Archive for May 8th, 2011

“Money, it’s a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash. New car, caviar, four star daydream, think I’ll buy me a football team.” – Pink Floyd, Money


Years ago, as a young man experimenting with narcotics, there was always a line I never crossed – heroin. My principal concern was that I’d like it and, let’s face it, liking heroin is not a good career move. I knew already that I had a tendency towards addiction. I’m a creature of habit and once I get a taste for something, be it music, computer games, reading, writing or running, I tend to crave it to the point of suffering withdrawal.

Despite my reservations about Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMOs), so far as narrative, atmosphere and game-play were concerned, I knew that were I to begin playing one, I might well be sucked in. I had watched my friend Chris struggle to extract himself from World of Warcraft (WoW) and had read sufficient anecdotal reports of the addictive qualities of Everquest (EQ), so I knew just how addictive these games could be. I had already suffered long years of devotion to games like Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights and Civilization III and IV, for which the craving to play was often very intense. To quit Civilization III I had had to smash the disc to pieces, though I then found I could download the entire game through Limewire in about 15 minutes and the battle went on.

Civilization IV hit me even harder  – at times I could wrestle with it for a sleepless week, in which I ghost-walked from one game to the next. When I visited my brother in Brisbane, it was traditional to start a game of Civ on the Thursday night I arrived and we almost invariably played until well after dawn, thus smashing ourselves to bits for the rest of the weekend. After a snooze and a café breakfast, we would drive home in the car, talking about how we must not play the game again that day, but if we were to do so, which civilization would we play: the Babylonians or Egyptians? By the time we were home, we had already lost the fight and fired it up immediately. Fortunately, Civilization is now long behind me.

I thus had every right to fear MMOs. This fear had particular resonance with me because, as a writer, I needed my spare time to write. It was easy enough to turn up to work and teach English without having to think too hard, however exhausted I might be, but to write required me being focussed and alert and having a clear head. I needed what I was writing to be the dominant narrative in my thoughts and not to be distracted by, for example, thinking over of the offensive strategy I planned to use against the Aztecs.

Bored with the games I’d been playing, and wanting a more lively experience, I found myself mulling over the idea of giving Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) another go. I thought hard about the possible implications, the time-wasting, the craving, but decided I could keep a lid on things. After all, one of my strongest qualities, in stark contrast to my ill-discipline, was the ability to discipline myself when necessary. All I needed was a set of rules, such as ensuring that I slept sufficiently, continued writing, and did no gaming during daylight hours. If I could make myself work, then play would be my well-earned reward, and I had managed, except during occasional periods of obsessive play, to maintain this balance for the last ten years. Could an MMO really be that addictive? Would I really not be able to walk away? I decided to take the risk.

So it was that, towards the end of 2008, I signed up for the ten-day free trial of DDO and sat down to play. I had, of course, played the game for a week two years ago at the time of its release, so this was really a return. When I first played it, however, it had been on a not especially powerful laptop and, in order to avoid lag, I’d had to experience it with the graphics turned down. Having recently built a seriously powerful computer to cope with my heavily pimped Oblivion, I was now able to ramp the graphics up to max. When I finally fired it up, having downloaded all the patches, it looked significantly more attractive.

The first character I created was Bethanie Brinsett, an elf rogue I intended to make a multi-class cleric. I was basing all my ideas of character creation on the types of builds I’d used in Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, which was a good starting point in theory, but would ultimately have very different outcomes in DDO. It would be a long while before I’d learn the pros and cons of certain builds in this context, but to begin with I was impressed by certain innovations the game had made to the rules.

First and foremost was spell-casting. Rather than the old system of allowing a caster to memorise a certain number of spells, which could be cast a set number of times each per rest period, the game introduced a mana pool which allowed the caster to memorise the same number of spells as in the 3.5 edition rules, but to cast each spell as many times as desired, according to how much mana was available. The higher level the spell, the more mana it required; spells cast using metamagics such as Maximise, Empower or Extend, also cost more mana. It made casters a lot more versatile and able to cast far more often.

Another plus was that spells affecting movement, such as Expeditious Retreat, Feather Fall and Jump, became much more pivotal in this very free-flowing game. One would rarely ever make use of such spells in the pen and paper game, as the limited number of spells one could use between rest periods meant it was usually more effective to preference offensive casting and healing rather that buffs.

