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.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The tenacity of spammers in WoW

Last Monday I took the screenshot below of the spam in Stormwind made from dead bodies but waited so long to write about it that The Ancient Gaming Noob beat me to the punch with his story Corpse Spam in Stormwind.

I'd seen such spam in Stormwind before, but since I've not been around when when it was being created I'd wondered how the bodies were placed so accurately. TAGN answers that question:
I’ve sat and watch these URLs get spelled out. It looks like these bodies are just dropping out of the sky.
Obviously the spammers are using software to position the characters. I vaguely recall reading something about the WoW servers trusting the position information reported by the client; if true, the software can simply position a low level character in the air over the spot where the corpse is to be left and rely on falling damage to kill it.

At the time I took this screenshot I noticed that all the corpses have different names. The accounts being used may be filled with low level toons who are killed sequentially to produce the writing. If the number of characters per account is maxed out, not many accounts will be needed.

With all the recent discussion of impact in games, this corpse spam is an excellent example of the downside. The more ability a game gives a player to alter the game world, the greater the possibility for misuse. It's striking that WoW, which is the leading example of an unalterable theme park game world, still allows for this tiny bit of impact (a character's death leaves a corpse) which can be exploited by spammers. WoW is so popular that it's worthwhile for the spammers to spend the time and trouble to develop specialized software needed to create corpse spam.

On a related note, for the past few days I've been getting whispers from spammers pretending to be offering new free mounts. The spam attempts to send people to a website apparently purporting to be a Blizzard site in the hopes that players will log in using their game accounts. Of course their passwords are immediately stolen, their game character's stuff is sold off and the gold sent to another character operated by the spammer.

So anyone thinking about buying gold in World of Warcraft should consider this: Since Blizzard doesn't permit gold sales, the companies you buy it from get it through fraud, theft, and other illegal means. In buying gold you are endorsing and encouraging crooks.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Free Realms demographics

We learned a few things about Free Realms from John Smedley's keynote at GDC Austin last week. While he didn't give numbers for the number of concurrent players or how many people make up the fifty percent of in-game store users who make a purchase, he did reveal some user demographics.

From Xemu's blog, AGDC 2009: Smedley on Free Realms:

Free Realms player age
Under 13

More after the jump.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

WoW: Patch 3.2.0 tries to segregate twinks

With all the talk about twinked alts in WoW at We Fly Spitfires (Twinking Is Just Another Form Of Cheating) followed by Welcome to Spinksville (Twinks, Heirlooms, and Morality) and Tobold's MMORPG Blog (Twinking and the economy) I was a little bummed out. My main is only level 70 and so doesn't yet have access to heirlooms for the alts. But then as part of preparing to play after more than a year away, I saw this in the notes for WoW's patch 3.2.0:
  • Players with experience gains turned off who compete in Battlegrounds will face off only against other players with experience gains turned off. 
Blizzard is trying to segregate the twinks! And why will twinks have XP turned off?
  • Players will now be awarded experience for completing objectives and actions that yield honor in Battlegrounds (honorable kills not included).
By boosting the XP awarded in Battlegrounds, Blizzard has created the incentive for players with twinked characters who want to remain in a certain tier to pay the 10 gold to shut off the XP gain (which stops gains from any source, not just battlegrounds). Once the XP is shut off, Blizzard knows which ones to isolate into separate BGs. And they'll want to be separate, with competent teammates rather than clueless PUGs. Pre-mades without having to be pre-made!

I'm pretty pumped, since after my time in Warhammer Online I wanted to use BGs more for leveling the alts. Not only has the XP awarded in Battlegrounds been increased, but if the other changes work then the worst of the twinks will be gone. And even if they don't move to their own twink leagues, the changes are a clear sign that Blizzard recognizes that twinks are an issue in battlegrounds.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Return to WoW: It's a lot of work!

Barriers to re-entry

It's in some ways much easier to start a new game than to return to an MMO after a long absence. I've been away from WoW since May, 2008, so of course a lot has changed due to an expansion and major patches in the interim. And one forgets things, too.

With a new game you just install and start playing. All fun and no work. Of course, since you're just learning the game, you don't always do things in the most efficient manner. And if the game is still in beta or has just launched, there won't be as much information around to help as there is for a more mature game.

