Power to the players and the social graph

Last summer, with the release of EVE Online’s Incarna expansion, CCP faced one of the worst backlashes from their community the company had ever had to deal with. It was hardly the first time the company had been in a collision course with their players, but this time it rocked the game – and CCP itself – to the core. When it was over, 20% of the work force was forced out (if this was due to the protests or due to other underlying economic factors shall remain unspoken) and the entire plan for the future of the game was rewritten.

What happened during, and after, the Incarna protests is a great example of something that certain MMO companies seem to forget. The social graph that social media companies love to talk about it very much alive in MMOs as well as on websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Many players spend years in these games and no player exists in a vacuum – while soloing has been given more room in modern online games, most players still form relationships with the people around them; through guilds or random meetings with strangers. Some of these relationships last as long as a player is active, some even escape the bounds of the virtual world. Many of us can tell stories about how we met new friends playing World of Warcraft, just like I tell you stories about how I met new friends through Twitter.

One of the companies that seems to need a reminder about this is SOE. The decision to partner up with German ProSiebenSat.1 (you are excused if you think that name sounds more like a virus than an actual company) and sell off the European servers for eight of their games and at least two future titles is typical of a company that simply does not care or factor in the bonds that their community can create. While the bottom line always is important, and needs to be taken into account, the complete disregard for human interaction that they’ve shown during this whole affair is scary to say the least. At some point, SOE forgot that their players are not isolated islands that simply pony up money to play their games.

While it might be harsh, I do hope that the protests that have erupted on the Everquest 2 forums will keep up. In EVE Online, players could riot inside the game using game mechanics and that way drawing CCP themselves into the meta game. That’s not really possible in theme park MMOs like the ones SOE run, so the forums will have to do – it’s worked before, after all.

I cancelled my Station Access subscription when the news about the P7S1 deal broke. Even if I can still play my illusionist on Crushbone (since my characters there will still be available), and Vanguard is left alone for now, I don’t want to pay money to a company that shows this total disregard for how MMO communities form and how they stay alive. Like most dedicated MMO players I’ve seen a lot of bullshit over the years. Breaking apart communities that have had years to form is one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever been a part of.

I am proud of the people who stand up and protest, the people who are cancelling their subscriptions after years of play. While there’s a clear risk that there is no way out of the deal with P7S1 for SOE, and that the whole thing is a part of something much bigger, cancelling your account and telling the higher echelons of management what you think might have a positive impact on other MMO companies with the finger on the trigger of something equally stupid.

Posted on February 23rd, 2012 in Games 

Fear and Loathing in Action Research

I’ve said before that going back to school, leaving my safe full-time job as assistant editor, was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I have a lot of friends to thank for that, people that supported me and gave me advice.

Having started on my second term (out of six) of media- and communication studies, we’ve started to study academic research methodology for real. I’ve done that before, both in Sociology and Cultural Studies, and I can’t help myself from thinking about what kind of research I could do myself. Compared to Sociology, the major focus here is on qualitative research and action research. To call it “tempting” would be an understatement.

Combine that with reading Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test and you got a recipe for disaster.

Action research (AR) and the kind of modern Gonzo journalism (GJ) Ronson does in his books (both The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them! Adventures with Extremists are brilliant examples of modern Gonzo) go very well together. Usually, AR incorporates some form of normative goal; an aim to enter a certain field of research actively and cause change. And while GJ (as genre) might not have a stated goal, it sets up a certain narrative that the researcher can use to present the results of his/her AR.

Qualitative research, in itself, is often highly subjective. GJ, by definition, is subjective – the journalist is the focus of the story and the narrative revolves around him/her. I wouldn’t call Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas academic research, but in Hunter S. Thompson’s own words it was a “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”. And when Thompson summarizes the death of the hippie movement and the end of Timothy Leary’s dream – “you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water markā€”that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back” – that savage journey seems to have taken him to a place where his experiences become knowledge. He certainly knew a lot more about the hippie “scene” and the kind of madness that prevailed in San Francisco at the time than I will ever do, and his self-biographical masterpiece can (from a certain perspective) be seen as a form of action research.

