Pro-Auctioneering, the New eSport

Electronic Sport (eSport) is the competitive play of video games, often professionally, for prize money. In South Korea contests are so popular they are broadcast on dedicated television channels. E-sports generate less enthusiasm in the rest of the world, but their popularity seems to be growing.

There are parallels to traditional physical sports: The games played are accessible to the general public, but require huge dedication, skill, training and coordination to be “the best”. Many football (soccer) fans enjoy “kicking a ball about” in the street, but don’t expect to be playing at Old Trafford. Likewise there is a huge difference between beating Quake‘s single player mode and competing against top players. Probably the biggest difference is that eSports focus on the screen (what the player is doing), rather than on the player themselves (as tends to be the case with physical sports). This, combined with the traditional “geekiness” of video games, helps explain why most eSports professionals are rather devoid of charisma. Not that that stops tournament organisers putting these people on stage…

Traditionally eSports have favoured fast-paced games, either played individually or as small teams. Contests take place in short bouts. Examples include Starcraft and Counter-Strike. While these games require a degree of strategy, exceptional hand-eye coordination and reflexes are key to winning.

There have been attempts to promote casual games eSport, but tournaments remain biased towards fast-paced games. In the case of World of Warcraft’s (WoW) arena tournament, the core of the original game (the massively multiplayer part, where players are expected to invest time developing characters) was systematically removed to create a platform for traditional eSports. Missed opportunity. And here’s why:

This article proposes a rather curious “eSport”. One that is entirely dependant on the core facet of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) – the other players. An E-Sport that is played over days, rather than minutes. A game within a game, that tests abilities beyond simply clicking the mouse faster than your opponent. Allow me to introduce, Pro-Auctioneering. Read more of this article »

Platform Azeroth: Why Information is Broken

This article explores why the best information in World of Warcraft (WoW) is not available from within the game. It considers how to better bring information into the game environment.

Analyse this:

Screenshot of WoW in-game browser hack.

Above is a World of Warcraft screenshot, showing an in-game browser. This is not a feature of the game. The “Knowledge Base” is technically a support database written exclusively by the game’s developer and operator, Blizzard. However, an enterprising hacked called Vladinator noticed that this in-game database took its information from a specific webserver. The Knowledge Base could therefore be re-directed to a different webserver: In this case a server that shows information from Wowhead, a third-party site that contains reference material on almost every item, quest, and thing in the game.

Blizzard was quick to block the hack.

This article attempts to explain the utterly illogical structure behind these events. It builds on some of my earlier comments about the use of micro-transactions for in-game education (“Learn2Play”). Read more of this article »

Stanford Virtual Worlds Research

This article contains selected notes on the some of the research conducted at Stanford University on virtual worlds and the interaction of humans within virtual environments. It is based on sessions held during the Media X conference. Pat Hanrahan defined a virtual world as a “networked multi-user distributed environment”. But the audience reaction was altogether less technical, and more oriented towards the social implications of such environments.

Stanford is one of the few universities that can not simply be accused of climbing on the virtual worlds band-wagon: People like Nick Yee were examining these environments at long before they were regarded as a suitable topic for serious research. Related sessions on workplace application and DKP and the archiving of virtual worlds/games will be covered by separate articles.

Why Use Virtual Environments for Medical Training?

LeRoy Heinrichs spoke on the use of virtual medical rooms for training medical students.

It is cost effective, even when developing bespoke software: Conducting a live training exercise in a physical hospital costs about $50,000 per day, and can only train a relatively small group. Stanford’s first virtual patient model cost almost $1 million to develop, yet in the long run is still cheaper than physical-world exercises.

Initial analysis of performance is not yet conclusive, however early signs suggest knowledge does transfer to real practice, and virtual training is just as good as other methods.

The business case for virtual worlds is ultimately a critical driver to their success outside of their traditional (game or social) environments. Medicine is a fundamentally expensive business, so even with custom software, one user can make a saving. Other sectors may be slower to follow, waiting for the cost to drop. Cost are likely to drop by sharing development costs between multiple projects – either industry-wide initiatives, or through the development of platforms for virtual worlds, which will transfer most of the costs on to a single provider, who can then share those costs between many customers.

Size Matters

Renate Fruchter revealed that visual size does matter. Ideally people should appear on screen life-size: In most cases that means a bigger screen!

Jeremy Bailenson outlined some of Nick Yee’s research behind the “virtual mirror”. The virtual mirror is a technique that changes the visual identity of a person’s avatar while in a virtual world: Their avatars literally look into a mirror and take a different form.

