“Are videogames actually games?” and other stupid questions

Originally posted 7/6/07 on www.ggl.com.

I checked out an article entitled “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” for two reasons. First, it’s highly rated on Digg, which means it has to be good, right? And second, I was intrigued by the title.

This has to be the dumbest gaming article I’ve seen online, ever. And that’s saying a lot.The anonymous author’s point seems to be this: there are certain (largely imaginary) differences between videogames and “traditional” games. Therefore, videogames are not games.

Here are my point-for-point responses to the post:

1. Intimacy
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine… The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

This makes no sense to me at all. Whether traditional or hobbyist, any game is either played alone, or with/against other people. Every game is interactive; sometimes the player interacts with inanimate objects like playing cards or miniatures, sometimes with other people while using inanimate objects, sometimes with a computer, and sometimes with other people over a computer network.

I can’t see what the author means by “intimacy” here, unless it is exactly what he means by “immersion” below.

2. Stories are more important than rules
… computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

If this author is looking for stories and characters in non-videogames, I guess he’s right. They’re pretty hard to find. The only ones I can think of are: Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Champions, The World of Darkness games, and every other RPG ever written; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and many other plot- and character-based tabletop war games; Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game, and other plot- and character-based collectible card games; Illuminati: New World Order, Car Wars, and other plot- and character-based tabletop games.

But of course I’m cheating. All of the non-RPGs above were heavily influenced by RPGs, after AD&D became popular. I guess my point is that RPGs constitute a massive genre of story-based non-video games. And need I add that every single story-based videogame, from the earliest MUDs and MUSHes to World of Warcraft and Gears of War, is based upon earlier non-computer-based games? Of course I don’t.

3. Immersion
Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

This breaks down two ways. On the one hand, tabletop games can be as fully immersive and engrossing as any videogame. I don’t have to explain this to any actual gamer. If you’ve spent all Friday night and Saturday day playing D&D, without bothering to sleep, then you know that offline games are just as addictive as the online ones.

On the other hand, videogames can offer something that meatspace games cannot: virtual reality. Sure, it’s not the fully immersive virtual reality that William Gibson promised us 20 years ago; you’re still sitting in a chair staring at a screen. But there’s a world of difference between having a dungeon master explain something to you, and actually seeing it and interacting with it in World of Warcraft. In this sense, videogames are truly more immersive than offline games. LARPers try to recreate that magic, but let’s face it; they’re just playing D&D while standing up and wearing clothes from Hot Topic.

But I don’t see how virtual reality makes videogames “not games.”

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. … They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex.

Oh, come on! Do I really have to argue this? “Games are traditionally considered to be for children.” By whom? Poker players? There have always been children’s games and adult games, going back to the beginning of time. And I hate to break it to this author, but the vast majority of people still consider videogames to be exclusively for children, despite this being patently untrue. Unless someone out there is letting their 6-year-old play Rule of Rose.

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events.

This may be true for videogames in some circumstances, but it is also true for other games as well. The author does not try to defend his statement with examples, and I don’t blame him.

The author is once again appealing to the views of the general public, which is always a mistake when it comes to gaming. It’s true that most people don’t consider games to be “high culture,” but they don’t see videogames that way either, even when it’s warranted. Okami could be displayed in a museum; but so could the best wargame miniatures.

Granted, art and design are integral to videogames, and often marginal in traditional games. But look at any Games Workshop game, whether RPG, wargame, board game or card game – the perfect example of how excellent art can enhance a game.

I had more “life-changing” experiences while playing RPGs than I ever have had playing videogames. But that’s just me – I’m not holding tabletop RPGs over videogame RPGs or MMORPGs. I just can’t see why on is inherently better than the other.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable.

Ah yes, you’re perfectly right. Except for having it entirely backwards.

Computer games don’t just contain rules – they are rules. A computer program is just a long, complex series of unbreakable rules, with absolutely no wiggle room. Even a hack, cheat, bug or Easter egg follows the rules; they just mean the rules were poorly written.

Now, computer game rules are very complex, sometimes offering very many choices, some of them unpredictable. But the options are always finite – always.

