Friday, December 19, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part II - Squatter's Rights

I'm now a proud landowner of a scratchy 8 by 8 plot in the northern foothills of the Windscour Savannah, courtesy of a helpful guildie named Promac, who pointed it out to me when I plaintively asked for help in guild chat locating a suitable site. It's no piece of paradise – the land seems more suited to lantana (a vicious, noxious, invasive, scrub and thicket forming weed I've had the misfortune of having to clear vast tracts of when I was a youth) than anything else, being set an alarmingly steep 45 degree angle and located at the foothills of a ring of mountains. It's at the very edge of a large player settlement north of the Windheart Lake, miles away from amenities, vendors and the like, and located in a PvP zone which cyclically erupts into open war. Like an immigrant to a new country, my avatar has to begin at the margins of established society, to fill vacancies and do jobs shunned or avoided by the mainstream. If the established players of AA are the landed gentry with plush homes, fast gliders and sleek seafaring vessels, then my avatar Hatakeyama is a penniless immigrant, with more in common with the thousands of folks that poured into America and Australia during the days of the gold rush in California and Ballarat respectively. I can visualise her going to sleep at night with her belongings tucked carefully underneath her, her Gildas rattling in a can, counted and recounted numerous times. In the morning she climbs the mountains north-east of Anvilton to mine for ore. It's backbreaking work, but she does it dutifully, humming a tune in an exotic tongue, to the mild bemusement of her fellow miners. On the way home she walks past the row of beautifully appointed homes in quiet envy, and in her heart of hearts resolves to one day have a house like this.

It's no piece of paradise, but it's hers.

Before finding her plot Hatakeyama had to resort to planting “illegal” farms all over the world, and hoping that her produce wasn't pilfered before she was able to return to harvest her crops. This led to a kind of twisted game of hide and seek, as I found out to my chagrin that there are players out there who specialise in finding and uprooting these types of plots. The very first time I planted out in the world was around the corner from the crafting vendor behind a nearby barn. When I returned my pumpkin and lily patch was gone - instead, the ground around the area was littered with red footprints. Some cheeky bastard had stolen them, but thanks to the footprints I could actually see their name, as well as report the thief to the judiciary. Undeterred by this initial failure I decided to try my luck again, by finding a spot a little further secluded and out of the way. Once again I sowed, watered and congratulated myself on my cunning, then logged off. On my return I found that the pumpkins and lilies had been carried off again, and not only that they had been carried off by the same guy. It made me wonder if he was running some kind of script which allowed him to find these farms.

As a last ditch attempt Hatakeyama resolved to find the most remote, inhospitable, out-of-the way locale she could find, and try to raise some crops there. She found it in this abandoned mansion below – a quest area some distance from the nearest settlement, populated by man-eating plants and bots. Behind a stand of bushes at the rear of the mansion, Hatakeyama found a secluded spot far away from normal transit routes and questing pathways.

Here, in this eerie and forbidding location Hatakeyama found the ideal location for her “illegal” farm. These farms are "illegal" in the sense that people pay no taxes on them. Player owned property guarantees security from pilfering and theft at the cost of a tax upkeep. Planting crops or raising livestock in the wild avoids this tax entirely, but your produce is vulnerable to the predations of other players, although there is a deterrent in the form of the justice system, which catalogues these types of actions as a punishable offence. Whether they get punished or not is up to the jury they draw in their trial. For Hatakeyama, however, this haunted manse gave her a place to grow crops and raise a gaggle of geese in relative obscurity.

The site of Hatakeyama's secret farm - a dark and foreboding manse on the edge of nowhere.

Her secret garden was only discovered once in the three or four days she spent there. While feeding her geese another player walked into her patch, leading to a tense confrontation. She was unsure as to what to do – this area was, after all, a PvP zone, which meant either player could flag and attack each other, despite being on the same faction. Hatakeyama was prepared to defend her ducks to the death, but it didn't prove necessary. The other guy backed off. Hatakeyama followed, like an angry bear whose cub had been threatened, but to her surprise, he didn't go very far. She found him at the far corner of the estate, and there, behind some cottages, was another illegal farm, much more substantial than hers. The other guy didn't realise he had been followed, and an awkward silence ensued when he realised that she was there. From his buffs I could tell that he was not a Patron – he was a F2P player who could not own private land.

“I'll leave yours be if you leave mine be,” I offered.

“Deal.” And with that an agreement was reached, and both of us were able to farm in peace for the remainder of the week.

Hatakeyama tending to her flock of geese.

Those days are over for Hatakeyama, given that she has her own plot of land now. She actually has two plots – Promac showed me two places where I could place an 8x8, and I claimed both using both Hatakeyama and my alt Beorn. Beorn's journey to claim the second plot is an odyssey in of itself – he travelled across 40+ PvP zones as a level six avatar, dodging mobs and flagged enemy players before finally descending down a sheer cliff face to get to his destination. He made it to the plot and was able to claim it, but was then subsequently ganked by an irate purple (same faction) player who perhaps had designs on his land. Too late, bud – once Beorn planted his farm it would remain his as long as he remained a subscriber and paid his taxes on time. So now Hatakeyama has access to two small plots of land (you have free access to your alt's land as well, although you have to pay taxes separately). When she left her “illegal” farm for good, Hatakeyama debated whether to butcher her remaining geese, but decided against it. Game mechanics dictate that these geese would eventually starve and die if not looked after, but I like to imagine that Hatakeyama released them into the wild to hopefully thrive and raise further generations of geese. In the grounds of a haunted manor. Occupied by man-eating giant plants.

I have never played Ultima Online, or Star Wars Galaxies, and thus my only experience with player housing up until now has been the instanced type typified by SWTOR (player spaceship) and WoW (Halfhill farm, and now the WoD garrison). I've never played Minecraft or EQ Landmark either, so manipulating the environment is a new thing to me – in my limited experience the world has always been just scenery, not something a player can interact with in a meaningful way. I love the non-instanced housing in AA, and the fact that crops and livestock can be raised anywhere. I think I understand why AA has a half-finished feel to it now. Perhaps it was a design decision to leave vast tracts of land open, for the pure purpose of allowing players to modify it in their own way. Last week in the region of Ynstere, there were cherry trees as far as the eye can see, travelling the length of the road from Glitterstone in the mountains to city of Carnord on the coast. Some areas in Ynstere have been converted from barren hills into dense woods composed of hundreds of cherry trees. The screenshot below shows a battle at the Crimson Rift (a raid level world event against hundreds of AI soldiers) taking place underneath the boughs of this man-made wood. Player reaction to this has been mixed – some players have been cooing at how beautiful the wood is, while others are annoyed at the disruption to the Crimson Rift event. It's a mystery to me how the wood survived the week – I would have thought that a bunch of avaricious players would have taken an axe to these trees already. The presence of this wood is a clear mark of player agency made manifest in the persistent world. I don't know how long the wood stood, or if it still there now - I wrote this post in early November, just prior to the launch of WoD. But the fact that people can alter the persistent world in such a fashion has opened my eyes to the possibilities of virtual worlds beyond the instanced, phased, and carefully sub-divided versions typified by WoW and its clones.

