Marvel to Try Again with MMO

Cryptic Studios, the folks behind City of Heroes/City of Villains, had been working on the Marvel Universe Online MMO until the plug got pulled on that project in February 2008. Cryptic ended up selling all interests in CoH/CoV to NCSoft and shortly thereafter announcing its Champions MMO. Now, Marvel has teamed up with Gazillion Entertainment which has the license to produce MMOs based on Marvel properties.

Unfortunately, the announcement shows why the plug may have been pulled on the Marvel Universe Online MMO,

Gazillion’s new licensing agreement with Marvel calls for the development and publishing of MMO games featuring Marvel’s iconic universe super heroes.The first game in development is a casual MMO for younger audiences based on Marvel’s Super Hero Squad property. Super Hero Squad features an exciting, super-stylized look for the greatest Super Heroes, including Iron Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Thor, Fantastic Four, Captain America and many others.

“Marvel has brought an incredible insight to this project, and that is the goal of creating a full range of persistent world experiences for the entire audience base,” Hutter added. “We’re planning on launching separate games but as additional games are released, they’ll share various levels of connection. The unprecedented nature of Marvel’s multiple MMO strategy not only guarantees an amazing lineup of Casual and AAA MMO games, but further makes it possible for new and dedicated followers alike to interact in a connected series of massively entertaining experiences. We’re also underway on a major new Marvel Universe PC and Console MMO that will introduce a number of breakthrough features which we’ll start discussing in the upcoming months here at Marvel.com.”

Apparently, Marvel has Vista fever — its not a real software product unless you release numerous versions. I’m assuming by “breakthrough features” on the PC/Console MMO we’ll probably be looking at an attempt to make money by having a free game that requires micro-purchases rather than a straight up monthly fee (which is being more widely considered for MMOs in the United States, though I doubt that model will succeed for non-casual MMOs here).

Torture in Video Games

Richard Bartle’s post about a quest in Wrath of the Lich King that requires the player to torture an NPC got a lot of feedback, much of it negative. Bartle writes,

Now while this means that WotLK is not yet torture for me, there is some torture involved. Specifically, this quest. Basically, you have to take some kind of cow poke and zap a prisoner until he talks.

I’m not at all happy with this. I was expecting for there to be some way to tell the guy who gave you the quest that no, actually I don’t want to torture a prisoner, but there didn’t seem to be any way to do that. Worse, the quest is part of a chain you need to complete to gain access to the Nexus, which is the first instance you encounter (if you start on the west of the continent, as I did). So, either you play along and zap the guy, or you don’t get to go to the Nexus.

I did zap him, pretty well in disbelief — I thought that surely the quest-giver would step in and stop it at some point? It didn’t happen, though. Unless there’s some kind of awful consequence further down the line, it would seem that Blizzard’s designers are OK with breaking the Geneva convention.

Well they may be, but I’m not. Without some reward for saying no, this is a fiction-breaking quest of major proportions. I don’t mind having torture in an MMO — it’s the kind of thing a designer can use to give interesting choices that say things to the players. However, I do mind its being placed there casually as a run-of-the-mill quest with no regard for the fact that it would ring alarm bells: this means either that the designer can’t see anything wrong with it, or that they’re actually in favour of it and are forcing it on the player base to make a point. Neither case is satisfactory.

I did the question that Bartle is talking about, though it is not the only torture quest in the game. Both my wife and I remember doing a quest where you have to beat up some NPC until he gives you the information you need — that may be a rogue-specific quest, however.

Anyway, I had no problem doing either quest, and I suspect the main reason it’s not generally an issue is that video games as a dramatic medium are simply not compelling. Torture is no more real in a game like World of Warcraft than slaughtering village after village of sentient beings is real — it is just a Pavlovian put in place by the designers.

After all, in order to get to the point where Bartle could worry about the ethics of torture in a video game, his character had to slaughter thousands and thousands of sentient beings. And yet, this is largely unremarkable and unremarked upon precisely because of the lack of real emotional connection.

And, frankly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I never felt guilty over my efforts at military domination of the world in Risk nor the nuking of enemies in Civilization. A torture mechanic at this point seems like a fairly small thing to suddenly draw a line on the sand over.

Tabula Rasa to Shut Down Feb 2009

Richard Garriott may be reaching for the stars, but Tabula Rasa has been grounded almost since the day it was released. So it comes as no surprise that NCSoft is finally shutting the game down,

Last November we launched what we hoped would be a ground breaking sci-fi MMO. In many ways, we think we’ve achieved that goal. Tabula Rasa has some unique features that make it fun and very different from every other MMO out there. Unfortunately, the fact is that the game hasn’t performed as expected. The development team has worked hard to improve the game since launch, but the game never achieved the player population we hoped for.

