Wednesday, November 17, 2010

MMO's - Entertainment? Service? or Nightmare.

Bear with me. The dullness of a simple database discussion is needed here.

Lets start small. What about "email". We send and receive email through a server. The server stores specific bits of that data, and makes decisions on where this data goes. Now, this in it's simplest form is a database.
Now, what happens if we lose or delete an email? Why we go to the server where tools exist to retrieve that email.
What if we forget our password? Simple. Server handles this as well.
The email server stores all of this data for you, so the user can just do what they want to do. Send and retrieve email.

You are a single entity to that email server, and it treats you separate from all others on that server. Your data is YOUR data.

Now, lets move on to what we really enjoy. Games. If I play a single player game, I have several choices in how "items" are handled. Each single player game keeps track of various data in their own "databases". All of the information pertains to me. It is installed on my computer and is MY data. I am the individual playing this game.
Now, If I lose an item, I either have the choice of saying "that sucks" and moving on, or as most games allow, a save from a previous session that goes back and lets me retrieve said item.

It is MY data to do with as I please.

As we can see, each system is unique in how it does things. But, we still can break a game or an email down to a simple database style structure. You store and retrieve data as needed for your session...whether playing or emailing. But, one clear piece is shown at each turn.

It is all individual. It is UNIQUE to me.

Now, of course, extenuating circumstance exist where this data CAN be lost. Server crash, corrupt hard drive data, backup overwriting the data...but, no matter what, a good system has ways to fix this and have a chance of retrieving what has been lost.

Thus we come to an MMO.

MMO's are another uniquity in its form. We entrust our "stuff" with the company we have purchased our time or game from. They, of course, have some form of "database" to store the multitude of information that is transferred back and forth with that companies servers. We ASSUME that the data on their servers is ours and ours alone.

Like email, transactions that take place between a user and a server, we do things one after the other and that data is stored. As we "accomplish" things in an MMO, we assume that information is held in place by some "database" and is stored for me. If we have the luck of the roll of the dice, we may get an item in that game. The server has to decide WHAT item and HOW we will get it.  This server should then store that data in some format.

This is all based on the assumption of how a game should work. I am not a GAMES programmer, but I AM a database programmer.

All data is individual. Records exists. Record are overwritten, changed, etc. But, no matter what, I can retrieve some form of that record. It is a unique record...period.

Did any of that sound like fun to you? It does not to me. Thus, our experience should be seamless within the gaming world. Entertainment should be the keyword. I should NOT be thinking of how that games database works or how it is storing my data.

If I play a single player game, never save my spot, and then lose something...hey guess what? That is MY fault. I only have myself to blame. If my fun is ruined, I only have myself to blame.
If I play a game where all of my information is saved somewhere else, I entrust them to keep me safe. All of my data should be easily accessible and retrievable for MY use.

I expect my MMO experience to be a service. Thus, I can be entertained and feel safe in the knowledge that I do not have to worry about my "stuff". That company I am paying is "saving" my spot in the game...or I assumed.

Thus, we come to Guild Wars.

Entertainment? Service? No. Nightmare? Yes.

I need to ask a question. Why should a database make a backup of all existing records as ONE file? Why is there not an individual tracking of players? Basically NCSoft has made it abundantly clear that Guild Wars saves the "worlds" data and not the individuals.

Look at sub based MMO's. Each keep individuals intact. The world is "static". They do not need to worry about the "world" as they can rebuild the world if it ever dies (crash? deletion of important information for that world?). The PLAYER is the responsibility of that company.

Is it because Guild Wars is free from fees that, customer service consists of the basics. I mean the barebones minimum. They can ONLY help you get back your general account data (username, pass)...but, they are limited there.
Need to change that ID which is attached to an email? Too bad. Especially if you use the super duper cool NCSoft master account. You know, the tool that was to keep you safe? The tool that last year was noted to have a bug allowing others to login and have access to other accounts by accident? NCSoft of course never owned up to this, but many had proof of this action.

Anyways, none of this matters. Everything you do in the world of Guild Wars is kept in that worlds data. No one is an individual, no matter how cool your name is; no matter how cool you are not individualized. Your data is mixed with others data, thus individual retrieval of information is lost.

This is just bad service.

Now, information could be kept on the client side, but as we know, there are those shady types who would find some way to manipulate this and make themselves rich or whatever.
Is it a cost barrier to the "free"ness of Guild Wars that does not allow individualization?

Lets look at one example of how this issue could have been handled.

There was a story from talking about a specific users issue of being "hacked". Check that story out.
"I go to the mailbox and happily find all of my gear and materials"
A happy ending. But, how is this possible? In what way does WoW work, that Guild Wars does not to allow such returns?
Item creation tools. Guild Wars has sworn they cannot do this. It is most likely handled by the server randomly.
This is all well and what about restitution of sorts? Money to help a character along? Also, cannot be done.
As explained to me by the NCSoft rep "The gold on the account that hacked your account was removed in such a way that we cannot give it back to you the player".
So, this sounds to me like tools exist to REMOVE stuff from the world. Just, no way to make it.

