A Philosopher's Blog

Diablo III

Posted in Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on May 21, 2012
Deutsch: Logo von Blizzard Entertainment Engli...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like most gamers, I’ve been playing Diablo III. Well, at least when the servers are up.  I do get that servers go down from time to time, such is the way of imperfect technology. I also get that when I am playing an MMO a down server means that I cannot play (on that server at least). After all, an MMO is the sort of beast that needs to be served up. However, Diablo III is not the sort of beast that needs to be so served. After all, Diablo II functioned just fine without being connected to Blizzard’s servers. I do, of course, “get” why Blizzard decided (or was compelled) to require people to be connected to the server to play. After all, it does help combat piracy-if people must be connected to a server and the server can verify the game being authentic (via the authentication key), then the game becomes very hard to pirate. Also, Blizzard also no doubt hopes to cash in on the real money auction house and this requires having tight control over the game-otherwise people some people would just hack to get items rather than spending real money to buy fake stuff. Being an author, I do get that it is important to protect and maximize that cash flow. Of course, I am also a consumer and I regard being able to use something that I have paid for as a reasonable sort of things. To use the obvious analogy, if people buy my books, but could only read them when my “book server” is up an running, then I better make sure that the server is up and running 24/7. After all, there really is nothing about a book that requires that it be served up rather than being readily available and book customers have a reasonable expectation that the book should be available. Likewise for a game like Diablo III.

Now that I have got in the mandatory complaints about the server problems, I can say that I otherwise really like the game.  As with Diablo II, I have been playing with my friends and we quickly fell into our traditional roles, although there were some changes in the classes usually played.

I generally look for the class that has just the right blend of holiness and destructive potential (or, as my detractors might say, viciousness). In Diablo II I played a paladin and in the expansion an assassin.  Not surprisingly, I ended up playing the monk. My friend Ron traditionally has gone for big melee fighters, but he has been on a “weird caster” kick in more recent years, so he ended up as the witch doctor. Dave usually goes for a caster, but he went for the barbarian. Despite the change in classes, we (as noted above) quickly slid into our accustomed roles.

Ron: “Where’s Mike?”
Dave: “I’m not sure. He ran off. Like usual.”
Ron: “Damn, I know he’s stirring up some stuff.”
Me: “I am so glad to see you guys again. I really missed you.”
Dave: “What? Are you talking to us?”
Me: ‘No, the monsters.”
Monsters: “Nooooo, the end of days is upon us! Run!”
Me: “Don’t run! You’ll just get evil sweat on the loot!”
Dave: “Should we help him?”
Ron: “Get back here.”
Me: “I can’t. There are still standing monsters in my field of vision. Plus my weapons get very sad when they are not coated in the blood of the wicked.”
Dave: “Monsters incoming!”
Monsters: “Hey, it’s Dave! Swarm him!”
Dave: “Not the face! Help!”
Ron: “Hmm, I wonder if these boots are better than my current boots? I can’t tell if this staff makes me look fat or not. I need to check the forums on that.”
Me: “Hey, Dave didn’t die this time!”
Dave: “Yeah, that’s why I’m playing the barbarian.”
Me: “Hell, the server is going down in five minutes! I don’t think I can kill any faster…”
Monsters: “Quick, cut those wires faster…we have to get the server down before they kill us all!”

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Diablo III & Selling Fake for Real

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2011
Demon Hunter [661]

"Cash or credit?"

While Diablo III will not be released for a while, it is already generating controversy. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with the demons in the game but with certain features of the game. In a previous post I discussed the matter of Blizzard requiring Diablo III “owners” to be online in order to play the game. In this post I will discuss the auction house.

One new feature in Diablo III is the game’s auction house. While auction houses are nothing new in games (World of Warcraft and other MMOs feature them), what is somewhat new is that players can auction game items to each other for real money. As with a real auction house, Blizzard gets a fee with each transaction. There is also apparently a fee for cashing out the money for real money (but no fee for using the money to buy Blizzard stuff, such as games and in game items).

The selling of fake stuff for real money in games is also not new. Second Life has its own economy as do other games/online worlds. However, most of these involve participants selling virtual things they have made.  In such cases, the selling does seem to make sense. For example, if Bill designs an elaborate virtual house and sells it to Sally, this seems comparable to Bill selling Sally a drawing or photograph. However, in Diablo III, players will be selling loot that randomly drops from monsters which does raise a question about justifying paying cash for such items.

The obvious way to justify this is to argue that while the players did not create what they are selling (it is not like selling a drawing), they did put in the time playing the game to get the item. Of course, luck is also a factor-the loot drops are random, so getting good stuff that people will buy is both a matter of time and luck. As such, these transactions could be seen as comparable to the way prospectors found and sold random bits of gold or other valuables and then sold them. While the prospectors sold physical objects, the value of a flake of gold or a magic sword seem to be primarily in the mind. As such, there seems to be no problem with the selling of “fake” stuff.

