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Archive for March, 2009

A heartfelt goodbye from a corenerstone of the WoW blogosphere.

Give your wife a kiss, BRK, for heaven’s sake!

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I think Tycho of Penny Arcade sums up, though without reference to Blizzard, the key to Blizzard’s success, noting something that is often overlooked in much of game design:

As a virtue, I think execution – for example, the kind of execution seen in Resident Evil 5 –  is woefully underrated.

In games, as in life, Presentation is Everything.

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Tobold made a couple posts that had some points I wanted to respond to/extrapolate on.

First up, in “How Prepared are You for Ulduar?“, he complains about the loss of the experience of actually LEARNING an encounter, since people go in reading strategies about it, ruining the whole thing upfront (at least ruining the part about learning what the boss will do, how to counter it, etc.).  He ends with:

Why are so many people complaining that raids are too easy, but do everything in their power to make them even easier? All this talk about looking for challenge is just a big fat lie!

He hit on this point in another post talking about the add-on kerfuffle, mentioning people using addons to simplify a lot of gameplay.  Scott Jennings already knows this:

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

What people like is having fun.  They don’t like being annoyed.  Annoying is not fun (well, being annoyed.  Annoying others is often fun, but schadenfreude is often a zero-sum game).  Victory is fun.  Winning is fun.  To win, one must seem to overcome.  That’s all.  Players usually want to feel like victors.

But being a victor doesn’t mean gimping yourself to make the challenge greater.  It means being the victor: winning.  With whatever tools are allowed.  Addons, strats, tactic reading, consumables, class stacking, whatever.  Victory with the tools at hand.  World/server firsts are a sweet sort of victory; you’re twice victorious: once over the boss and then over everyone else.  But other factors come in: time, utility, sweetness of victory.  A world first is nice, but it’s not like the guild invested that much more time than they would have: they wouldn’t be trying to push the content if they didn’t have time.  So pushing a bit harder to be first isn’t a big leap.  For others, the cost in time is too high.

Which leads to why people read strats: getting a 10 or 25 person group together is a pain in the ass.  Getting them on the same page is worse.  That’s why we tend to organize into groups with leaders.  Then we let the leaders figure shit out and tell us what to do.  So what happens to a raid that hasn’t read strats?  They go in, everyone dies, the leader analyzes what happens and then tell them what to do.  They die again, and it repeats until they win.  This isn’t like a single player game where you are effective leader at all times.  It’s not like a small team game, where there aren’t so many voices making decisions that it blurs into noise.  The group sizes are large enough that individual initiative doesn’t cut it, that skill differences between players are likely large, and that, frankly, two people may analyze the situation, see what the boss is doing…and come up with two entirely different strats they implement on their lonesome, starts which conflict and wipe the group.  So you have a leader and make them figure it out.

For everyone not the leader, the challenge is doing what the leader says.  So why not just read the strat and cut out all the wipes the leader needs to figure out the boss?  Because dying is fucking annoying.  It’s not fun.  Especially when you’re dying because you have to give someone else time to tell you what to do.  So people read strats.  Learning encounters isn’t fun for most of the people in the encounter.

The second Tobold post I want to talk about is “MMORPG Quality“.

First, an annoyance: “Homo Economicus“.  Homo Economicus, I would argue, is not an economic theory.  It is two things: an observation of human psychology, whose veracity is subject to empirical verification, and a axiom of certain branches of economic theory describing the type of agent their models describe.  At best, certain economic schools suggest that the idea of a utility maximizing agent approximates human economic behavior sufficiently well enough to justify the use of models based around rational agents.

And seriously:  WAR and AoC weren’t very good…because they didn’t enjoy economic success?  Tobold goes on to say that “given the choice between similar games at similar cost, the majority of players will play the best game.”  From following discussion, he seems to indicate that by “best” he means “of the highest available utility”.  I’m seeing a lot of conflation of various ideas here.  Here’s a simple way for demonstrating that people are not well-described as utility maximizing agents: people often do not maximize utility over time.  Their is, I think, a demonstrable tendency of people, at least in certain aspects of their lives, to a present-time only view of utility.  Simple example: saving for a big purchase, accruing interest on your savings only to make the purchase when you have the cash in hand vs. taking out a loan to buy the good now and servicing the interest on that loan, thus losing money.  Yes, oftentimes leverage makes business sense.  Credit cards very rarely do.  Yet people use them all the time.  We can get into time savings, or FTV comparisons, but I believe this at least reasonably calls into question people as utility-maximizing agents over the medium term.

