Settlers of Catan: Online & Free

747px-Settlers_of_Catan_-_standard_mapI have a blast playing Euro Games. By far my favorite Euro game is Settlers of Catan. I was introduced to this awesome game by a few of my cousins that used to live nearby. Sadly, they’ve graduated high school and have moved away leaving my Catan player base generally below par. To counter-act this lack of Catan playing, my pal Randy directed me to a location to play Catan online!

Aso Brain Games is a site built by a couple of competent developers from the Netherlands. They’ve coded an excellent Java version of Catan that allows you to play solo or multiplayer; basic ‘Catan’ or ‘Cities and Knights of Catan’. To avoid copyright violation, the game has been renamed to Xplorers.

If you’re on the hunt for an online Catan game…
Aso Brain Games is all you need :)

Also, if you’re a fan of Carcasonne, they’ve got that game as well…dubbed “Toulouse.”

A Weekend of Euro Gaming

MeepleAs I alluded to in my post on Settlers of Catan, I’m a fan of European board games (Euro Games). In my mind, American gaming companies (sans Avalon Hill and Cheap Ass Games) have a lot to learn about good, fun, sexy games. I’m not alone. I was born into a competitive family. My sister is just like me. In fact, this weekend I plan to drag my wife down to Boston for a weekend of board gaming with my sibling. We’ve begun initial planning; you know, travel timing, board games we’re bringing, and a schedule.

Yes. I said a schedule. You see, we have a number of board games between the two of us and there are only so many hours in the weekend. My sister asked for a schedule and I replied with the following ‘loose’ schedule:

As for a game schedule: I’d say this:

Friday:
7:00-7:30 arrival and situation (greetings, bathroom, games transport, parking, etc)
7:30-8:00 Food & I explain Thurn and Taxis (a very easy game to understand)
8:15-9:45 Thurn and Taxis
10:00-12:00 Carcassonne

Saturday:
6:00-8:30 Robo Rally
8:30-10:00 Settlers: Cities and Knights
10:00-12:00 ???

Sunday:
10:00-12:00 ???
1:00-3:00 ???
3:00-5:00 ???
5:00-6:00 pack up and leave

Room for movement and change…but not solid enough for my sister who really wants to maximize her gaming. Here was her response:

Fabulous… we should firm this schedule up and maybe have it printed out and laminated by Friday. I have some edits already…

I like what you have started but we have to consider that Friday you and Abby may be tired from traveling and Thurn and Taxis will be a new game to Joe and me. I suggest we play 2 sessions of Thurn and Taxis Friday evening in order to #1 accomplish learning a new game, and 2# give Joe and me the opportunity at a fair game once we are fully educated, therefore letting the potential fun-level sink in, in order to up the chance of Joe wanting to own the game himself. (thoughts?) Rarely it seems, can a newly introduced game be played only once and still be fully appreciated by a non-gaming crowd. (again, thoughts?)

Saturday I agree that we should start early in the evening with a new game considering it is always a bad idea to teach a new game once a crowd is teetering on becoming tired. Waiting until later could be detrimental to the potential for crowd likeability if newbies are tired and irritable… so. You will have STUDIED thoroughly the rules to Robo Rally by 6pm when play commences. Again, as long as the crowd is on board I believe this should be played twice. Then starting at 10:00pm we can end the night on a strong note with a game previously learned and loved: Settlers: Cities and Knights. (thoughts?)

Sunday we should be up at 8/9ish. Breakfast by 9:30. Play begins promptly at 10:00am. I suggest a nice light session of Ticket to Ride to kick off the morning. Easy to teach, yet not to thought provoking for those still in sleepy mode. Then another Settlers: Cities and Knights match… Joe will want this and we will need to get it over before Abby is tired and not compliant since it isn’t her favorite game. :)

1-2:00pm: Carcassonne. I believe at LEAST one session will be in order.