One point of concern is that Blizzard would seem to be using players as laborers who mine Blizzard’s game for random items to sell to other players. Blizzard profits from selling the game and also profits from the game’s real money economy. This, some might contend, seems a bit shady. The obvious reply is, of course, that participation is voluntary: players do not need to buy or sell. Also, the players have a chance to make money while doing something fun-which makes this way better than most jobs.

Another point of concern is that this real money auction house will encourage hacking and item farming. Of course, the hacking is mainly Blizzard’s problem-unless people “hack” by stealing from players (as happens in Warcraft). Item farming is, fortunately, not a big concern. Unlike World of Warcraft, you can play Diablo III alone or just with friends. Hence, you do not need to worry about farmers showing up to ruin your game by grabbing up all the monsters. Also, by having a legitimate and controlled means of selling items, the auction house bypasses the black and gray markets that have grown up around MMOs. So, for example, rather than players giving their credit card numbers (or game account information) to people selling gold or leveling, players can just buy stuff through Blizzard’s auction house.

A final point of concern is the ethics of buying items in terms of fairness and in terms of what some might call the spirit of gaming. Being able to just buy items with real money is not cheating in the sense of breaking the game rules (since it is part of the game), but could be seen as cheating in the sense of violating the spirit of gaming. Among those who might be derided as gaming purists, there is a view that items and advancement in a game should be earned in the game. To simply pay cash is cheating since it yields by cash what should be earned by effort. To use an analogy, if someone could just buy a bike and be able to use it in a 5K footrace because she paid for it, then even if this were in the race’s rules, it would still strike runners as a form of “sanctioned” cheating. This is because an increase in speed should be earned and not merely purchased. Likewise, in a game like Diablo III, players should “earn” that magic sword or armor in the game, rather than being able to gear up their character because they have access to mom’s credit card.

It is, however, worth considering that Diablo III is not really a competitive game and, as noted above, players can chose who they play with. Going back to the bike analogy, if someone wants to hold a private race(and the times do not count for records, etc.), in which participants can buy advantages with real money ,  then it should not really be a matter of concern (other than to note that it seems a bit silly to pay money for such an “advantage” in such circumstances) to people who are not participating in the event. As such, my considered view is that it is silly for people to spend real money on fake stuff and it does seem a bit shady. However, if people want to do this, then so be it.

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Diablo III & Ownership

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 11, 2011
Diablo III

Image by Kimli via Flickr

Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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World of GrindCraft

Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2011
Logo of Blizzard Entertainment

Image via Wikipedia

While I do enjoy World of Warcraft, the grind does, well, grind on me. I do understand that Blizzard uses the grind as a way of keeping people playing a longer time (and thus paying those monthly fees). However, it would be nice if they made the grind more pleasant. I suspect that would keep more people playing longer. After all, I assume that I am not the only one who has considered calling it quits in the face of the grind.

One grind is the reputation grind. In order to get certain items in the game, you need to get reputation with the faction that sells the items.  These include useful gear, enchants, as well as vanity items like pets and mounts. What bothers me about the reputation grind is that the content for gaining reputation runs out long before you actually achieve the highest reputation. So, for example, you might save the entire kingdom of the Ramakitties (as I call them) and still only be liked a bit. After that, you typically have to run dungeon after dungeon while wearing that faction’s tabard  to get the reputation. In some cases, the factions have daily quests that allow you to build up reputation by repeatedly doing the questions.

One obvious solution would be to add more content so that people can build reputation by doing new and hopefully interesting things rather than grinding away in dungeons or doing dailies. These grinds could also be improved.

A second grind is the dungeon grind. The instances have the better item drops and also are the source of the Justice and Valor points needed to buy even better items. To keep people playing and paying, it takes a long time to get the points needed to buy items and, of course, the item drops are random and very limited in quantity (usually one good item per boss).

While the dungeons are a challenge at first and then fun, they soon become something of a chore of seemingly endless grinding. In addition to it seeming a bit odd to kill the same boss hundreds of time, it also becomes boring to do the same thing over and over and over. One obvious solution is to add more content. Another fix is to have truly random dungeons that generate a random map, populate it with random monsters and drops loot from a huge list of items (rather than just a few). True, the bosses could not be as scripted as the fixed bosses, but at least it would provide some different experiences and break up the monotony of the grind. Heck, I’d be happy to send Blizzard all my own dungeon designs from years of gaming to help them out.

