Delicious friends and exhaustion

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gamewhims, a irresistible, breathtaking, inescapable and sagacious lady

For the past couple of months, I’ve been dabbling in a new browser game called Echo Bazaar, a turn-based role-playing game. They are currently in beta, which means that many things may be subject to change in the journey to 1.0-hood. Recently, they updated game mechanics to remove a slow-refresh feature, introducing a hard limit on how many actions you can play every 24 hours. Users have a pool of 70 actions everyday that refresh at a normal rate of seven minutes per action; prior to the change, after these 70 actions are spent, the refresh rate goes down to 70 minutes per action.

In their blog post regarding this change, the reasoning for the removal is that users do not get as much out of the slow refresh rate, in return for niggling, annoying bugs (countdown going to negative, for example), possible well-known “exploits”, and spending a lot of time on support due to users not understanding the slow refresh mechanics.

The change is a controversial one, ranging from those who love it and those who are strongly against it. While I’m far from being on the warpath on this, this change initially did spark a strong sense of disappointment (and feelings of betrayal? “How dare they limit how much I play!”, lol). Along with it, however, are thoughts on gaming and communities in general. Echo Bazaar is far from hardcore gaming, but as a gamer and as someone who works on community-related projects, I am interested in the issue not just as another user but as an…intellectual puzzle, if you will.

What is Echo Bazaar?

The game, which won Best Browser-Based Game in the 2009 Escapist Awards, is set in London–Fallen London, that is. You have been sent down to the ‘Neath, situated “a mile underground and a boat ride from Hell”. What you do, what you live for (as death is not permanent in the ‘Neath) is all up to you.

The call of Echo Bazaar is the prose. Oh, the prose. The prose is simply beautiful. You are not simply a success with the audience, they are

…quietly captivated. Your poetry ravishes. Your music entrances. Your drama transports. They love you, today. They may even love you tomorrow. You are toasted with fine wine.

I knew of the prose before I knew the game: I’d been seeing a friend tweet random snippets with the #ebz hash tag, until, my curiosity piqued at the charming little phrases, I clicked through. And was hooked.

The Starveling Cat! The Starveling Cat! Quick as a ratgun! Sharp as a gnat!

“Whose name’s on your collar Mr Starveling Cat?” “Come closer, my dear, if you want to read that…”

Starveling Kitty! Starveling Kitty! Ruled the roofs of five stolen cities!

Just who is this Starveling Cat?! It called out to me, and continue to keep me interested through various content updates.

The good things about the change

I can well imagine the relief the Echo Bazaar team had in washing their hands of this feature. I’ve noticed the glitches, the times when my refresh timer would dip into the negative, and it was distracting and “annoying” at first, but in time, I learned to ignore it. (Clarification: it was “annoying” for me because as a frontend engineer, I felt like, but why can’t you fix it! Call the server again at any time the timer is at negative when uer does an action! Of course, it’s not that simple with all systems.) And since it seems that a lot of users have been complaining about the bugs, or is unable to grasp this feature, to be able to say “okay, it’s gone now! Don’t bother us anymore!” is something I have wanted to be able to say multiple times myself ;)

This freeing up of resources, specifically time (which is, as we all know, gold), allows the team to work on other things. Better things. More narratives, more features, fix other bugs. This can only be good.

The hard limit of 70 actions a day also frees up users from feeling any sense of obligation from playing the game. Personally, the knowledge that an action is slowly trickling in does not completely free up my RAM, so to speak. If I get home at 9pm, I quickly open up my machine because my 24-hour refresh will be up soon, and I want to use whatever actions I have managed to get during the exhausted timeframe. I have Echo Bazaar on a tab in my browser at almost all times of the day, for a quick run through my ten actions (I am at end game, or nearly at end game whenever they raise the content cap: that means I’m either just farming items, or quickly going through opportunity cards, or cycling through content I’ve done before; new players or arrival of new content would likely not run through the actions as quickly).