In an offline game, the rules can be changed at any time; whether through unanimous consent of the players, or the authoritarian dictates of an RPG gamemaster, or even by good old fashioned cheating.

Here’s a good example: Risk. When playing tabletop Risk or Risk: 2210, players can create house rules, make and break alliances, bluff, argue and cheat. In computer Risk, one can do none of these things. A more advanced version of computer Risk might be designed to allow rules changes and alliances; but only if these functions are specifically programmed. And only to the extent that the programmers allow.

A traditional game will always have more options than a computer game; and an RPG will have the most options of all.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century.

This is true. But it doesn’t argue for the superiority of videogames. And it doesn’t argue that videogames are not games.

Our videogame culture is different from offline gaming culture, in that players demand exponentially increasing aesthetic technology, and publishers strive to provide it. Whether the advance of graphics and sound technology actually results in better and more compelling art is highly debatable.

Also, this need for increasingly beautiful games is not inherent to the videogame experience. It’s not the result of videogame culture. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented tech boom. Videogames, consoles and gaming PCs are very expensive, and people demand to get their money’s worth. If computing technology ever levels off, gamers’ aesthetic expectations will level off as well.

8. Persistent social context
To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

So, the “social context” of a traditional game ends when the game ends, whereas the social context of a videogame ends… when the game ends. Got it.

Some people argue that only a traditional game creates an appropriate social context, and they paint pictures of fat, spotty teenage boys playing WoW for 20 hours a day in their mother’s basement. I totally disagree. Even the spotty teen is, in fact, socializing, as long as he’s playing online. If he’s not playing online, then yes, perhaps he needs to get out of the house. On the other hand, maybe we should just leave him alone and let him be happy.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. … When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

Right. So you can’t lose in a deathmatch? And you can lose in D&D? Seriously, dude, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

Anybody who ever lost a game “…failed to accomplish a certain task.” That’s the very definition, whether the task is “achieve checkmate before the other guy” or “accumulate more kills than the other guy.”

Granted, in many video games, the player just attempts the same task over and over until they get it right. And yes, they may give up. How this is different from solitaire, for example, I have no idea.

10. Cheating is allowed
Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc.

If the game includes a cheat code, then it’s not cheating. The programmer put it in there on purpose. “Cheating” means violating the mutually agreed upon rules, whether those rules are set by a family playing Monopoly, or by the World Chess Federation, or by Blizzard’s EULA. Anyone, in any game, can cheat. But it’s never “allowed” — if it is, it’s not cheating.

As for the fun of “hacking” a game, making changes, enforcing your will upon someone else’s work – anyone can do this, in any game. And it’s much easier to do this with an offline game. You don’t need to learn coding, or own a dev kit.

In Conclusion

In my experience, both as a traditional gamer, and as someone who has been playing videogames since Day One, I have been struck by the deep similarities between videogames and other forms of games.

This is not just because so many computer games are based upon, or inspired by, traditional games. It is also because a game is a game. And no matter what medium you play in, the goals are the same.

The one genuine way in which videogames improve upon, and are different from, other games is in the creation of increasingly immersive virtual realities. One day, VR realms may become utterly realistic. In that event, whether a virtual reality constitutes a “game” will depend entirely on its purpose.

If the purpose is to challenge the user, in competition against other users, the programmers, or the user’s own talents and expectations, then yes, that reality will be a game.

An open letter to Steve Jobs

Dear Steve,

I was a Mac evangelist for a very long time, but this is my first letter to you. I say that I was a Mac evangelist, rather than that I am one, because my love for your brand has been slowly dying out for many years now.

My complaints have included the following:

  • Hardware-wise, my iMac G5 is an overpriced piece of crap. And instead of having a recall, you waited for my motherboard to fry before offering me a free replacement.
  • Mac OS X is cool and all, but it’s not significantly better than Windows XP, much less Vista.
  • I don’t like paying through the nose for marginal OS updates. I can get widgets for free on a PC — why should I pay $130 for them?
  • Getting help at the Genius Bar is startlingly reminiscent of visiting the DMV.
  • Mac mouses still suck. I was so excited about the Mighty Mouse. “Mighty disappointing” is all I have to say.
  • You killed my Newton.

