Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Death and Passing on your Virtual Assets

I don't really have that much experienced with real money transfers except in the form of spam advertisements. I know there's a pretty big market out there for selling gold to players and that this drives the theft and hacking of accounts. It's not all illegal though since I know some players routinely sell off their characters and virtual savings whenever they get tired of a game. While almost every game out there has a EULA that supposedly prevents players from cashing out, it's usually ignored. Theoretically, anyone whose played an online game for a couple months and earned some virtual cash could probably get a couple hundred dollars for their account. Some dedicated individuals who've raided or traded their way into a virtual fortune might be able to squeeze a couple thousand dollars from an auction site.

It's no wonder then that online services that protect virtual assets are also starting to mention game accounts. Usually, services like Asset Lock or Legacy Locker are for people that have a lot of money tied up in online sites like ebay or paypal. If you suddenly die then it can be quite hard for your immediate family to get access to any of your accounts. You could just write your account information down on a piece of paper and put it in a safety deposit box, but most of these services are cheaper. It's almost like a digital will without the lawyers. It's still not the most useful thing in the world and it seems kind of gimmicky at the moment. However, I'll admit that over the last ten years I've gone from maybe one or two online accounts to around twenty. Some of these accounts are just things like email, but a surprising number of them do have monetary value.

Like this CNN article says, we are spending more of our lives online and people are actually starting worry about this kind of stuff. This seems like an obvious sign that society is starting to associate more value to virtual property as they spend more time online. It's not actually that unbelievable. After all, the value of real world currencies have nothing to do with the ink and paper they are printed on. Virtual items tied up in accounts are the same way. They're worth what people will pay for them and in some instances that can be a lot. And since established institutions like banks are mostly absent in this market we are seeing companies pop up in their stead. It may be a little early for these companies to make a lot of money now, but in ten years who knows? I'm just thinking how much fun it will be ten years from now to track down this post and comment on how my bank finally started a similar service.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blizzard Authenticator: Coming to a Credit Card near you

User accounts for virtual worlds are the preferred target of high tech thieves nowadays. Not only is it relatively easy to liquidate stolen digital property, but there's almost no risk of prosecution. Virtual property isn't really understood by most courts of laws around the world and a majority of legal systems would find it hard to define stealing such items as theft. However, just because it's difficult to establish real world value for virtual property doesn't mean it's worthless. In recent years, digital criminals have devoted more effort into setting up phishing scams and trojan installers for game accounts then credit cards. This shows that there is obvious real world value to these accounts.

As World of Warcraft has grown into the largest subscription based MMO its become the main target of scams and computer viruses seeking out account information. It's safe to say that as the criminal activity targeting the game increased so has the load on it's customer service system. Since each case requires a fair amount of time to investigate and fix, the costs associated with customer service have risen. Also since Blizzard has several high level competitors they can't simply ignore requests to restore hacked accounts. It's because of this situation that Blizzard eventually introduced the authenticator. This relatively simple device can be registered with a player account and then provides a different password every time the player wants to log in.

I'll admit that it's a small increase in effort to log in with an authenticator, but players who have been repeatably hacked feel like it's worth the trouble. The device seems to be working quite well in preventing compromised computers from gaining control of World of Warcraft accounts. In fact it seems to be working so well that Visa is exploring a similar system for it's credit cards. Currently being tested is the Emue card which has a screen on the back which generates an additional pin number for every transaction. This doesn't help much if the card is physically stolen, but more then half of all credit card fraud is committed online nowadays. Thus just like the Blizzard Authenticator, the Emue card protects it's account holders with a layer of protection that can't be broken online.

The relative similarity between the two systems makes me wonder if Visa and Blizzard are using the same security company. Since game accounts and credit card information are two of the top targets for online crime I guess it makes sense that they use the same security measures. Of course just like the Blizzard Authenticator, the Emue card will probably only be adopted by people who've had their information stolen before. Still since Visa is planning on making the system backwards compatible that means stores will be able to handle both types of cards. If the Emue card becomes widely available for free then I expect anyone who shops online will adopt it pretty quickly. And the fact that the Blizzard Authenticator system has been working so well makes me believe this is a pretty secure technology and not a simple gimmick.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Can Blizzard survive being the most bankable game studio?

Blizzard Entertainment was recently announced as the most successful game studio this year as calculated by Develop magazine. I'm not really sure what qualifies them to rank game studios, but their website says their calculations are based on sales data, critical success, and industry standing. Still it seems suspicious since the Develop 100 had Blizzard Entertainment ranked 46 spots lower last year. I know Wrath of the Lich King moved a lot of boxes, but World of Warcraft has been dominating the PC sales charts hand and hand with the Sims for the last four years. So why are trade publications only now starting to notice?

Well its no secret that Blizzard doesn't make bad games. The management for the company seems slightly different from other game studios and allows for long delays in production to fine tune a game. That's not to say they would allow a project to become vaporware or a 100 million dollar disaster like Tabula Rasa. Just look at Starcraft Ghost which Blizzard had no problems axing when it became apparent the quality wasn't there. Blizzard's dedication to quality isn't something that recently appeared and earned it a spot on the list. No the real reason is most likely that it's becoming more widely known just how much money World of Warcraft is earning from subscription fees alone.

I've long suspected that Blizzard has been making close to a 100 million dollars a month on subscriptions and it's recently been confirmed in several earnings report. Additionally, a subscription service whose only real cost is server maintenance and customer support has to have a great profit to revenue ratio. It's been theorized that a AAA MMO takes about 50 million dollars to develop and that number has been thrown around a couple of times for Warhammer Online. That means even if only half of the subscription revenue is profit then Blizzard still recoups its initial investment on World of Warcraft every month of the year.

