Listmas 2013: For My 100th Post, My Top 10 Favorite Posts on Casual Aggro

Today’s list, in celebration of Listmas, is going to be one that is a little self-aggrandizing. Forgive me, but I think I have a little reason to celebrate: This, right here, is my 100th post!!

Alright, 100 posts is not a big deal to some people who post daily, who can make that number in a couple months. But that’s not how I roll, I’m certainly not as prolific, and writing was by-far not my best subject in school. In fact, I’d still find more pleasure in working on a math problem that takes up three pages than write a three page paper. I think I spend way too much time fiddling with my text, making sure it’s as error-free as possible, and overall I’m still pretty hard on myself.

Yet, I’m still here and still posting, because deep down I feel like I am making a positive contribution to this hobby. I feel like I am making a difference, no matter how small, to this burgeoning industry, and I’m glad to be a part of such a huge, positive community.

So, for your enjoyment, here are what I consider to be my top 10 favorite posts of what I’ve written so far.

Guild Wars 2

10) Really, Why Are There Levels in Guild Wars 2

To this day, I’m still not positive why there are levels in GW2. As a form of measure of character improvement, I know it’s been around for ages, but I still believe there are better measures. Abilities, Gear, etc. I had the thought a while ago, that the whole reason why we go through the gear grind is simply to make content easier for us. That those who want difficulty truly don’t really want it. A leveling curve, if you keep up with it, just makes all content feel like the same difficulty. I’ll have to write more on this later…

9) NBI: List of Blogging Do’s and Don’ts

I started blogging during the first Newbie Blogger Initiative back in May of 2012. Alright, 100 posts in 20 months, that’s still 5 posts per month, which is still pretty good. But when the second Newbie Blogger Initiative came around this past October, I was a veteran. I had seen the horrors of blogging, and came back with stories and advice to give. This was not only a post to help the New Newbie Bloggers, but an acknowledgment of how far I have come.

Star Trek Online, Vault, Shuttle

8) Time Gates and MMOs Don’t Mix

Star Trek Online, for a while, had the brilliant idea to make some content only available during a small period of time. This made no sense, especially for those of us who don’t play a game all the time, or play casually. Keeping players away from playing content is just a terrible idea. Thankfully, they came to their senses. The content now can be played at anytime, with benefits for playing at specific times. Much better.

7) A Personal Argument Against the Always-On Trend

 I love MMO’s, but one of the key features of MMOs is that you’re online while you play them. But for single player games demanding that you always have an internet connection just to play them, under the guise of DRM, where you get no benefits from the internet connection, doesn’t make much sense. If I need to be connected, give me a good reason to be.

Battle Bards

6) Top 5 Favorite Video Game Music Compositions, A BattleBards Inspiration

Confession: Music was a big part of my life for a long time. In high school, I sang in the choir, was a member of the select choir, was a part of the band, and was a part of every musical production. Out of high school, I initially went to a big music school, was a part of a prestigious choir, and learned a lot about musical composition. Then, I was a part of student-run theatre organizations, starred in more musical productions, and then got offers to start working in New York theatre off Broadway, which I did for a couple minor productions.

Nowadays, music is not so big on my list of hobbies, but I still have a deep appreciation for it. So, combining music and gaming in a podcast is like combining chocolate and peanut butter. It’s perfect. Syp, Syl, and Mogsy do the honors in the BattleBards podcast, and I haven’t missed an episode yet. One of these days, I’m going to write in and tell them my appreciation, but I think telling all of you fine readers and passing along their work is worth a lot more. So, if you enjoy podcasts, and you enjoy video game music, check them out.

5) Master of Orion and Syp: A Tale of Humanity

I do mention Syp a lot on this blog, but he was the one that initiated the Newbie Blogger Initiative, and so is a big inspiration for me. Syp was playing the game Master of Orion, and blogging about all the details of the epic battles along the way. I’ve never played Master of Orion, but during this series of posts, I was really drawn in. Mostly because he was using other bloggers names as the names for planets, and this added a fun depth of community. But, really, it showed why we love games that let us forge our own path, and that is that we can create our own stories.