So where does that leave me, the subject of this blog? First of all, it should be stated that I don’t plan to pump myself full of a “whole galaxy of […] uppers, downers, screamers, laughters” like Thompson. Secondly, the old tip for budding authors that you should “write about what you know” echoes in my head. So what do I know? With almost ten years in games journalism, I guess I know games. And the game genre that is perfect for both AR and GJ is the MMO genre.

The difference between GJ and AR is that the latter needs an academic and scientific backdrop. While I’ve seen action (and artistic) research that I’m highly sceptical of, some of it at my own university, I don’t want to risk losing sight of the main goal – actual tangible knowledge of the subject matter. Gonzo is a tool, a narrative and framework, but it can’t be allowed to take over completely. There needs to be a method, a question that needs an answer, theories that can both be applied and created.

I am not sure where to start, outside of the mindmap I drew up the other day. But even just thinking about it, planning for it, feels good. Ranting about it here, on my blog, feels good as well – it feels more real that way.

Posted on February 7th, 2012 in Academia 

Why I miss #SWG – A pictorial

Going through stacks of old papers and notebooks crammed into and around my desk, I found these pages scribbled with notes from when I was playing Star Wars Galaxies. Most of them were related to crafting, which took a lot of effort to learn and get good at. One of them is a list of where I had placed various harvesters and what kind of quality of materials they were pulling up – I’d then cross out a location when I moved them a few days later when that spawn ended. There’s also a list of various collectibles that I tried to get my hands on.

I just thought I’d share them. Oh, SWG. I miss you so. Every time I start up a MMO I am remembered about all the cool things you tried, and became really good at. I’ve said it before – the sunsetting of SWG was a major loss for the genre in general. Remember that you can use your directional keys to scroll through the photos.

(Yes, I also tend to scribble silly pictures whenever I take notes.)

Posted on January 18th, 2012 in Games 

#SWTOR’s high-resolution conspiracy

I simply had to write about this, because I’m finding the whole thing hilarious. It might be old news for everyone, though. I mean, I knew about the missing textures, but I was unaware that the subject had reached such heights over the last couple of days. Be warned though, because I might be finding it hilarious because it’s 2am here and I’ve had a very long week.

During early beta-stages, Star Wars: The Old Republic featured high-resolution textures. Then, suddenly, they disappeared. People want to know why – especially since those textures still show up in cut-scenes, but are unavailable during normal gameplay. In fact, people want to know so badly why they can’t use them all the time that several threads have sprung up on the official forums. The first thread is 117 pages long. When Bioware mods locked it and started a second one, the new thread went up to 112 pages before the mods had to intervene. The third and fourth? 125 and 148. At the time I’m writing this the fifth thread is well over 100 pages.

Finally, players managed to get a reply from Bioware. Stephen Reid, more famous as Rockjaw, stepped in and gave a pretty technical explanation (you’ll have to scroll down on that page, doesn’t seem like there are permalinks for forum posts). Basically it comes down to the amount of players that could potentially show up on-screen during normal gameplay versus the controlled environments of the cut-scenes. And the whole “high graphical settings look exactly as medium”-thing? That was a bug, there wasn’t even supposed to be a “medium” option. Ooops!

Then there’s this, a whole conspiracy theory about textures being constantly sent from the servers – presumably to protect the models from being copied. “If it is in fact the case that assets have been deliberately withheld from the client,” the poster there writes, “and thus have to be transmitted to the client from the server in some form, it goes a VERY long way to explaining most of the performance problems SWTOR has been having.”

Personally I am not invested in this, since I think SWTOR looks good as is and don’t really fret over the texture quality in-game and I like the graphical style in general. But I am not sure I buy the whole “too many players on-screen”-reason for not having the textures available for the people who have high-end rigs that should be able to cope just fine.