But an old game, wow, it's work! Blizzard doesn't delete your characters in order to make it easier to pick up where you left off, but still it's taken a few hours just to get ready to play! Why? Here's a list:
  • Check the main and alts. What are the classes, levels, and professions. What's in the bags and banks? Talents have been wiped, oh joy. Need to re-talent. At least most of my action bar settings were saved!
  • What changed with the expansion? What's this about glyphs? Do I have an alt that can become a scribe? Should I start a Death Knight?
  • I can't bear the default UI; install addons. I didn't keep a list, what addons did I used to run? Some are abandoned, which ones do I use instead? What new ones does everyone use? What functionality is now in the native UI? What was the name of that addon with the boat schedules? (Nauticus.) Configure the addons.
  • Cool, I wanted to see Stormwind harbor. What's this portal in Ironforge leading to Blasted Lands? What else has changed in the transportation network? Hmm, maybe I should read the patch notes. Wow, a lot has changed. I'd heard about the earlier mounts, but being able to swim while mounted rocks! Dual-spec, hmm, may need to save up for that.
You get the picture.

And this is a game that's known as an easy, mainstream MMO.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Missing Kotick's Point: The resurgence of PC gaming

GameSpot has an article Activision games to bypass consoles covering CEO Robert Kotick's presentation in San Francisco. The article quotes him as saying that his goal "was to take all the fun out of making video games."

I've seen several references which conflate that quote with another in the article:
"We are very good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."
But taken in context the meaning is different:
The executive said that he has tried to instill into the company culture "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" of the global economic downturn, adding, "We are very good at keeping people focused on the deep depression."
The depression he refers to isn't the lack of fun, it's the economy, stupid!

If this wasn't bad enough, by focusing on the "fun" remark, an even bigger point is missed:
"expect many of our products to be playable independent of a console," specifically saying he'd been impressed with media hub functionalities shown by 1080p TVs that let users stream content from their PCs.
That's right, PCs.! The CEO of major publisher is stating that contrary to the common wisdom that PC gaming is dead, he intends to start moving products off consoles to PCs.

There's a long history of friction between game developers and console companies. Not only has access been limited (Nintendo approves just a few third party developers) and development costly, but the console makers collect hefty royalties on each unit of the game sold.

Add in the cost to sell downloadable content through the console's online stores (and in Sony's case, the PlayStation Network Bandwidth Fee) and Kotick's motive is clear. By moving to the open platform of PCs, Activision Blizzard can control the distribution of its DLC and reduce cost by selling in its own online store, 2.0 was announced in August at Blizzcon and covered very thoroughly by Gamasutra in The Man Behind Greg Canessa Speaks. Canessa worked previously at Microsoft where he was "one of the executives over Xbox Live" and speaks with firsthand knowledge of the limitations of the one-size-fits-all online platforms offered on consoles.

Canessa discusses the opportunities inherent in deeply integrating online services into each game in a custom-fitted way, starting with StarCraft II. Matchmaking, ladders, and leagues will be implemented and the mod community will be supported. He goes on to say:
"What we're doing with the marketplace -- and that's again a post-ship future -- is to provide a common aggregation point like the iPhone's App Store..."
As shown by SOE's experience with Free Realms, microtransactions work best when buying is tightly integrated into the game, which can be done better on PC than consoles. Compared with the online and DLC possibilites available on the PC, consoles start looking restricting and outmoded.

Returning to the original Kotick article, the big news was the resurgence of the PC platform at the expense of consoles. Even though bypass consoles was in the title, that point was missed by many.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

John Smedley on Free Realms at GDC Austin

Cherry-picking the coverage of Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley's keynote at GDC Austin. Most of the bulleted items are text from the articles; the direct Smedley quotes are in italics.

From GameSpot, Free Realms PS3 due mid-2010, EyeToy support 'likely':
  • The biggest surprise to the developers is that while two-thirds of the audience is made up of boys, two-thirds of the [microtransaction] purchasers are girls.
  • 75 percent of the game's traffic is driven by TV.
  • The company is so pleased with the product that it's preparing another product along the same audience-expanding lines
  • Quote: "There are some upsides to kids. They don't call customer service, almost ever. And they don't talk on the forums."
From Gamasutra, GDC Austin: Free Realms And The Attention Span Challenge:
  • Free Realms players now play for about 20 minutes per session.
  • "We found very quickly that kids had their own way of playing a game, but we also need a way to monetize them" said Smedley. "...Commerce to kids is hard -- a lot harder than we thought it would be."
From Virtual Worlds News, a preview written before the keynote, Free Realms Tallies 5 Million Users; No, Really:
  • "Because kids' mind [s]hare is so constantly inundated with new games, new things on TV, it's literally necessary to remind them [about the game] on a daily or weekly basis," Smedley says.
  • "We've instrumented literally every single aspect of Free Realms in ways that few if any game has ever done," Smedley says. "We report every click every person does when they register."
  • [The collected data is analyzed by a] team of five full-time data crunchers
  • 51 percent of Free Realms gamers are under 13, with around 75 percent under 18.
From, Sony Online president talks kids, women and MMOs:
  • the company erred early on in giving too much free content away when the game launched
  • the company is working on a PlayStation 3 console version of “FreeRealms” due out sometime in the middle of 2010 and is also planning a Facebook-based online game.
From Xemu's blog, AGDC 2009: Smedley on Free Realms:
  • Peak pop around 5:30 PM. Huge spikes when TV commercials run. Commercial = 5 mins later in game. These are not just new customers but returning ones, need to remind them to come back!
I'm still waiting on the coverage teased by Massively, and will edit to include anything significant.