The game also did a good job of calculating combat movement and positioning. Especially impressive was the way the way DDO handled things like flanking, making it an advantage to move during melee. The game even mimicked all the dice-rolls, going so far as to display a D20 on the screen, which could be coloured to the player’s liking, every time a roll was made. I’d always thought that the Dungeons & Dragons rules might be too complex or unbalanced to translate to an MMO format where it was necessary to avoid having great gaps between the effectiveness of the classes, but I was to come to learn that the rules actually translated surprisingly well.

Just prior to my rejoining the game, a new starting area, the island of Korthos, had been introduced, and for the first few days I found myself running around in this snowy island and its village. The village was besieged by Suhuagin and being terrorised by an otherwise benign white dragon under the influence of an evil mind-flayer. It had all the markings of an extended tutorial, but it played rather smoothly and I quickly became engaged.

What really hooked me was the free-flowing nature of the game. Despite the fact that, unlike WoW, DDO required area transitions from one map to another, and that all quests were instanced so that only a single individual or party could undertake them, and that the world was considerably smaller, with only one major city and, admittedly quite a number of surrounding areas, it seemed like a nice compromise between the open world of the MMO and the single-player gaming experience. The avatars ran, rolled, tumbled and swung with a very pleasing fluidity. The animations were well done and the detail on characters’ faces, despite relatively limited options for customisation, were above par for MMOs, where texture detail is usually sacrificed to ensure speed in crowded areas where bulk rendering is required.

To begin with I was pretty crap. Like all noobs, I was clumsy and slow, despite being well-practised with the standard WASD movement of first-person shooters. I didn’t know how best to make use of hotbars, knew little of the game’s quirks and workarounds, had no sense of perspective and proportion and didn’t really understand the significance of items I looted. I was also completely broke and didn’t know what I should be looking for. Nor did I know what quests I ought to do, or how difficult the challenge might be. I made a lot of fundamental errors; for example, not knowing that when I died, if there was a resurrection shrine within 10 seconds running distance of where I was slain, I could run to it and click on it to come back to life.

The starter area, however, was mercifully easy and initially I made the mistake of thinking the rest of the game might be equally easy as well. Ultimately it was, but only once I knew what I was doing, had the right build and some back-up. I shudder to think of how difficult I found many low-level quests in Stormreach Harbour, even on normal difficulty level. Of course, the problem was largely that I was trying to solo them, having, in my typically shy manner, decided not to group with other players. I could have learned so much more quickly had I had the sense to team up with other people.

I did, however, manage to recruit my friend Steven for a short while. He created a rather wan-looking chap called Relwan and together we ran around Korthos. The game was certainly considerably easier with another player on hand, and I taught him what little I knew about how things worked, including giving him very had advice as to how to build his character. Still, not having progressed from the 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he was completely at sea with 3rd edition, so my advice was better than nothing. We played together over a few consecutive nights and I very much enjoyed having someone to chat with. We fought, tumbled, shrined and danced side by side, and for a brief while there I thought I thought he might stick it out. Sadly, however, Steven decided he’d had enough when the trial expired, and I was left bereft, with no company and no back up. It goes without saying that, on the back of this, I should have gotten over my issues and grouped with some other players, yet something held me back.

I don’t understand why I felt so shy. I am somewhat sociophobic and have a deep paranoia about what people think of me, so my biggest fear was being outed as a total noob, despite my countless years of Dungeons & Dragons experience in various formats. I chose instead to bide my time learning the ropes, developing an understanding of the economy, the context, the scope and what have you. Another problem was that I was afraid of not knowing the quests. I had no idea how sympathetic people would be and had seen many advertisements on the social panel with, in retrospect, rather unfriendly statements such as “Know the quest”; “no noobs” and the like. It didn’t give me confidence.

I always thought of joining groups, but just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it, even when players sent me a “tell” asking for help. And anyway, despite its frustrations, and this in the era before hirelings became available, I was very much enjoying the solo game. I thought grouping might be immersion-breaking; that, as had been the case in WoW, people would simply run through quests without explaining anything or bothering to role-play. I also feared that too few players took their gaming seriously. There were some truly awful-looking characters running about Stormreach, with ridiculous names like IKillU, DeathRage, YoMama, SmashYourFace, MeHealU and so on, that I thought these people were largely jokers. There were, of course, many very excellent looking characters, with thoughtful names and fine attire, who preferred, as I did, looking attractive or handsome rather than terrifyingly ugly. The question was, how, if I were to join random groups, would I be able to apply the shit-filter?

Ultimately, however, I was enjoying the game. Playing solo gave it the feel of a single-player game, but with the advantage of being in a living game-world with a real economy. Either way, it was working just fine for me and, by the time the ten-day trial was due to expire, I was already sufficiently hooked to sign up for a subscription. It was, to say the least, a fateful moment.