So, we come down to the last of this little tale.

Guild Wars offers a great gaming experience. But, safety is not a concern of the staff.
Many questions exist still on how my account was taken. But, even more disturbing is the lack of help that is offered by NCSoft staff in getting the player back to a normal state.
No offer of item retrieval. No offers of restitution from the criminals. And even worse, no offer of changes to help you become more secure. For example, you are not allowed to change the ID associated with your Guild Wars account, thus leaving the ID that was used in the first place vulnerable to more attacks.

With Guild Wars 2 on the horizon, this brings even more concern. With our current lack of security in Guild Wars original, what is to stop hackers from continuing to ruin the play experience of the purchaser? Guild Wars 2 is also a free offering, and items will play an even more important role in that game. This type of policy of ZERO help to the player will bring that game down pretty fast. I cannot even begin to count how many times I have read "Oh, NCSoft is publishing GW2? Count me out".

I am not sure if I will be counted when GW 2 launches, as a player either.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Guild Wars - All your stuff belong to us

The inevitable happened. I was horribly hacked. The game? Guild Wars. The Support staff? NCsoft.

The resolution? Unacceptable.

Wednesday night at around 11 pm EST, I logged off a very fruitful and awesome session of Guild Wars. I leave for bed, safe in the comfort that I have accomplished another step in my goal of building the Hall of Monuments, gearing up for Guild Wars 2.
I had been hard at work for about a month now, tackling various goals of gaining mini-pets, making VERY expensive armor, and completing missions I had never finished before.

Life was good.

Then I was violated.

At around 7:20 am EST, Thursday, Nov. 11th, 2010 - Veterans Day, I go to log in to Guild Wars. Ready for a full day of fun as I have the day off. My password does not work.
I check my caps lock, and it is ok. I type it Does not work. I quickly check my email to see if any changes have been made to my password...someone trying to get access? Or have I been banned?

I log into my NCsoft master account just fine, and proceed to use their built in password changer. Please note, to change your password for Guild Wars, all you have to do is put in your new pass...and you're done. Compared to Aion, which asks for your old pass, then a new pass...which I feel is a better system. So, password in hand, I log in.

And my Elementalist is just in underwear. AGHHHHHH

I proceed to go into the game and check the storage. Tons of missing goods. All of my standard mats which had full stacks, empty. Tons of rare mats, like 2 Sapphires, 150+ Steel Ingots...gone. A stack of black dye (9 of them) GONE!!!

And so much more. Every character has had at least one piece of armor destroyed or major runes taken off. This includes Heroes. Even a stack of Stone Summit Badges, a memory from my launch days when everyone in my huge 100 member guild would give them to me as a joke; gone, Gone, GONE.

So begins the painful process. I enter a ticket, with a heavy heart, to NCsoft support. Thus the odyssey begins.

In my days of playing, I have never had a "hack" like this. Especially with an account so full of stuff. WoW had an issue with an unplayed account two years ago. We did not have much there, so I did not care. Blizzard proved to be VERY helpful by restoring cash and goods. then they proceeded to ban my account for non-payment by the hacker. That was never resolved.

Like I said. Didn't care. It was rectified, and if I wanted to, I could get this taken care of.

Moving on. I entered my ticket about 30 minutes or less after the login. Explained the issue. Noted the most glaring concern. Why did I not get an email with my password change? I could not login until after I changed my password that morning. And after I made MY change, I got an email. So, how between the hours of 11pm and 7am did I not get the email?

About 6 hours later, and no answer, so it was time to elevate. I hit the phone number, got a response and got told I owned my account (go figure). They elevated this to another person.

About 4 hours later an answer on my first ticket. Seems no one has accessed my account except from my IP. WTF? They also show no password change between 11pm to 7am. How is this possible?

I explained how this could not be. I checked my router for access logs. No go. They noted keyloggers or virus...I scan; nothing. So, how was this possible?

Next update comes almost 2 hours later. Seems they caught two people from Germany using IP spoofing to login to my account. But, here comes the worst part of that response....

"While I would like to replace your items, the Guild Wars Support Team does not have the capability to replace characters or items, whether they are lost through the actions of unfriendly players, deletion accidents, or through other means."

This doesn't make sense.

Now, I will not bore you with the back and forth on this. There was a lot. The password issue has not been resolved (NCsoft says no password change took place?). Anyways, two more replies of me pleading and asking for clarification of their policies. For example, how can items "magically" appear for Birthdays, or Runes or Dyes be tracked in sales for pricing...yet, they cannot track my stuff.