A third grind is the daily quest. While the idea of a quest that you can repeat daily makes things easy on Blizzard, it becomes boring very fast. In fact, it becomes very much like work: do the same basic damn thing day after day in order to get some minor payment. This would not be as bad if the quests were not rather dull (usually just gathering items or killing X number of things) or if at least made some sense as to why the quest was being done everyday. For example, it seems a bit odd to kill the same monster (like Chillmaw) everyday. It is like being trapped in Groundhog Day. It would also help a bit if it did not take so long to get decent rewards. I do get that they need to drag out play and that it should not be too easy to get the good stuff. However, unless you are willing to grind the damn dailies every damn day it will take you a very, very long time to get the good stuff.

One solution is to make the dailies more interesting or at least have a larger variety of dailies that cycle through. Making them make more sense would also help a bit. Adding more levels of stuff could also be a good option so that there is more of a feeling that your efforts are actually yielding some results. The items should also be added to with the various patches so that the rewards do not become obsolete or pointless when better items are added as drops.

A fourth grind is crafting and gathering. To make items in the game, players need to gather (or buy) the materials and this tends to be a rather slow process. Items often require a lot of materials and the really good ones typically require things that you can only get by chance (like the Chaos Orbs). This is all well and good for folks who are willing to spend hours grinding for material or the gold to get it, but it becomes a tedious chore for folks who mainly want to do interesting things involving new content. Of course, Blizzard keeps things slow to keep people playing longer and to also make things a bit harder for gold farmers. Ironically, though, it is often this grind that drives people to buy gold and characters.

The solution seems to be to either increase the rate at which materials are gathered or cut down a bit on what is required to make things. This could be offset by offering even more things to make at various item levels so that people still have the option to grind for countless hours to make the really good stuff. This would also offset the problem that crafted items tend to be rendered obsolete when new patches come out.

Of course, the best way to avoid the grind is to just not play. 🙂

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Posted in Business, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2011
The World Of Warcraft Launcher or Patcher

Image via Wikipedia

While online scammers tend to focus on tricking people into providing financial information (such as credit card and banking information) there is also a lucrative business in tricking people into handing over their World of Warcraft information.

Now, you might be wondering what scammers could get out of a Warcraft account. After all, it hardly seems worth the effort to get access to a game when the same effort could provide access to bank accounts. However, while a WoW account won’t yield the sort of payout that access to a bank account would yield, they can be a source of revenue.

As with any money-making enterprise, there is a shadow economy that has grown up around WoW and other such games. Part of this shadow economy involves selling in game gold for real money (which is often also a scam for getting credit card numbers). Another part of this economy involves selling characters and gear for real money. While some operations do actually employ people to “farm” for gold (the infamous “Chinese gold farmers”) and level characters, stealing an established account to plunder for items and gold is far more time efficient. One common tactic is to steal an account and then sell everything the characters have and, if the characters are in a guild, to raid the guild bank and sell everything there. This actually happened to my guild, which is why I use hardware authenticator with my account.

While I have been playing WoW since 2004, I received my first email WoW scam today. I assume it was either a random mailing or some bot culled my email from a post about WoW. As you can see from the text below, the scam was either written by using Google translate or maybe by a college student:

Congratulations! Your world of Warcraft account to receive compensation.This is Blizzard Entertainment’s apology, We acknowledge a mistake, for you to lose the World of Warcraft account in order to recover our losses, We will give you 50000 gold coins free of charge and rare mounts (Dark Phoenix), I hope you can restart the game

Login here to authentication, 48 hours you will receive compensation

Description: test account and permanently disabled can not compensation

It was rather easy to spot that this was a scam. After all, Blizzard doesn’t send these sort of emails nor does it ever send people gold or rare mounts to compensate for anything. As noted above, the writing style is also a dead give away. Naturally, the link was also clearly not a Blizzard site.

Presumably some people do fall for these scams-after all, 50000 gold coins and rare mounts are rather tempting to the ignorant. Of course, when I read it I had to laugh and my first thought was “seriously, is the best that you scammer assweasels can do?” They really need to step up their game-this current scam is just insulting and I demand a better quality scam.

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Posted in Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on July 18, 2010
A treant from World of Warcraft
Image via Wikipedia

Life presents many challenges. Unfortunately, people seem to be inclined to add needlessly to them, even in the virtual world of gaming. Being a gamer, I have gotten accustomed to griefing. Roughly put, that is when other gamers f@ck with you, just for the sake of doing so.

My main game now is, of course, World of Warcraft. While the folks at Blizzard have tried to limit the opportunities for players to screw with each other, the enterprising jerks will always find a way. I’ll just use two examples as illustrations.

While I was waiting for my arena team to get into a random battle, I was fishing (yeah, you can fish for fake fish in the fake world of the game). While doing so, someone kept going and putting his character over the bobber  so I could not finishing catching my fake fish. The first time, this is a tiny bit funny. The second time, not at all. The third time, well that was annoying. Out of curiosity, I kept trying to fish so I could see just how long this person would keep at it. After about three minutes I was pulled into the arena battle, but he was still trying to grief me.

