Friday, September 15, 2017

Eleven Cities Ruined the Game

Good evening, cannon fodders.

Eleven cities ruined the PvP game. Yes, really. There has been no bigger shift in Illyriad PvP since the introduction of exodus on 29 September 2011. I'm sure many muggles didn't even notice a change in server behavior, because the biggest shift happened in the apex alliances. Trust me, when the 10 city cap was lifted on 23 February 2015, that represented a seismic shift in the way the game was played. Two and a half years later, we are still feeling the aftershocks of that feature implementation. Today we will examine why.

Eleven Cities?

On 23 February 2015, the Illyriad devs lifted the 10 city cap. Overnight, the maximum number of cities went from 10 to theoretically 40. Why was that such a culture shock? For starters, in old school Illyriad, the first 9 cities were easy to attain from a population standpoint. You could even reach that level with all 5 food cities. The 233550 population requirement for 10 cities pushed people towards 7 food towns, but you could still reach that tenth and final city with a mix of 5, 6, and 7 food cities.

One undesirable consequence of the 11+ update is that it opened up a huge gap between new and existing players. It is entirely reasonable for every Illyriad player to reach 9 cities if they so desire. 10 cities used to take some work, which is why it was a celebrated push within the community, and even supported with the Famine Management discovery in your capital. The opportunities to reach 11+ cities are asymmetrically weighted towards the big, old alliances who control excellent city locations in high food areas. In my personal opinion, this is a highly negative development. In old school Illyriad, new players could see that anyone could easily reach 9 cities, and that celebrated tenth town was only 1/9 better than 9. Now, they look at 20, 30, 40 city players and can see that the gameplay gap is absolutely enormous.

Location, Location, Location

Because the population requirement climbs for each additional city, the 11+ update really pushed people towards only 7 food cities. There is no other effective way to push towards 20-30 cities. The update also made water sov far more important, since coastal and river water is the primary source of closely clustered high-food sovereignty tiles. Who controls those locations? In Elgea, it's predominantly the big, old alliances (BOAs).

The altered importance of location caused many behavioral changes. The BOAs started hoarding their dead accounts, even moreso than usual. After the update, you could see the spike in same-alliance holding sieges. These are non-destructive sieges generated by quickly jumping out and back into an alliance, to lock an inactive alliance member in place. With a holding siege on one city, that entire dead account is prevented from entering the server's automatic deletion cycle for inactive accounts. That's a big deal, because holding sieges create a museum effect, allowing a BOA to lock up dozens of desirable locations on the map. These cities are farmed out internally at the alliance's convenience, but in the meantime, those dead cities are blocking all other players from taking the valuable locations.

This particular practice has led alliances like Loki to begin attacking indefinite holding sieges within their sphere of influence. To many this seems like unprovoked cruelty to weaker alliances, depriving them of their own alliance property. However, a strong argument can also be made that by breaking indefinite holding sieges, those dead accounts are being released into the automatic deletion cycle, clearing space on the map for active players who are still actually playing the game.

Another phenomenon directly attributed to 11+ is the terraforming craze. Before 2015, terraforming was an occasional thing. Now, tiny accounts are churned endlessly on a weekly basis. How healthy can it be to have people engaged in a constant cycle of creating baby accounts and then immediately teleporting and abandoning them? That might fluff up the game stats on number of players, but these aren't actually players at all. At what point does that process cross the line of healthy use of game mechanics and enter the realm of exploits?

All About the Benjamins

At this point, a smart player would ask, why did the Illyriad devs raise the city cap? Two words: prestige sales. The only way to capture a city in Illyriad is by destroying at least 75% of its population. Even if a big player is merely absorbing their alt, they will have to rebuild 3/4 of the city's population if they want to keep capturing more. Often they must rebuild considerably more than 3/4, because the original city wasn't a 31000 population behemoth that will support the ever-increasing population threshold. If you want to build a 20-40 city account in any sensible timeframe, then you have to buy prestige.

We can see that the feature makes business sense for Illyriad Games Ltd.. The game map is filled with hundreds of accounts in the 9-10 city range. Raising the cap encouraged all remaining active 10-city players to start spending money on the game again. However, this update also created an immediate gap between players who spend meaningful amounts of prestige, and those who do not. The pay-to-win phenomenon will eventually appear in all commercially viable free-to-play titles, but that was a pronounced culture shift for the Illyriad Community (TM).

I also believe that the prestige cycle has taken on a different form than originally envisioned, to the great detriment of the overall game. The BOAs probably aren't buying prestige themselves. Wait, what? If they aren't buying prestige, then how are they building these enormous 20-40 city accounts?

All That Glitters

The update on 14 October 2014 introduced the ability to construct Prestige Items and sell them in the Illyriad trade hubs. Sales of gold for prestige had often happened in the form of sitter arrangements and alliance jumpers, but this update formalized prestige into a physical item that could be sold for gold.

Gold, I believe, is the main construction fuel of the mega-accounts. Unto itself, this isn't a bad phenomenon. Players can now effectively spend $3 USD to get 20-25M gold. As gold is useful for troops, diplomats, sovereignty, and various market purchases, this could be described as a overall good thing.

Where I personally object to the process is that it really encourages the BOAs to keep dead big accounts on life support. Many departing players will hand over their passwords to their friends. These accounts, often in the 8-10 city range, will then get converted into high-tax gold farms. Their sole purpose is to generate large sums of free gold and supplies for the main alliance accounts.

Let me be clear: it is my opinion that massive gold farm accounts are adding nothing to the game. Those accounts represent players who have left Illyriad. They are not played by people's wives, or by players who log in only occasionally to socialize and reset sitter rights. That is a sham. These accounts are occupying map space across the Illyriad world, doing nothing but enriching their multi-accounting owners.

