24 May 2010

[Literature] Who owns the mods?

Who owns the mod? was written by Yong Ming Kow and Bonnie Nardi in May 2010. They conducted 15 interviews with WoW modders (ie those who make WoW add-ons) after Blizzard had decided to forbid modders to make money with or advertise in their mods. Currently, more than 4.000 mods have been coded by modders.

Blizzard's new policies

QuestHelper has 23.000 lines of codes and has been the most downloaded mod with 38 million downloads (and counting). QuestHelper, nUI and Carbonite were popular enough to support their owners full time with in-game player donations or for-pay versions with additional features.

But in March 2009, Blizzard posted in their add-on forum section a new set of add-on-related policies. Modders were particularly furious at 2 policies: Policy 1 — Add–ons must be free of charge and Policy 5 — Add–ons may not solicit donations. Only a few modders managed to live with the revenues generated from their add-on, and most modders did it for fun and for free. However, the whole WoW modding community felt betrayed and considered the new policies were a violation of modders’ trust. Modders started to see Blizzard as a company with intimidating lawyers rather than with friendly developers.

Modders reacted on the WoW forums. Cogwheel was a forum MVP and the author or useful mod tutorials and guides. His vehement reaction against the new policies only made Blizzard remove all his posts (ie stickies and normal posts) from the forum. Modders felt that they deserved a response from Blizzard. But apart from reprimanding Cogwheel and deleting the posts of critical modders, Blizzard chose silence.

The modding community

Modders respect each other's work. The ownership arrangement was not legally enforceable, but was upheld by the community’s own mechanics: websites such as curse.com or wowInterface, two key download sites supported by plentiful advertising, were able to remove non–conforming mods from their download sites. WoWMatrix, a download site that did not recognize the community rules, was shunned by modders. After the new policies, Blizzard stood quiet and did not debate with modders. Hence, the solution came from download websites. The requests for donation were relocated from inside the game to the download page of the mod on both WowInterface and curse.com. But mods are downloaded less often than they are used in the game, so this post-policies solution was still less profitable for modders.

Mods such as SellFish, Threat Meter or Group Calendar have been integrated into the official game by Blizzard. Blizzard does not infringe any copyright owned by modders on their work, they simply take the ideas seen in the most popular add-ons. Ideas are not protected by copyrights but by patents, and filling a patent is too administratively complex for a mod developer. Hence what Blizzard has been doing is perfectly legal. And modders never complained about it. Rather, it was a sign of their work done right. Modders were also recognized in their community if their mods had a high download count.

Conflicting interests

Players sometimes complained about bugged mods, or harassed modders for additional features with little respect to their efforts. In fact, many players considered they owned the right to use a decent mod with no ads or donation requests because they had paid for the game. Obviously, this kind of players was not very supportive to the add-on developers. As seen in the figure below, different conflicting interests aroused between players, Blizzard and modders.

In late March 2009, the GroupCalendar mod was removed from distribution. Its author protested against the change in Blizzard's policies. Players came to the authors website and asked for a come back of the mod on curse.com. The mod came back.

API = (developer) community management

Decursive was a mod that automatized many actions into a single click. Blizzard found it simplified the game too much, and the modder rewrote it. Moreover, it seems modders accept updates in the API very easily - after all, code is law. Instead of the highly unfriendly “You have 60 days to comply!” software platform changes are described in neutral, impersonal programming terms. Hence, a lot of the modder community management could happen through the API. [However, I think it requires a very complex mod platform/environment that Blizzard does not have yet].

21 May 2010

[Literature] Tolkien: An Event Based Storytelling System

In this short paper from 2009, Satish et al. introduce Tolkien, an event-based storytelling system. This paper has an obvious link to interactive storytelling and fiction, but there could also be interesting applications to non-static or random content-generation in MMOG as well.

The authors define a story as a time-ordered coherent sequence of events. They consider a database filled with events and event-related data (video, audio, images, texts). Storytelling is simply retrieving appropriate events from the database in a particular order, and filter/adapt them to a particular audience. The filtering allows to show personal events such as birthdays to friends and relatives, music-related events to music-lovers or professional events such as conference talks to coworkers. Interactive storytelling approaches are inefficient in filtering large collections of events and most do not adapt to their audience.

