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RMB Gamers

I've been doing a lot of thinking about this article, ever since it made the rounds of the various gaming blogs and websites: Cao Yunwu (tr Joel Martinsen?), "The System," Southern Weekly, date unknown. (Translation appeared on danwei.org on 12/26/07 under the name "Gamble Your Life Away in ZT Online.") The article is very soap-opera-like in tone, and takes its time getting to the point, so let me summarize the issues for you first:

ZT Online is a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, based on medieval Chinese martial arts legends, only open in China; despite this, it's one of the biggest in the world. ZT Online's claims to fame are that it supports great PvP, including city versus city diplomacy and siege warfare, that it charges no monthly fee, and that it skips all of the boring "grinding" required for almost every other MMO on the market. But taking those claims in order: the PvP is not consensual, and intentionally not balanced; you can be insta-gibbed by people far above you in level, and when your clan leader needs warm bodies to throw at invaders, you get summoned to the battlefield without your permission. It charges no monthly fee, but it charges cash for equipment. In theory, you can earn money to pay for your equipment, actual Chinese renmibi (RMB), by doing missions in game, but they never pay quite enough to pay for the equipment you out-level every five levels. And it skips the grind in no small part by offering to flat-out sell you the experience points you need to be any level you want.

The viewpoint character of the article got summoned to a battlefield for her side, and more or less accidentally got in the last shot that killed a rival side's king, thereby gaining credit, fame throughout the game ... and a long list of game-generated player character enemies, who took to insta-gibbing her to avenge the honor of their fallen king, as the game required them to do. She found out that she could buy her way up to level 145 (of 170), counting equipment, for about $150, and that'd be enough to more or less hold her own in 1-on-1 PvP. If you think about it, that's about 10 months' worth of ordinary game fees in most other MMOs, so she figured it was worth it. But that, combined with her fame, got her into clan politics with an ally who'd (presumably) also spent about what she had spent, which got her even bigger enemies. It ended up costing her $1500 over a scant few months just to keep up. Finally the game automatically recruited an even larger army to defeat her side, including a force lead by half a dozen level 170 characters. We're not told what they spent, but it's not unreasonable to assume (based on the progression to her level, and what we're told in the article about how equipment costs go up as you go up) that they'd spent closer to $15,000. Each. The article then goes on to deal with her unsuccessful attempt to find a way, within the game, to work around this "victory goes to the highest cash bidder" designed-in feature, and how the company's representatives cheated within the game to stop her before she quit for good over it.

And I've talked this over with a bunch of other gamers, as a pure hypothetical, leaving the China connection (with its own prejudices, because of a decade or more of bad blood between Chinese and American gamers in MMOs over language issues and, even more, over conflicting play-style issues) out of it, to avoid knee-jerk anti-Chinese bigotry. Think about how long it takes, in the MMO of your choice, to grind up a character to the level where they can count on holding their own in unlimited PvP on your server. Now imagine that the game company made it possible to just pay for it in cash up front, instead of paying months' worth of server fees and spending whatever time it was going to take you. How much would you pay for a minimally ready PvP-capable character? Surely not $15,000, people tell me, or even $1,500. Probably not $150. Most would very cheerfully pay $15. Some were willing to go $50 to $100. But no, the sticking point for every player I talked to is, they wouldn't even consider playing a game where you could buy levels and equipment for cash unless everybody who paid got a character of similar power-level. The idea that a person who's richer can flat-out buy victory over you by outbidding you generated a 100% unanimous response: who'd play that game? Sure, rich people might, but who'd volunteer to be beaten on, without any chance of winning, by people whose only "skill" was being able and willing to charge more on their credit cards that you can or will? How does ZT Online attract the million or so "peasants" that get slaughtered over and over again by the handful of rich people who paid for the highest level characters on the server?

But before you answer, consider this riposte, that showed up in the comments on danwei.org, one that I suspect came from one of the company's sales reps. In almost every game out there, the higher level character with the better equipment wins pretty nearly every fight anyway. In those games, the highest level character with the best equipment goes to the person with (a) the most free time and (b) the highest boredom threshold for repeating the same tasks over and over again. In other words, in those other games, victory goes automatically to the person who, in real life, is almost certainly the most worthless loser on the server. What's wrong with having a game where people who are actually successful in real life are also the ones who are successful in the game? Shouldn't the game reward real-life success, as yet another motivator for people who play the game to go out and get good-paying jobs?