This beautiful wood composed of cherry blossoms is completely player made, and in this screenshot is a site of an ongoing battle.

Archeage is dying a death of a thousand cuts, roundly criticised by all and sundry for the inept mismanagement shown by the stewards of the Western version of the game. The consensus on AA seems to have been that Trion had a rough gem on their hands, but any attempts to leverage this into mainstream success has been torpedoed by their failure to clamp down on the rampant hacks, the botting, and the flagrant "double dipping" epitomised by their subscription fee and the P4P cash shop. I can't tell you how disappointing this is, because I really do like this game. It is the first game of its type I have played, and I am hoping to see more MMOs like this in the future.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VII - Gearing Up For WoW

So I'm back in WoW, much to my surprise, and I have to say that I am really enjoying it. The game is like a comfortable pair of slippers, easy to slide back into it and gentle on the soles of the feet. There have been some issues with massive log-in queues, but they seem to have been fixed as of last Saturday. It's very comforting to see some old faces, and to exchange in good-natured banter with team mates, guild mates and the like. My gaming circle has transferred en-masse to the PvP Oceanic server of Gundrak. We left our old guild behind, which was an occasion for a little bit of remorse, given that we have been there since vanilla. Cross-realm grouping allows for us to stay in touch and play with people we left behind however, so it's not goodbye for good.

Tientzo in Shadowmoon Valley.

Season 16 kicks off on December 2nd, and as a PvPer pretty much everything I am doing is geared towards getting ready for the 10-15 week grind for full Conquest gear. It takes about 27,000 points to get full Conquest, which equates to 15 weeks for someone at 1800 cap (1700 in WoD), just over 12 weeks for someone at 2200, and even less for players with higher caps. My approach to this season will be the same as it has usually been for previous seasons - accumulate gear by hitting Conquest caps on a weekly basis via Arenas and Rated BGs, and then push for rating at the end of the season. First things first, however - we all have to first hit the level cap, and that requires questing. Ugh. TESO has inculcated a deep and abiding distaste of questing for me, and I had to say that I wasn't looking forward to grinding to 100 in WoW. I have been pleasantly surprised however - maybe it's just nostalgia, but I am having fun levelling in WoD. Can I just say that levelling in a PvP server is a frenetic free for all in contested zones? The Horde outnumber the Alliance two to one on Gundrak. To make matters worse, the Horde outnumber the Alliance more than two to one on Jubei'Thos, and since these two realms are linked, it has created an overall population imbalance of more than four to one in favour of the Horde. Not that it matters - I actually like being outnumbered, even if it means that I will spend a lot of time corpse running. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I spent a great deal of time being a ganker on Illidan, where the Horde outnumbered the Alliance a ridiculous 35-1. It's a little different on Gundrak, given that I chosen to main my monk this season. No stealth, Vanishes or Shadowmelds this time around - instead I have to be aware of my environment, group up when necessary, use the monk's amazing mobility to get out of trouble, or be flexible about where I can level if things get too hot in a given zone. I never read quest text in the best of times, but OMG turning in becomes Mission Impossible unto itself if there are Horde about. Killing quest mobs sometimes becomes a frantic case of darting in, getting the mob down ASAP, and then getting the hell out of there. It certainly keeps me on my toes, and I'm quite happy to relinquish a degree of control over my levelling experience to have this sense of constant danger around me. Sometimes there are periods of uneasy peace, where a bunch of Horde and Alliance stand nervously around a quest giver, but all it takes is one hawk on either side to start attacking, and the whole thing devolves into a massive brawl. There are more unspoken truces in one on one encounters - players circle around each other warily and go on about their business - but as soon as numbers begin to pile up in any given location, the odds of a peaceful resolution drop dramatically. You can inadvertently hit someone with an AoE spell while hitting mobs (I've done it a few times with Chi Wave), and this can constitute the provocation which sets off the ensuing bloodbath. "You dare poke me with your Chi Wave? I'll eat your heart, Alliance scum!"

The real meat of the season occurs when our team start actually pushing for rating. Everything else is just practice. Traditionally pushing for rating comes in two flavours. You can either push at the beginning of the season, and sit on your rating for the remainder. The pro teams do it this way, and there are some advantages associated with this. By pushing hard to a high rating you increase your Conquest caps, so much so that you can be 1-4 pieces of gear ahead of the opposition who only play to the regular cap. By the end of the gearing period everyone will be wearing the same gear, so the rationale behind this approach is to go hard early, get high caps and therefore get a gearing advantage, and then exploit this advantage to get higher ratings on the ladder before everyone else catches up to your level of gear. If you're going to go down this route you have to make sure that you start the season with full Honor gear before the Rated season begins. Some people are lazy about their Honor grind pre-season, and you may start with a gearing advantage if your opposition didn't bother grinding. I've attained the best ratings I've ever had by this method (1900+), going hard in the very first week of the season with a team of like-minded individuals with only Honor gear and one piece of Conquest. The gear differential may be miniscule, but in tight situations these disparities might be all that stands between the way of a guaranteed kill or a recovery by the enemy team.

The second way is the way I have usually done it, which is basically use the gearing period to practice and learn your class and spec before finally pushing for rating at the end of the season, once all your team mates are decked out in full Conquest. The teams I have played in usually reserve the last 4-6 weeks of a season to push rating, and it is a better fit for the people I play with, given that we all have varying demands on our time and schedules. I've been out of the game for eight months, I'm playing WoW PvP with a Razer Naga for the first time, and there have been massive changes to the meta. All of these factors require a learning period which I would prefer to spread out over 2-3 months rather than compressing into a two week period before Season 16 begins. Given what I know of the changes to the PvP meta it would seem that melee will be the king of this expansion. No more disarms, the pruning of instant cast heals, and less CC equals more uptime for melee to stay in the face of their target. MoP was unquestionably dominated by spell casters, with locks, mages, shadow priests, druids and shamans making up the bulk of high end tournament play. WoD looks like it might be the era of melee. Fitting, too, given the theme of the expansion. I was going to roll shadow priest this time around - I used my free 90 boost to level one - but when I looked at his defensive CDs I thought to myself, "How in the name of the Light am I going to get melee off of myself?" No more Psychic Fiend. Psychic Scream and Void Tendrils share the same tier talent, and given that most melee I know have at least two escapes from Fear (all have trinket plus DK's Desecrated Ground, ret pally's bubble, Warrior's Berserk, and a Windwalker's Nimble Brew) without taking into account defensive dispels from their healer, it looks like it's going to be a long season for priests. Can anyone say Choo Choo Train? These guys are going to be trained into the ground by melee teams, and their survival is going to be heavily dependent on the quality of the peels and heals from their team mates. This is the case for every class - this is why Arena and Rated BGs are a team e-sport - but there is a threshold where the advantages your class offers is offset by the disadvantages, and it looks like shadow priests might have crossed it. They'll still be great in Rated BGs, because offensive dispels, off heals and multiple target DoT pressure is still valuable in this setting. Arenas might be a different story, but who knows, my knowledge of the new meta is in its preliminary stages at the moment.