First of all, SWTOR uses an instanced model where copies of the same area are created if too many players are present in the same place at the same time. I think the max number of players I’ve seen in one area has been around 135+, and that’s spread across the whole Republic Fleet (and suffered a pretty bad drop in performance at the time). Secondly, Rift manages to show tons of players while also firing off all kinds of magical effects and fighting moves with my computer – which is slowly aging past its prime – hardly noticing. As it stands right now even high-end rigs stutter in SWTOR’s crowded areas, no matter how many players are actually visible on-screen at the time. Unless the whole engine and network code running the game are built of dreams, hopes and chewed bubblegum, I have a hard time wrapping my head around how the talented engineers at Bioware wouldn’t be able to make the game run a lot smoother in crowded areas than… Well, more or less every MMO out there.

It’s a mystery. And mysteries deserve elaborate conspiracy theories. If you happen to have one, feel free to share with the rest of us in the comments.

The header image is cropped from this picture, which compares the high-resolution textures with normal gameplay.

Posted on January 14th, 2012 in Games 

Chance of a lifetime: Win an unpaid job!

I had initially planned to blog about something else, but I need to get at least one post up about NowGamer’s competition where you can win a job which won’t give you any money. If you (somehow) missed it, they are holding a competition to see who gets to give Imagine Publishing content. For free. This from a professional publication and not an amateur site. It’s despicable enough that they are asking people to give them content without any compensation, calling it a competition in an attempt to make it look like it’s a boon to the writer makes the whole thing even worse.

I don’t think I can add much to the debate after John Walker’s summary of the whole thing, though. “Servants get paid. This is a position below servant” as he puts it. Also make sure to check the comments, both on Walker’s blog and on the official competition post.

If you’re dreaming about a career in games journalism, make sure you are never taken advantage of. Most of us have. It absolutely sucks. It might not suck the moment you accept that unpaid position, but trust me – one day you will wake up and realize that you’re being treated like crap, that your employers are devaluing you and your work.

Amateur websites that never see any form of cash flow are of course not included.

Posted on January 13th, 2012 in Games 

Pando’s CEO on Pando Media Booster

[…] we need to help educate people that they are in control. I mean, right here [in the Daily Grind] people are pissed that you can’t uninstall it. Well, they are pissed at something that’s not true! I mean, what would you do about that, you know? If a columnist writes that you can’t uninstall it, man, I’d be up in arms! Of course I’d be pissed. And we have not seen that factually, we have not seen facts — especially with our latest versions — that we affect gameplay at all, but I think there’s a perception.

I had a chat with the very outspoken CEO of Pando Networks about their Media Booster software that several games companies use for speeding up large downloads. The resulting interview is now online over on Massively.

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 in Games 

#SWTOR review up on FZ.se

The second part of my review of Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is up on FZ.se (Swedish link!). This time it even includes a score, which is always scary when it comes to MMOs. Since everything can change, sometimes over night, that score can fluctuate both up and down at any time. So that’s only valid right now, but it might not be next week. Ah, MMOs, you tricky beasts.

If you’re not Swedish, and chances are that you’re not if you’re reading this, then there’s always Google Translate. Briefly looking through it, it looked like a pretty good translation – at least as far as Google Translate-translations go. I am not 100% certain what “The apparent single-esteem in spite of the Star Wars: The Old Republic” is supposed to mean, though. You figure it out.

Posted on December 30th, 2011 in Games 

Claims of the Normal, Christmas Special!

Due to Christmas happening, we missed recording this last Sunday – but today we’re back with a special Christmas episode of Claims of the Normal! We discuss the strange traditions of the Dutch (pictured above), Star Wars: The Old Republic (of course), Voldemort versus Jason (in the Deathmatch of Death and more Death, vote Voldemort!), the Ocean Market-ting… Thing and some other subjects which I forget right now. But that should be enough of a pitch for you to download it, before you head over to CSICON to subscribe to future podcasts.

I’m also sorry for how loud my mic is during this recording, I will try to have that fixed until next week. Which incidentally is our one year anniversary!

