let’s hope not, although that’s the impression I get sometimes when interacting with our customers. There is a pretty overwhelming perception amongst EVE players that these changes are bad. I think they’re brilliant, but our players
don’t. We’re going to face an uphill struggle, and the reason many of us never talk about this publicly is that we’d be burned at the stake by the players.

Kristoffer gives an example of what kinds of things he’d like to see sold in game:

I’ll give you an example of something I think provides value to our customer, which I’d like to sell. Right now, you can store 50 personal fittings on our servers. That’s more than enough for the average EVE player, but for a subset of our users, it’s too small a number. Why not be able to add more storage space for a small amount of money? You’d even be able to upgrade it multiple times if you needed and permanently add this benefit to your character, making it even more valuable. And you know what? If you don’t like paying for this, you can always buy a PLEX off the market, and never have to get your credit card out. I think that’s pretty goddamn cool, and I’m not entirely sure why that makes me Hitler to some EVE players.

Which touches my first question: Why have Aurum at all? Why not just make everything ISK based? You can already buy ISK in game from CCP by buying GTCs, converting them to PLEXes and selling them on the market. I have a guess at why they introduced Aurum: So they can sell it or give it away directly eventually, and set their own price for it, rather than letting the market decide, avoiding in-game market arbitrage as well.

On the same page, John Turbefield is described as a “Renowned master of spreadsheets and works his Excel magic in the Research and Statistics department”. He is “worried that the rules are changing:”

Virtual goods sales can be positive in certain circumstances. However, when you introduce something that can create an imbalance where others can’t compete with their spending power, you inevitably decrease their satisfaction with your product. As such it is essential that a game is designed from the ground up to incorporate any major virtual goods sales that fall outside of this. PLEX (and time codes before that) work extremely well as they not only largely replace a black market for ISK, but provide substantial benefits to other players in the form of offering additional subscription options. The negatives caused from the ISK for real money trade such as hacking and botting are reduced as their profitability declines. PLEX differs from typical virtual goods sales because we allow players to pay their subscriptions this way using in-game currency.

To me, virtual goods sales are far less appealing when the gameplay is affected and they aren’t replacing a black market. When we’re adding additional things into the game that enable users to gain an advantage over other people for real money in a way they simply wouldn’t be able to if we hadn’t done so, then it becomes an issue. I feel that if people have already paid a subscription fee then unless there is a good reason for the overall community to introduce a gameplay-affecting virtual goods
sales (such as with PLEX), then gaining an in-game advantage isn’t justifiable. More revenue is of course an aim, but making our customers feel like they are being ‘double billed’ to be able to play on the same level as others is just a step too far.

The most visible example of another game introducing virtual goods sales is certainly LOTRO. It is worth pointing out though that they made almost everything microtransaction based and at the same time removed subscription fees. Because other games with very different communities and very different gameplay styles are able to do something it doesn’t mean we can do the same thing with the same levels of success. EVE is a far more complex game with significantly more social interaction, which changes a great
deal about how you can approach virtual goods sales. While it’s true that others, such as Blizzard have gone down the microtransaction path, they have not implemented any gameplay affecting items. They also do not offer a microtransaction to gold conversion as we do with PLEX. [Actually, Eve offers a gold to MT conversion, not the other way -toldain]
I don’t oppose the concept of virtual goods in the case of vanity items, merely in cases where the monetization of items impacts the balance of the game.

Well, that was kind of long, but I wanted you to really get the argument being made. John touches on the idea of “double-billing”, which is pretty important to overall sentiment. He also tries to explain something that puzzles me as well.

CCP already sells currency within its games, via the PLEX mechanic. ISK can be used to buy things that enhance your gameplay, and gain an advantage with. I’ve heard players respond to someone complaining about how long it took to earn enough ISK to buy a carrier with, “Sell some PLEXes!”

Furthermore, characters can be bought and sold for ISK. So if you want an “endgame” character, capable of flying Titans, let’s say, you can. Buy a crapload of PLEXes and buy both a Titan and a character who can fly one. Be careful that its in space where it’s safe to log on, though.

Ok, so why are the playerbase so upset? First, players, because they are people, really resist change. And they are wary of being ignored because that’s what big companies do, right?

However, the worst is yet to come.