How does this factor into the WoW question?  Here’s Tobold:

To assume that the larger number of players tends towards the *worse* game means you need to assume that the majority of players is too stupid to recognize quality

Actually, no.  You merely have to assume the majority of players are lazy.  I don’t feel like that’s much of a stretch.  WoW involves a massive time investment, an account one is connected to, characters you’ve worked on, and a world you understand.  As a player of WoW, anything similar would need to not just be better, but better enough to overcome the loss of all that.  Here’s a similar example: WoW has improved the levelling experience, by making it faster and generally easier, along with the changes made to character classes improving their ability to interact with the world.  Yet many people find levelling an alt to be essentially boring, even though, particularly for longer-term players, levelling an alt is now likely a better, more fun experience than it was…meaning WoW now is a better game then WoW then.  Additionally, there’s the utility of having the option of a new character to play at the high end.  Despite that, despite WoW now being a better game and the additional utility for them at the end game, I don’t feel like alt levelling is terribly common.  That’s because, even if it’s now BETTER, it’s not BETTER ENOUGH to outweigh just playing your main.  People are lazy.

Which leads to this final quote from Tobold:

That doesn’t mean that only WoW clones can be a mass success, but it does mean that developers of future successful games do have to be willing to analyze what WoW did right, and which features of WoW aren’t necessary for success. In the end a “WoW Killer” will come from a pool of ideas, many of which have been contributed by WoW itself, others from other games, and a few actually new ideas thrown into the mix. It would be foolish to dismiss ideas from any game out of stupid turf war considerations.

Both WAR and AoC did precisely this.  I’d argue that each of them took ideas that were done in WoW, added additional ideas from the genre, and innovated in small areas.

What they lacked was polish.  I suspect that WoW released in a uniquely privileged time.  As I recall then, it was faced with a lull in the MMO landscape.  Lineage had the highest subscriber count, if I recall, followed by Final Fantasy XI, both games which large Asian playerbases.  According to wikipedia, in “January 2004, Square Enix announced that over 500,000 users utilizing over one million characters were playing the game”.  Presumably during the 11 months until WoW launched, it added subscribers.  However, presumably a large portion of these, at least, were in Japan and Asia.  The American MMO space was littered with a fair number of older titles: Everquest, Asheron’s Call 2, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online Star Wars Galaxies, the dead remains of Earth and Beyond, etc.  During the dot com bubble, many successor MMOs were started by VCs eager to match EQ level income.  The crash and subsequent recession killed all but the msot established players.  Other industry changes killed many others.  The only game looking to come out that could possibly compete with WoW was EQ2.  In that case, WoW trumped EQ2.  Blizzard managed to (inadvertently) capitalize on favorable market conditions: mid to low range computers were cheap and ubiquitous after the massive tech build up.  Demand for a new MMO was pent up, and had been supplemented by an expanded base of computer-owners.  Into this environment, they brought a well crafted, easy to play (comparably) MMO that ran decently on most computer hardware in homes.  I’d argue they made an MMO that played more like people’s ideas of a “game” than a “world”, which till that point had been what MMOs were: worlds.

The result was an unprecedented success.

Since then, Blizzard has continued to polish the hell out of their game, adding features, improving the presentation, and adding exorbitant amounts of content.  Competitors are faced with this problem: any new entrant needs to overcome two obstacles: the technical obstacles of building an MMO, including server architecture, client architecture, etc., and it needs to deliver content as well polished and as immense as WoW’s.  AoC and WAR both failed to do that.  Keep in mind that I think the extent of the failure lies in underestimating the immensity of the investment needed to do this.  Blizzard spent 4 years developing WoW, and the intervening 4 adding content.  Even assuming the value of their developed tech and content has declined (their dated rendering engine, ancient server tech, and so on), a competitor would need to match the value of Blizzard’s investment to successfully compete.  That is a massive sum of money for an investor to pour into a project.

That said, WoW’s day will end.  Eventually the deflation I described above will wipe out most of the value of WoW.  Eventually the cost of developing competing technology will decline sufficiently to allow publishers to be more willing to risk directly competing.  Eventually the cost of producing sufficient content to compete will decline (likely by dint of the continuing erosion of the comparative quality of WoW’s content).  And something (or some things) will rise to stand atop WoW’s decrepit corpse.

I don’t think that day is soon, however.

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The folk at Penny Arcade have already commented, OnLive debuted at GDC.  Let me explain to you the problems with OnLive.  As Tycho mentions, if you’ve been in IT you probably already know, but bear with me.  OnLive will initially only handle PC games, because they are essentially going to run your game for you, on their own PC hardware.  Their hope is that you will pay them to throw massive amounts of hardware at game processing so you don’t have to.  They will, in turn, benefit from economies of scale.  By providing the horsepower, they can effectively render the game on their end and then simply pipe the pictures to you.  Simple, right?  You only need to most minimal computer or TV and you can play any game, ever.