[In the rest of the article, it is quite hard to understand in details what happens because the authors change their notations and names regularly. For instance, they use "objects" without having defined what they are. The "preference triple" definition has only two components. And so forth...

Each node of a directed acyclic graph represents an event. Events contain a spatio-temporal description and a semantics Itype. Edges are relations that connect events. Since relations are heterogeneous, they need different labels (found in the vocabulary L).

The storytelling process consists of two phases. First, the author specifies which events can be included in the story. Then the selected events are processed into a story tailored to the preferences of each member of the audience. (see figure below)

Story scripting

The scripting language the author can use to write the story script is actually a pseudo-SQL language. Example:

FIND $events FROM aParticularFile
FOR e IN $events
   FIND $museumsAtNY WHERE (activity = 'museum' 
                            AND datetime = '24 December 2008')
TELL $museumsAtNY

Compiling based on audience's preferences

Each member of the audience has its own preferences. For each member of the audience, these preferences are computed into a preference list, which is a a set of (pref_name, score). The score is a float between -1 (dislike) and 1 (like). For event ei and person pj, event interestingness is computed from the attributes of ei and the preference list of pj. It reflects how much an event should be incorporated into a specific viewer's story.

Story interestingness defines how interesting a story will be for a particular viewer. It is updated each time an event is added to the story. The addition of an event to the story aims at keeping story interestingness as high as possible. It can happen that the author's script requires to add an event reducing the story interestingness.


Concretely, the viewer's preferences could be retrieved from a Google Calendar, Twitter or Facebook page (hence the WWW on the architecture diagram). The description of the rest of the architecture is given by the authors quite consicely:

The script contains a specification of the story as well as instructions on how to modify it depending of the audience. The script is first analyzed by a Script Processor to check for lexical errors. This provides the Compiler an error-free script with which it creates an operator tree. This operator tree would be stored in a cache. Once the preference list of the audience is known to the Run Time Processor, this tree is converted to a series of Index lookups and queries to the Eventbase. This database contains detailed event descriptions with the relevant media items. The results of these queries are then collected and sent to the Web-UI.
-- Arjun et al.

20 May 2010

[Literature] On virtual economies

On Virtual Economies by Castronova in 2003 points at the growing importance of VW on real-life society. Similarly to real-life, people live, consume and generate profit in VW. However, the software nature of VW means controlling the market is much more efficient for the regulating authorities. In cyberspace, the coding authority does indeed have the power to create and destroy any amount of any good, at virtually zero cost. What are the possible evolutions for these VW economies? How do VW economies influence RL economies?

Establishing an economic model of VW

Economists are forced to recognize that VW are not only mere entertainment, they also have a RL impact on people. Indeed, economists do not make any difference between real and virtual items or properties: if people are willing to incur large time and money costs to live in a virtual world, economists will judge that location to be lucrative real estate, regardless of the fact that it exists only in cyberspace. For economists, our behaviors follow constraints: we cannot have everything we want. The tighter these constraints are, the less choice we have. Presumably, people feel happier when they are less constrained. However, a MMOG providing too little challenge is not constraining enough, and people get bored quickly. Example/comparison: people prefer a 100-piece puzzle than a 2-piece puzzle. Castronova deduces a function regulating hours of game time for gamers based on the 3 following assumptions:

  • People do things that make them feel happier
  • confronting and overcoming challenges makes people happy
  • higher rewards is preferred, holding challenge levels equal

This function shows several particularities. Gamer can be willing to pay for tougher constraints. Rich people can play because they can afford it. Poor people can play because they are not sacrificing very much income to do so. However, those not rich nor poor may be very sensitive to the impact of gaming time. Some people make money from their virtual activities: there is a substitution between Earth work and game time that depends, to some extent, on the financial rewards available in each. The economic phenomenon emerging is: Game time is a substitute for other consumption goods, and it is also a substitute for work time.