On page 9 of the same issue of Fearless Scott Holden writes an article called “Delivering the goods: virtual sales in Incarna” Scott Holden is described on Page 3 thus: “As Director of Content Design, Scott works from the Atlanta office overseeing all content for the EVE property; he regularly shuttles between our offices and his homeland of Canada.”

CCP is in the process of adopting a virtual sales model for its game products. While this model has
always been intended for World of Darkness and DUST 514, you may be wondering how this will
work in EVE Online. Specifically, how will this new strategy unfold in Incarna?

In short, it’s the same in Incarna as elsewhere: we give players the means to buy stuff in addition to their base subscription, offering things like new “nano-paints” that allow one to customize ships while docked; new articles of virtual clothing, tattoos, and other avatar customizations; tokens for customizing Captain’s Quarters and so on. Not all virtual purchases will focus on customization: some will simply be new items, ammunition, ships, etc. that can be purchased outright. The devil, as always, is in the details.

You don’t have to read much further than this to get the picture. New items, ammunition and ships? The player base of Eve is not naive. They’ve seen other games. The MT items are always just a little bit better than the normal items. Ammunition and ships really hits Eve players in the gut. Put this together with the perception that the current items are really overpriced and what is the prediction that a reasonable player will make?

Currently one round of T2 ammunition costs something like 200 ISK, depending on just what kind. That’s less than one cent, probably that’s 100 of them for a penny. My math may be wrong, but it’s tiny, when put in terms of Euros or USD. Will that be true of the MT version of ammunition, which you know will be just that much better than even faction ammo?

But that difference is really really important to Eve players. A battle could turn on that difference, and losses of billions of ISK could turn on that battle. So of course they would have to buy it, regardless of whatever insane price is charged through the MT store. Either that, or quit playing the game. So when the Director of Content Design for Eve says, “we’re going to sell ammo and ships”, that seems like a done deal, doesn’t it?

The player base has been very clear that it doesn’t want this, as is evidenced by Kristoffer Touffer’s remarks shown above.

Many of the players I’ve met in 0.0 are pretty much all-in when it comes to playing Eve. They have multiple accounts. They play long hours. At least one appears to be logged in all day long while at work. They play so much that they fall asleep at the keyboard. And now the feel that CCP is trying to squeeze more blood from that turnip. As I write this there is a serious rage on the forums and some sort of protest flash mob in Jita 4,4.

Every aspect of Eve is PvP. Even the most carebeary (careberry?) of carebears is enmeshed in economic PvP. There’s competition and cooperation. The competition is what makes the cooperation so delightful. So even the non-hardcores sense that the game would be deeply changed by what Mr. Holden suggests, strike that, he didn’t suggest it, he flat said “it’s happening”.

Holden goes on to describe another item contemplated for sale through MT, faction standing.

One other service we’re looking at is selling faction standings. We want to offer convenience for a price. As an example, your friend might give you free tickets to see her band play simply because the two of you are friends; meanwhile, other fans have to pay for a ticket because, well, that’s how it normally works. The more noteworthy the band, the more those friendships (and thus the tickets) are worth. If that doesn’t seem quite an accurate analogy, think of it like this: you can develop a friendship by “spending” your time, or you can pay to get the same benefits that friendship would otherwise allow. (I’m sure you can think of a few other situations where one might temporarily “buy” services otherwise gained only through social interaction.)

Wow. Just wow. He’s comparing (correct me if I read this wrong) what they want to do to prostitution, and saying, “That’s why we should do it!” Do you seriously believe that people like this, as opposed to merely tolerating it? And why they might not want to see it intrude on their precious leisure time, fantasy world? Do you have a shred of empathy for those players who play Eve because they can buy PLEXes with ISK, play for free, and still remain competitive? Can you understand why players might prefer a game where their ability to play the game matters rather than the size of their bank account? If you can’t, you should be fired immediately, do not pass Go, do not collect 2 million ISK. No “Director of Content” should be so clueless about what players want in their virtual worlds.

Imagine you had ground missions and spent tons of ISK on building faction with the Caldari. Now all that means nothing, and you feel like a sucker. Is this what you want to have happen to your game? I don’t.