Update 1: Added a few bullet points.
Update 2: And another.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do casual gamers care about fairness?

The Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks nerf

Do players of casual games care about fairness and equal treatment? Or are they so blasé that they remain unaware of any disparity in treatment that might give some players an advantage? Can publishers of casual games get away with deliberately withholding information in order to keep players ignorant and happy? With the case of the Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks item nerf in its game Free Realms, Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) may be on the way to finding out.


A somewhat hard to get item, Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks offers a speed boost to a player wearing it. SOE reduced the speed boost on the item, and then after the predictable complaints, restored the original speed boost, but only for players who already had the item. Thus players with the old item have an advantage in all the timed minigames where it may be used. Among other disadvantages, players with the inferior version of the item will never be able to reach the top spots on the leaderboards for those minigames.

Subsequent posts from the Community Relations Manager (CRM) for Free Realms revealed that it was a deliberate decision to create two classes of players: those with the faster original item, and all other players who will receive the new slower item. While complaints from disadvantaged players have caused the CRM to avoid conducting events that might involve use of the item, the relatively mild uproar hasn't caused SOE to resolve the issue and restore fairness and the equality of players.

SOE sells items within Free Realms via microtransactions that confer advantage to the buyer. Players seem to have accepted this since any disadvantaged player can opt to spend real money to buy the item. In the case of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks, players with the inferior version have no recourse. As the issue is still being played out, it's too early to know how customer satisfaction will be affected.

One of the benefits of paid membership is getting ranked on the leaderboards. Making top spots on the timed minigame leaderboards unavailable to the majority of players won't help membership numbers. Zam's wiki has over 60 entries in its timed minigame category, but some are job-related and thus preclude wearing Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. The large number of timed minigames indicate that they are an important component of the Free Realms experience, and at least several dozen are affected. Since timed minigames are just one of the activities affected by the speed disparity there is ample potential for unhappiness.

The changes to Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks were not listed in the update notes, and were only acknowledged by the CRM in response to player inquiries. SOE has a policy for Free Realms of limiting information about updates to a brief summary of highlights. This stands in stark contrast to the detailed information about updates made available by SOE for its other games (which follows standard practice in the online game market).

The broader issue is not that a specific class of players is being disadvantaged by this particular change, but that by witholding details about changes to the game, all Free Realms players are disadvantaged compared to players of games with full disclosure. It's as if casual gamers are to be kept fat, dumb and happy: that by offering many distractions in the form of activities and new content (fat) while hiding details about game changes with negative impacts (dumb), players can be kept happy. It remains to be seen if such a policy can succeed.


To get Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks, a player must complete three collections. These collections, Postman Packages and Envelopes, Postman Postcards, and Postman Stamps, are completed by gathering items from resource nodes that spawn in a limited number of locations and remain invisible unless the player is doing the Postman job. (Free Realms currently offers 15 jobs for subscribers, 10 of which, including Postman, are available to free players).

Due to the difficulty of finding the item spawns (called Mail Supplies and Mail Supplies <Rare Collection>), it's common to reach level 20 of the Postman job (the level required to wear Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks) before completing the collections needed to acquire the shoes.

On 8/14 SOE released an upgrade to Free Realms which nerfed Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. In keeping with SOE's policy of hiding the detailed information about Free Realms updates from players, no indication of this was given in the update notes.

On 8/18 the original speed was restored. Again, no mention was made in the maintenance announcement, but in response to a player-created topic heralding the restoration of the former speed, the CRM posted [reqires login]:
Those with Speedy Kicks have the speed boost back. We may make it so any future versions of the kicks will be at the reduced rate, but your's are good to go.
On 8/19 a topic was created that confirmed the reduced speed of new Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks and in that topic kadewolfspotter noted that [reqires login]:
...the referee confirmed that this is the policy moving forward.  New kicks are level 11 speed boost vs. the originals which are level 13 speed boost.
Within just a few hours posts were added to this topic discussing the fairness of the change and its impact on disadvantaged players, as well as the lack of disclosure by SOE about changes to Free Realms.

