Monthly Archives: January 2012

Play With Your Friends: WoW as the Social Game Network

My druid, Cynli (born on Durotan), visits Visper, the GM of Waypoint on Medivh.

Play with your friends. That’s the promise that online games have held out to us for many years, the ability to play computer games with friends regardless of physical location. MMOs take this to an extreme – play with thousands of people, some of whom may be your friends – but that’s the general idea with any networked video game. It’s the reason that Blizzard implemented RealID messaging across their game platforms. It’s the reason why they are working towards removing your server as an impediment to playing with friends with cross-realm dungeons, raiding, battlegrounds. I fully expect to see cross-realm arenas, questing, and progression raiding in the future.

Blizzard has even started working on addressing one of the biggest problems with RealID – the lack of anonymity – by implementing a BattleTag system, one that will hopefully address the very real privacy concerns of RealID, while allowing people to still play with online friends. This is great! Over the past few years we, as a culture, have developed a lot of social network tools that allow us to control the amount of information we share online. This should be as true for a video game social network tool as it is for any other social tool; users care about how much information they present about themselves, and will migrate to tools which allow them the right amount of control.

Consider how different the internet landscape is today, in 2012, as opposed to 2004, when World of Warcraft launched. Facebook had launched a few months earlier, but in that year it expanded to over 800 colleges and grew to 1 million active users. Warcraft reached 10 million users in January 2008, while Facebook had reached 60-70 million. Social networks were in their infancy in 2004, centered around weblogs and photo sharing sites. The rise of Facebook is illustrative of a larger trend of making social internet tools more accessible, to a broader swath of the population.

I mean, the numbers are mind-boggling.

  • One in nine people on the planet is on Facebook. (I’m not one of them.)
  • Twitter handles a billion tweets every week.
  • Google+ gained its first 10 million users in 16 days.

The amount of traffic generated by these kinds of sites is simply staggering. The impact of them upon MMOs like World of Warcraft cannot be understated. MMORPGs distinguish themselves from other video games by their social component, and since 2009 they are competing not just against other MMOs, but against all types of social computer activities – games, photo sharing sites, networking sites -

– even Farmville.

Furthermore, social networks have capitalized on something that MMOs have failed to – new mobile computing platforms. Only now, 5 years later, are we really able to see the impact that the iPhone’s introduction in 2007 had to the mobile computing market. It wasn’t just that it revolutionized the smartphone market – it did, making other manufacturers and platform developers realize they needed better interfaces and support for widespread application development. It also laid the groundwork for entirely new device markets like tablets, devices with great entertainment capability due to their flexibility, power, and ease of use. The iPad and Android tablet market has crushed other device types – remember when netbooks were going to be the new big thing? – and as technology moved away from the desktop, social media came right along with it.

Online social groups just aren’t what they were in 2004-05. We’ve rapidly moved past the idea of localized communities, instead going for fully global networks, with integration across websites and media. Your phone is, in all likelihood, a powerful computing device which can keep you connected to nearly all of these networks. It’s more likely that you keep in touch with your friends and family through some kind of social network than not.

And because it’s not just a social network, it’s also a video game, Warcraft is trying to keep up with these changes. Xbox Live is also doing this on the console space, but only WoW has both the subscriber base and the vision to pull off this necessary transformation.

I said in my post On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal that Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of a social network. I really think that gets to the heart of the matter, and is something that any criticism of Cataclysm needs to take into consideration. Not only does the video game have to be compelling, but it has to allow us to do things with our friends – friends who we are tied to through those other social networks. The sheer number of online connections people have now means that any networked video game needs to be able to be flexible enough to accommodate them, to allow them to play video games with those friends. Cloud-based gaming is the way of the future.

Battle.net is in a great position to become the default social network for computer RPGs. By providing a framework of interaction between players on different servers and even in different games, Blizzard can use Battle.net to allow other game companies to adopt their network instead of developing one themselves. By publishing APIs to be usable by third parties, this puts Blizzard in the position to:

  1. Capture the customer relationship (by requiring a free bnet account, or creating one for the player)
  2. Introduce players of other games to Blizzard products (free marketing)
  3. Create new revenue streams from other game companies for “enhanced” bnet services.

Is there a cost to this? Yes, absolutely, and as a product developer I’d be very concerned with how to recoup the operational and development costs here. Perhaps the API is free to use for most games, but special features (guild circles, intergame profile management, etc.) are charged to the hosting game company. Perhaps the Google+/Facebook model of monetizing member data is used. Maybe it’s a hybrid.

This kind of technology addresses a need that multi-player games will need in this new social reality, but game developers don’t want to spend time developing. It also has reach far beyond a single game – if it can get into the market with the right services, for the right price, with one of the largest embeddded userbases in the space, the potential for Blizzard to form an ubiquitous social gaming platform is very, very high.

However, there’s one problem within Warcraft that stands in the way: Guilds.

Do you have to belong to a guild in WoW, or not? Is it an optional social circle or a requirement for full participation in the game?

The guild system that has evolved in Cataclysm is very different from that which existed before, and is actively countering not only the general movement in social networks to be more inclusive, but also Blizzard’s own attempts to make players more able to play with their friends.

World of Warcraft’s infrastructure requires players to create accounts on specific, mutually exclusive servers. If I roll on Durotan, I cannot interact with players on Drenden or Moonrunner, and vice versa. Each server is effectively its own independent social network, limited in scope, much like old-school BBSes were. This made sense in 2004, but in 2012 social networks are broader, which is the whole point behind Real ID/BattleTags grouping. Warcraft is moving players towards a cloud-based existence, where your server matters less than your friends list. I personally think this is a good thing, because no matter how nostalgic I am for the old days of BBSes, I enjoy the present day reality of a global social network.

But guilds remain tied to servers, and they remain mutually exclusive.

This wouldn’t be quite as problematic if guilds were merely social units, like they were before Cataclysm. But not only do we now have to contend with the integrating this social circle in to the cloud-based experience, an entire system has been developed around them to make belonging to a guild valuable and worthwhile to a player.

Let’s take a simple example, a player who wants to play both Horde and Alliance. She joins nice guilds on both sides of the same server and enjoys spending time with each group. But depending on which character she chooses to play, she either has to choose one social group or the other. This doesn’t have anything to do with guild perks or reputation – imagine a social network that forced you to choose between talking to one set of friends or another when logging in, and see how popular that would become. It’s not enough to be able to talk individually. The community of a guild is important.

Now, while you might want controls over who you interact with at any time – think of Google+’s Circles here – you don’t even have that option here within Warcraft. Either you’re able to chat with Guild A, or with Guild B, but not both at the same time.

Yet, you’re able to talk to individuals in those guilds if they’re bnet friends.

Guilds, as they stand today, are both WoW’s greatest social strength and its strongest force working against letting players playing with their friends. Guilds are important, but they tie players to a specific group on a specific server, isolating and separating them.

But with a few changes, guilds can join the new cloud-based paradigm Blizzard is moving towards with Battle.net.

1. Allow player characters to belong to multiple guilds at the same time. How this manifests is open to debate – one guild might be chosen as the only one they can represent at a time, allow access to the bank, has the guild tag on display, generates guild rep towards that guild, etc.. At a minimum, give players access to the social components of guild membership – guild chat. This allows them to stay connected with their circles.

2. Allow guilds to function cross-server. Remove the server as a consideration of guild membership. Guilds need to be able to function as social units across servers. Are there technical restrictions to this? You bet. Perhaps guild banks and perks are limited to the founding server. Perhaps limits are put in place to how many cross-server members are allowed. But allow members to group up with other guild members easily, regardless of location.

3. Extend guild chat to games outside of Warcraft. This gets a little trickier, and may involve changing the guild association from character to player. Any Battle.net-enabled game should be able to carry with it the idea that a player is a member of a specific guild, and feed guild chat to him or her in that game’s chat interface. The game in question may not have guilds, but the player can still interact with those text channels through the game’s interface.

Imagine how different things would be right now if players of other MMOs could still be present in your guild’s chat.

4. Extend guild chat outside of video games. Stop tying the game’s social experience to video games and leverage existing social networks. Go multi-modal with their tools. As a game company, you have to consider the ROI of putting Battle.net on every different platform out there. My recommendation – don’t even try. Use their tools to get off the desktop and onto the phones and tablets of your players.

See, guilds are – or should be – supersets of friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers. They’re folks united with a common purpose, a common goal, even if they might not know each other very well. It doesn’t matter if they are a hard-core raiding team, a PvP world defense squad, or a fledgling leveling guild – they’re a group of people working together. Doing things together. Playing together.