Also, Mr. Joseph Skyrim over at his JVT Workshop is doing the same, but playing the awesome old-school game Darklands. Give it a read.

Shroud of the Avatar

4) Shroud of the Avatar, DRM, and Why The Gaming Industry Should Take Notice

Shroud is going to have a very open-ended way of playing their game. First and foremost, though, is exactly what the game is. Is it a single player game? Is it an MMO? What is it? The answer is a combination of both, but I think it’ll lean more toward the single-player. If you want to play Shroud, you can play without an internet connection single-player, you can play with a connection and still play single player, you can play solo where other community members affect your game, and finally you can play and have other players play alongside you. So, an MMO? Not really, but it’s a lot more than just your average single-player game.

3) The Best MMO Payment Model Ever

In this post, I take a hard look at payment models, and why there is such a passionate fight behind them. I weigh the positives and negatives of each model, and reason what would be the best theoretical payment model. Hint: It’s Buy-To-Play.

Perfect World, Neverwinter, Star Trek Online

2) For Love of the Grind: 5 Reasons Why We Grind

Grind. Even though it has 5 letters, it feels like a 4 letter word. Many people rail against it, and burnout of playing a game is largely due to how much grind that game makes you go through. However, if our games didn’t have grind, they wouldn’t be MMOs. Grind is a necessity in our games, but is also one of the worst forms of content. In this post, I go over reasons why we still grind, despite our passionate fights against it.

1) How MMOs Are Adapting the Psychology of Casinos 

Yesterday my wife and I drove down to Atlantic City to attend a timeshare presentation. They were very accommodating, but we didn’t fall for their tactics, which included loud music to prevent overhearing others, making a big deal when somebody signed up for one of the timeshares, trying to drive a wedge between my wife and myself so we would fight each other, and playing very specific music guised as background music. I think I heard “Let’s Hear it For The Boy” from Footloose multiple times. Dance music from 1984? Fascinating.

I’ve lived a short distance from one of the USA’s gambling meccas for my entire life, and they’ve just built a few casinos across the river from us in Philadelphia as well. So, when entrenched with the psychological tactics that the casinos use to try separating one from their hard-earned money, you tend to understand the tactics, see them for what they are, and either go along with them, or fight them. However, the same tactics these casino use work so well that MMO’s have picked them up as well. This post details a few tactics that both MMOs and Casinos use, and they may not be exactly what you think they are.

Star Trek Online

So, there you go. 100 posts. It’s been a fun journey so far, and one that I will keep up with for as long as I feel like I’m making a difference. Hopefully, I’ll see you at 200.

// Ocho

Guilds: What For?

Secret World, Headstand

This is a “Talk Back Challenge” post, created for the Newbie Blogger Initiative. This sort of post is designed to encourage conversation about a broad topic and to entice conversation about the topic. One of the New Blogs on the Block (NBOTB), Away From Game, has been tasked with writing about the same topic. So, once you are done with my post, please go check theirs out. Or now. Whatever works for you. I’m easy. If you are coming from the NBI pages, feel free to comment, or write a piece of your own and link back. As always, thank you for reading! 🙂

First, a universal truth: The shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

The reason this truth is so universal is it not only applies to Euclidean geometry, but to the world at large. The easiest answer is most likely the correct one. When walking, our collective feet naturally create the pathways that make the most sense, even if it’s not on the pavement. Scientists look at patterns found in nature, and they resemble patterns we use or could use in our lives. In other words, we will always take the easiest path to achieve our goals. Keep this in mind.

Guilds are the primary social structure of these MMOs that we play. We use them to chat with others, to share resources, and to run group-oriented content. But what is our motivation for joining them? Is it because we are social creatures and that we feel that our addition to a guild can make the overall guild better? Or, really, do we join them for purely selfish reasons?

