Thursday, 26 May 2011


Almost two years ago, I made a post in this blog pointing out that gold trading was far from being a victimless crime, since gold farmers were almost always responsible for hacked accounts: part the virtual gold you buy online has been stolen from your fellow players. Now, according to the Guardian, it turns out that there is something far, far nastier behind the gold farming rackets:

As a prisoner at the Jixi labour camp, Liu Dali would slog through tough days breaking rocks and digging trenches in the open cast coalmines of north-east China. By night, he would slay demons, battle goblins and cast spells. Liu says he was one of scores of prisoners forced to play online games to build up credits that prison guards would then trade for real money. The 54-year-old, a former prison guard who was jailed for three years in 2004 for "illegally petitioning" the central government about corruption in his hometown, reckons the operation was even more lucrative than the physical labour that prisoners were also forced to do. "Prison bosses made more money forcing inmates to play games than they do forcing people to do manual labour," Liu told the Guardian. "There were 300 prisoners forced to play games. We worked 12-hour shifts in the camp. I heard them say they could earn 5,000-6,000rmb [£470-570] a day. We didn't see any of the money. The computers were never turned off."

Memories from his detention at Jixi re-education-through-labour camp in Heilongjiang province from 2004 still haunt Liu. As well as backbreaking mining toil, he carved chopsticks and toothpicks out of planks of wood until his hands were raw and assembled car seat covers that the prison exported to South Korea and Japan. He was also made to memorise communist literature to pay off his debt to society.
But it was the forced online gaming that was the most surreal part of his imprisonment. The hard slog may have been virtual, but the punishment for falling behind was real. "If I couldn't complete my work quota, they would punish me physically. They would make me stand with my hands raised in the air and after I returned to my dormitory they would beat me with plastic pipes. We kept playing until we could barely see things," he said. It is known as "gold farming", the practice of building up credits and online value through the monotonous repetition of basic tasks in online games such as World of Warcraft. The trade in virtual assets is very real, and outside the control of the games' makers. Millions of gamers around the world are prepared to pay real money for such online credits, which they can use to progress in the online games.

Now we know what lies behind them, I should like to think that no LOTRO player will ever again be crass enough to make use of the services of gold farmers.

Sunday, 19 December 2010


I like to think that some of my readers are interested in what goes on behind, and beyond, games such as LOTRO, and I'd like to point those readers at a fascinating online essay by Edward Castranova, who teaches telecommunications at Indiana University. Entitled "An Exodus Recession", it's posted here, on Castranova's equally highly recommended blog, "Terra Nova: A Blog about Virtual Worlds". It's a relatively long text, so I'll just quote the opening paragraph:

"The economy continues to move slowly and economists seem as uncertain as ever about the causes and what to do. Months ago, I began to wonder – could this possibly be the first “exodus recession”? In my first book I sketched out the idea. Suppose economic activity moves from the real world into the virtual world. Human happiness is unaffected or even goes up, however, the goods that produce the happiness are now produced and consumed in a virtual environment rather than the real one. Measurements of economic activity, being all based in the real economy, would begin to show weakness. I argued that contemporary political and economic control systems do not tolerate much weakness, thus, there might well be some sort of crisis in the real world, for no good reason, simply because production and consumption was going “off the books” and into virtual environments. One term for this would be an "exodus recession" - an economic downturn caused by the movement of human attention and energy into virtual environments. Are we in an exodus recession right now?"

"The movement of human attention and energy into virtual environments" - ring any bells? Read the rest of the essay.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


From the latest Turbine news release, this: "Radiance & its removal in Q1 – We’ve received a lot of feedback on Radiance gating since its introduction and are pleased to announce that Radiance gear will no longer be a requirement for any of our instances or raids. In fact, with the release of our Q1 update next year, we will be removing Radiance from the game entirely. It will not be present in the new Instance Cluster or Epic Book and will be removed from all current instances. You should get your first look at a Radiance-free LOTRO on Bullroarer in early February of next year."

You have to love corporate double-talk. A solid year's firestorm of complaint, grumbling, reasoned argument against, violent objection and outright abuse, reduced to a nicely bland "we’ve received a lot of feedback". I'll say you have... Corporations are like governments; they would rather die the death of a thousand cuts than ever, ever have to admit, in so many words, that they were wrong. Given sufficient outrage in the population, they may eventually take action ("we will be removing Radiance from the game entirely"), but god forbid they should admit to error.

Oh well, never mind. The main thing is that the issue has been conceded and that there is to be an unqualified retreat. I can't help wondering, though, what the actual mechanics of removing radiance will be. Obviously, the simplest way of dealing with it is just to remove that particular parameter from the game, so that armour no longer has a radiance rating. The problem with that approach, however, is that it will introduce a serious imbalance: the two rarest and hardest to acquire armour sets, Dar Narbugud and Barad Guldur, are notoriously poor in everything but radiance. Remove radiance, and at a stroke you will have completely devalued the game's most valuable assets. Perhaps the designers will compensate by increasing or adding stats to these items - but economic history teaches us that devaluation is never pain-free...