Attaching mechanics to guilds causes pressure on the social cohesion of the group to conform to those rules, to achieve goals that are (in many cases) counter to the goals which brought them together in the first place. This genie is out of the bottle, so to make the best of it Blizzard needs to bring guilds into the cloud.

Like it or not, servers as social units are not Warcraft’s future. Each and every new cross-realm development shows this trend. Unfortunately, the guild structure remains the strongest bond to the server mentality in WoW.

For guilds to survive – and they need to survive – they need to change to meet the new social networking reality WoW finds itself in today.

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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual

The Problems of PvP Reputation Grinds in Cataclysm

Cataclysm Patch 4.2 introduced several undocumented changes to the reputation system in Warcraft. Some were quite welcome: city tabards now worked in Burning Crusade dungeons, allowing alts going from 60-70 to keep gaining home city reputation while running LFR. Others were less welcome: dungeon bosses gave less reputation in general.

The biggest change for battleground enthusiasts, however, was in Arathi Basin and the reputation awards for the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

  • Before 4.2, you got 100 reputation per win (10 reputation per 160 resources).
  • After 4.2, you get 60 reputation per win (10 reputation per 260 resources).

Yes, that’s a 40% nerf, and is before guild perks or Diplomacy bonuses are factored in.

Exalted with any faction requires 42,000 reputation points. To get Exalted with the Arathi Basin factions before 4.2, this required, in the best case, 420 wins. More realistically, that’s probably around 600 games, as you still gain experience from losing as long as you get some resources on the board.

After the 4.2 changes – and as this has never been confirmed as a bug, we have to assume that it was a deliberate change – Exalted requires 700 wins, or probably around 1,000 games total.

One thousand matches to Exalted. At 20 minutes a game, that’s 13.9 days /played in Arathi Basin.

Warsong Gulch isn’t really any better, but it didn’t change during 4.2. It’s been bad for a while. At 35 rep per flag capture, you’re looking at 1200 flag caps, or a minimum of 400 three cap games. Since you can win with a single flag cap, and can lose without any flag caps, you’re more likely looking at 600-700 matches to Exalted.

Does this seem like good design?

CONTENT THAT GETS PROGRESSIVELY HARDER

The 4.2 Arathi Basin reputation nerf is actually not the first time that PvP reputation has been nerfed – these reputations used to be far, far easier to grind, and the Justicar/Conqueror titles (Exalted in Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin, and Alterac Valley) were much more in reach.

Back in the old days, Marks of Honor – remember those? – could be turned in to the appropriate quartermaster for reputation (3 Marks for 50 rep), shortening the grind considerably. Before Wrath of the Lich King, you needed far fewer victories to reach Exalted:

  • Warsong Gulch: 273 wins
  • Arathi Basin: 280 wins
  • Alterac Valley: 70 wins

Let that sink in a bit. Getting to Exalted takes 127 more WSG and 420 more AB victories than it did now than it did in Burning Crusade. That’s victories – I figure you’ll have to play 30-40% more games total to do it. If you’re in a guild with the reputation perk when you start and all the way through, you can shave 10% off.

No analysis would be complete without looking at some of the other changes that have taken place to these battlegrounds:

  • Warsong Gulch now has a timer, which limits the amount of time each battle can take, so 40 mins – 1 hour long matches are no longer the norm. Unfortunately, this timer also means that each victory can be earned with a single cap, making the rep gain wildly variable. It’s pretty much a wash.
  • Arathi Basin was reduced from 2000 resources to 1600, which means each victory awards fewer reputation points. The rate of gain, however, has remained unchanged before 4.2.

The resource gain reduction in Arathi Basin is partly responsible for the increase in the number of games required to play to get to Exalted. The rate of reward wasn’t substantially modified until 4.2, though, so while we can say that it’s not quite as bad as the numbers say, it’s still bad.

It’s still about a thousand games to Exalted with the League of Arathor and the Defilers.

I guess they’re really hard to impress.

IMPROVING REPUTATION IN BATTLEGROUNDS

This is what content that gets progressively harder looks like. And it’s honestly not all that much fun. If you started playing in 2005, this was difficult but doable. If you’re starting now, in 2012, this is brutal.

Is this a good game design? Is it good to have a goal like this, one that is so far out there that you really have to focus on a single character for years to get it?

Yes, for years. Let’s say you are a relatively casual player and can play 3-4 AB battles a night (2 hours with queue times). You better keep up that pace for 286 days.

Nothing but Arathi Basin. No Arena. No PvE.

Just AB. BS, LM, ST. No, go GM. LM inc 3. Go Farm. GO FARM. BS going. BS gone.

I’ve played about 300 Arathi Basins across my different characters in the past 3 years. Cynwise has the Veteran achievement there. I know the place pretty darn well at this point, and I haven’t even scratched the reputation post. She’s 9796/12000 Honored. Yikes.

I don’t mean for it to sound like I’m complaining, because at this point I’ve totally given up on this as a reasonable goal for me. I’m not getting it. It’s not worth it to me.

But contrast AB reputation to Alterac Valley reputation, which most people get Exalted around 80-100 victories in. I have two characters at Exalted there, another two at Revered, and most of the others are making great progress. Some of this is due to factional imbalance in the old battlegroups, but it’s also due to the amount of reputation awarded.

This kind of reputation grind – one that requires commitment, but is doable on your way to the Veteran (100 victories) achievement, feels more realistic. Let’s face it, after you’ve won 50 battles, you feel like you’ve gotten the hang of it. By 75, the NPCs should know your name when you zone in.

All three of the original battlegrounds have reputation, and they are all tied into specific objectives within those battlegrounds. This has benefits – you gain rep for doing the stuff in the BG – but it also has drawbacks, as we see here. The scale is so out of whack now that changes need to be made to WSG and AB to make their grinds relevant again – otherwise people will simply look at them and go, that’s not worth it, and it fails to have any value.

Just like now.

These tasks are supposed to be hard, not impossible.

(There’s also the issue of  lingering resentment caused by increasing the difficulty on a task over time, but that’s a different post.)

My opinion is that the reputations need to be scaled to a number of games or victories. That’s how we evaluate these grinds, after all, and that the huge disparity between AV and AB points out that one can be done on multiple toons, while the other is an all-or-nothing deal. Personally, I like the 75-125 win mark – it’s an investment, but given the number of battlegrounds out there, it’s not unreachable. It still allows you to play other battlegrounds without feeling guilty. You could make an argument that it should be easier – 50 – or harder – 200 or 250 – and I’d go, okay, at least we’re in a ballpark. Personally, with the number of other things to do in the game, I lean towards a lower number. But settle on some number of victories/matches and base your rewards off of that figure.

Also, standardize reputations and rewards in battlegrounds. It baffles me why the Isle of Conquest has a tabard for the Master of Isle of Conquest achievement, AV/AB/WSG have them for Exalted reputations, and EotS, Strand, BfG and TP completely lack them. I’m not crazy about the IoC model – I don’t really like Battleground Achievements that aren’t “Win” and “Win More” and “Win ALL THE GAMES,” but it’s at least a viable, consistent model that could be used.

The gear rewards from leveling should also be adjusted to reflect the new brackets and early introduction of several battlegrounds (Eye of the Storm, I’m looking at you), but that goes without saying.

Consider extending the BG reputation system to PvE and Arenas. I like this option least of all, but I think it needs to be put out there – the way it works now is really bad. Arathi Basin and Warsong Gulch are arguably the two worst rep grinds in the game. Tabards that could be worn while questing, dungeons, or – best of all – in Arenas and Rated PvP – would allow people to grind while doing other stuff.

If you could Arena in the name of the League of Arathor, would you? (I bet you would. I’m not wild about raiding/dungeons for PvP rep, but it’s something to consider as well.

I actually think a piecemeal approach to fixing reputation systems is harmful, and that the battleground reps need to be considered as part of the entire reputation system. Reputation tabards are an interesting idea, but wouldn’t it be simpler to code the game to award X amount of tabard rep per Y thing done (mob killed, boss killed, BG/Arena won), then check the tabard and award it appropriately? I know I’m falling into the non-programmer fallacy of “it sounds logically simpler, so it should be simpler to code,” but… I have been a professional programmer, and it actually is simpler to code up one system than a bunch of disparate other systems. It’s harder to yank bad code out and make sure things work right after the fact, but … I’ll stop.

One of the things Blizzard mentioned they wanted to work on in Mists was WoW’s reputation systems.

