Systems of Curse and ZAM

The World of Warcraft ecosystem saw the final “big fansite” acquisition this week, with MMO-Champion bought by Curse Inc. Big meaning something that attracts millions of users each month. Curse have been using some of their $11 million of venture capital to buy up a variety of gaming fansites, including many popular WoW sites. But MMO-Champion is significant for 3 other reasons:

  • Corporate deal, not the “founder buy-out” traditionally commonplace among gaming fansites. MMO-Champion was previously owned by Major League Gaming, already a multi-million dollar enterprise (by comparison, $46 million funding).
  • Completes a duopoly (2 dominant businesses) in the core World of Warcraft “fansite” market – Curse and ZAM. While there are other large businesses and specialist niches on the fringe, none of those appear to be growing into the core WoW market.
  • Exposes an intriguing driver of this market structure: Systems costs – the underlying technology and support costs. Intriguing because these were crucial in determining the market structure of far more traditional sectors of the economy, like groceries.

This article analyses the latest acquisitions and discusses the unseen importance of systems costs. Read More

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

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy

Blizzard Entertainment’s new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services. Read More

Exploration is Dead. Long Live Exploration!

Dalaran. Hard to miss, it seems.

Something happened at the start of July 2008 that only happens once every 2 years. For a brief period, everything about the world was not public knowledge. A handful of people worked day and night to fill this chasm of information. To document everything that was suddenly new and uncertain. Meanwhile the world filled up with hardened veterans, many of whom seem to struggle with, well, everything:

“How do I get to Northrend?” – Well, perhaps that new harbour or zeppelin tower that’s been built might give you a clue?

“Where’s Dalaran?” – Did you try riding to the end of the road and then looking up to see what’s blocking out the sun? (Dalaran is pictured right.)

The world is, of course, the World of Warcraft. And the 2-yearly occasion is the start of public testing of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King: The only time a significant proportion of the game world changes.

What’s alarming is that these questions are not from new, inexperienced players. These are from people that have already played the existing game for months or years. They clearly want to know, but seem to have lost the basic ability to explore the game world themselves.

This article explores the concept of “exploration”, and tries to explain how one of the most complex virtual worlds ever created has become popular among players that are not natural explorers. Read More

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

Platform Azeroth: Why Information is Broken

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

Analyse this:

Screenshot of WoW in-game browser hack.

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

Blizzard was quick to block the hack.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

Learn2Play, the new Real Money Trading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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