Sunday, August 31, 2008


Too good to pass up.

By way of Burnlab.

I feel as if I should write

It's been a long time. But I just don't have anything to say. Which is about the least interesting way to start a blog post I can think of.

I mean... I have things I *could* say, certainly...

1) I'm currently more than annoyed with people who read/write text messages during movies. Noise is bad, yes... so we turn off our phone ringers and don't take calls during the show. Right? Right. We've had that down since about 1998. Now people are doing the IM or email or texting thing during movies, and the bluish-white glow of their iPhones and Pocket PCs is just as friggin' annoying as hearing a phone ring. If you have to haul out your dang device during the film, hold it in your lap so that the rest of the theater can't see it. And if you get a message that you must respond to... leave. It's only about an hour-and-a-half. Give us a breat and get out of your own ego-space long enough to enjoy the film.  I mean, geez. I saw a teenage girl read and reply six times during one show last month. And every time, she held the phone up at eye level, so that everyone behind her could be distracted. I finally asked her to stop, as it was totally pissing me off. She didn't, and so I beat her to death with my shoe.

2) I think that Time Warner, our cable company, must be training their field repair folks in commiseration skills. We've had our DVR break twice in the last month, both times requiring a guy to come out. And both times, when we complained about various elements of the service, the techs joined right in. "Yeah... the new software isn't as good as the old stuff. We hear that all the time. I use the service, and it makes me crazy, too." And... "No, these boxes aren't great. They're going to upgrade to new hardware sometime next year, and I can't wait. We get so many problems with these." Etc. One of the first things they teach you in customer care training is the power of the words, "I understand." Upset customers, before anything else, want you to admit that they are not crazy, and that there might be a reason why you feel the way you do. They do *not* want to be questioned, harangued or taught a lesson. So, "I understand [fill in the blank]" is a great way to move things forward. These guys have taken this technique to a new level, though. They've gone beyond understanding, to joining in. It's as if they've aligned themselves with us -- all us folks being put out -- against the Big Bad Company. The one that they work for. They aren't representatives of Time Warner any more, but some kind of moles. They are our spies in the Big House. I got to say... it works. They were nice guys, did what they could, and I felt like they were on "our side." Weird.

3) Waiting for Spore. Been waiting for four years. They say it's gone gold, and will truly be in stores by 9/8/08. We'll see...

4) Not thrilled with the animated "Clone Wars" movie. It was OK for an animated sci-fi movie... but I expect more from Star Wars. Not sure why. Episode One made me doubt the existence of a benevolent God.

5) Have an idea for a YA fantasy series. Don't want to talk about it here. Oops. Just did. My bad. If you want to help me get it out of my head and on paper, let me know. I find that I need at least one person to talk about this stuff with or I just let it stew for... well... forever (see: three previous attempts at novel writing, all stuck between 70 and 130 pages).

6) Overheard three "nice old ladies" talking politics at Bob Evans last night while eating with the boy. At one point, one of them said that they wouldn't vote for Obama because he was going to "take away everyone's guns." A friend of hers had told her that part of Obama's presidential platform involved the revocation of fifth ammendment (I assume she meant second). The current president already having played loose and free with the fifth, I can see why she might be worried about the second. I can't find anything on line, even on the crazy-right sites, indicating that Obama has any dread plans for our right to bear arms. On conversations such as this, in states like Ohio, hangs the fate of nations.

7) Got a new chair for the home office. Nice.

That's it. Like I said...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

There's no gold in them thar hills

I recently blogged about the value of virtual stuff in virtual worlds and games, and (tangentially) on gold farming (also called RMT, the Real Money Trade). Again, for the uninitiated, gold farming involves playing a game to earn in-game wealth or stuff, and then selling it to other players for real world money.

After having written that post, I read an MMOG Nation post on "Gold and the Perfect Game." An interesting, quick review of the theory that gold farming is the result of bad game design. In short, if a game requires you to do non-fun stuff -- so non-fun that you'd rather pay someone else to do it for you -- then the game is inherently flawed.

I tend to agree, but maybe not for the same reasons, and maybe not with the same conclusions.

I've been reading fantasy lit since about the 3rd grade, when I first read the Narnia series. After that, it was all the classics, including Tokein, Ursula K. LeGuinn, Terry Goodkind, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony, etc. etc. Dozens of series and, if you get into individual works, hundreds of books with some kind of fantasy theme.  And, at the moment, I am hard pressed to think of one where growing the wealth of the main character played a major role.

There are also danged few examples of stories where the quality of weapons/armor played a major role. Yes, Arthur needs Excalibur and the hobbits enjoy the use of their mithril armor... but those aren't things that are bought in a store or traded for at a market. They are important narrative elements that come about after key plot points.

Now, in an MMO, not everyone can be Aragorn, Gimli, Gandalf, etc. Levels (earned in experience points) and gear (earned sometimes, bought sometimes) are the ways you know you've moved your character forward and are slightly more Aragornish than your buddy, Stan. Gold farming subverts that system, obviously, by letting you use real world money as a stand-in for in game activities.

