A Strange Game

Deathwing. So it happened again. The player client software for the latest World of Warcraft expansion, Cataclysm, leaked into the public arena long before it was intended to become public. Again, because this also happened with the previous 2 expansions. A third leak is beginning to look careless.

WoW.com’s (unofficial) explanation of this “failure of secrecy” ironically fails to explain most of reasons behind the Cataclysm leak. Perhaps because the politics are rather too Machiavellian?

This article discusses the relationship between the game developer and its “fansites”. It uses the Cataclysm leaks to try and explain the underlying politics. The article questions why Non-Disclosure Agreements continue to be used, when they are worse than useless. Finally, it ponders the risks of such apparently one-sided relationships.

I’ve tried to present a fair and balanced analysis, which raises some important issues that aren’t getting discussed, and should be. Obviously, I can’t know everything. Read More

Nation of Adoration

World of Warcraft’s seasonal holiday events temporarily reduce player interest in fishing. It’s always been the case, but the decline in fishing seems to be becoming more extreme over time:

Decline in Fishing Activity due to Holiday Events

The graph’s y-axis is the percentage decline in page views at El’s Extreme Anglin’ from the 7 days before each event, to the first 7 days of the event. Pageviews are a good proxy for overall angler interest. El generates hundreds of thousands of page views each week, so even small changes are significant. The x-axis orders events by date, from January 2008. The axis isn’t scaled correctly to show time, but holidays are fairly evenly distributed throughout the year. Events are shown by green dots, with a shortened date (month and year) and the name of the event.

The data is expressed as a percentage of the previous week, because while interest in fishing “waxes and wains” from year-to-year, changes week-to-week are normally minor.

All the events included last at least 7 days. Where one holiday runs concurrently with another event (for example, the “Lunar Festival” and “Love is in the Air” often clash), only the first event in the sequence is included. Interest in fishing also changes dramatically in the month new content is added, so events that clash with major fishing patches have been excluded (Noblegarden 2008 with patch 2.4, Hallow’s End 2008 with patch 3.0.2, and Noblegarden/Children’s Week 2009 with patch 3.1). Winter Veil is also excluded: The period leading to Christmas is particularly unusual – first students stop studying and have a lot of time to play, and then many players stop playing to spend time with family. This causes large changes in activity from week-to-week, which makes it hard to isolate Winter Veil in the data.

Only 12 separate sets of data can be compared. There is one out-lier – Midsummer 2008 – perhaps the early stages of Wrath of the Lich King testing may have caused a small traffic spike in the week before? The pattern shown on the graph is not certain. But I’m growing confident that events are increasingly impacting on fishing activity.

But why? Read More

Elevator Adverts

Elevator adverts are a way of displaying advertisements on web pages. Not for elevators in buildings. The name refers to the way the advert moves up and down the margin of the page, as the reader scrolls up and down. A standard “skyscrapper” advertising block is always visible, right next to where the user is reading.

Advertising networks are keen for adverts to be displayed “above the fold” – in the area of the screen first visible when the page loads. However, if the page is content-rich, the best locations are not at the top of the page: In the past, I have run advertising using 2 skyscrappers, one on top of the other. As the reader scrolls down the page, the second advert eventually becomes visible. The best return (from affiliate advertising) was from the bottom advert, not the top. The reason is simple: Reading down the page, the lower advert tends to be next to the important text being read. In contrast, the upper advert tends to sit next to the list of page contents, so is often skipped over.

Instead of stacking adverts, why not just move the advert down the page as the reader scrolls?

The webpage needs an “elevator shaft” down the left margin. For example, apply the CSS “margin-left: 175px” to the division (“div” block) containing the page’s content, to create the elevator shaft. More complex designs may require more work. It is important that the elevator shaft runs close to edge of the text, to continually catch the eye of the reader.

Simply applying a “position: fixed” to style the division containing the advert, would always show the advert in the top-left corner, hanging down the elevator shaft. Unfortunately, the top part of the page normally contains a title block, so the elevator shaft should not travel the full height of the page. Older browsers (notably Internet Explorer 6) do not support “position: fixed”, but we still need to make sure the advert “fails gracefully”, by displaying in a sensible position.