Apple Newton

But it’s that last crime that wounded me the most. I was a huge Newton fan, an early adopter. I used to lug that enormous brick with me everywhere I went. I loved the handwriting recognition (still better than on any PDA available today). I loved the cool little programs you could download and install. I loved being better than anyone who didn’t own a Newton.

It was a great little machine. Recently, CNET compared the Newton to a modern portable tablet — and the Newton won.

When you, Steve, regained control of Apple in 1997, I thought it was good news. And then you did the unthinkable. You killed the Newton. You murdered the entire product line. It wasn’t your baby, so you wanted nothing to do with it.

My Newton went from Best Gizmo in the World to Useless Hunk of Plastic.

Now, you’ve given the world the iPhone. It’s pretty damn cool — I used one today. Wired Magazine says it’s “surprisingly close to what a current-generation Newton might look like if Jobs hadn’t killed in the line….”

I agree, Steve. I agree.

That’s why I am asking… no, demanding… a Newton for iPhone swap program. Anyone who brings their working Newton into an Apple store can exchange it for a new iPhone. And no, we won’t need a receipt — that’s a cop out.

Reward the early adopters, Steve. The Newton was iPhone v.0. You killed it — let’s bring it back.

Washington Post: What’s So Bad About Cheating?

Originally posted 4/4/07 at Avataritoria.

Mike Musgrove, Washington Post Technology Columnist, does not understand why cheating is bad. I hope his golfing buddies know that.

Mr. Musgrove doesn’t get why we enjoy MMORPGs. Some people would say that disqualifies him from writing about MMOs. I disagree. Musgrove admits his ignorance. Then he thinks that maybe MMOs are only boring in the low levels, so maybe he should try a power leveling service.

He pays $24 to a Hong Kong gold farm to get his World of Warcraft character leveled to 20. Unfortunately, he finds the game just as dull. There’s just no pleasing some people.

But even after asking around, he just can’t see why power leveling would be bad. (He calls power-leveling meatbots “proxy fighters.” Isn’t that adorable?) He quotes the absurd self-justification of his HK gold pirate:

“The practice is analogous to someone who maintains a beautiful garden but doesn’t always have enough time to perform all the yard work himself, and therefore hires a gardener,” [HK/Singapore gold farming firm IGE’s chief operating officer, James Clarke] wrote in an e-mailed response to questions about the company. “Some purists might call hiring a gardener ‘cheating,’ but we believe most people are quite comfortable with it.”

Uh huh. I guess some purists might think hiring a gardener is “cheating,” but most people are quite comfortable with gardeners. What does that have to do with cheating in a game? Does this guy really think most WoW players are comfortable with the idea that the lvl 14 rogue in their PUG is an underpaid Chinese sweat shop laborer? Should I not care that someone paid money to “accomplish” in a moment what I worked (well, played) hard to accomplish?

I’ve made a big deal of the fact that MMOs are not competitive games. I’ve suggested that MMO players are meant to share strategies and resources, and not hoard them. But this raises the question, so what if someone buys levels? Or gold? Or items? Isn’t that just “sharing?”

The only way to answer a question like this is to ask, “How does it affect the game?” The kinds of sharing I’m talking about take place in the game, between characters. It’s part of the game itself. Power leveling and gold farming involve transactions outside the game, between players, made for out-of-game benefit (money). That’s what makes it cheating.

When playing Monopoly, I can state in front of everyone that another player and I are ganging up on a third player. That’s not cheating. But if I steal money from the bank and pass it surreptitiously to the second player, in exchange for non-game-related favor later, that’s just plain old cheating.

Of course, Monopoly is a competitive game with one winner. WoW is a cooperative game with no winners. But they are still both GAMES. And if you don’t play by the rules, you’re not playing. You’re just taking up bandwidth that could be used by people who actually want to play.

I’m not surprised that a Washington Post columnist lacks the internal ethical compass to recognize cheating. He’s probably one of those people who thinks that because Alberto Gonzalez didn’t break the law, he didn’t do anything wrong. Power leveling isn’t illegal, therefore it must not be wrong.

