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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

TESO, Wildstar and Archeage Walk Into A Bar

In the red corner, Wildstar.

In the blue, The Elder Scrolls Online, commonly abbreviated as either TESO or ESO.

Two up and coming subscriber-based MMOs with aspirations of greatness. Or at least, a decent market share. The former is banking on a zany sci-fi aesthetic, a telegraph combat system, player housing and an appeal to old school attunement raiding as its foundations for victory. The latter is riding on the coattails of a beloved IP and comes on the heels of one of the most popular single-player games of all time. Skyrim was voted by Australia as its most popular game in a recent poll conducted by ABC's Good Game television series, and TESO has attempted to leverage this popularity to attract subscribers to it, with mixed results.

The Champion.

At ringside sits the champion, a massive panda puffing on a fat cigar. His greatness is unquestioned by all, regardless of whether they love him or loathe him. He'll be in the Hall of Fame one day, and his records (12 million at his peak, and over 7 million currently) may never be broken. But for now he is taking a respite from training, and watching these two contenders slug it out in the ring before him. He is unimpressed with either – his contempt for his competitors is evident by his long lay-off, and his refusal to release his new expansion until November this year, more than two years after Mists of Pandaria. He knew new contenders were coming in the interim – he just didn't care. But now he is back, and if you look closely enough, you can see his fur giving way to green skin and rippling muscle. Warlords of Draenor is coming.

Final Fantasy 14.

If you scan the ringside a few more prominent figures emerge into focus from the smoky, raucous gloom. Final Fantasy 14 is dressed in classical Japanese “cool” - a mixture of denim, leather, fur and dark shades. His crazy hair style belies the gaunt face and the glittering eyes – he is a respected fighter, having garnered more than two million subscribers in his early career. His mixed heritage – Western and Japanese subscribers on PCs and consoles – give him an exotic look. Behind him sits an older woman of Scandinavian descent in a form fitting bodysuit adorned with tech. Cold blue eyes peer out behind a face streaked with implants and silver geodes, and combined with her reputation for hostility, ensures that no one comes near her without an explicit invitation. EVE Online is old, formidable, and unique. Her 500,000 followers come from all walks of life, but it is her acolytes in null sec that garner the most attention from the press and the outside world with their massive, record-breaking bloc wars. Her attention is not directed at the fight, but with two up and coming amateurs sitting across the ring from her. Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous will be making their pro debuts next year, and she will be their chief rival.

EVE Online.
There are others too, not belonging to the subscriber-school of fighting, who have chosen to grace ringside with their presence. Guild Wars 2, Marvel Heroes, Lord of the Rings Online and Star Trek Online stand clustered together in the aisle, laughing loudly at some shared joke, while The Secret World sits with his back to the wall in the far recesses of the stands, eyes never still. These F2P fighters, free agents without recurring monthly payments, were once derided as has-beens, over-the-hill fighters trying to hold onto their glory days, no better than hawkers and used car salesmen in their frantic attempts to peddle off whatever content they had left. No longer. Star Wars: The Old Republic looks hale and whole in a simple brown and white cloak commonly worn by the Jedi. Described as one of the greatest failures in MMO history, her clear brown eyes show only calm and detachment. She made a spectacular debut, racing to over 1 million subscribers in the first three days of her release. This was followed by a more spectacular fall from grace, a transition to a hybrid F2P model, and predictions about her eventual demise. She has shocked them all by her resilience and heart. Since switching to F2P she has recouped her costs, and generates a steady income stream for her manager, Electronic Arts. But the stigma remains, and the fight tonight, while not necessarily meaning the end for either TESO or Wildstar, is in many ways one for prestige. Critics of both fighters have harangued loudly about their eventual demise to F2P. Only time will tell if these critics were right.


But back to the fight.

The two contenders pace in their respective corners and receive their last minute instructions as the ringside announcer finishes the last vestiges of pre-fight pageantry. There is a moment's silence for the fallen – Warhammer Online and Vanguard are honoured and remembered - and then the fighters are introduced to tumultuous acclaim. The referee gives them their final instructions, and then steps back.