I hope when they do so, they take a long look at the BG reputations and make them a more accessible part of the game.

Because tasks that get progressively harder as the game ages?

Yeah. They’re not fun for anyone.

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Filed under Cynwise's Battlefield Manual

Podcast Alert: Twisted Nether Blogcast episode 155

Oh, hey there!

I forgot to mention that I was on the Twisted Nether Blogcast about two weeks ago with the inestimable Rades from Orcish Army Knife to talk about 4.3. Fimlys and Hydra were excellent hosts (as always) and put up with my, uh, ranting about Tol Barad’s legacy. Because as Rades put it: we fought for the right to do dailies.

Like most things I do, this is a really long podcast. Rades and I like to talk, what can I say?

Hope you enjoy it!

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On Iterative Twinking

Magisters_terrace_at_night

Okay.

So I’m doing the Shattered Sun Offensive dailies on my level 70 druid twink, Cynli. I’m doing them for a very specific purpose – she’s an alchemist, and pretty much the best trinket she can get at level 70 is the Redeemer’s Achemist Stone, which requires SSO exalted rep. (One of the material components requires revered with the Shat’ar, which is the next grind.) So I’m running MgT and doing SSO dailies instead of PvPing on her, which is kinda boring but whatever. I can do it for +10 Intellect and +40% more effective Mana Pots.

And I’m thinking, you know, there’s a cheap and easy to get Alchemy trinket at 75. I even know how to make it already. But to get it I have to go to 75, which totally defeats the purpose of playing a level 70 twink. I’m killing all these demons and all these blood elves and all these naga (stupid naga) to get something that’s totally replaced in 5 levels.

I probably shouldn’t forget the really great engineering goggles, too. Though Cynli isn’t an engineer – it’s hard for me to remember that I have toons who aren’t.

So I’m thinking, you know, I wonder how many people did this back in the day. The BC day. You know, when this was endgame content and you had to sweat for it and getting this trinket was actually a BFD and having gear like I have was a BFD and not just the key to being one of those supremely irritating Resilience-stacking unkillable healers in battlegrounds, not like that’s a bad thing or anything, go ahead and Healers Have to Die me, I’m the one back here fending off your little tickly rogue daggers and you better bring Cataclysm tinkers because otherwise I’m leafing you in my dust.

Ahem.

Endgame content is it’s own game. It constitutes 1-2 years of playtime for players at max level during the expansion. That’s a significant amount of time spent making your character as good as they can be during that period of time. At the end, they’re fucking ROCK STARS.

But as soon as they level up, they start to suck. Little by little, hour by hour, level by level, they suck. Their combat ratings degrade. Their epic gear gets replaced by shitty quest greens that were formerly lining a birdcage. I seriously think I wore a gryphon’s feed bag for a while on Cynwise’s head, WHAT THE FUCK.

Then they get to the next endgame, and it begins all over again. New shoulder enchants. New helm enchants. New reputations to grind. New dungeons to run.

All the old accomplishments, wiped out. The time spent making that character a work of art – gone.

What good is your SSO reputation now, in Cataclysm? What value does it have to your character? At most, it might confer a tabard and a title. There’s no in-game benefit to it.

But for a level 70 twink, it probably does have value. It’s an endgame reputation with viable rewards.

So I’m on the Isle, firebombing a ship, getting ready to kill more blood elves with my LEET RESTO DAMAGE (do not fuck with me, I am a badass healer who will heal myself through everything you throw at me and then oh hi THORNS HURRICANE DOT DOT DOT), when a few things click.

  • Cross-realm retro raids are coming. People will want to do raids both with their mains (at 85) and with alts (leveling) or, possibly, with their at-level twinks (at the usual levels.)
  • With cross-realm raiding, PvE twinks become viable entertainment for raiders who would like a side project with some nostalgia thrown in. Kara is a faceroll at 85, but it requires some work at 70. (It’s not as hard as you remember, though.)
  • Players with expansion twinks at a variety of levels – 60, 70, 80, 85 – will be able to play with friends who like to level alts without having to level an alt to join them. You need someone to run through early Northrend? I have a 70 twink healer, let me come join you! Need a tank for Wrath Heroics? I’ve got a geared 80, let’s go!
  • Expansion twinks allow you to go through an expansion at the intended level at your own pace, If you didn’t finish all the Wrath quests? Go back and finish them on your 80 twink, get the reps all finished up! Want to do Silithus at 60? Go for it!

All of these ideas coalesced into the idea of iterative twinking.

You spend all this time making your character a badass, only to have that undone when the next expansion hits.

Don’t.

What if, instead of carrying your character forward each expansion and negating the work you put into them, you … don’t.

Lock their XP. Leave them be, play them in the endgame environment to which they have adapted. PvP with them, raid with them, do holidays with them, run dungeons with them. But leave them be. Leave your Wrath toon in T10. Leave your BC toon in Brutal/Sunwell gear.

(Maybe improve their skills and enchants, because, you know. twink.)

Say: this toon a testament to my efforts during this expansion. And reroll a new one for the next one. (Or promote an alt.)

Same class, same race? SURE. You have a good thing going. Try something new? OK!

Each expansion you create a new iteration of your main character. Here is what she was like in Vanilla. Here’s what she was like in BC. Here’s Wrath. Here’s Cataclsym. Maybe they’re all the same character, just with different outcomes. Maybe they’re radically different.

But each one allows you to retain the value you earned by playing at the endgame for that expansion. Iterative twinking keeps you from taking all that effort – all that time – and saying, it is for naught. 70, after all, is just a level you pass going fro 69 to 71. 80 is just a waystation to 85.

And soon, 85 will be a stopping point on the way to 90.

You can level a new toon to 85 in, what – about 2-3 weeks of casual, focused play these days? Let’s assume that holds true for getting to 90, too, if you have heirlooms and the assistance of a main.

You have an exceptionally well-geared level 85 character. You’ve spent months making him or her this good. Maybe you have a legendary (which you can’t transmog.) Maybe you have a really cool raiding title. And now, with cross-realm everything, you might, just might, have need to do some stuff at-level in Cataclysm again.

I’m not saying this is for everyone. Pet collectors are wringing their hands at me right now. Acheivement point collectors are going CYN YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR GOURD. Role players are going THIS SCREWS WITH MY STORY ARC but wait it has some possibities for alternative history DAMN YOU CYN. If you don’t have a lot of altoholic friends, or have no interest in revisiting old content, or you want to make sure you get to 90 as fast as possible for progression raiding? Ok. This might not be for you.

But for everyone else… I’ll just put this out there.

Think before you ding 86. :)

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On Blogging Heroes

Piggie_cfn

The response to my Snow Crash piece overwhelmed me a bit. To have a post which I thought was really not written very well – it’s way too long, too meandering, but it HAD to come out OMG get OUT of my head IDEAS it’s all related CAN’T YOU SEE IT’S ALL RELATED guilds are circles twitter is circles we just like doing things together can we just DO THINGS together METAVERSE is WOW OMG get OUT of my head ideas please get out – to have a post come spilling out just like THAT, that’s what it feels like sometimes, and have it strike a nerve with readers, to have people get the ideas, is pretty incredible and awesome and scary all at the same time.

Overwhelming. Much like that paragraph.

It can really be difficult as a writer to reconcile the ideas you’re trying to convey with the manner of their presentation. My opinion of the Snow Crash post is that the ideas were good, though I skipped over some interesting discussions, and that the presentation was okay but flawed, mostly due to length. I am seriously considering a followup piece just because I missed some key ideas the first time around – but this time it will go someplace other than CFN, just so I can edit it.

It’s somewhat overwhelming to punch a post like that out of your brain, hit the Publish button, and have people like it. It’s even more overwhelming when you realize people find your creation intimidating to their own creative spark. I’m going to pick on @DiscoPriest for a minute, not only because she’s a good sport, but also because she gets more pageviews each day than I do (NAKED BELFS > PVP), and quote her twitter response:

@wowcynwise I cannot BELIEVE you wrote that in one draft, you complete and utter bastard.

I laughed and gold starred that response (because it’s funny as all hell, and I enjoyed the ribbing) but then I saw that other people in my twitter stream were actually a bit … despondent? that they’d never be able to write like I’d just done. Write like me. That this flawed piece was somehow -

Holy fuck, I thought. That’s me. That’s me, right there. I have been there. I spent years there.

The last thing I want to do, ever, is squash someone’s spark. Be it in PvP or blogging, that’s the last thing I want.

Because I’ve been there. I’ve been there, looking at other bloggers, going – I will never be that good.

And it felt terrible.