And you can.  This can be done.  Let’s take a look at a game that stood out to me in their demo movie: HAWX.  HAWX is a twitch-based air combat game.  When you see something happen, an enemy plane closing in on you, for instance, you need to react.  Instantly.  Or take F.E.A.R., another featured game.  Once again, FPS which requires instantaneous reaction to environmental changes.  How instant is instant?  Well, you are gunning for precision marksmanship while attempting to avoid whatever lethal objects are being hurled at you.  Let’s generously say you need to react within 2 seconds.  That’s the time frame we’ll look at.

Perhaps you have played games online before, and are aware of latency problems.  For instance, in World of Warcraft, my regular latency is ~200ms.  That’s how long it takes for a command to go to the server, get processed, and for me to get a response.  This latency varies: ~200ms is an average.  In the exact same gaming session, I’ve seen responses push down to 150ms or up to over a full second when there’s a network hiccup.  In terms of the OnLive service, your latency will impact how long it takes from you inputting a command, such as “fire weapon” to seeing it actually happen.  Perhaps you have played online games before, maybe things like Team Fortress 2 or Counterstrike.  You’ve been in laggy situations: it’s no cake walk, it sucks to see people popping around on screen, but it’s not THAT slow.  When you press fire, it just happens.

That won’t be the case in OnLive.  Multiplayer games, like WoW or TF2 or CS all do prediction locally: that’s why you see players pop around when they lag.  Your computer predicted they’d move one way, but when they finally got info from the other player, it turns out they went another way.  The game then corrects its prediction.  OnLive can’t do this.  Their servers play the game for you.  Instead of you pressing fire, your computer playing the animation and effects and predicting what will happen, to verify later, your will press a key and that will be sent to their server.  Then, their server will insert that input into the game logic: they’ll tell the game you pressed a key.  The game then plays normally, and is rendered.  When rendering is complete, the image for a given frame will be piped back to your computer.

Let’s say a monster shoots begins shooting at you and you want to move away.  First, the monster shoots at you on the OnLive server, and that gets rendered and then sent to you.  In a perfect world, as soon as the monster shoots, that frame is done rendering and an image of a monster shooting is ready to go.  OnLive sends that to you.  It takes half your ping to reach you.  Let’s go ahead and call that a measly 50ms.  50ms after the monster shoots, you actually see it on your screen and you move to one side by pressing a key.  Well, that takes the other half of your latency to actually reach the OnLIve server, so another 50ms spent.  but that’s only 100 ms total, right?  Sort of, because you’ll spend another 50ms waiting to see the results of your action.  You will spend 150ms in our example not moving after the monster shoots.  You’ll spend 100ms staring at your character not moving after you’ve pressed the button.

If you’ve played Rock Band or Guitar Hero on an HDTV, I’m sure you’ve needed to calibrate the game for your TV.  That’s because the TV introduces some processing lag between receiving the image and actually displaying it.  The lag is to help line up the image you’re seeing with the music you’re hearing.  Well, the above example would be akin to needing to set a 100ms lag in Rock Band.  That’s…really high.  To give a musical example, at 120bpm, you’ll hit 2 beats per minute.  Let’s assume we’re talking simple 4/4 time, so the quarter note is a beat.  Each quarter note, then, lasts for 500ms.  An eighth note will last 250ms, and a sixteenth note will last a mere 125ms…nearly as much time as we’re waiting to see what happened when we pressed a button.  It would be like trying to play along to music that’s always a sixteenth note off.