TESO came out swinging first, having been released on 4 April. Almost immediately it was sent reeling back under a storm of criticism. Scorn and derision were piled on the title, and the knees buckled and bent, but did not fall. Forbes went ahead and predicted that it would be “the biggest video game disaster of 2014.” The Errant Penman wrote A Farewell to TESO, a beautifully written elegy to the the game TESO never became. Review after review lashed it, bloodied its face, gashed its skin, and broke its nose. Comparisons to the great Skyrim invariably led to damning reviews. Worse still, it became apparent to all at ringside that TESO was not fight ready. Crashes, bugs and glitches marred its performance. People who were willing to try the game left in disgust. TESO also debut with an ill-conceived Imperial edition, locking an entire race behind a paywall and giving its critics more ammunition to crucify the title.


Wildstar came out two months after TESO on 3 June. In contrast to TESO it received glowing reviews and accolades from the blogsphere. In many ways it was the Chosen One – the anointed successor, the greatest thing since sliced bread, the game which would re-invent a tiring, ailing genre. Just as TESO was made a pariah Wildstar was embraced and loved and elevated by the blogsphere. Most games would envy the critical reception Wildstar received upon release.

In fighting however, it's not what the critics say, but what the fighters do that matters.

TESO gave its subscribers five extra days of free time as an apology for its extremely rough release. It moved its maintenance days from Tuesday and Friday to Monday and Thursday so that Oceanic players could play the game on Friday evenings. It migrated its European servers from the US to Europe in order to reduce the latency of European players. It clamped down hard on the gold sellers which plagued its release, so much so that they have virtually disappeared from Tamriel. It consolidated the various PvP campaigns in order to minimise the effect of Emperor-farming, a deplorable practice which essentially stripped the title of any meaning. It pre-loaded weapon swapping animations to give more responsiveness to combat. And the quick and efficient responses to customer tickets have impressed both me and my gaming circle, and have done much to offset our initial disappointment at the shoddy state of the game upon release. Iteration by iteration, TESO is getting its feet back under it. Staggered and wobbled in the first round, it is beginning to fight back. In June it had over 750,000 subscribers, which made it third behind WoW and Final Fantasy 14.

Wildstar, on the other hand, is living and dying by its decision to make old school raiding the centrepiece of its endgame. For all the critical claim it has garnered, it has managed to scrape together a paltry 450,000 subscribers in the first month of its life. And now the news that Carbine is consolidating their servers ALREADY, barely three months after their release. If MMOs truly were fighters, then Wildstar is what we would call a front-runner – dangerous early, but prone to gassing out and withering away in the later rounds.


The most disappointing thing has been the lack of heart shown by Wildstar's early supporters. As Wildstar falters, and new, younger fighters appear on the horizon, these fair-weather supporters are abandoning the bandwagon in droves, citing a general ennui with MMOs as a genre as an excuse for turning their back on their chosen champion. In a time where Wildstar needs more subs than ever, they are cancelling, quitting, and showing their true colours. Like a swarm of locusts they are already gathering around Archeage, ready to pick it apart and consume it before moving on to their next meal. The remaining hold-outs, those who genuinely love the game and continue to support it regardless of its faltering popularity, have my respect. I know how they feel.

So Wildstar battles on, increasingly bereft of friends, his movements growing less graceful and more laboured as the fight moves into the middle rounds. But TESO doesn't look that hearty either. In its last update TESO had to make a plea for more players on the public test server, and the number of PvP campaigns do not seem to reflect a population measuring over three quarters of a million players. Furthermore, the news that Zenimax has laid off a number of its staff bodes ominously for the future of the game. Wildstar might go to F2P earlier than TESO, but that would be cold comfort if TESO tumbles soon after. 

At ringside, a gossamer of emotion flickers across SWTOR's face. She has seen and experienced this all before, and perhaps her thoughts are with both fighters as they struggle to establish themselves. Then again they are her opponents and rivals, and there is little room for sentiment in their profession. Final Fantasy 14 remains alert and attentive, carefully watching TESO. As number two and number three on the rankings, they will jealously guard their positions in anticipation for an inevitable clash. As for the champion, the great panda has already turned away from the fight and is chatting amiably with his cousins Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm. He doesn't care who wins – neither of the fighters are a threat to him. But several rows back, another fighter watches the fight with an intensity belied by her fair complexion and youthful looks. Archeage boasts a Korean heritage, a claim of sandbox based play, open world PvP, and a player-driven economy reminiscent of EVE. She will make her professional debut next week. Unlike the two fighters slugging it out in the ring, however, she has eschewed the subscriber path, and will begin her career as a F2P fighter. New age, or old guard? Will the disciples of F2P triumph, or do the fighters of old school subscription still have a part to play in this sport of ours?