BLOGGING HEROES

The header image above is a composite of two of the headers of blogs from my personal blogging heroes, Jamie Zawinski/jwz and John Gruber of Daring Fireball. Both of them had profound influence on me when I was much younger. I read them religiously, not just because they wrote about things I was interestd in, but because their style and verve was just … awesome. Cool. Cooler than I could hope to be. I was the awkward fanboy, aping the stars of the tech blogging world, imitating them in my own posts, but never with their panache.

I hoped they would notice me. Oh god, how I hoped they’d link me. That sounds dirty, but it wasn’t – it was hero worship on my part, and before Twitter was around you had to work through blogs. You had to have a blog, preferably hand-coded and stylish and XHTML/508 compliant. Or it had to deliberately say screw that, this looks best in Netscape 3.2 – the rules changed a lot and I didn’t navigate them very well. Daring Fireball is part of the commentless tech/design blog movement, which is daunting to break into the inner circles of, and while JWZ went to LJ for almost a decade, I never felt like I could casually comment on his site. My comments had to be INSIGHTFUL and WITTY and OMG OMG OMG BETTER BE TECHNICALLY ACURATE and possibly HIP.

And it all seemed so effortless to them. So, so effortless.

They looked like they had their shit together and all the little details fell into place for them.

I found, after a while, that I was jealous of how easy it all seemed for them. Not just Gruber and jwz, but all the popular folks I followed. Not because of anything they did – they were creative people being creative. No, it was me – unhappy with my own creative output, stymied by looking at really great examples and finding myself wanting.

You’re not good enough, Cyn.

You’ll never write like that. Never be that funny. Never be that insightful.

My tech blogs grew stale. I kept going through the motions, trying, trying. I got on Twitter, I made Favrd a few ties – does anyone even remember Favrd anymore? – and was sort of hanging around the outskirts of a cool tech community that I wasn’t really part of.

My online self was unhappy. I followed hundreds of blogs, trying to be informed and have well-formed opinions on the latest tech and work styles and life hacks and politics and cryptology and open source and photography.

I compared myself to other people whom I admired – good people, mostly all of them – and found myself wanting.

I didn’t like much of the things I talked about. Shit, how much can you talk about the latest device coming out of silicon valley or the latest web startup before they all start blurring together?

I came out of a brutal project at work, looked around, and said: none of this makes me happy. I think I love these blogs and I think I love these tools and I think I love all of this but it doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t make me thrive.

So I walked.

I walked away from an online presence I’d spent 10 years building.

I downloaded World of Warcraft, something I’d sworn I’d never do. (I didn’t play video games. That wasn’t me.)

And I let my heroes go.

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FINDING MY OWN VOICE

I wanted to respond to each and every person earlier this week who said, your first drafts are better than my finished drafts, and say: please, don’t do that to yourself. Don’t compare yourself to me or any other author or artist. I know where that leads. I’ve been down that road.

And I never want to be the cause of someone else going: damn, I’ll never be that good.

That first year of playing WoW, I didn’t blog very much at all. I didn’t have any reason to. I was a clueless noob trying to figure stuff out. And the online persona I left behind? Well, he didn’t have much to say about Warcraft, so he didn’t say much at all.

I didn’t pick up a camera for a year, except to take pictures of my kid. (Only one at the time.)

I didn’t look at a tech news website. I trashed my feed reader.

And in WoW, I discovered a little voice. It was when I was searching for help trying to figure out PvP, and I found … nothing. So I figured it out on my own, but I remembered that. There wasn’t anyone really blogging about the thing I’d come to enjoy in this video game.

Hey. I can do this. I can help people. I can teach. I can show that there’s this part of the game and it’s REALLY COOL and yes a little intimidating but if I CAN LEARN SO CAN YOU and COME ON PEOPLE LET’S GO HIT SOME BGS.

That was the first thing I was missing before: an actual purpose in my blogging. Before, I wanted to be popular, to be cool, to be like my heroes.

But what I didn’t realize was that my heroes were just doing things that interested them and writing about it. That’s it.

The second thing was that, instead of a community that valued being hip, the Warcraft community valued the thing I actually wanted to write about: helping other people. Disseminating knowledge.

Druids often say that Druids should halp each other, but it’s not just Druids. The entire Warcraft blogging community is fantastic. People are open to new people. A new voice is something to be celebrated. Trying and failing is encouraged. Every blogger starts out a little rocky – I know I did. Give it time. Keep trying.

My first CBM Post: Wintergrasp Keep. It’s scintilating stuff, I tell you.

Warcraft helped me find my voice; not those of my blogger heroes, but mine. Through the mask of Cynwise, I can write. Warcraft gave me an outlet when I needed one, it gave me a supportive community to help me through the tough times. I feel totally blessed to have found people who want to read what I write and who find what I write helpful.

It’s that last bit, you see, that I’d missed before.

THE PIGGIES AND FINDING YOUR VOICE

Tonight, MMO Melting Pot announced the winners of the 2011 Piggies, those outrageous WoW blogging awards started over at the Pink Pigtail Inn. I remember last year how thrilled I was to be nominated last year – holy crap, people are noticing me? – but then to get nominated again this year?

And to win?

Holy fucking shit.

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Serious congratulations to all the other winners, honorable mentions, and nominees, and thank you to the crew at MMO Melting Pot for hosting and judging the Piggies this year. I’m overwhelmed again. Thank you.

Let me tell you a little bit about the post that won, On The Forsaken. I wrote it in a frenzy, over two nights after thinking about it for a week. I wrote it only after thinking about those quests and staring up at that statue in Brill for like 15 minutes. Seriously. Clink, clink, clink, things falling into place, I must write now.

It was also the first post on CFN that I looked at and said, I cannot publish this.

It is too much. It is too controversial. 

I walked away and thought about it.

What will other people think of me? That I’m biased against the Horde? That I hate Forsaken players? 

It was that phrase that did it. I remember that night very clearly. What will people think?

That’s how I used to think. That’s what led me down the path of not writing about things I cared about, but rather what I thought would be popular. Would be well-received.

Fuck that shit.

/Publish


If you had told me, at that moment, that that post would be the most memorable post of the year and help inspire several of the entries into the Blizzard story contest, I’d have told you you were out of your fucking gourd. That post is not good enough to do that. It’s too long. It’s too emotional.

But it did.

All because I got pissed off and hit Publish.

This isn’t really about me.

I think you’re smart enough to know that by now. Y’all are getting used to my tricks, where I talk about one thing and then realize I’ve been talking to you, about you, the entire time.

This is a great community. Seriously great. For all of its foibles and petty squabbles over things that don’t matter 2 inches outside of our little playground, this is a great community to be a part of. The Piggies are a nice way to celebrate each year.

But don’t let them stop you from writing.

I’m amazed at how many really good writers and artists I’ve met in this community.

But remember, this writer at least is just a regular guy, typing on a laptop, trying to finish up so he can get some sleep. We’re all just people here.

(I hear Matticus might be a superhero in disguise, though.)

The only thing that can stop you from writing – is you.

Don’t compare yourself to others. Read a lot, but write a lot, too.

Try things out. Different things. Don’t get caught in a rut.

Most importantly, write when you have that spark.

Don’t wait. Do it.

And then hit Publish.

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Five Rules for Cynwise’s Field Notes

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Here’s the thing. This weblog? This thing you’re reading? It’s not really a weblog. It’s an experiment designed to get me over my writing block on my main weblog. It’s basically a big fat I DARE YOU TO POST button in my face.

If you’re new here, you might get many of your questions answered in the first post, On Field NotesHowever, as time as gone on, I’ve codified several rules that force me to hit Publish – no matter what.

RULE THE FIRST: PUBLISH NO MATTER WHAT.

It doesn’t matter what I think about a post, when I’m done I hit Publish. The topic might be controversial, or I might take positions which I feel uneasy taking in public. I might think it’s piece of crap (this is usally the case) and not worth publishing. I might think it’s too long (also the case) and that the structure is terrible.

Screw that shit. Once I start writing a post on CFN, I have to publish it.

Fear of not being good enough is what stops so many writers from writing. Damn the torpedoes – publish it already. It’s good enough.

RULE THE SECOND: NO LOOKING BACK.

No editing. None. Each post on this site is a first draft, straight from the can. No futzing about with post structure. No rearranging to make it flow better. No fucking around with sections or post flow or sentence structure or even going back to fix my typos when it’s all done. I will edit a post to death if given the chance – how does it sound, how does it flow, does it make sense, did I get all the points I wanted to cover.