And this doesn’t account for network problems, which will add bumps to the responsiveness of a game.  Because responsiveness is what matters in this discussion.  There’s a reason we shoot for 60 fps.  It’s not because the human eye can really tell the difference: it can’t when it’s just watching a moving picture.  But it can tell the difference between 30 fps and 60 fps when it’s directly interacting with the picture.  Then it has expectations on how rapidly it will see responses to its actions.  a 100ms delay is equivalent to 10 fps.  Oh, and network bumps aren’t the only problem.  Rendering a frame takes time.  Even rendering to the lowly (for a PC ) resolution of 1280×720 takes some time.  But the rendering pipeline for their system will be a bit more convoluted than for a normal computer.  OnLive claims that they will be able to send a 720p60 video signal over a 5mbps connection.  1280×720 means each frame is a 1280×720 grid of pixels, each pixel conatining 24bits of color information (8 bits per color channel).  Uncompressed, that’s 22,118,400 bits per frame.  To send 60 frames per second would require 1,327,104,000 bits per second.  That’s 1300 mbps, or 1.3 gbps.  Since they’re obviously not making that requirement (that number, btw, is why VNC feels so damned slow to interact with), they must be compressing the video before sending it to the user.  If you’ve ever done video compression before, you’ll know that it’s a time consuming process.  Most video compression techniques do more than simple image compression; they attempt to analyze changes between frames, detection of motion, etc.  to maximize compression ratios while maintaining video quality.  If OnLIve intends to use simple image compression, rendering a frame will take the time to render + the time to compress, which is non-trivial.  If they intend to use more advanced video compression, they’ll be waiting a few frames at least to have a sample for use in their algorithm.  That implies rendering a new frame compression will always be a few frames behind whatever it is the game is actually rendering.

As Tycho says, various tactics games may work for this, since they don’t require responsiveness.  But for twitch games, like Burnout Paradise, FEAR, and HAWX, I am unconvinced they can actually, physically deliver the game fast enough for it to be playable by most gamers.  Perhaps for casual play?  Perhaps you can get used to it?  Maybe.  Before answering, try playing uncalibrated Rock Band, and imagine it literally 3-5 times worse.  See if you like playing that.  Then we can talk again.

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Legal vs. Moral Rights

In my last post, I talked about Blizzard’s new policy regarding add ons.  The new policy announcement has sparked off the community rather fiercely, with various pontificators besides me posting their thoughts on the matter.  One of the interesting points which comes up in this discussion is talk of “rights”.   Consider this, from Tobold:

I think the Outfitter example shows well that addon authors never had many rights. Like so many addons before it, Blizzard is simply introducing the addon functionality in the standard UI in patch 3.1, making the addon obsolete. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if some future patch introduced functionality to WoW similar to Questhelper’s one, other MMORPGs like WAR are already marking quest locations on the map. So relying on income from an addon was never a really good idea. But Questhelper was downloaded over 20 million times from Curse in its various versions, and the author rightfully claims that his addon has more users than many MMORPGs. Shouldn’t that give him any rights? No, legally it doesn’t. Because his addon piggybacks on World of Warcraft, and would be completely worthless without WoW, Blizzard is the sole holder of any rights. Blizzard can change the LUA addon language at any time, or even disable it.

I think we’re conflating terms here.  First, Questhelper’s author may not be arguing on purely legal grounds.  This is particularly the case if no law directly covers the issue at hand: at that point, either new law must be outlined to describe rights or existing law must be interpreted to extend beyond it’s given language.  Beyond that, Questhelper’s author may be making an appeal to moral rights as opposed to legal rights.  For instance, even if no law explicitly laid out our right to life, and thus to not being murdered, we may appeal to a moral right against being murdered which applies regardless of the law.  By the same token, the add-on author may be attempting to claim that, regardless of the platform on which their work resides, because it is entirely their work, it is their property to dispose of and shouldn’t they therefore be able to request payment or at least ask for donations from community members to support them?  Moral arguments usually break down to questions of decency, which I believe is what add-on authors are looking to here: wouldn’t the decent thing be to allow them to ask people to help support them in their work?

By the same token, simply because an entity has a legal right to an action, does that imply they have a moral right to that action?  Yes, Blizzard does have the right to change their UI API at any point, legally.  Would it, however, be moral for them to do so?  I know it seems silly to discuss a game in the context of morality, but that’s ultimately what you’re talking about when you talk about common courtesy, decency, respect for others, etc.  Those are all extensions of a moral system, and I think that is what’s ultimately being discussed by the add-on authors revloting against Blizzard’s new policy.

I’d like to consider a different example: webmail.  Much of the internet’s communications flows through webmail providers.  Their servers store all of this data, holding potentially private information about you for…however long.  It’s really outside of your control.  Now, I rather suspect that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and the other various webmail providers have the legal right to go digging through your email…or they could, at least.  I’m honestly not entirely sure.  Are you?  What if they do have that right: ought they?  The ‘ought’ is the appeal to an absolute moral system.  Even in the case that their contract with their users specifically allows them to dig as deep as they want into your email and display it to whomever they like, should they be allowed to make such a contract?  If they have made such a contract, should it actually be binding?

What about your apartment or rental home.  Should your landlord be able to enter at any time they please and do whatever they like?  It is, after all, their property.  You’re only renting it…you’re merely paying them for a service.  If you didn’t explicitly contract with them to not enter the premises uninvited, shouldn’t they be able to, freely?  They may have precisely that legal right, but I suspect we’d think they were a jackass for exercising it.