The last and final game should be dictated by a crowd vote. Each person will select their game of choice, whether that be a new game such as A Game of Thrones which remains unplayed, a newly learned game, or game that one itches for a re-match at. These game selections will be placed in a hat and the the selection will be drawn by the pregnant lady representing pureness of heart. We will all engage in the final game with smiles and enthusiasm as we recognize that no matter what the selection, this is our grand finale.

(THOUGHTS?)

I almost busted a gut at how precise the schedule was. She saw fit to give Abby and me a little room to poke around Boston during the day on Saturday before we got back to gaming. Awesome. It’ll be a sweet weekend!

MMORPG Laws

My pal Casey over at MaisonBisson.com has made a follow up post to my MMORPG Cheating post. I figured it warranted me making another post rather than simply replying to his blog. He writes:

Matt says my attempts to analogize online roleplaying games to more familiar contests like chess or automobile racing are “just silly.” But his response appears to reinforce my point rather than refute it. It is the responsibility of the gamers and gaming organizations to create and enforce rules. People violating those rules are subject to sanctions by the gaming organization first, but it’s hard to imagine how any contestant who follows the rules of a (legal) game can be subject to legal sanction.

I spoke with Casey in person this past Saturday about this exact topic (as we have butted heads on it for some time now). We discussed our differing views and gave examples on each side of the table. Casey stated that my arguments for game law should only be handled with some sort of governing body; much like the Scrabble Association, World Chess Federation, etc. After our discussion I have had a slight change of heart…for in-game happenings.

But what happens when someone from the outside world affects the in-game world? In my article “World of Warcrack and the Future of MMOGs” I explain a case when a non-player logged into her boyfriend’s account and deleted his items. What would be the ruling on cases such as those? Would they warrant arresting, fines, etc? Or should they be written off and have the owner of the character be forced to suck it up and spend another 1000+ hours creating and leveling a new character?

If someone that is not a part of NASCAR goes and steals, breaks down, and sells Jeff Gordon’s car…that person will face criminal charges and/or fines from the judicial system. What about Jon Doe who has a level 60 character in World of Warcraft emptied of all its items by a third party and that third party sells said items on E-Bay or through a reseller?

Its another beast altogether. Casey and I have both been wrong and right with our differing viewpoints. What we have been doing is lumping two categories of MMO offenses together. The in-game offenses and the offenses caused by non-game members to the game members. I was generically stating that ALL actions whether in and out may eventually need to be handled from some sort of legislation…and likewise he had lumped all actions together and disagreed saying that it should only be handled by an game-related governing body (the company that produces the game…or an association from multiple MMOs).

I still hold that as MMOGs become more and more popular these two distinct offenses will need to be addressed…but when and how?

(image found at http://www.abetterearth.org)

MMORPGs and Perception of Value

I made a post a little while back that on MMORPG Cheating and received a very interesting and convincing argument from Gaming Freedom that I thought warranted another post. Basically, the previous post was to emphasize how MMORPGs should be taken a little bit more serious when it comes to its future and how they will function as a major recreation tool the world over. I feel this is becoming more of a reality. (see my post on World of Warcract and the future of MMORPGs).

In my previous post on MMORPG Cheating, Gaming Freedom disagrees with my analogy of Racing and fines/rules due to in-game actions. Gaming Freedom makes some good points an writes:

[...]
You’ll never see laws like [those appearing in China] in the states because virtual items don’t cost anything to produce. Yeah, YOU had to work really hard to get that uber sword of usefullness, but that doesn’t mean it has a value. It’s a 1 on a server somewhere. Anyone, with sufficient rights, could choose to give that sword to you. Cars are not the same way. When you damage one there is no easy way to fix it, and the destruction has real costs involved.

Another reason your debunking of the car analogy fails is that you’re ignoring WHERE the fines and suspensions come from. They do not come from state or federal or even county law. They come from the organization which complies with the county, state, and federal laws and THEY are held accountable first. They can then pass off blame if they want, but at the end of the day it is the racetrack, or gaming company, who is ultimately responsible for what happens in it’s private club.