As for me, sitting in the stands far from the action, my money remains firmly on TESO outlasting Wildstar as a subscription-based title. I don't even like TESO that much – the only part I really like is the Alliance War, and that was a style pioneered by one of the early greats of the bare knuckle era, Dark Age of Camelot. The rest I have seen before, albeit without the voice acting and with worse graphics. But nothing would please me more than to see TESO prosper and do well, especially after all the scorn, derision and criticism that was heaped upon it during its release. Every month it remains non-F2P is another month which illustrates how wrong many of these learned commentators are, and how worthless their opinion is when it comes to the trends which rule the MMO market. My opinion is equally worthless, but nonetheless I did make the prediction in March that TESO would not go F2P in a year's time, and thus I feel obliged to put my money where my mouth is by remaining a subscriber. The introduction of the Imperial City, a possible Arena mode as well as a future justice system to enable open world PvP are future features which interest a player of my own peculiar tastes. The transition to consoles in December may also give the game a much needed shot in the arm. Final Fantasy 14 has shown that there is a market for MMOs in consoles. Perhaps TESO can parlay this and leverage it to create a sustainable base from which to build upon. As a supporter and subscriber of the game, I can only hope.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part IV - The War in Wabbajack

The following is the continuation of my brief history of the first Wabbajack campaign as seen from the eyes of a casual Daggerfall Covenant player. I play two to three nights a week, mostly on weekends, and my account will be coloured by own experiences and factional bias. I'm quite certain that EP and AP players will disagree violently with various details of this account, but that's the fun of writing these pseudo-histories – it will be up the reader to winnow the truth from the hyperbole and propaganda. For my sources I have used my own experiences, daily screenshots of the campaign map, scores and leader boards, the ESO Stats website, and the flame wars on the official Zenimax forums, which have required heavy moderation on the part of Zenimax due to the amount of sledging and trash-talking being thrown back and forth between the three factions.

Three factions clash. I am hidden at the bottom of the hill while AD and EP battle on the rise.

State of the Campaigns

The following graphs are pulled from the ESOStats website, and they provide a great synopsis of the various campaigns in progress. These screenshots were taken on the day the first campaign ended, and out of nine campaigns, four have been won by the Altmeri Dominion (AD), three by the Daggerfall Covenant (DC) and two by the Ebonheart Pact (EP). Out of the nine campaigns, eight have been landslides for the winning faction.

Wabbajack is clearly the most competitive of all the nine remaining North American (NA) campaigns, and it has been one of the most memorable PvP experiences I've had in an MMO to date. The Pact is poised to win in this screenshot, but until two weeks ago a Daggerfall victory was a real possibility. On the weekend of 20-21 June the Pact rallied in a big way and secured map control over the weekend, enough to create a 15-18k buffer and securing victory for them in the first campaign.

Campaign History

I. Early Days of the Dominion

The early days of Wabbajack were dominated by the Altmeri Dominion, but unfortunately I did not start playing PvP until 9 April, which means the record of who these early Emperors were are lost to this account. All I know is that when I entered Cyrodiil on this date AD were leading the campaign by a short margin, but were about to be eclipsed by DC soon afterwards.

II. Reign of the Covenant

DC overtook AD on the campaign scoreboard on or around 10 April 2014, and they proceeded to dominate the campaign for the remainder of April. There have been three Covenant Emperors in the history of the campaign to date – Whispers to Ravens, Johnny Hammersticks and Sabre Ali. Whispers was crowned on 9 April, and was able to maintain his position on the top of the leader board for about one week before being overtaken by Johnny Hammersticks sometime in mid-April. Hammersticks was the longest serving DC Emperor in terms of overall time spent on the throne, and he holds the DC record on Wabbajack for longest continuous reign as a Covenant Emperor (four days and nine hours). Sabre Ali was crowned Emperor in the waning days of Covenant ascendancy, and he holds the dubious distinction of being the last ever Emperor on Wabbajack. Before the rise of the Pact however, DC dominated Cyrodiil completely during the month of April, building a massive lead over the other factions, and threatening to run away with the campaign.

