Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality? (Part 2)

On September 17th, Blizzard announced that they would be removing the auction houses in Diablo 3. For gamers, this may seem like a very strange move. It is very rare that a company will remove a significant feature of a game, especially when there is no stated replacement plan.

Real World Finances

But from a sociological perspective, this is a very interesting move that signifies a reaction to the merging of the virtual and real worlds. It seems like the warnings from Jesse Schell in 2010 are manifesting. Last year, Diablo 3 launched with two widespread auction houses, allowing players to trade their virtual items. The gold auction house used in-game currency, while the real money auction house used… real money. Real US dollars. And other worldwide currencies.

The Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. The $250 max buyout is the limit.
The Diablo 3 Real Money Auction House. The $250 max buyout is the limit.

As I said in part 1, the virtual world, used to be an escape from reality:

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roles and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

However, Facebook (among others, though Facebook arguably had the largest effect) changed this with microtransactions that allowed players with more wealth in real life, or more willingness to use the wealth, to translate it to in-game wealth. Schell’s talk has a lot more on how Facebook changed gaming.

But despite the influence of Facebook, many gamers stayed on non-FB games. It took Diablo 3 to have a large enough impact on affecting socioeconomics within a game. To some degree, those who were wealthier in real life were wealthier in the game. And to some degree, it was impossible to progress forward unless one was already wealthy.

In one sense, Blizzard’s removal of the auction houses signifies a break from the trend of the ever increasingly tangled web of real and imaginary.

An Efficiency Problem

Of course, we cannot discount Blizzard’s stated reasons for removing the auction houses:

When we initially designed and implemented the auction houses, the driving goal was to provide a convenient and secure system for trades. But as we’ve mentioned on different occasions, it became increasingly clear that despite the benefits of the AH system and the fact that many players around the world use it, it ultimately undermines Diablo’s core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot.

Indeed, the problem was that there was too much trading and the system became too efficient. I actually wrote a lengthy post about this on the Diablo 3 forums last year, called “Why the Auction House is the Main Problem,” which was also mathematically oriented. This article was highly rated and was spread around the interwebs.

Basically, the problem was that the increased market efficiency from the auction houses allowed the average player to obtain much better items than they otherwise would, thereby short-circuiting the actual game.

Although it seems fairly obvious now as to what happened, the sentiment at the time was that the real money auction house was causing the main problems, but that the gold auction house was fine. Before my thread, I don’t recall anyone making a coherent argument against the efficiency of the gold auction house.

The Future of Gaming

Thus it is not all that surprising that Blizzard is removing both auction houses. And even considering Blizzard’s official reason, it is interesting that the economic system in the game has so many analogs in real life.

A vision of the future virtual world, from part 1:

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

So given the recent news, perhaps we are not quite as firmly on that road as we were last year—a wrench has been thrown in the works. But in the end, the real and virtual worlds are still on a collision course. We should definitely be prepared.

Is the Virtual World Really An Escape from Reality?

Or are they on a collision course?

Google Glass

The Role-Creating World

One of the most popular and successful genres of gaming is the role-playing game (RPG). In an RPG, the player is a character in a usually fantasy world, and is able to develop skills and abilities within that world to progress as a character. In the virtual world, one could grow more powerful or more wise, and take on more difficult obstacles.

Traditionally, these role-playing games—and in fact, all commercial video games—were played as an escape from reality. One could escape the loud, busy, modern world and live instead in a quiet, simple, and perhaps peaceful world.

WoW Screenshot 4
Screenshot from the game World of Warcraft.

One of the strongest effects of these games was to cause players to disregard socioeconomic stratification that existed in the real world. In the virtual worlds of RPG’s, everyone starts equal and has the same opportunities.

From an extensive CNN report on gaming:

A professor: “…people do not feel they have the freedom and kind of  their own power to change their own social roes and their own identities. But in cyberspace, people do not remember… your wealth.”

From a gamer interviewee, in the same report about the RPG known as Maple Story:

“It’s a game where you can make people grow and develop within a certain line of work.  …you get a feeling that you are improving.”

The anonymity of online gaming meant that players could ignore social and economic barriers in real life, and feel accomplished by themselves.