So rather than going priest, I'm going to main a monk, either as a healer or a melee dps. I will decide once Rykester, Ratsac and Lelle decide what specs they will roll - I don't have to decide until I ding 100, and the Honor grind begins. Even then the choice is not irrevocable, not until the purchase of my first Conquest piece. This initial purchase determines my spec for the season. For now I am questing as a Windwalker, and learning how to play him with a Razer Naga. As retarded as it sounds, I have only played Arenas and Rated BG's as a keyboard turner, and the difference is night and day - I hope that this transition to mouse based control will be the catalyst that will put me over 2k in the coming seasons. Fortunately I've become more proficient with the Naga, which I bought in March just when I was quitting WoW. I used it in TESO and AA, and my hand has finally adapted and learned the position of the keys, even the keys located in the most difficult hand contorting positions. In a way it was good for me to take a break from WoW. It erased my memories of my previous keybinds, and allowed me to remap them onto a control method which I had finally become comfortable with. One day I will level my rogue, and I will compare my footage as a keyboard turning rogue with that of me playing with a mouse.

I'm using questing as a way of practicing, assigning keybinds to mouse button, and learning their location via repetitive use. I aggro two mobs at a time, Paralyse one, and then practice unloading burst on the other. I'm trying to winkle out what my burst combo is, and am disciplining myself to pool my resources. PvE is different to PvP in that PvE requires you to dump resources before you cap, because sitting at full means a net DPS loss. In PvP you are required to sit on fully pooled resources a lot of time to ensure that when your team mate says go, you can put the pedal to the metal and unload coordinated burst on your kill target. The discipline part comes in when you are not bursting, and just putting out light pressure - it's hard not to dump all your resources into your current target, and then suddenly find that when it's time to swap you have your trinket and CD buffs but no resources to apply maximum pressure. In my monk's case, I need to have all my Tigereye Brew stacked and ready to go, as well as having a full pool of Chi. My preliminary burst combo is hitting trinket + brew, starting with a Rising Sun kick (the monk's hardest hitting ability with a healing debuff), then spamming Blackout Kick. I also need to practice kiting, which is something that monks excel at. If I can kite well I will have the option of two jobs in Rated BG play - one as melee DPS, and another as a FC (flag carrier). Not to mention heals if I roll Mistweaver. A lot of this is really simple in theory - the trick is to make these moves instinctive, fluid, and automatic through thousands of repetitions in a vast array of situations. This means duelling constantly against every possible class and spec, practicing in random BGs and Arena skirmishes, and finally playing lots and lots of Rated games.

Tientzo solos an elite in Gorgrond...by kiting him to the NPC guards. Hey, whatever it takes, right?

I never thought I would say it, but it's really good to be back. Moreover, it's good to be back with people who I enjoy playing the game with. None of this really matters - the grind, the gear, the ladder, even the rating itself - I proved that to myself when I walked away from the game. You don't miss it when you're gone. It's just something to give you focus while playing, and it is a worthy end in of itself, because it requires discipline, skill and team work to achieve. Nonetheless, ladder achievements all pale into comparison with the company you keep, and the comrades, friends and family you play with. Nothing beats the feeling of achieving goals with people you like, and hopefully there will be plenty of shared laughs, groans of agony, cheers of victory, agonizing defeats, and ridiculous out-of-your ass plays in the coming season. I'm sure there will be dummy spits and moments of self-doubt, too, in which I question my ability to play the game, but we've been playing together for literally thousands of games in both formats, and if we're still playing together after all the arguments, frustrations, and setbacks we've had then nothing in the future is going to stop us.

Bring on the new season, and let the games begin.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Diaries of a Ganker, Part VI - A Return to Azeroth

I really thought that I was done with WoW.
 
I penned a series of posts last year entitled Diaries of a Ganker, and in these posts I gave the account of my shenanigans as a ganker on Illidan, as well as my team's attempt to push rating on the Arena and Rated BG ladders. In March, however, I cancelled my subscription and called it quits for good, or so I thought. The fact that Warlords of Draenor was coming did nothing for me. Nor did the announcement that Australia was getting their own servers fill me with excitement. As a resident of Japan my latency on Australian and American servers are about the same, clocking in at roughly 120 ms. There are two other MMOs vying for my time - TESO and AA - and as I said in a previous post, the only reason why I would return to WoW is if the group of players I used to play with decided to jump back in the saddle again. Given that we have all splintered into differing pursuits the probability of this happening equated to the proverbial snowball's chance in hell.

The first inkling that the snowball might survive came when an old comrade-in-arms Sorgon appeared on Battlenet when I was playing Hearthstone. I haven't seen this guy for almost a year, and he is one of the two really excellent warlocks I've met on my old server. He is also an old Arena team mate and a 2k Rated BG player. We exchanged some light banter, and he surprised me by saying he was thinking of returning to WoW. I wished him luck, told him I had too many things on my plate, and said farewell.

The second hint that the universe was coming into alignment was the appearance of Tamati on Battlenet, a Kiwi team mate who had moved to the United Arab Emirate. After months of silence, he appeared, told me he had a stable Internet connection, said he was thinking of diving back into WoW rated play, and asked whether I was thinking of running Rated BGs this coming expansion? I said no, wished him well, and we went our separate ways.

The third revelation occurred when Rykester. a good mate in real life who called WoW quits at the end of last year, asked me whether or not I would be playing the expansion. I said no, then queried, are you? He said, well we have Aussie servers now, latency isn't going to screw us over anymore. We won't lose games based on bad ping. What about TESO, I asked. He said, the AvAvA is fun, but it's not Skyrim, which is what I really wanted. You should play AA, I said. It's more Skyrim than TESO is. Really? he replied. I might give it a bash someday, but WoD looks really fun. You know they are letting us transfer our toons over for free, right?

Really?

And there's a free week of subscription available?

Dang.

At this stage I realised that the world was moving in mysterious ways, and conspiring to return me to WoW. I messaged a friend and team mate Ratsac on Battlenet. You playing WoW? Ratsac has been busy in real life building a new house over in Perth, and his reply was curt and to the point. Fucking oath, bro. He then went on, I've been playing boomie on the Oceanic servers, and owning everyone. It's a different game on 20-40 ms. You should listen to all the Americans QQing in Oceanic BGs about the bad ping, bitching that the game is unplayable. Now they know how us Aussies feel. Ratsac recently got his 2k achievement in Rateds at 200+ ms, so I shudder to think how much carnage he will wreck at 20 ms.
 
