Sony Online Entertainment to Act as Honest Broker for Item Sales

Sony has decided to facilitate the sale of in-game items for real-world cash in EverQuest II. While lamentable, this is hardly surprising. They argue that 40% of their support issues have to do with such trade or activates related thereto.

While this is an interesting development, and there will be much discussion of it on the level of “this is a bad thing”, “this is a good thing”, or “this is regrettable but necessary”, as usual the root causes have to do with long held and unquestioned assumptions about what a “role-playing game” is, or aspires to be.

Leaving aside the fact that the only reason, in theory, you play an online game like EverQuest II is to feel some kind of empathy for your character, and that the concept of buying cool stuff using real world cash to make your character more uber so violates this concept that it makes you wonder why you’d play the game at all (or maybe for some people it’s more like accessorising Barbie). E.g. why not simply pay Sony to make a monster you can’t kill drop dead? Why not simply pay to make your character level 75 (or whatever the mostest highest level is)? This is entertainment, right? Would you watch a TV show where the hero escapes from scrapes by bribing the scriptwriter? Well, maybe if it were a comedy about the TV industry…

The root assumptions underlying all of this baloney are simple and can be explored by showing exactly how well the games industry (paper and computer) has utterly failed to provide the experience it has always aimed for in RPGs.

The quintessential source book for RPGs is The Lord of the Rings. The entire milieu of the D&D world and that of its imitators springs from The Lord of the Rings. This applies to assumptions about the way the world looks, people talks, who lives in it, and what they’re up to.

In Lord of the Rings, someone who is basically a country gentleman, of no special skill, and his gardener, a stout fellow, together with two well-meaning idiots (all halflings), go on an adventure which involves a long arduous journey. Along the way they pick up a professional military scout of Royal Lineage, the world’s second-most-powerful wizard (soon to be first), and three professional soldiers (human, elf, and dwarf). They are engaged in a number of battles, in which each contributes in some positive way making the best of both their training and natural abilities.

At the end, the gentleman is all but dead from his exertions, but all four of the halflings have gained confidence, and two have grown physically larger and stronger as a result of magical drafts. The world’s second most powerful wizard has become top wizard owing to the fall from grace of his boss; he may or may not have gotten more powerful. Aside from that, the characters have not much changed as a consequence of experience besides having new stories to tell, and (in the case of the military scout) having gotten married and gained high social position.

Given this inspiration, what did we get?

A game where no-one starts play with a character capable of doing anything much. If you want to play Aragorn, you have to start as a level 1 wannabe.

A game where the only thing anyone ever gets good at is killing stuff. It’s much too hard to make rules about herbalism, but we do have a LOT of different magic swords.

A game which can only represent one kind of hardship — being attacked by monsters. When was the last time anyone cared about going hungry or freezing to death in your RPG?

A game where the content of the game mainly comprises getting more powerful by accumulating experience, items, and money (the latter two by stealing from the dead).

EverQuest and Game Design

Another long ramble on EverQuest and game design…

About a month ago my wife and I returned to EverQuest after a hiatus of about eighteen months (we’ve actually been free of the dread addiction for nearly two years if you discount coming back for about three evenings when Planes of Power was released).

EverQuest has (or until recently had) a very simple-minded content model. (Its new content model is merely simple-minded.) Almost everything seems to be one-off and hard-wired. For example, a weapon is essentially a name and a whole bunch of statistics. There’s no relationship between one shortsword, for example, and another. A “fine steel shortsword” may or may not be better than a “rusty shortsword” (it happens to be better, but there’s no actual constraint on it to be so). Similarly, in order to represent a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees they model a vast pebbled plain with scattered trees. They don’t, for example, re-use instances of trees or pebbles. For a game which leverages creative input so aggressively (see my earlier post on the subject) there’s very little “bang for the buck” here.

The latest addition to EverQuest, and the thing which attracted us back, is the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion, which promised to improve EverQuest by actually leveraging content in a way previously seen in rival games such as Anarchy Online and Diablo (I and II).

The model of adventuring in EverQuest used to be that some parts of the world looked a bit more like dungeons than others and that if you found some spot where a bunch of creatures “lived” (i.e. spawned repeatedly) from whose deaths you could benefit then you and a bunch of buddies would hang out there until you grew bored or exhausted, sometimes having to fight your way in and or out. The problem was that there are 5000 players on each server, EverQuest has very little creative input and leverages what creative input there is badly or not-at-all, and so there might be fifty desireable spots (add a new spot and some other spot ceases to be desireable…) to hang out in the entire world at any given time and split among 5000 players this makes for a lot of contention.

LDoN has “instanced dungeons”, i.e. when you and your buddies go to a dungeon, you visit an instance of a template dungeon and have it to yourselves. Almost all of these dungeons are highly desireable in that the loot, experience, and other rewards for hanging out in these dungeons is as good or better than the rewards for doing almost anything else in EverQuest. What’s more, these dungeons feature more variety than you tend to see in other dungeons, drop a random but reasonable assortment of goodies, and are actually fairly challenging to operate in. There’s really only a few things wrong with them:

(a) They’re incredibly repetitive;

(b) The missions you collect are simple-minded and alike;

(c) The more interesting missions are unreasonably arbitrary and hard;

(d) Missions have strict time-limits, even when it makes no sense;

(e) All missions require a pretty much balanced group to do, meaning that the problem of setting up a group (often the worst part of EQ) is if anything exacerbated.

One of the problems EverQuest has always had is that there’s no point in putting in clever content because 99% of players will read a spoiler site before attempting to deal with it.

It all comes down to leveraging player creativity (without just going PvP).