Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Captains

Narilya, my Klingon Defense Force captain in Star Trek Online, hit level 50 today.  Given how I've spent my time in game, I've taken to joking about how impressed I am with the cosmetic ships and the ship/ground combat minigames attached to the vessel that I use to fly my duty officers around the galaxy looking for missions.  (The joke is that said "minigames" are actually the entire game of Star Trek Online as it existed prior to the most recent patch.) 

That said, as I've spent more time with the system, its flaws are beginning to show through.  Much as I enjoy it and find it unique, comparing the progress of these two characters has made me feel like my main is not getting all that much for a vastly greater time investment.   

The Federation Main
Vice Admiral Green Armadillo has made a lot of progress though the duty ranks, with a minimum of rank two in every commendation category, one rank 3 complete, and half a dozen more closing on that number.  I have completed around 2/3 of the assignment chains in the game (21 chains complete, 13 in various stages of progress, and only one chain that I'm aware of but have yet to encounter).  

In order to reach this this plateau, the Faydwer routinely makes 2-3 circuits around the Galaxy daily, in search of the best missions its crew can complete.  Earlier on, this process would take around 30-40 minutes, though it has started to take less time now that I have improved travel options and less need to travel to destinations where I've already completed the main missions.  Typically, my priorities are:
  • Missions that advance assignment chains.   
  • Missions that recruit more duty officers.  Sometimes I'll pass on one if I'm really close to hitting a milestone somewhere else, but in general these are the longterm investment that keeps the quality of the crew expanding.  
  • Missions that award better than normal commendation advancement.  Typically these occur less frequently, require additional/more specific officers, or in some cases cash/commodity items to begin.  
  • Other priorities, which vary.  If there's a sector reset looming, I might take the shortest missions available so they will be complete and out of my log when the new missions come up.  If I'm close to the next rank in a commendation category, I might focus on that.  Earlier in the leveling curve, I made an effort to advance crafting, while now I'm more likely to use excess slots on Gamma quadrant commodities (which tend to be used in the better-than-average and/or story missions).  
As a result of all these efforts, the DOFF crew of the USS Faydwer includes 180 officers (including the active duty folks - I paid 580 Cryptic points to boost the cap on this character by 100 from the default 100).   Of these, 14 are "very rare", 27 are "rare", and over 100 are "uncommon" (33 are "common" and I wasn't bored enough to count the greens).  I have 2-4 of most specializations, with larger numbers in some of the more frequently used callings (for example, 11 security officers, only one of which is common quality). With this contingent is pretty rare that I'm NOT able to put together an assignment team with at least a 75% chance of success. 

Stats on the crew of the Faydwer - note that you can temporarily have more than 20 assignments due to injured crew in sickbay, which appear on your "in progress" list and award some medical commendation xp but do not count as real assignments. 

The Klingon Alt
As a Klingon faction character, Lieutenant General Narilya started out at level 20, but my Federation main actually had the far greater head start because he had several weeks to collect duty officers while earning the required 25 levels to unlock Klingon play.  Additionally, as an alt, this character was always a lower priority. 

For the majority of her career, Narilya's ships never went more than a lightyear away from the Klingon homeworld of Qo'nos.  I simply logged in with her for maybe 5-10 minutes to accept any missions her more limited crew was able to complete.  This often meant low quality missions with less impressive rewards, and higher failure chances due to a lower quality crew. 

With fewer trips to the locations where missions occur, this character has never completed an assignment chain, or even gotten more than two steps into one.  Her commendation ranks sit at mostly 1's and 2's (though a few of the 2's are surprisingly far along because those mission types were more common on the Klingon side). 

(The IKS Kunark, which is capped at 100 reserve officers plus the 10 active slots, currently has a contingent of 97.  This includes only one "very rare" officer, from the DS9 questline and 7 rare officers, though the majority of the crew - 60-some - are uncommon quality.  It may be worth noting that the Klingons offer frequent and profitable rewards for executing white quality officers, which definitely helps with staying under the cap.) 

The Smaller Gap
Despite this massive different in time investment, the rewards weren't as different as one might expect.  The way the duty exp curve is set up does not award anywhere near the premium that one might expect for lengthy missions.  A common mission that takes 20 hours may only award as much exp as an uncommon mission that takes two hours. 

By logging in and taking a bunch of short duration missions, Narilya sometimes completed more missions in an individual day than Green Armadillo could, with most of his slots tied up in 20 hour story missions.  In her five minute session, Narilya would pick up 10 missions, while her Federation counterpart might spend 30 minutes looking for the most profitable use of his last two slots. 

Meanwhile, the dramatic difference in the size and quality of the respective crew is mitigated by the cap on active assignments.  Any given task requires from 1-5 duty officers, and you are limited to 20 no matter how large your crew is.  The Faydwer generally has 50 or so out doing stuff, while the Kunark generally has 30-40 officers on assignment, and generally cannot take multiple copies of lucrative missions, such as military offensives, for lack of personnel, but both ultimately cap out at the same number of assignments. 

