Archive for June, 2007

Academia plays MMOs #2: How social is WoW?

Second installment on highlighting academic MMO research. This time an article that came out last year and focused on social dynamics of MMOs on the example of World of Warcraft. The article is Ducheneaut, N., Yee, N., Nickell, E., Moore, R. J., ‘Alone together?’ exploring the social dynamics of massively multiplayer online games. ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2006) April 22-27; Montreal, Canada, 2006, 407-416.

They looked at a number of factors and the main theme was overall time spend either grouped or together. For example they look at amount of time spend in groups split up per class. The result is possibly surprising for one fact: While warlocks and hunters are in groups the least, warriors are the third least grouped class. Of course they indicate that warriors, hunters and rogues are the most popular classes. Unfortunately the numbers are missing, so it’s not clear if warriors group less simply because classes are unevenly distributed and there is more “supply” than “demand”?

Grouping increases with level. As early as lvl 4, already 16% of time is spent in groups, which I thought was surprisingly high, given that there was no explicit group content. That rises to 20% before level 10 and to 30% around level 20 (when the first instanced content becomes available). Above level 55 the curve increases drastically and folks close to 60 spend close to 60% in groups. The authors make the claim that WoW becomes more social during end-game.

Of course at the same time, with level the involvment in guilds rises as well. 90% are guilded above level 43, compared to an overall average of 66%.

On guild play together they find that average guildies spend under 23 minutes playing together, while member of a tight core of a guild come in at 154 minutes per month.

The paper is really about the leveling game and about this the authors make the point that at least from the data it appears that WoW isn’t mainly successful because of its social aspects. The argument goes, that WoW is an addictive game that can and supports Solo play in its own right and social is possible but not the main determinant of the success.

Unfortunately the core arguments here are hypothetical. They argue that social factors do make a difference but truly social play isn’t one of those main factors, but mostly playing along among others, having factors like achievement (being uber or leet or both, showing off gear), hanging in chat channels while playing, or having shared comedic value of the game. Unfortunately these aren’t really supported by a systematic study.

It’s true though. WoW as a game is mostly a solo game while leveling. This is much stronger now simply because when leveling your alt, you may not have enough people in your level range to sensibly organize instance runs. That the solo-ability is an important factor also showed in Lord of the Rings Online, where people complained about solo content having dried up in the 35+ range before the first content patch that came out size, in fact some still complain.

But play style and sociability aside, are there maybe other factors that contribute to folks not playing together until level cap? One thing that always struck me was the difficulty of game support to form groups. In WoW we are talking about the evolution of meeting stones, LFG channels, LFG interfaces, the reappropriation of the meeting stone for something completely different, then back to some form of channel. An important point about instances is that not only do they take a committed block of time, they also require planning and organising ahead. In the WoW leveling days iching towards level cap, it wasn’t unusual to spam for an hour to form a group for certain destinations. Is the difficulty to organise groups part of the issue here?

Warhammer online has advertised (see WAR Production Video Podcast #7) public quests, which are quests that you can join at any time and do together. How that will work out precisely. If it is safe againstexploiting behavior and above all if it’s a truly “playing together” experience remains to be seen. But it’s an idea that cuts out the searching for a group aspects, because one can join when ready.

But for social there is a lot more to be said then during leveling. At another time, I want to write some about the social and raiding (some more). But not now.

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In-game economies, real money transfer and the hidden safeguards

Real money transfer or RMT (or gold-selling, leveling services, ebaying characters or items) is a buzz topic. The New York Times carried a story that got relayed far and wide in the blog space. I remember that the PC Gamer magazine had a story a while back that was far less detailed and certainly less bleak.

Anyway despite all this I can’t quite put my finger on why it is not really a hot topic for me personally. Maybe because until today I cannot honestly say that the practice has majorly impacted my while gaming. Only on very rare occasions has a bot/farmer contested a resource that I wanted, by either ninjaing a ore mine, or by killing my quest mobs.

Once very early on, a farmer trained mobs on me in WoW to get me to leave quest mobs alone but this has not happened in years later.

But of course the real question is, why does it seem alright for me. At some point there were more bots around but at that time Blizzard was already in the business of banning. So maybe the real answer is that gaming companies are already curbing the practice which is why it didn’t really impact me. But how would I know?