Also on 8/19, kadewolfspotter posted [reqires login] a link to the video below which shows the speed difference between players using the two versions of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks:

Video showing comparison tests of the old and new versions of Rudolfo's Speedy Kicks. As of this writing it had 1,333 views.

Discussion continued over the next several days in both of the previously-linked topics. On 8/25 the CRM posted [reqires login]:
We did allow those players who already have the shoes to keep them. There aren't that many of them out there when compared to the number of people who play on a regular basis.

The biggest issue was that the change was not announced or explained properly. FR is not a typical adult MMO and we don't post every change that gets added to the game like other titles.
On 8/26 the CRM posted [reqires login]:
...I was going to do a postman run as a community event, but given all the Speedy Kick uproar changed things.
There have been no developments since 8/26.


SOE has admitted to a policy of treating its casual gamers differently than other MMO players. This affects not only current players of Free Realms but also potential players of its forthcoming casual Star Wars MMO. Its actions make clear that it's unconcerned by the potential business ramifications of disadvantaging the great majority of Free Realms players in favor of a tiny minority, since if the disadvantaged are kept ignorant they won't know any better and so won't complain. An assumption has been made that equal treatment isn't important to casual players and those in younger demographics, but anyone with kids knows that children can be particularly sensitive to unfair treatment, so this policy seems counterproductive for a game heavily marketed to younger players.


Thanks to FreeRealmsInsider for the video on YouTube, and ZAM's Free Realms Wiki was a handy reference. While I've specifically quoted and linked kadewolfspotter's comments on SOE's Free Realms forums, several other posters provided information and insights; see the topics linked above.

I've refrained from mentioning by name SOE's Community Relations Manager for Free Realms since they are simply communicating policy decisions made by others.

Update on 9/17: This post was written before the GDC Austin keynote in which SOE president John Smedley said:
"There are some upsides to kids. They don't call customer service, almost ever. And they don't talk on the forums."
For a summary of his remarks, see John Smedley on Free Realms at GDC Austin.

It's all Tolkien's fault

Yesterday in Game worlds and geographic realism I talked about the overuse of mountains as zone borders. A quick look at this Google image search shows that it's all Tolkien's fault.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Game worlds and geographic realism

One of the things I've always disliked about Warhammer Online is its game world. There are two problems with it:

First, the way the game zones are laid out is quite artificial. Each faction's quest hubs are strung along roads that wind through the zones in a completely arbitrary way. The RvR "lakes" are plopped down in the middle, with terrain barriers to prevent entry except at a few select locations.

The second problem with WAR's game world is that each campaign, i.e. Dwarfs vs. Greenskins, stands alone: that is, they aren't part of a larger continent. As a result, there is no world map of WAR. What's worse, even within the campaigns the way the zones themselves are arranged is essentially a graph: nodes (circles) connected by edges (lines).

For example, a dwarf in the starting zone of Ekrund follows the Order road east through Mount Bloodhorn and further east through a zone portal to Marshes of Madness. There the road turns north and leads into Barak Varr, where the road forks. If the left fork is taken, and the Destruction road is followed northwest, a zone portal is reached leading west. Go through the portal and poof! you're back in south central Ekrund, heading east!

The end result is that while on a small scale the graphics strive for realism, the contrived layout of the medium and large scale geography in WAR ruins any realistic effect.

In contrast, World of Warcraft's game world is consistent with the exception of the Deeprun Tram, which runs northwest from Stormwind when it should run north-northeast. WoW does suffer from overuse of bottlenecks and view blocks at zone boundaries, but these result from technical issues like palette switching and scene complexity. The believability of the original WoW continents is enhanced by the several zone boundaries without mountains or other obvious bottlenecks or view blocks: Elwynn Forest/Westfall/Duskwood, Hillsbrad Foothills/Alterac Mountains, and Darkshore/Ashenvale. Even traveling from The Barrens through Thousand Needles through The Shimmering Flats to Tanaris, the transitions didn't seem too contrived.

Perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Free Realms game world has a fairly believable geographical layout. It's far better than WAR's, and at least the equal of WoW. While it overuses mountains as zone borders, it does have some rather large contiguous areas without mountains. But FR's geography may need to be re-evaluated after the expansions. There are instances on the borders of the current game world which extend pretty far and may overlap the expansion areas.

To sum up: nothing breaks suspension of disbelief and says game more than geographic inconsistency in the game world.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Free Realms adds Take Me There

Free Realms keeps on removing the tedium. The latest innovation in yesterday's update is the Take Me There button in the quest tracker, which when clicked automatically runs you to the next location in the quest. It's for overland travel to major quest stages, not for during quests like the ones that have you track down a few items.