There is definitely a difference in rate of advancement -  both characters have been able to advance at a rate of nearly a level per day if I really focused on running missions for regular exp, while Narilya's cruise control approach netted more like a level every 2-3 days.  My main also has way more money - around 20 million energy credits - due to obtaining stuff that he can sell on the exchange, along with higher quality officers for his active duty slots and more transwarp teleports earned through diplomacy.  It just seems that the difference isn't that satisfying given the vastly different effort I'm investing on one character over the other.

Looking forward
One thing that will be very interesting to watch is whether Cryptic adds the ability to obtain additional assignment slots to the store.  This would be a popular seller, as it's an oft-requested feature and it would allow more dedicated players to leverage their larger and more skilled crew (and, in turn, encourage players to pay to get a larger crew).  However, it also poses a challenge to the rate of advancement - already players are arguing, for better or worse, that this system awards too much exp too quickly (especially if you actually combine it with playing the traditional game).   

Meanwhile, some of the changes they are making seem to further diminish the value of focusing on the Duty system, by increasing the variety of missions available to the five minute captain.  A patch last week added mission NPC's to the interior of player ships.  The NPC's now always offer certain basic missions (which no longer take up slots on the exterior mission list), and can also provide extra options for the captain who does want to duck in for five minutes, fill up their log, and not think about the system again for a while.  At the moment, the bad news is that this requires zoning into each deck of your ship and running around, but this will soon be moved to an "intercom" button on the department head UI. 

Overall, as they flesh the system out more and make it more accessible, it's beginning to feel more like a minigame than a game in itself.  In some ways, this is a good thing, to the extent that it encourages focus on what they still view as the core game. 

That said, I was focusing on getting the second character to level 50 while the one month of subscription time I paid for was live, to take advantage of subscriber unlocks.  The issue for Cryptic is that I probably won't turn around and spend the excess time playing STO's regular missions.  Instead, I'll log in to my main for the requisite 10 minutes every day or two and then go play something else that rewards me more proportionally for my time investment. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Finances of Exp Curves

Tobold argues that, because there is no such thing as a single absolute optimal rate of advancement that works for all players of a given MMO, it's somehow impossible for studios to tweak the curve in favor of cash store purchases.  I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this discussion, but I think Tobold's philosophical focus on the absolute misses the pragmatic consequences of RELATIVE rates of advancement. 

As Tobold writes, the pace of leveling is much less important than whether players enjoy doing whatever it is they are asked to do as they level.  Many of the current problems in the genre are caused by developers' continued insistence of using the primarily solo leveling game as a prerequisite for group-based endgame activities.  This turns a segment of the game that is the entire experience for many customers into a menial grind that stands between other customers and actually playing the game with their friends. 

Even so, developers have financial incentives that are influenced by how they set their advancement curve, and I would argue that the consequences of getting the curve wrong vary based on the business model.  Regardless of business model, no developer wants advancement to be too fast, as every model out there ultimately makes more money if players stick with the game.  On the opposite extreme, however, the incentives are very different.
  • In a subscription game where any added transactions do not affect the rate of advancement, the goal is to satisfy as many of the customers as possible.  As Tobold says, this is an impossible task, but the developer will have to strike some sort of balance between losing income from players who get to cap too quickly versus being branded overly grindy.  For many players, merely describing the slower rates of advancement often observed in games developed for the Asian market is the beginning and the end of their interest in the game. 
  • In a subscription game that also offers faster advancement, however, that loss of income begins to be offset by sales of experience potions and other means of accelerated progression.
  • At the furthest extreme, a model where there is no recurring subscription, only sales of theoretically optional stuff like exp potions, there is very little marginal loss of income due to being thought of as "too grindy" because 90% of players aren't paying a dime to begin with.  Yes, you might drive off some players who might have otherwise have bought mounts and costumes, but your primary demographic is the market that will pay to have exp boosts up and running as close to full time as possible.  In other words, your lost income if a big spender decides they don't need to buy potions because the curve isn't grindy enough is much greater than your lost income from driving off significant numbers of less dedicated players with a grind.
None of this depends on arriving at the theoretical ideal rate of advancement that Tobold seems to have gotten hung up on.  The question is not "what should the the exp curve be" but "should the curve be slower than it is now".  As the proportion of a game's revenue that comes from exp boosts increases, the financial incentives will increasingly make the answer to that question "yes". 

This does not mean that every game that sells some form of exp boost is doomed to be a grindfest.  In fact, I'd argue that selling max level characters might actually improve the leveling game for those who want to play it.  However, as I noted a bit ago, the direction of a game developed by a for profit entity is never completely separate from how they make their money. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Shattering of 2014

Blizzard's press blitz approach to last week's info dump certainly got them some headlines, but it also ran the risk of having interesting bits slip through the cracks.  I was listening to last week's episode of All Things Azeroth when one such bit struck me - apologies to those of you who undoubtedly noticed and blogged this last week.