What makes this much, much worse is the fact that CCP said, to the Council of Stellar Management that there would be no gameplay-affecting items available through the MT store. Pretty much at the same time Holden was writing this, I think. Mr Holden clearly believes that it will blow over and players will drop their opposition over time. Why do I know that? Because he says so:

First, we don’t want to glut the virtual market with too many offers right out of the gate. Instead, we want to provide a steady stream of digestible goods and services over a long period of time, allowing cus- tomers to sample and purchase as they get used to the new model. We want to cater to long-term customers who will gradually acquire a taste for our wares.

It’s never pretty to see someone openly plotting a seduction. Or is that the right word? Do you really think we’ll get used to that in time, or that we’ll go away only to be replaced by other people who don’t care? Will we embrace ships, or merely be so beat down that we won’t put up much of a fight. Scott, “no” really, really means “no”.

There’s another paragraph he writes that’s nearly impenetrable. I’ll reproduce it for you.

Regarding the notion of “virtual sales in Incarna,” though, I’d like to elucidate one point before closing: Incarna cannot be considered a product distinct from other parts of EVE. Incarna and “flying- in-space” (and in due course DUST 514) are merely aspects of the EVE Online experience; in virtual sales, as in development as a whole, we must all adopt this way of thinking. Thus, we will not and cannot focus on virtual sales only within the In- carna environment, nor build that environment around such sales; rather, we will effect a universal strategy of micro-sales throughout the EVE experience. So, as a play- er, while you are inside a station, you will find gameplay that links to other aspects of the game and that also presents you with virtual purchasing opportunities — just as you will while you are in space or on a planet fighting as a DUST merc.

I’ve been in the corporate world for years, and can usually translate corp-speak. But this kind of has me baffled. Could this mean he was thinking of Dust514 (which will be F2P) when he said “ammunition”? No, because he said “ships”, too. Maybe this is just cross-selling.

Eve as it stands, drives away the instant-gratification crowd. I will never forget an exchange I witnessed in the noob channel on my first night playing Eve. Someone asked, “How long does it take to skill everything up and go PVP?” The reply was “Twenty years!” To me, that felt good. It felt like I had found a home. But selling stuff like ships via MT? That’s instant gratification land, and would be a massive change to Eve.

It’s as if just anybody could have fabulous red hair, just by dropping some cash, rather than cultivating one’s style over the course of 3 million years.

“Re-mirroring Storm”

You may have heard about problems with Amazon’s server farm earlier this week and, I think, last weekend. I just ran across a technical description of what happened:

When this network connectivity issue occurred, a large number of EBS nodes in a single EBS cluster lost connection to their replicas. When the incorrect traffic shift was rolled back and network connectivity was restored, these nodes rapidly began searching the EBS cluster for available server space where they could re-mirror data. Once again, in a normally functioning cluster, this occurs in milliseconds. In this case, because the issue affected such a large number of volumes concurrently, the free capacity of the EBS cluster was quickly exhausted, leaving many of the nodes “stuck” in a loop, continuously searching the cluster for free space. This quickly led to a “re-mirroring storm,” where a large number of volumes were effectively “stuck” while the nodes searched the cluster for the storage space it needed for its new replica. At this point, about 13% of the volumes in the affected Availability Zone were in this “stuck” state.

After the initial sequence of events described above, the degraded EBS cluster had an immediate impact on the EBS control plane. When the EBS cluster in the affected Availability Zone entered the re-mirroring storm and exhausted its available capacity, the cluster became unable to service “create volume” API requests. Because the EBS control plane (and the create volume API in particular) was configured with a long time-out period, these slow API calls began to back up and resulted in thread starvation in the EBS control plane. The EBS control plane has a regional pool of available threads it can use to service requests. When these threads were completely filled up by the large number of queued requests, the EBS control plane had no ability to service API requests and began to fail API requests for other Availability Zones in that Region as well. At 2:40 AM PDT on April 21st, the team deployed a change that disabled all new Create Volume requests in the affected Availability Zone, and by 2:50 AM PDT, latencies and error rates for all other EBS related APIs recovered.

I don’t think any gaming companies were affected, though Zynga might have been. But I don’t care. I love failure analysis in general, and in computer systems in particular. I’m such a geek. A 3000 year old, fabulously scarlet-coiffed geek, to be sure, but a geek, through and through.

UPDATE: The outage started just after midnight April 21 PDT.