On a completely different note, the question of course is, why have in-game money, or in-game economies at all? Aren’t these the source of the problem ultimately. A recent issue of the fairly new MMO Games Magazine featured the whole RMT issue and Raph Koster had an article discussing specifically this question (unfortunately I don’t know of an online version of this article so you may have to try grab a copy of the magazine). Raph’s main argument for the economy is altruism and social factors. He in essence says, that a tradable system allows you to help others with goods and cash. This is an interesting perspective, but is it true? Would a game without trading be anti-social. Or would helping be deligated to in-game actions like grouping or giving advice. Again, I wouldn’t really know.

But certainly even if you agree with Raph’s outlook that you kind of want in-game economies to allow people to help each other, it’s a two-edged sword. In-game economies not only further collaboration, they also further competition for resources. Classical example would be ninjaing of non-instanced resources like mining-nodes. It’s a first-come first-serve, winner takes all system akin to the way non-instanced mobs work in EverQuest. The culture it supported wasn’t really collaborative (outside the guilds that worked together) but rather distinctly anti-collaborative and competitive. How do I prevent access to resources for others?

But lots of people seem to enjoy the trading aspect of MMOs, so I don’t see us getting an honest comparison any time soon, i.e. I don’t see an MMO that tries to go without a trading system to see what the actual implications on the MMO culture would be.

This may indeed be the best safeguard against RMT (beside leveling service) but for now we’ll have the gaming companies continue to duke out how to handle the situation.

Blizzard changes attunements

Hmm an unexpected change in WoW TBC with 2.1.2 going live today in the US and tomorrow in Europe. Attunements for Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep are lifted. This is very intriguing. The overly time-consuming and funneling attunement, especially for TK but also for SSC (requiring two raid bosses killed) were a major burden on semi-casual and casual groups, who have a higher player pool to get through and less resources/time to get people up to speed.

I know many people who have left TBC over its raiding game with respect to accessibility. This is a good change, though I think it’s too late to get many of those leavers back. In some sense it feels like extremes too, first very forbidding, then completely open. Mild attunement (ala “Attunement to the Core” or killing Drak) would have been fine and would have needed no change. I wonder what kinds of attunements we’ll see in future content patches.

More on: Data and explanation models in MMO subscription analysis

Well there is a lively debate in the commentary to Raph’s MMO subscription analysis blog entry. I wrote another answer and submitted, but since then it’s down. In lieu of saving it for later I thought I’d put it up here for now. Basically the gist of the last two comments were from a poster nicked Harvey who indicated that the actual game content is in his view the reason for the TBC downturn. And Neil who clarifies that of course Bass is just a first order model and really we are looking at a second order model here which accounts for both new and current users.

I’ve been scratching my head over this and mostly have been trying to find relevant sources on the web (and maybe I’ll have to hit a library soon too). So far I’ve been marginally successful. I still try to find subscription retention models (maybe from studying traditional subscription businesses, like newspapers, magazine and subscription TV), but not yet. If you know good sources, just post on Raph’s comments when they are back up :D.

OK so here’s the thing that I wrote up for raph’s blog comments section:

————————————————————————————

I’ve been trying to find a reference for the “second order” but failed so far. Basically it’s seems to me that if you want to model this you want an acquisition/diffusion model (say Bass) and you want a subscription retention model (for which I yet lack any references).

The question that Harvey is basically asking is simply this: Isn’t subscription retention what caused the downturn in TBC (or say Vanguard?) The problem with these curves, as I said initially is though that they too easily match a lot of data. Of course one could make up a Bass-only model that matches the Vanguard shape. Fairly good number of early adopters, but negative diffusion leads to the immediate drop from early adoption like we see it. So why not just use Bass? Well, my point is simply just because data fits a curve doesn’t mean that the curve actually describes the actual dynamics that’s going on there. Bringing this back to TBC, many people who played it would say that the downturn was induced by the state of TBC endgame, not by launch, hence questioning the Bass only idea (note that the peak coincides with many players having reached level cap and entering endgame, and before the quoted summer holidays). Yet again the curve fits Bass-type shapes.

