Jeff "Dundee" Freeman, R. I. P.

Jeff Freeman passed away this weekend. Apparently his brother began posting publically to that effect on various community sites this week.

I can confirm this, because friends from Zenimax Online tried to contact me asking what happened. After leaving Spacetime Studios, he was set to start with them this week.

I am stunned as I’m sure is everyone else who was even tangentially touched by Jeff’s work, of which there was a great deal, ranging from Ultima Online to Star Wars Galaxies to his writings on the web, dating from Usenet to his blog.

Any other words I could write would be wholly insufficient to the task. May he find the peace he sought.

(Edit: Raph Koster’s tribute, Obituary)

How To Stop Gold Farming

Link 1: Mark Jacobs describes the “naming and shaming” Warhammer is doing re: gold farmers Link 2: Syp, Warhammer blogger, on the above link, with his own take Link 3: Tobold on the above 2 links, with his own take Link 4: Michael Zenke on the above 3 links, with his own take

This was something that very much was a worry on the project I was working on at NCsoft. From a professional standpoint, the type of game we were working on (fantasy MMO, free to play, mass market) would have been very attractive to gold farmers. From a personal standpoint, like Mark Jacobs, as a player I was sick of gold spam and as a developer I was profoundly sick of leeches profiting from hurting games I worked on. So this was something I wanted to solve. And because I am an egotistical bastard, I worked from the assumption that I could.  And since I’m now currently out of the MMO business, I thought I’d share some of the brainstorming I did, if for no other reason than smarter folks like you could tell me how full of it I am.

Warning: something about this post will piss you off. Just prepare for it and deal with it.

Postulate: RMT = Vice

Vice in the real world includes such happy subjects as drug sales and prostitution. Some people argue that they are victimless crimes. Others argue that they are signs of moral decay. Still others argue that aside from any moral implications they are damaging to society as a whole. But what is not inarguable is that there is a market for drugs and prostitution, regardless of their legal status. People are willing to break the law to buy and sell vice. It should not surprise us that the same holds true in online games. In online games that follow the high-fantasy kill things get points model, the vice is shortcuts. People will buy the points in lieu of killing things. This is not up for debate. It will happen. People will do it. You cannot stop it, because you cannot stop the human desire for vice.

The first decision: Prohibition or Legalization

This is clear cut, but will have significant impact on your game design and your support costs, whichever decision you take. Do you, as part of your design, prohibit or enable the buying and/or selling of in-game assets for real-world cash?

Most Western MMO players will insist on prohibition. This is the “moral” position. Gold farming is cheating, cheating is wrong, players should not cheat, we will not enable cheating. And since most MMO developers are also MMO players, this is by default the decision they take as well.  As Syp put it:

The problem lies with Mike[, a friend who purchased gold], and people like him. People who have no sense of morality or honor in online games. People who go ahead and buy gold to be instantly gratified, and a lesser extent, friends that see them do this and say nothing.

Those players will be enraged if you make the decision to legalize.  Many of them will simply not play your game because of that one decision. Yet there are many players who will buy and sell in-game assets for real-world cash. And some of them are the same players telling you they will not play if you make that decision legal. Because it’s vice. And few admit to vice.

 

There is also the point that if you legalize RMT, you can make the effort to control it – and in so doing profit from it. Again, this will be considered evil by your players, and probably by many of your developers. Will you make a decision based on gaming morality to not serve a market for your game?

If you are a free-to-play MMO, the decision is a bit looser, because you’re not making money off subscription fees, so the perception that you are greedy bastards trying to soak your players through in-game exploitation is less. (It will still exist. But it will be lessened.) And it also provides a revenue source for your game to actually exist. That’s kind of important, too.

To date, most subscription MMOs (all but Ultima Online and special Everquest 2 servers) have made the decision for prohibition. This is popular with their users (see the reaction to Warhammer’s naming and shaming) but is costly – someone has to stop all those gold farmers. The extreme example of prohibition is probably World of Warcraft, which has the operational budget to afford a truly massive customer service organization which has as a priority finding and banning gold farmers, and has gone to great lengths to automatically detect and suppress gold spamming in-game.

Yet it still happens. People still farm gold in World of Warcraft, still advertise it via means subtle and gross. Prohibition will never win. You will simply spend a given amount of money, and in turn gain a given level of suppression. That suppression will never reach 100%.

Which, again, should not be a surprise, since in the real world despite the huge budgets and judicial powers  given agencies like the DEA, vice in the real world still exists. You cannot legislate the marketplace out of existence. You can suppress it, much as the Soviet Union tried to suppress their own free market. But there will be costs, and if you do not pay those costs, the reaction from your players will be that your game is overrun with farmers and spammers and that you just don’t care. To quote Michael Zenke:

It’s 2008, and if you are still getting spammed by goldfarmers in-game it’s because the game developers want you to be. It’s as simple as that.

That is the perception you face. The players not only expect you to enact prohibition, they expect it to work. Which cannot happen. And when it does not happen, you will be blamed.