Having made a lot of mistakes with my first build, and having learned a thing or two during the trial, I decided it was time to create another character. It wasn’t long before Hallifax Bender was on the scene. Hallifax was a character I’d played in various different games – a swashbuckler in pen and paper D&D, a bard in Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 – and this time around I made him look like a dark-skinned Norse god. I had spotted another “toon” hanging around the harbour with an enormous white beard and decided that I wanted one as well. I have always liked to play the dilettante minstrel and Hallifax Bender was my default name for such a chap.

I, as Hallifax, continued to blunder around like a fool, slowly improving my understanding of the game, enjoying the challenge, but also being constantly frustrated by my failings and inadequacies. Still determined to play the game solo, I had to use tactics and caution in every situation, and doing this for positively weeks on end actually proved to be excellent training in the game. I was forced to take things slowly, to read everything, to sneak and hide and surprise my enemies, and, wherever possible, to run to a safer position and hold my ground as best as possible. I slowly developed an intimate knowledge of all the low-level dungeons. Stormreach harbour seemed packed with quests and, to begin with, I spent all my time there. One reason for this was that I was told by a city guard that I could not access the marketplace, and thus, the other city wards, until I’d completed a certain quest chain called The Waterworks, which was proving very difficult for me. What I didn’t know was that I could have just bribed the guard! Noob.

The game continued to be a frustrating experience, but it also had me hooked. Once I’d begun, I devoted all my gaming time to DDO. I began to develop cravings to play, but during the first few months, I kept things under control and only played at night. I avoided overlong sessions and didn’t let the game get in the way of sleep. As a player, I was improving slowly but surely. Refining my tactics and knowing what to expect made a huge difference. Hallifax was hardly a killer build, as a Ranger / Sorcerer / Bard multiclass, he was too thinly spread to be very effective, but his versatility was advantageous for solo play. I mostly ran on Hallifax, but I couldn’t help myself from switching back to Bethanie here and there, nor could I resist the lure of creating new characters. I went back to a few old favourites. Arnalde Holdfast was reborn as a Paladin and Summer Thingis returned as a Ranger, though I was forced to call her Summerr on account of her first name already being taken. As the first name is the most important on a server, and all messaging and mail is addressed to the first name only, it cannot be duplicated.

I didn’t stop with Summerr, either, for I also created a rather hapless chap called Tollande Rollmops. I wanted to see if it were possible to make a purely arcane character work, one who began as a Bard, then took a level of sorcerer before advancing as a wizard. Again, I was locked into my Neverwinter Nights mindset, wherein I believed I could make such a build work and still engage as a melee combatant. Tollande proved, to all intents and purposes, to be almost entirely useless, though he later found a role as my principal auctioneer once I began to flirt with the auction house properly. Had I allocated his stats and feats correctly, he might just have worked as a versatile wizard and spell-point guru, but I was a long way from making full sense of how best to put such a build together. What I also lacked was good equipment.

The main problem I faced in the game, apart from my unwillingness to group, and some ill-planned builds, was that I had no money and was forced to use inferior equipment. It was only when I really began to get a handle on the local economy, after several months of play, that my circumstances began to improve. I figured that my fortunes might improve incrementally as I crept up in levels and slowly acquired more gold, but I could never have predicted the great leap forward that was about to come.

Only those who have played MMOs can truly understand the lure of the auction house. I suspect, however, that Wall Street traders and stockbrokers must go through a similar experience of anxiety, excitement, withdrawal, desire and lust. I lusted after gold as so many have in the past, though the money I set out to make was all, of course, virtual.

When first I began playing I had no idea as to how to make money. The one lesson I hard learned from WoW, however, was that, with the exception of vendor trash, there was potentially a market for everything. If I sold items to a shopkeeper in town, I’d get about 10% of their listed value; yet I could name any price on the auction house. For my first few months, I experimented with the auction house, putting pretty well every piece of crappy loot I found up for auction, including total rubbish like a Ring of Swimming +3 or masterwork weapons. Still, I wasn’t to know what was valuable and what wasn’t, and I priced them so thoughtfully, below purchase price, but above what I got from the vendors, that I managed to sell them. Naturally items would sell according to the laws of demand and supply, yet it takes time and experience to know what is in demand and what’s not. It also takes as long time to learn which items are genuinely rare. Interpreting the value of loot also requires an understanding of the game’s different classes. A new player who has only played a fighter is not going to understand immediately the significance of, say, a Superior Potency III Sceptre, which increases the damage of a wizard or sorcerer’s 1st to 3rd-level spells by 50%.