Posted on December 30th, 2011 in Podcasting 

Boxing Day miscellaneous

Christmas is over, now we just wait for New Years Eve for a new reason to celebrate. Or Boxing Day sales, I guess. Did you get anything nice this year, or did you buy anything sweet at a reduced price? I got a gym card from my mother, which means I might be able to stop my stomach before it grows into a beer belly. Victory shall be mine!

Anyway. Here’s some stuff I think you should check out.

Grimoire of Aleister Crowley is now available on the Kindle. Written by my good friend Rodney Orpheus and published by Abrahadabra Press, it’s a great introduction to Thelemic group rituals. It also includes a foreword by Lon Milo DuQuette (author of one of the best books on the Qabalah ever), a Thelemic author that always manages to put a smile on my face. Smiling, in true Erisian fashion, is the best kind of inspiration. I haven’t really touched this kind of literature for many years, but I’m making an exception for Rodney and his wonderful co-worker Cathryn Orchard. If you have the slightest interest in occult traditions, I recommend that you at least download the sample. The full price, $9.96, isn’t a lot of money either (it varies by territory though, in typical Kindle fashion; in the US it’s $6.66. That’s nothing, folks.)

Star Wars Galaxies has closed down (a subject I’ll get back to in the near future) and SOE have published a “Memory Book” about it. The death of SWG was not only a loss for its players, it was a big loss for the MMO-genre in general. Despite the NGE, which hurt a lot of people and left a huge dent in game’s reputation (for a good reason), it featured some interesting mechanics that no other game since have even tried to do. I will always miss my YT 1200-house and my (quite unsuccessful) weapon shop in our guild city, Prometheus. Scholars of MMOs and virtual worlds in general should download the memory book and archive it (PDF-link), in case SOE pulls the plug on it forever.

PC Gamer Sweden, issue 182.

Speaking of Star Wars, the first part of my two-part review of Star Wars: The Old Republic is up on FZ.se (in Swedish, though). The second, and final, part of the review will be online next week – the one that is up now should be seen as a form of time document, where I look at how the game has progressed up until that point. I have a lot of game time scheduled for the coming week, making sure to see as much of it as possible before I am forced to put a score on it. MMO-reviews are always tricky, but I do believe that the key when writing one is transparency. You need to be open with how much you’ve played, what level (if the game features levels) you’ve reached and what you’ve actually done. Don’t review end-game if you haven’t reached that point, for example.

I’m also working on a review for PC Gamer Sweden (who co-operates with FZ.se), which will be out in January. The issue available now has a lot of SWTOR-material though, including a couple of articles written by the lovely Mats Nylund and a list of 22 reasons why you should look forward to it written by yours truly. Obviously the issue was published before the actual game was released…

Posted on December 26th, 2011 in Miscellaneous 

Myself, in memoriam

I worked with Gamereactor’s web-TV, GRTV, for about four years. When I think back on the time I spent with the magazine/websites, GRTV is the part I miss the most – we had tons of fun, either in the studio or out on the road. Yesterday, as an episode of the traditional Christmas calendar, the guys put together this tribute/in memoriam-episode for me. I am not sure what to say about it, except that I’m very touched. I try not to get too nostalgic about the whole thing, but it was hard not to start missing the boys and girls I left behind when I left the company after seeing it.

They truly did dig through the archives for material – there’s even a brief clip of the first interview I did on camera (with Jeff Kaplan from Blizzard). I wasn’t prepared at all, I had just shown up to do a written interview when Bengt told me to grab the mic. “You know more about World of Warcraft than me.” Then it all went downhill from there… But wow, so many cool places we traveled to and so many cool people I got to interview. Some of them show up in the clip above; including (but not limited to) Ken Levine, Peter Molyneux, Daniel Erickson and Mel B (!).

Ok, I’m officially nostalgic now.

I miss doing stuff in front of the camera, I admit. I do have a project in the works, but not sure when we’ll have the time to get it off the ground. Hopefully early next year.

Also, to the GRTV guys – thanks. I adore you all. I especially adore Dori’s beard. Never, ever shave.

Posted on December 22nd, 2011 in Games