My solution’s code is below. Read More

Taking El to the Clouds

On the internet, success is most likely to cause failure.

That’s a paradox that can take entrepreneurs by surprise. Maybe it’s true about everything? The internet simply makes it happen faster. A web server that was happily serving 100 people today, probably isn’t going to happily serve 100,000 tomorrow. At the very moment the world has finally discovered your solution to life-the-universe-and-everything, that solution dies in a heap of technical errors, and the world goes away again, suitably unimpressed.

This article describes my personal experiences of scaling a website up to serve tens of thousands users each day, most recently by hosting Gnomish literature in a “Cloud” environment. Read More

Iterative Video Development

The internet allows products and services to be rapidly improved based on user feedback. So rapid, that iterative design should become the primary method of designing internet-based services. Not just as an Agile-like method of working, but as a method of specifying the product itself.

Partly it isn’t because creators haven’t adjusted their methods to match the new technology – we’re still wedded to a single start-to-finish process, with one outcome at the end. Partly it isn’t because feedback can be hard to gather and digest, and even hard to act upon.

An iterative method has become one of the defining characteristics of how I like to write, organise, and present text on the internet. At least, beyond this domain. But until now, I’ve struggled to apply it to internet-based video.

This article introduces internet-based iterative design, and uses YouTube’s “Hot Spot” analysis to show how we can start to apply an iterative approach to video and movie-making. Read More

Do You Fish in Real Life?

This article analyses the transfer of fishing activity between the physical and virtual worlds.

Do You Fish IRL? In Real Life. I dislike the phrase, because it implies that everything else is unreal. Yet many virtual environments trigger the same human emotions as the physical world. Very real indeed.

Google US search for 'fishing guide'. If you search US Google for the term “fishing guide“, the first result may surprise you. It doesn’t help to catch any of the 30,000 species of fish found on planet earth. And its author has bright pink hair.

This isn’t just a neat party trick. Nor an indication that I should write a real fishing guide. Nor a failing of Google’s search index: Google is directing such a generic search to a game-specific website because the search engine thinks that the majority of people searching for a “fishing guide” are looking for a World of Warcraft fishing guide. (The box below provides evidence.)

Perhaps, within the online sphere, virtual fishing is as important as conventional fishing? The caveat, “within the online sphere”, is crucial: Physical world anglers generally aren’t sat in front of a computer screen, while World of Warcraft anglers are. However, the internet is still widely used to find information about offline pursuits: The US Angler Survey found that 42% of those surveyed primarily learn about fishing from websites – more popular than print media. (The survey is presumably biased, because anglers that use the internet are more likely to complete an online survey – but still indicates the internet is a fairly important source of information for physical world anglers.) Of course far more people search for generic terms like “fishing” than anything WoW or guide-related. So game-related search does not dominate as much as it may first seem.

Searches for “fishing guide” are not the only way online anglin’ is merging with offline.

As the remainder of this article demonstrates, World of Warcraft anglers are up to 3 times more likely to fish in the physical world than the wider population: If you enjoy fishing “for real”, you are more likely to fish virtually than other players. This implies that the fishing activity transfers directly between the physical and virtual worlds. Read More

Favorite Fishing Places

This article analyses the favourite fishing locations of World of Warcraft anglers. Both where and why.

The most popular single zone is the Grizzly Hills, with Azshara’s Bay of Storms and Wintergrasp in joint second place. Reasons are split into artistic (music, scenery), emotional (relaxation, memories), practical (fish caught, convenience), and social (companions, player interaction) themes. Overall, each theme has similar importance. The article discusses the apparent contardiction between desires for solitude, and to be surrounded by life.

This is the second of several topics that explore the reasons people fish in a virtual world, ultimately drawing parallels with fishing in the physical world. Read More

Where We Fish

This article analyses where players fish in the game World of Warcraft. It reveals the role of daily quests in shaping our fishing habits, demonstrates just how popular city-fishing is, and starts to reveal why we fish. This is (hopefully) the first in a series of articles that collectively examine why people fish in this massively multiplayer online game.