Society will draw the line, I predict, at value. So long as MMORPG’s are housed on servers, and so long as “items” are nothing more than database entries, they will not have any value. No value, no crime. You’ll see legislation around harrassment long before you see it around theft.

The argument has some good points but I don’t fully agree and believe a few points are slightly over-generalized. Its all about:

Perception of Value:
While I agree that the argument can (and is often made) that items in a game have no value…that they are simply entries in a database owned by the company that has ‘invented’ said item. This argument is flawed in that value is all about perception. An object or idea has value because someone believes it has value. I could own a facial tissue that was used by Britney Spears at a concert and cherish it (assuming I like Britney Spears) and consider it extremely valuable. Collectors of oddities such as this may agree with me. Now, what if I had bought that tissue on e-bay for $327.41 and I kept it in a glass case…if I woke up one morning and found it missing, would I not be able to file a police report and if the perpetrator was caught, bring them to court?

Perhaps a used tissue is not a great analogy. What about a Pet Rock? How about a diamond? What sets a diamond apart from a pet rock? Why is one more valuable than the other? Even if the diamond is un-shaped and un-cut, doesn’t it still have more value than the Pet Rock? The only reason a diamond has more value is because society thinks it should have more value. The argument can be made that diamonds are more rare than a Pet Rock made from a random stone…but the importance of rarity is once again based on society’s perception. Society deems that rarity holds more value.

Here are a few other arguments that can be made in regards to the value of a real-world item holding more weight than an in-game item:

  • A real-life sword has more value than an in-game sword because real world resources were used to create it!
    • Not entirely true. In-game items have gone through a lengthy design/modification process regards to how it looks (art), how it functions (rules), etc. A number of hours have been put into the production of the in-game sword by the company that has produced it.
  • But but but wait! In the above statement you say that the company has produced it…so its the property of the company and is valuable to them and them alone.
    • This is also a bad argument. When you purchase a piece of software…Windows XP, Age of Empires III, Photoshop, etc; the software that you install on your system, its cd, its manuals, etc are all property of the company that produces it. Read the End User License Agreement. You are leasing the product. Yeah, you spent $150 purchasing it but that copy is not yours. However, if someone stole your copy of Windows XP, you can call the authorities and if the perpetrator is found, there will be penalties.
  • Pfft…but an in-game sword is just 1′s and 0′s.
    • So is a piece of software. Software is just 1′s and 0′s.
  • Right right right…but the difference between the in-game sword and a real-world sword is that real-world money was paid.
    • Hrm. Fact. But think about it. In MMORPGs, real-world money is paid monthly to play the game. In the game your $15/month is spent playing and attempting to acquire items you view as valuable in-game.
  • You pay $15/month in game to play the game, not $15/month to buy an item.
    • Another good point. But in all actuality you are paying $15/month for time in game. It takes a great deal of time to attain the appropriate level required to find an ‘valuable’ item and even more time in the act of actually finding the item…which could take days, weeks, months, etc.
  • But now you are saying that the item has value merely because of time…you can’t put a price tag on time.
    • Thats just silly. Businesses/offices the world over fire people for theft of time constantly. Projects are designed and given value based solely on time. Time is a valuable and saying otherwise is just silly…especially when you are paying for that time.

I’m sure there are more arguments and I urge people to post them. In-game items have value because a society believes they have value. That society is the MMO gaming comunity and it is growing. As it grows, we will find that that society will have a larger voice than it does now. What will that voice say when those voices are coming from people of power? Heck, we have a national do not call list because enough people hated receiving telemarketing calls…But when it was the ‘people of power’ received those telemarketing calls and finally got pissed off that donotcall.gov was created along with a threat of fines. What happens when a Congressman plays WoW and get pissed that his Vestaments of Prophecy are deleted by someone who maliciously signed in to his account? What happens when the President’s level 60 Warrior in Lineage II is attacked by an unbeatable-bot and has all his hard-earned weapons stolen?