Star Trek Online, Need, Greed

Except Damianus, and whoever that Ambrose fool is, it’s all about the Need!

Time and time again, I’ve seen that MMO gamers have proven themselves to be selfish. I mean, just take a look at the picture on the left there. I took that in Star Trek Online just a couple of days ago. In a random group with random strangers, for an event that lasts less than a few minutes, almost every single person, on every piece of loot dropped, when given a choice of whether to “Greed” it or “Need” the item, chose “Need”. Did they really need it? No, of course they didn’t! In a random group, hitting “Greed” on a drop, in this case, was literally handing the loot to someone else.

With loot being one of the primary paths to success, having more loot is the straightest path to our goals, even if that involves skirting the social mores of fairness. If our goal is to reach the top level fastest, we will take Experience Boosters, or only do the missions that reward the most Experience points. If our goal is to make the most money, we will farm the most profitable materials we can sell to others, we will manipulate the in-game auction house to corner the market on goods, and we will essentially spend our gaming time eeking out the highest Gold/hour ratio we possibly can. And if our goal is to get all the best end-game gear, only obtainable through grouping and raids, we will join guilds that make this process easier.

So if our collective gaming goal is one of selfishness, that we are just trying to improve our own characters, why do we form guilds at all? In my opinion, we form guilds paradoxically because it raises our individual success. If, in a dungeon, you join a PUG with random players, they are more likely to exhibit behaviors found in the above Need/Greed example. A random group is less likely to complete the dungeon in the first place than an organized group, and then when loot drops, they are less likely to be fair about it’s distribution. An organized group is significantly more likely to be fair in it’s loot distribution as well as it’s competency, thus improving individual progression chances.

This is even more evident when players drop a guild they are in and move to a big raiding guild. On an example I have made previously, once guild members reach the upper echelons, and the current guild they’re in isn’t giving them any more progression, they will generally seek greener pastures that will.

Secret World, TSW, Polaris

This should be no surprise, though, as it is also found in nature:

We’re used to thinking of social groups as fundamentally cooperative entities, but with some kinds of groups, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the best-known biological theory of herding, William Hamilton’s “selfish herd” idea, proposes that herds are the result of individuals trying to ensure that other members of their species, rather than themselves, will get eaten by predators.Michael Price, From Darwin to Eternity

“Get eaten by predators” may be extreme, none of us are eaten by a predator when we lose a loot roll, but the execution is similar. At the end of a boss fight, a piece of loot can only be distributed to one individual. That individual significantly improves, but the group only improves if that one individual continues to play with them. The choice, ultimately, is in the hands of the player.

Now, I could just have this stance because I haven’t had the best of luck with guilds in the past. They would either demand ridiculous amounts of time, or have almost zero activity that made staying in them the same as not being in a guild at all. And now? With my transitive nature, the best guild I’m in is one with players in multiple games, with Twitter our primary contact. So it goes.

I know this isn’t the most efficient manner of getting loot, but then not all of us join guilds just for the loot alone.

// Ocho

For Love of the Grind: 5 Reasons Why We Grind

Ugh. Grind. Just saying the word conjures up images of boredom, slogging through the same content over and over again, just for the same small reward. There are many different names we gamers use for grind; the gear treadmill and farming are two general ones that come to mind. But does anyone really enjoy farming, or running those same dungeons and same bosses until you’re blue in the face? Anyone?!

Actually, the answer may (or may not) surprise you. In doing research for this post, I’ve uncovered lots of research that suggests that, yes, we as humans and gamers really do love to grind.

But why do we do it? Isn’t “the grind” what we encounter on a day-to-day basis by going to work in the first place? We “grind” at our jobs, usually performing the same tasks over and over to get that paycheck. You’d think we’d be sick of it.

Maybe not. Imagine you just won a nice fat $10 million lottery. Sweet. Would you go back to work? According to a Gallup poll performed last month, 68% of people would continue to work. 68%! And a poll of 34 national lottery winners showed that 48% of winners stayed in their current job. If you take the financial stress completely off the table, half of them would return to work the next day and continue the work grind. In fact, according to that same poll, 68% of lottery winners still played the lottery on a weekly basis!