Many actors in the VW market of the future

The development of VW companies of the future can be classified in three domains: connections (Internet, wireless), interfaces (voice chat, body-motion detection) and content (media delivery services, game retailers). A monopoly may emerge because our time in virtual worlds is more valuable if everyone we know is in the same world [see Facebook...] and the more players a VW has, the more attractive it is. However, several reasons limit the possibility of a monopoly:

  • People have different tastes, and they go in VW that fulfill their needs. A VW so big it would satisfy everyone would be too expensive to build and maintain.
  • Congestion in a VW limits its number of simultaneous users
  • It seems players get attached to their avatars as they get stronger and build their stories. However, incentives could be given to switch from a VW to another: in Ultima, you can directly buy your levels; in Camelot, you can start a new avatar at level 20 if you have already gotten one to level 50.
  • the star phenomenon widespread in artistic markets: If a company designs a better game, it will attract players

The impact of VW on RL societies

The fact that labour hours that were once producing automobiles are now producing avatars does not mean anything about the level of wealth in society. Online economies do not belong to any country. Hence if economic activities move from RL to VW, countries would seem to be in recessions or depressions because state taxes would not bring as much as they did, and people would still use public infrastructures (roads, social welfare). Poor people may find VW attractive because they could earn more money in them than IRL. It would cost nothing to rich people to travel between RL and VW. New statistics and economic management policies may have to be developed

Who regulates VW economies? At the moment, game companies are not taken as legally responsible by RL law for what happens in their worlds - video games are speech. The EULA and ToS restrict users' rights, and profits drive the company. Hence, some players complain (more or less uselessly) on forum boards after patches and updates. RMT is another governance issue in which companies are the only ones to decide. Buying avatars or items from other players with real money frustrates the players who do not spend money in RMT. But players are not serfs. They have both voice and exit as options for resistance.

Bonus: differences between RL and VW economies

Unlike IRL, in VW ...

  • It may make sense to control some prices.
  • Players must have something to do or they will be bored: Work is good.
  • increases in per-capita wealth [...] will lower the challenge level of the game: Growth can be bad.
  • Avatars' abilities can change a lot over time and the number of connected avatars fluctuates.

19 May 2010

Game Journalism: intro

History of GJ

For a long time, popular games journalism was the main site for active and articulate players to describe their experiences and make their preferences heard. [...] Internet [...] has accelerated the processes of language creation, value sharing, and community formation.
-- Mäyrä, 2006, A moment in the life of a generation

The first player magazines started in 1981 in the UK and the USA. Online publications appeared in the late 1990's. With the digital era, journalism has been facing a big challenge: paper newspapers are leaving ground to online websites and blogs are the new watchdogs. Journalists are well aware of the impact of blogs on their practice (see p59-97 of this Fall 2003 issue of Nieman Reports). Game journalists are tech-savvy, so it did not take them long to realize online journalism was a solution. However, original business models had to be found to attract and keep readers on profitable and reliable online newspapers. In 2006, the Eurogamer network business development manager stated multimedia digital content will be king. Indeed, as of May 2010, Kotaku and Joystick are respectively the 16th and 49th most influential websites.

Nowadays, game journalists such as Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw are not only writing articles, they are also podcasting and/or creating videos. Some such as the Destructoid staff even build games.

What does GJ consist of?

A game is traditionally covered by a game newspaper in a reveal then preview then review fashion. Features are bonus and do not have to cover a particular game.

Reveals News or rumors build the hype preceding a game.
Previews I think game journalists are sometimes allowed to play a game before other game journalists. Playing and writing about a game before other journalists corresponds to a non-GJ scoop. However, the company may ask for a promise of a nice review in exchange.
Reviews A journalist plays the game and critiques it. Comparisons are eventually made to other games of the same genre. Often, a score is given to the game at the end of the article.
Features Wikipedia gives a quite exhaustive list of journalistic features. As for GJ, interviews, analyses and opinions are the most frequent. Feature-specific journalistic elements such as the nut graph can sometimes be found. Columns are features from a particular author that are published at regular intervals.