 
The final revelation occurred when I conversed with my sister on Skype recently. Known as Lelle in WoW, and Sally in TESO, she just had a new baby and being a new parent is consuming almost all her time. She asked me, so are we going to play WoW? I was rather taken aback by this question. What about the baby? And TESO? I can't play as much as I used to, obviously, she replied. But we can work around the baby. And I can play my warrior without lag!!! Hurrah!!! She was positively beaming with enthusiasm. I can't recall her being so excited for a game for a long time.
 
 
What finally sealed the deal was watching Blizzcon and the WoW Arena World Championships, which were the closest and most competitive series I have seen in the history of the competition (the semi-finals and the final are all embedded in this post). Both semi-finals had the winners coming back from a 2-0 deficit to take the series 3-2, with the title eventually being taken in 4-2 in a best of seven series. I also saw what may be the changing of the WoW guard - anyone who follows WoW Arena will know the names Cdew, Venrucki, Snutz, Talbadar and co., and I found it very interesting that long time stalwarts Skill Capped and Three Amigos tumbled to a new European team called Bleached Bones. Lazerchicken was a revelation, playing his hybrid boomkin class beautifully, putting out constant damage pressure, kiting in tandem with his healer when trained, and supporting his team with off-heals and peels to alleviate pressure when required. Watching these games rekindled the old love for this format, and a desire to mix it up and try again to hit that holy grail of PvP for me, a 2k rating. This is something I have never been able to do despite years of trying, and while I have come agonisingly close, I have never reached this milestone.
 
 
I have cancelled my TESO subscription after eight months in the game, and designated it as a title to return to in the future. I will keep pottering away in AA because it is the most alive persistent world I have been to despite its repeated attempts to scuttle itself by inept customer service. But my friends and family are going back to WoW, and they are doing so with big happy smiles on their faces. At the end of the day all the thousands of words about meaningful persistent sandbox worlds means nothing in the face of the bonds between friends, family, and old comrades. The stars have aligned - the signs in the tea leaves are clear - the augurs have spoken. WoW is beckoning.
 
Who am I to argue with the universe?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part I - Immigrant Blues

It's tough to be an immigrant.

Stranger in a strange land. It's just Hatakeyama and her beast - mount - thingy - in a hostile world.
You're a stranger in a strange land. You don't know the language, or in the case of MMOs, the peculiar shorthands which spring up to describe the various dungeons, raids or what-not. The geography is confusing, and the road ahead is murky - you don't know what activities are level-appropriate, or what the best route to the power cap is. You are ignorant of the norms governing the space, nor do you know who the influential guilds are, a factor which becomes important if you want to dive into inter-guild warfare. The vast multitude of crafting materials and harvestable goods on offer present an intricate interlocking jigsaw that defies easy assimilation. The plethora of NPCs and their titles mean nothing to you as of yet, and the simple act of drawing water has you in a tizzy trying to remember where the last well you stopped at was.

As a tourist, however, you do possess a number of advantages. You have travelled through similar landscapes before, and there are many elements which are familiar. The tab targeting CD based combat is like a second skin, and soon the neural pathways begin to be mapped and reinforced by hundreds of key presses against generic mobs doomed to wander in circumscribed areas like lambs awaiting the slaughter. Skill trees are easy to comprehend, and you find yourself peering at the tool tips to try to winkle out synergies and combos. The gold sellers and bots are a familiar blight, as are the trolls, the idiots, the know-it-alls, the lost and confused, and the occasional wits with the genuinely funny comebacks and one-liners.

Yuri Hatakeyama, in yet another incarnation in another virtual world.
This is the situation faced by my avatar Hatakeyama in Archeage, now level 36, currently guild-less (actually now a member of Unreal Aussies - why do I always find these badly named guilds?), friend-less, and somewhat hapless in this brave new world she finds herself in. AA has had its share of detractors, most recently Syncaine of Hardcore Casual and J3w3l of Healing the Masses, and their most biting criticisms have been aimed at the (to use Syncaine's term) pay for power (P4P) elements of the game. While J3w3l is quite happy enough to continue playing despite Trion's dubious payment model, Syncaine has thrown in the towel and cancelled his sub. This has led to, somewhat interestingly enough, a spirited debate on his own blog where his buddy Mobs accuses Syncaine of not giving the game a fair shake. Not knowing either of the two protagonists I stay out of the argument - but it has led to a new resolution to view the game with my own eyes  rather than taking at face value everything that Syncaine has to say on his blog regarding AA.

So this posts, and all other posts marked with the pre-fix "Adrift in Archeage" will detail the tales of this wandering Haranya. In her travels she has noticed a few things, chief most being the different caste of citizens which exist in AA. The lowest caste are the people who play for free. They are unable to own property, and earn Labor points at a reduced rate. Labor is the bedrock of crafting in AA - all crafting actions cost Labor - and this caste only earns Labor while they are online, which led to some interesting ramifications during launch. On the upside, they have the chance to play without shelling out any real life currency before deciding whether or not this game is for them.

The second tier of citizenship belongs to subscribers. They have priority queuing. They earn Labor at a higher rate, but more importantly, they also earn Labor while they are offline and have a higher Labor cap. They also have the ability to own property. Property allows you to grow crops, raise livestock and builds houses on protected land - while anyone can plant or raise livestock pretty much anywhere in the world, these items are vulnerable to depredation from other players who chance on these items growing in the wild. Crops or livestock on protected land cannot be plundered, although I have to confess that I only know this to be true for "protected" (i.e. non-PvP) zones. Whether protected land in PvP zones offer the same guarantees is something I have to discover once I venture forth into these areas.

The very top tier of citizenship in AA belongs to the "whales" who are subscribers but are also willing to shell out extra cash for P4P items in the cash shop. While being a subscriber in WoW, Eve Online or TESO gives you access to the complete game supplemented by a cosmetic cash shop, Trion has taken the somewhat dubious road of implementing a cash shop which sells not only vanity gear, but also items which boost a player's power. These items include Labor boosts, crafting boosts, better gliders, and items which dramatically remove the RNG factor in the upgrading of gear.

So the question for me is whether I am willing to put up with this kind of blatant cash grab in order to play the game. In many ways AA is a strange beast - it forces PvPers to play PvE until level 30, and it forces PvErs to adjust to a PvP end game beyond 30. PvP can be avoided entirely by staying in protected zones and venturing into contested zones during times of peace only, so it is conceivable to play AA as a PvEr only, much like how high-sec industrialists do it in Eve Online. As a PvPer though I do have legitimate concerns as to whether or not I am willing to face players who can spend wads of real life cash to get a gearing edge on me in PvP.