 

So, given all that, I made the decision for legalization. Which went against my every impulse as an MMO player, and my sense of self righteous fury as an MMO developer. Oddly enough, that was the most difficult part of the process – simply making the decision that we would not play King Canute at the beach.

Which, once you make that decision, leads into how.

The second decision: Arbiter or Dealer

Just because you have decided upon the legalization of vice does not mean that you immediately start issuing your players with free Heroin Injection Kits upon first login. In fact, now that the decision is made, you actually have to juggle what is a pretty classic game design problem: the illusion of free will.

Namely: you want the players to take an action, and you want them to think they made the decision to take that action, and you want them to take the action that results in moving the game forward. If that process is fun, you’re on the road to a fun game.

Legislated RMT is similar. You want the following to happen:

  • You control the in-game economy
  • You control what players are buying and selling
  • You influence the rates that players buy and sell at
  • You discourage other third parties from controlling these transactions
  • You profit from the transaction

There are valid reasons for all of these, and hopefully they are fairly self-evident – you want to control the game because you have a financial, professional and hopefully personal interest in its long term success. You discourage third parties because they do not share those interests and will encourage actions (such as gold farming) that will harm your game’s long term success.

 

Once you accept these reasons, the RMT transactions you foster organically follow. For example: you can’t directly sell in-game currency. Because if you do, you lose control of the in-game economy – the value of your game’s currency will deflate if people can just hit a lever and pump out gold. There are ways around this, but they involve an arms race of gold sinks that alienate your newer players and take over the economy of the game.

So instead of a dealer, you are an arbiter. You don’t create gold out of ether (well, your game does, but that’s another design discussion). You are instead the trusted broker who manages the buying and selling between players.

Luckily, the most effective way to do this is a solved problem. It’s called the dual currency model, and Matt Mihaly of Iron Realms/Sparkplay Media has what is probably the most coherent writeup of the design (primarily because it’s his company’s business model and has been for years.)

Then it occurred to me, in early ‘99: Everyone can get what he wants here. Simply turn credits into a currency and allow players to trade one currency (credits) for another (gold). Everybody wins!

 

* Paying User buys credits from Iron Realms, giving Iron Realms what it wants – revenue.

* Paying User sells those credits to Non-Paying User for gold, giving both Paying User and Non-Paying User what they want (the essence of healthy capitalism).

Effectively, what we did was allow non-paying players to sell the result of their time (through completing activities that require time, like quests and hunting) to the paying players, but only via a currency that had to be purchased from us to begin with. Suddenly, the teenager with lots of free time but not a lot of money could get anything in the game that paying players could get, and a busy professional who has disposable income but not nearly as much free time could gain large amounts of gold without having to spend the time in-game. (Of course, it’s important that paying players still have to play the game to achieve something that matters. There has to be some time investment on everybody’s part.) It was a win for everybody.

Go read all of it, it’s good and if you’ve made the decision to legalize, you will need to take notes. In fact, when he wrote that blog post, I sent him an email cursing him, because when the game I was working on came out, people would say I lifted our dual currency model from that blog post wholesale, because I had come to the same conclusions. Save one element – which Matt briefly alluded to in his post, and what I thought was going to be the ‘secret sauce’ that would finally drive a stake in third party gold farming. Which I’ll just cut to the chase now and tell all of you, because I’m nice like that.

 

The third decision: The ‘Secret Sauce’ (hint: it’s thousand island dressing!)

Even though I had come to terms with legalization, I had most definitely NOT come to terms with the more negative aspects of that legalization – specifically, gold farming/spamming/etc. I most definitely did not want that in our game. Yet with the dual currency model, we were not only enabling farming, we were ENCOURAGING it!

So. Why do people buy money from gold farmers? Simple – they want gold. Simple enough, right? They want gold badly enough to purchase it from bad actors.

Yet – the dual currency model also has within it the solution. As Matt wrote, one of the benefits of this model, ideally, is that it allows for a free market to develop between time-starved players with real-world wealth, and time-rich players without real-world wealth. The dual currency model allows this market to develop WITHIN the game, while in games with a single currency model, this market develops OUTSIDE the game (because the dual currency becomes, say, WoW gold and US dollars).

So, the ‘secret sauce’. Set up a special auction interface, ONLY for the exchange of in-game currency and RMT currency. Allow players to place buy and sell orders freely, one for the other.

But –

  • do not allow the players to know who is placing those buy and sell orders within the auction interface
  • enforce through the game rules that the ONLY place to exchange RMT currency between characters is that auction interface

A blind auction. ENABLE the free market of in-game and RMT currency between the game’s players. But DISABLE the ability for players to assign an out-of-game worth to that currency, outside of your own storefront.

 

(By the way, I’m under no delusion that a blind marketplace in MMOs is in any way original.)

Now, of course, there is no realistic way, no matter what controls you place on RMT currency trading between players, of stopping out-of-game trading completely. Even if players cannot physically trade the currency, they simply will trade whatever the currency can buy and use that. Remember: prohibition does not work.