While trying to find MMO relevant subscription retention models I found actually sources that discuss the validity of Bass and other marketing models that are treated as “lawlike” by many. Here is a preprint of J. N. Sheth & R. S. Sisodia “Revisiting Marketing’s Lawlike Generalizations” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (27) 1, 71-87 (1999)

Let me quote interesting passages:

The second, and we believe more serious shortcoming, is that these models tend to view the rate of adoption of an innovation as an intrinsic characteristic of a market and the innovation itself, with inadequate consideration of factors such as: “How affordable is the innovation to the market at large? How rapidly does the price-performance ratio improve? How widely available is the product over time?” In other words, many of the areas where managerial action is crucial are ignored by the models. They adopt a static, almost fatalistic view of dynamic, evolving markets.

I agree with the basic sentiment here and hence why I reacted to Raph stating that the first few hours of data determine the whole curve. This indeed is static and fatalistic because it means that little can be done after the first few hours.

They also quote another author who expresses this view on Bass diffusion:

Simon (1994) concurs in this view, suggesting that while the mathematical formulations underlying diffusion models tend to be good at ex post (i.e. after the fact) “predictions” based on historical data, their performance with ex ante data is far less impressive. “Even the most fundamental question of why we should actually be able to predict the further diffusion of a durable product from the first few observations is totally unanswered… there is no reason why the diffusion should follow any lawlike pattern. Are we barking up the wrong tree with these efforts?”

This is analogous to my criticism that this is post mortem curve fitting and not faithful prediction, or at least it hasn’t justified itself as such beyond fitting data post mortem.

The attitude towards these curves is actually important because it can define how evolutions are seen. It could be “this was just the market for this expansion and we see the predictable decline after the model” or it could be “we have to improve our end-game to retain subscribers and the decline was preventable”.

Bass indeed seems to suggest the more fatalistic first stance, while trying to provide longevity in subscription services probably should worry about the second. Have subscription services with longevity like the New York Times or the subscription cable TV followed Bump curves? That’d be an interesting question. And as people have argued about EVE or Runescape, these show longevity (which again one can argue to fit Bass micro-bumpage, but isn’t that curve fitting?)

Holding on to the bump shape tightly also defines how data itself is seen. Data is prone to all sorts of trouble and inaccuracies. However Data remains the main link to a ground truth. Distinguishing inaccuracies from fact can be tricky. Yet on top of that Raph postulates that data that doesn’t match the bump curves is wrong outright. Frankly I’m not convinced that such a stance is justified. In fact it’s contrary to Popperian method of science, because it denies the “falsification” (Popper’s term for disproving) of the bump model hypothesis by denying the validity of any contrary data (sorry for this heady sentense).

Again this really don’t mean that there could not exist a justification for a bump model, just that this justification is lacking. For the same reason if subscription retention plays a vanishing role in MMO life-cycles, it would be good to at least have some explanation for this. For these reasons I’m just skeptical.

Consumables, play longevity and group management

The Elitist Jerks board has another interesting thread going with the title “Mana Regen: the last broken mechanic?” The story is basically about how mana regen has evolved in WoW raiding since it started.

A very enlighting discussion of the possible role of mana is by an EJ poster “mek” in this thread at #82:

The concept of “mana” is essentially “resource management,” and it’s a way of limiting actions without resorting to cooldowns. It’s good when used meaningfully; in the case of healers it generally is, but consumables + shadowpriest make the mechanic largely meaningless, beyond its moneysink aspect.

A good example of “bad” mana implementation is hunters. For hunters it’s purely a PvE inconvenience which makes the “sustained dps class” bad at what it’s supposed to be good at. If priests didn’t have mana bars they’d just spam PoH and max rank gheal all day and it’d be fairly stupid; if hunters/mages/warlocks didn’t have mana bars, their playstyle wouldn’t change at ALL (in single-target scenarios; their aoe dps would go through the roof, admittedly) – they’d just drink less potions and not bitch when they’re not in a spriest group. The mana bar is there to add complexity to gameplay, but it’s almost completely circumvented by gold and min/maxing.