Link. Via MMO Gaming.

LOTRO Announces One Million Open Beta Accounts: A Play In One Act By Kunochan

Originally posted 3/30/07 on Avataritoria.

Bilbo Baggins: Master Elrond! Master Elrond!

Elrond Halfelven: Not now, my little friend. I am composing an history of the First Age, one that fails to mention Túrin Turimbar. So as to be less depressing. Also, the bit with the dragon is a bit much.

Bilbo: But Master Elrond! Rivendell is overrun by strangers! And they have odd, non-Endorian names, like “HarryPotter1217” and “Arwensaslut!”

Elrond: Yes, I am well aware, my Periannath friend. Naught occurs in Imladris without my knowledge.

Bilbo: But there are thousands of them! Many many thousands! Eleventy-hundred thousand!

Elrond: Ah, your Hobbitish innumeracy amuses me. But there are in fact one million visitors, Mr. Baggins. They have taken advantage of Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online Open Beta offer.

Bilbo: Huh?

Elrond: From April 6th to April 24th, anyone can get one of one million open beta keys, and play. Of course, one must purchase a copy of PC Gamer or sign up on the GameSpot website in order to obtain such a key.

Bilbo: I do not understand you, Master. Have you lapsed into Quenya?

Elrond: No, no, my diminutive gastronome. But my wife left me, and traveled into the West, 510 years ago. And the loneliness and sexual frustration may have driven me mad.

Arwen Evenstar: You’re sexually frustrated? I’m 2,777 years old, and I’m still a virgin! And you won’t even let me screw my boyfriend!

Elrond: My darling daughter, perhaps we can discuss this later…

Arwen: And I pre-ordered! When do I get into the beta?

Elrond: Why, today, I believe, my daughter.

Arwen: Oh! Nice! I bother to pre-order, and I get a one week lead on the rest of the planet! And my box hasn’t even arrived yet!

Bilbo: Please do not fight! It aggravates my incontinence!

Arwen: And speaking of my box, I’m going to my room. I think the “evenstar” needs some “polishing.” [Exits.]

Bilbo: Curses. I have soiled my trousers.

Elrond: Sigh. I should have volunteered to be King of Númenor. I would be dead, but I would be happy. [Exeunt.]

Link.

When Experts Expound on Things They Know Nothing About

Originally posted 3/29/07 on Avataritoria.

Via Poorer Than You, an article on CNN Money called Second Life’s looming tax threat.”

The only “news” in this article isn’t news — if people in Second Life are making real live US dollars, the government wants its cut. Snore.

But the article goes further, making the absurd suggestion that entirely virtual economies, like the one in World of Warcraft, should be taxed by the US government.

Riiiight.

Grace Wong, CNN Money staff writer, quotes Christopher Frenze of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, who sensibly points out that “as long as virtual activity stays within the virtual economy, it shouldn’t be taxable.”

But there are always two “sides” to any argument, and trust the mainstream media to find the “dumbass” side. “As soon as you start looking at what’s going on in these worlds, they look a lot like real economic transactions,” says Texas Tech professor Bryan Camp. According to Wong, Camp believes that “profits that come from, and stay in, the virtual world are taxable.” I hope that’s a misquote.

As Stephanie from Poorer Than You says, “Unless the IRS is prepared to tax my Monopoly winnings, they should really stay out of this.”

So is there really a controversy here? Is the IRS going to tax my WoW gold? No. Although Ms. Wong would like to imply an impending danger, she quotes an IRS rep:

“Any time someone wins a tangible prize or award, the value is reportable as taxable income. An accumulation of ‘points’ would not result in tax consequences, but redeeming or selling them for money, goods, or services would.”

So, there’s no there there. Thanks, CNN Money!

Link.

‘Lord of the Rings Online’ — Kuno’s First Impressions

Originally posted 3/16/07 on Avataritoria.

Well, after paying the money to pre-order LOTRO, guess what? I got invited to the closed beta. I’m as happy as a little girl.