Well, damn.

So to those who enjoy the treadmill, or enjoy the piles and piles of centaurs left in your wake, here are five reasons showing why we enjoy the grind, despite our frequent objections to it:

Grinding Levels The Playing Field

Lets face it, anyone can get to the top levels in the MMO’s that we play simply by putting in the effort to get there. Even with very little time, anyone potentially can acquire, through purchase or play, the gear necessary to hit the next level. Grinding is the key to leveling the playing field for everyone, and is the one big part of making a game “fair”. If that Giganto Sword costs 50 tokens, but you only get 1 token per hour-long run, is it worth it? Certainly not to everyone, but there will be players that will get it, because they can. But you are not excluded from getting it, too. It’s not a Superbowl ring, where ones 5’6″, 175 lb frame (for example, of course 😉 )  isn’t humanly capable of competing to get one. Anyone can work toward that Giganto Sword. The more grind a game has, arguably the more fair it is.

This would explain why you constantly see a demand for more sandbox-oriented subscription-only MMOs. In the minds of some people, the more grind a game has and the less items you can exchange for real money, the more overall “fair” the game becomes. In this scenario, though, I personally think that most people misattribute the payment model as the source of “unfair” gameplay, when really it comes down to the amount of grind.

Repetition is Relaxing

According to Everyday Health, repetition is one of the best ways to help with stress. We spend all day in stressful situations, all of our responsibilities and activities, when crammed together, can cause us to want to shout at the world. I know that’s how it is for me. Being more an introvert, even being around people for too long can trigger such stress that I just need to be alone to recharge.

Sitting back, playing a game, listening to music or podcasts, and just farming the same mobs over and over again to help progress towards that Giganto Sword is actually, in a sense, therapeutic. I’m no doctor, of course, and the method of stress relief that works for you may be different, but for me, gaming is my relaxation. Although I say I’m not a fan of grinding, maybe I secretly am a fan. It would help explain why I am drawn to MMOs over any other genre.

Cognitive Efficiency Enables a Path of Least Resistance

This is the bane of game design, and why I feel empathy toward game designers. You give too many options on how to build your character and someone will theorycraft the absolute best builds. Playing anything else, then, is sub-optimal. We, as humans, always seek the path of least resistance and so will play with the most optimal equipment and builds, and take the path that’ll lead us most quickly to our goal.

If getting that Armor of Awesomeness takes either running the same dungeon 10 times or slaughtering 10,000 Borgfish, most will pick the dungeon as it’ll take less time and effort. Taking the long way is not the most efficient, and is more the path of most resistance, but I am glad it’s still there as an option. Options are good.

The Practice from Grinding Makes Us Better Players

What better way to become better at running a tricky dungeon than to run it time and time again. We run it again as we are really looking to get the “phat lootz”, but the practice gained from doing so is a side-effect that is tangible and substantial.

I consider myself a terrible player, sometimes. I tend to shy away from group dungeons and group activities as they cause me some stress and playing games is how I reduce my stress in the first place. But there’s the rub. If I ran dungeons more, got over the dungeons learning curve, and fell into a steady routine, the stress that comes with running them in the first place would drop. It’s getting over that activation energy in the first place that is the hard part.

The Endowed Progress Effect

Finally, this point I’ve spent the most research on, but seems to be the biggest factor as to why we are addicted to the grind. In a nutshell, Endowed Progress is the idea that when people make progress towards a goal, that they will become more committed toward continued effort of achieving that goal.

If you get 15 tokens toward that Giganto Sword, the likelihood of you continuing on to finish getting the other 35 tokens towards it are more likely. If you have 3 out of 4 pieces of a set, the odds of you giving up are slim. There is usually nothing that will stop you from attaining the 4th piece.