The experiment is useful in understanding the consequences of an apparently fluid online identity, and determining whether self-perception theory (and similar) transfer to avatars: If you don’t know how to act, you look at yourself, particularly your uniform, and that determines your behaviour.

Height is important. In the physical world, height correlates to confidence and personal income. Through the use of an “ultimatum game”, where avatars negotiate a deal, it was possible to show that a 10cm difference in avatar height increased the value of that avatar’s deals in their favour.

Physical attractiveness of avatars was also tested by examining “interpersonal distance”: If you like someone, you will tend to stand closer to them. And they’ll disclose more information.

Finally the effects of age were tested by morphing pictures of one’s self to show the passing of years. The older the avatar, the more the subjects were prepared to invest in their retirement.

Further detail on some of these topics can be found at The Daedalus Project.

Virtual Worlds, Serious Work, and Collaboration for DKP

Byron Reeves (Stanford University) spoke to the Media X conference about how experiences from virtual worlds could be transferred into working life. This article summarises his talk, and contains personal analysis of the potential for using DKP (Dragon Kill Point) systems to measure contribution to collaborative activity.

Playing Puzzle Pirates at Work

Take a dull job such as that of a call centre worker. Now take the online game, Puzzle Pirates. Strip out the puzzling part, and add in the dull job. What do we get?

Why Might This Work?

Some possible reasons:

  1. Worlds are popular. People like playing them! Reeves was unusual among academics in acknowledging the huge popularity of teen-orientated worlds like Habbo Hotel, and down-playing relatively unpopular titles like Second Life.
  2. A new “gamer generation” is emerging. Even without the online component of games, these features aspects of competition, failure, risk and feedback. It is reasonable that this generation will come to expect to work using collaboration tools with features that match.
  3. Well understood recipe for creating a great game.
  4. Emotional involvement. Byron Reeves showed how heart rate increased by the value of 10 [presumably beats per minute] when playing with another human-controlled avatar, rather than a computer-controlled agent. This implies a performance gain when human collaboration is present.
  5. Technology: Worlds are easier to build, and “better”.
  6. Painful long-standing problems in enterprises might be solved. For example, large proportions of workers are “out of the office”; have limited employee feedback; do fundamentally dull work; and require emotional contact with other humans to innovate.

Dragon Kill Points as a Measure of Contribution

Dragon Kill Points (DKP) might be used as a way to value contributions to collaborative environments such as wikis. DKP is a way of resolving how to share finite loot among a group – originally from killing dragons in Everquest, now from any encounter that requires a group to complete.

The application of DKP to other collaborative environments was not fully developed. So let me try.

Loot is the primary reward from most collaborative activity in an game such as World of Warcraft (probably where DKP is currently most used). At the most advanced stages of the game a hostile creature might require 10 or 25 people to kill, yet only yield 2 or 3 items of loot. An equitable method of distributing loot is critical to long-term motivation of players.

Pragmatic random distribution of loot is one method: Players those avatars would benefit from the loot are invited to roll a virtual 100-sided dice, and the highest score wins the loot. The process is not entirely without social mediation. For example, one player might pass (forfeit their roll) to allow another to win loot that the first player knows they particularly need. Likewise rolling on loot that the rest of the group perceive the player doesn’t really need is likely to cause a social backlash. Pragmatic random distribution of loot is easy to administer and well suited to small groups comprising players that might not regularly play together.

However, pragmatic random distribution does not account for long-term contributions: One player might attend one session, gain a rare loot, and stop contributing to further sessions. Meanwhile another player might attend multiple sessions and gain nothing.

DKP is an alternative method. It creates a tally of points based on contribution to group activity. Loot is then distributed based on the volume of points a player has banked (and is prepared to spend) from earlier contributions. DKP is generally used where:

If DKP sounds simple, it isn’t: A DKP system is a complex construct, with different ways to measure contribution and balance the flow of loot to players. Agreeing that balance is a highly social activity, and failure to get the balance right can break-up long-established groups.

Group stress (“drama”) caused by the requirement for a complex DKP system may be one of the reasons for the growing importance of tokens in World of Warcraft. Group activity yields tokens, rather than loot. The tokens can still be traded for loot within the game. However tokenization removes some of the requirement for groups to balance the value of different items of loot.

DKP as a Currency

Edward Castronova and Joshua Fairfield have already mused on some of the economic aspects of DKP. But there are some interesting tangents that have not obviously been explored.