Daily successful casts by area. The map shows number of successful fishing casts (diameter of each circle), by area. Numbers are daily totals for all United States and European realms combined, based on a sample in July 2009. Click the map for a larger view.

A successful cast is one that does not catch a junk item, which might occur if the anglers’ skill is to low. There are 14 million successful casts each day, catching 16 million fish: Some casts catch more than 1 fish. In addition, there are 4.5 million unsuccessful casts (that catch a junk item). Unsuccessful casts are not shown on the map.

“Old Azeroth” refers to the continents of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms (the pre-expansion game). Within Northrend (the main area shown on the map), casts into coastal waters are shown separately from “inland” casts in other zones.

In each area, the total number of casts is divided into 3 parts:

  1. Open Water (dark blue) – Casts into bodies of open water.
  2. Daily-Related (gold) – Casts while trying to complete a daily fishing quest. This includes all casts while trying to complete the quest, not just those that catch a quest fish.
  3. Pools (light blue) – Casts into schools of fish.

Northrend is the continent hosting the current game expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The continent is home to higher-level (more veteran) players. Expect to find most fishing activity here – and we do: There are 9.3 million daily casts in Northrend – two thirds of all successful casts.

A sixth of all casts are related to the daily quests, in spite of the fact that there is just one such quest available each day (the area varies between realms, randomly each day). The Northrend fishing quests are the most popular quests in the game – completed by over 300,000 characters each day. No, really – at least before patch 3.2 was launched, which made Heroic dungeons popular again. Anglers’ might be motivated by the additional reward. Or this might suggest a far greater need to guide players. Either way, it raises some questions, such as, why is there just one fishing quest per day in the current game expansion?

Ignoring daily quest-related fishing, the most popular single location is Dalaran’s Eventide Fountain, with 1.4 million casts per day – equivalent to 1 person on each realm fishing there for 12 hours each day. The irony is that Dalaran’s Eventide Fountain is also one of the smallest body of water in the entire game. Cities account for a third of all casts – Dalaran is not the only popular city. At least half of the “Old Azeroth (Inland)” casts are casts in the waters of major cities (such as Stormwind or Orgrimmar).

So, half of all fishing activity is either directed by quests, or occurs in cities. Training (cooking and/or fishing skills) is also an important reason to fish, although it is harder to estimate how important.

Pool fishing is normally the fastest way to catch “valuable” fish. Yet only 17% of casts are from pools. Even if we look at areas with no quests and desirable “Northrend” fish, like the Grizzly Hills, half of all casts are still in open water. This isn’t the only example that suggests that anglers really are quite lazy, and don’t want to much hassle when fishing.

The remainder of this article explores some of these issues in more detail, using information about where we fish to start to explain why we fish. It also describes the method behind the numbers, with a technical appendix containing data. Read More

Frostmourne Cavern

This movie records one of the many lore-related events in World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. It’s a vision of Arthas and Muradin Bronzebeard discovering the sword, and in doing so, changing the “world” forever. The event is part of a single-player quest in Northrend, the expansion’s new continent. Previously events like this were found at the end of dungeons so hard that most players never saw them.

The aim of the game is changing. Previously the aim for a lot of players was to get to “the end”: To obtain the highest possible level, at which point they could embark on challenging group dungeons or player-vs-player battles. But Northrend is full of reasons to play the game in the middle. Not just this. There is a lot of high quality, fun, even inventive content coming with the new expansion. From aircraft combat and mass-slaughter shoot-em ups, to peace, love and harmony: Saving baby murlocs is enough to bring a tear to the eye, which is quite an achievement for any game.

Infecting the Ad Pool

Malicious Advertising (Malvertising) is becoming a problem. This is the practice of purchasing advertising space on unsuspecting websites, then using that space to run adverts which automatically redirect the user’s browser to a malware site – a site that distributes viruses, spyware, and other computer nasties.

The practice first emerged in 2006. Already 2008 has seen may large publishers (website operators) attacked, including Classmates, USA Today, Photobucket, and MySpace.