For those who haven't been following, one of the announcements was that wildly unpopular Horde Warchief Garrosh Hellscream would be the final raid boss of the Pandaria era.  Setting aside the absurdity of having a two faction game in which the two factions always agree on who needs to be stopped next even when the target is the LEADER of one of the two factions, this raises an interesting question - are we going to be due for another massive revamp of the game's entire leveling content in 2014?

Pandaria's final patch would presumably arrive no sooner than late 2013, and presumably the ill-fated Hellscream would get to keep his seat while players line up to depose him.  By 2014's expansion, the early questlines of the Shattering, in which, for example, Sylvanas and Garrosh discuss the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Lich King, will be three years out of date.  Will Blizzard want this to be the first thing new visitors to Azeroth encounter?  However, how can they tackle this problem without having the scope creep out of control in the way Cataclysm did, resulting in a far more extensive overhaul than Blizzard had anticipated?

In some ways, the peril of having made WoW's story so timely is that the new content will go out of date that much faster.  I suppose it would be innovative if Blizzard did replace all the content in the game every 3-4 years to keep up with the lore, but that does not sound like a sustainable effort. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pre-F2P Early Aion Impressions

I had an evening with no immediate plans last week, and Aion has been on my list of things to investigate now that it's going free to play.  Since Xaxziminrax asked nicely, I decided to give the game an early look.  Obviously, I can't comment on the new (and somewhat nebulous) business model, but at least I won't be stuck in an overcrowded newbie area trying to figure out where to put my hotbuttons.

Rolling a Daeva
Blue dude on the right is the standard look for Asmodians, the green girl is what I rolled up.
Aion has precisely two races, Elyosians and Asmodians, for the two player factions. However, these races have a surprising degree of customization - height, body type, and color are all up for grabs if you want a large or small character.  The result is actually much more robust in terms of appearance options than we have in some games that offer more races but much less customization.  I also seem to recall someone mentioning back when the game launched that going small was actually an advantage in PVP because it made your character hard to see, go figure. 

The game has four basic classes that branch into a total of eight subclasses. While I concede that MMO's in general don't do the best job in helping the player make an informed class choice, this one felt especially lacking because it's not apparent what your subclass choices will do before you've even tried your main class.  The usual subclasses include a tank, a healer, two melee DPS (the non-tank warrior and the stealth rogue), two kiting DPS (a mage and the archery rogue), all of which I promptly ruled out for lack of interest.  This left me with two options - the Chanter and the Spiritmaster.

My brain suggested the Chanter - the hybrid cleric option, which offers some healing, buffs, and off-tanking.  I frequently pick this type of class because I'm willing to trade off some DPS for more versatility and variety.  My gut told me to do something different, which left the pet-based mage class.  I don't think I've ever actually used a pet class as my main in an MMO, but somehow this one felt like the right call. 

Killing Asmodian Rats

Once I zoned in, what I found was about as standard of a solo MMO experience as you can get.  The usual array of hotbars and linear quest progression push the player through their first 9 levels.  There are a few tweaks to the usual - if you click to loot an object on the ground, such as a harvesting node or quest item, and fail to pick it up, you can click it again and the loot window will pop up instantly.  Unfortunately, you need this feature frequently, as it seems very easy to accidentally interrupt spellcasts, looting, and other such activities.

As with the character models, the intro zone is generally rather pretty, and there is at least occasionally some creative creature design.  For instance, there are mobs called Snufflers, which are mini-armadillo's with elephant snouts.  The Green Armadillo approves, even if some of these had to die for one of the many standard critter kill quests.

There's also the now standard map that shows quest objectives, identifies what mobs drop items you need, etc.  It may be worth noting that some of these features were new and innovative at the time Aion launched with them.
The only other thing that stood out during my first 9 levels was the game's combo system.  As I gained levels, my main DPS spells picked up chain upgrades.  If I cast the fireball-equivalent twice in a row, the second will be an instant cast attack that also adds a magic debuff.  The frostbolt-equivalent snares on the first cast and applies a knockback if comboed.  These secondary effects have cooldowns attached to them, but I could see some interesting tactical decisions in when to apply a combo versus continuing to cast your most damaging spell.  There's also some sort of a UI talking about default combos, which suggests that I might eventually be given more choice/strategy in how to use this system. 

Ascending and beyond
Wings of a Daeva, as seen in a story quest
When you hit one exp shy of level 10, which appears carefully tuned to require all of the quests in the newbie area unless you go grinding, your progress stops until you can complete the ascension questline.  Through this process, you pick your subclass - with only one quest panel's worth of text from an NPC to explain what you're getting - earn your wings, and travel to your faction's main city.  Here are the usual amenities, including auction houses, bankers, and weird cat creatures with sunglasses who you can pay to expand your inventory. 