The (secret?) powers of GJ

Review aggregators

In 2001, Metacritic appears. Metacritic is a website that gather scores from game reviews (and movies and TV series, among others). Examples: Arcanum received 24 critic reviews averaging a score of 81/100. GTA IV for Xbox360 received an average 98/100 in 86 reviews. Other websites such as GameTab or GameRankings do the same score-aggregation work.

Civic journalism wants newspapers and readers to be more involved in social life events. Civic journalists advocate that The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes. Presumably, civic journalism builds credibility because readers realize journalists are closer to their topic and more involved. Many of the tenets of civic journalism seem to have been applied in current gaming news websites. For instance, Making a newspaper a forum for discussion of community issues or Considering public opinion through the process of discussion and debate among members of a community are illustrated in game publications by the substantial comments section following news entries. GJ has a big impact on players' life. However, game journalists do not seem to be aware of their powers:

  • Reveals and previews build hype and convey the companies' marketing a step closer to consumers
  • reviews and features influence consumers' behaviors. They are also a feedback given to developers.

In fact, GJ is similar to trade journalism in the way that both Kotaku and Reuters influence their respective market and industry. In High Scores Matter To Game Makers, Too, a WallStreet Journal journalist explained in 2007 that because Metacritic and Game Rankings typically post scores quickly after a game debuts and before any sales data are publicly available, Wall Street is also paying attention to them.. He continued: Some game companies now tie bonuses for their developers to game scores on such sites, while the stocks of game publishers can fall when a new title gets a disappointing score.

New Game Journalism

NGJ originated with Kieron Gillen's Manifesto and Ian "Always Black" Shanahan's "Bow Nigger" in 2004. NGJ articles have a more personal touch to their work, using a narrative, experiential approach that acknowledges the effect of the game on the player. Gillen argued that NGJ articles reflect how people experience games more accurately than the "previews" that are the meat and potatoes of the gaming press. Since video games are (getting) artistic, it makes sense that reviewers only mention their experience of the game, and not what other players would experience. Somehow like arts journalism. Examples of NGJ can be found here

18 May 2010

[Literature] A qualitative study of Ragnarök Online private server in-game sociological issues

Back in November 2009, I mentioned the multiplayer game design issues impacting social life inside RO. The paper has been accepted at FDG2010. You can read the final version.

I conducted interviews and observed players' behaviors in an official server (2000 users at peak time) and two private servers (200 and 2000 users at peak time). On the examined private servers, the social environment and some of the game mechanics were more adapted to players' needs. Examples are:

  • a broader choice in avatar customization
  • the ability to observe parts of the game world while not being logged-in (the Control Panel)
  • less constrained groups
  • events and GM taking the player community more into account
  • easier XPing (leveling in RO is the main activity, and it's a lot of grinding) thanks to rates and the Warpra+Healer combo
  • @commands enabled to players so that they can see who is online, sell merchandises with a character while playing with another and compare prices

Clearly, the Warpra+Healer totally changed the game. Champions could camp the respawn of MVP (boss monsters) and kill them relatively quickly with Asura Strike. This left virtually no end-game challenge for guilds other than the bi-weekly War of Emperium (battles between guilds in castles lasting between two to three hours).

10 May 2010

[Literature] Digital Imaginaries: How We Know What We (Think We) Know about Chinese Gold Farming

In "Digital Imaginaries: How We Know What We (Think We) Know about Chinese Gold Farming (forthcoming in the June edition of firstmonday), Nardi and Kow first introduce what RMT consists of from the perspective of companies, players and gold farmers. They remark: It is no more or less strange to buy an item such as a piece of jewelry in Second Life, or Merlin's Robe in World of Warcraft, than to purchase a game of checkers, or a book (certainly a virtual experience) or really, anything we could think of that someone values enough to pay for.

The gold-farmer digital imaginary

Stereotypes are based on an intersubjective reality: we encounter people who are members of the stereotyped class, rather than imagining distant Others. Digital imaginaries are built through images, not actual individuals. Since we lack practical contact with the Others we are imagining, visuals concretize them.

