Time as Value, Grind as Virtue

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This ramble starts off with some general theory and goes onto some vague implications for game design (mostly video game design) at the end.

Sipping from the Firehose

Humans have a natural and obvious tendency to value more of something. Most of us will accept a moderate decrease in quality for a large increase in quantity (up to a certain point and relative to the circumstances). This makes a lot of sense in most cases, but it’s a little weird for media, where “quantity” equates to “requires more time to consume.”

Really since the advent of the public library, but especially since the internet, we live in a world of media post-scarcity. If you could backup the internet as it exists right now and lock someone in a room with nothing to do but access that backup through a terminal, that person would take lifetimes to consume all the media online worth consuming, even without adding access to anything behind a paywall.

In many cases, decision paralysis is a worse cause of boredom: you just have so much you could read, watch, or play that it’s hard to settle on one thing. I have a whole stack of Steam sale games and shows and movies in my Netflix queue that are simply daunting, especially when I look over at my growing stack of unread novels and RPG books.

Which is all to say that it’s kind of weird that we put so much stock in things that take longer to consume, when a story or game that was shorter but still packed in all the fun and emotions would allow you to more easily move on to the next thing in your list. TV has been gradually learning this lesson: more and more really good shows are moving to the BBC model of 6-12 episode seasons with a more concentrated story and without filler.

Extra length does have a benefit: it allows you to add a lot more things that create immersion, making the consumer feel like the fictional world and characters are real and full of texture, like you would like to escape there. But while it allows that, too often what it does is present creators with more space to fill and not enough creativity or money to fully utilize all that space.

All Payment Options Lead to Grind

Video games, in particular, have a bad version of this problem. There’s a lot of commentary on how going from a “pay for it once then own it” model to an “all you can eat subscription” model drastically increased grind, and “free to play but with lots of options to buy things” model made it worse, but all three have their problems:

  • Box Only: Games that are less than 10 hours have a really hard time convincing consumers to purchase them at full price. Even though a matinee of an hour and a half movie has crept up to $9, and you’d thus easily be paying $60 to spend ten hours in the theater, paying $60 for a ten hour game is a very hard sell. So rather than giving you a game that’s a few hours long and packed with unique art and story, designers need to turn the money that would pay for a certain amount of amazing content into a lot more less amazing content. Frequently, since it’s very easy to repeat combat encounters and make them take time, you wind up with fights that are time fillers struggling to change just enough that they continue to be fun.
  • Subscription: Subscription games have it worse, particularly for “content heavy” games. The longer you can make a game take to complete, the longer the player keeps giving you $15 a month, and you have to somehow create enough stuff to do for players that are in game hours every day while not making players that can only play an hour or two a week feel like they’d never get anywhere. A Kill Ten Rats quest is drastically easier and cheaper to build than something heavily scripted and unique that would take the same amount of time to play, and an “end game” gear grind lets you make the casuals feel like they’re making progress while still having a much more time-intensive option for your hard cores.
  • Freemium: Freemium games, no matter the marketing speak, exist for one reason: in a subscription game, you’re leaving money on the table for both hard cores that would give you more than $15 a month and casuals that might not give you $15 but would give you something. The model essentially demands that designers create situations where you can progress through the game in a way that’s not particularly fun but is free or one that is fun and costs money. Sometimes that “fun” is just “getting access to cosmetic things to make you not look like one of the boring free players” but quite a lot of the time it’s “getting to skip some of the grind.”

And all of these issues flow from a perception that longer is better, intensified by the need for a persistent multiplayer environment.

Virtuous Grinders, Sinning Payers

But the weirdest thing, the thing that inspired the whole article, is how that mindset has resulted in weird behaviors regarding the transition to Freemium that most MMOs are making. Most players seem to hate the idea of “Pay to Win” with a righteous fire: the concept that you could buy something with cash that they spend game time achieving is enraging and that you might buy something better than they can get from playing is anathema. Because, deep down, players recognize that they’re being forced through a skinner box to try to get the thing that is actually “fun” and being able to skip that process doesn’t seem fair. It’s often couched as “earning through skill,” and how it’s not fair for someone to get to skip that learning and earning process, but there’s relatively little in most MMOs (except possibly at the bleeding edge of the endgame) that can’t be obtained by just slogging through whatever obstacles are in place. Designers simply can’t make a large-scale, content-heavy MMO that prevents less skilled players from progressing, so the only real “skill” is perseverance.