III. Rise of the Pact

On 14 April 2014 EP successfully crowned their first Emperor on Wabbajack (Fixate). At first I thought it was an aberration, as DC would soon dethrone the red upstart, and resume their domination of the campaign. As April turned into May however, EP resistance became stronger and stronger, and it soon became apparent that they were a legitimate threat. The Pact Emperor was no mere figure-head. Fixate's team gained more and more notoriety, as it became clear that they were an organised group of maximum level players with clear, well-honed strategies. They were also not shy at posting their exploits on the official forums, and a pair of videos showing their team wiping zergs of blue players made the rounds.

Fixate and his crew were not the only reason for EP's resurgence. There are also two or three other EP crews out there who are organised and capable, with the most prominent being the Vokundein guild who announced their transfer to Wabbajack with much fanfare on the official forums. Campaign transfers are a contentious issue in TESO at the moment, as the current cost for changing campaigns is extremely low – 15,000 Alliance points. This is a trivial amount and can be accumulated in a single evening if you are running with a strong group which can successfully cap or defend multiple times. Since there are 10 total campaigns it is very easy for players to desert losing campaigns and jump into others where their faction is dominating. This was predicted by everyone prior to launch, so it boggles the mind as to why Zenimax kept transfer costs so low. It also makes possible the exploits of some Oceanic AD guilds which are jumping from campaign to campaign in order to farm the title of Emperor (more on this later).

In late April and early May there was a massive diaspora of EP to Wabbajack, so much so that the EP guild Vokundein began to complain that the excess numbers were ruining their fun. By mid-May EP was firmly in control and ahead on the scoreboard, and by virtue of their continued success attracted even more EP to Wabbajack. EP only dominated one other campaign (Goldbrand), so there were dual incentives for EP players in the remaining campaigns to move to Wabbajack - leave a campaign where they were being trounced, and move to a campaign where they were actually winning. Similarly, DC also began to bleed players as the fair weather players migrated to Bloodthorn, Chrysamere and Volendrung where DC are the undisputed masters. EP began to pull away, extending their lead even further. Fixate and his team mate Nicolle became regular fixtures on the Tamriel throne, trading Emperorships every time either of them pulled ahead of each other on the Alliance leaderboard. I have to give respect to Fixate – that blasted bugger is EVERYWHERE, and he will fight on his own without his posse at his back on occasions. Fixate also holds the record as the longest serving Emperor on Wabbajack, clocking in at just over six days and two hours.

Hiding after a DC siege is destroyed by an EP counter. The burning remnants of our siege engines litter the field, while EP fan out in search of stragglers.

IV. Leaders of the Covenant

The silver lining in the DC exodus from Wabbajack was that it revealed which guilds had ticker (heart) and who would be sticking it out in the long run. In May I began to PvP on a semi-regular basis with the Order of Australia (OOA). Our very first PvP night was an amazing success, with lots of participants and commensurate success to boot. In my opinion our initial success was not based on the fact that we were super-organised and capable, but rather more the case of numbers and enthusiasm carrying the day against similarly inexperienced opposition. Since that time, however, numbers and participation have dwindled to almost nothing, and I've had to look further afield for an Oceanic guild to PvP with.

In addition to joining OOA's PvP events, I've also made the effort to join the other guilds around the Daggerfall faction in order to see how they operate. To date I have joined the following crews in their battles around Cyrodiil:

DC Elite (DCE) - Reevo
Einharjar (EHJ) - Bitaken
Eminent Gaming (EG) – Brandon-South-Ga
Jabbawocky (JW) – Senior Fluffykins, Egypt (?)
Psijic Aes Sedai – Hermaeus Mora
RISE – Prince Jarvan (quit?), Aareon (?)