One more example: if a contract allows a party to sign over to any other party any of their rights, can someone legally agree to a contract with another party allowing that party to kill them?  If there exist circumstances wherein you cannot do so, then we can note that their exists legal rights which are granted to legally recognised entities, irregardless of their will, rights which they cannot give away regardless of their will.  A simple example is indentured servitude.  It is illegal for someone to contract away their free legal will into indentured servitude, regardless of their personal desire on this.

Even legally, then, a contract is not wholly binding.  A variety of things simply cannot be upheld legally, even if all involved parties willingly agreed to them.  You’ll note that this actually incentivizes contract authors to make contracts grant them as broad powers as possible, since it puts the onus of deiciding what parts are legally disallowed on the courts and the signee.  Because of this, I’m not entirely certain that Blizzard actually does have the legal right to enforce its policy.  It behooves them to appear as if they do, in order to dissuade users from doing what they don’t wish, though if they don’t actually have legal grounds and know this, it’s quite deceitful.

Ruminations on the legal standing of the add-on policy:

Can Blizzard truly ban requests for donations?  I’m honestly curious.  It smacks a bit of an web host being able to ask you to take down data on the basis of its content…it feels like it’s treading on iffy ground.  Actually, I think a better example would be a browser provider, such as Microsoft or Mozilla disallowing the viewing of certain content on their browser because it violates their ToS.  Users explicitly download and view the add-on of their own accord.  It’s not even being delivered over Blizzard-controlled services…it is merely being displayed by a Blizzard game.  Theoretically a WoW add-on reader could emulate the functionality of the WoW UI and display the add-on without requiring the actualy game be run.  It’s local data…does Blizzard actually have the right to demand certain data types not exist on their users’ computers?

This is different from the argument against the botting program Glider.  There, Blizzard used a copyright argument, as Glider was making an illicit copy of the application into memory, violating both the copyright and the ToS/EULA of World of Warcraft.  Add-on authors write data, which is copywritten to them, that they then distribute.  They can do this freely, since they are obviously the copyright holders.  The distribution process lands this data in a specific place on the user’s computer, which World of Warcraft then accesses and reads (which involves making a copy.  presumably this copy is at least implicitly allowed, since the distributor granted copying privileges to the user for usage purposes, and this is proper usage).  I do not see, at any point, Blizzard having any rights yet over the data of the add-on.  Add-on authors need not be players of WoW.  If that’s the case, I do not see how they are bound by the EULA/ToS when authoring an add-on.  Distribution of data is also not problematic: simply giving an add-on with donation requests included to others cannot be considered problematic.  Therefore the only problematic point is when the user’s WoW application actually loads the add-on.  We have already shown that no copyright laws have been broken, as opposed to the Glider case, so the add-on’s only offense can be against the ToS/EULA.

Since the add-on is being run locally, we must discuss the WoW application in this case as a displayer of the data, much like a computer screen can be used to display words like a book.  The data in the first case is the add-on and in the second, words.  Can  the author of a viewer place restrictions on the content viewed one the user has the viewer in hand?  Can a monitor seller legally forbid a purchaser from viewing objectionable material on the monitor, after the purchase time?  I’m not sure they can.  But at the very best Blizzard could take action against their users for loading an add-on in violation of the ToS.  The explicit case Blizzard would need to show is that they have the right to dictate what users place into a certain directory on their computer, or that users must explicitly tell WoW to ignore certain things in that directory.

A donation request is not sent over the network, so it is not handled by Blizzard servers.  If it were, I think this would be a different issue.  The question here is whether Blizzard can legally enforce a contractual obligation on users to not have certain addons stored in a certain place and turned on when their application runs.  If they can enforce that contract, it remains a contract against with the users and not with the add-on author.  Since they do not have a “helping subvert copyright” claim against the add-on author in this case, the best action that could be taken against an add-on author I can come up with is the add-on author is defrauding users by getting them to download an add-on which violates their contract.  In that case, I suspect the add-on author could place a warning on their add-on download, offer it up as an example of Lua code for educational purposes, and include the donation request anyway.

As I said above, I’m not sure the authoring an add-on, which is done entirely outside of WoW beyond testing, and could be emulated quite legally without any recourse to running WoW, is constrained by the ToS or EULA.  If language in either speaks to such authoring, I’m not sure it actually has legal authority.