With the hard limit, once the middle of the day hits (which is usually when I’ve used up all my actions), I can finally file Echo Bazaar away. There is nothing more to be done for that day, no matter what I do, so my brain shuts it out of active RAM. I’m free.

But there are bad things about the change, too

I do most of my world-exploring during the slow-refresh period. With an “unlimited” pool of actions (it’s arriving slower, but it’s there), I don’t mind listening to a friend’s Nightmares; endlessly trying out a low-yield storylet to get a Rare Success that increases a minor, hard-to-get quality; trying dubious actions; etc. With the slow refresh rate, I can pretty much endlessly flip through my opportunity cards for nice cards to use up (after 70 minutes, when I have another action) which frees my hand for other opportunity cards which I can flip through. This pretty much means I am always going back to the site to “look for stuff to do”. As a roleplaying game, user exploration and immersion is a big thing.

With the implementation of a hard cap (it is not a “bug fix” as some are saying: a bug fix fixes bugs, not removes the feature), once my 70 actions are up, there is no more reason for me to go back any time that day. I can’t do anything on the site anyway, so there is no reason (or maybe, alibi) for me to go back and flip through my cards (and my hand will fill quickly anyway with cards I’d like to “save” for later use). Once I reach the hard cap, I turn off the game.

If you’re an Internet company, having people always on your website is the name of the game. (It’s probably not limited to Internet companies, but that’s the type of company I know.) People are always harping about user engagement. Pageviews are fine and dandy, but it’s engagement that wins the community, because it is engagement that keeps your users loyal and clicking all those pages. Oh, your servers will take a hit with all that traffic and usage. Your servers might go down. But you know what? That’s the kind of problem that’s great to have. Your users love you! They can’t get away from you! They try but they keep checking back!

How cool is that?

Unfortunately, this particular user’s engagement with the game is slowing down.

The monetary angle

One thread of thought that has surfaced in the discussions about this change is the subject of Fate. Fate keeps Echo Bazaar afloat. Users can buy Fate, which allows them to do some special things, “premium” things, which are not necessary to play the game. One of those things is to get extra actions. If I’m out of actions, or I can’t wait for my actions to trickle in, I can buy Fate and get actions. We all win.

(Yes, I bought Fate for actions when I was relatively new to the game and the honeymoon period was in full swing. I don’t know how much I’ve purchased, but it probably rivaled my World of Warcraft yearly subscription. And I bought for two accounts. *nods sagely*)

Edited to add: I’ve just done the math, and yes–I spent around 60% more on Echo Bazaar than on WoW on a monthly basis (i.e., total Fate purchase divided by number of months I’ve been playing Echo Bazaar).

One line of thought in this Fate thread is that with a hard cap, people will buy more Fate because they can’t get any more for the day. That seems like a sound conclusion. But as I’ve gone through a day of playing with the new mechanics, I feel–and some others feel the same–that it’s giving me the opposite effect. There is no reason to buy Fate while I have my 70 actions. But after that seventy actions, if I’m not even on the site, how will I be compelled to buy Fate to get to that very tempting storylet/card?

I have a feeling that the sort of people who will be “reliable” Fate-buyers would be the same people who would spend on a monthly subscription to play a game (*cough*). But if I’m a gamer who sits down on a specific time each day to play games, and then get up afterwards and forget about it–I’d be less likely to need to buy Fate. I would be more likely to buy the “second candle” feature that was rolled out in the same time, so I suppose only time will tell if purchases of the second candle will be enough. Having no knowledge of how things are, I have no idea how “popular” Fate-buying for actions is. Maybe it just wasn’t enough, and the second candle just might do the trick.

The game has changed

Time will tell if the good things outweigh the bad. I can only comment on how it’s affected my gameplay and my view on how it may affect Echo Bazaar from a web professional’s point of view. Not all games need to have hardcore users that will stay on it almost 24/7; not all games need to take over the world.

What do you think?