No.

I’m not writing this to win a prize. I’m writing this so that I can fucking write.

First draft is good enough for CFN.

RULE THE THIRD: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DEEP.

Holy shit, how many posts have I sunk because I thought, “this is dumb, no one is going to care?”

How many posts did I look at and go, this is like 200 words, max, that’s not even worth a post on CBM. I could tweet this!

How many posts did I go, this is not fully fleshed out, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, I need to think about this some more.

Shut UP, inner editor! Take a hike! Just fucking write it out already!

RULE THE FOURTH: NO SUCH THING AS TOO LONG OR TOO SHORT.

One of the challenges I have to overcome is that I like to write a lot of words. I AM WORDY OKAY I know it. Jeeze. You have no idea how often I yell that at myself.

Related to that, one of my biggest problems on CBM was that I felt, very strongly, that each post needed to have substance and heft. That every post needed to be 2000 words minimum, that it needed to be a weighty topic, that it needed to be brilliant and funny and insightful and a good, solid, friendly guide to Warcraft.

What the fuck, self? Get over yourself already.

I like to write a lot. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” could be my motto.

And it’s okay.

I’m not allowed to judge if a post is too long or short on CFN. I write until I have no more to say, then I stop. Sometimes that will be a single graphic. Sometimes it will be 7500 words.

No looking back. No such thing as too long. No such thing as too short.

RULE THE FIFTH: TELL THE INNER EDITOR TO FUCK OFF.

This rule partly exists to cover all circumstances not covered by the preceeding four rules. If I find that my internal editor is trying to make a mess of things and stop me from hitting Publish, I get to tell it to go fuck off.

But also it’s to remind me that it’s okay to swear.

I don’t swear in meatspace, I have two kids and I actually feel it’s important to set a good example for them. I can’t swear in front of them and then ask them not to do so too, and I think there are good reasons to teach your kids to not swear before kindergarden.

But – let’s be honest – I swear a lot in my head. And I swear on the internet.

And it’s fucking okay to swear, god damnit!

Ok. Hit publish and move on.

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On Snow Crash, Virtual Avatars, and Warcraft’s Social Network Appeal

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Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applid makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

Snow Crash, one of Stephenson’s early works from 1992, is a classic of the cyberpunk genre. It’s fully developed in a way that earlier entries in the genre (c.f. Neuromancer) were not, with a solid adventure story mixed in with cyberpunk distopian musings on technology. There are a lot of elements that strike false chords now from this 20-year old work – I simultaneously giggle and sigh regretfully when he talks about hypercards – but there’s a lot of really interesting predictions in there, especially about the Metaverse, an avatar-driven version of the Internet and key alternate setting for the story.

Fiction subgenres seem to go through this a lot, where the first entry is groundbreaking in idea and scope but might be of varying actual quality, subsequent entries are more nuanced but still settling in to what the genre means, until finally the formula is established and authors can churn out books in an established, comfortable setting. Snow Crash will ruin Neuromancer for you, but Stephenson couldn’t have written it had Gibson not made the first move. You should read both books, but remember that Neuromancer came 8 years earlier, in 1984, and that both the computing landscape and the cyberpunk genre were very different when these works were composed.

When Blizzard announced cross-realm raiding and rated battlegrounds would be coming to Warcraft, my first thought was of how Blizzard – by addressing the technical problems that separates players from interacting with each other – is moving towards recreating Stephenson’s Metaverse, and of how social networks on the internet are really the keys to their success.

It’s not about raiding.

It’s not about PvP.

It’s about virtual identity and social interaction.

And for all the troubles that advances like cross server random battlegrounds and LFD have caused, they laid the groundwork for something great, something unexpected. Something much bigger than a video game.

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VIRTUAL YOU

Virtual presence is a funny thing to really think about deeply. I mean, here I am – meatspace Cyn, a human being typing at a computer. Because of the pictures and words I’ve chosen to represent myself with, you – a human being reading these words on the screen – have an idea about who I am, or who I present myself as being, at least. Even in the most passive kind of relationship, author and reader, there’s a flow of information going on between two people across time and space. That’s what books do. “There is a young lady sitting in a wooden chair. A glass of water sits, untouched, on the table beside her, sweating in the humid night air.” BOOM, I have just sent you an image across time and space. That’s pretty awesome.

The internet changes this relationship by closing the feeback loop. The passive relationship becomes a potentially active one, with readers taking part in the conversation and becoming authors themselves. Personal web sites begat weblogs, which in turn begat comments, which spread to Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and a host of other ways for people to talk to each other. It can stay passive – often is passive – but the technology makes it possible to easily close the feedback loop and turn a reader into an author. Consumers become producers. Dialog happens.

Cynwise is only one aspect of my virtual self, albiet my best-known one. I exist, in different ways, on different networks – I’m a wildlife photographer on Flickr and a PvP warlock on Twitter, and those parts of me can be as separate or combined as I choose. I can blog under different names, and they’re all still virtual me, but separate and distinct from themselves. Different channels allow for different avatars. This is one of those things I think cyberpunk novels didn’t anticipate in the ’80s and ’90s, how fragmented cyberspace would be. The concept of a monolithic, single environment like the Metaverse is somewhat sunk in the techology of the time, and didn’t anticipate the wild democratization of the Internet which happened in the late 90s/early 00s. They may have anticipated Netscape, but they didn’t expect Javascript or Ruby on Rails to come along with it. The technoelite proved to be broader and wider than expected (and that’s a good thing.)

I find it interesting slotting Warcraft into this milieu of online social networks.

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IS WOW A GLORIFIED CHAT CLIENT, OR SERIOUS INTERNET DRAGONSLAYING BUSINESS?

(Or, false dichotomy.)

I’ve heard WoW called “a chat client I was paying $15/month for.” This is almost always in reference to quitting WoW, and it strikes me as both brutally honest and unfair at the same time. It’s honest because it can be just that – a chat client. That comment is often accompanied by stories of standing around in Dalaran, or doing laps in Dalaran, or doing other things that give the Dalaran Board of Tourism and Commerce hives. Something about Dalaran.

It’s brutally honest to realize what you’re doing, which is to log in to a video game to talk to people because you don’t feel motivated to “play” the game – i.e. have your avatar do things. You just want to get in and talk to folks, which, to be honest, you can do for free using a variety of other social network tools on this newfangled Internetthingy we have.

It’s a rational cost decision to quit WoW at that point. Why should you go and pay $15/month to use a chat client when there are free options? I wouldn’t, and I’m almost positive you wouldn’t, not if that’s all it was. Get on Facebook or Twitter. Visit your guild forums. Use Skype. Sit in Vent and chat with folks. All of these are zero-cost social media networks which can be used to talk with people, and while it’s not the same as doing things with them in the virtual world, if you weren’t really doing those things anyway, why spend the money?

The unfairness comes in the false dichotomy presented with the question at the top of this section, though. It’s not that WoW has to be either a chat client or serious internet dragonslaying business. It’s not like someone said, hey, we notice you’ve stopped raiding, how about you try this somewhat cumbersome text chat client with a severely limited participant pool? Hope all your friends are on this server / playing this faction / in your guild / haven’t turned trade chat off!

No, the social network is there no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing within the game, as an MMO it is designed to reward social experiences. PvP, PvE, auction housing, even leveling and questing – you are in a virtual world populated with other people.

WoW is a simple social network with a video game bolted on top of it. 

That’s really weird to say it that way. It’s an inversion of the normal way we look at WoW, and even how it was developed. WoW is a video game, right? And there are video games you play by yourself, and games you play with others. And those games you play with other have social media “tools” bolted on to them – Real ID / Facebook integration, anyone – but at their heart they’re a video game. Talking to other people is a side effect of having multiple players, not the core functionality of the game. It’s not like Farmville, where Blizzard said, hey, let’s use an existing social network site and build a video game around it.

(If they had, the flaws in WoW’s social network might not be so problematic. But I digress.)

I don’t think it was Blizzard’s intention to make a social network. I’m honestly not arguing that. But I think that what they’ve created has inadvertently become one, a powerful one at that, and that many of the changes we have seen in the last 3 years have been Blizzard and the WoW playerbase trying to come to grips with this fundamental paradigm shift.

Hear me out.

Simple video games don’t bother with an avatar. You interact directly with the controls and jack straight in; there’s no digital representation of you in the mix. If I start a game of Solitaire on my computer, I don’t go through and pick which player best represents me. That’s irrelevant to the actual gameplay and is (rightfully) discarded. These games can be incredibly complex, and even drop you into a story as an actor (like Zork or Myst), but there’s no avatar required. It’s all first person or second person.

