Thursday, April 22, 2010

Digital Ferraris

Tobold touched the subject of price differentiation this week. He notices that games are still priced so children can afford to buy them. Working people can spend more on their hobbies yet they only pay the same as children. More and more marketeers are giving us ways to spend some extra money on our gaming hobby.

Price differentiation can already be seen in the other entertainment industries. If you want to buy a book you have the choice between a paperback and a hardcover version. The hardcover version costs slightly more to make but costs about twice as much to the customer. To me it doesn't matter if it's a paperback version, I just want to read the book. But there's obviously a big market who doesn't mind paying more in order to make their bookshelves shinier. The movie industry also allows us to spend more money on the same items. Sitting three metres from my TV I can hardly see the difference between a Blu-Ray and a DVD disc but if you can spend a bit more you're free to spend it on the Blu-Ray disc. Just as with hardcovers a Blu-Ray isn't that much more expensive to press. Still, the price seems to be two to three times that of a DVD disc.

These days games are giving us more and more ways to spend a bit more. If you want to buy a copy of Starcraft 2 you have the option to buy the Deluxe Edition. For twice the price of the regular edition you'll get a ton of junk you'll use once and then never touch again. Your shelf will contain a CD with the games audio, a DVD with commentaries, a WoW pet and a dog tag. The flash drive with the original Starcraft looks like a fun extra but if you're spending one hundred dollars on a sequel I'm sure you have already played the original to death. Blizzard is also seeing ways to get some extra coins from their WoW players. For ten euros you can buy a mini pet and for twenty euros a sparkling pony. When I logged in today on my server I saw about four of these mounts in Ironforge. People actually buy these items en masse!

It's a great move by Blizzard. None of these items will give you a benefit while playing the actual game. You might have a pony mount but you can't outrun my mighty deadknight who's using a regular mount. As long as you're giving out fancy coloured vests, mini pets, audio CDs, movies,... it's all fine with me. I'll keep my money and every time I see someone with a special mount I'll see someone who has too much money to spend.

Other games are giving players who pay in-game benefits. We can see it with Bioware's games. Every single DLC item you can get is vastly superior to the items you gather while playing. The Blood Dragon Armor? The chest-piece lasted me from the minute I got it to the end of the game. Then they also give you the best weapon in the game forged from a comet that only lands when you buy the DLC. If you buy the game from certain retailers you'll also get a best-in-slot ring or necklace. In the end your character will be wearing nothing but DLC items. Take off those items and you're completely naked. I feel like this DLC is actually making the game less fun. Getting new and better gear is a big part of any RPG and if you're just going to give us the gear at level one that leaves out an aspect of the game.

As should be clear I greatly prefer to give vanity items to players who want to pay more. It's the digital equivalent of having a Ferrari. Someone with that fast car won't get any faster to his work than I will. They still have to live by the same rules/laws. But even if I don't like Biowares way of giving extra items I can still live with it. It becomes worse when you're giving out items in PvP games and that's where I draw the line. Imagine if you can buy a super tank in an RTS for real money which will just roll over your enemies. It might be fun for a while but it would be horrible for everyone else and your fun would soon fade away. As such I don't like micro transactions either. I don't want to see swords I can buy at level 1 which will last me to the end game. I don't want to buy your potions which will give me double XP. And I especially don't want to buy potions which make my character stronger. Everyone should need to put in as much effort in the game as anyone else.

It should be clear that Price Differentiation is here to stay, there's just too much money to be made from it. Since we can't change that I hope that Blizzard makes a ton of money from them so that they can set the example for their fellow companies. As long as other players are willing to spend twenty Euro on a pony I won't have to spend any money myself.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Seperating the men from the boys

Returning from a long WoW break always brings some novelties. I can now buy a flying mount for my level 60 warrior!  My warrior gets Shield Slam for free! And everywhere I look I see "Need one member for instance X, minimum gearscore 2800, link achievement". It seems like everyone has been brought back to a single number. The e-peen meter promised by Blizzard two weeks ago doesn't seem so funny any more.

Out of curiosity I checked the gearscore meter of my stabled Death Knight. She ran Naxxramas until she had everything she needed. Yet I saw people looking for members for their Naxx run with a gear score above mine. Why would someone who doesn't need a single item from Naxx anymore still want to run it? The people who do want to raid Naxx will be those who have gear from heroics, not people who are doing Icecrown Citadel.

Looking at the past, the gearscore does feel like a natural evolution. Everyone wants to run a fast instance without wipes. If you only instance with guildies you don't have a problem. But how do you know if that pug mage is any good? In the vanilla WoW days you would just try them out and add them as a friend if they were good. Soon enough you'd have a list of good players. With the introduction of achievements we found another way. Link the achievement to show us that you already finished the instance once! And the newest trick would be to link your gearscore.

All these tricks are of course flawed. How can you be sure that imba-geared mage really is any good? Did she just run a few instances auto following her friends? And maybe that guy who got the achievement just ran behind all the rest and leeched his victory. You can't be sure but your chances of success should go up.

Where will this evolution end? Shall we keep a huge hall of shame database like Tobold suggests? I can imagine a huge ranking system. Every time you walk in the fire or do pathetic DPS for your gear level your ranking goes down. Killing more and harder bosses will let you rise on the ladder. And for the very top of the chain you'd have to kill Arthas naked... with five men. Then again that top hundred player probably won't be interested in running your Naxx run.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Stanislav Lem - Solaris

Few people can sing "Non non, je ne regrette rien" on their deathbeds. Most will regret a few things they have or haven't done during their lifetimes. Kris, the protagonist of Solaris is no exception. When he was young he wanted to split with his girlfriend, Rheya. She threatened to kill herself if he moved out. He didn't believe she would do it and left. Sadly, she did do it. Ten years later he's sent to the Solaris station hovering above the planet Solaris to investigate what happened to it's crew. He's still having troubles with himself. I couldn't know that she would really do it, right? Should I have gone back and removed the pills she used to commit suicide? Questions we would all ask ourselves in a similar situation yet noone ever gets answers. Kris is lucky however as he gets a second chance. One day after his arrival at the station he meets Rheya.

He's well aware that she can not be real, she died after all. And some things point out that she's not a real person. If she moves too far from him she starts to panick and giving her a physical examination proves that she is indeed not a real human being. However, if she looks like a human, speaks like a human and talks likes a human, does it make any difference? Kris slowly gets more and more attached to her through the course of the book. Meanwhile the two other scientists in the stations are battling their own demons from the past. And they'd rather shoot their demons out of the airlock. Kris can not let this happen to his beloved Rheya.

Although there are three persons on the station Kris is mostly alone and only talks to his colleagues to share their ideas on the "visitors". There's a big sense of loneliness and I can't imagine a place that is lonelier than a space station on a foreign planet. Of course Kris is not really alone, he has Rheya. Seeing how he only has one person to connect to it's no wonder that he doesn't want to let her go.

Mixed in all this is the background story of the planet and the question of Rheya's origin. The planet seems to be one huge, intelligent creature which creates figures from its oceans. Is the planet reading their minds to create their most precious thoughts? And for what purpose? Kris wonders about this as much as we do.

The book feels like a mixture of great passages with mediocre ones. As long as the book deals with people it's a very good book. Kris' thoughts and discussions about his colleagues and of course Rheya read like a great psychological thriller. But on the other side there are also long passages that deal with the previous research that went into the planet, Solaris. These passages are too slow paced and I don't feel that they contribute to the overall story. Overall however, Solaris is an interesting search into our own minds.