While the pathing is a bit inefficient and doesn't make use of warpstones, it's still useful as you can be chatting or making other use of the time during travel. Also added: any icon in the Atlas now is a teleport destination!

Take Me There brings back memories of WoW's AutoTravel addon, which worked until patch 1.6. It was a great addon which let you define paths and waypoints which it would automatically follow when you selected a destination.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Return to WoW: First disappointment

WowAce Updater is gone. Bummer. My return to WoW starts on a down note and I haven't even logged in.

When I last played WoW I came to favor the WowAce mods. Unlike monolithic addon bundles such as Cosmos and CTMod, WowAce is a mix and match collection of addons. WowAce doesn't force an entire UI change on a player, instead you choose just the addons you want.

Another advantage of separate addons happens after patch days: a monolithic project often waits to release until all its components are updated, while individual addons allow you to install updates as they are released, so at least you have some functionality.

Back in the day, the WowAce Updater allowed one to pick the addons one wanted and it would install them while checking the dependencies to ensure you had the common libraries needed by the addons. It kept the addons up to date too, downloading new versions when needed. WowAce Updater simplified the whole issue of managing many individual addons down to just a few clicks. It was slick, and free.

And that was the problem. WowAce Updater (WAU) was so easy to use and good at its task that the bandwidth costs grew to exceed what the supporters of WowAce could afford. WowAce is a development community and repository, not a release site. So WAU was disabled and the Curse Client substituted instead.

Not only was WAU the better program, but the free version of Curse Client is both adware and crippleware. To even approach WAU's functionality with Curse Client one must be a Premium member, at a base cost of $4.95/month. When I was actively playing Warhammer Online I used Curse Client for my addons. I went back recently to update them and first had to update Curse Client only to find that it no longer updates all addons with a single click. That feature has been moved behind the pay wall.

Finally I get to the point of this post: companies that leave in the hands of intermediaries aspects of a customer's experience that could easily be brought in-house. While outsourcing functionality often makes sense, the game industry has cases where the goals of game companies and their intermediaries aren't well aligned. Typically the intermediary's goal is to make a customer's experience worse before making it better. is making making the free Curse Client as bad as it can possibly get away with in order to maximize the contrast with the paid client. While this makes sense for Curse, it doesn't make sense for Blizzard. Blizzard would be well served to incorporate addon management functionality into its forthcoming improvements to This would provide support to all Blizzard's games and offer the best experience to customers at the lowest cost.

Game industry intermediaries whose revenue is derived from a two-tier scheme where bad service is free and good service requires a paid subscription have a problem: this isn't a viable long-term business model.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fallen Earth beta quick impressions

I made it into the Fallen Earth beta shortly before it closed and am finally posting my impressions of the short time I spent in the game.
  • The tutorial intro sets up the story well, but the high-end weapons and armor disappear once the game starts, which is a bit of a disappointment.
  • Mounts seem only to have a cash requirement, and it's low. Since there is no level minimum they can be purchased early. I got a mount easily at level 4 without really knowing what I was doing, and saw level 2 characters with mounts.
  • Combat is not smooth. It feels laggy, either due to server issues or unoptimized graphics in the client. This is a major issue due to the FPS nature of combat with the need to aim.
  • Jumping: are physics used at all? The way jumping works it seems like there are no physics in the game.
  • The game has two modes: normal and Aim mode. You can't really fight in normal mode, and you have no mouse cursor in Aim mode, so while in that mode you can only interact with objects by aiming at them and clicking. In normal mode the camera is usually third-person, and first-person is best for combat in Aim mode (although the camera can be adjusted to be one or the other at any time). Transitioning between normal and Aim mode requires a keypress; the camera can be set to autoswitch at the same time between third- and first-person. As someone who hates all things modal in user interfaces, I found the need to switch modes inconvenient and clumsy. The modal interface was my main dislike in the game.
  • With six weapon slots added to what appear to be numerous combat abilities, it looks like high level characters will have overflowing action bars and hotkey assignment issues.
  • As a whole quests offer nothing new. One quest supplied a bunch of NPC companions for a squad fight. There seemed to be too many timed quests at the starting quest hub which were a pain to do before getting a mount. Solo questlines can culiminate in group quests which block progress until you can find a group.
  • Crafting seems deep and interesting. My impression was that almost every useful item in the game can be crafted. The crafting interface and mechanic is good: multiple items can be queued up and crafting takes place simultaneously while you do other things. This is necessary because the times to craft items are much longer than in MMOs where you must remain stationary while crafting. Crafting is also useful, I was able to craft items for my character that were upgrades.
  • Resource gathering is easy to level once appropriate nodes are found. This was a bit of an issue in the starting area as the non-crafting quests lead to areas with resources nodes that are too high for new characters to harvest. There are numerous low-level nodes for new characters, but they were concentrated in just a couple of areas which were away from the locations used by the standard quest lines.
  • Abilities are skill-based, one assigns points to abilities. Experience seems to be gained from using any ability, including crafting and harvesting.
  • The world is large. Getting a mount as soon as possible is a must.
  • Away from roads the world is fairly empty. Once I had a mount I immediately headed out into the wilderness to explore a bit of the game world. It was mostly empty, with only the occasional mobs to avoid or nodes to harvest.
  • The graphics are in need of tuning, some towns would kill the framerate. They're also a bit drab. It's the desert, yet not sunny due to a dull gray overcast.
  • The implementation of the post-apocalyptic scenario in the sparsely-populated desert makes far less sense than Fallout 3's metro-D.C. setting. For example, there are the remains of a monorail system which meanders around the desert like an amusement park ride instead of running in relatively straight shots between (the ruins of) population centers. Remains of railroad lines terminated for no apparent reason. As a result I found Fallen Earth's game world far less believable than Fallout 3's.
  • With just one server the beta was very active. You'd run into lots of other players in the world, and there was so much chat traffic it was a problem; the random chitchat would obscure real discussion of the game.
  • The support for Fallen Earth seems decent. Patches seem frequent and GMs are available, although one of the GMs I chatted with couldn't tell me the meaning of one of the symbols on the minimap, or even how to find the key (it's in the filtering function of the main map.)
While it's nice to see new MMO ideas from an independent company, in my case the cons outweighed the pros, so instead of jumping into Fallen Earth at release I'll sit back to see if the cons are addressed.