(Postscript: And this is on the list of reasons why I stick with City of Heroes and City of Villains. Upon entering any PvP area, everybody gets raised or lowered to the same level. The person with the highest level character and the best equipment might have as much as a 5% or 10% edge, before skill and luck factor in, and it's never so much of an edge that a halfway-awake player who'd rather not stay and fight doesn't have at least a 75% chance of getting away if they try. Oh, and unlike in ZT Online or in half of the games out there, the player who defeats you doesn't actually hurt your character in any way, all they get is some in-game PvP reputation points and the satisfaction of winning a game; all you lose is the 60 seconds it takes to travel back from the hospital. But still, that's not how most of these games work, and it's not how most people seem to want them to work. But in a game where you gamble the fruits of real work you did on leveling your character in every fight, seriously, who volunteers to lose automatically to rich people? Or on the other hand, who volunteers to lose automatically to basement-dwelling unemployed teenagers with no job and no life?)



( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 21st, 2008 09:22 am (UTC)
But still, that's not how most of these games work, and it's not how most people seem to want them to work.

If that were true, Trammel wouldn't have devastated the unlimited unconsensual PVP areas of UO and left them as ghost towns, and PVP-centric games with harsh death penalties would be dominating the fuck out of WoW instead of the other way 'round. The hardcore PVPers are a very, very vocal and often very whiny segment of the MMO playerbase, but they are in no sense anything more than an extremely vocal minority.
(Deleted comment)
May. 21st, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)
That's brilliant.

The overall solution to the PvP vs. PvE conflict seems to me to be fourfold:

1) No consequences to being PvP'd. The winner does not get your items or gold, just a big dose of XP. The loser is "killed," but there is no XP or other penalty for it happening; you just wake up in the hospital or healer's tent or whatever.

2) Have a two-tier system like Puzzle Pirates' different oceans -- play for free indefinitely starting from level one with a max level of twenty, or play for money starting from level ten with a max level of seventy.

3) Balance your game mechanics so that insta-gibs aren't possible from level ten on (some kind of Final Fantasy "you level up into the advanced version of your class" thing). Get to level ten and you can be assured, just like in CoH/CoV, of being able to escape from anyone.

4) Tons o'unpersons -- NPCs that appear to be player characters -- of levels 1-9, programmed with a few thousand different realistic "Hey, you wanker!" type responses.

*quiet laughter*
May. 21st, 2008 10:24 am (UTC)
Shouldn't the game reward real-life success, as yet another motivator for people who play the game to go out and get good-paying jobs?

No, because we are all already playing that game, and most of us are spending $15 per month to play something else for a bit.

In those games, the highest level character with the best equipment goes to the person with (a) the most free time and (b) the highest boredom threshold for repeating the same tasks over and over again.

Which is why PvP is really only popular with people in the (a+b) category. The rest of us are happily killing computer-generated critters in PvE.
May. 22nd, 2008 12:40 am (UTC)
No, because we are all already playing that game, and most of us are spending $15 per month to play something else for a bit.

~Shokolada's Comment critically hit the nail on the head for 45787 damage~
May. 22nd, 2008 02:45 am (UTC)
May. 21st, 2008 10:28 am (UTC)
I play only EVE Online. I don't play that much, and I won't buy money by cash (it being disallowed and I just don't *need* the cash). I like the way my character advances even when I'm not logged in or doing anything: the mechanic is that characters learn skills all the time.

This means I have a good pvp character now after four years of play, even if I haven't played that much in the last two years. Player skill and character skill are of course different things and in fair fights I'd probably get whipped by most characters as old as I am. The thing is, I don't believe in fair fights. Most of the time I avoid fighting (with ships, in the market it's another matter) but when I do, I try to stack things in my favor as much as I can. This usually means bringing experienced friends along, and because of the game mechanics you can't always be sure of the opposition and what they will do, so even with ample preparation, you can be surprised.

Most of the fights in that game are won before the first lock is acquired, but it's just fun. Losing does matter in the game as most of the time you lose your ship and some fitted modules on it and probably can't recover them. Pod loss is even more annoying as you lose permanent implants.