What this winds up meaning is that having free time to play the game becomes the only virtuous way to play; if you have less free time, it’s seen as sinful to pay real money to catch up to those with more free time. Even though, from the business side, the players that are paying you more money to see less content are exactly what you want. Developers would love to make more money while only producing their best ideas as content. But the norm for games is that players would rather have padded content for less money and actively stigmatize players that want to pay more for less padding.

I don’t actually have a solution for this. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed recently, and I’m curious whether anyone else has solutions, and whether players that hate the idea of Pay to Win feel that I’m mischaracterizing their motivations.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Conclusion

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The next crop of AAA MMOs are largely ones that started development before the recession and before World of Warcraft finally started to lose subscribers, but weren’t far enough along to be totally locked into their designs. The advances in game systems probably have a lot to do with the fact that “just copy WoW” has been proven to not be a great way to make back your multi-million-dollar investment. For the first time in a decade, it’s no longer necessarily the safe bet to keep your designers from innovating too much.

But it’s also the first time in a decade that investing in MMOs seems like a huge risk. When Everquest had a few hundred thousand subscribers, it was tremendously successful. But then WoW got into the millions and that set expectations accordingly. We’re now in a realm where AAA games cost so much to make that games with hundreds of thousands of players paying their $15 a month are considered flops, and will soon find themselves converted to a freemium model to try to get more than $15 out of the hardcore and draw in a bigger audience willing to kick in a couple bucks here and there. Star Wars: the Old Republic had quite likely the highest-population MMO launch ever and it wasn’t nearly enough to actually count as a success, given the costs of production.

And even if your investors take the long view that a decent launch will pay back the game eventually, that doesn’t account for so many games hemorrhaging subscribers after the first couple of months. These days, there’s too much competition, and you can’t lock in your players for years the way WoW and prior successful games did. Players buy your game, play it for a while, and then move on to the next thing. The next thing might not even be an MMO: it’s possible part of SW:tOR’s problem was just its own sister game, Mass Effect 3, coming out shortly after launch and dragging people out of the MMO long enough to lose inertia. That’s certainly what happened to me.

While it’s been predicted before many times by smarter industry analysts than me, what I’m saying is that this next generation of MMOs may be the last generation of them in the sense we’ve come to expect: an immersive 3D action/adventure/RPG with a ton of content. Creating something that can even compete on that front costs millions and millions of dollars that it might never make back, and the smart money these days is in Web and mobile games. Investors are scared, fans are burned out, and developers are shell shocked from the frequent layoffs.

I’m really hoping that there’s enough innovation in this generation to get players excited again. Because if there’s not a big hit that keeps its audience long enough to make its investors happy, the next generation after this one is going to have a nigh-impossible time getting funding. I think there’s still a lot of cool things MMOs could do that other genres can’t, particularly now that they’re finally out of the decade long shadow of trying to emulate EQ and WoW. I’ll be very sad if we never get to see them.

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 4

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Very Public Quests

Public quests aren’t really new at this point. Warhammer Online was the first AAA MMO that made a big deal about having them, Champions Online quietly introduced them not long after, and Rift made them a focal point of the game. The concept is pretty simple: anyone who walks into an area where one of these things is happening gets a quest goals pop-up and sees it increase as everyone in the area completes the goals. Instead of one person killing ten rats, you might have twenty people killing 200 rats. Once the quest is completed, you get a reward based on your contribution level, but everyone who tried to help generally gets something.

The running problem with the existing model is long-term scaling. A zone-wide quest that’s fun when there are 200 people in the area due to launch may be unplayable if you’re the only one in the zone six months later. In CO, I almost never saw anyone at some of the more out of the way public quests after the first couple of weeks. Some public quests don’t properly scale down to one player and aren’t really completable unless you have a group.

But what the move to public quests seems to have done is to open the question of the value of private quests.