Here is an example of Endowed Progress in action: In Study 1 of the Nunes and Dreze paper, they hand out loyalty cards to a car wash. Half of the cards (A) require 8 washes to earn a free wash, the other half (B) require 10 washes, but the first two washes have already been supplied. So, both cards need 8 washes to get the free wash, but (B) appears to have a head start. Of the 300 cards given out, 80 were redeemed. The redemption rate for those that needed 10 washes, but were endowed with 2 washes (B) was 34% over a 19% redemption for the control cards (A). Furthermore, the amount of time it took to redeem the cards was 2.9 days less, on average, for those using the endowed cards.

The more invested you are to your goals, the more likely you are to see it through.

My guess, though, is that you’re not that surprised by all of these reasons. Look at all the games we have around us today, MMO and non-MMO. Is there a single one that doesn’t have SOME form of grind associated with it? “Facebook” style games like Farmville, cell-phone games like Candy Crush are literally nothing BUT grind. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the games are designed to be an addiction 1st and a game 2nd.

Overall, In writing this post, I’ve learned a lot about my own habits any playstyles. I, usually, am not a fan of grinding. When faced with a grind, I usually go play another game that doesn’t have one. Or so I think. Am what I really doing is just replacing one grind for another grind that I like better? A rose by any other name…

I really like the leveling in games and MMOs, I like that feeling of improvement with each session, the big improvements over the marginal ones. But a leveling grind, even if it has varied content, is still a grind.

So next time, don’t just dismiss a game you’re playing for being too “grindy”. The grind may be the reason you’re playing in the first place.

// Ocho

P.S.  – So the Super Adventure Box in Guild Wars 2… is that really just a Skinner Box INSIDE a Skinner Box?! Woah… Skinnerception… #mindblown

How MMOs are Adapting the Psychology of Casinos

Well, folks, in about 16 hours Neverwinter, the latest MMO from Cryptic and Perfect World will be entering it’s open beta phase of development. Past this point there will be no character wipes, though, so for all intents and purposes, consider Neverwinter launched. After all, the difference between a soft open-beta and a full-on launch is just bug fixes and patches, which happen all the time in MMO development anyway.

So once the floodgates open, we can fully start enjoying our time on the Tarnished Coast in all the glory the Dungeons and Dragons setting can muster (without really being very Dungeons and Dragons). But, to be honest, I’m a little apprehensive. I’ve spent a long time playing in Perfect World and Cryptic’s other games, namely Star Trek Online and Rusty Hearts, and the trend I’ve seen is a little scary. Namely, that the psychology behind relieving the player of their money is getting better and better.

Now, I’ve lived around gambling for quite some time. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the great state of New Jersey, so all my life I’ve been less than an hour drive to one of the USA’s great gambling meccas, Atlantic City. And now, Philadelphia itself has started to becoming a gambling destination of its own, sprouting up a few casinos in the past couple years. With my fascination of human behavior, this has led to a keen understanding of how the casinos are able to pull the money out of your pockets so easily.

And with the rise of Free-To-Play MMOs and casual mobile gaming, I’m starting to see the same signs invade our hobby…

Seeing Others Win

Have you ever put money into a slot machine, and even if you’ve won just a few coins the machine started whooping and hollering like a banshee? This is 100% on purpose. The noise and alarms that arise from slot machines is both for your benefit (You won! Woohoo!) but also for the benefit of others around you (Look! That guy won!). The draw of seeing others win with lights and sounds is a signal to others that they can win, too.

In games that use subscription models, this acts more like a Skinner Box, pushing you forward to your next dose of positive reinforcement. In Free-to-Play, though, seeing others win is an impetus to get where they are, and spending money is the easiest way to get there. In Star Trek Online, for example, whenever a lockbox is opened and the top prize is given out, a message goes out to the entire playerbase that you have won. Every… single… online… player.  And there is NO OPTION to turn it off!

