Monday, October 12, 2009

WoW: account merge incoming

Blizzard announced today a deadline for the conversion of World of Warcraft accounts to accounts: November 11, 2009. That gives WoW account holders 30 days to make the switch.

As an incentive, Blizzard is offering an in-game penguin pet.

In light of the high number of stolen WoW accounts it will be interesting to see how compares in security. While we can hope that accounts will be more secure, a few things come to mind. uses the primary email address as the account name. It may be somewhat easier to guess, or in Tolbold's case, very publicly known, which is why he's all over the security ramifications in Blizzard sabotages WoW account security.

Instead of taking Tobold's suggestion of setting up another email account for use with, gmail subscribers can use the alias feature to make the account name hard to guess. In gmail, you can add +anything to an email address and still receive the email, so if your email address is, you will also get any email sent to the alias Replace anything with something obscure and your account name becomes as unguessable as your old WoW account name was. This is a convenient alternative to Tobold's suggestion of setting up another email account just for

I just used a gmail alias to set up a new account, and it worked. (With one small glitch, the link in the first verification email failed, so I had send a second verification email.)

Of course the problem remains that using an email address for the account name is a very bad choice. Email addresses are not usually considered to be private information and are much less well protected than passwords. For example, email addresses are often sold to third parties, thus increasing the risk of the address becoming public. Indeed, Blizzard is well aware of the problems with email addresses becoming known, as shown by this forum post about Fake E-mails from "Blizzard Entertainment":
Why am I receiving these e-mails? What can I do to ensure malicious parties do not have my e-mail address?
    In most cases, e-mail addresses are gleaned from unofficial World of Warcraft web pages(guild websites, fan sites, etc) and social networking sites (Facebook, Myspace, etc). As such, you may wish to set-up a new, separate email address and register it to your account. When selecting the username and password for this new email address, ensure that these variables do not overlap with that of your WoW account or any other login type (guild websites, Facebook, MySpace, etc). Once this address is registered, do not use it for anything else: no additional registrations, no guild websites, no newsletter sign-ups, et al. Keep this address isolated.
First Blizzard tells people to protect their email addresses so they won't receive emails phishing for account info and then turns around with the new and uses the email address as the login!

One indication of how bad the situation is with stolen WoW accounts is that the Blizzard Authenticator is being sold for $6.50 with free shipping. At that price Blizzard is making little if any money on them. It's cheaper for Blizzard to hand out the Authenticators essentially for free than to incur the support costs in dealing with customers whose accounts have been stolen.

To anyone who objects to the cost of the Authenticator: Blizzard charges $25.00 to move bits around if you purchase a Paid Character Transfer. Yet it will ship an actual physical object to you for $6.50, which is basically the cost of shipping. There's a reason for this: the Authenticators work. And by keeping accounts secure they save everyone grief and time. Well worth the money.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

WoW: You vill play how ve vant you to

Now that I've been playing WoW again for a bit, I've discovered that due to recent changes the game is a lot less alt-friendly for a player without a level 80 character. While there has always been a natural advantage in having a max-level character to pass items and gold to the alternates, the game has now added explicit benefits: there are new heirloom items that can be passed to any character on the account which boost experience gains. One heirloom, the Tome of Cold Weather Flight, allows flying in Northrend at level 68.

As a result, while I'd rather play the warlock, it made less sense to level it up from 41 than to first get the 70 shadow priest to 80 and start grinding for heirlooms. And the situation is even worse with the lower-level alts (yes, I'm an altoholic).

Of course the business reason for favoring the alts of dedicated players is to keep them engaged in WoW rather than wandering off to other games. While it's a bit frustrating for an atypical player like me to see certain play styles favored over others, in the end I decided to conform and play in the manner that Blizzard rewards with incentives.

But I'm not particularly happy about it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Will Microsoft buy EA and cut the MMOs?

"...if you really look at the data there's basically one [MMO] that's successful and everything else wouldn't meet our level or definition of commercial success."
Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Games Studios in a February, 2008 interview with MTV Multiplayer.
Bruce On Games recently discussed the rumors about a possible acquisition in Microsoft to buy Electronic Arts? His main point is that the analysts are wrong to say that EA/Microsoft would be a bad fit.