In most MMOs to date, other players are competition most of the time: every creature they kill and object they interact with is one less available for you. Games have long struggled with whether to have a tagging/locking system (the first person to hit the creature gets credit when it dies) or give all rewards to the last person to damage the creature. Either case can be easily manipulated by players who don’t mind taking from others to get ahead. And either way injects a heap of antisocial sentiment into a game based on multiplayer and community.

Some of the newer games are relaxing this limitation significantly. In The Secret World I was pleased to note that everyone seemed to be getting quest credit when ganging up on quest monsters; it made the beta rush bearable as you could effectively team up without having to formally create a team. And that methodology is extremely core to Guild Wars 2 where there are very few private quests. Instead, events happen in an area and everyone that participates gets rewards (and it’s pretty easy to get the maximum possible reward). Further, everyone that hits an enemy, even for minimal damage, gets full credit for it.

The change in mindset, other than technical developments, primarily comes down to quantifying player effort. Older MMOs have often been somewhat obsessed with what is “fair” in a zero-sum sense. If I did 90% of the damage to a creature and you did 10%, you certainly shouldn’t get the same rewards as me. But while that does seem fair in an absolute sense, it causes all the problems with kill stealing, antisocial multiplayer behavior, and other unnecessary competitiveness.

The contrary view is simply setting up a game where people getting equal rewards for not quite equal contributions don’t cost you anything. Sure, the guy only doing 10% of the damage is benefiting from you, but you’re still getting your rewards 10% faster for his help. And in most cases he’s probably not a parasite out to make you do all the work for him, but just genuinely someone that’s not as good as you but still wants to have fun. Removing the competition will, in most cases, make things more social and fun for everyone.

I do have some worries that GW2 is betting too heavily on what are, still, essentially the same public quests that aren’t as fun once zone populations thin out, but I really like the experiment they’re trying in player behavior. I don’t like pickup groups, but I do like being able to play in a multiplayer game without feeling that other players are the enemy. And, so far, the games where big groups of players can all do stuff in the same without hurting one another’s fun is a definite win. I really hope this mindset survives to influence future MMOs, even if the particulars of public questing don’t pan out.

Conclusion

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 3

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Limited Skill Deck-Building

Most MMOs have traditionally been of the model that every skill your character learns is available to you at will. Certainly, some skills require a particular item to work. And some MMOs don’t really give you that many in the first place. In fact, most MMOs have a very hard time giving you convenient access to more than a dozen skills, because once you have one bound to every number, the rest generally have to be accessed via binds, macros, or clicking an icon with your mouse. WoW and now SW:TOR are the champions of this last fact: by max level you can easily have over 40 power icons on your screen, each of which is useful frequently enough to leave it there.

But, given the way your hands work, the only ones convenient to use are the ones within easy reach of your fingers. In games with dozens of useable powers, high-level encounters might be balanced to need a lot of them. So your ability to play the high level content really comes down to having an amazing spatial memory for your skill bar, good recall about what each of your abilities does, and tricks for getting there fast. I’m sure there are people that love this type of player competence being required to play well, but it’s not really that friendly to a mass audience. I suspect the vast majority of players almost never use more skills than fit in their first row of quickslots.

The first place I saw this directly supported was Guild Wars 1: you can only have eight skills active on your character at a time (accessed with number keys 1-8). You might know literally hundreds of skills, but you have to pick eight to take into an adventure (you can freely arrange them in town). Theoretically, not many skills are drastically better than other skills, but each varies in cost, time to use, cooldown, and effects. Some skills are better if you can use other skills to cause an effect (e.g., a skill that does extra damage to burning characters, but doesn’t, itself, set them on fire). Others are more valuable based on party composition (e.g., a skill that gives bonus HP to every party member for each enchantment is more useful in a party that uses a lot of enchantment buffs). Still others are more useful if you know what you’re fighting (e.g., armor against earth elemental damage is incredibly useful against specific enemies but completely useless against most others). So choosing your skills is a lot like building a deck in a collectible card game: you’re looking for synergy and strategy over raw power.