The Facebook Conundrum

The face of gaming was forever changed by Facebook. Instead of playing with anonymous players from all around the country, and even all around the world, players of Facebook games play with their real-life friends.

Screenshot from Farmville. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Moreover, many Facebook games have microtransactions, where players can pay real money to gaming companies in exchange for virtual goods or virtual currencies. In “older” style RPG’s, on the other hand, all currencies are in-game only and there is no legal exchange between virtual money and real money.

These are two big factors:

  • The veil of anonymity has lifted; and,
  • Real money is now able to affect your character’s position in the virtual world.

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is headed: into socioeconomic stratification in the virtual world, which was supposed to be the one place where players could escape from real world problems.

That is, in classic RPG’s, more successful players could attribute their victories to skill, knowledge, and effort. But in microtransaction-based games, the more successful players could be attributed to just being wealthier in the real world.

Diablo 3 and Marxism

Even in these microtransaction-based games on Facebook, the microtransactions can be thought of in terms of a state-controlled economy. Almost always, the company itself determines the prices of all virtual goods or currencies, and the company itself is the seller of goods. Zynga and Nexon are two examples of this.

Activision Blizzard took the idea of microtransactions one step further, and created a capitalist economy, where the players themselves sell goods to each other, while the company obtains a 15% tax on each virtual good sold.

Screenshot of the Real Money Auction House in Diablo 3. The $250 buyout is the max limit.

In the classic microtransaction models where every player who buys a particular item pays the same amount, no player feels ripped off or feels that the system is unfair.

But in the Real Money Auction House model, one player might buy a near identical good for half the price that another player paid, perhaps because the first player had carefully studied the market and compared options more carefully. The second player ends up feeling ripped off.

In this free market virtual economy, the stratification arising from unregulated capitalism has taken effect. Again, one doesn’t need to read Karl Marx to see what is going on in this virtual economy. The rich are getting richer by buying goods cheap and then reselling them for higher values, while the poor find it very difficult to start off. The poor have essentially turned into a working class. The Diablo 3 economy is very much akin to that of Industrial Revolution Britain.

The Future of the Virtual World

The virtual world began as an escape from reality, then transformed into a mirror of current reality, and then mutated again to a history of human reality.

If it continues down this path, then the virtual world of the future is not going to be the virtual world we saw in our dreams.

What we imagined virtual reality to be.

It will not be a place where we can set aside our real world and escape our problems for a few hours. It will not be a place where we have fun or meet people we would never see otherwise and talk about the little things in life without worrying about our financial position.

Instead, it will be an extension of the real world and everything in it. Those who are wealthier in the real world will have more options in the virtual world, and those who are poorer will remain poor. Ultimately, if virtual reality does not return to its roots as an escape from reality, people will end up escaping the virtual world as well.

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty

StarCraft II

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a real-time strategy game and yet another impressive gem from Blizzard.

Overview

This post is a review in all but the usual sense. I’m not here to assign the game a number from 1 to 10 (though if I were, it would be very high); instead, I am going for a “review” in a more academic sense—a study of the game.

Which means I’m not trying to praise or condemn the game, but rather, to gain an almost artistic appreciation for it, like I would of a film or book.

Gameplay Background

The real-time strategy genre is a type of chess where you can move all your pieces at once and you don’t take turns. What the original Starcraft (1998) did was create totally different factions. Instead of each side’s army consisting of a king, a queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and eight pawns, one side could have four pieces that moved like knights and pawns, another two like rooks with limited range, two more like bishops that could jump over pieces, and a piece that could teleport to another unoccupied square within two rows, but only once every three turns.

Call the standard 16-piece setup A, and this new 9-piece setup B. Each piece in B might be more powerful than in A, but B has less pieces. In Starcraft, if the Terran (humans) are A, then the Protoss (an alien race) would be B, for they use smaller numbers of stronger and costlier units.

The Zerg (the other aliens) are the opposite of the Protoss. Perhaps their chess setup would have 16 pawns, four pieces that moved like kings (but don’t obey the rules of check), four knights, and a queen. This is a total of 25 pieces.  This allows swarming with larger numbers of weaker and cheaper units.

Of course this is a drastic oversimplification of the game style (I’ve left out important things as resource collecting, production buildings, scouting, etc.), but that covers it essentially. Starcraft II continues the same gameplay, just with different units.