I may have mentioned this in another post, but I’m the original, unreconstructed Tolkien geek. I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the third grade, and I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve read them since. My favorite book of all time is The Silmarillion. Yes, I’ve read all those History of Middle Earth books, in which Tolkien’s son publishes his father’s old doodles and tax receipts. I’ve read his biography and his published letters. I can name all 13 dwarves and all seven sons of Fëanor. I even (occasionally) write Sauron’s Blog.

I loved the movies, although I can recite every single deviation from the novels, and explain every reference. I can explain to you the real reason Denethor went mad, where Gandalf went when he died and why he came back, and why it’s significant that Galadriel turned down the Ring. I can also tell you that Saruman didn’t die at Orthanc, the Galadhrim did not fight at Helm’s Deep (and never would have), and that Sauron is NOT an evil lighthouse.

So with my Tolkien bona fides firmly established, there should be no surprise that I’ve been anxiously awaiting The Lord of the Rings Online since it was announced in 2003 as Middle Earth Online.

It’s still in beta, and I imagine and hope that many of the small annoyances derive from that fact. For that reason, I’m only going to give general impressions at this time, and save any complaints for launch.

1.) I love that Elf characters start their storyline 600 years before the events of the game, and arrive in the present after the initial tutorial level. Immortality FTW!
2.) All the players with non-Tolkien names annoy the hell out of me. N00bs. My female Elf hunter is named Arthradha. Sindarin for “Beautiful Traveler,” it’s a name I researched for a Tolkien tabletop game a while back.
3.) The graphics look nice. But this is not the first new MMO I’ve seen with a metallic earth tone color palette. I guess giving everything copper highlights is supposed to add to realism, but it just looks strange to me. Myst Online is the worst offender in this regard, but games like Ran Online do it too.
4.) Some of the details are beautiful, and reveal the designers’ dedication to the Legendarium. Check out this screenshot:

At some time in the distant past, sunlight broke into this cave and turned this troll back into stone. Nice.
5.) When you get a quest, read every single word. Unlike in World of Warcraft, you won’t be able to just muddle your way through while ignoring the details. Pay attention to what the quest giver says. Seriously.
6.) Like the Battle for Middle-earth guys, the designers of LOTRO are eager to introduce new creatures not mentioned in the Legendarium (but that don’t conflict with it either). So far, all I’ve met are the Aurochs and the Cave-Claw Burrowers. An Auroch is a species of extinct cattle, and introducing extinct mammals fits well with Tolkien’s conception of Middle-earth as our Earth’s primordial past (as well as with the fascination Tolkien, an ardent Creationist, had with modern science and evolutionary theory, which he felt it was foolish to deny). That’s why I didn’t mind the mammoths-as-mûmakil in the movie. As for the Burrowers, I found them really annoying. I don’t find them believable, either as animals or as monsters.
7.) Thank Eru that LOTRO’s wargs are exactly what they’re supposed to be — giant, talking wolves. What the hell was Peter Jackson thinking?

I’ll keep playing, and letting you all know what I think. And when the game goes live, I’ll complain about any issues that still exist.

Nai Valaraukar tye-mátar!

The Top Ten MMO Excuses

Originally posted 2/28/07 on Avataritoria.

You’ve heard them all. Someone screws up a raid, or gets everyone killed at the end of an instance — but there’s always an excuse.

I’ve collected the top 10 MMO excuses, in the hope they can be retired forever. It won’t happen — but we can always hope, right?

If you’re going to screw up in a game, at least think of new excuses, rather than trotting out one of these lame old-skool justifications.

10. I’m a n00b.
This isn’t an excuse – if you’re in the proper n00bie areas, and paying attention, your stupid mistakes shouldn’t affect anyone but you. But if you’re not just a n00b, but a howard – some 12-year-old kid lacking the emotional maturity to play Wii Bowling, much less an MMO, well, that’s no excuse either. Go play Barbie Horse Adventures until you’re old enough to stop snickering at your own female avatar’s wiggling ass.

9. [Random Player] was supposed to give me [Random Buff] — and the aggro got screwed!
The truth is, not receiving the proper support from your party members may be a legitimate reason for failure, not just a lame excuse. If the healer isn’t healing, the buffer isn’t buffing, and the brick isn’t pulling aggro, then you may get kacked no matter what you do. But far too often, players try to blame their own weaknesses on others. Don’t throw stones – if you weren’t pulling your own weight, then the failures of others aren’t an excuse.