I do agree with Gaming Freedom in that we will see legislation about harrassment in the US long before legislation on theft. Will it go past that? Hard to tell…Its society’s call. And that all depends on the MMORPG movement.

MMORPG Cheating

My friend Casey over at MaisonBisson posted an article (Wide World of Video Games) where he shoots down the ideas of laws that are being built around MMORPGs and the reasons behind them. I don’t entirely agree with his statement:

One argument is that these games occupy players time and cost money, so in-game theft results in real-life loss. Baloney. Chess and Monopoly occupy great deals of time, but try telling the cops I rooked your knight. Money? A huge number of Americans invest time and money on building and racing cars on the approximately 1800 racetracks around the country. Real time and and hard-earned money are lost when cars crash, but the track has its own rules[...]

First, comparing Chess and Monopoly to MMORPGs is just silly. Yes they are both games, but they aren’t even the same caliber! Thats like saying a helium-filled balloon is the same as a state fair. You can get enjoyment from both a baloon and a state fair, but there is a huge cost difference, a difference in the level of participation by large numbers of people, activities in one that don’t exist in the other, etc.

Secondly, the racecar analogy falls through the roof once a little background info on racing is dug up. Yes, cars cost a crap ton of money to construct, fund, and race and it is expected that you will inevitably break something and/or crash. Its all part of the game. But what happens when that crash is intentionally caused by another player? You see, when once racecar driver causes an accident on purpose, there are repercussions…fines anywhere from $100-10,000 to both the speedway AND the ‘targets of destruction’, suspension, loss of championship points (whatever those are), permanent banning, etc. Check these references if you wish :

In an MMORPG, you purchase and play the game (within the rules) and assume others will do the same. But what happens when someone cheats -using bots, hacks, etc- to best you at something and take your hard earned items? When I say hard earned, those items can have 1000+ hours of play time behind them, 5 months of paying $15/month, etc.

Should there be repercussions for MMORPG cheating? Perhaps. I’m not sold either way but to write it off so quickly is just ludicrous. As MMORPGs grow in popularity and become a larger beast in our society, the world will be faced with larger numbers of people that will want justice for in-game theft, in-game cheating, etc. How will society draw the line and where will we put it?

World of Warcrack and the future of MMOGs

[[innerindex]]WoW Dude I began gaming in the early 90′s. Looking back at what gaming was then compared to what it is today causes me to do a double take. Things have changed so much so fast. Of particular note is the Online Gaming industry. What started out as geek-only text-based fantasy games has morphed into a globe encompassing communication/entertainment mega-games….Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). Before I explain my awe when it comes to these games, I’ll start out with a short definition and a little history.

What are MMOGs?

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (a.k.a. MMOG, MMO, MMORPG) are pay-to-play games where a player interacts with an evolving game-world and hundreds (to thousands) of other players at the same time. Within these games, players typically wander around killing monsters, collecting/crafting items, creating organizations, and often times Player Killing (hunting down other players and killing them for experience, loot, or simply just for fun). In addition to the above…MMOGs tend to be highly addictive! I, myself, have been prone to spurts of MMOG addiction :)

A Brief History

I suppose the best way to fully understand these MMOGs is to see where they come from. Back in the ancient days of 1977, the first MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) was born. These geek-only games of sweetness gained popularity due to their ability to connect like-minded fantasy buffs to interact with eachother in a text-based reality, however, the popularity remain primarily in the geek community due primarily to the fact that most MUDs contained no graphics beyond ASCII art. While cool to some, many people found them fairly boring…I mean sheesh. read?!. (I was one of those geeks that played MUDs… EotL to be exact)

It wasn’t until 1997 when Ultima Online launched that MMOGs began to really take off. Ultima Online reached 100,000 users fairly quickly which spurred a whole industry of MMOGs with a variety of gaming engines, rules, and monthly price ranges. Some of the most popular: Asheron’s Call (AC), Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), EverQuest (EQ), Ultima Online (UO), and the fairly new World of Warcraft (WoW).