Avatar-driven games get more interesting. You make characters, you present a face to the game. You may not be trying to represent yourself – think of all the different Shepard models – but this thing, it represents me, it is me in the game. It could be a car in a racing game, or a character in a fighting game, or multiple characters in a RPG – but as soon as you add an avatar, players are now able to say that is me.

Things get a hell of a lot more interesting when you add other players to the mix. Now, you have me and you and you and you and you. Maybe it’s just the two of you, so the avatar requirements are pretty simple. I don’t need a digital avatar to play Words with Friends on my iPhone – a username will do. But that username is an avatar. It’s important to remember that. Names are simple avatars, icons more complex, actual humanoid creatures even more complex, spiraling exponentially to the very fungible reality Second Life presents.

But for most video games, the avatar isn’t the point. The game is the point. The objectives and goals and gameplay within the game is the purpose of the game. This is startlingly different from a social network like Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or even weblogs, where the interaction between avatars is the point. That’s why Twitter seems so effing pointless when you first pick it up – what am I supposed to do with it? Talk to … who, exactly? About … what? What I had for lunch? You are given a blank tool with no real direction about how to find people with similar interests or who you find entertaining or useful or … wait, why did you sign up for Twitter? Was it to get short news updates, to keep up with celebrity gossip, or to chat about video games?

Video games provide purpose and direction. Social networks do not, letting the user determine what they want out of the service.

Avatar-driven video games provide a means for virtual projection, for assuming a virtual persona. And if they allow you to actually interact with other players, well, then they start functioning just like a social network, albiet a constrained one. Your avatar choices are limited, but perhaps more detailed. Instead of a picture of … anything, you have to pick a specific kind of wizard or spaceship captain. Your interactions can be confined in game – perhaps there aren’t global chat channels, and you have to move your avatar to places to interact with other players. Pure social networks try to reduce this interaction friction, make it as easy as possible (since that’s their sole purpose), but games might have different priorities.

Let’s take a limited interaction in WoW as an example. I logged in to my Horde priest, saw my keybinds were screwed up and that I really had to spend some time straightening them out to get the character playable again. I said hi to my guild, saw a friend of mine was online in a nearby zone – Nagrand. She was grinding rep, so I figured I’d swing by and fiddle with my keybinds in a beautiful zone, since Nagrand is seriously the prettiest place in Warcraft. I got a basic keybind settled, hit up one of the guards at Halaa to try it out (really high health, low damage, perfect training dummy) while chatting with folks.

About 10 minutes later my friend swings by on her warrior and tanks the Halaani guard for me. It was probably a second guard, they eventually die after like 15 mintues of Smite Smite Smite SCREAM Bubble Smite Smite Smite Smite WINGS, but that kind of practice is actually really good for settling your keybinds. We continued a conversation we’d had earlier over Twitter, and after a bit I needed to go so she went back to grinding Mag’har rep.

The details of the story don’t really matter – it could have been helping a friend run a lowbie through an instance, running heroics with guildmates, doing Arenas with partners – because so much of Warcraft is predicated around things like this, doing things with other people. You have social interactions all the time. The advantage Warcraft has over Twitter is that you can do stuff with people while talking to them. You can go play a video game with people while chatting with them! You can have a real avatar, one that like moves and talks and walks and can wear clothing and kill Internet Dragons! Holy moly, that’s radical shit!

I’m not being sarcastic, either. It’s pretty radical shit. You have a social network which not only allows, but encourages you to go do stuff with other users of that network. You want to just stand around and talk? That’s cool, you can do that. But you can also go run a dungeon together. You can go stage a dance contest in Thunder Bluff and get angry at the Tauren constables for running you out of town. You can go invade the opposite faction’s capitals – or maybe just Crossroads. You can queue up for battlegrounds or dungeons or even raids now with people you know.

That’s something Google+ hasn’t implemented yet. Neither has Twitter. And Facebook’s graphics engine is totally shit.

Listen, I know. Cyn, it looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it flies like a duck, it’s a duck for crying out loud. Saying that WoW isn’t a video game is … well, yes, it’s a video game.

But just try this the next time you log in: look around at what you’re doing, and think of it differently. Think of it as a social network that lets you do cool things (KILL INTERNET DRAGONS) while interacting with other people. Friends, hopefully, but strangers (potential friends?) too – see how much of the game is really oriented around that goal of doing stuff with other people. When you’re buffing for your first pull on raid night, realize that you’ve connected a group of 10/25 people together over voice and text chat, all to play a game together. When you log in to your guild, don’t just look at it as your guild, but as an exclusive chat channel, of a Friends/Followers list that you don’t have all that much control over.

When you take away the social aspect of WoW, it’s just a single player video game. And eventually you’ll get tired of it and move on, because there’s nothing to really keep you in it.

Your avatar means nothing without other people.

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BBSES, COMPUSERVE VS AOL, SERVER COMMUNITIES, LFBG/D/R AND WALLED GARDENS

It was 1987 and I was a BBS nerd. I knew this guy who knew a guy who ran a system up in Ridgefield with 4 (count them FOUR) 9600 baud modems hooked up to a BBS. It was a place where there were message boards about comics and D&D and computers and it was basicallly nerd heaven. I was … I was named after a famous comic book hero, let me just leave it at that. It was my first online handle and I’m not proud, but I was also 13, so I have an excuse.

The technical limitations of that server, no matter how cool the fucking hardware was, were pretty severe. That was true of all BBSes – you had to know the number to call, you had to create a user account just there, the sysop had to approve you and grant you access and then you had to check back periodically by dialing into the system. The internet was something bigger than that BBS, kind of talked about but not really known about. Accessing the internet was free, and there wasn’t a lot you could *do* there – while this BBS had stuff going on. Local comic shop news? D&D games looking for players? SIGN ME UP.

We told a lot of stories on that BBS, collaborative stories, some play-by-forum RPG games too. It may have been primitive, it may have been text based, but in many ways it satisfied a lot of the social needs Warcraft fills for me now – it let me do stuff with friends. Most of the were friends, at least – it’s not like a 4-line BBS could have thousands of users.

I know it sounds hokey, but that BBS was really cool to me. Yes, it was isolated – it served like 7 little towns in Connecticut. It wasn’t connected to other things. But there was a great little community going there, something that shouldn’t be extrapolated out to “this was BBS culture,” but “this was COMLINK, and this is a cool place to be.”

Yeah. Comlink. Don’t laugh. It was the 80s, we all get a fucking free pass for the entire decade.

Compuserve and AOL came into my life a little later, though Compuserve existed before then. Compuserve had banks of modems around the world that you could dial into and access their systems, a model that AOL copied and became huge and successful with. I used both, but mostly AOL later on when I dropped out of college. Especially early on, both services presented a walled garden to users – content hosted within their servers, theoretically vetted by their moderators, to contrast with the internet that was shaping up “out there”. In some ways they were like a BBS writ large, with forums and chat rooms and mail and content pages – holy crap, do you remember “Visit Keyword: X” before URLs became mainstream? – and there was a war going on between these two services, one being perceived as family friendly, the other more business oriented, both of them relying upon access fees and walled gardens of content to convince people to hook up their computers to their computers and give them things to do.

The internet was scary, it was difficult, but it was also the wave of the future. People were figuring out how to use it in the late 80s and early 90s, back when Compuserve connecting email to the Internet was a BIG FUCKING DEAL. Shit, as late as 1998 I was working at an place where one of our major selling points was email integration to the internet from a Lotus Notes network. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe we used to have to have clever internet gateways just to send an email outside of our little sandbox.

As time went on, however, the internet (specifically the HTTP and SMTP protocols, and the allmighty TCP/IP stack) became the de facto standards for communication between computers. Netscape changed a lot of this, to be honest. The walled gardens AOL and Compuserve provided were no longer the only places to visit on the web. People started saying, wait, why should I go through this proprietary gateway to get to the places I really want to go? Why should I have to pay for X content when it’s out there on the web for free? What about all those companies who offered their services solely on AOL (“Visit Keyword: JCPenney!”), what about the lost revenue by not having their stuff available for the wider web?

Other companies got in the act and began offering access without the walled garden, and while AOL and Compuserve managed to survive and make profits during that time (mostly by making internet access seem daunting, then providing a relatively simple solution), by the late 90s the internet was the thing, not the walled garden. The internet was where Everyone was, with global reach. All the promises of Cyberspace and the Metaverse were not to be found behind the high walls of the CIS compound or the towers of AOL – no, they were out there in the raw HTML floating around on the mutated bones of ARPANET.