If you want me to QQ about some other game, EQ2’s “power” is even more poorly implemented. Virtually every skill in the game has a cooldown, and running out of power is virtually impossible, so you just spam every button you possibly can to kill, heal, whatever. In raids, power is rendered completely meaningless by various spriest-like abilities doled out to various classes. Enchanters actually lower themselves to sub-30% power BEFORE COMBAT BEGINS and try to stay there, as their damage increases when they’re “running low,” which ends up being all the time.

At some point in WoW’s lifetime we just gave up on managing mana and decided to circumvent it. Remember actually doing things like “healing rotations” on Golemagg (right after they nerfed FoL spam)? Having healers standing around doing nothing is asking for a wipe, nowadays – because the developers noticed that we’d successfully circumvented mana as a limiting mechanic, and started balancing encounters accordingly. This is why alternative systems like rage, energy, focus(lol?!?) and stuff like EVE Online’s capacitor are generally much better than mana because they can serve different purposes and add complexity in different ways; complimenting a class’ playstyle rather than being at odds with it.

Of course he is right here. Raiders (my group did that too) actually used various ways to manage group relevant resources in WoW raiding, like healer rotations. The neat part about this strategy is that it is a group activity, you coordinate between different people to manage a resource (mana) that is needed to succeed. In TBC this has largely disappeared. Healers are always strained and hence rely on non-organised sources of regens: consumables, regen buffs (blessings, judgements, totems) and class abilities (shadow priests).

Mana or the LOTRo equivalent of power often serves as a fight limiting mechanism. You are out of this resource means that you are in trouble if you are not close to done. In LOTRo the tank class Guardians also have to manage their longevity resource, while WoW warriors and Druid bears have rage as sustainable resource. Paladin Tanks’s get indirect sustainability through healing (since WoW 2.0).

In LOTRo fellowship moves can be used to replenish resources. This is a way to keep group management and join activities in the resource management game. In WoW due to the tight design even with Shadow Priests, chain potting is a must for almost all mana classes at a certain point. The bad part of chain potting is two-fold: It’s an individual management activity. It requires time spend outside raid to acquire the resource (make sure that ample mana regen pots are available for each raid).

I actually know nobody who honestly enjoys chain potting, I know a few who very much dislike it. All put up with it, as necessary to progress. But certainly there remains the question if relying on individual consumable use is a good idea for regular game-play.

Signal to Noise ratio, data and explanation models in WoW subscription analysis

There is a recent buzz around WoW subscription and activity evolution. The first to put this out where WoWInsider showing data and asking “Why are people leaving WoW?” It then spread through the blog space that I read like it does, popping up on Raph Koster’s, Joystiq, Tobold’s blog and more.

I think there are a few things to be said about this as it stands right now, just from a pure data and analysis perspective. But why? Well one of the more interesting reactions to the graph is Raph Koster’s graphical analysis. He claims that a Bumb curve with an exponentially declining asymptotic tail (sorry for the math lingua, this basically just means that you have a smooth increase to a maximum, then it curves back down, but leaves an ever-diminishing tail that never hits zero). Raph proceeds to explain the WoW census data using this curve, overlaying new bumps at what he claims to be expansions of the market or other bumping factors (like a chrismas rush).

I found this analysis intriguing, but above all… just plain speculative. Mostly because the method is flawed. Let me explain why. Or rather let me credit the kinds of sources that have tought me why. The most accessible is the lovely book called “How to lie with statistics” by Darrel Huff which came out in the mid 1950 (old crap so to speak). It also contains a passage on how to make graphs represent just about anything. I found a short summary of the basic idea that unfortunately uses straight lines and rescaling, but there are many more tricks.

Let me try to explain what the pitfall with Raph’s argument is. The short version is that sums bump function is a very nice candidate to describe almost any data. The tail doesn’t make a big difference here because it’s drowned in the noice floor. The flexibility of the bumb function is that you can approximate rapid peak data with a steep hump that will go away quickly, you can approximate slow increases and decreases with a wider bump.

A longer version would show how you can, having essentially two variables to play with per bump function (height, width) one can match the piecewise slope of almost any function, one would go along to show that in the limit of vanishing width you end up with standard sampling, which of course can represent anything up to sampling frequency and that by keeping the height bounded you can always keep the error in the tail bounded. But basically that’s just the mathy and rigorous way of getting to how broad a set of functions one can approximate with these bumps.