Late last night I visited one of my own websites and got immediately redirected off to a domain already blacklisted by Google, which in turn redirected to another site that was intent on installing a scareware “virus checker”. ZAM (a gaming network), already plagued by “XP Online Scanner” adverts earlier this year, had again been hit by malicious adverts. The timing, just after midnight UTC Saturday, was impeccable: Advertising networks tend to work sensible business hours, ensuring 48 hours of infestation before anyone starts to investigate it. [Although I should add that in this case I did get a positive resolution within 24 hours.]

My response was to temporarily abandon the advertising network that had delivered the “malvert”, and switch to affiliate advertising I control.

This article explains why publishers have a very low tolerance of malverts, and consequently why it is in the best interests of advertising networks to deal with malvertising before it becomes widespread.

Valuing Users

The cost to a malware writer of placing a single malvert is in the order of $0.001, with the publisher receiving somewhat less than that. The pricing model assumes a high volume of advertising is ignored by users: An advertiser might need to screen thousands of adverts to get any referrals (click-throughs). It does not assume that the adverts will immediately refer every user to the advertiser’s site, without user interaction.

For malware writers this is both cheap and highly effective: Quantcast and Compete suggest xponlinescanner.com (a recent case of malicious advertising) attracted 1-2% of all US internet users in May: A dominance achieved by less than 500 other sites worldwide. Something advertising agencies can only dream about. Quantcast’s demographic analysis also indicates that the old, poor or poorly educated are more likely than other internet users to be caught by malware.

The publisher got a fraction of a cent, and may have lost 1 or more customers forever:

New visitors essentially bounce straight into “virus hell”. They are never coming back; not after “what you did to their computers”. Regular visitors assume your site was “hacked” (a security breach on your servers), and loose confidence. Even if they stay, they’ll think twice about typing their credit card number in again. If the site relies on viral traffic, they will be sure to tell their friends not to visit as well.

So Block the Advert!

Unless the publisher has a very strong community, they might never realise why their users are leaving: Malverts may be targeted by location or time of day, such that the publisher never sees them.

Assuming the publisher knows about the malvertising, finding the source transpires to be exceptionally hard. Malicious adverts may be embedded in an advert that looks perfectly normal, but only triggers an automatic redirect under certain circumstances. So even in simple cases, where the publisher has a direct relationship to advertisers, finding malware requires the advert to be tested.

But adverts are increasingly run via networks, who increasingly rely on advertising exchanges. So a large publisher could be running practically any advertising campaign in existence. I was running over 2,000 different campaigns (many of which have multiple adverts), and my site is small fry.

So once a malicious advert enters the system, it can spread like a virus throughout online advertising networks, almost unchecked.

Reactions

Publishers who care about their customers (and consequently also tend to have the most valuable advertising inventory) are likely to avoid any advertising network that delivers malvertising:

  • They might establish direct relationships with reputable advertisers, which cuts the networks out of the loop completely. Only viable for large publishers or those in specific niches.
  • Or perhaps they will change to text or non-interactive adverts? Advertisers that rely on being able to communicate using imagary will have problems: The only publishers to remain with malware-infested networks will be those that do not care about their users. Precisely the sites that were probably not good places to advertise anyway.

Users will gradually grow more paranoid. Pop-up advertising is a perfect example: Browsers gave too much control to scripts, and not enough control to the user. The result was that pop-up blocking features became commonplace, and pop-ups became a redundant technology.

What are users’ “solutions” to malvertising? Completely blocking all adverts and disabling all scripting. How does that help advertisers, networks or publishers? It doesn’t.

Sadly users’ solutions will not include disabling Flash, the poor design of which seems to be at the heart of the malicious advertising (something countered by Adobe). Flash is so critical for online video most users cannot browse the internet without it.

Solutions

There still seems to be a lack of appreciation of the damage potential of malicious advertising. But there are solutions available to the industry collectively, as many of the authors below demonstrate:

Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities

Michael Zenke’s MMO Blogipelago map [via Tobold], based on the famous xkcd map of online communities, inspired me to create a map for World of Warcraft (WoW) online communities:

Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities.