If this reasoning is correct, then I don’t think much of Blizzard’s policy has ANY legal validity, beyond “Add-ons must not negatively impact World of Warcraft realms or other players.“, “Add-ons must abide by World of Warcraft ToU and EULA.“, and “Blizzard Entertainment has the right to disable add-on functionality as it sees fit.“.  In fact, all of these derive from the add-on as an extension of the user.  The Lua API is simply a communication layer for libraries that WoW explicitly looks for and loads.  The communication layer exists just like the layer with DirectInput: it’s a way for inputs to be submitted to the application.  Blizzard could not stop legally stop a player from playing the game with a keyboard that solicited donations for its maker.  I believe the same logic holds for an add-on.  The workings of the add-on are hidden from Blizzard.  The only parts which actually impact them as service providers are actions taken by the add-on which are passed to the WoW servers.  But those are no different from actions taken by a user: an add-on can do nothing that a user could not also do, as far as the servers are concerned.  Thus, “Add-ons must not negatively impact WoW realms or other players” is the same as “Players must not negatively impact WoW realms or other players”.  Obviously, then, Add-ons must, in their capacity as player actions, abide by the ToS and EULA.  And finally, Blizzard can obviously alter the code of their application, as they hold the continuing copyright to it.  Since it is that code which handles add-on functionality, the right to change add-on handling obviously follows.

But none of that convinces me that Blizzard actually has the legal grounds to demand add-ons not display donation requests to their users, not display offensive material, or even that add-on authors not require payment.  Certainly I am not convinced add-on authors can be legally required not to obfuscate their code.

So I am genuinely curious: what on legal grounds can Blizzard enforce these requirements?

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Found here. Sadly, Scott wrote a post about it first. I’m going to write up my own thoughts anyway, because I often operate under delusions of grandeur.

I can understand the desire to standardize the policy, and I can understand the statements in the policy. For instance, I can see why they don’t want solicitations for donations in add-ons running in the game. I can see why they don’t want people charging for add-ons.

But I think this illustrates a sort of fundamental difference in viewpoint between web-users and the hacker community particularly, and the corporate rulers of webspaces. As far as hackers are concerned, if it looks and smells like an open platform, it is one. That means that all the standard rules of open platforms that they are used to should apply. WoW add-on development really does look and feel like an open platform. It’s based on a free language, using building blocks whose source is completely open and whose distribution is entirely dependent on the creator. If they write the code, that code is theirs to do with as they like. World of Warcraft provides a display system for a common XML schema and Lua API…that’s what the hacker sees: a platform.

And hackers do not view apps on platforms as extensions of the platform. While they are facilitated by the platform’s existence, they are quite independent of it. If the hacker feels like charging for something they build, why shouldn’t they be able to? Simple because the platform on which it exists, a platform specified entirely openly, is run by a certain corporation who is charging for access? From the hacker point of view, this makes very little sense: that would be akin to ISPs insisting sites not charges for user access, because the ISP already charges the users for access and supplies the platform.

However, the corporate stance is rather different. World of Warcraft is a profitable and important property which reflects on Blizzard-Activision and Vivendi, their parent company. They have one important aim for this product: profitability. Profitability is a function of revenue and costs, and these standards are aimed squarely at maximizing the first and minimizing the latter; mostly, the latter, in fact. First, they are worried about brand-dilution. While being considered a platform means reaching the point of market saturation, usually a good thing from a corporate perspective, when you begin to lose control over major aspects of your users’ experience, you face brand dilution. The way addons work reflect on Blizzard, and a suite of poor applications can reflect poorly on Blizzard. More concretely, it is easy for people to conflate the addon with the game. If an add-on prompts a game failure of some kind, minor or major, the customer may just go to Blizzard for support. While Blizzard can say they don’t support third party add-ons until they’re blue in the face (heh), it won’t stop people coming to them about it. It’s more cost-effective for them to announce a plan which allows them some freedom to pursue and halt add-on developers than attempt to educate the customer base on how to tell the difference between an add-on failure and a WoW failure.

Most of the announcement has this ring:
“Add-ons must be free of charge.” has less to do with stopping people making revenue off their game and more to do with stopping them from having to deal with a potentially legally dicey issue and from having to support add-ons made by other people who are being PAID for the add-on.

“Add-on code must be completely visible.” once again likely has a support connotation. Look, most customers aren’t going to be looking through the code. Add-on developers aren’t terribly likely to dig through other add-on code. If Carbonite could get people to pay for their add-on, it’s not because other add-on devs couldn’t replicate the code or couldn’t read through it. Even obfuscated code can be peeled apart and re-posted. People paid for the service provided…for the slick interface and data management as a whole. No, I think this is directed once again at support. If Blizzard needs to sort out add-on bugs (which they do, whether they claim they don’t or not), they need to easily see the code. They need to be able to find add-on bugs rapidly, ascertain if it’s a bug in the add-on or their code, and take appropriate action. This facilitates that.