Pros: Crafting; ability system; XP and skill-based leveling; cheap mounts; not another fantasy scenario
Cons: modal UI; jerky, unresponsive combat; quests

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Sims 3: Pre-made Sims Explained

I picked up The Sims 3 recently, and not long after I started playing I found myself asking a FAQ: how does one get a Sim from the Library back into Create a Sim?

It turns out not to be that hard, but the relationship among the game components and the various storage sites for Sims is hard to understand at first. To clarify, I made this graph to show how Sims can be moved around the various parts of The Sims 3 (click for full-size image):

Graph showing how Sims and households can be moved between Towns, the Library, and the Bin
To get a Sim from the Library into Create a Sim without using a mod:
  1. Put a copy of the Sim into a house, play the game as that Sim.
  2. Click on a dresser and select Plan Outfit. This enters Create a Sim in single Sim mode.
  3. In Create a Sim, click Save Sim to Bin.
The Sim will now appear in the Pre-made Sims list (AKA the Bin).

The Bin stores single Pre-made Sims. Towns, the Library, and the Clipboard in Edit Town mode all store households of Sims. The Clipboard is temporary storage; apparently Sims stored only there can be lost if not saved elsewhere before quitting Edit Town mode.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The worst quest in WoW?

Topless Robot has The 10 Most Legitimate Gripes Players Have About World of Warcraft.

I have to chuckle at the memory of one of the worst quests in WoW because it offers a deadly combination of two of the gripes: nonsensically low drop rates and Murlocs. Called The Star, the Hand and the Heart, it's available to both factions; Alliance picks it up in Badlands. It involves travel to three widely-separated locations on two continents. But here's the clincher -- on an island off the coast of Dustwallow Marsh, one must grind Murlocs for a low drop rate item called Enchanted Sea Kelp. This can take anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours! The comments on this item are a hoot; my favorite:
This part of the chain can take hours and hours of mindless grinding. The droprate is so low that you can even outlevel the quest before this actually drops.
On Murlocs!

Guild Wars product confusion

In a comment at Syp's When Is It Too Late To Begin A MMO?, Brian 'Psychochild' Green mentions that the complex Guild Wars product line leads to confusion:
With so many expansions, I’m not sure what to buy, exactly.
I ran into this myself. No wonder:
...NCSoft published at least two dozen different editions of Guild Wars...
After examining GuildWiki and the NCsoft Store I decided to get them all, which means buying Guild Wars: The Complete Collection, but it's a Europe-only product and the best one can do in North America is Guild Wars Trilogy, purchasing Eye of the North separately.

In contrast, Firaxis has always done this well. It's now offering Sid Meier's Civilization IV: The Complete Edition which bundles everything: Civilization IV and the expansions Warlords amd Beyond the Sword, along with Civilization IV: Colonization.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Did WoW contribute to the demise of Ensemble Studios?