In my second example, I was jousting at the Argent tournament and somebody arrived and started trying to block my view of my opponent. This fellow was clearly devoted to his task-he kept bringing out ever bigger mounts (he eventually got up to his mammoth) so as to better block my view. He actually kept this up the whole time I was jousting and then kept following me around.

Being a philosopher, I did not just think “wow, there are some real monkey f@ckers who play WoW.” Instead, I thought about how odd the situation seemed.

Normally, people turn to annoying others when they are bored and have nothing else to occupy their malign minds. However, this griefing was taking place in a video game that is full of things to do. I began to wonder what sort of person would find parking on a bobber or spending so much effort trying to cover my jousting opponent more entertaining than questing, running dungeons or even playing another video game. After all, even if they were so bored with WoW that sitting on a bobber was a great joy to them, there are thousands of other games they could be playing.

I really tried to understand that mind set, one that would think “I could be out playing the game that I pay $13 a month for and doing some of the cool content. You know what, f@ck that. I’m going sit on this bobber like a chicken sits on an egg. Like a damn chicken. I like chicken. I could really use a KFC double down now. No, must keep on the bobber…but the bacon calls to me…no, must keep griefing!”

Despite my efforts, I just could not quite grasp that level of random, senseless monkey f@ckerness. However, I did have one important consolation: while those monkey f@ckers are on WoW doing their griefing, they are not out in the real world doing real griefing (like busting lamp posts or busting bottles in the bike lanes).

More seriously, I do wonder about the psychology and value systems of people who are griefers in games and in reality. As noted above, one explanation is that griefers are bored. But, of course, when normal people get bored with a game, they would tend to stop playing. As such, griefers must have more going on than mere boredom. There must be something extra, something that drives them to that behavior. I suspect this sort of factor (or factors) are involved in a wide range of bad behaviors.

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Real ID

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on July 11, 2010
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Image via Wikipedia

Blizzard has created quite a frenzy with its announcement of its Real ID plan. Given that the feds are working on a Real ID system for “national security”, I thought it was odd that Blizzard would chose this term. Then again, maybe they are going for that Big Brother thing.

While the social aspects of this plan (such as cross game chat) seem fine and useful, many people are concerned with one critical aspect-the Real part of the ID. To be specific, this system makes players’ real names available. One of the main concerns is that when players post on forums, their real names will be visible.

The main argument for this has some merit. The idea is that people will be less inclined to troll, flame and engage in other hateful behavior in the forums. I suspect that some people will be less inclined to behave badly under such conditions.

However, having dealt with actual people, I know that this will generally not be much of a deterrence. After all, people are jackasses  in  person when you can actually see them. As such, I doubt that a posted real name will have a significant impact. Whether revealing real names deters bad behavior is, of course, an empirical matter and can be tested.

One of the main concerns about linking real names to posts is that it will allow people to find and harass other players in real life. While most WoW players are nice enough, there are many people who spend a great deal of time and effort annoying other players and spewing hateful comments. While most of these people would probably not be inclined to stalk people in the real world, I have no doubt that some of them would be thrilled to be able to escalate from being dicks in WoW to harassing people in the larger realm of the internet.

People who say that this will not be a problem simply do not know what these people are like. This is, of course, an empirical matter-if Blizzard implements this, then we can see the results (probably on the news at some point).

Not surprisingly, there is considerable concern on the part of female WoW players. While many WoW players are normal, reasonable well-adjusted males, there is a nasty undercurrent of misogyny and a creepy undercurrent of obsession with women present in most of the chat channels. While some of this is just adolescents spouting off, it is disconcerting to see people typing out things like “i want rape sisters of alli player” or ” killz men rape women and kids” or other, even more horrible, things. It is also rather icky to see what lonely or creepy folks type out in the channels. Finally, male players seem to often be obsessed with finding out which players are actually women. Real ID would give them the perfect chance to find out and then engage in all sorts of annoying and even dangerous behavior.

Naturally, people who do not want their names to appear in posts can simply not post. However, this seems to be a needless dilemma and Blizzard could simply let each player select a fixed alias for her account. That way there is a persistent identity but the person can chose whether this handle is her real name or not.

In my own case, I have no problem with posting under my real name. After all, I blog under my real name, publish under my real name,  and I do not worry that people know I play WoW. I have had plenty of experience with hateful emails and dealing with crazy people in person. I know I can handle such situations, though I prefer not having to do so.

However, this should be a matter of choice. Some people have excellent reasons for not wanting their names known in this manner and Blizzard should respect those reasons.

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