A flaw in Raph’s explanation is that he actually doesn’t have ways to explain why he chose particular heights and widths in approximating the function. Take the second to last bump in his graph. This one has a very shallow height, but is rather wide. Why would one see this? There isn’t a real explanation hence one could as well assume that the curve landed there to help approximate the finer structure of the slope to get to the next bump.

But don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that a bump-with-tail model isn’t helpful, or even justifyable. It just means that, because it’s so universal, you really have to take it with a big grain of salt.

Raph for example claims that:

Assuming that the title is equally available everywhere, you can predict the peak from literally three data points, which you can get literally in the first few hours of launch.

But to the best of my knowledge that is really just a hypothesis. And there really are good questions to be raised about it. So can a title, not screw up later? I think it was Tobold who pointed out that Vanguard had a rather uncharacteristic progression (can’t find the link right now, so I may have to correct this), which mostly meant that stuff didn’t quite look like the bump model.

Finally we don’t get an underlaying model explanation for the bump itself. One could try to see it as a probability distribution of some stochastically modeled situation (i.e. it’s complex, so lets pick a randomizing assumption that is valid for our setup at least in an approximate way). It could be Poisson which has a skewed gaussian distribution like Raph’s bumps, but the model there talks about onset probabilities of events happening (people being enticed to buy and subscribe to the game) or a Weibull distribution (which models things failing over time with some probability. i.e. people losing interest in the game for some factor). Weibull is more attractive I think but we really don’t know. It could well be both. But a Weibull model would not justify Raph’s claim that the first couple of hours determine everything of the bump, because failure reasons actually depend on the game’s desirability as it operates. The advantage of these models would be that one could give tangible reasons for the bump shape. Why was it flat, why was it high etc. We are lacking that.

But anyways, bump model or not. The WoW decline is an interesting story and the blogsphere has brought up numerous arguments: bump shapes, people holding off till after the expansion, the nature of the expansion itself, releases of other games like LOTRo. But as with any data analysis we’ll really have to wait and see more evidence. Does the increase in LOTRo qualitatively match a decline in WoW. Have there been questionaires explaining the cancelation of subscriptions (Blizzard actually does have exit questionaires) etc etc. For now it’s a happy place because we can speculate on one graph. MMOGData for example doesn’t yet carry any information of a decline of subscriptions for WoW, so it really is just one source.

So there really is a lot of noise and not that much signal yet.

Heroics or Karazhan first? Both!

A number of folks have asked me: “Which one should we do first with our newly formed guild? Heroics or Karazhan?”

The short answer is of course both.

The long answer is: Both, because:

  • Heroics are good practice in raid-level coordination and healing.
  • Heroic Slave Pen until the 2nd boss is needed so you have the Serpentshrine Cavern attunement quest picked up once you get to kill Nightbane in Karazhan.
  • Heroics will gear you up.
  • Heroics require less folks online and can (with practice) be done in shorter time chunks.
  • Heroics teach you tight crowd control and awareness of a wide range of class utility.
  • Heroics are on short lockout and easy to organise (1-day, 5 man)
  • Karazhan is good practice for raid-level coordination and healing.
  • Karazhan will gear you up.
  • Early Karazhan are relatively easy and will help strengthen your group’s social fabric (if you can survive)
  • Both will wipe you. Wipe tolerance is a major raiding skill, learn it in either place!
  • Karazhan attunement is a good way to get to learn instances on normal before hitting them in skull-mode.

Or more complex, pick “easy” heroics first, like Ramparts, Blood Furnace, Slave Pen, Underbog, maybe Setthek Halls. Don’t be afraid to try others. Start off with Karazhan. The animal bosses should be trivial even without any raiding experience. Attunement should prove mostly trash clearing speed training to him and some minor aggro management in transitions (and possibly positioning, if you feel vulnerable to charges). Crowd control experience in heroics will help you at Moroes, so this is the point where the synergy kicks in. Curator in Karazhan is a DPS check and heroic gear will help you get by it faster.

But the short answer still holds, do both!