8. Someone was spamming trade chat, and it distracted me.
Oh, please. If there’s not a way turn off general chat without losing party chat, then learn to ignore it. It’s called “concentration” – you can Google it.

7. Someone was at my door / I had to go pee. (tie)
Ah, the “IRL Defense.” Most real-life interruptions are not major life-threatening emergencies. They can probably wait until the end of a combat. And if you’re involved in a giant raid – well, geez dude, just plan ahead. Or maybe you can take up a game that requires less of a commitment. Like Barbie Horse Adventures.

6. My character was so much more powerful before the update / before he got nerfed.
Well, boo hoo. If your character got nerfed, it was probably too powerful in the first place. It’s called “game balance” – and since the game is supposed to be fun for everyone, and not just YOU, maybe you should quit your bitching and learn to play your character under the new rules.

5. My computer / video card / monitor is crap.
Well then, you have two solutions to this problem. First, find a second job / sugar daddy / winning lottery ticket, and get a better machine. Or second, alter your game play to fit the capabilities of your system. Plan ahead – choose a character with ranged attacks and spells that do damage over time. Get buffs that help other party members. Avoid direct involvement in combat. Set yourself to “follow” other players. And if your system is too weak to play a game, then don’t play it at all. Switch to Barbie Horse Adventures.

4. “I’ve got chicken.”
When Leeroy Jenkins famously sabotaged a massive raid, his only excuse was “I’ve got chicken.” Of course, that’s not really an excuse; it’s more of a reason. He had chicken. That’s perfectly understandable, right?

3. I just wanted to see what would happen if I did that.
I’ve been overcome with the urge to do something monumentally stupid, just to see what would happen. And unlike say, climbing over the fence at the Grand Canyon or jumping down a garbage chute, conducting stupid experiments in a virtual world will not get you killed.

Just try your experiments on your own time, rather than when a party is depending on you.

2. That wasn’t me, my girlfriend was using my account.
Please. Like YOU have a girlfriend….

1. Lag!!!

If you have any other favorite MMO excuses, list them in the comments! There’s no excuse not to! Heh heh.

More from the Cheat-o-sphere — Blizzard Sues WoW Glider

Originally 2/19/07 posted on Avataritoria.

Blizzard Entertainment is taking legal action against the site that sells WoW Glider, a bot program that basically plays WoW for you. I learned about this from a rambling post over on Markee Dragon, a site that links to various bots, cheatware and gold famers.

I didn’t know about the WoW Glider situation because, of course, I don’t cheat. Hell, I feel guilty when I use the “World of Warcraft Atlas.”

Again a games developer is using? abusing? copyright law to control how its game is used. And again, I am torn. I don’t like publishers bullying gamers into using a product a specific way.

But I really, really don’t like cheaters.

WoW Glider sits and plays WoW while you are not at your computer, following a complex set of instructions. Some people think this isn’t cheating, since the user is not manufacturing illicit items or making walls invisible. After all, it’s just a more advanced example of the macros Blizzard lets you create, right? Right?

I’m not a lawyer. Avataritoria’s Paul Ang, who went to law school, always tells me there are no good or bad lawsuits — you either win or you don’t. This is a very lawyerly thing to think. He also reminds me often that the law has nothing to do with what’s right and what’s wrong. Also very lawyerly.

I have no doubt Blizzard will prevail in this legal action, since the current climate in law and politics is slavishly servile to corporate interests over fair use. But should Blizzard win? Do they have a point?

1.) Blizzard accuses WoW Glider of violating its intellectual property rights. This may be valid under the law, but it’s bogus in reality. Intellectual property law was invented to protect the right of artists to make money off their creative labor. It was not intended to prevent anybody else on Earth from ever making money off your labor ever, or to keep your ideas from being used in ways that annoy you or make your life harder. Intellectual property law has been amended to include these things, but it should not have been — fair use, a vital part of cultural development, has been hobbled and nearly eliminated as a result.