Plot Background

In Starcraft II’s single-player campaign, you follow the actions of Jim Raynor, a rebel leader against the Terran Dominion and its evil leader Arcturus Mengsk. You learn that Raynor is a friend of many Protoss factions, and that he is especially on good terms with the dark templar Zeratul. And the Zerg are led by Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades.

This alignment did not occur from accident.

Starcraft: The Terran Confederacy in the Koprulu sector in the Milky Way suddenly encounter technologically advanced Protoss warships that incinerate some Terran fringe colonies. They find that the Protoss have done so to prevent the spread of a parasitic race called the Zerg.

At this point, Jim Raynor is a Marshall on the planet Mar Sara, which is attacked by the Zerg. The Confederacy is slow to help, so Raynor puts himself in charge of saving as many colonists as he can. When he destroys a structure that has been infested by the Zerg, the Confederacy arrests him, and to evade arrest, Raynor has no choice but to join the Sons of Korhal, a terrorist group led by Arcturus Mengsk.

To overthrow the Confederate capital world of Tarsonis, Mengsk sends his second-in-command, psionic agent Sarah Kerrigan to place a psi-emitter on the planet. This device lures the Zerg, who will overrun the human population on Tarsonis. When the Protoss under Tassadar come to destroy the Zerg, Mengsk orders Kerrigan to stop the Protoss, but when she does so, Mengsk abandons her on the planet to the Zerg. Raynor, disgusted by the betrayal of Kerrigan, defects from Mengsk, and in the fall of Tarsonis and the Confederacy, Mengsk creates the Dominion and crowns himself Emperor.

The Overmind, ruler of the Zerg, had actually decided not to kill Kerrigan. She was instead infested to be an agent of the Zerg Swarm. The Protoss dark templar Zeratul assassinates the Zerg Cerebrate Zasz, but this act reveals to the Overmind the location of Aiur, the Protoss homeworld. The Overmind quickly mounts a direct assault, and embeds itself into the planet.

Even as the Zerg take over Aiur, the Protoss Conclave insists on conventional, honorable fighting against the Zerg, even though the Protoss are hopelessly outnumbered. The Conclave also seeks to arrest the high templar Tassadar, who has tried to free Zeratul—only dark templar energy could defeat the Overmind. After a brief Protoss civil war, the combined forces of the Protoss under Tassadar and Zeratul, and Raynor’s rebel group, defeat the Zerg, and Tassadar sacrifices himself to slay the Overmind.

Brood War: Not terribly important to the storyline of Starcraft II, except that Kerrigan becomes the sole leader of the Zerg.

Story and Storytelling: The Single-Player Campaign

Blizzard has come a long way in storytelling. In Starcraft, the plot unfolds in-game as well as in mission briefings. Key cinematics also illustrate critical points. The plot was linear, meaning one mission directly followed another.

The campaign of Starcraft II is, by contrast, nonlinear. You often have different missions to select from (though you end up playing through most or all of them anyways), and have choices to make in upgrades and research. Three times in the campaign, you will have to make a binary choice that either affects the plot or what you’ll face the next mission. These choice selections were very interesting, and lead to interesting replay options.

In one choice, you must decide whether to help Tosh break out a group of Specters or help Nova stop the Specter operation. If you help Tosh, you’ll have the ability to create Specters in later missions, whereas if you help Nova, you’ll have the ability to create Ghost. The two missions where you either help Tosh or Nova are my favorite in the campaign.

Besides the nonlinear story, the story itself was greatly enhanced by the various methods of storytelling. Besides mission briefings, in-game actions, and cinematics, the story takes place interactively on the Hyperion, Raynor’s ship. The most amusing method was the television broadcasts, which show Donny Vermillion and/or Kate Lockwell. Donny often cuts off Kate’s report of the real news, reporting his own biased information.

As always, the story is full of surprises and plot twists. The most shocking part of the story was Zeratul’s appearance on the Hyperion, and his visions that Raynor later viewed. It turns out the Overmind in Starcraft was more than it had seemed.

To soften the overall serious tones of alien invasion and saving the universe, Blizzard added plenty of references and humorous dialog. My favorite is the part when Tychus jokes to Raynor that using the Xel’Naga artifact could destroy the space-time continuum, to which Raynor responds, “This isn’t science fiction!”