Glider MMOwned Emupedia MaNGOS Project Baron Soosdon Olibith Oxhorn WoWJutsu Highlander's Profession Leveling Guides Cash Creating Guide (Advert) Zygor Guides (Advert) Brian Kopp (Advert) Team iDemise (Advert) Wowhead Thottbot Allakhazam Nihilum World of Raids MMO-Champion Roguespot Warlock's Den WoW Trading Card Game Elitist Jerks El's Extreme Anglin' WarcraftPets.com Petopia WoW Insider WoWWiki WoW Radio WoWAce Inc Gamers Curse Ten Ton Hammer Stratics Warcry Gamespot IGN GameSpy BlizzPlanet
Map of World of Warcraft Online Communities.

The article below explains the logic behind the map. Read More

Another BlizzCon Costume

Blizzard’s developers spontaneously created one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced in World of Warcraft. Enough to warrant a short movie.

The footage comes from part of a stress test of World of Warcraft’s new tournament realms. The stress is technical – to see how many players the server can support. Events like this keep players entertained and online. On live game servers, the costumes are only available to those that attended one specific event (BlizzCon), so it would probably be impossible to find this many players with costumes on a single live server. The large costumed avatar is the Games Master (presumably a developer), who is being followed by her new found fans…

BarCamp: Living on Virtual Fish

For those that missed my BarCamp Scotland presentation, “Living on Virtual Fish”, you can view it on SlideShare.

The following articles loosely correlate to each of the talk’s sections, and provide more depth and explanation:

  1. Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?
  2. Adventures in Online Advertising
  3. Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing

Adventures in Online Advertising

This article summarises what I have learnt from introduction of advertising onto El’s Extreme Anglin’, a guide to fishing in the World of Warcraft (WoW). It introduces internet advertising with discussion of the earning potential, cashflow and ethics. The article then provides a series of case studies on specific topics, such as iteratively improving revenue, altering placement, cloaking, use of text or image adverts, and seasonal variations over Christmas. It should offer a useful introduction for those attempting to monetarise medium-sized websites.

Read More

Gravatars and Identity

Gravatars are “globally recognised avatars”. Here, an avatar is a simple image representing the author of a ‘blog or forum comment. The name is derived from Hindu philosophy, although the blog/forum avatars are the direct descendants of the avatars found in video games, specifically role-play titles. This article discusses the limitations of Gravatars, and hints at a future based on game-like automated customisation for forum avatars.

Be warned that this is another inadequately researched “thoughts” article, that covers a lot of rather well-discussed territory superficially, and perhaps needs to be developed further.

Gravatars in Practice

The idea is simple: Instead of uploading your image to every website you interact with, upload it centrally, and allow each website you use to retrieve your avatar from the central source. Gravatars are linked to your email address, which already uniquely identifies you on the internet. Gravatars are currently still the preserve of hardcore bloggers. And no, they are not installed on this site yet either (comments are infrequent here). While implementing the code to support Gravatars is straightforward, it is still rarely done on ‘blogs, and almost never added to internet forums. Like OpenID, it is the sort of idea that needs to attain a critical mass of widespread use before it will become truly useful.

I opted to try using Gravatars at El’s Extreme Anglin’ forums. Partly because (by design) BBPress has no avatar features by default, yet users still expect to be able to personalise their posts by using avatars. Partly because not allowing image uploads or remote image hosting removes a potential avenue of attack by hackers. Partly because it seems logical.

However, already some issues are emerging:

  1. Where users attempt to create a Gravatar account, they invariably fail to get Gravatars working, with the result that the default image shows.
  2. The majority of users don’t already have, or don’t wish to use Gravatars.

In my opinion, the first problem is a design failing of Gravatar’s website: After uploading an image, Gravatar needs to be told to use the image that has just been uploaded. This final step in the process is not sufficiently clear to most users because it should not be necessary – “I just gave you an image to use, why aren’t you using it?”

Multiple Identities and Avatars

The second problem in part reflects the tendency of ordinary internet users (that is, not the people that post a lot of blog comments) not to have Gravatars associated with their email addresses. That may change in time, particularly in tech-savvy areas such as gaming.