2.) Blizzard says that WoW Glider encourages users to violate the WoW Terms of Service. This is undeniably true, but I have two problems with it. First, I have no interest in non-negotiable boilerplate contracts that strip all of my rights as a consumer, and permit a corporation to change any provision they wish at any time. I’m not aware of any particular instance of Blizzard abusing their EULA, but cell phone companies do it all the time. The potential for abuse is enormous.

My other problem is, “yeah, so what?” WoW Glider permits users to break the rules. That makes the cheater the problem, not the cheat bot. WoW Glider has no legitimate use, to my knowledge — but the EULA isn’t violated until you log in and use it. Lots of people want to make bongs, lock picking kits and hack programs illegal, but I don’t. It’s not wrong to have the tool, it’s wrong to use it, and the distinction is important. (I’m well aware this goes against my long-held views on gun control; but guns kill people, and serve no other purpose at all, ever. I resent the idea of a device someone can point at me, press a button, and I’m dead.)

3.) Blizzard has pointed out that going after WoW Glider users and banning them costs Blizzard money. Yeah, well, boo hoo. As a paying, non-cheating WoW player, that’s why I pay you guys. Going after bot creators will never stop the creation of bots, any more than napalming cocaine farms cures drug addiction.

This all makes it sound like I support WoW Glider and oppose Blizzard. This is absolutely not true. I’d love to see cheatbots eradicated from the Earth, or at least from Azeroth. Players who cheat are scumbags. (I have respect for the people who break something like WoW apart, figure out how it works, and find all the hacks. But again, there’s a sharp clear line between hacking the game out of curiosity, and using that knowledge to ruin the game for everyone.)

But using the law to eliminate cheating makes me very nervous, not because Blizzard is doing harm, but because they may set precedents that will allow others to do harm. I’d really rather Blizzard stuck to finding cheaters and banning them.

That said, you won’t find me donating any money to WoW Glider’s legal defense.

The ‘EVE Online’ ‘Jumpgate’ Scandal: Can a Developer Really ‘Cheat?’

Originally posted 2/12/07 on Avataritoria.

I’m often amazed by the strange, unexpected ways in which MMO virtual worlds mirror the real world, and incite people to exaggerated forms of the behavior we see IRL.

The ongoing(?) “Jumpgate” scandal in EVE Online illustrates the most common lesson of modern politics — the cover up is always worse than the crime.

Without going into the tedious details, it seems that at least one EVE Online developer was cheating, using his “powers” as a developer to provide serious advantages for his friends in-game. This, and other alleged misconduct, was discovered by a player who operated as a spy in-game, finding ways to get into private “corporate” and “alliance” message boards, and then selling the information he found to competing corporations.

From what I understand (I am still an EVE n00b), the spy player, who calls himself Kugutsumen after a villain from the tentacle-porn anime La Blue Girl, performed his espionage activities without cheating, through bribery and social engineering. But all of his accounts were permanently banned when he brought his evidence of cheating to the EVE community.

CCP, the Icelandic company that runs EVE, was reticent to take any action, but their hand was forced by outrage in the community. One core developer called t20 fell on his sword, and admitted to wrongdoing. Now some community members are calling for his firing.

I have a couple of thoughts on this situation.

1.) I don’t believe for a second that everyone at CCP didn’t know what everyone else was doing. When they got caught, the response should have been honest, straightforward, and immediate. Trying to cover up a scandal never, ever works; and people can be very forgiving when you step up and admit “my bad.”

Also, never shoot the messenger. CCP is mad at Kugutsumen because he went straight to the community, instead of privately reporting his suspicions to CCP. Kugutsumen got this email from lead GM Grimmi:

It can be said with some fairness that the posts you made have caused quite the uproar and created an atmosphere that makes all our lives that much more harder. CCP does not condone cheating, for sure, but dealing with matters such as this one is not made any easier with all the ruckus.

Yet it seems clear that without the “ruckus,” CCP would not have responded. Besides, Kugutsumen is not a CCP employee. He is a community member, and his loyalty is to the community. He pays (paid) for five different accounts — CCP works for him, not the other way around.