Like many, I was shocked when Microsoft announced the closure of Ensemble Studios. But I began to understand when Dusty Monk blogged about the effect World of Warcraft had on the folks at Ensemble Studios (Lessons from Titan – 2 Years on a cancelled MMO):
In 2005, pretty much all of Ensemble Studios was enthralled with World of Warcraft. We all were playing it pretty much every night. We were talking about it all day. And we were, to a man, convinced we could build that game and more. And therein lay the key. We wanted to build that game.

Microsoft has devoted most of its gaming efforts of late to the console market, and on PC, it has canceled or sold off its MMO projects. Apparently it wasn't good for Ensemble to be enamored of a type of project with little appeal to its owner, Microsoft.

I ran across this back in April or so, but Syp's recent item about NCsoft's modest goal for Aion to be the number two MMO after WoW prompted me to post this. Like Microsoft in the 1990s, WoW is the 900 pound gorilla whose MMO market share has attracted numerous competitors who haven't succeeded in grabbing its share. Unlike Microsoft, though, Blizzard hasn't used underhanded tactics, and has thus far maintained its share legitimately.

The example of Ensemble Studios may prove that NCsoft has the correct goal for Aion.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wallace & Gromit: A great series marred by horrid controls on the PC

Telltale's Wallace & Gromit series is great but for one thing: the controls.

It's shocking that Telltale made a point and click adventure game where you can't point and click. That's right, on PC, you have to steer your character around using the keyboard!

Another issue is the flakiness of the brackets that show up when mousing over an interactable object; sometimes the brackets show, and sometimes they don't. They're a bit slow to pop up which means you can miss an important object entirely if you move the cursor too fast. Finally, the area that triggers the display of the brackets is sometimes just a portion of the area they enclose.

And finally, Wallace & Gromit suffers from the constrained camera that plagues all of Telltale's releases to date. All camera positions and angles are preset; you have no control over the camera or when cameras change. This interferes with exploring and understanding the game environment, and the sudden camera switches can be frustrating. Games aren't television, and Telltale should stop trying to make them like television. At the very least, allow a free camera option for more advanced players.

But don't let these issues stop you from enjoying this delightful series, particularly anyone who is a fan of adventure games or Wallace & Gromit.

[Image © Telltale Games. Used without permission.]

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Empire: Total War quick take

I picked Empire: Total War up recently and while slowly working through the Road to Independence campaign got to my first sea battle. Some quick reactions to sea combat:

1. What is up with the controls? They're terrible! When you order a ship to turn you can barely see the turn indicator unless you are zoomed in close. At one point I had two ships grouped and instructed them to turn right, but they both turned left.

2. I won the battle but elected to hunt down the routing French sloop to practice a bit more. The damaged sloop could make speed while sailing directly into the wind! It should not have had headway at all. My sloop had to tack, of course, and with sails at battle level could not keep up, needing full sail to stay with the routing French sloop.

3. I was appalled when I saw and heard the tutorial instructions that spoke of "zig-zagging" instead of tacking. However, now that I've seen that the sailing simulation is crap I understand why the term wasn't used.

This title is my first exposure to this series. I bought it because of the high metacritic score and good reviews. It's not a bad game, but so far I don't feel it's living up to the scores and reviews.

Except for the graphics (which are of course dated now) Rise of Nations is still unmatched in the category of historical RTS games. In particular, the UI and controls (both land and sea) in RoN are far superior to E:TW.

[This was also posted to GameFAQs.]

Friday, June 26, 2009 ads are spreading PDF exploits too!

On Monday I posted about a PDF trojan downloaded from an ad server.

Tonight I saw another one, this time from

Like last time, I took a look:

% ls -l 710.pdf
-rw-r--r-- 1 uid gid 14720 2009-06-26 02:44 710.pdf
% file 710.pdf
710.pdf: PDF document, version 1.1
% cksum 710.pdf
279936831 14720 710.pdf
% strings -a 710.pdf | less
var bd = "10%32%118%97%114%32%86%121%103%76%78%100%106%32%61%32%110%101%119...etc.
It looks very much like the last one (which I deleted), even being the same size. The var bd stuff is the payload, which is a (Javascript?) text string containing what appear to be the encoded binary exploit code.

Firefox history contained two URLs, with path components of /kn/in.php and /kn/pdf.php, both from the same server.

> host has address has address has address

> host domain name pointer
> host domain name pointer
> host domain name pointer

Look familiar? It should, it's the same outfit as last time!

Wikipedia's entry for say it "has major corporate backing" and names AOL/Time Warner. As I cited from Another virus infection, courtesy of Yahoo News in the prior post:
Major web sites like and are infecting thousands, if not hundred thousands of computers with trojans, back doors, and other viruses, through some of their ad service providers.
The scope and breadth of this is startling, and it's been going on for months!