The history of these services and how they connected people is entirely relevant to looking at the state of Warcraft today.

The limitations of technology restrict our individual social circles, that’s a self-evident truth. When long distance was expensive, we didn’t call across the ocean; now that we have VoIP, video calls around the world can be made for free. Technology breaks down geographic barriers in this way. When I was on a BBS, I could interact only with other geeks a few towns away. The internet’s global reach lets me talk to you, now, nearly anywhere in the world.

Warcraft has struggled because the technology for video games – how do I display this avatar, how do I display an internet dragon, how do I make them fight – has lagged significantly behind social network technology. It’s not because it’s being developed slower, games just require so much more hardware that limitations are in place which make no sense in light of modern social networks.

Pre-battlegroup servers were the BBSes of WoW. You had to have an account to play there, you could only interact with people on that server, which led (in turn) to highly specialized server subcultures. The social network was limited in size, and like any small community, standards of behavior got enforced. You knew the players you played with. You interacted with them all the time. PvP players knew their opponents because they played against each other all the time.

But there are problems with single, isolated servers. Faction imbalances are heightened, as one side may be demonstrably superior. Some servers just aren’t very good, while others are overcrowded. Instanced battlegrounds could take hours to get a game together, because it all depended on server population and playstyles.

These are legimate problems Blizzard faced with single servers. And, approaching it like a video game company, they set out to make their game more fun.

Battlegroup servers were the Walled Garden phase of WoW’s development as a social network. By bridging the gaps between servers – first with linked battlegrounds, then arena teams and battlegroups, then random bgs, then finally LFD in Wrath – Blizzard took steps to fix a huge problem with their game. People wanted to do activities, but getting a group together to do it was difficult. PvP was the place to start not only because it was lower participant population than PvE (and therefore longer queues, but because of the faction communication barrier, it was impossible for players to effectively coordinate this on their own in-game. Servers got imbalanced, factions got imbalanced, but if you could broaden the pool of players enough, then the inconsistences would even out in a statistical wash.

There were serious technical barriers that Blizzard had to work with to solve this issue, which is why the battlegroup system (based on data center) was used instead of a game-wide system. Network speeds and computing speeds had to get fast enough to allow players on different servers to interact without major latency on the server sides. As the techology improved, Blizzard could move servers out from BBSes to little walled gardens, where a dozen servers got together to bash skulls in with PvP.

The introduction of cross-server LFD was a big deal, but honestly, it was a logical outgrowth of the battlegroup innovations for BGs and PvP. Once you start connecting computers together, you can’t go back.

(Aside: I think it would be really interesting to plot out the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ chronologically against the social developments in WoW over time.)

Post-battlegroup/RealID servers are the current phase of WoW’s social network. The BBS community of each server is long gone, but RealID is the death blow to the walled garden phase of WoW – though that phase will be a long time in dying. Friend is on a different server? No problem! First BGs and 5 man dungeons, now rated BGs and old raids, eventually questing, Arenas, and current raids will be possible with RealID.

Mark my words; you will be able to do just about everything with a RealID friend on a different server as you can with a regular player on the same server. Interacting with the world – questing – will be the most difficult, because you have to figure out which server is “home” – but it’s going to happen. We’ll probably see arenas first, then questing, and then – only when people are used to the idea that the walled garden is really gone – will they enable cross-server current raids.

The trend in technology is to broaden reach and allow choice. Social networks are a bit ahead of the curve, but make no mistake – as an MMO, Warcraft is a video game bolted on top of its own social network, and it’s not just competing against SW:TOR or RIFT – they’re all competing against social media.

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BATTLETAGS, OR WHY BLIZZARD KNEW NOT WHAT IT WROUGHT

Hey, Battle Tags are coming to Diablo 3 (now) and Warcraft (soon). Battle Tags are everything that RealID should have been as the foundation of a social network. The Google+ real name fiasco showed this in even larger print than the controversy surrounding RealID when it came out – people want to have virtual avatars different from their real selves on the Internet. For a host of reasons – safety, security, branding, roleplaying, privacy, social anxiety, the stigma of playing video games – not everyone wants to use their real names.

Think back to the Metaverse of Snow Crash again. (You’ve gone and read it by now, right?) Some people use their real selves in the ‘verse – especially the heroes of the story. But many people don’t, choosing to appear more handsome or beautiful, more dressed up or exotic, or not even human at all. Those desires are real and have nothing to do with identity assumption, but rather play and whimsy.

Hey! Guess what! I like playing as a warlock, or a death knight, or a warrior for a little while. I don’t confuse that with my real self, but sometimes it’s fun to be someone else for a while!

That’s what Blizzard missed with Real IDs – pseudonyms. It’s easy to point to the Google+ scandal now, but at the time RealID rolled out I think they honestly believed they were solving the right problem – letting people play with their friends. And RealID does that, and provides a framework for doing it well.

The problem is that “friends” has different definitions in the context of different social networks, and that friends you trust with your name and email address may not be the same as friends you want to play a video game with. I might give out my real name to a business contact with impunity, but that’s because my name is my professional avatar. My warcraft avatar is established first and foremost by the characters I roll, and then by the ancilary avatars on other networks.

Does anyone else remember all the promises that RealID would be linked in to Facebook? I don’t use RealID or Facebook enough to know if that really came to pass, but I think it’s instructive into the thinking that dominated RealID development. Facebook is (in theory) all real names. The paradigm is that you sign up as yourself so that the FB network can match you up with all the connections you’ve made in your life. I went to school here, I worked here, I know this person, hey do you know that person?

Psudonyms don’t fit that model very well. While you can construct the same kind of formal and informal social network diagrams with them – Cynwise was in guild X and invited Fynralyl, she brought over Psynister, etc. – there’s not much marketing value in doing so, and there are also a lot of dead ends. Is this ths same Cynwise as the Cynwise on Lightbringer? What about that poor Forsaken Warlock who gets mistaken for me all the time? What if I delete the character and move on? There are a host of problems with pseudonyms associated with disposable avatars that are real and require thought to overcome.

RealID is the Facebook model, a walled garden of its own kind. But BattleTags is the internet model, the commenter on a blog, the Twitter account.

It’s a sign that Blizzard realizes they are really selling a social network service now, one with a cool video game on top of it.

And I personally couldn’t be happier that they finally get it.

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THEY ARE FIGHTING OVER YOU, OR HOW WARCRAFT CAN IMPROVE AS A SOCIAL NETWORK

Products live and die by their users. Either people find it useful and pay for it, or they don’t. Business models might include coercion to get people to pay for those services (record companies, telecoms, movie companies) or they might give it away (open source, many web applications), but they’re all out there, competing for your time and attention.

Blizzard is faced with a very real and serious problem. How do you keep people engaged in a video game and not wandering off to other activities? It’s not enough to say, don’t go off to another video game. Instead, the business challenge is, come visit here enough so that you think the price you pay is worth it. Keep coming back.

Websites usually call this “stickiness,” the pull that a website has to bring people back again and again. Facebook is really sticky. Wikia is surprisingly sticky. Photo sharing sites like Flickr is sticky. Once you’ve acquired the customer, keeping them around is actually quite a challenge because you’re not just competing with all your direct competitors, you’re competing with other kinds of activities, too.

WoW finds itself in competition with mobile games on the iPhone and Android platform, and is losing badly for casual gamers. It finds itself in competition with television and movies, which it actually does really well against.

It’s up against Facebook. And Twitter. And Google+.

And it’s up against turning off the computer and going and doing something else.

I think, in order to thrive in this new world, Warcraft has to embrace its new identity as the Metaverse. It has to recognize that it’s a video game and a social experience all molded into one, and the sooner it moves out of the Walled Garden mode and into the Global Internet phase, the better.

Some ideas on how it can do this.

Get rid of servers. Make everything cross-realm. The easier you make it to take your avatar to do things with other people, no matter where they are, the stickier WoW gets.

Break down the walls of communcation within the game. While a cross-realm Trade channel scares me a little bit (I’ll be honest), communication has to transcend its current constraints. If the guilds are to be important and survive, allow people to participate in multiple guild chats at once.

Grant more control over who people choose not to interact with. WoW is on the right path towards letting you group with people you like, but it sorely needs controls over the people you don’t want to ever see again. An ignore list of 50 worked in the BBS era of a single server. With LFR and LFD and LFBG and LFQ coming down the road, the ignore function should be unlimited, and it should be account-wide.

