Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The EQ2 Producer Cataclysm

For someone who is supposedly learning the ropes and not making big decisions yet, EQ2's new producer seems to be implying some pretty big changes inbound for the game. First, some history:

EQ2's year in review
Back in May of last year, EQ2's producer stepped aside and was replaced by what is, in hindsight, looking like an interim pick, Alan "Brenlo" Crosby. As an existing member of the team, Brenlo might have been expected not to rock the boat. And yet, his tenure at EQ2's helm saw major changes.

Probably the biggest headline of the year was the addition of instanced battlegrounds - not a feature that existing players were clamoring for, and one that caused significant server stability issues in the process. Beyond that, the game's biggest focus was the early leveling game. The team has created a new starting area for May's content patch, which will retire two of the oldest and least polished starting options. It revised the worst stretch of leveling content in the game and is working on a "storyteller system", also theoretically slated for that May patch, to provide context for the rest of the game.

Last week, Brenlo stepped aside and was replaced by a new guy, David Georgson, who returns to the SOE fold from running a free to play game elsewhere. Now the new guy is making the rounds of the press, and what he's saying - and NOT saying - is telling.

The Interview Roundup
Georgson sat down with Massively and EQ2 Zam to do some meet and greet work this afternoon. Based on what he's saying, it sounds to me like he's been brought on board to continue the trends of the last year. A few quotes:
"We have a good sized team, but it's still a limited size, so it's not like we're a pre-launch team with resources coming out of our ears. We have to make everything the biggest bang for our buck, and that means we have to decide on what we're interested in doing.

Are we interested in more endgame content for the existing users to make them happy on that end? Are we interested in growing the business, getting more people in? If we are, does that mean we have to do something to the beginning of the game more fun and easier to learn?" (from the Massively interview)

The statement about limited resources is honest, but also strikes me as a warning that something is going to end up on the chopping block to make time for the new focus. The comment about bang for the buck, combined with the part about endgame content, sounds suspiciously like his guess is that the endgame raiding content may NOT be worth the bang for the buck in terms of development hours spent on it. See also:
"ZAM: I think the longest term plans we've heard is of course the next expansion. And they committed to at least one raid per Game Update for the next fiscal year.

Dave: Well long term plans, like I said, what I'm going to be doing is asking people a lot of questions about why. That's probably the most annoying question I ask on a regular basis to a dev team. “Okay, that's great, you want to do a raid every quarter. Why? Tell me the reasons. What does that do, who does that feed, how many people is it?” You know, that kind of questions. And if those are all good answers? Absolutely we'll keep doing that." (from the ZAM interview)

"I want the beginning of the game to be such stupid fun that no one ever quits. After playing the beginning, everyone sticks around to see everything else EverQuest II has to offer. Whether that wish happens, I can't commit, but I'd like to see that. There's so much great stuff in this game and I want people to see it." (from Massively)

Of course, this is all carefully hedged language, but it seems to me like the push for revising the early game is all but set in stone. When the guy who gets the job after the team spent a year of work on this area to come on board saying that it's his top wish for the game, that's no coincidence. Revamping the game to attract a "broader" market appears to be SOE's top goal. Indeed, it seems to be a target for most games these days.

The catch is that this is a very hard feat to pull off. Attracting more players who like your existing product, through some combination of polish and promotion, has worked out reasonably well for a variety of games. Attempting to attract players who want something that your game doesn't offer - like, say, instanced PVP - and shoving stuff that your existing players want - like, say, one raid per patch - to the wayside doesn't always work out so well for MMORPG's in general. We need go no further than SOE's infamous "New Game Experience" revamp of Star Wars Galaxies to illustrate that case.