But one specific reason for not using Gravatars is the fact that a user may want to display a different image depending on the type of site they are posting on. Gravatar’s service allows multiple images to be uploaded, but only one image can be used at a time. The only way I know to attach different images to different websites is to use different email addresses. Sure, there is no shortage of free email services… but doesn’t that merely replace one administrative saving (an avatar that follows you) with another (a need to create and monitor a new email account)?

At the root of the problem is the premise that one person = one email = one identity = one avatar. In the sphere of online gaming, at least, that is a very contentious, and consequently dangerous, assumption to make.

It is worth analysing our perceptions on this.

Some people have a desire for separate visual identities, yet all managed from the same email address. Deep philosophical debate can ensue. Does that mean our emails are closer to us as physical entities than our avatars? Or is it just a purely pragmatic visual thing? A lolcat might look great on a casual discussion forum, but would be less convincing (or socially acceptable) against a formal piece of academic writing.

Sometimes it is very practical: On a service such as Facebook, I find it useful to see a picture of what a person physically looks like, because most of the people I have befriended there are people that I am likely to meet and talk to physically. (And I’m terrible at remembering names, so am frequently confused by friend requests from cute animals or blurry-looking groups of drunk people.) In contrast, on a gaming discussion forum, seeing an image of the actual person posting is not especially relevant, and can even be somewhat distracting.

Every online game that introduces something akin to Tabula Rasa‘s surname (where the surname is linked to the player, and shows on all their alts), seems to upset people that want to separate out characters/avatars from any link to other characters/avatars. Yet in Live Action Role-Play (like a Massively Multiplayer Online Game RolePlay-Player-vs-Player server, but without the computers), it was often said that most players end up playing themselves: While you can attempt to change your visual identity, your behaviour ultimately reflects who you are. Clay Shirky draws an interesting conclusion from the case of Kaycee Nicole, a famous internet hoax involving false identity:

“When the community understands that you’ve been doing it and you’re faking, that is seen as a huge and violent transgression. And they will expend an astonishing amount of energy to find you and punish you. So identity is much less slippery than the early literature would lead us to believe.”

Avatars of the Future

Are these perceptions changing over time? Personally I’ve found that over the last ten years my real and virtual identities have merged: I no longer actively try and isolate one from another, and pretend that one is a different person from the other. But that may simply reflect my growing personal acceptance of who I am, and not be related to physical-vs-virtual identity. At the other end of the scale their are the social networking virgins: Young adults who continue to refuse to engage in any for of internet networking with their peers, because they fear that they will no longer be able to hide the truth about what they really do from polite society, potential employers, or anyone else that might “use the web against them”. Will they change with time?

The key question remains, will multiple avatars always be a requirement of an online presence, or is this merely a transitional phase while people experiment with the concept? It might be argued that in either case Gravatar is the wrong approach, since currently there is a need for multiple visual identities – a mainstream need, not the need of a quirky few – yet the system struggles to accommodate that need. It follows that linking a visual internet identity to an email address is flawed.

A solution would be to add a further sub-classification of avatar after the email address: [email protected]:work would somehow determine that the site displaying the avatar was a work-related one, and display a sensible work-related avatar.

But avatars are still incredibly basic. On some forums, you will now find a line below the avatar that says “I’m feel a tired”, yet the avatar still shows a happy smiling face. Or the poster is on holiday in Florida… yet there is still snow in the background of their picture. Better to alter the face in the image to reflect the mood or alter the background of the avatar to reflect the place. (With appropriate alt and title tags, of course!)

The historic link between forum and game avatars is already coming full circle, with avatar generators for “games” like World of Warcraft and Gaia Online that allow the creation of forum avatars based on virtual-world appearance. It isn’t a huge step forward to make avatars a lot more “realistic” than they traditionally have been.

With all those customisation options, perhaps the old method of site-specific avatars wasn’t so bad after all?

El’s Extreme Anglin’ – 2007 Retrospective – Part II

This article continues my observations on running El’s Extreme Anglin’, a World of Warcraft (WoW) fishing guide, with a look at some of the trends in usage during 2007. You may also be interested in part I of the 2007 retrospective, which contained some observations on aspects such as thought leadership, quality and links.

