I'm failing to enjoy Lord of the Rings Online. It has amazing graphics, the best fantasy backstory material available, and a strong fan community. The instance-based epic quests make LotRO the first MMOG with a strong storyline and the deeds system is a clever innovation to give some purpose to grinding. But the gameplay experience is failing. The graphics engine is broken. The combat seems simplistic. And it's terribly, terribly laggy. Monsters jump around as network packets arrive, crowded areas take forever to load, and the whole game is played under the miasma of a 200ms delay.

For example, as a Hunter what I do is run up to a monster and then shoot an arrow at it. So I take my finger off of W, the run key, and use that finger to press 1, the shoot key. Every single time, I'm told "you cannot do that while moving". It seems the the client is waiting for the server to acknowledge I stopped moving before letting me shoot, forcing me to wait 200+ms for the round trip before my input is accepted. It's not network congestion or ping time (those are fine), it's just the software isn't designed to feel like realtime.

All this makes me appreciate the brilliant gameplay experience of World of Warcraft. I pretty much never feel lag in WoW, the game plays like an action RPG. In combat it feels like my ability to execute move combinations swiftly makes a real difference. Thanks to an addon I know that there's actually a 200-300ms delay between actions, but the client and server must be working together doing speculative execution to make it feel like realtime. It's not easy to do that and make it work, but it's very important to gameplay.

  2007-06-07 18:06 Z
All is not well in Azeroth and the Outlands; the spammers have found their way in. For the past few weeks players of World of Warcraft have been bothered every 10 minutes with random in-game instant messages saying "buy cheap gold now at www.blahblah.com". It's incredibly obnoxious.

It's so bad that users have tried to compensate by writing spam filter addons that block the messages and file support tickets about them. It's a bad day when your game is as bad as your email. And now Blizzard's unhappy about all the work the reports are creating and are taking steps to make it harder to file tickets. If this battle lasts much longer I think the game will be ruined.

What kills me is that Blizzard hasn't taken the obvious steps to simply stop spam. Messages inside World of Warcraft go through a tightly controlled central server. All they have to do is put some basic throttling and account limitations in and the problem disappears. So far they're unwilling. A particular frustration is that it's commonly believed that the spam comes from free temporary accounts, but Blizzard is more more interested in allowing the free users to send messages than protecting paying long term customers from getting spam. It's a bad business decision.

Update: the 2.1 patch will include some spam prevention measures, mostly better user blocking tools. I sure hope they're doing some behind the scenes stuff to stop the spam being injected in the first place.
  2007-05-09 07:38 Z
A central reward in most MMOGs is leveling up. You play for a few hours and then ding! you've gained a level. And a common design feature in most games is that the higher your level, the more time it will take to get to the next level.

The PlayOn folks have a nice graph of time to level in World of Warcraft as a function of level. I redrew it as level as a function of time. This view highlights the fact that your reward frequency diminishes over time. Early on it takes 2 hours of play to level up. But the rewards come more and more slowly to where you're playing 10 hours per "ding!".

It's weird that rewards in the game so predictably slow down. The rewards themselves don't get more valuable; going from level 44 to 45 doesn't really get you more than going from 4 to 5.

Maybe the time spent makes the rewards just seem more valuable? Level 60 feels like a big accomplishment given the time involved. But then, that's totally artificial. Or maybe the game developers cynically know they can get away with less frequent rewards because there's so much sunk cost. Players spend so much time getting to 44 that they'll spend longer for 45 because they're already invested.

  2006-08-22 03:09 Z
A big part of online games is accumulating virtual wealth. If you're lazy you can buy virtual money with real money, paying to not play the game that you pay for. I did a little study of the price of 1000 gold on 168 US Warcraft servers and came up with some results.
1000 gold costs about $150, although it's over $200 on a fair number of servers. 1000 gold is a lot of gold. It's the price of an epic mount, the most expensive thing many people ever buy. The $150 to buy it is the cost of a year's subscription to WoW. A normal player at level 60 can make 1000 gold in about 50 hours, or about $3 / hour.
There's a lot of variation in the price of gold from server to server. But I can't find any correlation between the price of gold and anything else. Gold costs the same no matter if you're on an old server or new one, have a lot of players or few, or whether you're on a normal or PvP server. I was surprised to find no correlation; maybe the gold-for-dollars market is just really efficient?

I got the price data from IGE and realm ages and populations from the WoW census.

Update: one thing I did not appreciate is how volatile gold prices are. Since writing the above two days ago IGE's median price for 1000 gold went from $153 to $177! I'm collecting more data both in time and from different gold merchants to understand this better.
  2006-08-11 01:19 Z
Online games are popular because they are social experiences. So it's that the most popular online game, World of Warcraft, has such poor social tools. I just picked up the game again after 16 months and if anything, the social tools are worse now than ever.

The basic social goal in the game is to find people to play with. And for that, you need to join a guild. But how does someone new find a guild? The main way seems to be you get randomly spammed by people saying "join my guild?" Needless to say, the quality of that experience varies. The better way to find a guild is to randomly group up with people you run across until you find someone you like, then stay with them. So pick-up groups are essential.

Here's where WoW got worse. The #1 tool for finding a pick-up group is the "looking for group" channel. It used to be chat there was local to your current zone so you were talking with people roughly your level doing the same things. But a recent patch made the channel global for the whole server. Now the channel is full of random spam and a bunch of people asking for groups way beyond my level.

The spam is bad (there's even a spam filter mod), but the bigger problem is the lack of a place to find people doing things similar to me. The patch has destroyed locality and LFG is now useless.

The other main problem is there's almost never a reason to actually do things with other people until you're level 60. The only group goal for newer players is doing quests together, but it's hard to find quests in common in the first place and the moment someone plays for an hour when their friend is offline they get ahead and the friend can't catch up. Very awkward.

Then again at 6.5M users WoW is doing something right. My theory is there's just enough social contact to keep people happy, but it's really the scripted content and Pavlovian level rewards that keep people going.

  2006-07-23 16:54 Z