Break down the walls of communication outside the game. Why does WoW not integrate with Google+, FB chat, and Twitter yet? Why does it not support Jabber or other IM protocols? Make WoW the chat client of choice. I feel like I’m going to have to quote JWZ’s law of email envelopment: all applications expand until they can send and receive email. In this case, make it IM/twitter/FB chat and WoW wins.

Break down faction walls. I know this is controversial, and I know a lot of people will be all faction pride trumps everything, but it’s the last artificial barrier within the game to playing with people you want to play with. Give people a guest pass when grouping with cross-faction friends, transform them into the appropriate alternate race, and let them play.

Cross-server item mailing. This is one of two options in finally getting rid of the BBS hierarchy that servers impose on players. Bind things to your account, not to a server. Those things that are already bound to your account – heirlooms – the fact that they can’t be sent across servers so you can do things with friends is a serious irritation now. Yes, there’re technical reasons why this is hard. Yes, it might not be sexy. But it needs to happen. It should really be expanded to other items – perhaps mailing normal items across server binds them to your account – but let’s start with the ‘looms.

Alternately: Free, unlimited character transfers. This is scary, because servers could become ghost towns overnight, and other servers could crash. But if you get rid of the chains holding people onto a server, you don’t have to figure out how to move items around – just move toons. Perhaps they lower the gold cap to address questions of server economy. Perhaps they allow “guesting” on different servers instead of permanent transfers. Perhaps Battle Tag-enabled questing and dungeoning and PvP will solve this and make this irrelevant.

But perhaps it’s an easier solution than fixing the cross-server item mailing issue.

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THE PROBLEM OF GUILDS

Last word here, promise.

The one real thorn in all of this are guilds. I think almost every other problem can get worked out – yes, even the problems of disrupting server economies by opening a “global” market – but guilds present a real challenge. Cataclysm has seen huge changes to how guilds work, and in nearly every single way those changes have been counter to the social network development.

I think that’s actually been maddening for a lot of players. Is a guild optional, or not? What was formerly a social tie now has real in-game impact. Smaller guilds that have struggled to reach levle 25 find it hard to recruit; larger guilds find themselves packed with opportunists in it for the perks. Each and every change to guilds this expansion has been designed to get you into a guild and keep you there.

And yet, nearly every other social development has been exactly the opposite direction: get you off your server and playing with people you like.

Guilds are real, living social entities. They breathe and live through the work of their members. They sweat blood trying to down bosses or enemies in the battlefield. A good guild is a wonder to behold, and a joy to be a part of. It might be the culture, it might be that it’s a safe haven, it might be that it’s a set of die-hard perfectionists chasing world firsts.

Guilds, as they stand now, are directly counter to the social network WoW is becoming. The first clashes have already begun – cross-realm LFR is excluding current raids almost certainly to force people to stay in guilds to raid, to make their guild and server choices still matter – even though that’s not the direction people want to go in, as evidenced by the very existence of LFR/LFD. The death knell has already been struck for PvP guilds – rated battlegrounds were the raison d’être for many of them, and once Arenas go cross server it will be complete.

The writing is on the wall for guilds. And that’s a terrible thing, because I think there are a lot of good guilds out there which deserve to survive.

I have two proposals.

Guilds must become cross-server. This has to happen, or guilds will die. Guilds have to join players in jettisoning the server and living in the WoW network cloud. Maybe they’re based on one server, but membership with perks needs to be extended no matter where the character is housed. Most importantly, guild chat needs to work cross server.

Players can belong to multiple guilds at the same time. People don’t want to have to choose between good choice X and good choice Y for their social company. Don’t force people to say that I raid with X, therefore I can’t hang out with Y while I’m on the bench.

Guilds are social circles of like-minded people with similar goals. Steal a page from Google+ and let people define those circles how they like. Perhaps you have to define which guild tag you are wearing at any time, and that’s what your guild rank/perks/loot go towards. Perhaps everyone in a dungeon needs to have the same tag on for it to count as a guild run – that’s okay too.

But give people the option to define their circles without excluding other options.

I know a lot of this is … unconventional. It takes the idea of the guild as a monogamous relationship and shatters it. Why couldn’t someone join a bunch of guilds and hop between them?

Well, why couldn’t they? Why stop someone from bringing different characters to different raids, depending on the need? Why force them to choose?

Yes, there’s the possibility of espionage in top guilds, of one player going in covertly and spying on another guild. You know what? That already happens. And denying features that would help the vast majority of WoW’s player base based on the race for world firsts is downright stupid.

I think guilds are going to have to be radically reinvented over the next expansion if they are to survive.

If not, I don’t think they’re going to survive outside the walled garden.

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On a Fistful of Cyns

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Since this comes up every so often on Twtter, here are all the Cyn-alts I’ve rolled over the past few years.

  • Cynwise
  • Cynwulf
  • Cyndershot
  • Aggravacyn
  • Cynedra
  • Cynew
  • Cynic
  • Cynshine
  • Cynsprocket
  • Cynwë
  • Discyngage
  • Cynbegone
  • Cynchronic
  • Cynderblock
  • Cynderbloom
  • Cynderburn
  • Cynderspark
  • Cynewulf
  • Cynexxister
  • Cynhilda
  • Cynix
  • Cynlthea
  • Cynnerella
  • Cynneth
  • Cynralyl
  • Cynstomp
  • Cyntilate
  • Cynwii
  • Cynwyn
  • Darkbladecyn
  • Cynwine
  • Ellicyn
  • Lillicyn
  • Lunacyn
  • Cyncodemayo
  • Cynebriated
  • Cyndragosa
  • Cynnestra
  • Cynsong
  • Cyndri
  • Cynxl
  • Cynstar
  • Cynli
  • Cynewave
  • Cynifra
  • Cynixie
  • Cynred
  • Cynder
  • Cynner

(It’s amazing what you find in your WTF folder.)

Proposed alt names from this afternoon that I haven’t used (so I don’t lose them):

  • Electricyn
  • Cynergy
  • Noncynse
  • Cyndication
  • Cyncerity
  • Cyncerly
  • Cynical
  • Lecyn
  • Cynonym
  • Discynchant
  • Cyngledout
  • Cymply
  • Cynseless
  • Medicyn
  • Cynsative
  • Cynnamon
  • Cynderella
  • Cynsational
  • Kerocyn
  • Cynpossible
  • Incynsear
  • Cynlikecheese
  • Cynse
  • Cynsible
  • Hemocyn

Some really good ones, like Cynchronicity, are just too long.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what the class/spec/hair color of many of these alts were. :)

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One Reason Isle of Conquest is Effed in EVERY Bracket

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  1. “It’s the Isle of Conquest.” – Narci.

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Five Ways in which the 80-84 Isle of Conquest is Effed Up

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The Isle of Conquest isn’t my favorite battleground, but it’s so broken in the 80-84 bracket it’s not funny.

  1. Bosses are effectively unkillable. It’s not just that you need a geared 84 tank to take them out – you do, and good luck finding one of them – it’s that geared level 84 healers can’t keep up with the damage due to scaling. Level 84 characters are good for DPS, that’s about it.
  2. Bracket imbalance between 80 and 84. Some classes are exceptionally powerful at 80 when geared properly and can take out 84s – but the cost of gearing up a toon in full Wrath PvP gear is prohibitively expensive. DPS that scales with gear improves through 84 (84 Frost DKs are a nightmare) while healers get less effective. This isn’t a problem with IoC specifically, but it’s my list and it’s a problem with the bracket.
  3. Graveyard control can funnel entire teams into a single, easily-camped graveyard. This isn’t really a problem with the bracket, but if you control the rez vectors you can get the entire opposing team to rez at your keep’s GY. (Or their keep’s GY, but someone always takes their flag.)
  4. Siege engines do MASSIVE amounts of AoE damage. They can be used to 1-shot everyone. I mean, everyone, including level 84 twinks. Hey, eat 120k damage!
  5. Entire teams can get 1-shot every 30 seconds. Take #3, add #4, and now you know how to win IoC in this bracket. 40 players rez beside enemy keep, Siege Engine charges, kills all of them. Back up and repeat.

See what I mean about being broken?

Winning strat: Everyone to Workshop. Let enemy take Docks and assault your Keep. Take Hanagar, hold Workshop while capturing their Keep (turn the GY.) Retake Docs. Send Siege back to your keep but DO NOT RETAKE. Ensure that opponent’s rez vector is toyour Keep. Protect siege as it grinds rez waves. Rack up massive HKs, win on reinforcements.

Sanity-preserving strat: Consider /afking and questing instead.

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