For the first few months that I played the game I was dirt poor. I’d pick up the crappy loot from low-level chests and sell it to the vendors and brokers for peanuts. I’d auction anything I thought might sell and made some extra pocket money. It took me almost a month just to accumulate 30k gold, which is a drop in the ocean in game terms, considering a decent weapon might sell for between 75k and 250k and possibly much higher. There were items on the auction house being sold for 12 million gold, though I didn’t actually believe anyone could have this kind of money in the game, which was, admittedly, rather naïve of me.

The turning point came with the arrival of my first Festivault. Festivault was the in-game festival which occurred around Christmas time, running for roughly six weeks. During this period, chests would also drop Gold, Silver and Copper tokens which could be exchanged with one of the festival jesters for cakes and cookies that cast spell-like effects in the same way scrolls did. The cakes and cookies, however, cast the spells as though by a high-level caster, say 10th or 15th level, thus giving them greater power, penetration and duration. They also had the advantage of being usable by any character at any level. Initially I used them myself  to assist Hallifax and co. in difficult situations, but one day, whilst checking the auction house, I noticed that certain of these cakes sold for quite remarkable prices. Or, rather, they were listed for a lot of gold, though I did not really believe anyone would spend so much for a single-use item. All the same, it was worth a shot, so I put the cake that cast Blade Barrier as a 15th level spell up for sale at 100k and waited. I didn’t have to wait long, for it was sold within an hour, and suddenly, for the first time in my four stumbling months of play, I had some halfway decent spending money.

I was already playing the game way too much, but it was Festivault that really got me hooked to DDO in a big way. My frustration with the game had been growing, largely on account of my very slow advancement and lack of money. Of course, had I bothered teaming with other players I may have learned the ropes a lot more quickly, but my shyness persisted. Festivault allowed me to buy my first weapons with magic effects on them; it allowed me to buy some decent armour and stack up on wands and potions. I knew that Festivault wouldn’t last forever, so I was reluctant to blow all the money at once and saved a few hundred thousand gold pieces for later times. When Festivault ended, however, I found myself back at square one. Yes, I had made a good deal more money than I’d dreamed of having and had significantly upgraded my equipment, but when the money finally ran out as it no doubt would, I couldn’t see how I was going to make any more of it, apart from the old slow grind.

What I did know was that experienced players had money to burn, and all I need do was find what they needed and grind it. I undertook a new study of the auction house, trawling through every listed item and noting their average prices. This was no small feat as there were countless categories and thousands of different items listed, but I was diligent, and, after all, my Festivault savings were running out rapidly. I needed to find other ways to make money – fast.

I went through my inventories to see if I had anything that might fetch a decent price, but all I had was vendor trash and nothing that seemed to be selling at any sort of decent price whatsoever. Then, one day, about two months after the end of Festivault, I looked again at the “collectables” category.

Collectables were things that spawned from different nodes throughout the game. These nodes took the form of mushrooms, clumps of moss, piles of rubbish and the like, or treasure bags dropped by monsters. From them one could harvest such things as a string of prayer beads, a sparkling dust, a lush cryptmoss, a shamanic totem, a deadly feverblanch etc. There were hundreds of different collectables which could be exchanged with collectors for items such as magic arrows, potions, wands, scrolls, or they could be used in crafting. I noticed now that many of these things were listed for quite staggering prices. A sparkling dust for example, of which I had several in my backpack, was listed at 90k. I hadn’t initially believed anyone would pay such money for them, because I knew nothing about their role in crafting. Yet, on this second look it struck me that with so many collectables listed, surely all these people who auctioned them weren’t deluded. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

I looked in my collectables bag and noticed I had a number of items that were listed at very high prices. I put a few on offer at a price just below the current minimum and waited. Sure enough, as had been the case with the cakes and cookies, within a very short space of time there was a bite on the line and my sparkling dust sold for 85000 gold pieces. Woot!

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Deadly feverblanch were listed at 75k each and I had 12 of them in my backpack! Within a couple of days, I’d put everything that seemed to fetch a good price, or a price at all, up for sale. When I sold a Lightning Split Soarwood for 650k, a Luminescent dust for 500k, and a Fragrant Drowshood for 250k, I knew I’d hit the big time. These more valuable collectables were that not easy to find, but nor were they all that rare. Playing as regularly as I did, I found I’d usually get one truly valuable collectable every couple of sessions.