Banning Kugutsumen is based on two violations of the Terms of Service. He made CCP’s lives harder (seriously, that’s their claim); and he posted the IRL names of the game devs. On the first count, it’s not a player’s job to make the game creators’ lives easier. Clearly, players should not be allowed to interfere with the operation of the game; but this is to keep players from suffering, not devs. And Kugutsumen was trying to protect players, not inconvenience them. He seems to have correctly believed that inconveniencing the devs was not an issue.

On the second count, players should not try to access or disseminate the IRL info of other players. This is a serious issue. But Kugutsumen did not do this. He posted proof that certain characters were being played by devs. Devs are not private citizens — they are accountable to the community. Kugutsumen did not post their home addresses or anything like that, just their names. I fail to see the harm in this, except insofar as CCP devs prefer to play EVE anonymously.

2.) Did t20 and/or other CCP devs in fact do anything wrong? It seems that by the specific rules laid down by CCP, they did. EVE devs are supposed to play according to the same rules as everyone else.

But a dev is, for all intents and purposes, a game master. They design and run the game. It seems to me that anything a dev does is just “the game.” A dev may do something foolish that decreases the fun of the players, but I don’t see how it’s “cheating.” Maybe t20 actually improved game play through his activities, not just for his friends, but for everybody. I don’t know.

But I think if someone pointed out some egregious “injustice,” and I discovered that the offender was a dev or a GM, I would just say, “oh, it’s a GM,” and forget about it.

Maybe this just comes from decades of running tabletop role-playing games. But when I was a game master, I certainly didn’t like to be second-guessed.

Even if t20 broke company policy, I don’t think he should necessarily lose his job. That’s a very serious punishment. I certainly think that decision is up to CCP, and not a mob of angry community members.

MMO players spend a lot of time and money on their hobby, and they need to know that the game company is honest and responsive. CCP’s problem here was not the “crime,” but how they dealt with it. Players must never be treated like an annoyance (even if they are annoying).

WoW Is A Rip-off Of ‘Warhammer Online’; NOT The Other Way Around!

For some time now, I’ve been planning to write a post on this topic. This discussion thread on mmorpg.com nudged me into finally doing it.

I’ve been a gamer since the earliest days of anything that can properly be called “gaming.” My first video game was Pong. My first computer was a TRS-80. My first role-playing game was “blue book” D&D. My first anime was Macross. I’m the original paleogamer.

I played all the great Games Workshop games; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, Space Hulk, Blood Bowl, and Talisman. Chaos Marauders is one of the greatest games of all time, and I still play it.

I’ve also followed the efforts of the Blizzard folks, who have yet to release a bad game. Lost Vikings 1 & 2, Warcraft 1-3, StarCraft, Diablo 1&2, and World of Warcraft. Hell, I even played StarCraft: Ghost at Blizzcon.

That said, I can assure all you young Padawan gamer n00bs that Warcraft is a direct and obvious rip-off of Warhammer. I have been informed by a reliable source that in the beginning, this was intentional — Blizzard and Games Workshop had an abortive relationship. But much if not most of the look, feel, and characterization of the Warcraft universe was at least inspired by the Warhammer universe.

Am I criticizing Blizzard in saying this? Nah. It’s really not a big deal. It’s all just a rip-off of Tolkien anyway. And Blizzard has certainly developed the Warcraft franchise into its own original, massive creative endeavor. The two legendaria have evolved in different directions; the Warcraft universe features serious storylines intermixed with light comedy and anachronisms, while Warhammer is noted for dark comedy in a grim and gritty world. At this point, saying that Azeroth is a ripoff of the World of Warhammer is just sniping.

What’s annoying is when uneducated howards, munchkins, n00bs and trolls complain that Warhammer Online rips off World of Warcraft. You know, because WoW was published first. Let’s ignore the fact that each game is part of a legacy of games.

They also complain that WOAR’s control scheme mimicks the WoW interface. No god, I should hope so! WoW has the best interface of any MMO I’ve played to date. Please, MMO publishers, steal WoW’s interface. I’m begging you.

In conclusion, WoW is a great game, indeed my favorite game of the moment. But it’s a rip-off of Warhammer. And I am very much looking forward to Warhammer Online.