Note...tracking or "returning" is never an option here. All NCSoft kept saying, especially with this final doozy of a reply is...

"Although I wish there was a way to restore or compensate for your losses, there are no tools, executables, or buttons to accomplish this request."

This of course leads to many questions. Does Guild Wars just create items out of thin air then? Is there a preset number of items in the world (which could make sense...but, then if something is used up, how is it replenished?). Why can't NCsoft (since they caught the hackers) go through their inventory and return what can be found, or said cash equaling lost goods?

What has BEEN proven is that the NCsoft websites and services are a very insecure, unsecure and non-safe environment for your data and your virtual goods.

Thanks to some awesome Tweeters, I will be getting some things back (Thanks to Longasc and Avery, who have offered platinum and items)...but, the feeling of losing years of memories is like a house burning down. You can't those goods back, but insurance does cover those costs of replacement.

NCsoft takes your money and offers no assurance of your safety.

Now, I am sure you have lots of questions on what happened, so please send the comments my way. So far, the ticket stays open, with a request of elevation. But, I fear it is gone, never to be returned.

Out of all this, I fear most for Guild Wars 2 and accepting this companies refusals to offer any help to recover from such damages down the road.


Monday, November 1, 2010

X-Fire: Charting a Course

It has been a while since I have looked into charting the numbers of X-Fire for the MMO's we love (or love to hate...).
In case you are not aware, I call this the X-Fire game. If anything I think we can see how popular an MMO may be by using X-Fire and these game "results". The "game" part is important to remember, so as always I must deliver this with caveats, as many take issue with these results.

"The results here in no way equal a major scientific fact, and if anything shows a "trend" among gamers on the X-Fire network, who number in the millions, who may play an MMO in the list".

I add this caveat as I am sure some will take offense at these results...specifically fanbois of said games that are doing quite poorly. There are a few shocking results here when we compare them to past numbers.

Like Nielsen ratings on TV, the numbers given are an average of how well a game may be doing based on a specific set of results, or sampling.

Lets look at the Nielsen's. Boxes are placed into homes, and surveys are sent out to get an overall "ad rating" for TV shows based on a set number of viewers. For example, last notation is that "25,000 total American households" (WIKI) have a box. The number of U.S. television households as of 2009 is 114,500,000. So, we can see this percentage is pretty small compared to how many actual TV's are in use. Yet, ad prices and even the success or failure of any given show can be calculated based on this result. X-Fire I feel can work the same way (if major ads were used in these games, or the success or failure of a game was based on how well it did in the "ratings"
The Nielsen system uses a share result which usually helps set advertising prices. Like this share result, I created a system based on using the most popular game at the top of the list, and creating a calculation which helps average how many subs a game may have. That game, of course, is World of Warcraft.
Again, a warning with this. The numbers have changed since that time, and a new calculation needs to be done. So, today I will not do the "sub" calcs. Instead, we will just rate games in popularity based on their X-Fire result.

If you would like more of the history of the X-Fire game, here is an old post (which we will use as a comparison tool for how the games are faring) from March of this year. If you want to play the X-Fire game at home, by all means, head to that post, look at the calculation and see how your MMO is doing.

For now, lets get this started. A lot of games to cover. I will put the games in order of lowest rated (worst in the results) to the best of the bunch.

Champions Online

I really enjoy starting with this one. First up, we recently received the news that Champions Online is going "Free to Play". As I continue doing X-Fire charts, I think once that "switch" takes place, this will jump up in the charts. Next, it sits with my opinion that MMO's that are not "Medieval" fantasy and is not EvE or an FPS (like Halo or CoD), just does not rank well. Another note will be the number of players, as we will see further on. That number is not too bad, just that when they login, they don't stay logged in very long. 
That is sad.
So, out of the games I am charting today, CO sits at the bottom of the barrel.

Everquest 2

This will be the last time I place EQ2 on this chart. 
It seems that there is an issue with X-Fire that when playing EQ2, the times either drop or will not calculate. I blame the klunky game client for this and not X-Fire. The client also has been noted to not add to X-Fire and has to be forced to show up in timings.
Another theme to note here may be that the "old farts" who play EQ2 just see no need for the X-Fire software...but, seeing that EQ2 has a free to play client now, this did not make sense to me. Most younger players will try an MMO if it has a free component.
Unless the game really is not doing that well.
So, instead of starting an overall flame war about this, I will blame the game client, as it has been corroborated that the results just don't work. 
To see this in action, head to that previous X-Fire post and you will see the old results have EQ2 sitting higher at 293 players and #101 on the chart. The game should be much higher than that now...but is not. So, not playing nice means "bye-bye EQ2" from the rankings.