“Add-ons must not negatively impact World of Warcraft realms or other players.” is aimed the same goal. An add-on has nearly unlimited power to ping the server for…well, anything. Blizzard, not the add-on author, has to deal with the ramifications of this.

I think “Add-ons must not contain offensive or objectionable material.” and “Add-ons must abide by World of Warcraft ToU and EULA.” are truly fascinating. How do they intend to police the objectionable material or ToU/EULA infringements?

From the corporate view, I suspect Blizzard wants to attempt to take control back of addons, since they feel obliged to deal with add-on problems. If this reduces the reach or extent of addons capabilities…well, that might almost be seen as a boon!

I can see the corporate viewpoint. I’m not terribly sympathetic.

First, I am curious to see serious research indicating brand dilution through add-on proliferation. Certainly Google, which helps you find other sites to go to, whose sole purpose is sending you elsewhere, has not suffered any brand dilution for doing this. Their corporate name is now a damn verb! If, as I suspect, this is indeed one of the reasons for the new policy statement, it feels wrongheaded.

Second, I fail to see how the support costs go away significantly. By providing a UI development platform of the scope they have, they have inevitably saddled themselves with add-on support. Removing advertisements and donation links and disallowing authors to distribute paid versions does not halt that. One might even argue that it removes any incentive for an add-on author to provide meaningful, continuing support for their add-on as they can expect limited financial reimbursement for it. Further, it kills the platform as platform. Many people seem to view WoW as an OS. The massively programmable UI allows people to customize their entire game experience, to the extent that some people are literally seeing entirely different things. They can take the game and make it theirs. And this works for them because they feel like the game IS theirs, because the game is a neutral platform, hosted by uninterested parties that the subscribers pay for the right to access…like the internet.

Which is why I think of WoW as a webspace…an extension of the internet. The game does not begin and end with the application running on a local computer. It extends through the internet, through guild web pages to the official forums to unofficial forums to wowhead to wowinterface. It’s an extension of a player’s internet.

I don’t think this announcement will kill addons. I do think it may chill add-on development. I also think it will negatively impact people’s view of the game as an extension of their internet. It becomes…the reserve Blizzard has graciously allowed us entrance to, watching over us lest we trip and break something.

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Discontinuous Demand

Whenever I encounter economics, I am presented with the standard supply-demand curve picture.  These relatively abstract pictures always depict a downward sloping demand curve that is continuous.  Now, from a naive perspective I can roll with that: it’s certainly got intuitive appeal, that as prices change, the amount a buyer is willing to purchase of that good also changes.  We’re generally content, in addition, to say that as price declines, more of the good will be purchased and vice versa.

I admit, I’ve never been totally comfortable with either curve.  I’ve always been a bit wary of simplicity, particularly with regard to something that seems to have so many input variables.  While the aggregate demand curve may very well be of this kind, as aggregation of disparates and simple scale tends to smooth out chinks, is it reasonable to make this estimation for the total demand for a good or group of goods?

More particularly, the demand curve seems to me to be really problematic from a microeconomics perspective.  To explain that, let me talk about prices.  Prices are usually said to be set on the basis of supply vs. demand, with markets tending towards the equilibrium market clearing price.  Since the market will always move towards the equilibrium price, we can just discuss price of good at that point, or discuss how long it will take to exit a disequilibrium state.  I know there are other models and more sophisticated analyses, but I think this sums up the basic neoclassical micro system.

Well, I’d like to talk about that a bit.  To understand microeconomics, we want to look at the decision making process taken by purchasers when presented with a good or set of goods.  Let’s start with a simple case: an economys with one, single good and many buyers.  How do we determine the price this single good will fetch?  To find that, we need to look at the number of currency units (whatever unit price is denominated in) each potential purchaser has.

Let’s assume some set of purchasers, where each purchaser has a finite, arbitrary amount of currency units (CU). Only one purchaser may purchase the good, all purchasers desire the good, and all purchasers wish to pay the lowest possible cost. We’ll assume the seller is apathetic towards which purchaser obtains the good, desires to sell the good, and wishes to take the highest possible price for it. We’re basically talking about rational, profit-maximizing agents here. Under these conditions, how do we discover the price that will be paid?