Read More

El’s Extreme Anglin’ – 2007 Retrospective – Part I

El, a gnome fisher-woman. El’s Extreme Anglin’ is a guide to fishing in the game World of Warcraft. This article contains some of my observations from running El’s Extreme Anglin’ during 2007. Further analysis of trends, and commentary on the introduction of advertising to El’s Extreme Anglin’ are contained in follow-up articles.

Virtual Fishing

Fishing games have been around for a long time. Fish Tycoon is one of the top selling “casual” games. The popularity of fishing in the first major modern MMOG (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), Ultima Online, even took designer Richard Garriott by surprise [1].

Unlike most fishing games, fishing is a relatively minor part of the world’s most popular current conventional MMOG, World of Warcraft (WoW). It is not fundamental to the game’s design: Players can play the game without knowing how to fish. Like much of WoW, the basics of fishing are exceptionally easy to master, yet fishing becomes exceptionally complex, the further players get into it.

El’s Extreme Anglin’

El’s Extreme Anglin’ was launched in August 2006, as a guide to fishing in WoW. It was initially written to fill knowledge gaps in that complexity: Nobody had previously explored issues such as what skill is required to cast in different areas, or how pools of fish appear, or the extent to which catch rates varied by time of day.

The guide has always tried to cater to a wide audience – from the beginner to the expert. Both are important in developing such a guide: The beginner material is primarily what gets read. But, the expert material is crucial, even if it is rarely read:

  • It gives the beginner confidence that the material they are reading is reliable, because the author has clearly explored the topic in far more depth than the beginner needs to know.
  • It impresses the “thought leaders” in the community.

Why are thought leaders so important? They are the key to viral marketing: Allow me to explain…

Thought Leaders and Virality

El’s Extreme Anglin’ was never actively marketed. I posted a couple of links to it in forums, and made it as accessible as possible to search engines. Yet within a year it was attracting over 60,000 individual people each month, and had attained the top spot in Google searches for key terms like “WoW fishing” (beating over 250,000 other sources [2]). Where did all that traffic and search-engine karma come from?

Thought leaders: A very small group of influential people within communities, who other players instinctively respect for their knowledge. Perhaps a hybrid “connector-maven”, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point terminology: They don’t just know; they are able to communicate what they know down to the masses. WoW examples include the forum gurus (like EU’s Highlander), the bloggers and virtual world aficionados (like Alice Taylor and Tobold), and webmasters of community sites (people like Thott and Teza). These are people who generally know everything already published, recognise that what you’re publishing is better, and rapidly link to, recommend, or generally promote your material.

Thought leaders themselves won’t generate much traffic, but the people they influence will in turn influence others. From them, the recommendations spiral out and down the pyramid. The further down the pyramid you go, the more the recommendations are likely to be personal, and highly “viral”: For example, one-to-one using in-game chat channels, or posted on small guild forums. Those are far less tangible, but ultimately create the bulk of traffic, not the links from the flagship sites (the value of links from larger sites is explored below).

The realisation that so much influence is in the hands of so few should not come as a surprise. However, the value of certain people in filtering information for the rest of us is still hugely underestimated on the internet, even if the principal underpins the success of search engines like Google [3].

Quality

Quality matters because it is crucial to the decisions of thought leaders. They will only recommend the best they know – their reputation depends on it. But does it matter to the average reader? My basic philosophy when writing is to do something different or better. I certainly can’t do it cheaper, since it is already free to the end user, and I’m not yet able to convince myself I can sell a guide to fishing, even though some WoW guides do sell commercially. I wrote about fishing in depth because at the time, nobody else had. And ever since, I’ve tried to keep the guide as definitive as possible.

It works. Players do actually trust what I write. I wrote a response to Blizzard’s Black Temple Attunement April Fools joke: Detailed instructions on how to catch Djakar, which included references to two +75 skill fishing poles, both entirely fictional. For months afterwards, people would refer to these poles in forum posts, like they were “real”. Along with trust comes responsibility…

I could have written a dozen mediocre texts about WoW fishing in the time it took to write El’s book. I opted for quality, while trying to accommodate the differing levels of experience of readers by offering a mix of articles. This is where it becomes hard to resolve the contradiction (in my mind, at least) between thought leadership, the long tail, and the cult of the amateur [4]. Perhaps I’ll return to that one in a future article…

There is a misconception that being linked to from one of the flagship WoW community sites like WoW Insider or MMO Champion causes a “slashdot effect” – a dramatic increase in traffic the day the link is posted.