The short answer is yes, for now. Quite a few reasons spring to mind, the first being the lack of alternatives. Single player games which I have been looking forward to have not met my expectations - Jagged Alliance: Flashback, by all accounts, is a steaming pile of manure, while Beyond Earth has been damned with faint praise, with one reviewer comparing it to a Civ 5 mod without the actual charm of historical leaders, units, wonders, religions and cultural works. I have no doubt I will buy and play this game one day, but coming off a Civ 5 marathon game on a Huge map on Deity difficulty which took about two weeks to complete, it is the last thing I want to do at the moment. I have TESO burn-out thanks to the immeasurable grind required to level Veteran ranks, and am willing to put off levelling until patch 1.5 goes live, and the experience requirement becomes drastically reduced. Being a long time WoW player I thought WoD would tempt me, but strangely enough it hasn't. When I was a WoW subscriber I didn't play WoW the MMO, but rather WoW the MOBA ladder tournament of Arenas and Rated BGs. The only reason for returning to WoW would be if the old gang decided to assemble one more time, but given that my team mates have scattered all over the world this has become increasingly unlikely. Corona is off on deployment, Rykester is doing his Masters, Sally has a new baby, Tamati has moved to the United Arab Emirates, and even Ratsac is focusing more on RL diversions. This is actually the first time I have really played an MMO on my own - I'm used to having Sally and Rykester having my back, and when we're together the thousands of Arena games we have played together means we can give as good as we get in the vast majority of encounters against other players in both WoW and TESO. Focusing targets, quick swaps, synchronising CDs and peels are second nature for us, and usually means we can leverage our years of teamwork against disorganized mobs of players. No longer. I'm just one guy now, and an ignorant neophyte at that. I tried joining Syncaine's guild in Ollo, but given that the guild has disintegrated prematurely that idea is still-born. If I'm going to play AA I'm going to have to start from scratch, with nary a friend in sight, but this isn't a prospect I am facing with dread, although I do miss my long time intrepid companions.

Seeing a skyship for the first time, Hatakeyama looks on with awe.
The more fundamental reason as to why I'm OK with playing in an environment like AA's is that I hold with the idea that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of open world PvP. The distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical games are very clear in my own mind - I place discrete, balanced and instanced games like WoW Arena, League of Legends and StarCraft 2 in one category, and persistent open world games like EVE Online, Darkfall, TESO and now Archeage in another. Each style of gameplay has its own appeal - in balanced PvP all things being equal the team with greater skill will win, which is why this type of gameplay has to be scrupulously balanced in order to ensure that player ability is the primary determinant of victory. In persistent world PvP there are so many variables that winning is not always determined by skill. It can be influenced by level/gear differential, state of readiness, time spent in the world, time zones, and even by the amount of friends you bring to the gunfight. I have written copious amounts of words on this topic here, and I don't intend to rehash it. Suffice to say that I understand that AA belongs to the latter category of PvP - open world PvP - and understand that I will be outgunned and outgeared by people who are willing to spend tracts of cash to obtain a gearing edge. I don't expect balance, nor will I be weeping and gnashing my teeth on the forums when I eat gank after gank while I level up in the contested zones. I will simply collect my bruised avatar at the Statues of Nui, and head off again and try to use my wits to avoid a similar fate. The trade off for me will be to live in a world that is alive, where people till and work their fields, and trade convoys go rumbling along the dust-beaten tracks on route to far away lands. I have yet to venture onto the open sea in Archeage, yet watching from the cliffs as convoys prepare to embark to distant shores I have to confess to a romantic stirring in my breast. The landscape of AA is an exotic one, born from the shores of Korea, and now transplanted uncomfortably to the west. Like J3w3l, I love the Korean speaking NPCs, but more than this I like the guild advertisements that scroll in zone chat looking for people in several different languages. I have seen Russian, Filipino, Portugese and French so far, and this adds to the feeling of living in a strange land far different from anything I have experienced to date in a computer game. MMOs are best when they convey the feeling of organic, shifting life, and this world, for all its perils and the all too-common brutish idiocy associated with F2P and OWPvP, is alive.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part V - A Brief Interlude

Much has changed since I last wrote about TESO. I lack the discipline to churn out regular blog posts, preferring to play rather than write about games, and when I actually do write, I end up creating massive, turgid and long-winded posts about issues which seem trivial in hindsight. Ah well, no one is forcing anyone to read this, so I will just potter along and write about things which interest me. Once an idea gets in my skull it festers in the back of my head, and only the act of publishing it liberates my mind from the fixation. It's quite a relief to get a post published and to forget about it.



The Siren Call of Archeage

I have been sorely tempted by the lures of Archeage. It has many features which interests someone of my background. One of the recurring themes of this blog is the quest for meaningful open world PvP, and AA appears to be one of the few titles that have incentivized it correctly and given it purpose beyond meaningless griefing. A game has to be doing something right if it is able to attract both self-defined "carebears" such as Aywren of Clean Casuals Gaming, and hardcore PvPers like Syncaine of Hardcore Casual. On the other hand, the horror stories about the prevalence of bots and hackers, Trion's unwillingness or inability to deal with them, and the controversy regarding the use of a rootkit program called HackShield are all red flags which dampen my interest in the game. I've already taken the plunge and joined Syncaine's guild on the Ollo server, but have yet to actually play the game online with my new guild. My AA avatar is in her 20's, and is a neophyte in all things AA related, so I don't expect to go on any roams with the guild for at least a couple more weeks. It's actually quite fun to be a stranger in a strange land - to not know the landscape intimately, to be unable to comprehend the meaning of the abbreviations in zone chat, or to know the potential strengths or weaknesses of my character's build. My avatar has simply been questing, following the bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel in the big bad woods, except that the big bad woods so far have been non-PvP zones and have been quite uneventful, peaceful areas. I'm sure a rude shock awaits once she enters the contested zones, but it is something I am looking forward to. For now my avatar Hatakeyama is learning how to plant flowers and trying to wrap my head around how the crafting system works. No guides used as of yet - that will come once someone flattens me in PvP - but she is learning as she goes. At the moment of writing she has planted a bunch of lilies behind a non-descript barn, and is hoping that the flowers will still be around when she logs on later this evening. It is a joy to be able to interact with the world, and to see the mark of player agency everywhere, from the player-owned and tended fields, the vast melange of houses and the occasional convoy that come rumbling along the dirt roads. TESO is a far more beautiful game - look at these amazing screenshots of the in-game engine - but its beauty is akin to that of painting locked away behind a glass case, pristine but forever beyond alteration. AA is a rough work in progress, but more importantly it is a communal effort, and one that springs from the players themselves. 