Favorite Mission: “Ghost of a Chance”

This one is intense on micromanagement. You control no base, only Nova and a few reinforcements. The positioning of units and usage of abilities is key. The mission is like an epic version of “The Dylarian Shipyards” from Brood War.

Next Favorite Mission: “Breakout”

Essentially an Aeon of Strife game, like DotA. You control only one unit, Tosh, and try to control the tide of a battle. As in “Ghost of a Chance,” the key is positioning and using abilities. It is similar to the mission “The Search for Illidan” in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Also, the parts where Raynor constructs bases in areas you capture is the opposite of “Twilight of the Gods” in Warcraft III, where the enemy Archimonde constructs bases in areas that he conquers.

Battle.net and Multi-Player

Also a great improvement. Battle.net is a state-of-the-art online system, and the lack of LAN is not a big issue. This is because the new Battle.net has very little lag, and whatever use for LAN can be done on Battle.net.

Besides that, the gameplay is excellent and well polished. The only qualm I have is that the Terran and Protoss seem more fun to play than the Zerg. Note that I’m not saying they’re imbalanced or easier to play; they just seem to have so many more options. Protoss with their Warp Gates are extremely fun.

Favorite Protoss Unit: Stalker

An very flexible unit that can hit air and ground. It is extremely mobile with its blink ability, and the option to use Warp Gates to warp in many of them at once is amazing. Massed stalkers with upgrades seem to be very effective.

Terran Favorite Unit: Viking

It has a very long-range air-to-air attack that is perfect against capital ships or Overlord hunting, and it can transform to ground mode, making it a viable ground-to-ground mech fighter. The ship upgrades work for both modes.

Zerg Favorite Unit: Baneling

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching your opponent’s army decimated by a massive blob of rolling green spheres.

Balance

As an amateur player I cannot speak much about this, but Starcraft II seems very well balanced. Each race has a distinct feel, but together they are matched up quite well. The game has come a long way from the early days of the beta (in which I did play), when several cheap strategies could win consistently. Even now, the Void Ray rush is super effective, at least at lower levels.

Achievements

How do you enhance the replay value of any game? Add achievements. I’m not sure whether this is new for the real-time strategy genre, but Blizzard certainly has success with the achievement system in its World of Warcraft. I’ve read an article somewhere about how achievements scientifically make a game addicting. But Starcraft 2 doesn’t even need the psychological effect.

For example, in the campaign missions, there are two bonus achievements, and it can sometimes be difficult if not nearly impossible to grab both awards in one play of the mission. One achievement might be to kill every last structure on the map, while the other might be to finish the mission in under 20 minutes. You’d have to play the mission at least twice, once to get the first achievement, another to get the second. Plus, there are de facto achievements such as finding research points on the field that can be used for valuable upgrades for later use in the campaign.

This system is very addicting for perfectionists like myself. Even without achievements, I would search every corner of a map for hidden stuff (e.g., in Warcraft III, especially the expansion, there were secret items and tomes everywhere if you looked for them). The achievement system makes you want to do this even more.

Graphics

While I don’t consider graphics to be the most important part of a game, I am fairly impressed by the graphics of Starcraft II, mostly the ability to generate in-game cutscenes and rendered movies in the campaign. Also, the real movies are in much higher resolution and detail than those in previous Blizzard titles such as Warcraft III.

Map Making

Blizzard’s map editors have been incredible, and during the beta I have already discussed the basics of the Starcraft II map editor. I haven’t found time to really experiment with it yet, but when I do, I’ll keep you updated.

The Fun Factor

To be honest, Starcraft II is one of the funnest games I have ever played, if not the most. It is because they made it much more than a game—they made it an environment, and a very immersive one at that. My only real concern here is that it might be too immersive, and be another World of Warcraft, a very addictive game due to its fun factor. World of Warcraft is what happens when you make a game too good.

Then again, there is no monthly subscription fee for Starcraft II, so Blizzard needs not make it as addicting. But once you get the game, it will be very hard to put down, at least for a while.

Concluding Remarks

Starcraft II is incredibly polished and incredibly fun, and it proves that the real-time strategy genre is not dead—it just needed another kick. And Blizzard gave it this kick.