I'm reasonably aware that there is a lot I have yet to learn about the game, including what exactly my new fire elemental does, whether/how I can use the wings, etc.  So far, however, what I've seen is a bland and underwhelming solo quest grind that has little to recommend it over all the other options in the crowded marketplace.  I can definitely see how this game struggled under the old subscription model, and it will be interesting to see whether F2P can revive it. 
The inventory expansion fox-cat-thing.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Secret Edition

I'm getting excited about an upcoming MMO release based on what I'm hearing as it's finally open for public testing.  It sounds like they're doing some unique things with characters and story.  There was a bit of controversy about the high price of their collector's edition, but I do have my eye on a special box.  In this box are a number of very exclusive perks which the regular box did not include - an extra 40 days' worth of game time, and access to additional game systems that were not available to regular edition customers on launch day - these include greatly expanded UI customization options and a much touted "legacy" system which will grant your alts perks for each previous character you have leveled on that server.

The game in question is patch 1.2 for SWTOR, which is currently on the public test server and slated for launch next month.  The extra perks aren't exclusive to some special edition - these are just what has been added to the game in patches in the game's first 3-4 months of release.  The extra game time is an estimate based on $60 for a box at launch versus $40 or so online these days if you're watching for a deal.  In short, I can get all of the above for doing what us grizzled MMO vets always threaten to do and fail to follow through on - waiting a few months before jumping on the latest hot game. 

This phenomena is not new, and there are any number of names for it - price discrimination, enthusiasm tax, etc, but it's a problem whatever you call it.  This particular new release managed to sell two million boxes without my business, and therefore has yet to fire the staff needed to develop the features that have just about lured me off the fence about the game.  Meanwhile, with the recurring subscription fee, some of those customers have already been forced to decide whether the game is worth their continuing investment and chosen not to stick around.  I'm sure the win-back campaigns will kick off in the next few months, but it's always a tougher sell to change a player's view of a game.

Every game has to launch sometime, and there's always going to be something that can improve.  It just seems like the incentives for players - wait and see where things settle out - aren't necessarily sustainable for your average new release. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Unprecedented Pandaria Beta

The Pandaria Beta has apparently begun, kicking off what may be an unprecedented event in MMO history.  We've seen seven digit applicant/tester numbers for beta tests of several not-yet-released games, but this is an expansion pack to a game that is - theoretically - running a live subscription service.  When all is said and done, one million players - at least 10% and probably more of the Western subscriber base - will be eligible for invitations. 

I'm pretty sure that no MMO has ever fragmented its playerbase in quite that way before, especially if Pandaria does remain in beta for multiple months (which Blizzard games, unlike many competitors, have the luxury of doing).   In just under two months, these same players, along with non-annual pass customers who are so-inclined, will go tromping off to Diablo III. 

Meanwhile, Blizzard has published multiple "post-mortem" articles about the currently live expansion - the technical term would be vivi-section if the patient were not yet deceased, which one would ordinarily infer from the continued live subscription fee.  It's going to be very interesting to see how events unfold in Azeroth as this beta proceeds. 

(Aside: Blizzard apparently decided to axe the notoriously-leak-prone friends and family Alpha - realistically, I doubt they were gaining significant testing insight from the exercise, while putting legitimate fansites in an awkward position regarding breaches of the testing NDA.  I'd speculated that they'd do this two years ago for Cataclysm due to the rise of keyloggers.) 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Tough 2012 Schedule Continues

I hadn't really planned on spending the better part of two months working on the level cap in Star Trek Online, which has probably another month or so left of content in the game between missions on my Federation and Klingon characters.  This detour, marking the fifth MMO where I have a current level capped character - only drives home a point about how crowded the MMO marketplace is these days.
  • In LOTRO, I'm still working on Enedwaith, the pre-expansion content prior to the Isengard expansion.  Remaining in front of me are the entire Isengard expansion (which I already own access to) and the newly released pre-expansion content for this fall's Rohan expansion (which I would have to purchase with Turbine Points).  I hate to skip content in this game given that it's both high quality and relatively limited in quantity compared to other games.  That said, I'm already way over-level for Isengard as a result (currently 68 and climbing).  I'd say that finishing all of this content before Rohan hits is a top priority so that I can do the next expansion at the correct level. 
  • EQ2 is rolling out a new zone next month with a two level increase to the game's cap.  While I continue to have misgivings about the direction this game is going, this content is effectively free to me, as I have enough Station Cash to pay for unlocking the new gear that will mostly likely come with the inevitable gear reset. 
  • While I see no reason to be present for the inevitable week or so of bugs and issues with SWTOR's patch 1.2, that game remains high on my to do list.  I'm also still waiting for a graphics card, but again, high on my list.
  • Diablo III lands on May 15th, and, well-advised or not, I own access to this thing on launch day courtesy of the WoW annual pass.  It also seems reasonably likely that the Pandaria beta will kick off at some point in the near future (less clear is how quickly annual pass customers will get in), though that was a comparatively small consideration in my annual pass purchase, and I never intended to spend large amounts of time on this.  I do expect to continue to duck into Azeroth proper intermittently, and have a larger chunk of time penciled in for after the expansion launches. 
  • DDO's expansion lands in mid summer.  Realistically, I don't own a max level character in DDO, and I'm not near owning a max level character in DDO, so this is relatively a non-issue, but the emerging hoopla only reminds me that this game continues to be somewhere on my to do list. 
  • Games where I have max level characters not yet mentioned in this post and no immediate plans include DCUO (where I have some shared Station Cash balance with EQ2) and Rift (where I have a pending time card). 
  • Free to play or newly free to play games currently on my radar include Lineage 2, Aion, Allods, and possibly Forsaken World (or one of the other Perfect World F2P titles).  Major AAA releases scheduled for the remainder of the year include Guild Wars 2, Tera, Secret World, Wildstar, whatever they're calling Prime/Dominus these days, and Copernicus/Amalur. 
Overall, it's a pretty good time to be an MMO player, other than the potential for crippling indecision, and a really tough time to be competing for a share of players' attention.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Triumph of the Federation Flagship-class Cruiser