(Never been podded ((killed)), last pvp ship loss is something like four years ago... Yea, I'm a carebear.)

My reasoning for why I should lose to the teenagers with no job and no life is that I play to forget my daily life - if I were to use all the resources I gather in my work in a game, the distinction between the game and my real life would diminish, and I don't want that.
May. 21st, 2008 11:19 am (UTC)
I'm wondering whether you could get Americans to play a ZT style game, and (speaking from total ignorance), I bet you could. I'm betting that people get into games because of the coolness (however defined) of the setting, ease of play, socializing with other players, and other factors that don't have much to do with the fairness of the game.
May. 21st, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
There is a fixation on social dominance that would probably be popular with Americans - as long as they perceive themselves to be on top.
May. 21st, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
or possibly addiction treatments
You'd need exactly one story of a stupid parent spending all their money on the game before the Jack Thompsons of the world started an avalanche of lawsuits.
May. 21st, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC)
I think the popularity of immersive fantasy games is due to the ability to escape from the reality that hard work and financial success bear vast rewards. A gameworld where A+B really does enable anyone to succeed, where wealth, prestige, and phat loot are not zero-sum quantities, is very appealing to people who have access to none of the above in real life.

The fact that a significant percentage of them are inflamed assholes with no life, stunted social skills and nightmarishly low self-esteem, well, that's why I play WoW on a Roleplaying server and my main character has all of *three* lifetime PvP kills. I don't have the time, the patience, or the bandwith to compete on that level, and no desire to. (well, more bandwidth would be nice.)
May. 21st, 2008 01:05 pm (UTC)
I would've agreed with the commenter a few years ago. It was pretty damn irritating to listen to people crow about their skill in the game when I didn't have the time to compete - and I was pretty sure time was the only factor.

Now, after taking a few tired days at work and strange weekend hours over a few months, I know I have the skill to compete at the top level, but I choose to not have the time.

I also know how much free time it takes to operate at that level, and I'm glad I have better things to do with that time.
May. 21st, 2008 01:12 pm (UTC)
Same here, I found WoW to be all Level, Loot & Build with player skill coming fifth, behind Class or perhaps sixth behind Lag.

I believe the CoX model to be significantly better, because it isn't fun to be beaten by either rich winners or poor losers, so at least if you're getting beaten up, there wasn't a massive cash or time investment required beforehand.
May. 21st, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
Since level is a constant (more or less everyone is 70) and build is as well, it means that loot (which is a function of time if you have a group of 9 "friends") is the controlling factor.
May. 21st, 2008 06:57 pm (UTC)

When the WoW expansion came out, raising the level cap from 60 to 70, I was amazed to find level 70s running around the game server a little over 48 hours after the official release. Even if some Chinese power-leveller team was working 24/7, it seems barely possible.

May. 21st, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC)
It's not that hard, I'm thinking. I don't have exact statistics handy, but 6 hours per level seems quite doable for me (I have 2 70s, a 64 and a 61 right now) - which is 60 hours to level 70. And I'm sure that someone determined could level faster.
May. 21st, 2008 01:13 pm (UTC)
I can understand why ZT is really popular, just like I can understand people who buy level 70 characters with all the gear - it's the fast track to awesome. But it sounds like ZT would only really appeal to clubs. . . which, considering the real-life preponderance of CEOs with varying degrees of sociopathy, is exactly what the company wants. However, it is clearly understood that it appeals to CEO-types, so the implication is if you're the type of person who would become a CEO you'd want to play this game. Layers within layers. . .
May. 21st, 2008 04:25 pm (UTC)
The dichotomy you close on underscores exactly why I don't do MMOs in the first place. CoH sounds vaguely interesting, but not interesting enough for me to invest in a whole new hardware rig to be able to play it.

As to the theoretical - the major problem that I see with ZT Online, as described, is less that people can buy their characters up to whatever level they want on demand, and more that higher level characters can force lower levels to materialize as cannon fodder. The main balancing factor I could see in a game like that is the need for the wealthy to win friends and influence people, possibly by offering to buy them experience or better equipment in exchange for enlisting in a standing army or acting as mercenaries for a given battle. You still risk being randomly marauded by high-level pricks, but that risk exists in any game that allows PvP, so it should be considered part of the landscape for MMOs anyway.