It doesn’t.

At the end of October I wrote a detailed article about fishing changes in patch 2.3. I tagged a link onto the bottom of a forum thread at World of Raids, made it to their front page the next day, and then bounced round most of the WoW community news sites (and a few podcasts and blogs) over the next week [5]. The total number of visitors spiked at 10,000 per day on two occasions, which was only just over double the prevailing traffic at the time.

Articles like that on patch 2.3 are of fleeting interest, and within a month hardly anyone was reading about it. They don’t create many additional page views. But they are excellent “loss leaders”: People will follow the link it, mentally log the fact that they’ve found a website about fishing, and a few weeks later when they actually want some information about fishing, they’ll come back and read other parts of the site.

Continue reading part II of El’s Extreme Anglin’ 2007 Retrospective

Notes

  1. The Tabula Rasa website used to contain the following quote by Richard Garriott: “I was struck in the early Ultima Online days by how many people were engaged in the profession of fishing, despite the fact that the simulation was a mere 50/50 dice roll with each use of the fishing pole.”
  2. Although most of these transpire to be either a re-hash of Highlander’s Cooking and Fishing levelling guide, a doorway for a gold seller, an affiliate link farm, or all of the above.
  3. Google’s pioneering search technology, Page Rank, effectively ranks content based on how widely it is linked to on the internet. Before Search Engine Optimisation became mainstream, links between web pages were generally a measure of how much real people rated the content on the linked site. Today the approach fails outside of mainstream popular culture, because links can be purchased or spammed (popular culture is immune only because the cost of spamming your way to the top becomes prohibitive). If the actual person placing the link could be traced, and their level of knowledge of the subject assessed, we would recreate the matrix created by thought leadership automatically. Currently, only us humans can make that judgement, and probably only the more discerning of us: Do we trust the author of the link as an expert in this field or not? I find myself disagreeing with Larry Page, when he said that, “The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world.” The ultimate search engine does not need to understand anything. It merely needs to know who to trust.
  4. What contradiction?
    • Thought leadership demands quality…
    • Yet the long tail tells us that the more choice we offer, the more we will “sell” overall…
    • While the cult of the amateur implies that the lowest common denominator will eclipse everything else.
  5. Competition for “news” between WoW websites is intense. Many increasingly appear so desperate for content (my opinion) that they will post almost anything even remotely newsworthy. And the moment one site has covered it, the others follow.

Appendix: Timeline

  • January 2007: Launch of The Burning Crusade expansion, including plenty of new fish. Over the next three months, traffic almost doubles, as players reach 70 and start fishing: Not least for the famous, but hard to catch, Mr. Pinchy. I had painstaking documented how to catch Pinchy a few months before during beta testing.
  • April 2007: Fish Finder added to El’s Extreme Anglin’ – a database of fish. Information is presented differently to other WoW databases. The Fish Finder grew in popularity over the year to become the most popular section of the site by December.
  • May 2007: Blizzard comes under pressure to make +30 stamina buff easier to find, but pulls back from introducing a vendor-based alternative to cooked Furious Crawdad in patch 2.1. The process of fishing became faster, and Highland Mixed Schools were subtly tweaked to improve yield.
  • June 2007: El’s Extreme Anglin’ runs its first reader poll: Did patch 2.1’s changes made fishing more enjoyable? A resounding yes!
  • July 2007: Advertising appears on El’s Extreme Anglin’ for the first time, all affiliate-based.
  • November 2007: Patch 2.3 adds a few extra fish and a pool-tracking ability, and accidentally forces cooks to use fish (rather than meat) to level above skill 275. Interest in fishing increases to an all-time high. However, daily cooking quests gradually start to erode the value of many valuable fish at the auction house.
  • End of 2007 (31 December/1 January): El’s Extreme Anglin’ moves to a new dedicated domain, elsanglin.com.