DKP is a meta-currency where the value of the currency is based on the values players place on one another’s contribution. Oddly this makes DKP far more like a modern physical-world currency than the formal in-game currencies created and balanced by game designers. Most modern currencies are valued on nothing more than trust – even if most users of currency never realise.

DKP systems effectively create many different currencies, each balanced and exchanged between a tiny number of people. The economy this creates is so devoid of complex economic mechanisms, and so obviously balanced by social interaction, that it might be mistaken for barter; but it isn’t.

Applying DKP Elsewhere

The value of DKP is in the ability of a group to allocate their own collective set of values to the results of collaborative activity. The value of the currency is a reflection on the group itself.

Applying DKP to a wiki-type collaborative environment is problematic: Contributions are not equally balanced within the group – the classic 1%-9%-90% pattern, where most contribute nothing, and few contribute a lot. While DKP might seem an ideal way to resolve this imbalance, and give the 1% the credit they deserve, we must remember that the DKP system’s balance is a social construct: The system will naturally be primarily designed by the 1%, and so will be biased to reflect their needs or perceptions of value. So DKP resolves nothing.

Administering DKP tends to be complex and time-consuming. DKP is not just technically complex (which might be eased through better software tools): Its value-system is an ever-changing function of the group itself.

That all assumes DKP will always be established through negotiation between those involved. We could theorise that eventually standard approaches will develop, that later generations of players will come to recognise and accept a standard approach. But standardisation would merely create another traditional currency system. Such a currency would be less arbitrary than some formal in-game currencies, since its value would genuinely reflect the work of players, and would not have to be carefully balanced by those designing the world.

It is not clear that DKP can be applied to any collaborative situation. However it may form a currency that better reflects players’ effort than one designed by those operating the virtual world. Consequently it does have a lot of potential for further development.

Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?

Extract from advert for Luke's Gold Making Guide. Real Money Trade (RMT) is the buying and selling of virtual property or currency for real-world money. Many virtual worlds now embrace this trade in virtual currency and goods, often as a source of income for the world’s operator. Blizzard, the developer of World of Warcraft (WoW), does not:

“RMT is a TOS [Terms of Service] violation. The fanbase is pretty committed to being against it, and we’ve got a group of guys that are committed to stopping TOS violations. The game was never designed for that in mind – everyone starts off even. In the real world that’s not true, but in WoW everyone starts even, and the RMT stuff messes with that.”

Not just rhetoric. They have sued a leading supplier to prevent them advertising in-game. And they regularly ban large numbers of accounts used to “farm” gold.

That environment seems to have expanded another quite logical commercial market: Teaching players to play. “Learn2Play” in the vernacular, or “L2P” in shorthand.

Rather than buying gold (in-game currency), players buy the knowledge of how to make gold themselves. The market isn’t restricted to gold. Guides to power-leveling (advancing a character through the first part of the game as fast as possible) are also popular: Rather than pay someone else to level a player’s character, players can buy a guide containing instructions optimised for rapid leveling.

This article explains Learn2Play, and explores some of the history and trends in this “market”. It focuses specifically on World of Warcraft, in English, which is sufficiently popular to create a tangible commercial Learn2Play market. It draws on my own experience from selling these guides.

Superficial analysis suggests the World of Warcraft Learn2Play market is valued at over $3 million revenue per year. In spite of WoW being an online experience, revenue from physical book sales may still exceed revenue from the virtual equivalent. The market is far smaller than RMT. But the notion that people are willingly investing US dollars in knowledge and skills that are useful solely within one virtual environment, should perhaps deserve as much attention as other real-virtual money transactions.

Read more of this article »

Video Games Industry Innovation – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

This is the second set of notes from the first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, which was held on 15 August 2007. You may also be interested in the session on Virtual Policy and Law.

These notes discuss innovation within the video games industry. The factual information is primarily drawn from sessions (and conversations) with Jessica Mulligan (executive producer and one of “the five most important people in the virtual world“), Jason Rutter (University of Manchester), and Brian Baglow (Indoctrimat). These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

Read more of this article »

Virtual Policy and Law – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

The first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium was held on 15 August 2007. It aimed to bring together academics and the “games” industry, to discuss topics from games industry innovation to policy in virtual worlds. The diversity of people these topics attracted was remarkable – from philosophers to corporate executives. It should come as no surprise that we all struggled to understand each other. Yet this was a group who merely by expressing their interest in such an event, tend towards curiosity.