Federation Vice Admiral Green Armadillo has hit Star Trek Online's level cap, rank 50.  With this comes the right to finally pilot the birthday present that lured me into the game for the anniversary week in the first place - Odyssey Class Cruiser.  This ship is the model of the year 2409's USS Enterprise-F, and the ship looks the part with the traditional saucer and two warp nacelles sticking off the back. 

There are fancier versions available in the cash shop - science, tactical, and engineering variants at $25 each or $50 for the set of three, with a bonus set of consoles for those who want the bundle.  While I suppose that special perks, like the ability to separate the saucer section or launch fighter minipets are amusing, nothing seems that deficient about the baseline model.  It's a cruiser, which is the ship class I wanted to fly anyway, it has a highly flexible officer layout with a Universal Lieutenant Commander slot, and it even has an special ability doubling the time players can spend in "slipstream drive", a sprint feature used to travel more quickly across the non-combat sector map.

I've been naming my ships PVD-1 through PVD-5, but I decided on a whim - since perhaps this ship will be with me for a while - to give this one a more proper name.  So was christened the USS Faydwer, NCC-190312 (i.e. 19 March 2012).  Time will tell what tales lie ahead for the ship and her crew. 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Legacy of the Server

One of the quirks to my decision to wait a bit on the SWTOR launch - with new graphics cards launching over the next month, it made sense to delay purchasing the graphics card for my new machine - is that I will have a bit more information than those who showed up on day one.  Case in point, a pair of great posts by Psynister describing the practical effects of the new legacy system.  If I'm going to play through say 2-3 characters' stories, this type of information is very valuable in helping secure the best perks for my alts.

Perhaps it isn't worth changing my class or race choices to max out perks - though it definitely sounds like there's an advantage to getting characters to 50 one at a time versus working them in parallel.  However, this does call attention to a huge decision that I will need to make before I even get as far as picking a race and class.  While most other games are working to get away from the traditional server structure with creative transfers, sharding, and cross-server groups, Bioware is doubling down on the approach from ten years ago.  The Legacy system creates an incentive structure that strongly encourages players to stay put wherever they've ended up.

While you can't judge a game by its forums, I find reports of low populations on at least some servers, posted at the official forums, reasonably credible.  This does not mean that the sky is falling or the game is failing - just that throwing additional servers at the launch day rush is not a viable longterm approach to distributing players.  If anything, I wonder the Bioware's guild pre-registration plan may have hurt matters - servers that got large number of pre-release guilds may be more stable in the long-term than servers that got rolled out on launch day and occupied by tourists fleeing the queues (who are more likely to vanish 30 days later).

As a late-comer, I will have the luxury of being able to research the state of the servers six months post launch BEFORE investing time setting up camp on a new server.  (If any of you who are actually playing TOR have opinions on this topic I'd appreciate them, though it will probably be another month or two before TOR can crack my crowded calendar.)  Meanwhile, whatever the system's other faults, at least they started keeping track of the "legacy exp" at launch so that players who showed up early can get credit for their accomplishments to date.  I just wonder how many of those players will find themselves regretting decisions of server, class, or race that were made before they had even zoned in to kill their first Jedi/Sith rat-equivalent.