Single Player Diversions

I'm still subscribed to TESO, but my avatar has stalled at Veteran Rank (VR) 6 (out of a possible 14), and levelling her to cap via questing is a concept that fills me with horror and trepidation. I'm pretty much with J3w3l of Healing the Masses on this one - I think I'd prefer to eat broken glass rather than do another quest, regardless of how nicely the graphics are rendered and how well the voice acting is performed. Instead I play around with my Templar alt, and occasionally do some PvP in Cyrodiil on my main. I am now very much out of touch with the situation within the PvP campaigns. The only time I play TESO is when I can organise a time when I can play with Rykester and Sally Mander, and those times are becoming fewer and far between due to Rykester's ongoing studies and Sally's new baby girl. Nowadays I am devoting much more time to activities outside gaming, and the time I do spend in gaming is spent on single player titles such as Civilisation V, Hearthstone and Wasteland 2. I finally beat Civ 5 on the hardest difficulty setting, and have no plans to ever return to it outside of multiplayer games. Unfortunately Beyond Earth is on the cusp of release, and I fear that this will be another title which will consume much of my leisure time. I started playing Hearthstone in August when I went back to Australia for holiday, and this title has scratched an itch for competitive play which WoW Arena and Rated BGs used to fill. I would like to become good at Hearthstone, and try to attain Legendary rank, much like Matticus in World of Matticus has done. This requires practice and study, however, and it might be something that is beyond me anyway. For now, though, Hearthstone is like Arena without the movement and the twitch requirements, and I am thoroughly enjoying learning and playing the game.

State of the Campaigns in TESO

The PvP landscape in TESO has changed significantly since Part IV of this series. For one, the original ten 90-day campaigns in Cyrodiil have been compressed into five - a non-VR five day campaign, a VR only five day campaign, two 7 day campaigns, and an open 30 day campaign. Another alteration occurred in September, when the Veteran campaign of Bow of Shadows was replaced by another open 30 day campaign (Azura's Star). I've relocated my toons to Thornblade, the first of the two possible open 30 day campaigns, and any subsequent posts about Cyrodiil will take place here. The rough chronology of the campaigns I have been involved with since the April release are as follows:

i) 90 Day Campaign (Wabbajack April-July 2014) - the first, and best campaign in my humble opinion, and I will always have fond memories of the great war in Wabbajack. The story of this campaign can be found here;
ii) Truncated 90 Day Campaign (Wabbajack July-August 2014) - this expired early when the campaigns were compressed into their present day versions;
iii) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade August 2014) - won by the Altmeri Dominion;
iv) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade September 2014) - won by the Altmeri Dominion;
v) 30 Day Campaign (Thornblade October 2014) - scheduled to end in just over a week, but it is CLOSE - any of the three factions can still win it.

In addition to the consolidation of the campaigns Zenimax has instituted a 50,000 AP minimum to be eligible for the rank of Emperor, as well as a 3 day lockout when switching campaigns. The horse has bolted however, as the title of Emperor is completely meaningless now given the prevalence of Emperor farming in the weeks prior to the implementation of patch 1.3. The only Emperors I have respect for are the ones I have seen on a regular basis on the other side, and who have been crowned legitimately in CONTESTED campaigns. Zenimax has also begun awarding items for players in top 10% of the leaderboards (top 2% get a gold item, 2-10% get a purple) in patch 1.4. Previously all you received from the campaigns was gold, the sum total of which was determined by your activity and how well your Alliance did in the campaign. Now being active in the campaign has more tangible inducements, and given the balance changes I see this as an overall positive. And finally in the upcoming 1.5 patch campaign buffs will be localised to the campaign you are physically in. There will no longer be instances where players set their home campaign to one where their faction is dominant, and then guest into other campaigns using the buffs they have in their home campaign. The reign of the Dominion Emperor-Farmers will finally be over - if people want buffs they have to earn it in the campaign they are fighting in.

Overall there have been a vast plethora of changes in TESO, and all for the better. Patch 1.5 promises to add a whole host of quality of life changes. Dungeon scaling is on the cards, Veteran Points will be abolished, and the experience requirement to go up levels has been reduced. Thank the Divines for that. Better facial animations will also be implemented in 1.5, which goes to show where the developer's hearts are in this game - they love their aesthetic, and will spend countless resources improving the lighting, particle effects, and now facial animations over the things I myself would be prioritising - the Imperial City and the justice system all come into mind. For me, however, the best thing Zenimax has done to date is the minor miracle they have wrought on Thornblade. Somehow the three factions are almost completely balanced, as by evidenced by the evolution of the campaign score below.



Even now in the last week of the campaign the result is poised on a razor's edge, as any of the three factions can still win:



Unfortunately the balance in Thornblade is in sharp contrast to the one sided dominance of EP in Azura's Star, the other 30 day campaign. This probably goes to show that these types of factional balance are always in unstable equilibrium, and hitting the sweet spot is more a case of luck than anything else. I just accept that asymmetry is part of these type of open world games and deal with it. If I want balance I play instanced games like WoW Arena, Starcraft 2, or League of Legends.

An Interlude

I plan to remain a TESO subscriber for the foreseeable future, but my attentions will be diverted to AA for the next few weeks. It's too late for me to return to the current Thornblade campaign and be in the hunt for top 2-10% of the leaderboards until the campaign restarts in November. I am really looking forward to the opening of the continent of Auroria in AA, because this is when we will see guilds claim castles and territory and engage in some real large scale skirmishes ala Cyrodiil in TESO. I look forward to seeing which guilds become the top dogs, and who their rivals will be. MMOs are blank canvases on which players can create their own stories, and while AA has its share of challenges to overcome, the battle over Auroria and dominion of the high seas is a player-generated story this old role-player can get into.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On The Virtual Rights of Avatars, Part I - Avatars are Not Free and Equal

14 years ago Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, lead designer of Ultima Online and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, penned an article called Declaring the Rights of Avatars. In this article he conducted a thought experiment in which he created an avatar's Bill of Rights, using the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man as his template. In this experiment he penned an alternative version in which he substituted avatar for citizen, and imbued avatars with a host of rights approximating the human rights articulated in the original bill. This bill states that "avatars are created free and equal"; that such avatars have inalienable rights to "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression"; institutes habeas corpus; protects freedom of speech and assembly; and so on.

My intent in this article is to criticise the bedrock of this virtual bill, namely the concept that all avatars are created free and equal. I would also like to question the wisdom of becoming a virtual citizen, and argue that it is better to remain as a player/consumer rather than to adopt a social contract as envisioned by such a Bill of Rights. Koster's essay was brought to my attention by an article penned by Doone of XP Chronicles, who uses Koster's name as an authority in order to promulgate his own version of an avatar Bill of Rights both on his blog and on the NBI Couch Podtatoes podcast. After reading both articles carefully, however, it is clear that their arguments are substantially different from each other. While Koster ultimately comes to the conclusion that an avatar's Bill of Rights is untenable and incoherent, Doone embraces it wholeheartedly and without reservation. Koster writes:

But there's also some other folks who think that this exercise is plain dangerous. As an example, let me take a co-worker of mine to whom I showed an early draft. He pointed out that virtual world servers run on somebody's hardware. And that most declarations of rights give rights over personal property. By declaring that avatars have rights, we're abrogating that administrator's right to personal property.

I, for one, do not accept the basic premises outlined in this virtual bill, and in the course of this article, I hope to show you why.