Real traders, have you noticed a trend in the markets? For the last few years, the price of military supplies has gone down. Doesn't that strike you as odd? Kodabear has revived the yearly tournament, so shouldn't demand for supplies have increased? The markets have steadily declined because the BOAs were the main purchasers of military supplies, and almost all of their materiel is now produced internally via farms.

Real crafters, don't you think it's strange that the 22 February 2015 update introduced a 5x power update to crafted items, but since then, the price for crafted equipment and rare materials has fallen steadily? How is that possible? The power of that gear is higher than ever before, but prices sank? It's because the BOA gold farms are often filled with crafting centers. Your work is no longer really required.

Miners, herbalists, have you ever wondered who is holding the permanent valuable resources? If it's a very low growth account, chances are very strong that it's just a zombie account supporting a BOA player. Many times you won't even see harvesters going out to the plots. They sit idle until the main account needs some more rare material crafted into items.

Hunters, have you ever wondered about that nearby player who never shows any growth, just hunting and then harvesting the kills? BOA permasat, almost guaranteed. One look at the growth chart, and you can tell the difference between a main and a farm. Even the sov and city structures will give it away (and maybe that would make an interesting future article).

My intention here is not to write a manifesto against multi-accounting gold farming. Permasats are a fact of life in most MMO strategy games. What I want to highlight is that the 11+ update really kicked that process into high gear in Illyriad. Previously, you could supply a 9-10 city tournament account with a single 9 city alt. When you go to 20, 30, 40 cities, there is no way to supply all that except by collecting even more dead accounts to permasit. Even the alliances who don't play tournaments still need the permasats to supply gold to buy prestige, and the raw construction materials to actually prestige build the captured cities to completion.

The BOAs alone were uniquely positioned to receive the best gold farms. By operating zombie accounts and the occasional museum alliance, they are severely distorting the game simply by being big and old. A revitalized community would favor the alliances who are filled with active players, not the ones operating spreadsheets full of permasats. That hoarding of life support accounts is tilting all tournament results towards the BOAs. More importantly for the muggles, all those zombie accounts are suffocating the trade, the free markets, and crafting.

Fear and Loathing

So why is this topic even worthy of Warmongering in Illyriad? Because the 11+ update produced a crushing effect on PvP. Back in the day, big players hated losing city 10. It was painful to lose that town after the 10th city process: reconfigure all cities for high population, capture the 10th, and then restore all 10 cities to normal functioning status.

On today's battlefield, big players have repeated that process to 15, 20, 30 cities. If you point a credible siege in their direction, their first instinct is usually to flee via exodus rather than risk losing that town. Alliances with big accounts want to surrender as quickly as possible to limit city damage. The most visible recent example was the vCrow war. Despite having maybe 200-250 troop-producing cities that were mostly surrounded by plains, their alliance chose to concede the entire Broken Lands continent rather than face losing more cities. I believe the pain of permanently losing cities in the 11-30 range was a major influence on that decision.

Not all players will fear losing their 11th and subsequent cities. Unfortunately, I am forced to conclude that the morale of very large accounts will always be in question, because so much effort was invested into attaining 11-30 cities. What's the point of fighting wars where the biggest--and therefore the most glorious--opponents are inclined to drop their colors and surrender at the mere threat of losing a couple cities? It seems clear to me that the 11+ update opened a huge psychological gap between giant 11-40 city tournament accounts and the battle-hardened 9 city PvP accounts. If the big accounts are so brittle, then doesn't that just push the BOAs to be even more paranoid than ever before? I believe more people should explore and enjoy military PvP in this game, but once you cross into that 11+ city zone, the stakes just get excruciatingly high, which generates more hostility and reluctance towards PvP.

Breaking the Cycle

So what is to be done about this situation? Clearly the devs can't roll back the 11+ update, and I wouldn't want them to. The problems that we really need to fix involve keeping dead and nearly-dead accounts in the game for far too long. Specifically, there are some loopholes around accounts that badly need to be changed to make the game base healthier. To the Illyriad devs, I would personally recommend:
  1. Teleport functions like an instant exodus. No tiles change values.
  2. Holding sieges only affect the target city, not the whole account.
  3. Accounts past 90 days inactivity receive the visible (Abandoned) attribute, regardless of holding sieges.
  4. The (Abandoned) attribute immediately halts food production and deletes all sov.
  5. Accounts auto-delete at 105 days inactivity, regardless of holding sieges.
That would at least clear up the abuse of terraforming and the BOA ability to lock up dozens of map locations with a single token siege that costs nothing.

I cannot recommend that the devs crack down on the active permasat accounts. That doesn't make any economic sense for them. As long as people are buying prestige to trade for gold, then allowing the permasat gold farms to distort the markets makes good business sense for Illyriad Games Ltd., even if it is slowly rotting away the muggle community. I would, however, encourage the devs to post weekly stats on gold generation and consumption, so that people can see how much the gold farms are actually slanting the overall Illyriad economy in aggregate.

I would likewise suggest that players become more supportive of brush wars and breaking holding sieges, but such a shift is quite improbable.

Always remember, for muggles and true cannon fodders alike, that crossing the threshold of 11 cities requires massive structural changes to your account. Those changes will inevitably make PvP more painful and less appealing. Grow with caution.

One More Thing

Watch out for those zombie accounts.

May I join your museum brains? Er, alliance.

Misbehave, kill lots of stuff.

<^^^^^^^^||==O    Skint Jagblade

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