Update: MMO-Mechanics has the first post I've seen summarizing the things that the Legacy system will offer in patch 1.2 (currently testing) and patch 1.3.  (They had to powerlevel on the test server to unlock the system and get screenshots.)  Interesting perks, including earlier access to mounts, enhancements to your companions (who also offer buffs to your alts), etc. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

You Are What You Sell

It seems these days that you can learn a lot about a game by examining what exactly it is in the business of selling.  MMO Studios are by their own admission still working out the kinks of non-subscription models.  One of these questions is what exactly the developer should be adding when they're making money off of what sells, where the more traditional subscription model would have been more concerned with what has an overall effect on the game experience.
  • As I mentioned yesterday, STO expanded its duty officer system in a way that expands the need for new types of officers that weren't previously in the game.  This sells more duty officer slot unlocks, possibly more inventory unlocks, and potentially the random duty officer packs in the cash shop.
  • After not having any new high level content in the November paid expansion box, the EQ2 team is rolling out a new zone with an increase in level cap in April's content patch.  A higher cap presumably means a complete gear reset, which means more gear unlock tokens for the non-subscriber. 
  • Part of DDO's expansion pre-order rollout is a new tome that persists through true resurrection and offers a hefty experience boost - a tome that's also available in the DDO store for a whopping 1595 Turbine Points.  (Regular tomes that boost stats have also been changed to persist through true reincarnation.)  The presale packs also include existing content.  It appears that Turbine sees the sale of content - and additional trips through that content on new characters (including the new class) - as one of the big draws of their game.  (In fairness, the wide-open class system does make this a selling point.)
  • When I look at something like Aion's free to play rollout with funny acronyms and nebulous details, I'm puzzled about what exactly it is they are selling (and why anyone would buy it). 
At the risk of picking on SOE (who seem to have an unfortunate habit of running into major issues that can't reasonably be blamed on the actual developers, such as their parent corporation selling the rights to the European service to a random German company or last year's hacking debacle), the catch is more with what does not get done.  Yes, EQ2's new patch has a fair amount of stuff in it, but the game is also now down to three scheduled updates this year - barely above Blizzard's notorious slow pace, but Blizzard's base releases have way more content to start with. 

The issue is that it is very hard to show any short term return on the marginal investment of putting more effort towards content patches.  By contrast, it's very easy to show increased revenue from adding some new microtransaction or whatnot.  You can eventually do enough damage to your brand name to affect player retention - Eve did this in a very short span last year, while I'd suggest the state of EQ2 has been more of a slow drain that is much harder to note on a budget spreadsheet. 

By contrast, we do still have the last subscription titles standing - WoW, Rift and SWTOR primarily - that are sticking to the model of selling game time and nothing else that affects gameplay.  Item shop purchases remain largely optional, while game boxes only go down in price over time - the fee is the one constant in this world, for better or worse. None of which is to say that this model is more democratic - it's hard to show a specific reason for a marginal drop in subscriber numbers in the same way that it's hard to "vote against" a cash store purchase that people other than yourself are buying. 

What exactly is your game of choice selling?  Is it something that you are happy purchasing, or, if not, do you feel that the game may be going in a direction you don't like because you are not the source of its income?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

STO At 40 And 30

My steady progression through Star Trek Online's levels continues, as my main hit level 40, qualifying for another ship upgrade.  Ironically, on the same day, I got my Klingon alt to level 30, a task I'd prioritized in order to snag the launch week reward for completing the Bajor featured episode series.  A few thoughts as I near the game's level cap.

The Business Model
I did end up ordering a cheap retail box online to subscribe for one month, in order to unlock various perks for my character, including inventory, bank, and bridge officer slots.  I also picked up some Cryptic points so that I could purchase an upgrade of 100 slots to my duty officer roster.  (Note on this: I was credited 400 Cryptic points as a subscriber, but not until a day or so after I entered my retail key.  I'd be more irked about this, except that my total investment in the game so far stands at $11.40.)  How much these upgrades matter is open to debate. 

It's possible to run the duty officer system at the basic 100 slots, but you will have to ditch low quality officers, and may not have the slots to keep a full contingent - i.e. there will likely missions you cannot do for lack of versatility.  This factor is at least somewhat intentional to the system's design.  A recent free patch add a bunch of Deep Space Nine related missions which tend to require new traits found on new duty officers.  The line between more of a good thing and expansion for the sake of selling more slots (and more random officer packs to the so-inclined) is thin, and will undoubtedly be tested under the free to play business model. 

The inventory slots are a bit more optional.  I like to have more of them because I'm currently carrying around thirty six slots worth of crafting materials (which I keep on my person because I can't remember what each tier is called otherwise) and commodities.  My need for both of these things is tied closely to the amount of duty officer missions I run (way more than the "normal" gameplay), as these missions tend to either generate or require items.

As to the bridge officer slots,  I definitely have more than the minimum that I would need (currently 10 and counting), and a player who wants to fly a single specific ship can definitely get by with the free number.  The main thing you get for having more slots is versatility, if you want to run more than one kind of ship, or have spare officers to swap out on a mission-by-mission basis. 

On paper, STO does not have a ton of versatility in character class - there are only three "classes", and many of your abilities are derived from your bridge crew.  That said, there is more depth to the system than may first appear.