What gives? Why aren't people up in arms? If the Internet trade press has covered this, please let me know; I haven't seen anything. Is scandalous news being covered up?

Update: I moved the 710.pdf file to a Windows machine and scanned it with both Trend Micro HouseCall and AVG Free and neither one found a thing.

Update 2: See Steps To Prevent Gumblar / Martuz / Nine-Ball for things you can do to stay safe.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ad servers being used to spread exploits

Tonight I went to look at Blue's News to see what's up in gaming today. Firefox popped up a dialog wanting to save a file called 941.pdf. It's not the first time this has happened, but this time I decided, sure, since I'm on Ubuntu, let's have a look at the thing.
> ls -l 941.pdf
-rw-r--r-- 1 uid gid 14720 2009-06-22 20:14 941.pdf
> file 941.pdf
941.pdf: PDF document, version 1.1
> evince 941.pdf
Error: PDF file is damaged - attempting to reconstruct xref table...
Sure looks fishy.

Running 'strings -a' showed some Javascript that included a long string containing the payload. Next I looked into the machine that served up the file.
> host has address has address has address
> host domain name pointer
> host domain name pointer
> host domain name pointer
Searching on didn't turn up much, but a search on led to this blog from April 9th, Another virus infection, courtesy of Yahoo News which opens:
Major web sites like and are infecting thousands, if not hundred thousands of computers with trojans, back doors, and other viruses, through some of their ad service providers. When will the people in charge of these web sites wake up and start screening the ads that they are serving?
Apparently the blogger over there was infected, and after cleaning up he traced his infection back to good old

So after two and a half months, this advertising outfit is still spreading exploits in addition to the ads. Why is such an irresponsible company still in business?

Friday, June 19, 2009

To think that censorship stunts art, it helps to not have seen Hitchcock's Psycho

In The nascent art form, in which Dustin Sklavos asks "Are video games art?", he also writes:

I'm not one of those "old films are the best films" blah blah jackasses; for my own enjoyment and education, I generally don't watch anything made before 1970.

But one of my favorite examples is in a French film I watched in one of my classes, Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player from 1960. There's a scene in the bedroom where the main character has just had relations with a prostitute, they're lying in bed together, and her breasts are exposed. They're having a conversation, and the prostitute says something to the effect of "look at me, I'm an American" before covering up her breasts with the sheet. Keep in mind that in 1960 with the Hays Code still active, this scene would never have made it to America. So if anything, what you learn from this bit—in context—is that censorship stunts art, and the French will mock us for it.

[My bold.]

Or they might mock someone for not having seen Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, with its infamous shower scene, which is also from 1960. The shower scene has its own lengthy section in Wikipedia's page for Psycho where it's described as "one of the most famous scenes in cinema history". (Indeed, searching for hitchcock psycho shower scene returns about 242,000 hits on Google.) The shower scene alone utterly demolishes any notion that censorship stunts art.

That limitations can spark creativity might not occur to someone arguing that, while there's plenty of violence, what games currently lack is more sexual content.

Shamefully, Slashdot used the Sklavos piece as the basis for its story Censored Video Game Content Stifles Artistry.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thank God it's Fryday!

Since I play Pryo a lot in Team Fortress 2, I made this spray using GIMP and Inkscape.

I couldn't find a good source for the circular pyro logo (hint, hint, Valve!) so I made one using Inkscape. Once imported to GIMP, a layer with a brick texture from CG Textures was added behind to make the logo less bland. The logo was reversed from its normal appearance on the Pyro's suit to improve the composition.

The orange lighting on the Pyro was achieved by making a simple custom map using the Hammer Editor in Valve's Source SDK. The custom map contained only a raised platform, a ramp up to it, and an orange light source somewhere below the Pyro's knee level, so as to illuminate the underside of the flamethrower (as you can see, I should have used several).

Posing the Pyro was a little tricky; I wanted the normal, non-taunting stance and wasn't sure how to get the third-person front view while in the game. It turns out that at the end of the taunt animation, the normal stance is shown for a fraction of a second before the view switches from third-person back to the normal first-person view. After many taunts and screen captures I managed to get some usable ones.

Lettering made use of Valve's TrueType font that ships with TF2 overlaid with flame textures from Mega-Tex Studios. I had tried various other GIMP filters and methods to make flaming text and didn't like the results.

The final step was to export a TIFF file and create the spray using VTFEdit. This spray has transparency; the tutorial Create Team Fortress 2 Sprays with Transparency was most helpful.

It's not perfect, but good enough, and has been satisfying and fun to spray in TF2. If you'd like to use this spray yourself, download the .vtf and .vmt files and place them in the folder Steam/SteamApps/[your_steam_ID]/team fortress 2/tf/materials/VGUI/logos/