Monday, 29 November 2010


At the southernmost tip of Enedwaith, on the border between Lich Bluffs and the Mournshaws, lies an inaccessible castle. You can find your way to the enormous front gates, but no further. Inside the gate skeletons patrol. The architecture seems dwarven; four huge statues of oversized dwarven ancestor figures dominate the front courtyard. The structure is vast, even allowing for the fact that only the northern exposure can be seen. At the western edge of the outer wall is a small tented encampment, currently empty, and just beyond that a small gap in the rock face through which it is just possible to slip. This leads to a small, circumscribed area by the eastern wall with no other exit. Could the castle be the site of LOTRO's next major raid, apparently due early in the new year?


Sunday, 28 November 2010


If you are a European LOTRO player, and you haven't already done so, head straight for the Codemasters forum and sign this petition. Started two days ago by UK player CarolineP, it is a politely worded request to CM to give serious consideration to restoring hacked accounts, as other MMOs, includingBlizzard, already do. In her own words, "We recognise that this involves time & cost to yourselves. We would accept a reasonable charge being levied, as this would have the dual benefit of stopping frivolous claims too. We also accept that it would be reasonable to limit the frequency in which this allowed. Perhaps only once per membership year, or similar? But we most urgently ask you to change your policy, especially as the game becomes much bigger and F2P potentially opens up opportunities to scammers and other unpleasant type".

Apart from putting forward an eminently sensible proposal, one which perhaps is now more urgent than ever, this forum thread is probably unique in that it hasn't generated a single objection, rant, cynical comment or even debate: there is absolute player unanimity on this critical subject, which is of course as it should be. 

And another first: within 24-hours, CM Community Relations Director Satine (someone, incidentally, who by dint of personality has done more than anyone to blunt some of CM's more egregious PR disasters in the past) had responded with a positive post: "As it happens we do have a new policy for hacked accounts which will be coming into effect soon. (Sorry to use the word "soon" but I know it should be before Christmas though it depends on if any critical problems arise before then). Hopefully it will make life a little easier for those that have been hacked. We'll give the details on what it entails once we're ready to launch it".

So there you have it. Community action can sometimes be beneficial. But don't let Satine's very welcome news put you off signing that petition!

Saturday, 6 November 2010


One of the issues which crop up in the design of virtual worlds is the degree of associated realism. Some early RPGs included the requirement to buy and consume "food" on a regular basis, otherwise characters would rapidly lose abilities and wither away. That was just about acceptable if a bit tedious, but imagine a RPG in which characters in the wild had to track down, kill, skin and roast animals on a daily basis just to keep going - it would be virtually unplayable (unless, of course, it happened to be specifically a survival simulation). Similarly, everyone is aware of, and ignores, the fact that severe injuries can take weeks to heal, that even a superficial wound can get infected and cause death in a matter of days, and that nobody ever wore plate mail on the march, let alone carried two or three spare sets in a backpack.

Which brings me to the latest (and very welcome) LOTRO update. The new chapters of the epic quest involve riding south into the new region of Enedwaith with the Dunedain with a view to eventually linking up with Aragorn. It's a nicely designed addition to the story of the One Ring, but very early on players find out that, disappointingly, they won't actually get the chance to ride stirrup by stirrup with the rangers; instead, they are invited to make their own way to the next staging point. Granted that soon enough the unfolding plot will require them to ride off at all sort of tangents on associated quests, an actual gallop, in company, over hill and dale for at least a few of the early stages would have been great fun. As it is, what will almost certainly happen is that players will mutter "sod it!" and port to the next convenient location.

The standard response to this and associated grumbles (for example, that fact that many instances can now be entered with the click off the keyboard) is "well, if you'd rather walk, go right ahead" - but the point is, if an alternative method of travel is available, even hardened RPGers will sooner or later give in and make use of it. The rest of us will do so without a second's thought, though we might feel vaguely dissatisfied about doing so.

The issue of scale in games like LOTRO is indeed a tricky one. Even scaled-down massively, game equivalents of the journey times suggested in Tolkien's narrative would be difficult (and certainly unpopular) to implement. On the other hand, I tend to agree with those who feel that the epic quality of the game's geography is compromised by the over-abundance of instant travel options. It's hard not to feel just a little uncomfortable when two or three jumps will take you from the far end of Forochel to the southernmost tip of Enedwaith. The designers had got the balance more or less right in Shadows of Angmar, which really did offer a sense of vastness, with some journeys (notably the perilous initial overland foray to the Rift of Nurz Gashu) being truly memorable. I can't help feeling that the game has now swung too far in the direction of instant gratification, most of all perhaps where travel is concerned.