So it is with regret that we must announce that Tabula Rasa will end live service on February 28, 2009.

Using MMOs as a Turing Test

Interesting report at DODBuzz.Com about U.S. military research and development in a number of areas, including “artificial” intelligence. Dr. John Parmentola, Director of Research and Laboratory Management with the Army’s science and technology office, talks about using an MMO as a Turing Test for AIs,

And if you do end up at the Army Science Conference next month, don’t be startled by the three-dimensional holographic image of a soldier talking to you (not that the regenerated arm, mind-controlled computer or implanted memories won’t freak you out enough) as you walk down the hall. It might just be the virtual human Army researchers are creating to make simulators and war games more realistic for training, Parmentola said.

They’re working on creating “photorealistic looking and acting human beings” that can think on their own, have emotions and talk in local slang.

“I actually interact with virtual humans in terms of asking them questions and they’re responding,” Parmentola said.

To test out the computer generated humans’ “humanity,” Parmentola and his researchers want to unleash some of their cyber Soldiers into so-called “massively multi-player online games” such as “World of Warcraft” or “Eve Online” – games frequented by thousands of super-competitive human players in teams of virtual characters fighting battles that can last for days.

“We want to use the massively multi-player online game as an experimental laboratory to see if they’re good enough to convince humans that they’re actually human,” he said.

So someday that 13 year old spamming “this is so fucking gay” in the WoW trade channel might turn out to be SkyNet.

A Buffy MMO? Why?

Massively interviews Multiverse’s Corey Bridges about the announced Buffy: The Vampire Slayer MMO, but doesn’t really do much to answer the question of why anyone would bother at this point with a B:TVS MMO,

All that said, the Buffy announcement is very positive. We have to ask, how is it that you folks are able to get ahold of these great intellectual properties? What kind of relationship do you have with Fox and Joss Whedon to get in touch with these worlds?

CB: Well, we’re big fans of “where there’s a will there’s a way”. We are not announcing any relationship with Joss, but I would love to work on these games with him. We’re definitely seeing what we can do on that front. I and the rest of the team, unsurprisingly, are huge Joss Whedon fans. He does a fantastic job creating worlds. Firefly was an easy setting to understand how that could be a fully realized world, but even Buffy – which takes place primarily in our world – has a lot of mythology to it. Sometimes literal mythology.

So basically, this is an attempt to cash in on a brilliant but not very active property (thanks, in large part, to Fox’s own ridiculous treatment of Buffy and Whedon). And the result — if anything is ever actually released — will be some lame-ass Flash game that sounds about as exciting as the crappy handheld Buffy games that keep coming out.

Better to just not do a Buffy MMO at all rather than do some half-assed game that doesn’t even have Joss Whedon involved. What’s the frakking point?

Just How Large Is the Gold Farming Industry?

The BBC reports on a study of gold farming that concludes the practice may be a $500 million/year industry that contributes a significant amount of activity to developing countries’ economies.

Prof Heeks said very accurate figures for the size of the gold farming sector were hard to come by but his work suggested that in 2008 it employs 400,000 people who earn an average of $145 (£77) per month creating a global market worth about $500m.

But, he said, the true size of the sector was hard to estimate – it could easily be twice as big.

The quasi-criminal nature of gold-farming made it hard to truly gauge its extent, said Prof Heeks.

As Heeks notes, that would put gold farming on par with the entire Indian IT outsourcing industry in 2004. Frankly, that seems a bit on the high side. It could easily be twice as big, but I bet it could easily be half that size.

Interestingly, the BBC also quotes Steven Davis — who works for Secure Play which develops software to stop gold farming and other forms of cheating — noting an interesting take on comparative advantage in the gold farming business,

A hierarchy of gold farmers arranged by where wages were lowest was starting to emerge, said Mr Davis. For instance, the low wages gold farmers in Vietnam will accept means they now do for Chinese gamers what many in China do for those in the West.

“It’s moving down the chain,” he said.

Fascinating. The only game I play where gold farming is a real issue is World of Warcraft, and Blizzard so far seems to have the upper hand over gold selling, in large part because the game world is such an artificial one where it can impose the sort of arbitrary restrictions on transactions that would be easy to evade in the real world.