Why Are MMOGs So Popular?

Oooo Doggy. Good question. MMOGs aren’t just games for geeks anymore. As the games become more advanced and appealing to the eye, more and more people are buying the games and paying the monthly fees. All types of people! Geeks, teachers, athletes, construction workers, housewives, etc!

  • Its a Role-Playing Game.

    MMOGs allow us to be an object of our own fantasy and participate in a world with very loose rules that allow us expose us to experiences when we want to experience them. In WoW I have the freedom to create a character that walks around being a bastard to people: swearing at them; stealing their items; player killing defenseless characters (griefing). While at the same time I could make a second character that is the perfect angel. Always willing to help those in need; an active contributing member of a guild; a good party member. I could make a third character with a whole different personality. Thats the beauty of it, you can play how you want with minimal fear of Real Life retaliation. You are simply a character on a screen, nothing more. When you get tired, you simply log off the game and you are back to your real life. A co-worker of mine directed me to this essay that explains this mode of thought:

    If you don’t understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I’m going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: you get to pick what you look like and what your talents are.

    That’s the real beauty of it. The first thing you do in the MMORPG World of Warcraft is design your own body and decide what your strengths will be. You pick your race. What could be more seductive than that, the ability to turn in all of the cards you were dealt at birth and draw new ones from a face-up deck? If you have friends who’ve gotten sucked into the WoW black hole and you don’t understand why they never talk to you any more, this is it. I remember being a chubby teenager with bad skin and astigmatism and pants that didn’t fit quite right. What would I have given to be reborn as a strapping warrior with rippling pecs and armor of hammered silver?

    On that kid’s screen now is a dozen noble warriors of exotic races, brandishing elaborate weapons and charging a gigantic demon across a fire-scarred mountaintop. The dwarf next to him is controlled by an accountant planted at his own computer in Cleveland, two babies sleeping in the next room and his pregnant wife on the sofa. The robed priest in the back casting healing spells is actually a 250-lb. ex-gangster, playing from the computer lab of a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. The elf on his left, sprinting and drawing his mighty magical bow, is the digital body of a wheelchair-bound 12 year-old girl in Miami.

  • For some its the social aspect of the game. For example:

    I get my kicks from MMOGs for this very reason. Most MMOGs have some ability to create in-game organizations (in WoW they are called Guilds) and from these organizations grows in-game politics. Bylaws are often created; characters vie for rank; hierarchies are established; there are inter-guild events and disputes. It may seem silly at first glance because its “all a game,” but more often than not these organizations are taken very seriously by their members – despite the fact that they may have a guild name like “Vicious Chickens of Bristol” – and many Real Life friendships can be won and lost. So whats the draw? The ability to socialize with people from around the world and organize under one purpose. People are simply drawn to structure and conflict. I am. I love it :)

  • Yet another reason for MMOG popularity is the story.

    MMOGs typically have a wonderfully rich background story that explains the hows and whys of the virtual world. World of Warcraft (yes, I’m using WoW as the example again because I love it so :) ) has a very wonderful story line that allows its characters to participate in quests that unfold the WoW story to that user. The quests can be anything from a short delivery quest where you take one item from point A to point B, or it can be a whole chain of quests that build up an epic plot, OR it can be a comedic side story that gives an amusing reward. In WoW there are hundreds of quests and every few months many more are added/tweaked. The world is constantly evolving giving those that thrive on storylines plenty of story to keep them active for months and months on end!

What MMOGs Have Become

MMOGs have become an addiction and a communication powerhouse.
I’m a World of Warcraft addict. I play a Human Priest (named Heuric) and help run a guild called the Crimson Eagles. The scary thing is, is the fact that I get so excited even talking about the game (whether verbally or typing). It has become a very real part of my social life. And before you can ask the question, I’ll answer it: No, it is not my only social life…I spend maybe 5-15 hours a week in the game. Seem like a lot to you? Well, I’m considered an almost non-active member in my guild. There are people I know that spend almost all their time at home playing these games…sometimes more than 40 hours a week!