And finally, the new guy's thoughts on microtransactions:
"I'm a big fan of microtransactions. As a player, I'm a fan of them. And the reason I'm a fan of them is if the content isn't good, then the developer doesn't make any money." (Zam)

"From a player's standpoint, I'd personally rather have microtransactions than anything else. Why? If a dev team is running on microtransactions and they don't do the right stuff that you like, they don't make any money. If what they're doing isn't fun, then they don't make any money. If it's not at the right price point, they don't make any money. The burden shifts from the old school style into a new, "What have you done for me lately?" kind of perspective for players. This makes developers become genuinely interested in giving you the things that you want." (Massively)

I don't really disagree with his assessment of the situation. Indeed, I've written similar sentiments about the state of the MMORPG market, and the responsiveness is one of the things that intrigues me about the DDO business model. The thing is, Mr. Georgson might want to be careful what he wishes for.

In the long term, a game's community is forged not by the tourists like myself who come for the new content and stay no longer than the newest stuff lasts. Bringing in sparkle ponies ("Well... if someone wants to buy one... *laughs*") may indeed help the game's numbers in the short term, but an increased emphasis in that direction comes at a price. In the long run, 200K subscribers who stick with you through thick and thin might be more sustainable than entering a hard-to-win race where your patch has to be better than everyone else's patch each and every month, just to stay where you are.

In fact, if anything, WoW's sparkle pony proves the point - if you have enough of a community to attract and retain players, larger cosmetic purchases become more attractive precisely because those players are fully certain that they will remain in Azeroth long enough to enjoy them. That's a side of the business that might slip through the cracks if the game shifts towards a shorter term model of trying to serve up whatever they think will sell well at this particular moment.


Yeebo said...

I think the Kunark and EoF starting zones are just fine in EQ II. In fact it's nice that there are five different starting areas that offer such different experiences.

IMO, what EQ II needs a lot more than another new starting area is to update to the itemization on the existing ones so that they are all in line with Kunark in terms of quest rewards. They also need to do a much better job of funneling players between soloable content. I should not have to leave the game, hit a website to figure out where the next clump of solo quests in my level range are, and then spend another 20 mins doing research to figure out how to get to the zone I want to be in.

Finally, I think you are dead on. Ignoring your existing customers to try and attract new ones is a risky proposition. Hopefully they will manage to pull a DDO rather than and NGE if that's they way they go.

Lomax said...

"a price. In the long run, 200K subscribers who stick with you through thick and thin might be more sustainable than entering a "

I think you hit the nail on the head with this one, 200k subscribers is success.

If they can refine and improve the game that the 200k subscribers enjoy which is different from any other MMO currently on the market then its a good idea.

If they want to server up a different game though, then call it EQ3 and make it different, NGE was a failure precisely because it changed the game, not because the changes were necessarily bad.

I'm not a fan of the microtransactions either myself, the problem is here how I view money. I know with a subscription that once I've paid then however much or little I play it will cost no more.

With microtransactions its an open ended commitment, now the goal in the game might require me to spend more money then I'm prepared to, in that case I won't even start on the goal.

Open ended commitments on money worry me, so I don't get involved when I have a choice.

The other troubling comment he made was about wanting players to see all the content. WoW has that philosophy, the devs there guide the players by the hand through everything in a easy mode fashion.

That's not what I want, I want to work hard and unlock content to progress through the game, just like in any real computer game, e.g. Double dragon, to get to level 2 you had to do level 1.

Green Armadillo said...

@Yeebo: In case you didn't know (I didn't make this very clear), new characters will supposedly no longer be allowed to start in Qeynos or Freeport. Revamping the rewards could have been done, but the actual quests and zones simply aren't up to par. On the plus side, the "storyteller system" is supposed to do exactly what you're asking for, in providing directions to players who are trying to figure out where to go next.

@Lomax: I do have misgivings about open ended bills myself, but I can also see some advantages to the model. In fairness, the new guy did specifically say (I think in the Zam interview) that he was aware that EQ2 is a monthly fee game, and that its transactions should therefore be optional. Whether that's just because he didn't know better than to say anything so specific remains to be seen.

Ferrel said...

I had not seen the ZAM article. That is quite a bit more alarming than the Massively one. Asking why you need one raid per big patch in a raid-centric game... well I hope he gets the answers he needs.

The two group content is most certainly lacking at the moment.

I'm with you though. Attracting new players for the very short time while having long term ones cancel is not a bright business decision. We'll see where he goes with it though.