However, my belief – and this may well be false – is that enlightened self-interest does in fact work, and given the choice between patronizing other players and bad actors for RMT sales, players will patronize other players.

And that, I believe, would completely devastate the third party markets because there was no financial interest for that free market to develop external to the game.

It would not only slow gold farming, it would KILL it.

And that was what I wanted. Because as a developer I was profoundly sick of leeches profiting from hurting games I worked on. I wanted gold farming KILLED. And I was convinced this plan would work, and I could kill gold farming in our game.

Told you I was egotistical.

Mythic, IGDA Reach Agreement On Warhammer Credits

Haven’t seen this anywhere online but Quarter to Three message board, but apparently this was in their latest newsletter:

When the credits story first appeared, Mark Jacobs, the GM of Mythic, was in the middle of a series of interviews in New York. After an interview with N’Gai Croal of Newsweek and Level Up blog, Mark asked N’Gai for his thoughts on the subject. N’Gai suggested simply putting the full credits online. Mark is in the process of implementing N’Gai’s suggestion, and in doing so, Mythic will move towards a greater level of credits inclusiveness.

I’ve known Mark for more than 10 years now, and he’s always been a strong proponent of the online games industry and an ethical businessman. Mark was honest about a difficult subject and immediately after the interviews ended, he began a process of formulating new credit policies. Unfortunately, when the previous newsletter was sent out, Mark, unbeknownst to the me, was quietly continuing to work on a new credit policy for the studio. Mark, I regret that my comments caused you personal and professional distress.

The Mythic team is also taking the following steps to address credit policies:
– In-game and manual credits will be reserved for the launch team.
– Mythic will create an online database listing the name and title of everyone who contributed to a project, regardless of current employment status. Additionally, the studio will make best efforts to provide this information for its previous online games.
– Mythic has committed to working with the IGDA, leading game industry history and credit sites and other interested parties to establish a credits feed, listing all contributors, to promote fair and accurate credit reporting across the industry.
– Mark Jacobs will consult with the IGDA Credits Standard Committee to offer guidance on the issues and challenges posed specifically by MMOs.

Fair and accurate credits and transparent standards for crediting remain a pervasive problem in the industry, and I applaud Mythic for taking steps to address this issue. I’m personally looking forward to Mark’s involvement with the Credit Standards Committee, not only because of his depth of experience in online games, but because, more importantly, his personal commitment to fair and accurate credits sets an outstanding example for industry leadership.

There are also a few ex-Mythic employees that I recognized listed in the “Special Thanks” section of the Warhammer credits that appear in the client, so there was some give on that as well. (I bought the electronic delivery version, so I don’t know what’s in the manual.)

Too Much Stuff

I’m playing Warhammer, because I can be a Bright Wizard and set things on fire. Longtime readers will know that this is a key requirement of my MMO experience. On the positive side, Warhammer is tons more stable than Age of Conan was, and I can actually run it. On the minus side, I’ve heard rumors that there is an NDA’d test server with a “SECRET PATCH” waiting to go out with class balance changes. If Mythic actually has managed to run a test server with an NDA… well, that’s certainly original. After all, no one really cares about the details of upcoming patches, especially when they contain class balance changes! So on the positive side from that, that is definitely something World of Warcraft isn’t doing. Take that, haters!

But then there’s the Witcher. The Witcher is a great RPG from Poland which lets you play an amoral drugged-up medieval vigilante that leaves a path of sex and violence in his wake. I find this concept cool for some reason. And they just issued an Enhanced Edition which features an English translation that doesn’t suck. No, really. It’s a FEATURE. To be fair, I don’t think anyone really expected a deep RPG from Eastern Europe to have great dialogue that shouldn’t be cheaped out on. But anyway, I should really play that.

But there’s the Force Unleashed. It lets you be a DARK JEDI and THROW STORMTROOPERS AGAINST A WALL.

But there’s Rock Band 2, which is like Rock Band, but TWO!

But there’s my old World of Warcraft guild, which occasionally sends me plaintive IMs asking me to come back, promising they’ll never return to Molten Core ever again!

But there’s

But there’s

But there’s

But there’s not enough hours in the day.

See, This Is Why They Are Analysts And You Are Not

Edge Online quotes an industry analyst as predicting a 250,000-300,000 subscriber base for Warhammer Online based on… well… I’m not sure, really. Maybe he liked the number 250.

Arvind Bhatia at Stern Agee told Edge on Tuesday he came to the 250,000 subscriptions figure based on EA’s goal to break even on the game.

So all you late adopters in a couple months had better not buy the game, because EA will have broken even, and that will totally control your buying decisions.

However, the winner for industry analysis is Mark “Future’s So Bright, Gotta Wear Shades” Jacobs, who is quoted in the same article as having…

estimated the subscriber base to be “More than EverQuest (at its peak) and less than [World of Warcraft],” or between 550,000 and 11 million.

Well hell, that leaves out negative numbers, irrational numbers, and variations of π. He’s TAKIN’ THE PREDICTIVE RISKS.