It’s not surprising that Guild Wars 2 is keeping a similar system. But it’s not the only MMO of this generation that’s doing so: both TERA and The Secret World use a similar mechanism as well. GW2 has changed it up from the previous game: you still only have a limited number of skills, but half of them are based on equipped weapon, one is always a heal, and one is always a high-level elite skill (reducing the deck building complexity considerably). You also often have different class-based effects on F1-F4. This theoretically gives the player less freedom, but probably makes balancing content significantly easier for the designers (currently in GW1 there are skill decks with synergy so good they can allow a prepared player to safely solo elite group content). Meanwhile, TSW is much closer to GW1, in that you have complete freedom to choose your skill deck. Their variation is that skills are unlocked via a tree structure (rather than just captured or purchased individually) and you have an additional bar of skills that aren’t activated, but give you passive bonuses. But all evidence points to skill synergy being at least as important as in GW1. Finally, I only played TERA briefly, but it seemed to be using a similar system more for ease of access than anything else: I recall that you could only put abilities on the first six number keys and the first four F keys, ensuring that you’d never have to reach across the keyboard to use a power.

In general, I really like the trend that seems to be happening. Having lots of skills available at once really makes it necessary to pay more attention to the UI than to the 3D world, even if you can manage all those abilities. It also seems to make a “gotcha” encounter design more common, where you’ll normally be fine with just your first quickbar of skills, but you’ll periodically hit a wall of difficulty if you don’t remember some skill buried on bar six (“Oh, right, I can stun droids! That encounter could have been a lot easier!”). Knowing that you can only have a small number of your total skills available at one time makes it much easier to just pay attention to the 3D game and feel safe that, if a skill selection is doing well in an area, there will probably not be something you forgot to use in a later encounter.

The one downside to it is that it has no particular simulation rationale: it’s entirely a game mechanic, and there’s no explanation for why your character can’t use any learned skill in a pinch. But, given that most MMOs have hugely more severe violations of such immersion, that’s probably not worth getting annoyed about.

Part 4

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 2

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Active Combat

One of the things that virtually every new MMO is trying is some variation on active combat. Effectively, attacks aren’t predestined to hit a target; if you get out of the way, you can avoid the attack.

Now, in a lot of ways, calling this a new development is an exaggeration. MMOs have featured AoEs that you can dodge for years; that’s why “don’t stand in the fire” is a meme, and tanks have long practiced trying to turn the boss away from the group. However, for the vast majority of single target attacks, there was no way to dodge. Due to latency issues, your client and the server might disagree on the precise location of each character in the world, so determining whether someone was in a small area in a brief moment was a much harder calculation than determining whether you were somewhere in a big AoE. So you’d frequently see ranged attacks bending to hit you no matter how you moved: it was predetermined to hit as soon as it was fired, and all you could do was force your client to recalculate the animation.

I’m still not entirely sure how the newer games are getting around this limitation. Likely it involves a lot more processing power and bandwidth spent on minimizing latency issues. In the betas I’ve been playing, the occasional lag spikes do make fights suddenly far more difficult than they would be in an older school game with automatic hits. Regardless, they all seem to be featuring the ability to get out of the way of attacks by moving (and the related effect of making you hit enemies in between you and your actual target).

Another thing all of these active combat systems seems to be featuring is the addition of an active dodge. I personally first saw this in Star Trek Online, basically added as an homage to Captain Kirk, but I think that system was not technically active combat: while you were dodge rolling, the game would just increase your defense stat against attacks. However, in TERA, GW2, and TSW, the dodge roll is a way to move more quickly out of a big attack. All of these games limit pretty heavily how often you can do it, as it can fling you much further away than your normal movement speed would allow. However, I’m not a huge fan of the effect for a crucial reason: most of these games bind the dodge to double-tapping a direction. So I frequently find myself accidentally expending a dodge roll when I start to move in a direction, pause for a moment, and then continue.

And, in general, I don’t wind up using the dodge roll a lot intentionally because simple circle-strafing is often sufficient. My TSW fights with a gun-based character seemed like they should have the Benny Hill theme as combat music: every one of them featured my character running around and around melee targets firing pistols at them point blank. GW2 is a little bit better, simply because more enemies want to stay at range and there are often other players around to body-block melee opponents; you’ll still want to keep moving, but it’s at least in a more believable fashion.

Ultimately, the active combat systems do accomplish a cherished goal of making fights feel more dynamic. Keeping your character moving is almost always a good idea, and you’re trained from very early on to watch out for enemy wind-up attacks and AoE markers so you may not have to wait until your raid leader is is screaming at you to learn to stay out of the fire. And more moving players means more moving monsters, which makes the whole thing feel even more dynamic. However, given that the tradeoff is a complex system to account for latency and that fights can suddenly become impossible with a bad connection, I’m not totally sure this generation of MMOs is going to be able to pull the feature off as well as it would like. It feels more like a gimmick than a really necessary feature, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive to the next generation as a thing that all MMOs must have.

Part 3

System Review: Next Gen MMOs, Part 1

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So I’ve fallen behind on trying out new tabletop systems lately, but I have been playing the betas for a lot of MMORPGs coming out this year. This includes TERA, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World. I also played Star Wars: the Old Republic for a while. Finally, I’ve been hearing a small amount of buzz about the systems for upcoming games like The Elder Scrolls Online. And there are some interesting similarities to the systems for these games that may mark them as “next gen” more than just better graphics. So I’d like to talk in general about those mechanics, which games do them the best, and what I think they might mean going forward.

Use of Cutscenes

MMOs have been using cutscenes for a while. Both City of Heroes and Guild Wars 1 have had them for over half a decade, and I’m sure a bunch of other games from the same era also have them by now. They’re particularly common in major storyline missions, where the value proposition of custom scripting to maximum number of eyeballs pays off.

But what I’ve begun to see in newer games is the use of cutscenes not just as something interesting in a major mission, but as a replacement for the quest text when you get that mission in the first place. SW:TOR is obviously the champion of this right now, with virtually every mission started and ended with a voiced conversation. Secret World has voiced cutscenes for its major story missions, but relies on text for secondary ones. GW2 voices all personal story quests, and has done away with mission text in general for most other purposes (because it’s done away with the standard concept of missions, which I’ll probably talk about later in the series).

The utility of this is very simple: most players don’t like to read. If you actually want to tell a story to your players, you’re going to go way further with a voiced scene that has interesting action and camera movement, than just presenting them with a dense paragraph in a dialog box. The effect was so powerful in SW:TOR that it went a long way to making me excited to play even though most of their other mechanics were similar to ones in World of Warcraft that I was long burned out on.

However, the downside of it is that it’s very expensive to do, and hard to do well. Voice actors are expensive, sound editing is labor intensive, and voice files make your game download huge. Even if you can handle all of that, the process could create problems for the designers down the road. What if you realize that you made a mistake and need to change dialogue? What if you want to add new content post-launch involving a character that was originally voiced by someone no longer available? What if your players don’t like the voice actor you’ve hired to play their characters?

SW:TOR handles this the best, with lots of fully voiced choices and plenty of (class-based) vocal selection for your PC, but rumor indicates that they spent a ton of money on it. The Secret World seems to have decided to punt on the player voice mismatch question and just not voice the PC at all in these cutscenes: your PC just stands there mute staring dumbly at the NPC’s soliloquy. GW2 is walking a middle road: they’ve based player voice on race and not given nearly as many choices mid-dialogue as Star Wars, but provided enough variety to keep the player engaged.

Ultimately, I keep waiting for someone to come up with a reasonable text-to-voice synthesizer that will work in MMOs. Voice acting, even more than quality 3D engine and art, is becoming the key differentiator between AAA MMOs and the rest of the breed. And it’s a huge, expensive gamble that makes it harder to enter the space.

Part 2

Ramble: Auction vs. Consignment

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I recently started playing City of Heroes again to check out Going Rogue. One of the first things I noticed on coming back was that various changes to how money is earned, the merging of the markets between heroes and villains, and the growing number of max level characters with nothing better to do than farm currency meant that my assumptions about how much it should cost to “gear up” a character were out of date. I started reading some market strategy guides out of self defense, and found them very interesting… primarily in that my assumption about how the player to player market worked was fundamentally incorrect.

But first, keep in mind that the dominant player market system in MMOs is World of Warcraft, which has an auction system. Unless it’s changed a lot from when I played a few years ago, it works a lot like eBay. A player lists an item along with the minimum he or she will accept for it, whether he or she is willing to let it go for a “buy it now” price, and how long the listing will be available. Players see the current winning amount, and know that, if they want the item, they will have to beat this amount and hope no one else comes along offering more money before the listing expires. Impatient players can spend the “buy it now” price and get the item immediately, but for potentially far more than it could be had if they were willing to wait for the auction to expire. Players have to rely on 3rd party sites or their own research to track what the current average sale price for the item is, or, if it’s a common item, they can simply bid on the one that’s cheapest at the moment.

Most MMOs that I’m familiar with use a similar auction system, though often less polished or complete than WoW’s.

City of Heroes is different, in that it uses a consignment system. Players that want to sell an item simply list it and the minimum price they are willing to accept for it. Players that want to buy an item select it from a list of all available items and enter how much they’re willing to pay for it. For slow-moving items, there may be only one person buying or selling at any given time. If you’ve listed an item, as soon as a buyer requests it at a price equal or greater than your asking price, it’s sold and you receive the amount spent. If you’re a buyer, as soon as someone lists your requested item for equal or less than you’re offering, you get it for that price. There’s even a list of the last five sales to show both parties what the going rate is for an item (this is far more accurate for rare items than for common ones: if an item is selling in huge amounts, the last five merely displays a constantly shifting snapshot of current demand, and can easily skew the perceived value of an item by a single person paying too much for several of them).

What I hadn’t understood about the consignment house until reading the market threads was the method the system used to match buyer and seller when there are a lot of bids and/or a lot of sellers. When something only has 1 buying or selling, it’s very easy to (barring listing fees for the seller) figure out through trial and error whether the seller is willing to sell for the price the buyer is willing to pay, even though the transaction is completely anonymous. Things get more complicated when things are selling briskly: you may have to bid 1,000 to immediately get something that has a thousand for sale and usually goes for 100. Meanwhile, you might be able to bid 20,000 for something currently selling for 100,000, and get one in a few minutes. From a seller’s perspective, you’ll sometimes list something for what appears to be the going rate, and fail to sell it for hours or days even though the sales are still turning over at roughly the rate you listed, sometimes lots more, and sometimes you’ll list something for a pittance and receive way more than you expected to get.

I had assumed that there was something complicated going on with first in/first out based on time of listing being compared to amount offered. The common wisdom on the forums is that it’s much simpler than that: bids are sorted from highest bid to lowest, sales are sorted from lowest list price to highest, and the two are paired off until the highest bid no longer is enough to get the lowest list. If there are three people bidding 5,000, 4,500, and 4,000, the item listed at 1,000 will get 5,000, the item listed at 3,000 will get 4,500, and the item listed at 5,000 will get nothing (because the remaining 4,000 bid is insufficient, even though it would have matched perfectly to the original high bid). This goes a long way to explaining how there can be certain items that will have hundreds of the same item both listed and bidding: high bids don’t peel off the high list prices until all the cheaper items are sold. Meanwhile, theoretically you can list an item at 1 and get the maximum amount currently on offer (though you may have no real idea how much that is).

I’m genuinely curious why the market was designed this way. If I’d set it up, as mentioned previously it probably would have had something to do with priority: earliest listed item goes to the first person to bid at least that amount. Another way to do it would be to try to match highest to highest: If there are items listed for 5,000, 4,000, and 3,000, a bid of 4,500 takes the 4,000, then a bid of 4,000 takes the 3,000, and, finally, someone will have to bid over 5,000 to take the 5,000. Either method would seem to make it less likely that the situations of lots for sale and lots bidding would happen, but I wonder if the current method doesn’t have advantages. My first thought would be that the load on the server/database is less severe by doing a simple sort of two tables and matching the top rows; anything even slightly more complex might add up over the presumably millions of transactions hitting the system each day. Another benefit is adding in a risk vs. reward scenario: a low-listed item might sell very quickly for the going rate, but just as easily might sell for a pittance if the demand suddenly drops.

To sum up: City of Heroes has a very unusual player to player market system, and I’d be interested in seeing more games attempt a consignment system rather than an auction system, possibly with different rules for matching players to see what variations do to the overall model.

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