I've not only joined the above teams on their roams, but also hopped onto Teamspeak (TS) in order to see how the guild leaders led their respective teams. For me the most impressive is Bitaken's EHJ crew, because Bitaken is not only knowledgeable and organised, but also accommodating, decisive and courteous on TS. Reevo's team is also impressive, but for different reasons. I've been with his crew when they engaged and wiped Fixate's EP team on a number of occasions, and they seem to be DC's answer to EP's “elites”. They are very similar to many top Rated BG teams I've played with in the sense that they only accept high-level players (VR5+, but I managed to sneak in as VR3+), and they would be what less charitable people term as “elitist jerks”. I have no problem with “elitist jerks” because for me competence trumps good manners up to a certain point, and Reevo's crew never crossed that threshold. In fact, when one of Reevo's crew pointed out that there was a level 30 in the group and suggested kicking him, Reevo defended him by saying “he's been with us for over an hour, he follows directions to a T, he's always first to our objectives and he uses his CDs when we need them – I ain't kicking him.” Of course, Reevo then erased the good will he had engendered by calling rival team leader Fluffykins a loser on zone chat, but ah well, nobody is perfect.

Senior Fluffykins is another prominent team leader whose guild has been in Wabbajack since the very beginning of early access. His crew numbers Egypt and Whispers to Ravens in their ranks, and I'm not entirely sure of their guild structure or organisation, or who actually heads their organisation. Egypt is a stalwart of the Covenant, always being active and encouraging on zone chat, and the scale of his contribution can be gauged on the fact that most EP teams know who he is (you can hear Fixate's team calling him out by name on their videos). Prince Jarvan of RISE is another excellent team leader, using his expertise from Guild Wars 2 and DAOC to good effect in TESO, but unfortunately for the Covenant I believe he has quit the game. Brandon-South-Ga of Eminent Gaming is the youngest of all the DC leaders known to me, clocking in at 19 years of age (Reevo is 30 and Bitaken I suspect is older than that). Hermaeus Mora of Psijic Aes Sedai is a quietly spoken but capable leader with big ambitions – nothing less than helping organise the Covenant on a unified front across all the campaigns. His guild has an all access TeamSpeak server for all the Covenant, and they have a war room in which they invite all the prominent leaders to confer and plan strategy.

Riders of ROHAN! Erm, RISE! Prepare to charge! Messing around with Prince Jarvan's team.

If there are two words I can use to describe the relationship between the various DC teams operating in Cyrodiil, it would be harmonious dysfunctionality. Reevo and Fluffykins overtly dislike each other, and constantly harangue each other in zone chat. Bitaken, Hermaeus Mora and Reevo are all critical of Brandon, although they grudgingly concede that his guild serves a valuable purpose in organising random players into coherent groups. My own PvP guild leader, MouseKime, dislikes Fluffykins. And so it goes.

For me this kind of fractured community, with all its rivalries and jostling, has more in common with the real world than the kind of MMO utopia. Anyone who has ever worked in political lobbying of any sort, or tried to get various agencies or rival departments to cooperate together will know the kind of obstacles people confront when facing egos, entrenched privilege, and out and out idealists (or fanatics, depending on where you stand). And like in the real world, it is through the work of compromisers and bridge-builders through which real progress is made. In this make-believe world of Cyrodiil an appeal to the best interests of the Covenant (i.e. winning the campaign) is usually enough to make these various groups put aside their differences and work together. Reevo racing to Fluffykin's aid at is the best example I saw in which two rival teams work together to drive back a common enemy. Of course when it was over, zone chat dissolved into an acrimonious row over who had actually saved the day, but the pragmatist in me I was satisfied – the keep was secured, our supply line remained open, and EP had been driven back. Let them argue - the objective had been achieved.

V. Return of the Dominion

Out of all the factions I know the least about the Dominion, and my observations are based primarily on what I have seen when facing them on the field. For the longest time they were the whipping boys of the campaign, consigned to irrelevance as DC and EP traded blows for campaign supremacy. In or around 26 May, a group of AD ex-Emperors came to Wabbajack to farm the title of Emperor, and they succeeded in completely upsetting the balance of power.

The entry of the ex-Emperor team (as they would later be known in DC) made a dramatic impact because they were an organised and skilled team composed of high-level players. Many of them were ex-Emperors which gave them access to the Emperor skill tree, and furthermore they were able to exploit the guesting and campaign transfer system to the fullest for their own benefit. Possession of keeps and scrolls gives players various buffs while their faction maintains control of these items and locations in a player's home campaign REGARDLESS of whether or not the players are actually playing in their home campaign or guesting in another. In other words, you get the full benefits of the buffs your faction has won in your home campaign even if you are a guest in another. Their modus operandi, as far as I can tell, is as follows. Pay 15,000 AP to transfer to Wabbajack, which is a mere pittance. Bring your guild of ex-Emperors over as guests to assist you in order to maximise the benefits of the buffs granted by your AD-dominated campaign. Secure the Emperorship. Transfer off the campaign in order to let the next person in line to get their shot at the throne.