Giving you the option to do so would seriously hurt their income, too. Seeing others win is the biggest driver of sales of the lockbox keys, which puts money directly into their pockets. With the odds of winning being as low as they are, and the frequency at which people are spending money on keys to open the boxes… they aren’t going anywhere. Lockboxes make them money hand over fist, and despite the loud complaining about them, the players keep buying them, hoping for the big hit.

Playing With Points and Not Real Money

When you want to start gambling at table games, the first thing you do is head to a table and drop some money on the table. These are then replaced with clay chips that are used at the gambling tables. Universal, and nobody thinks twice about it. But really, they should! Why chips? Why have tokens that represent money? Well, for one, the casino finds it easier to transfer money en-mass and little chips are easier than stacks of paper. But the biggest reason is that, in the players mind, those chips stop representing real money. They become a plaything, a toy used in the transaction of gambling. The most I’ve ever dropped on a single hand of blackjack was $60. In chips, that’s two green $25 chips, and two red $5 chips. This was very easy to do at the time. If, in order to play, I had to pull three $20 bills out of my wallet and bet them on ONE HAND of blackjack… the better part of my mind would’ve stopped me. Those three $20s aren’t just bills… that’s food, gas, etc. However, in chip form, there’s a disconnect between the chips and real money.

In MMOs, the same goes with store points. Most games don’t do this, but Perfect World’s Zen has a direct 1:1 correlation with the American dollar. 1 Zen = $.01. So $20 = 2000 Zen and so forth. So that big Andorian Kumari Vessels 3-Pack that’s 5000 Zen literally translates to $50! However, once those bills are transferred into points, they don’t go into the same category as cash in your mind. And with Star Trek Online’s Dilithium or Neverwinter’s Astral Diamonds, even these have a direct correlation with Zen, which has a direct correlation with real cash. They become just another game currency, and as such, they’re easier to spend as your mind treats them differently.

Comfortability and Keeping You Active

In older casinos, finding clocks is relatively tricky. There is, however, a new thought of casino design that since people have easy access to a clock themselves, changing the environment to hide the outside world isn’t the primary thinking anymore. It’s more about being comfortable. If people are comfortable and they enjoy their environment, they will spend more. Roger Thomas, the head of design for Wynn’s Resorts has essentially reinvented the modern casino. Now, instead of a cave setting, Wynn’s casinos feature sunlight, opulence, and artwork. The key here is that a casino is now an adult playground, designed to be so comfortable that you’ll want to spend more time in them seeking whatever pleasures are offered. More time, afterall, equals more money in the casino’s pockets.

The same goes with MMOs. The more time you spend in them, the more money you will spend in a Free-To-Play game. And so, the key is to make the players as comfortable and as busy as possible, with reasons to keep coming back. Comfortability is easy. Players like the familiar, and are too thrown off by the different. If they see mechanics that they’ve seen in other games, they’ll find it all very comfortable. My recent review of the game posited that Neverwinter is really just a blend of other games, not doing everything the same, but not really adding to it, either.

And then keeping players active is Perfect World’s modus operandi, something they have perfected. How many times have I logged into Star Trek Online to stay for a few minutes, only to end up staying for an hour or more? From Forbe’s exultation of the game’s Landing Page and timed events to STO’s real-time Doff system or Neverwinter’s timed crafting system (like Zynga’s multi-billion dollar strategy), giving you stuff to do and giving you reasons to come back is paramount, and they do it well.

So What is The Future?

Really, it’s not going to stop. With Zynga opening up real online casinos, and Perfect World using casino strategies in their games, it will just lead to a bigger and bigger industry. Casino psychology has been around for ages and is only going to get stronger. Although Neverwinter is taking the chance by not offering a subscription at all, they know the psych game well and so it’s not really a huge risk for them.

You will find me periodically heading into Neverwinter, and I will most likely periodically be spending money there, too. If the game is fun, I don’t mind it at all… but always in the back of my mind is that itch. That little voice that says “The House Always Wins”. So, I don’t see myself spending tons of time in Neverwinter, maybe just a weekend trip here and there.

Just like a vacation to the casinos.

// Ocho