Each ship type limits not only the class of officers (i.e. tactical, science, or engineering) but also the rank of abilities they can use.  If my ship has a slot for a Commander Rank engineer, I might want an officer with Rank 3 Directed Energy Modulation as their top rank ability, and that officer would not want to waste their Lieutenant skill slot on Rank 1 of the same skill.  By contrast, if I hop into an escort class ship where the only engineering slot is capped at lieutenant, I may want a separate officer with the rank 1 skill, so that I have the skill available if I want it. 
The not yet fully equipped USS PVD-5

The other dilemma I faced was what ship to choose with my level 40 selection.  Level 50 ships are upgrades over these, but not spectacularly so, and most of these ships are cash-store exclusive.  My first choice would otherwise have been a cruiser, but I have a free level 50 cruiser waiting in my bank from the second anniversary event.  Given how quickly I'm leveling, it made more sense to snag either a science or a tactical vessel since I could continue to use that at endgame if I wanted to.

I ended up picking the Fleet Escort tactical vessel.  This unpaid ship comes with bridge slots for two tactical officers, two engineering officers, and one science officer.  By contrast, the paid ships in the store tend to carry three tactical slots, which is more damage than you need at the expense of versatility.  By comparison, if I actually decide to run with a science vessel it will be because I want to have maximum scientific utility options (debuffs, unique attacks, etc), in which case it might make sense to pay for a store ship (which has three science officer slots but only one each for tactical and engineering). 

Pacing the content
I've heard complaints previously that leveling is "too fast" in the upper levels.  On the one hand, I can see where they are coming from - I have a number of missions left in the very first Klingon War episode arc, and will likely hit 50 before I complete them.  In particular, I think I only did a single mission that actually involved flying my ship during the entire level 40 range - a span where your three options are highly iconic variants of the ships from TNG, DS9, and Voyager. 

That said, this also means that I will have significant amounts of new (to me, not to the game) story content available to do beyond the game's level cap. Is this approach harmful to my longterm enjoyment of the game?  No idea.  As of now, though, this game has been my primary game for over a month running and I've got plenty of stuff left to do.  That's not a bad mark compared to many MMO's out there these days. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Scroll of Resurrection: Game Vs World

While I was struggling with internet access issues last week, Blizzard announced that they'd gone ahead and implemented that crazy idea EQ2's David Georgeson kicked around last year - a free boost to level 80, but only as a promotion for lapsed subscribers.  MMO Melting Pot has two posts rounding up the blog reaction so far, and even this list only scratches the surface. 

The conflict
This debate emphasizes the split between MMO's as games versus MMO's as worlds.  As a game, the correct answer to the question "can I play with my friends?" is always yes.  By contrast, the very structure of the persistent online world is full of "no" answers to that question. 
  • Wrong server/faction?  No.  
  • Wrong class?  No.  
  • Wrong spec/group role?  No.  
  • Wrong level?  No.  
  • Not enough gear?  No.
  • Don't own enough expansions?  No.  
  • Not located in the right location (back in the days when traveling across the world could take all night)?  No.  
For the players who primarily see the MMO as a world, all of these answers are the entire reason to play the game.  What is the point of playing a game where everything you have worked so hard for will be given away for free as the next promotion?  For the players who want to play with their friends, all of theeeese answers are what's keeping them from playing the game.  If there is fault in the new system, it's that it's still too limited - current players need not apply, while even the fortunate former subscribers must grind out five levels and whatever gear they need to join their friends at endgame.

A solution worth trying?
In the short term, I think there are legitimate questions about whether this approach will work or is a good idea.  As Azuriel points out, some of these goodies represent money left on the table for Blizzard, and it's not clear how many of the returning players Blizzard will be able to retain.  That said, I think it was overdue for someone to try this, and Blizzard is one of the best positioned, even after the rough year. 

As long as entire segments of the game - such as solo content, non-raid group content, etc - are reduced to a prerequisite that raiders must complete to be allowed to advance, there will be consequences to the way that players who actually want to use this content are able to experience it.  In Cataclysm, Blizzard expended a staggering amount of resources on new leveling content that even their core demographic for this material - longtime players like myself with high nostalgia value and willingness to roll alts - can't use the content because the rush to level cap ruined the exp curve for everyone else. 

As damaging as paying to skip to max level (the next logical step in this progression) may be to the MMO's, I think the consequences of continued inaction may be worse. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Business Model of Neal Stephenson's T'Rain

I picked up Neal Stephenson's latest novel, Reamde, hoping for creative ideas on virtual worlds and business models.  Unfortunately, the book spends way more time than I would have preferred on random modern day gun battles - which are less interesting in the world of 201X than they are in his more famous cyberpunk works where there are more gadgets for the characters to play with. 