The most elaborate oil trap in history.

Between the period of 26 May to 18 June, the AD ex-Emperor team was able to successfully crown a line of yellow Emperors - The-Humble-Soul, Kurudin, Che, Xorvak, Cloneinnk and Dragonstar. This was no small feat – unlike the blatant Emperor farming occurring on the two week server of Celarus, these AD had to overcome significant DC and EP resistance. The AD ex-Emperor team on Wabbajack was the strongest team in the campaign in my opinion – everywhere they went they would basically win the engagements, and only through the application of overwhelming force and numbers could they be dislodged. Stalling or delaying this team became a legitimate tactic, and their location was always reported in zone chat in the latter days of the campaign. It was not until I ran with Reevo's team that I found a crew that could stand toe to toe with these yellow terrors, and even then our chances were barely even. We rated the ex-Emperor team higher than Fixate and his crew in terms of threat potential, and they posed a deadly threat to both factions because it became increasingly more apparent that the winner of the campaign would not be determined by DC or EP, but by whoever AD allowed to win. This led to a host of accusations on the forums where both sides accused the other of making a secret deal with AD to gang up on their respective factions.

As far as I am aware no deal was ever struck on the DC side, but there was a concerted effort to direct all our energies on EP only, and to leave AD alone. Some of my guildies are adamant that AD and EP were in cahoots, but my own personal observation is that yellow would stomp on whichever team was losing at any given point. If EP was pressing in for a scroll, it was almost certain that AD would attack the other (each faction has two scrolls), effectively double-teaming our faction. The reverse was also true - if DC ever pushed for a scroll we could almost count on AD taking the opportunity to grab the other. It became more and more important as the campaign wound down to present a strong front, so as to present a less inviting target to AD incursions.

VI. Ebonheart End Game

In the closing stages there was a real possibility of DC being able to overtake the Pact in the last two weeks of the campaign. At one point DC was only approximately 7,000 points behind, and given our recent momentum an amazing comeback was potentially on the cards. Alas, it was not to be. On the weekend of 21 and 22 June EP rallied, and in a tremendous display managed to secure map control and the Scrolls for the Pact. Their extended map control over two to three days blew out their lead to 20,000 points, creating an unassailable lead and securing their victory in this first Wabbajack campaign.


The war is over, and the Pact have emerged victors. Congratulations to the Pact for their victory as well as for being such tenacious foes. This was a close run thing, and there have been many twists and turns in this campaign, as well as many amazing battles. The open world PvP in Cyrodiil is the best implementation to date of a persistent world where armies march, counter-march, lay sieges, defend sieges, break sieges, hold choke points, cut supply lines and carry out bold, impudent raids deep within enemy territory.

Fixate's EP team and the AD ex-Emperor crew have proven themselves as capable and excellent opponents and villains. I've enjoyed reading the back and forth on the forums, as well as getting to know the various leaders and guilds on my faction and fighting with their respective teams. I'm still only VR4, but this ain't WoW Arena, League of Legends, or Starcraft 2 – asymmetry is an inherent part of open world PvP, and one of the attractions of this format for me is trying to overcome existing disadvantages by any means available at your disposal. For me this involved working tightly with groups, utilising support abilities rather than being a front line soldier, and using siege engines in support during large group fights. Meatbag catapults and boiling oil can absolutely decimate groups, and they should be the first thing a lowbie arms him/herself with when they enter Cyrodiil. It behooves non-max level players to utilise surprise, terrain and local superiority to make up for level and gear differential. This game as it stands favours small, organised tactical groups of 12-24, and the numerous enemy zergs I have seen destroyed by determined and organised attacks attest to this fact.