Human Rights versus Avatar Rights

I was interested in reading Doone's article because I was hoping for a systemic rebuttal of all the objections raised by Koster and the developers he had interviewed for his paper. After all, 14 years have passed and even Koster leaves open the possibility that changing circumstances could invalidate his initial conclusion:

Instead, Doone's argument completely ignores all of these objection (his sole reference to these objections is a single line saying that “the idea seemed far-fetched at the time”), and adopts a humanistic argument as a means of justifying an avatar Bill of Rights. This is what Koster does, too, but unlike Doone, he realises that this proposition is highly problematic. Doone argues that we are people behind avatars, that avatars haveimplications on our physical well-being, and that emotions are real. In short, he is using our universal humanity as a basis for fundamental rights in the virtual world much in the same way the authors of the Declaration of Man used it as a basis for fundamental rights in the real world.

Avatars are Contingent on Developers

This idea is misconceived in my view, due to the fundamental differences between the nature of avatars and our “meatbag” selves, as well as the differences between virtual space and the real world we live in. An obligation of rights, as set out in Koster and Doone's document, isn't simply a code of conduct. It re-conceptualises avatars as citizens in a synthetic world, with rights and responsibilities. I find it difficult to accept the underlying premise behind an avatar Bill of Rights, namely that “avatars are created free and equal.” If each of us were entitled to make one (and only one) avatar to represent ourselves in one virtual world this Bill might have more substance, because it would more closely reflect the existing conditions which frame human rights in the real world. Human rights are a powerful idea because the axioms underpinning them are universal – we are all the same species, we only have one life, and we live it together in this world. Avatars, on the other hand, are numerous, disposable, have different justifications for being, are created across multiple worlds, and their existence is contingent on the continuing operation of the servers which house their data. Ask the avatars of Warhammer Online, City of Heroes and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes where their rights went. Into the ether when their MMOs were shuttered, that's where. Avatars cannot exist outside the imaginary world which brings them into being, and these imaginary worlds in turn are dependent upon real life considerations such as continued server operation and support from “meatbag” space. Our mundane real life selves, on the other hand, exist beyond the boundaries of these virtual worlds, which is all the more reason why any discussion on player rights should ground themselves in our status as players/consumers, rather than in our avatars.

Avatars are Contingent on Players

Avatars are also contingent on a far more fundamental sense in that they require our focused attention to achieve things in the game world. Avatars require animus, a driving spirit to give them agency and purpose. Without our real selves our avatars are puppets without puppeteers, as useless as marionettes with their strings cut. It is the work that we do in real life which imbues our avatars with value. Left to his own devices, my paladin in WoW would sit next to the mail box in Stormwind until the server collapsed around him, inert, mute, and utterly useless. By contrast my body is always inhabited by my consciousness. There is a continuity and singularity in my experiences which avatars don't have, which is another reason why we should privilege player rights over avatar rights, and why human rights are important while avatar rights are not. Given the disproportionate time I spend between not just alts of the same game, but also between avatars in other games, I find it hard to take seriously the notion that all avatars are created free and equal. If we look at avatars this way it can be argued that avatars are just a series of sock puppets which require a puppeteer to give them motive and motion. Why give them rights at all? The common sense approach is to bestow rights on the motivating force behind the puppets, namely the puppeteer him/herself.

The Price of Virtual Citizenship

Koster recognised the contingent nature of avatars in his original paper, and in fact incorporates this idea into his version of an avatar Bill of Rights. He states:

Contrast this with Doone's summary, which completely omits any reference to the contingent nature of avatars:

On what basis can we argue that authority must proceed solely from the community? After all, there wouldn't be a virtual community if developers didn't spend money and time to create these virtual worlds. Presumably developers are humans, too, and enjoy the same rights and privileges that players have. On what basis can we impose on their rights? Because we're people? Developers are people too, so don't these two ideas cancel each other out? On what basis do we privilege the player's humanity over the developer's humanity? After all, they risk more in terms of time and money invested – check out this article on the trials and tribulations of an independent developer for an inside look at the costs associated with game development. On the other hand, no one disputes a gamer's right to pick and choose the games they want to play. It smacks of entitlement to impose further obligations on developers while maintaining the freedom of players to move from game to game with impunity. Active citizenship in the real world is not limited to rights, but also encompasses the related notion of responsibility. I cannot see how we can impose further obligations on developers without imposing a correlating duty on the players themselves. If a developer acts in good faith and upholds the rights outlined in this Bill, does this create an obligation on players to maintain their subscription in a game? What if I don't like the game anymore? Can I just leave? Surely that makes a mockery of the notion that I am a virtual citizen with rights, since I can just leave anytime I want? Can I have rights without responsibility? I certainly don't think so.

There's also the problem of transience and obsolescence. It makes no sense to create a social contract in a game I'm only going to play for a few days, discard, and then never play again. It is an inevitable fact of life that games grow old and obsolete. Do developers have an obligation to maintain dying, unprofitable and unpopular games by virtue of player's rights? More importantly, should players be obliged to support an ageing game because they are virtual citizens? Are we willing to relinquish our freedom to pick and choose what game we want to play in exchange for a social contract envisioned by an avatar Bill of Rights? The issue of Free to Play games also adds an interesting twist to the idea of equality. Should players who pay to play (and therefore help support the infrastructure of the game) be given proportionally more rights? Consider this:

A social contract is a weighty thing, and it requires concessions from both sides. The question then becomes whether or not both sides are willing. If there is one thing that is clear from the developers interviewed in Koster's paper, it is that developers DO NOT want to cede any ground at all, and if they do so, it is usually because they are compelled to by outside factors such as economics, politics and law. More fundamentally, however, I do not see any kind of wide-spread grass roots movement on the part of gamers to create a type of social contract envisioned by this virtual Bill of Rights. I certainly don't want to become a citizen in a virtual world because I want to preserve my status as a player/consumer. Simply put, I have more power as a consumer than I would have as a virtual citizen. There is a reason why we privilege players over the developers but this reason is not rooted in human rights. It is rooted in the capitalist relationship between buyer and seller, producer and consumer, and developer and player. Human rights in the real world are precious and worth fighting for, simply for the reason that real people cannot choose to log out of their lives (except as a tragic and wasteful final act of dissolution), and the world they are trapped in is the only one they have. Gamers have the luxury of picking and choosing their worlds, and as one developer pointed out in Koster's essay, “the one real right they incontrovertibly have is the right to log off.” Out of this truism flows a tremendous amount of power. Developers cannot make you play a game against your will, and in fact, compete with one another for your time and money.

If we choose to remain as players and consumers we maintain a number of advantages while remaining under the protection of the rights we already have in the real world. We stay beholden to no developer, we remain unshackled, unfettered and completely free to migrate from game to game. A consumer has more power than a citizen – we are completely free to walk away from oppressive, totalitarian regimes with impunity. Article 3 in Doone's declaration states that “developers cannot be gods or tyrants.” Is it possible to be a god or tyrant when your subjects can just say “kiss my ass” and walk away? If a citizen under the regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, or Kim Jong Il tried to say the same thing, they would have ended up in a mass grave with a bullet to the back of the head. More fundamentally, however, games remain a domain of expression, and their variety and scope are not limited by a universal document which, depending on the severity of its terms, may preclude certain types of gameplay or virtual worlds.