But, again... when was the last time you saw ANY adventure story where the good guys needed to hang out and farm, mine, etc. until they had enough dough to upgrade their junk? Money itself is rarely mentioned, and when it is, it's usually bad guys trying to make tons of it at the expense of good people, who are more interested in honor, culture, getting it on with the heroine, etc.

So what would an MMO without any gold look like? For that matter, what would an MMO with no specialized gear look like?

It would look more like a good story, I think.  Which is, of course, harder.

Take away gold and gear and you're left with experience points and levels, and I'm fine with that. How would something like that play?

  • Levels account for 100% of the damage you do with un-spelled weapons

  • Spells that improve weapons would have to be on-the-spot spells, either self-cast, or by a party member. For example, your mage casts "burning" on your regular sword and then, ta-da, it's a burning sword. More spells or more instances are only available at higher levels, or at the cost of not being able to cast other stuff.

  • Same for armor. Assume that everyone can afford good, basic armor. Make it a choice between better protection that slows you down, or lighter protection that's more flexible. Spells to affect durability and effects as per above.

  • If you really want some "stuff" that signifies "I'm more bad ass," then link it to a quest required to get a certain level. That is, to become a level 10 healer, you have to do XYZ, and are then given the staff of XYZ... that does nothing, except be a staff that shows you're level 10. Can you give it away? Sure... but why would you?

  • Make healing basically free (so you don't need to buy potions), but have the places where you can do it somewhat off-the-path from where the quests are. I don't mean a half-hour trek back to down for some water of life... but don't put them within combat-duration distance of the combat. You want to heal in the thick of it? Bring a healer.

Now, you're thinking, "But folks could still pay somebody to level their character up." Sure, that's always going to be a possibility. But what if part of what happened at the lower levels was real, actual training that carried over into higher levels? Essentially, some arcade elements that ramp up, such that if you jumped in at Level 20, you'd have no experience doing [the thing] that's necessary to unlock higher order effects.

I don't know. Some people like the grind, farming, mining, crafting, etc. And a game that made those things more a centerpiece of the action might also discourage RMT. But, for me, a game where I didn't have to worry about gold and gear would be a bunch more fun.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Wonderful XKCD comic today:

On the other hand, "shouldn't have eaten that" gets 14,000 hits while "should have eaten that" gets only 2,200.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gamerspace is somewhere between the size of Granada and Croatia

By way of Terra Nova, I found the Development Informatics (DI) working paper, "Current Analysis and Future Research Agenda on 'Gold Farming': Real-World Production in Developing Countries for the Virtual Economies of Online Games." Quick definition for y'all non-grognards: gold farming is the selling of virtual/game world goods and services for real money. The easiest example is that I play a game, and with my character, earn a whole bunch of in-game "gold," and then sell it to your character for real money. Other types of gold farming include leveling (improving another person's character for a fee) or actual in-game item sales (selling a very rare or powerful in-game object for real world money).

My first "holy crap" exposure to gold farming was in the excellent January, 2003 Wired story, "The Unreal Estate Boom." In it, Julian Dibbel quoted a study that estimated the size of Everquest's GNP (the biggest game at that time) at around $135 million which, per persona, made it the 79th richest nation on earth. Dibbel estimated that the "value" of all virtual stuff in all worlds in 2003 was around $300 million. Now... that's the total calculation of what *everything* inside these spaces would have been worth if it could have been sold for real dough; the study compared what the going rate for in-game gold was, and multiplied that by the total gold value of all items and character accounts.

So... check out the list of countries by GDP from Wikipedia. You'll find quite a number of small countries whose GDP is lower than $500 million. That means that people all over the world have now attributed the worth -- in actual, real dollars -- of a year's worth of virtual/gaming stuff as more valuable than everything Granada produces in one year.

I'm sure someone smarter (and with more time) could figure out what the "unrealized" GDP of these virtual spaces is; meaning, what all the virtual stuff would now be worth if it could be sold. If (and I'm totally making this up) that $500 million, for example, purchased 500 billion pieces of "gold" (a 1,000-to-1 ratio), and there were actually 50 trillion pieces of game gold being used... that would be a 100-to-1 real-to-virtual ratio, giving us a worldwide, virtual GNP of $50 billion. Which is more like the size of Croatia.

[Edit, 08/04/08. I just realized that the above bogus approximation is probably too complicated even for being so crappy. It might be easier to ask ourselves, "What percentage of virtual goods are realized in actual world money." I still don't know, but a 100-to-1 ratio doesn't seem too absurd; that is, for every one piece of gold purchased from a farmer, 100 are generated "naturally" and not sold/bought.]

As I said... that calculation is pretty bogus. But when you figure that a fairly small percent of all the virtual stuff that's generated ends up being gold farmed... a 100-to-1 relationship doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

$50 billion worth of magic swords, character attributes and elvish gold. You may want to have your kid start playing *more* games.