The methods followed by journalists or researchers in their studies of gold farmers are seldom mentioned. As shown in the network graph above, only four authors have been to China, and two have conducted long-distance interviews with gold farmers. In 2008, Heeks guessed/estimated: There is a generalized assumption that the great majority of gold farmers are based in China. In the absence of any better evidence, we will go along with this and guesstimate that China has around 80-85% of employment and output in this sub-sector. The digital imaginary is based on these few sources. These sources do not bring a whole picture of the issue, but rather comfort the general stance taken about gold farmers.

Some videos of players proving they kill gold farmers can be found on YouTube. The Ni-Hao video conveys the player issues with gold farming. Nakamura analyzed the video and remarked that attacks are directed towards the Chinese culture itself:

Where did all the doggies and kitty cats go
Since the gold farmers started to show
Don't want to know what's in the egg roll.

Dibbel first coined virtual sweat shop as the place where the gold-farmer's life presumably takes place. In the digital imaginary, gold farmers receive low wages (10 cents an hour's good money when you are Chinese) for long days of work (12-hour shifts) and live in poor conditions. These conditions describe playbor, work that is also play.

A broader picture

Botting is often omitted from the imaginary of the Chinese gold farmers. Gold farming is supposed to be a dumb and repetitive work, not developing and using complex softwares. However, ubuy8.com, a consulting company, advised that gold farming companies invest 20-30 percent of their income on R&D [...] allocated toward the development of specialized bots, moving away from less effective generic bots. As the authors note, Botting does not play well with the notion of the virtual sweatshop.

The forensic analysis of the digital imaginary analyzed how and why Chinese gold farming is perceived as low-tech work-as-play. This digital imaginary persists for two reasons. First, the real-life anxiety and doubt that Third-World countries are getting more and more powerful. This fear is accentuated when Western players meet Third-World workers in the game: strangers invade paradise. Second, the complexity of hyperlinks establishes connections that lend confidence and assurance to the materials they propagate. Actually, there are only too few reliable sources still available.

Some contributors to the digital imaginary presume that gold farmers are actually farmers in real-life. The authors explain that Eighteen year old boys are not generally members of any specific workforce, and certainly they are not “farmers”—a difficult profession requiring the accumulation of years of expertise. People are nevertheless fascinated by the gold farming phenomenon. Gold farming is a mirror that reflects us back to ourselves as culturally superior.

01 May 2010

[Conf] Digital Literacy and Play in MMOs and VW for Young Children

In April, Jackie Marsh gave an account of her work with children playingClub Penguin and Barbiegirls.com. Marsh talked mostly about Club Penguin.

Club Penguin is a F2P game with real-money transactions. Some kids reported playing the DS version of Club Penguin when they could not be online. The player is granted a certain amount of the virtual currency if he/she has the DS game. Similarly, players can become VIP in Barbie Girls only if they have bought the official MP3 player. Like in many other F2P online games, players can choose to pay a monthly subscription. Marsh mentioned some kids aready rejected other players who did not subscribe. The subscription system enables players to edit the background of their avatar photo. A kid reported I don't add plain background [ie non-subscribing] players to my friends, I already got plenty. Interestingly, during the interviews with Club Penguin players, Marsh noted that girls focused mostly on products and avatar appearances. Boys, on the other hand, talked a lot about the gameplay.

Kids do not type fast. Hence they often reported they preferred clicking than typing. Some said that when they wanted to write something, their interlocutor was gone in the time they finished typing. Moreover, some kids sometimes send letters to the game moderators, and some are published in an in-game journal. Surprisingly, kids were not frustrated that their letters were not published. I wonder about the affordances kids gain when they play Club Penguin. For most of them, they have just learned to read. Does playing Club Penguin train them to read faster? To type faster? Can Club Penguin develop the communication skills of kids shy in real-life?

Some kids stopped playing because they were bored. They asked adults to collect coins for them. In fact, adults are being dragged into the world by children. Mums were the most outraged when a virtual world closed. James Bower, a founder of Whyville, went in that direction as well in October 2009. He mentioned the Whyville-Walmart partnership. Mothers learn about Whyville at Walmart. Hence they let their kids play on Whyville. On the other hand, the virtual Walmart put in Whyville invites kids to go to Walmart in real-life. A win-win strategy!