Whether or not Wabbajack will remain as competitive in the new campaign remains to be seen. I know that most of the EP guilds will be staying, but some of the DC leaders have already signalled their intention to move to other campaigns, notably Veteran only campaigns (if implemented). EP might end up with a campaign like Auriel's Bow, which is completely dominated by AD and where there are no fights to be had anywhere. At the moment the optimal meta-gaming strategy is to migrate to a campaign where your faction is completely dominant, acquire player buffs through securing map control against minimal or non-existent opposition, then guesting into other campaigns for actual PvP fights. This might be the fate of Wabbajack unless Zenimax implements some changes to their campaign transfer and guesting systems, which are far too lenient in my opinion. For now though I count myself as being lucky in choosing Wabbajack as my initial server, and having been able to take part in some really memorable open world PvP. In my second post on TESO I mentioned that my sister unsubbed in a fit of disgust at the numerous technical issues plaguing the game, and only reluctantly resubscribed as a show of solidarity to our gaming circle. A couple of weekends ago, my sister, my guildies and I were on a vast field running for our lives, trying to cover Egypt who was carrying an Elder Scroll. Behind us were the vast teeming hordes of AD, more I had ever seen in one place ever, and to our right, streaming over the hill to the north were masses of EP intent on cutting us off and stealing our prize. During this biggest battle of my MMO life, surrounded by enemies on all sides and being supported by desperate DC reinforcing from the west throwing themselves at the oncoming masses to staunch the tide, my sister said to me, “Wow – this game is awesome.”

DC trying desperately to slow down the AD horde chasing down our scroll. People fight around me as I gallop past in a vain attempt to catch up to our scroll runner.

PvP might save this theme park MMO after all. It might not be enough to save it from an ignominious F2P fate, but it has salvaged it in the eyes of my gaming circle, and as far as I'm concerned, that's the only thing that matters.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Letters from Tamriel, Part III - Welcome to Wabbajack, Son

I bought TESO on the promise of its open world PvP, but my attempts to engage it on an ongoing basis have been sabotaged by the instability of the Mac client, which crashes every 10-15 minutes in Cyrodiil. While this period has been extended somewhat by recent patches (it now crashes every 20-30 minutes) it has led me to focus on the PvE side of the game, which was enough to hold my interest until level 50 (VR1). I finally bit the bullet and partitioned my Mac, and installed TESO on the Windows side. I can finally PvP without crashing, and more importantly, I can PvP with groups in Cyrodiil instead of having to go solo ganking. I can finally dive into the campaign with both feet, without having to worry about compromising groups by random crashes in potentially decisive moments.

PvP Campaigns

There are 10 PvP campaigns in TESO for each region (North America and Europe), and 9 of them are 90 days in duration, with the last campaign lasting only two weeks, presumably as a sop to complaints on the official forums that campaigns were too long. The two week campaign (Celarus) was introduced with the 1.1.2 Craglorn patch in late May, and it actually replaced an existing 90 day campaign (Scourge). Zenimax intended to phase out Scourge over a period of time in order to allow the inhabitants to migrate to other campaigns, but in a monumental blunder typical of TESO's bug-infested release to date, they accidentally deleted the whole server with the release of 1.1.2 and replaced it with the two week campaign. Zenimax's apology is below:

To say that this is a /facepalm moment is a massive understatement, but I couldn't help but laugh. If you want to peruse the understandable anger this debacle wrought, just follow the link above to the official forums.

Fortunately for my gaming group, no such calamity has befallen us as of YET, but I'm not holding my breath. We are based in the North American Wabbajack campaign, and we play on the Daggerfall Covenant (DC) aka "the blueberries", which is the one of three factions available on TESO. The other factions are the Altmeri Dominion (AD) aka "the bees" and the Ebonheart Pact (EP) aka "the raspberries". I can say with a lot of confidence that it is one of the most active and most competitive campaigns in North America, with each faction having held the lead in the overall campaign score at one point or another. Each faction has also crowned its share of Emperors, and Wabbajack consistently has the highest population out of all the 90 day campaigns in North America. Here is a snapshot of the comparative populations of Cyrodiil on Saturday 7 June 2014 North American peak time:

Taken on 7 June 2014 1048 Japan Standard Time, which translates to 2148 Eastern Daylight Time. US East Coast Friday evening. Wabbajack is full, Bloodthorn is almost full, Auriel's Bow is dominated by AD, and the rest of the campaigns have low populations. The Altmeri Dominion are yellow, the Daggerfall Covenant is blue, and the Ebonheart Pact is red. Bees, blueberries and raspberries.