Suddenly, within the space of a month, I had millions of gold pieces. I was now able to purchase elite equipment and blow money on potions and wands with abandon. I went on a spending spree, buying more powerful weapons and finer suits of armour. I began to collect Elven Chainmail, being especially picky about the appearance of particular suits. I might have been a noob on many levels, but my characters were starting to look a lot nicer than previously. They were also a lot more effective.

This business of making money became highly addictive. I started grinding the dungeons I knew had nodes that dropped valuable collectables. It didn’t always work out, but I could usually collect enough in a session to make several hundred thousand gold pieces. The gold fever didn’t stop with collectables either. In the marketplace were brokers to whom one could sell loot for a slightly better price than regular vendors. These people specialised in things such as jewellery or clothing, armour or weapons, and what players sold to them could be re-purchased by other players. Now with more money, and able at last to shop at these brokers, it didn’t take long to realise that people sold a lot of very valuable items to them for a pittance. Again I began to experiment. I used my still relatively limited experience of the game to judge what would be of use to particular classes, studied the prices on the auction house, and began to purchase things. It soon became another vast gravy train and again, I was making hundreds of thousands of gold every single time I logged in.

When I later began to group with other players, I learned that my auction house skills and understanding of the market were quite exceptional. Many experienced players with high-level characters had money not because they worked the auction house well, but simply through gradual accumulation and the discovery and sale of higher-level, more valuable loot. I felt immensely pleased with myself and was popular, as so often rich people are, because I was generous with my money. I bought potions and wands for clerics, scrolls for casters, dished out funds when people were low on cash and even used gold to bribe the odd player whose services were needed to join my party and abandon the second-rate group of hacks with whom they were currently grouped.

On my first run through the Cursed Crypt quest in the Necropolis with Hallifax, I miraculously pulled an extremely rare item of loot called the Scourge Choker. It was a necklace that caused the character, when struck, to enter into an increasingly powerful rage that raised strength and constitution considerably. I really ought to have kept something so rare, but when I saw that it was listed on the auction house for twelve million gold pieces, I couldn’t resist putting it up for auction. Sure enough, it sold at that price, and after the annoying and pointless auction-house tax, I received just over 8 million gold pieces in one fell swoop.

The auction house was horribly addictive. Every time I logged in I would go straight to the brokers, switch through all the instances, buy up all the good equipment and take it to the auction house. It was a thrill checking the post when I logged in to see how much money I had made. It was a challenge estimating the chance of a sale, setting prices, taking a punt on some borderline things that might just be good for a sale. It took me almost forty-five minutes just to manage my finances each time I logged in, before I actually started playing the game. Some days, I didn’t even bother doing any quests and all I cared about was the auction house and the brokers. The other problem with the auction house was that, being on an international server largely populated by American, Chinese and European players, there were far more players on between midnight and the middle of the afternoon than at night, so in order to find more bargains, it was best to log on in the morning when more players meant more instances in the marketplace – to avoid player overload in public areas – and thus, in effect, more brokers with more loot.

Eventually, after two years of play, I was so good at making money and had so much floating around on various characters, that I wanted a new challenge. I switched from the Sarlona server to Ghallanda, started a new 1st-level character called Swimm Lantern and set about levelling him and making money. I raced through Korthos in a couple of hours, made my way to Stormreach and went straight through some low-level quests, collecting everything I could find.

After selling all the junk to vendors, I managed, after a couple of hours, to accumulate around 3000 gold pieces. I took this money straight to the brokers and bought a couple of useful level 1 items people had sold: Boots of Expeditious Retreat and a Cloak of Shield. These items allowed the owner to use said spells three times per rest, and were useful to low-level players. I knew only too well that experienced players starting new characters would look straight away to buy this sort of equipment, and, paying roughly 1000 gold per item, I put them on the auction house at 15k a pop. Sure enough, they sold quickly, whilst I was out getting more loot and collectables. At the end of my first session, I was already on 25k and now able to buy a greater number of low level items to mark up on the auction house. Within three days, I had hit level 5 and made my first million. Most players to whom I told this did not believe a word of it, one even called me a liar – so, in true school playground fashion, I showed him the money, said “suck on that,” and left his shitty group.

Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. For, it was just a few months after I first began to make money, about seven months after starting to play the game, that I finally accepted the invitation to join a group. I’d thought the game was addictive before, but things were about to go to an entirely new level. The longest waking dream of my life was about to begin.

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