Star Trek Online

Talk about a major drop in the stats since March of this year. Cryptic had put out a press release at the time I did those calcs, stating over 100k players. Now, it looks to be a third of that (maybe a little more now that calcs have to be changed). Overall it IS dropping. 
I will guess that if Champions Online jumps after the F2P IPO, that STO will follow suit. So, good to have this here for reference when the time comes.
I really think it is not expensive for Cryptic to run STO, and it could be profitable at this point...but, until I can do new calcs, I am not even sure how many are playing. 
At least it is not below #100 on the chart, and that to me looks good.

Warhammer Online

I should be shocked at these results, but I am actually not.
Mythic and Warhammer has had a lot of crap happen to it this year, and these results really show how people react to their mess.
From the billing fiasco earlier this year, to the EALouse blog hate, all the way to a total redo for the game coming this year...the game has no sense of direction.
Disappointing to see it cut almost in half since the March results where it had 621 players and was #67 on the chart.
Maybe the RvR packs can bring this game back up? But, I feel the damage is done, and it will not recover much further.

Age of Conan

Where WAR exists on the chart, there is Age of Conan just always a little ahead. Would that have anything to do with a more fleshed out and less buggy PvE playfield?
But, it sure is not far ahead...with 2 more players? LOL Whats important to note here is the minutes played. The jump is pretty big, and shows the AoC players do not mind staying logged in just a little longer.
Funcom has been resting on it's laurels since the Rise of the Godslayer expansion, where they had a hefty lead in the charts. Check out the results from May just before the expansion launch.  WoW. 994 players and Ranking #42.
This goes to show that it is not a good idea to just let your MMO sit and hope the expansion keeps the player occupied. Unless your World of Warcraft that is.

Dungeons & Dragons Online

Still going at a decent clip, especially for a game meant for the casual player, DDO still keeps up. Especially seeing that the game was near death before going Free to Play. As can be seen from the March results as well, DDO has been keeping players running dungeons consistently. Only dropping a hair since those early results.
Nothing else to note here, except, great job Turbine.

Final Fantasy XIV

This one makes me want to laugh. There are several key factors here. First up is just how low on the list this game is, especially seeing it has just launched. Next, how low the "Highest" is. #37?. Look at all the other games in this chart, and you will see that at one time or another they have all been much higher than FFXIV ever got. Sales seemed to be dismal here.
Release your game unfinished, with no idea of what your community wants or cares about and reap the reward of low uptake.
Can this game recover? Maybe when it hits PS3, which will not chart here.
Good Luck Squeenix.

And now the top three I am charting...

The Lord of the Rings Online

Turbine has to be one happy camper. Talk about some great stats. Note the "Highest" result of #9? That was it's BEST EVER rating on the X-Fire charts. All thanks to Free to Play.
Turbine has proven that the Free to Play model can work for a "commercially" released game. And you do not have to be a low quality Asian Grinder to make it work.
Most everyone knows I am not a fan of LOTRO, but I AM a fan of what Turbine does for it's customers. All win there.
Keep it going...oh and take that cash you're making and hire a UI artist who understands DPI and an animator who knows how to use motion capture.


Ah yes. The game so many say failed...yet, X-Fire says different. Now, of note, based on March results, the number of players has dropped, and minutes played is lower. It still is consistently in the top 10 though.
Keep in mind, from all indicators, there has been a loss in the number of people using X-Fire, and this may show a lower result for all games. Time will tell.
This much I can say. Has no one ever wondered why Aion does NOT have a trial? Looking at these results can give us a good reason why.

Guild Wars

This will be the first AND last time I will show Guild Wars, the original on these charts. But, lets get this straight. Guild Wars 2 will be a MAJOR hit. With over 6 million sales alone in GW1, and the curiosity of the current player can it not be. And to top that all off, trying to play with the conventions of the standard MMO like GW1 did, GW2 if even having half of the changes they discuss, I would be remiss in thinking it would have the FFXIV fate.
These numbers also show what happens when you use a Cover charge model of buy in and play for no fee. Also, throw fun and exciting events, like the yearly Halloween extravaganza in GW, you can't lose.
I played during this time, and of note, the number of people wearing "purchased" costumes was huge. Can you imagine how much they made off the "Special" costume packs they sold?
There are very few MMO's that can say they compare to WoW in "subs", and even though GW does not have subs per se, they have the playerbase...eager to game and pay.

Now, I know a lot of games are missing. I realized when I started this endeavor, that it would be large. Especially with so many MMO's out there vying for the players cash. I will look to include some others since I will be dropping two off this list. EvE is one I wish to include down the road (thanks Ardwulf).
I am still working on the calc system now as well. WoW recently announced 12 million players, and as such, the percentages for X-Fire need a redo. Hopefully I can include that next round.
I will always watch Sunday numbers, as it is the highest listed day for MMO play times, so I will try and do these each Monday (wish me luck)

Any questions, let me know. For now...Enjoy!