He also examines how EA's current plight came to pass. Among the reasons:
"EA launched products onto the market that would not work because product quality made them uncompetitive. Warhammer Online is a prime example."
(I'd put Spore in this category as well.)

Another reason is mismanagement, as Bruce rather tactfully put it:
"Management of an organisation can be done efficiently at minimum cost. The British ran Imperial India with few civil servants, for instance. However it is also possible for management, because they have the power, to become self serving and overly expensive for what they do, with empire building, secretaries, bloated expenses and a pile of other ills. I think that perhaps EA are not quite the mean, lean management machine that they could be."
I'd had similar thoughts about EA's middle management after reading comments from developers in a couple of pieces at Gamasutra.

Bruce states that Microsoft (or any new owner) would fix the problems that have rendered EA unprofitible.

While Bruce doesn't discuss EA's RPG/MMO Group, returning to the Shane Kim quote above, Microsoft sees that beyond World of Warcraft in the MMO market, "everything else wouldn't meet our...definition of commercial success." This is borne out by Microsoft's history with MMOs:

December, 2003:
Asheron's Call repurchased by developer Turbine Entertainment Software.
February, 2004:
Mythica canceled.
June, 2004:
True Fantasy Live Online canceled.
December, 2005:
Asheron’s Call 2 closed.
May, 2006:
Vanguard repurchased by developer Sigil Games Online.
mid-late 2007:
Halo MMO canceled (under development by Ensemble Studios).
February, 2008:
Marvel Universe Online canceled. Cryptic Studios continued development as Champions Online.

If Microsoft acquires EA, it's likely that the MMOs will be closed, canceled, or spun off. Notwithstanding this hint that it was hiring for a 300,000-player game in May, Microsoft just isn't that into MMOs.

But what about BioWare, you say? They're awesome! Star Wars: The Old Republic is gonna be great!

It doesn't matter to the bean counters. Since it's still under development, Star Wars: The Old Republic is all cost and no revenue. The EA RPG/MMO Group's other titles, Warhammer Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online, all fall into Microsoft's category of not being commercially significant.

What will be the EA RPG/MMO Group's fate? Given its history with MMOs, and Microsoft's willingness to close such notable organizations as ACES Game Studio (Microsoft Flight Simulator, Microsoft Train Simulator) and Ensemble Studios, anything is possible. Even if the buyer isn't Microsoft the MMOs could still be at risk.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

John Boyd's OODA loop and games

The late John Boyd was a colorful and brilliant Colonel in the USAF whose work on military strategy included developing the concept of the OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. The OODA loop originally described the behavioral process of military entities but has since been more widely applied. Its sequence of steps must be repeated to account for changing conditions, thus the loop.

There are a couple of ways the OODA loop applies to games.

The first, obviously, is artificial intelligence (AI) as used in games, since it can be argued that the OODA loop describes the way any intelligent entity functions, whether real or artificial. Of course AI in games is still terrible; in OODA terms the current AIs don't orient or decide well.

But the second, and most important, application of the OODA loop to games is to describe what's going on inside the head of the player.

Note the difference between playing a game and passively consuming content. When someone reads a book, or watches sports or a movie, the loop involves just observing and orienting, that is, watching the events unfold and fitting them into the ongoing narrative. Passive consumption of content involves just an OO loop.

In contrast, playing a game invokes the full OODA loop. The deciding and acting steps nicely describe the activities involved in play—think about how children play with toys.

The word flow has been used to describe the state when one is absorbed in a game in a satisfying way. That flow is the smooth functioning of the player's OODA loop, particularly the deciding and acting steps.

What happens when a player's OODA loop can't keep up with events? In some cases they end up becoming overwhelmed to the point of watching helplessly. Examples are found in action games like Tetris when the speed increases past the point where the player can keep up, or RTS games when facing a much stronger opponent. Many players are familiar with the feeling of their OODA loop becoming overwhelmed.

When a player's OODA loop becomes overwhelmed in the face of a superior opponent it's no fault of the game design. Nor is there a design fault in games which speed up and eventually overwhelm a player's OODA loop. But there are several ways that poor game design can break a player's OODA loop and thus cut off the feeling of flow.

I'll have more on how games can break a player's OODA loop, with specific examples, in another post.