Being able to buy my way up to level 170 means very little if my intended serfs are utterly indifferent to me. Going Caligula on their asses is just going to get them to move to a different city.

Edited at 2008-05-21 04:27 pm (UTC)
May. 21st, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC)
Well, now, there's an interesting idea that hadn't occurred to me. The woman that was interviewed for this article assumed that those half-dozen god-mode characters who were leading the army against her had spent their own $15k each to get god-mode. But if they were the leaders of a large, tight guild, say 60 people, then it could just as easily be that what we have is 60 people who spent no more than she did, but who instead of buying 60 level 150 characters bought 6 level 170 characters by concentrating their funds. Which would imply that she wasn't outspent, as she assumes, so much as she was out-organized. And out-organizing the other team has always been seen as fair in games that allow multiple-on-multiple PvP fights.
May. 21st, 2008 05:21 pm (UTC)
Entropia Universe is following a somewhat similar model in a sci-fi context. They advertise that you can play without buying in game money, but in reality there is a control of diminishing returns, and an inability to get into the areas that can drop the good equipment.

Eu has pitched themselves as a casino. Once you look into the loot tables, it rapidly becomes obvious that you can't hunt to equip yourself effectively. There is a skill element to hitting things in combat, especially with missile weapons, and ammunition costs just like everything else.

The innovative detail in their game is that you can use a cybernetic implant to offload earned skills from your character, or absorb skills from one of these "skill chips". In this way, everyone has the image of being able to cash out of the "casino". Needless to say, there is a % loss on putting skill into a chip and taking skill out, not to mention the economics of pricing and rarity.

Playing for a little while, and reading their message boards, they seem to recruit and sometimes keep players based almost purely on ego. Many of the new players are convinced they will be the one to break the system, outcompete the others, get a lucky drop, or whatever. Makes me wonder how much of that occurs in ZT online.
May. 21st, 2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
The entrepeneur who created the game previously invented a vitamin tonic.

Really, that says it all. This "game" isn't.
May. 22nd, 2008 12:37 am (UTC)
No frelling way. I would never, ever be so ludicrously irresponsible as to allow myself onto such a game. Why? Because I once spent twenty straight hours grinding Sporeggar rep so I could have a tiny alien manta ray float around my character's ankles. It seemed reasonable at the time.

In a not-dissimilar vein, I was the fastest member of my guild to get through the Netherwing rep quests. Why? Just one more egg. Just one more turn-in. Think I'll check for eggs before bed. Oh, I was AFK for a while there; I bet more eggs have spawned. Just one more hour. Just one more hour. Just one more hour. They were hours I could ostensibly spare, but just the same.

I never, ever, EVER want to be in a situation where the same mentality could set in regarding credit card micropayments. There's a reason I've never set foot in a casino. No matter how stupidly addicted I get to WoW, there's a limiting factor that I know comforts some of my fellow gamers; it's only fifteen dollars a month. Ravage my social life, just leave my bank account alone. Take away that constant, so that my addiction can destroy my time AND my money? Yeah, I'm gonna take a big 'pass' on that one.
May. 22nd, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
What would be wrong with being paid to be a shill in one of these massive games? You and your 3000 fellow 'spear-carriers' getting paid (indirectly) by the rich-hero that wants to be the winner? All that is necessary is for the game company be willing to do some profit sharing.

Or is that what is happening already?
May. 23rd, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC)
And again, I have to laugh whenever someone refers to the current Chinese system as "communist." They do capitalism better than we do - which is one reason we're fucked if they ever decide to call in their IOUs.
May. 23rd, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)
Can't answer for either of these: I've never played a PvP levelling game. I've played PvE levelling games like CoH and EQ where PvP was possible under limited circumstances, but the playerbases in those are overwhelmingly devoted to PvE.

Most people play games to escape RL, so I wouldn't expect people to embrace a model where RL success carried over to the game.

I'm not aware that there are any PvP leveling games widely popular in the US, actually. PvP-heavy Ultima Online was popular when it was the only MMORPG in town, but it got dethroned by EQ and I didn't think any other primarily-PvP leveling games had enjoyed much success here.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )