Domino's Pizza: How to screw up an online ordering process

(Personal)

2010-11-30 16:05
Comment [1]

Okay, so, I like pizza. I order pizza. A while back, for some reason, it came to pass that I tried Domino’s pizza. The pizza was good, but what really struck me was the ordering process. They’d done a wonderful job.

  • The ordering process remembered previous orders, and allowed me to refer to recent orders or save orders under a particular name.
  • I was asked once, when creating an account, whether or not I wanted mailing lists.
  • The “order tracker” provided exactly the information I wanted (when pizza left their store, for instance), without being intrusive.
  • The menu for picking pizza was well-constructed and did a good job of handling special orders.

They have now managed to break all of these. I perpetually have “no previous orders”, even when logged in. Every order I place presents me with checkboxes including a pre-checked “spam meh” button. (It’s bad enough that they keep asking, but resetting it every time is extra annoying.) The order tracker talks loudly, and you have to turn the audio off manually, which you can only do AFTER it has finished its spiel. And when you select things like “extra cheese”, they often generate an animated window which pops up and tells you that this isn’t displayed but they will get it right when they make the pizza. Even if you’ve ordered that thing several times before.

In short, they’ve gone from “wow, this is a great pizza-ordering experience” to “wow, this is almost as annoying as having to talk to people on the phone.” Since I quite dislike talking on the phone, that’s an accomplishment, and it dramatically improves the business opportunities for their competitors in my area, none of whom have online ordering.

It’s really impressive how flawlessly they’ve identified exactly those things about their order process which were most pleasant for users, and fixed exactly those.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Identity and attributes

(Personal, Autism)

2010-11-27 15:33
Comment [2]

In many fields of discussion, you eventually run into the fundamental question: How do you distinguish between identity and attributes? This might seem a bit abstract, so lemme give a few examples.

The one that brought this to mind is the people who claim that it is offensive to say “autistic people” rather than “people with autism”. Their essential claim is that “autism” is a trait one has, but not a definition of who you are. Another common case is religious debates over whether Christians and Muslims worship “the same god”. People who think they do will argue that the two groups are clearly describing the same entity, but are disagreeing about the entity’s characteristics; people who think they don’t will say that the characteristics in question are the definition, such that if you think something else, you’re talking about a different entity.

For most people, gender identity is an example of who-you-are, and eye color is an example of something-about-you. People rarely have much sense of identity associated with their eye color, but frequently view their gender identity as essential to who they are. If you’re a reasonably typical person, the question of what it would be like to have eyes of a different color is at most marginally interesting, but the question of what it would be like to be of the opposite sex is borderline-incoherent; that tends to be something where people feel what’s described would be a different person, not just them with different attributes. Thus, an MTF transgendered person will not identify as “a man with gender dysphoria”, but as “a woman with the wrong body”.

So far as I can tell, most of the mildly-autistic people I know would describe autism as a who-you-are trait. If you changed that, you wouldn’t have the same person with a different trait; you’d have a different person.

Consider two experiences. One is, your car starts making a squeaking noise when you start it, which is probably some kind of belt slipping thing. The other is, a close friend of yours breaks down sobbing. Obviously, these are both of the same essential form; a thing of value to you is emitting a diagnostic that tells you that something is wrong and probably needs to be fixed. Now, I’m pretty sure that most people actually experience them much more differently than that. In fact, having speculated that, I asked my spouse, who is apparently not autistic. Apparently, the normal thing is that when you perceive a person in pain, you experience some kind of pain. Well, that must be very upsetting, I guess? I have no clue. I can’t comprehend it. I can be sad because I know a friend is sad, but the fundamental experience of empathy is, so far as I can tell, not part of my world. I have a lot of sympathy, sometimes, but nothing I can recognize as empathy.

That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that, if you changed it, the resulting entity would be recognizably me. That’d be some other guy. Maybe a really cool guy, but not me.

Because of this, I prefer “autistic” to “person with autism”. This is not some separate thing that we should disregard when talking about the “real” me. Trying to get past the autism to see the “real” me is like trying to get past all the layers of the onion to the “real” onion.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [2]

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Sorry, puppy.

(Personal)

2010-11-26 20:01
Comment

I hit a dog with a car today. Understand, this was not exactly a planned action. I was driving out to pick up some dinner, some time after dark, and as I was driving along Woodley (between Linden and Division), SUDDENLY DOG. I slowed down quite a bit, there was a sort of thump, and there was a dog running away off to the left of my car. I have no idea how hard the dog got hit, or whether it was seriously injured, or just bruised, or what. I didn’t go check; on my list of clever actions, you will not find “chasing an unfamiliar dog, possibly injured, across other peoples’ lawns”.

Just a reminder to all those dog owners out there: The leash laws are not there because we hate your pets and don’t want them to experience the joy of chasing cars. They are there because we on the whole rather like your pets, and don’t want them to experience the joy of catching cars. (Or small children. Or whatever.) Dogs are really clever, but they are simply not equipped to successfully navigate streets at night; their evolutionary heritage has not included things which have headlights and move at over 30 miles an hour, and outmass a dog by forty-to-one.

On the one hand, I feel bad about presumably injuring something that was probably someone’s pet. Especially because, the above reminder notwithstanding, it’s quite possible that the dog was not intentionally let off the leash; they’re pretty good at getting away. On the other hand, it’s really hard to figure out what I should do to avoid such circumstances. Should I drive at 10mph on city streets at all times in case of dogs?

Peter Seebach

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This is so weird... Autism group hates autistic people?

(Personal, Autism)

2010-11-23 18:57
Comment [5]

So, there’s this “advocacy” group, called Autism Speaks. They are… weird.

See, here’s the thing. Lots of people are autistic. Some are pretty severely autistic. Some are only “mildly” autistic. Some of us (yes, I’m one of them) are actually pretty happy. Lemme qualify that. So far as I can tell, if I understand the word “happy” correctly, I’m happy. I can’t actually tell whether my experience of “happy” is what other people describe. But I find myself mostly feeling good, and thinking that the way things are for me is a pleasant way for things to be, which I don’t much want to change.

According to Autism Speaks, though, I’m the horrible Autistic Child that murdered the healthy, happy, child my parents really wanted.

No, really. You couldn’t make this stuff up. See this blog entry, Autism Speaks: Don’t Speak for Me for some background. Other people have commented on problems with Autism Speaks.

Here’s the thing. I’m all for research into finding out what causes autism, or treatments that might make life easier for autistic people. But I get a bit concerned when a huge and very rich charity is devoting its effort to lying about what it’s like to live with autism.

Look. I can understand the desire for a eugenics program. A good friend of mine was the fourth consecutive child born with cystic fibrosis in his family, and he regularly and actively advocated for more to be done to prevent people from giving birth to kids with CF, until CF killed him. I can see a case for that, because, see, you don’t find people who are happy with CF, and you don’t find people with CF who are making great contributions to society that wouldn’t be possible without CF.

Autism’s not like that. Lots of us are happy. Furthermore, we’re useful. Think how nice it would be to have access to a few people here and there who were congenitally resistant to herd mentality and carefully-worded appeals to emotion. Or people who were instinctively well-tuned for problem solving. And by and large, as long as you’re willing to, say, use words to tell us what you want us to know, we’re apparently pretty tolerable to live with.

Fundamentally, Autism Speaks is a group focused, not on helping autistic people, but on eliminating them. No thanks. I don’t need to be eliminated. Maybe I’m not the “healthy” child my parents might have wanted, but we seemed to get along okay by and large, and I think on the whole my father preferred a seven-year-old who could understand calculus to a hypothetical seven-year-old who wanted to watch football games.

If you have any doubts as to whether they really speak for autistic people, consider that they went out of their way to create misleading impressions of what caring for an autistic child is like for their “Autism Every Day” movie. Trying to create false impressions is not something that most autistic people are going to endorse or support. The entire point of communicating is to share useful information so people can make better choices.

If I have to choose between no one speaking for me, and a woman with her autistic child in her lap saying that the only reason she didn’t kill herself and the autistic child is that she cared what happened to the healthy child… I’ll take “no one”, thanks.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [5]

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NetProspex: Verified spam.

(Personal, Spam)

2010-11-23 15:52
Comment [1]

I recently got spammed by some entity called NetProspex, which claims to have “verified” lists of various business people. They had one of my email addresses associated with my name, and were informing me that from time to time companies using their service would be contacting me with information they thought would be of interest to my business.

Note that they did not mention a business, and the address they used was only ever associated with a business which hasn’t existed in years.

Of course, they have an “unsubscribe” option from their plan of selling my address to gullible people and claiming that it’s “verified”. The “unsubscribe” option goes to a page which informs me that it will send more email to me (oh, nice), and that this will have further instructions about getting out of their database.

So. You been thinking about buying lists from these assholes? Think again. Their “verified” list consists of people who were not diligent enough to jump through multiple hoops to get their information removed from a database of stolen personal information. And yes, I do mean “stolen”. Did I give it to them? No. Did they ask my permission? No. They’re selling personal information obtained without permission, and they are doing so despite a clear and unambiguous request that they stop. That they may hypothetically eventually actually stop if and when they get around to sending the “further instructions”, and if and when I then follow those additional instructions, changes nothing. I followed the “unsubscribe” link. They know I do not want their spam, but they have informed me that they won’t stop selling my address until some unspecified future point.

UPDATE: An hour or so later.

Your request to remove (address) and associated contact information has been submitted.
Please allow 2-3 weeks for processing.

Yeah, uhm. Not even CAN SPAM, the ludicrously permissive pro-spam legislation, can make that one legal in the US.

So, yeah. They are, in fact, as stupid and sleazy as they look. Need mailing lists that won’t have people screaming at you because they unsubscribed three weeks ago? These are not the people you want.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [1]

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Clueless spell checker leaves me joyless, pointless rant ensues.

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2010-11-22 14:49
Comment

I am listless without Shinies, but they cost money; since I am at some risk of being penniless, and thence homeless, if I get every pointless Shiny Thing I encounter, I have imposed limits on the limitless and constrained myself to getting New Shinies only when I have found boundless income, such as an extra writing project. In fact, doubtless related to this, I recently sold some peerless writing. While there is some doubt as to whether it is the Perfect Shiny, I have nevertheless acquired an iPad.

For the most part, it is a painless device to use, which nonetheless imposes the occasional careless constraint on usage. I refer of course to the thoughtless imposition of a “spell checker” on all written text. This has a purposeless limitation to which I have been guilelessly alluding for some time, to wit, it does not understand the ceaseless construction of new words in English, by writers dauntless and fearless.

It came to pass that I wished to “write a review” of a particular game I’d been playing on the iPad (and on the iPhone), this game being a nigh-flawless implementation of the rules of a board game similar to the classic Risk. This game had an interesting option buried in its settings menu; the option of a method of play in which dice were not used. Sadly, the clueless iPad refuses to accept the word used consistently by countless game developers and players to describe a game which does not use dice. Rather, if you type that word and follow it with a space or other punctuation, the feckless machine immediately splits it into two words. You cannot prevent this, except by typing the word, not typing the punctuation, waiting for the suggestion menu to come up, then clicking on the little “x”. (And if you were using the keyboard, this purposeless interruption takes rather more time than you would have wished.) Even then, the heedless gizmo procedes to underline a perfectly legitimate word with red, in the hopes that in some formless future, you will choose to acquiesce to its churlish demands.

You might think you could simply turn off the useless misfeature, but the cause is hopeless; there is no option, there is only a badly broken misfeature which cannot be disabled for love nor rubles.

Rumor has it that a future release allows you to turn the misfeature off. I await, breathless.

(… And whaddya know, within hours the new release was out. That’s service! Too bad they still can’t figure out how to use arrow keys in a spreadsheet program.)

Peter Seebach

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Why health care is an outlier

(Personal, Politics)

2010-11-18 13:23
Comment

I’m a pretty consistent sort, usually. I am a big fan of market economies as a way to allocate resources. They work. They work for all sorts of things, from steak dinners to cars, from telephones to glassware.

And yet, health care doesn’t seem to work this way. The US spends a ridiculous amount of money on health care, and gets substandard results. The essence of the issue seems to be that we spend a whole lot of money treating some things that produce fairly small benefits, and completely fail to treat other things that would produce huge benefits for much less money. Why?

I think I have an answer. I’m still thinking about it, so maybe I’m wrong, but…

Markets are not good at allocating things which have infinite value to the customer.

Think about how things like steak or lobster get allocated. There’s a cap to how much people are willing to pay for them, and while it certainly goes up when they have more money, it doesn’t go up all that far, because fundamentally, there’s other competing products, and there are other things you’d rather spend your money on.

But, for most people, there’s nothing you’d rather spend your money on than staying alive, because if you don’t stay alive, you can’t spend money on anything. And that makes for a very weird imbalance. How much is it worth to get your kid treated for something that you think might be fatal? Probably all the money you have, if that’s what it takes. What this means, though, is that a very marginal chance of improvement for a rich kid is worth more than a nearly-guaranteed cure for a poor kid. And the market reacts to that.

There’s other complexities, to be sure. We spend an amazing amount of time and effort trying to decide who has to pay for what, and arguing over which treatments or which doctors are covered. One of my friends has health care which covers a particular condition… But of the doctors who treat it, the one who is covered by the insurance is so busy that there’s a months-to-years waiting list, while other doctors in the same clinic have openings every month, but don’t happen to be covered by that insurance program. This kind of thing is hopelessly inefficient. I know someone who moved to a different state to seek health care, because she wasn’t covered by insurance, had a preexisting condition and thus couldn’t get insurance, and because none of the doctors she was able to find would take payment for care. That’s right. Cash in hand, you couldn’t get medical treatment, because they only took patients with insurance.

Ultimately… Yes, a government-administered system will be woefully inefficient. However, I think it could very easily be [b]less[/b] inefficient than the system we use right now in the US. If nothing else, it might be a little more willing to allocate basic treatment, like checkups and antibiotics, to people who can’t afford to compete with rich hypochondriacs.

Peter Seebach

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Accountability, empathy, and liability

(Personal)

2010-10-27 15:59
Comment

Something has sort of clicked recently, between a couple of different things I’ve read.

One of the most important parts of having a complaint, for most people, is having someone else acknowledge that complaint. We live in a society, though, where admitting to some kind of wrongdoing is pretty much regarded as creating legal liability. What that means is we’ve created a powerful incentive for people to never acknowledge a role in anything that is definitely ungood.

This goes directly to undermining the basic concept of personal accountability. It creates a powerful incentive for people to start by denying involvement or responsibility. Once they’ve done that, they’re committed; they’re not going to want to admit that they were wrong, or that they were just saying what they thought would get them out of trouble. Given a bit of time, they’ll become convinced that their evaluation is, in fact, a fair and accurate one.

It isn’t at all obvious to me how to address this. Obviously, if there’s a liability issue involved, it makes sense that there would be relevance to, say, admitting that something was your fault. But if you can’t do that, it’s very hard for people to get closure.

Some years back, I was in a small car accident. We were in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic. There was a van in a driveway in front of me, trying to pull out into traffic. The van occasionally lurched forward a couple of inches, then stopped, then moved back up into the driveway. One time, I started to ease forward, the van did this, and I stopped to avoid hitting the van on the off chance that this was the time she’d actually go for it. She didn’t… but the guy behind me did. Minor accident, some bumper damage, no one hurt at all.

Later, while we were talking about it, he asked me about this. I don’t remember the exact words, but he tried really hard to make it clear that he wasn’t looking for liability or anything, he just wanted to know — had I started moving? So I explained that, yes, I had started moving, and then stopped suddenly because of the van.

This didn’t change legal liability; he rear-ended my car, he was supposed to be more careful, and all that. But it meant, to him, that he wasn’t delusional, or crazy. He really had seen my brake lights go off, and my car start to move. It meant that he could trust his judgement at least that far — that he had to be careful about stop-and-go traffic, not about going crazy and seeing things.

Most of the time though, it’s harder for people to do that. When Blizzard rolled out Real ID, a number of bugs and quirks and unanticipated side-effects resulted in peoples’ real names getting leaked around variously. According to some forum posters, one woman had her name and work phone number circulated broadly among kids playing on that server. (True or not? We don’t really know. Seems likely enough.)

Blizzard can never, ever, admit that this was a side-effect of their idiotic idea of pushing real names on people — that could give them liability. So no matter how stupid it is, they have to stick with pretending that everyone wants to be known by their real names in video games, and there’s no risks or downsides, and that if you use them wrong, it’s your fault.

We end up with their mantra that this system is intended “only for people you know and trust in real life”, which is about as truthful as the warning on cotton swabs saying they aren’t intended to go into the ear canal. Of course they are; that’s what they’re [b]designed[/b] for. It’s just that, if you do it badly, it could be dangerous. So they have to tell you you shouldn’t, so they aren’t liable if you do.

We do a lot of harm by expecting people to lie to avoid liability. I think, though, one of the greatest parts of it is that we leave a whole lot of people unable to be honest with others, or themselves, about what they’ve done — and thus, deny other people the chance to have their complaints honestly acknowledged. That is a great way to divide people and make them distrust each other. I don’t think it’s helping.

Peter Seebach

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Wow, lawnmowers got better.

(Personal)

2010-10-21 17:23
Comment

For a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with gullible roommates), I haven’t actually mowed a lawn with a lawnmower in probably twenty years or thereabouts. But we got a lawnmower when we moved here; we had the clever idea of going to Sears in September to buy one, when they’d be on clearance. So we got one of the “nice” ones. Not a riding mower or anything, but it has features.

So. You plug it in for a while. Once that’s done, it has an ignition key. There’s a bar which prevents it from running unless the bar’s held down, and another one which causes it to pull itself. The ignition actually works. Net result, it’s much, much, easier to move around and use than the ones we had when I was a kid. Also, bigger wheels — these don’t get caught as easily.

Overally, I’d rate the experience a C-; would do again, but only if I were really, really, bored. Or, say, if the front yard were covered with leaves, and I didn’t feel like raking them, and the lawnmower had a bag attachment.

Peter Seebach

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World of Warcraft and City of Heroes: Some comparisons

(GeekStuff)

2010-10-09 15:42
Comment [1]

One of the frustrating things for me about looking for a new MMO when Blizzard turned evil was trying to find information about them which actually communicated anything to me. For lack of a better resolution, I’m writing up a brief comparison of City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, in the hopes that it might be useful to people who are trying to pick one.

Long story short: At a pure gameplay level, I somewhat prefer WoW, but when you add in the user community and the companies, CoH wins.

Overview

Both WoW and CoH are classic MMORPGs — that’s massively multiplayer online role-playing games. You create characters in a fictional setting, the characters advance and develop through play, and there are many other players; you interact with those other players, mostly cooperatively. WoW is a much larger game, with around 12 million “subscribers” (this means a smaller number of players, but no one outside Blizzard knows exactly how many), while CoH probably has a couple hundred thousand. However, in both cases, the customer base is divided up among multiple servers; the net result is that in either game, you’ll see a fair number of people to interact with, usually.

WoW runs natively on Mac and Windows machines; CoH runs natively on Windows, and there’s a Mac “port” which is essentially a Windows emulation layer. Both are playable on Mac and Windows, and both can be run on Linux with a bit of extra effort.

Both are subscription-based, with subscriptions costing on the rough order of $15/month. Buying the initial game is $30-40 for CoH, and about $80 for WoW — you have to buy the game and two expansion packs separately, while CoH sells the whole current game at any given time. WoW has a new expansion coming out in December, which will be another $40.

Content

Content comes in a couple of categories; there’s quests (WoW) or missions (CoH), “instances” to explore, and various non-combat content. WoW has more developer-provided content, by a large margin. There are more instances, and there’s a pretty large supply of things to do outside of fighting evil. CoH provides a lot more options for exploring the content it has, though.

Instances and dungeons

CoH tends to have relatively simple scripted events, many of which take place on standard maps that are used elsewhere in the game. WoW tends to have more custom instances and environments to explore, with more customized opponents and scripted events.

However, WoW content is tied to character level, so once you outlevel it, the content is pretty much pointless; you don’t get anything of particular value from it, you can’t gain experience from it, and it’s basically useless to you. At any given time, there’s only a small amount of content that’s really rewarding to a particular character. There are some mechanisms for redoing some content, but they don’t really change the experience much; it’s still the same old content.

City of Heroes has a very flexible system in which content scales to the levels of participating characters, and furthermore, to the number of participating characters. The same adventure can be pursued by a group of eight people or by a group of two people, with the enemies scaled appropriately. Furthermore, CoH lets you change to the level and power of other characters — if they’re more powerful than you originally, this is called “sidekicking”, and if they were less powerful, it’s called “exemplaring”. Either way, you become approximately the level and power of other players so you can play with them regardless of the gap between your real power levels. Rewards are scaled so that it’s still rewarding to go adventuring with people twenty levels below you — you get rewards as though you were fighting things of about your real level.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of that change on content accessibility. You are never just wasting your time going through old content which is way below your level; you’re getting the sorts of rewards you would if you were doing stuff at your level. That means you aren’t discouraged from grouping with friends who are of different levels. It also means that if you start a new character, who starts out very weak, you can just keep playing with your friends anyway.

In WoW, different content provides different rewards. In CoH, most content provides essentially the same rewards; if you want a particular thing, you can get it by doing nearly any content you enjoy. In WoW, you do the content that has the specific rewards you’re looking for.

Non-combat content.

WoW’s crafting/gathering system is much, much, more involved than CoH’s. Some people like this, some don’t. In CoH, any character can, without any special training or “levelling up”, craft any craftable item in the game, and the vast majority of the Best Stuff is all crafted. In WoW, you have to pick at most two professions out of about ten, which can include some combination of skill at gathering materials (such as Herbalism, to let you pick flowers) or crafting (such as Alchemy, to let you convert flowers into potions).

If you enjoy crafting and gathering, WoW wins here. If you think it’s a distraction, WoW loses here.

Quests/missions.

WoW has many, many, more quests than CoH has developer-designed missions. CoH relies somewhat on randomly-generated missions, which are pretty story-light, but then, they’re just an excuse to beat up bad guys (or good guys if you’re playing a villain.) WoW has more story. Well, let’s qualify that. WoW has more developer-written story.

Then there’s player-written content. CoH wins this, because CoH has some. CoH provides a mechanism for players to create their own story arcs and missions, which other players can then play. WoW hasn’t got anything remotely similar to this. The quality of the content is, of course, widely variable, but the net result is that CoH has an amazing density of interesting story arcs you can explore, many of which are hilarious, or touching, or otherwise interesting… and WoW has nothing comparable to this at all. The rating system provided isn’t great, but it’s good enough to let you find dozens of interesting story arcs.

Perhaps more interestingly, you can create your own. This is a completely new category of experience, and WoW has nothing to compare to it. I think it’s a great feature. On the other hand, if you just want to explore the story of the world, CoH hasn’t got as much. (The new Praetoria arcs introduced in their recent expansion, though, offer some pretty good writing — I found them more interesting than most of the WoW quest content I have done, perhaps in part because they actually offered significant choices other than “take this quest or don’t.”)

Gameplay

This one’s tough, because there’s a lot of room for personal preference. In general, WoW offers a more polished experience, CoH offers a lot more variety and choices.

User Interface

WoW’s user interface is customizable, and ultimately, that means it pretty much wins. You can get all sorts of interesting addons that let you do things like track values of goods, make notes of which of your characters have particular items, and so on. CoH’s interface has more options in the base company-provided interface, but can’t come close to competing with the variety allowed by the addon interface. That said, if you don’t want to spend your time debugging code written by some geek somewhere, you may find CoH’s interface more amenable to successful use without having to modify it.

Combat

The games play very differently. CoH combat tends to be a little less timing-dependent; you can queue up an action to take place “as soon as possible” (say, after the current attack finishes, or when the action in question has recharged), so you don’t have as much emphasis on hitting buttons precisely when they become available.

The two biggest differences are solidity of characters and flight. CoH combat allows flight, and many enemies and players will indeed fly during combat; this changes things quite a bit. Flying in combat is awesome. I would miss it if I tried to play WoW again. As to solidity of characters… In WoW, creatures can simply overlap. You can walk right through other creatures. This provides a smoother gameplay experience in many ways. On the other hand, in CoH, creatures can block each other… and this does in some cases allow for actual tactical play choices that WoW doesn’t have. This is a big difference, but I frankly don’t have a strong preference either way on it. Both work, but they work very differently.

Difficulty

CoH is generally designed to be fairly easy, but has a much larger range of options for increasing challenge than WoW does. By default, CoH content is designed to be reasonably easy to clear with any group of basically competent players. Some WoW content is designed to require “well-geared” players; CoH rarely (or never) requires more than basic enhancements to succeed.

The big shift in philosophy is that in CoH, content adjusts to the requested difficulty and the composition of your group. In WoW, content has fixed attributes and is only challenging if you’re around the right combination of level and gear for it. If you out-level or out-gear the content, it’s no longer hard. In CoH, the content generally scales to you.

Character design/development/customization

WoW has ten classes, each of which has three “specializations” available to it. CoH has 14 archetypes, most of which have a selection of several primary and several secondary power sets. In WoW, your role is sometimes determined by your specialization; a Paladin can be a tank, a healer, or a DPS (damage-per-second; it’s jargon for “damage dealer”). In CoH, your archetype defines your role, but your specialization shows how you go about it.

Roles

WoW has the classic holy trinity of MMO roles; tank, healer, DPS. They’re straightforward and they work about as expected. WoW is strongly biased towards five-man groups containing one tank, one healer, and three DPS.

CoH has tanks, healers, DPS, controllers, buffers, and debuffers, and people can merge roles. A “Scrapper” is a bit of a tank and a bit of a DPS. There are no real dedicated healers in CoH. Instead, you have archetypes which have buffing sets for helping allies; many such sets, but not all, include ways to heal injured allies. However, healing is much less significant in CoH than it is in WoW. Characters continue to regain health (usually slowly) in combat, so merely reducing the rate at which they take damage is enough to keep them alive and healthy. As a result, CoH teams tend to benefit a lot from control sets (powers that keep enemies from attacking or using their powers), buff sets (powers that make allies harder to hit or more effective at attacking enemies), and debuff sets (powers that make enemies do less damage or die more quickly).

The net result is that CoH has a lot more variety of team play. This probably explains, in part, the tendency to an easier base line of content difficulty; the game design doesn’t assume that you have an optimized team.

Character customization

To say that CoH wins this is really to gravely understate the case. After playing CoH, you might understandably ask whether WoW is at some point going to have character customization options.

Appearance

In WoW, you can adjust your appearance very slightly — usually skin color, hair style and hair color, and one or two other options. All characters of a given race/gender have the exact same build, are of the exact same height, and so on. In CoH, you can pick any of three builds, there are multiple sliders for controlling specific traits (such as how muscular or thin you are, or how tall you are), and you have a lot more options for what your face will look like. (In WoW, human males all have one of about ten faces, all of which are ugly and look vaguely misshapen.)

WoW characters always appear to be wearing their current gear; if you have a cloak, that cloak is what shows up on your character. CoH characters don’t have gear, but rather, have access to a costume designer that lets them pick from hundreds and hundreds of pieces, most of which can be custom-colored. The net result is that CoH characters are much more interesting to look at, and can look however you want them to. WoW characters look like their gear — which can be a plus, but I think it’s overall a loss from a character customization and roleplaying standpoint.

Power customization

Finally, we get to actual mechanical customization. WoW characters are customized by spending “talent points”, which let you enhance some of your abilities or gain new abilities corresponding to a theme. Each character has access to three talent “trees”, which have various abilities some of which are prerequisites for others. For the most part, the right choices are pretty well-known, and if you don’t pick the right talents for your build, you will be a bit too weak for a lot of standard content, and people will think you’re an idiot.

In CoH, you get to pick your primary and secondary power sets, plus a third “epic” or “patron” power set later on. In each power set, you pick powers — you get a total of about 24 power picks during your levelling experience. Different people may take different powers. There are generic powers, called “pool” powers, which anyone can take. So, even if you have two characters, both of whom are “masterminds”, both of whom took “robots” as their minions, and both of whom took “traps” as their secondary power set… They may still have only ten or fifteen of their 24 powers in common.

Furthermore, you get to assign “slots” to powers; each power has one slot to begin with, and can have a maximum of six slots. Slots are used to enhance powers, and you can put different enhancements in a power; one person might put accuracy and damage enhancements in a power, while another might put in recharge time and endurance reductions (allowing the power to be used more often).

What this means is that character building in CoH is a much, much, more involved process than it is in WoW. In WoW, at maximum level, you have 71 talent points to spend, and usually at least 60 of those are spoken for by “you must take this or you will suck” talents. There’s very little reason to pick anything but the “best” gear at any given point, so advancement in terms of gear is just a matter of getting the best gear you can. In CoH, by contrast, you can have long and involved discussions about the respective merits of powers. Furthermore, the enhancements you get can have additional bonuses which affect all your powers — as a result, you’ll see people taking a power they don’t actually intend to use, solely so they can put a particular enhancement in it.

If you enjoy character design and customization, CoH wins this one by a mile. If you want to have cookie-cutter characters and focus on how you push buttons to get the best results, WoW may be easier to keep up with.

Community/social interaction

There’s three things I’d like to look at with respect to community and social interaction. The first is relations between players and the company, the second is relations between players and other players, and the third is the selection of tools available.

Company/player relations

Paragon Studios (the part of ncsoft which runs City of Heroes) is pretty small, and it shows. Developers do sometimes participate in the official forums — they can, because there’s not so many people there that this is overwhelming. On the other hand, ncsoft isn’t a particularly amazing company; they’re a little sleazy around the edges sometimes. They’re pretty much a generic corporation. They’ve never much cared, but they’ve never really pretended to, and they seem to be willing to let the developers focus on making the game the players want.

Blizzard is in the middle of a transition. For a long time, they were famously excellent at customer service, and some of that survives. However, they merged with Activision a while back, and this has started to have very noticeable, and very bad, effects on customer relations. The recent Real ID thing is a pretty good example; in the last few months, Blizzard representatives have openly and repeatedly lied to the customer base, expressed contempt for their customers, and steadfastly refused to acknowledge the substance of complaints about Real ID. They’ve gradually backed down a little, but ultimately they prize their relations with facebook a lot more than they prize their relations with customers.

A year ago, I would have said Blizzard cared more about their customers than ncsoft/Paragon. Now, I wouldn’t.

Player/player relations.

Long story short: WoW players are racist, sexist, and engage in open and overt gay-bashing through every publically available channel in the game, and on the forums, on a consistent basis. This is in theory prohibited, but Blizzard hasn’t got enough people to keep up with it, and furthermore, they have if anything reduced the number of people available to work on it. It’s just plain not a priority. If they wanted to spend maybe 1% of their WoW revenue fixing this, it’d be fixed. They don’t care, so it’s not fixed.

If you play WoW, you can reasonably expect to be insulted and harassed. Period. Doesn’t matter how nice you are. Doesn’t matter whether you’re gay or straight, male or female, or anything. You’ll get harassed and insulted. On the other hand, if you’re gay, or transgendered, or religious, or Chinese, or Mexican, or female, it’ll be worse. A lot worse.

Now, people like to point out that the WoW community contains some great people. It does. There are nice people there. It’s just that there are also a lot of jerks. And by “a lot”, I mean, if I just sit in a major city telling the game to ignore each person who says something offensive (and I am not particularly easy to offend), it can take a minute or two for me to get the trade channel chat down to less than one message every ten to fifteen seconds which breaks some sort of basic social protocol. It’s amazing. It really, really, is amazing. (This is, of course, much worse during the summer, when kids are out of school.)

CoH does have some of these people, but, well. Some. I’ve met a couple. If I spend a day in WoW grouping with strangers, I’ll probably see random gay-bashing ten or twenty times. If I spend every day for a week in CoH grouping with strangers, I might see random gay-bashing once in the whole week.

More generally, CoH players are much more helpful, and much more sociable. If you show up in CoH asking newbie questions and obviously new to the game, people send you in-game money to help you get started, and answer your questions. In WoW, that’s pretty rare — it does happen, but it’s not commonplace. In CoH, it’s commonplace.

Social tools.

Here’s where that Real ID thing comes into its own. See, Real ID is Blizzard’s attempt to offer some of the basic social tools that other games take for granted. It’s the tool provided to let you mark a player, rather than an individual character, as a friend. The in-game friends/ignore lists are very small, and you simply can’t track even a smallish number of friends and their various characters using them. But Real ID relies on real names — if you have some reason not to use your “real name”, you’re screwed. (And as you will recall from above, having a name with identifiable ethnicity, or which is identifiably female, might be a good reason not to use your “real name”.)

So basically, Blizzard has the fundamental tool people want to use, but it’s not usable for everyone, and there’s a whole lot of people who find the additional requirements unacceptable. Even if you’re happy sharing your real name, you may not want all your friends to see all your other friends. But that’s not an option; friends-of-friends is on, because that’s the Facebook Way.

CoH has global handles. You pick a global handle, it’s unique, and people can use it to be friends with you as a player, meaning they can see you log in on any character, not just the one they met. Global handles are used for in-game mail. They are also used for global chat channels which are shared across servers.

In short, it’s just like Real ID, except that it works. Because they don’t have the cripplingly stupid policy of demanding real names, they don’t have to make up stupid excuses about how it’s only for use keeping in touch with people you already know in real life — and you can use it quite effectively to keep in touch with other people you just met through the game, without any major security risks.

CoH wins this one, hands down, simply because they aren’t going out of their way to break it. If you ignore Real ID, WoW just lacks basic social interaction tools. If you include it, they’re broken and dangerous. Either way, WoW loses.

Conclusions

If I had the option of playing either one of these games with, say, twenty or thirty people I knew, and no one else had access to the game, I’d probably prefer WoW. I like the crafting system, I like the variety of things to do, and so on. On the other hand, CoH really is a better-designed game engine in many ways; the down side is just the lack of content. I think I’d find WoW’s lack of diverse roles really frustrating if I tried to go back to it now.

In the real world, where Blizzard has gone out of their way to make their social tools intrusively hostile, and has done nothing about massive harassment and open racism, homophobia, and sexism, CoH is a more pleasant thing to be involved with.

WoW was a fun game despite the players; it was a great RPG, but a very unpleasant MMO. CoH isn’t as rich a setting, but the MMO part of it works a lot better, and offers a more rewarding play experience.

After a long day, logging into WoW to relax was a crap shoot; I might have a relaxing and pleasant experience, I might have a really nasty run-in with some jerks. Logging into CoH to relax is much more effective; I may end up playing with other people, I may end up going off and doing other stuff, but it’s generally pleasant.

Peter Seebach

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