Freedom of Choice

Some people find certain types of gameplay unpalatable to their tastes, and many times appeals to universal principles are actually just thinly disguised attacks on specific types of games. Doone calls all EVE players sociopaths, has a binary “you are either with me or against me” outlook (i.e. you're a cynic if you don't look at games the way Doone does, and if you're not socially active in the spheres Doone considers important then you are part of the problem), and despises open world PvP. My own approach is more to let the players decide what they want to play, and let market forces and player tastes govern the virtual worlds we inhabit. The results might not pan out according to your own preferences (i.e. the most popular game in the world is a PvP MOBA with a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for toxicity), but isn't that democracy and freedom of expression at work? I can't stand Justin Bieber, but I don't begrudge people who like him and his brand of crappy music. Whatever happened Voltaire's 17th century maxim, “I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?” Couldn't we expand this maxim to include games, and come up with a re-purposed statement of freedom of expression which reads, “I don't agree with what you play, but I will defend to the death your right to play it?” As long as I don't hurt anyone else, and consume my own brand of poison with other consenting adults, then you have no right (there's that word again) to tell me what to play, or how to play, or who to play with. Even trolling is protected by the tenets of free speech, even if it is idiotic, ignorant and devoid of any redeeming qualities. The price of freedom is having to put up with morons and slackers, as Gevlon would put it. If you think having to put up with dissenting, contradictory and inflammatory opinions are the sole province of the Internet, you are dead wrong. Politicians, lawyers, scientists, journalists, philosophers and the like have been trolling each other since time immemorial. Two time British Prime Minister Disraeli once said of his opponent Gladstone (himself a four time British Prime Minister): “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity.” It's a little more verbose than the common Internet epithet “die in a fire”, but this kind of discourse has been going on since the birth of democracy and free speech, and society has not yet crumbled into a heap because of it.

A Universal Bill for a Multiplicity of Worlds?

Virtual space at this point is not a unified realm sitting parallel to reality, but rather a series of fragmented spaces governed by wildly different norms. The cultural norms governing A Tale in the Desert are completely different from those that are commonly found in EVE Online and Darkfall. There are a multitude of possible virtual worlds out there, and they vary widely in scope, setting and expectations. Why then, would we try to impose a universal document on a multiplicity of worlds, each with their own norms and justifications for existence? A corollary of our right to log off is our right to choose the virtual worlds which appeal to us, and the people we associate with. There are no real impediments to people creating the kind of communities within virtual spaces which promulgate a world view in accordance with their own. Every modern MMO offers a variety of social tools such as guilds, friends lists, ignore lists, reporting systems and specialised PvE/PvP/RP servers to allow players to develop communities according to their tastes. This doesn't mean however, that these kinds of communities should be adopted universally across virtual spaces, because it would actually serve to limit the scope of the virtual multiverse. I always prefer to err on the side of freedom of expression, and I fear that a universal document may be anathema to this.

I can understand the argument for codes of conduct tailored to specific worlds, and which incorporate both the player and the developer in its clauses. This is, in fact, what happens in the real world. Human rights as we know them evolved in very specific circumstances, namely in the backdrop of our shared humanity and the singular nature of the world we occupy. There are so many fundamental differences between the real and the virtual that a basic importation of rights from real to virtual doesn't always make sense. I'm pretty sure the sanctions placed on murder would be relaxed in real life if all of us just respawned at a shrine point whenever we died, while the ancient prescription of "Thou shalt not kill" would seem ridiculous in Destiny, Titanfall or Planetside 2. A better way is to approach each world on a case by case basis, and hammer out a negotiated settlement which pleases the majority on both sides. Once again, the prescient Koster incorporates this into his own bill:

Contrast this to Doone's version:

Once again Doone completely omits developers in his “summary”. For someone who trumpets human rights he is awfully quick to trample on the rights of developers by writing them out of his version of the Bill. Doone makes two mistakes when citing Koster. The first is completely writing developers out of his version of an avatar Bill of Rights. While Koster's version sounds like a reasonably inclusive document, Doone's just reads as a statement of player entitlement. The second mistake he makes is that he believes that Koster was in earnest when proposing an avatar Bill of Rights. What Koster is arguing is that following a code of conduct based on the principles similar to those espoused in avatar bill of rights is good business for developers because they “are solid administrative principles in terms of practical effect”. Koster writes that "having a clear code of conduct for both players and admins has been shown to make running the space go smoother overall." He is not arguing for an avatar Bill of Rights per se, nor is he advocating player rights at the expense of the developers, something which seems to have sailed over Doone's head when he quotes the article. Koster writes that “the real point of a document like this would be to see how many admins would sign, not how many players”, and concludes that “I'm not seriously proposing that we declare the rights of avatars” because the concept is “riddled with gotchas and logical holes”. As a developer Koster knows that players are an entitled bunch, and his concern is on how to convince developers on his side of the fence to adopt a set of principles, which in his view, make good business sense. It amuses me to see Koster's foresight in predicting that "I don't doubt that there's some folks out there right now seizing on this as an important document" without actually understanding what Koster is actually trying to achieve. Doone does just that, picking out the bits he liked, then using Koster's name as an authority for his own version of avatar rights without ever addressing any of the objections raised by Koster himself, or actually understanding what Koster was trying to do.

Player Rights, not Avatar Rights

I'm not arguing that players don't have rights. They certainly do, and in the future when I have the time and inclination I would like to look at the source of these rights and their application in virtual spaces. I don't disagree with Doone when he says that there are real people behind avatars, and yes, people have feelings and they can be hurt during the process of online interactions. I just wanted to focus on one of the “gotchas and logical holes” Koster refers to, namely the proposition that all avatars are created free and equal. They are not, and any argument which depends on this axiom fails to understand the fundamentally contingent nature of avatars and the virtual worlds which they inhabit. There may come a time where the proposition may not be so far fetched, and that will be the day when our online activities are pooled under the auspices of one easily identifiable avatar which is linked irrevocably to our personal identity outside virtual space. This is another argument entirely, but even in this scenario it seems more efficient just to extend rights and protection from our "meatbag" selves into virtual reality, rather than doubling up and creating a redundant set of rights for our avatar as well. Avatars, in their most common incarnation in games to date, aren't free – they are contingent on both the player and developer and the continued running of the servers which house their data. Nor are they equal – we allocate our time between our avatars differently, and even in the same game not all avatars are treated equally. The cost of maintaining an avatar also varies from game to game, as evidenced by the differing pay models of F2P and subscription. I'm not against the idea of a type of social contract, specific to each game and tailored to the demographics which inhabit that particular universe. What I am against however, is a universal contract based on a maxim which fails to take into account the multiplicity inherent in virtual worlds, and the fundamentally contingent nature of avatars themselves.