This is the first set of notes from the Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, covering virtual policy and legal issues. A second set of notes discusses innovation in the video games industry. These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

Law

The lawyers are very excited about virtual worlds. Antonis Patrikios, from Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, was speaking. At the most basic level, it’s a clean slate with no case law, yet almost endless contentious issues. You can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes. At one extreme there is a school of thought that wants to declare a new thread of international law – that is, to treat virtual environments as separate legal jurisdictions. At the other, the simple statement that real world objectives (and therefore regulation and law) will be directly applied to virtual worlds, without special consideration.

An example of one of the many crunch-points: If by “playing” I generate money-tokens (i.e., not necessarily legal currency, but having the same effect within the world they are generated), and someone does something that scams me of those money-tokens, do I have any rights in (physical) criminal law? If prior to bankruptcy, I move all my assets into a virtual currency, can the authorities recover them? One position is that I only have rights if the operators of the virtual environment allow me to legitimately transfer my money-tokens into real money. But it could be argued that if something is perceived as having value, it has value, even if it can’t be directly or legally (contractual law) monetarized.

Now, add to the equation the fact that the representation of the person within the virtual environment may not be traceable to a real legal entity. (There’s a major philosophical argument here too, that I’ll step over because I don’t understand it – although I’m told the fact I don’t understand it is fundamental to my ability to try – er, yes.) The one entity that always is traceable is the operator of the world – who of course have no legal structure themselves, since they are typically a business and not a civil authority. The anonymity issues may be solved technologically, but the very possibility that operators might get dragged into criminal cases triggered by what their users do, is pretty frightening.

The role of physical location of operators, technology (servers), and users gets even more complex than in the (already arguably broken) website/e-commerce model. Does intellectual property of things created in these worlds transfer to the user? Trademarks are defined territorially, yet where is this virtual territory? And is a virtual re-creation the same as a real product anyway? There are big US/EU differences here. For example, in the EU it is far harder to patent the implementation of an idea, rather than the idea itself. So a lot of software patents that exist in the US, don’t exist in the EU, since software is commonly just the technical implementation of an idea.

There’s an interesting aside here on when money becomes a currency, and when a game becomes a bank. In the UK, if you offer credit, you’ll drift into financial regulation. The question nobody can answer is when that provision gets so large it becomes a bank, or so popular it threatens an existing currency.

Policy

Chris Francis (IBM) attempted a basic differentiation between virtual games/worlds. He takes more of a policy perspective than others. You have to be able to quantify each virtual experience on a spectrum, otherwise everything from simple online games to open real-currency trading platforms will be seen as the same thing in any regulatory debate. There are four factors, each of which covers a spectrum of topics. Generally the further to the left you are, the more like a game (and hence the most likely to avoid regulation), the further to the right, the more like real life (and so the more likely to be regulated):

Economy/tradability: In-game “gold” <<—>> Real money.
Identity/communication: Text <<–> Voice <–>> Accountability.
Plot: Scripted <<—>> Freeform.
Data flow: Augmented virtuality <<—>> Augmented reality.

Augmented virtuality I didn’t quite understand as a concept, but I’d interpret it as the re-creation of augmented reality concepts into an inherently virtual setting, rather than a real-world one. The interesting current topic is voice. Voice is a significant shift into the realm of communications legislation, since voice is widely understood to be communication, while text is a grey area. It follows that in introducing voice clients within games, game operators are more likely to open themselves up to regulation. I don’t think the games industry had considered that.

William Garrood spoke from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. In the EU, active regulation is currently focused on television-like services, particularly using the radio spectrum for transmission. Electronic Communication Services legislation first appeared in 1998, passed into EU law in 2000, and has slowly been added to law across EU states. (It is worth noting that the regulatory cycle is almost 10 years, the academic cycle for studying it all is 3 years, yet 6 months is a typical industry timescale to deploying new technology in the arena.) The current legislation could allow virtual worlds to be regulated, at least in part – but nobody is yet. This was intentional in the design of the legislation: The EU agenda is to move away from regulation – there is a desire to try and foster self-regulation.

The EU may be regarded as a lower-risk environment than the US, simply because the US has no apparent boundaries – yet a litigious culture that will make discovering those boundaries expensive, and arguably will resolve them in favour of the dominant industry. The EU has a structure that is likely to “step in” if it looks like everything is going to hell in a handcart.

Ofcom is quite focused on the BBC‘s traditional territory: Supporting “socially valuable content” in virtual environments. They already have a strategy called the Public Service Publisher. They’re aware that young audiences, in particular, are moving away from television, and are looking to fill the “post-TV gap”. It’s positive regulation, although how it works in practice is unseen.