Monday, 18 October 2010


A member of my kinship alerted us to this thread, which will repay study by anybody interested in the reality of the sausage factories behind the games we play. The meat of it consists of some very angry whistle-blowing by an about-to-be sidelined employee of Electronic Arts - touching on, amongst other things, the reasons behind the poor performances of Warhammer and Age of Conan, and some pessimistic predictions about SWTOR. I can't judge his criticism about specific individuals, but I do have some first-hand knowledge of the disasters which can follow on the takeover by a rich but badly-run company of an poor and efficient one, and a lot of what EA Louse (the original poster) has to say rings true.

On a slight tangent, while reading though the thread, I was struck by the following comment which may well have some relevance to the recent content slowdown in LOTRO. And no, I don't mean the F2P delay on the European side, which I'm still convinced is due to legal shenanigans, but to the shortage of serious new story content which tends to show through all the glitzy bells and whistles which will accompany the eventual arrival of F2P.

"Do you think they have enough story content to last months or a year? Even the non immersive, non cinematic content takes a long time to produce and just hours or days to play through for a dedicated player. It takes BW a few years to develop a high quality single player RPG and those rarely have more than a couple dozen hours worth of good storylines. [...]Voiced, well made story content just isn’t enough in an MMO and that kind of content is very slow and expensive to develop. Even a minor setback can slow the amount of story content being developed for the game to a crawl. The point is, that while the story content will be a good thing, the game won’t survive on it no matter how good it is. It is the bait to get people to try out the game for a month or two and get hooked by the normal MMO activities."

No doubt time will tell...

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


This, from the "News & Announcements" section of the Codemasters forum. Are you ready for it? Is the excitement proving unbearable? Are you jumping up and down with glee at the prospect of finally accessing some brand new material? Well, then...

There we go. Feeling better about things now?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


As every reader of this blog surely knows, twenty long days have passed since F2P was due to launch in Europe, and we still seem no closer to a resolution. Codemasters is maintaining the kind of total, sweaty silence characteristic of a wounded WWII submarine lying in shallow waters with a couple of destroyers cutting capers just above it on the surface. Meanwhile, the forums are staggering under the weight of concerned, miserable or frantic players pleading, screaming, roaring, threatening or just plain doing their best to start a reasonable, sophisticated man-to-corporate-entity-type dialogue. That last gambit doesn't work, and I suspect it never will.

Why not? Well, I believe it's pretty clear by this time that there is no insurmountable technical problem stopping the launch. The basic code is obviously reasonably solid (OK, OK, I said reasonably, not perfectly), or otherwise the stateside servers would have collapsed. I also no longer think it can be a specifically Turbine-to-Codemasters transfer problem such as different accounting systems and their interface with the in-game shop, because that would have been fixed by now (unless the entire technical staff of CM is permanently on drugs, which I beg leave to doubt). Also, CM representatives, on their increasingly rare appearances on the forums, are limiting themselves to making gagging noises and jerking their heads back at the front office; translation, "I can't say a word about this or my employment prospects will do a China Syndrome".

What all this spells to my experienced and cynical mind is one word only: lawyers! I have no shred of evidence, of course, but the only reasonable explanation I can think of for this ongoing and open-ended delay, a delay with inevitably serious (maybe even disastrous) financial consequences over time for both CM and Turbine,  is serious legal problems of some kind. Maybe it's between the two companies, or perhaps it's something to do with some unsuspected pitfall of European law; perhaps the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has decided it wants to levy purchase tax on in-game transactions, or else F2P contravenes some article of the European Union legislation on the free movement of goods and services. Perhaps. All I can say is that if this supposition is true, it could be bad news. Because geological time and the slow shifting of tectonic plates are as sheet lightning compared to the average speed of corporate lawyers...

Wednesday, 18 August 2010


In the days before the Mirkwood expansion, if you tried to swim across the Anduin from the western shore in Lothlórien, you could usually get to about a hundred meters or so from the eastern shore before a Felarrow orcish archer one-shotted you: "Aaargh! Glug!"... Some us would try and sneak past them, and a few players actually managed to set foot on the forbidden shore long before they were supposed to. Come the expansion, of course, those cany elves set up a water-taxi to get us across, and the Felarrows were redeployed  in North Mirkwood.

A couple of days ago, feeling the need for some cooling exercise, I set of on a leisurely swim across the Anduin from the point on the western shore where the abandoned boat has been pulled up the bank. Imagine my surprise when, about halfway across, I suddenly and unconditionally died: "Aaargh! Glug!", and not a Felarrow in sight. Instant death by game designer fiat, and no option to withdraw. What the hell? I was swimming from friendly territory to recently reconquered (and fully explored) territory. Why the bolt from heaven? And if for some reason you musn't now swim across the Anduin at a point where you were once perfectly able to do so, what's wrong with a good old invisible wall, or a sudden rapid?

Personally, I suspect old-fashioned protectionism; this is clearly a move to restrict lawful trade and protect the Lothlórien river-crossing monopoly. Will the IMF please investigate?