Those kinds of investment returns just stand out like a sore thumb and it's probably why Blizzard was swallowed up by Activision. I just hope Blizzard can survive the future as the most bankable game studio while still producing high quality products. Last year there were some rumblings about the decision to split Starcraft 2 into three separate games. Some people thought it seemed a little too much like a naked money grab, something a mega studio like EA or Activision would do. While the giants of the game industry are very good about squeezing every last cent from a franchise they also make a lot of lackluster crap in the process.

With a good percentage of the profits earned by Activision this last quarter coming from World of Warcraft you have to wonder if Blizzard will be pushed to maintain this pace. It's fine if they are able to keep their revenue up by making the same high quality games we've come to expect from them. If all three Starcraft 2 games introduce a fair amount of quality content then I'm not one to complain. I think most gamers have come around to the idea simply because it gets the multi-player version into our hands faster. However, the next "innovative" idea might not have the same silver lining. It's makes me wonder if Blizzard can juggle quality, quantity and profits equally in the future or if short-term profits will start to become the priority.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Off the Beaten Path - New MMOs for the Summer

There's a couple of new MMO's coming out over the summer and I'm glad to see that they are quite different from the standard fantasy fare. Last year I tried out Age of Conan and Warhammer Online when I got tired of World of Warcraft. The year before I dabbled in Lord of the Rings and the Rise of Kunark expansion for Everquest 2. While all four games had very different game mechanics, they still used the same type of background setting. It's been awhile since a decent MMO came out that wasn't a fantasy hack and slash adventure. Not that I'm totally repulsed by the genre anymore, I'm just looking for a breath of fresh air.

Luckily, it looks like next month's Jumpgate Evolution will satisify my desire to try something different. It's being advertised as an EVE Online that's actually fun to play. While I don't have the best reaction times in the world, I'm still looking forward to trying out a MMO based around real time spaceship combat. The only previous experience I've had with a twitch based MMO could be considered Tabula Rasa. However, that game's equipment system seemed a little too disposable and FPS-like for me to enjoy. As long as Jumpgate Evolution has a decent equipment and talent system then I'll probably stick with it for a couple months.

Even if Jumpgate Evolution is a free-trial month only game, there's still Champions Online right around the corner in July. I've been following the development of this one for awhile now and I'm very impressed with the graphics. I'm a fan of the "stylistic" graphics approach and the cell shaded look fits my preferences quite well. I'm afraid that some of the same design flaws from City of Heroes might also make it into Champions Online though. I'm hoping that Cryptic Studios stayed away from procedural generated content this time around and that leveling through missions isn't so repetitive. I'm also hoping for a better equipment system, since I always felt like the original enhancement one was too trivial for a MMO.

After the summer there a couple MMO's that are floating around release days in the fall, but haven't set them in stone yet. The major one is probably AION: Tower of Eternity which is being released by NCSoft. NCsoft isn't exactly a favorite on my list of MMO publishers at the moment. They seem a little too eager to abandon low performing MMOs and they've cut back their presence in the West a bit. Still a game where angels and dragons get to fight aerial battles does sound very cool. The reviews from Korea and China also seem favorable for the game though popularity doesn't always translate across the pacific. If the game is actually entertaining and avoids a lot of the pointless grinding associated with the Lineage brand then it might nice to try out.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Ulduar and encounters with multiple difficulty levels

While I'm primarily playing World of Warcraft at the moment, I've been unimpressed by the length of time its taken Blizzard to add content onto the end game. It's not that the current raid content is too easy, just that there wasn't enough initially in the expansion to support raiding guilds. It's a situation very similar to when World of Warcraft first launched and Molten Core/Onyxia was the only raid content available. Blizzard has taken steps to fix the issue by filling the new dungeon, Ulduar, with encounters that have multiple difficulty settings. The theory goes that as guilds gear up and get used to clearing Ulduar they will start doing the encounters on a higher difficulty, which will stretch out the life of the new content. It makes sense on paper and worked very nicely with the Sartharion fight. However, I wonder if it will have the same effect when used in a full length raid dungeon.

The problem I see is that a raid dungeon is structured differently from a single boss encounter and may not get the same mileage from having multiple settings. Guilds would usually save Sartharion until the end of a raid night then try a few attempts at a harder difficulty level. If the guild leaders didn't think they were going to win, they could always make the encounter easier by killing off a drake. The encounter was only as long as the guild wanted it to be. This is a bit different from a raid dungeon where after failing on a harder difficulty setting a couple times, a guild still has to complete the rest of the dungeon. This basically stretches out the length of time a guild spends in Ulduar compared to the early dungeons.

I do hear that the boss encounters in Ulduar are better designed then Naxxramas and are very unique. A friend of mine was recently giving me the rundown of a fight done on motorcycles, where you set fire to oil slicks. Still, no matter how entertaining the vehicle mechanics are in a encounter, its a bad idea to artificially keep players in the same dungeon. Players will get bored of the same fights in the same dungeon even if the difficulty can be changed. It makes more sense to put varying difficulty encounters outside the main dungeon so guilds can challenge themselves while visiting a different location. Of course none of this would be a problem if more then one raid dungeon per tier was available to guilds. However, I'm guessing the Blizzard staff is stretched pretty thin between all the new games in development. Plus, they most likely haven't yet streamlined the process of making 10 and 25 man versions of each raid dungeon.

In the future, I am hoping the next full length raid dungeon is accompanied by more single boss encounters. There's still a lot of room for additional dragons in the Wyrmrest Temple and other single boss locations could be added. Anything that encourages a raiding guild to move between raid instances is a positive in my mind. As it stands now I'm thinking that players will burn out quicker on Ulduar then they did on Naxxramas.