You see…weekends allow for game play times of 10+ hours straight! I have been known to do this and have also been known to forget to eat because of it. Yeah. I often suffer from the “five more minutes….I just need to kill 3 more” syndrome. Well sometimes I don’t miss just one meal…I sometimes may miss 2 and on a couple of rare occasions I have missed 3. Remember when I said that I am considered pretty inactive? Scary huh? Thank god I have a wife that keeps me in line :) (I only miss meals when I’m home alone)

Its an MMOG addiction. And I’m not alone. There are over 3 Million people in the world that own and play World of Warcraft…and thats just one game!

Ten years ago when I wanted to talk to one of my friends, I’d call them up on the phone. 7 years ago I’d e-mail them. 4 years ago I’d instant message them. Now…I log in to WoW. There they all are, running around PKing in Alterac Valley; questing in Searing Gorge; trading in Iron Forge; raiding in UBRS; or grinding in the Western Plaguelands. (all locations in WoW). Despite the fact that they are all doing their own thing, I can type or pop on a headset microphone and and talk to them. We plan get togethers, discuss work, news, politics, religion, etc…right there in game.

MMOGs have become a source of income (and I’m not talking companies)
WTF!?!?! Yeah. People can play for money. While generally frowned upon by both the companies that produce the games and by the average player, the buying and selling of accounts, items, and in-game currency has become a very profitable business. Here’s an article at TechAngel that talks of a man that makes ~$1,800 a month! In this article at 1up.com they explain how game profiteers are establishing Gaming Sweatshops in China, India, Mexico, etc where people are forced to play outrageous hours farming in-game currency for measely wages ($0.59/hour).

This is bad on multiple levels…first and foremost, the workers work long hours for very little money and are placed in situations where if the quit their jobs they’d lose their homes too. Its also bad for in-game economy. (yes, these virtual worlds have their own economy) These gold farmers jack up the prices of items causing many under-handed players to resort to purchasing money on E-bay and various game currency reseller sites…just to purchase a rare item in game! Its amazing to what lengths someone will go simply for the satisfaction of attaining certain items and a certain in-game status.

Where are MMOGs going?

They aren’t leaving any times soon, thats for darn sure. I can speculate that they will continue to grow in popularity and be taken more seriously. Even now we are seeing how serious some are taking these ‘games.’ MSNBC has an article where one man killed another because an in-game sword was stolen…Its a sad story that shows just how real some people believe these to be:

Qui went to the police to report the “theft” but was told the weapon was not real property protected by law.

“Zhu promised to hand over the cash but an angry Qui lost patience and attacked Zhu at his home, stabbing him in the left chest with great force and killing him,” the court was told.

More and more online gamers were seeking justice through the courts over stolen weapons and credits, the newspaper said at the time the case went to trial.

“The armor and swords in games should be deemed as private property as players have to spend money and time for them,” Wang Zongyu, an associate law professor at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, was quoted as saying.

As these incidents occur (and mark my words…more will come) what laws will be birthed because of them? Southeast Asia tends to be on the bleeding edge of gaming/tech culture and obsession. It is here that many of the ‘firsts’ occur (such as the murder mentioned above). Because of these incidents they are attempting to prevent them with some interesting laws:

What laws will carry over world wide? Will there be Real Life implications for what we do in game? Only time will tell…and I will be watching the clock with curiosity and a wary mind.

UPDATE (9/7/2005):
It seems that Slashdot has a post going on how WoW is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room…the big question from the New York Times:

WoW is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room. I think it also applies to the single-player games. If some kid is paying $15 a month on top of the initial $50 investment and is devoting so many hours a week to it, are they really going to go out and buy the next Need for Speed or whatever? There is a real fear that this game, with its incredible time investment, will really cut into game-buying across the industry.’ What is the Slashdot opinion on World of Warcraft’s impact on the gaming industry?