To simplify discussion, here’s a new term: a wallet is the set of currency units a given purchaser has. So, for our discussion, there exists a set of wallets which has a one-to-one mapping onto the set of purchasers. The highest possible price is the same as the value of the largest wallet. Is that the price paid? No. The holder of the largest wallet need not pay out the entirety of their wallet; they need only pay out 1 CU more than the second largest wallet.

A couple other assumptions come up here. This result is the eventual result of an auction…There are easily imaginable scenarios where the price paid is larger than this one. What happens if things happen at separate times, under circumstances of limited information? What if no one knows the size of anyone’s wallet? What if, additionally, people come to the seller at different times to attempt to make the purchase? So, another purchaser might approach the seller and make some offer for the good. The highest offer they could make is equivalent to the size of their wallet. If the seller purchased the good at some point in the past, since they are a profit maximizer, they’ll only accept a price higher than what they paid. They are equally content with either the good or equivalent cash, so they can’t be convinced to give it up for less than or equal to what they paid.

It is at this point that a certain amount of uncertainty enters the price picture. Should another purchaser approach the seller with a wallet larger than what the seller paid, we know the highest possible price and the lowest possible price. We cannot be entirely sure what price will be set between those two. We know that if the seller imagines they might sell it elsewhere for more, they will hold out to maximize profit. As information trickles in to the seller, on the basis of bids placed, they will begin to gather an idea of the best possible price they can receive. If they were not the highest wallet holder, they will be able to find a bid larger than what they placed, and will sell it. Eventually, though, the largest wallet holder, assuming they can find the current seller, will buy the good and that will set the price.

Something of note: each time a purchase is made, the composition of at least two wallets changes. Let’s say the largest wallet holder buys from the next largest. Well, according to our above discussion, it’s likely the price was 1 CU above the second largest total asset value (good price + wallet). The second largest wallet holder now has (good price + wallet + 1CU). This should be kept in mind.

Well, what if we have two goods of the same kind? Let’s go with the auction based price: that’s the easiest to determine and helps establish scoping. Well, the highest price paid will be 1 CU above the size of the wallet of the third largest wallet user, by the same logic. Note that this could have been a large jump, dependent on the distribution of wallet sizes. This also is a discrete jump in price, rather than a continuous curve. Adding in a third good would produce another jump, and so on. The change in price would between different numbers of goods would not necessarily describe a “curve”. In fact, if we could sell partials, I am not certain that they would “bend” around units, but would rather sharply change price.

The above holds particularly true for an auction of a consumed good. If the purchaser consumes rather than resells the good, we can simply close the market for that good upon initial purchase. That allows us to introduce the vague concept of consumption utility, or desirability. That is, purchasers can desire a good in varying amounts. In our little economy of a single good, varying desires didn’t compete: it really didn’t matter how much people wanted it or not, it was the only thing to spend money on. But if there were different goods on the market, different purchasers would value them differently.

Let’s consider the case of two different goods in the same auction market. The desirability of a given good would help set its price. We can say that every wallet holder is willing to apportion their wallet according to how much they desire each good. That sets the largest value they’re willing to pay for each, when both are available. Once that is done, the price set for the first auctioned good will be set dependent on the second largest amount set aside for that good (+1 CU). Before any purchase is made, we establish the price that will be paid if either is put on auction. However, as soon as one is made available, the price of the other may change. That is because as soon as the purchase of one is made, we revert back to using the total size of wallets to determine the price of the other. Since the amounts set aside based on desirability may differ proportionately from the total sizes of wallets, we now get a different relative wallet distribution.

Look at it this way. Bob, Susan, and Emily are having just such an auction for a peach and a pear. Bob has $100, and really likes peaches but hates pears: he’s willing to put down $90 for the peach and only 10 for the pear. Susan has $50 and loves both equally, so she’ll spend up to $25 for each. Emily has $30 and only wants the pear. If we auction the peach first, Bob will buy it for $26 ($1 more than Susan, since Emily doesn’t want it). When the pear comes up next, Bob also buys that: he had $76 left, more than either of the other two. Susan can only bid $50 for it, beating Emily’s $30 bid. Bob beats Susan with a $51 bid and gets both the peach and the pear.

But what if the pear was placed for auction first? Susan would buy it with her $26 bid, since Bob will only pay $10. Bob would then buy the peach for $51. We’ve completely reversed the prices…and all because of the purchase order. More particularly, we can see that the price set on one good impacts the price for another, dependent on the amount a purchaser is willing to pay for it. We can also see that even a small change in price on one good can have a disproportionately large effect on the price of other goods.

Alright, that’s enough for a meager little look at microeconomics. I know I should be looking at more non-auction settings and dealing with purchasers as price takers rather than price setters, but this is enough for now.

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