I have been tracking the populations of the campaigns via twice-a-day screenshots, and it appears to me that out of all the remaining 90 day campaigns the most active is Wabbajack, followed by Bloodthorn. The rest are much lower by comparison. Matt Firor stated that the maximum number of players allowed in Cyrodiil is about 1800, with each faction allowed to bring up to 600 players. Assuming this number is correct, we could say that one bar equals 1-300 players, two bars approximately 301-599, and a locked symbol denotes that the population is capped at approximately 600. This is pretty good, considering that the biggest battle ever fought in MMO history occurred in EVE Online in July 2013, where over 3000 to 4000 players fought a massive battle in 6VDT-H (with many more waiting in the wings to warp into the system). 1800 might be less than half that number, but at least TESO players are not playing in 10% time dilation. Well, most of the time anyway. Lots of players still complain about lag, but the TESO client on Windows has run beautifully for me for the vast majority of the time. This still doesn't let Zenimax off the hook for the unstable Mac client, though, which is a piece of crap by comparison.

The Early Emperors

As alluded to above, I have been religiously taking screenshots of the map, the scoreboard and the population at approximately 7 am and 7 pm Japan Standard Time (JST) everyday since 9 April 2014. This date coincides with the first day my gaming group entered Cyrodiil for the first time. Up to this point, from early access onwards AD had been dominating the campaign, with DC coming a close second and EP in last place.

The Wabbajack campaign score as of 9 April 2014, the very first time we entered Cyrodiil. Campaign scores are evaluated on an hourly  basis, with 10 points being awarded per keep, 5 points per outpost, 1 point per resource (farm, lumber mill or mine) and 25 points per Elder Scroll held. The winning faction will be the one which has the most number of points by the time the campaign duration ends, which in this screenshot will be in 78 days.

Based purely on dumb luck we were able to take part in the crowning of the first ever DC Emperor. The first DC Wabbajack Emperor was Whispers to Ravens, and he was an Argonian Nightblade (NB) healer. It was a bit strange to have an Argonian become leader of a faction comprised primarily of Bretons, Orcs and Redguards, but since the disgraced leader of the Fighter's Guild in Tamriel was an Argonian named Sees All Colours, I was able to use the power of wishful thinking to believe that this was acceptable lore-wise. For me the early days of the campaign will always be associated with running with the Emperor in our midst. It was never hard to pick out Whispers – the golden armour and the big waggling reptilian tail made him stand out of the zerg.

All hail Whispers to Ravens, the first ever Wabbajack Emperor of the Daggerfall Covenant!

Any pretence of role-playing was destroyed by the ascension of the second DC Emperor named Johnny Hammersticks sometime during mid April. No amount of wishful thinking would make this name acceptable lore-wise, and worse, the name Johnny is irrevocably linked to The Karate Kid in my mind. Anytime I saw Hammersticks on zone chat I had to bite back the inane impulse to shout out, “Sweep the leg, Johnny!” I also saw Hammersticks talking about how large his e-peen was on chat in Rivenspire shortly after his ascension, and that for me removed any kind of budding factional loyalty I might have had for our new Emperor. To be fair to Johnny, he was an encouraging and active Emperor in Cyrodiil zone chat during the time DC was on top. Recently, however, I have not seen hide or hair of him, and it has been up to other DC leaders like Bitaken, Reevo, Egypt, and Senior Fluffykins to organise groups and take up the slack.

Regardless of my opinion of our newly minted Emperor, Hammerstick's reign coincided with a period of dominance by DC which would continue until the end of April. DC was able to keep Hammersticks on the throne for a Wabbajack record of exactly four days and  9 hours between 15 April to 19 April 2014. Unknown to most of us at this time of DC dominance, however, a major threat was looming in the east. Not only would there be a veritable diaspora of EP coming to Wabbajack from other campaigns, but even more dangerous would be groups of organised leaders who would make a decisive impact on the course of the Alliance war. Hammersticks' record would be threatened by a Pact Emperor named Fixate in the following month.

15 April 2014 2059 JST (0759 EDT) at the height of Hammerstick's reign. Blue represents the Daggerfall Covenant. Red is the Ebonheart Pact, and yellow is the Altmeri Dominion. This is the best any Alliance can do in Cyrodiil - all possible keeps have been taken, and all the Elder Scrolls are in DC hands. The home bases in the corners of the map cannot be captured. 

But that, my friends, is a tale for another time.