The novel features a fictional virtual world called T'Rain - a subscription MMO with a currency that is fully exchangeable into real money, with professional gold farmers/sellers as a core demographic.  Players can subscribe with a credit card, in which case the money from any purchases or sales of gold are settled directly to the card.  There is also an option for "self-sustaining" accounts to pay their subscription fee in gold.  The details aren't fully fleshed out - this is a novel, not a design document.  Still, there are some interesting ideas to be found here.

The Exchange Rate 

The game's lore presents the act of selling gold for real world money as the character sacrificing that gold to a local deity in the hopes of receiving good fortune, while the magical appearance of gold when the player invokes their credit card is similarly presented in-game as divine intervention.  That said, I'm assuming that under the hood is a functioning currency exchange in which every purchase represents a swap of gold and cash between two customers for several reasons:
  • The book spends a lot of time discussing how, rather than having infinitely respawning mobs appear in the world with cash on hand, T'Rain was modeled by geologists.  Gold must be mined by player-owned miners.  (Presumably, monsters obtain gold by killing NPC merchants players pay for stuff?)  This entire discussion becomes moot if the amount of gold in the world isn't constant.
  • If you can both pay your subscription in gold and have the company pay you money for your excess gold, it's possible to have customers that are an actual net loss of money.  While there are theoretical situations in which this might be okay - perhaps if a dozen players subscribe THINKING they can be that one guy who turns a profit, or because they enjoy trying to kill that person in game - the whole quagmire is easy to avoid if the company doesn't gamble its own money.  
  • From the company's perspective, it makes more sense to require players to convert their gold into a constant amount of dollars to pay the subscription fee, as compared to accepting a constant amount of gold and attempting to sell said gold (or generate new gold) to other players.
That said, this approach means a floating exchange rate, which may delay transactions and will, more importantly, impose limits on the amount of money that players can change out in one fell swoop. 

Star Trek Online's Currency Exchange - as of the time of the screenshot, anyone looking to sell much more than $1000 worth of Cryptic points is going to begin shifting the exchange rate downwards. 

Effects of Gold Farming on the Currency Market
It's explicitly stated that a character parked in a "home zone", such as a mine, will be safe and will automatically perform certain "bot-haviors", such as mining gold.  It's also stated that literal Chinese Gold Farmers will have large number of these fully legal bots, all paying their subscriptions with gold naturally, and operating at a net profit. 

Less clear is how much effort/risk this requires on the part of the player.  The implication is that more remote home zone sites are likely to be more profitable mining locations.  The player must somehow safely transport the gold to a money changer to collect their profits, and it is stated that the amount of gold you can purchase for $73 is a lot of money in T'Rain terms. 

The question becomes crucial because of the time - and to a lesser extent risk - curve.  If any player can maintain one or more characters at a net profit (in gold or real money) for limited time and low risk, this will have obvious negative effects on the value of gold (at least until players have picked the world of T'Rain clean of its geologically modeled mineral reserves).  The theory is that with lower cost of living/per capita income, you might have parts of the world where even a small net positive cash flow in dollars would be enough for a gold farmer to live on.  Putting this into practice is a very delicate balance of having it be easy enough for someone to rely on the profession for their real world income but hard enough that the potential purchasers of gold don't just roll up another mining bot of their own instead. 

Subscription Fee As Incentive
The other interesting tidbit is that T'rain's subscription fees are charged on a per-character basis, and are based on character class.  No specific numbers are given, but it is stated that someone intending to play a powerful Warrior-mage is paying much more than it costs for a literal Chinese Gold Farmer to run a character as a mining-bot. This in turn creates some unintended social trends, as players with less real-world money run around as cheaper horse-archers or other more basic classes.

Metaphorically, one could argue that we have similar systems in non-subscription games today, where the conventional wisdom is that the overwhelming majority of players pay nothing and the stereotypical minority overspends to provide most of the revenue. 

As far as the class balance question, I suppose lower subscription fees are amongst the few things we have NOT yet seen anyone try to get people to play less popular roles like tanks or healers.  Perhaps turning the system on its head and just charging people more to be DPS is a good solution.  Or, perhaps it's shortsighted - do you really want players choosing based on price, disliking the game experience, and quitting outright? 

The Fictional Virtual World
At the end of the day, the actual experience of playing T'rain sounds not unlike the notorious space free-for-all of Eve Online.  You have the potential for full looting in PVP, players betraying their factions, skill training based on real world time, and others - my guess is Stephenson drew some inspiration from that world.  Overall, though, I can't give the book any more than a mixed review because of how little time the characters spend in the virtual world that's supposedly the book's focus.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Long-Standing LOTRO Design Issue Fixed For Added Fee

Via Zubon at Kill Ten Rats comes word that Turbine is finally addressing its addiction to adding an endless number of alternate currency tokens which take up space in player bags.  The fix will be going directly to the game's cash store. 

State of the Token
The barter items remaining in my character's bank AFTER the change to rep items last fall.
Every world event, faction, and game system in Middle Earth has its own tokens, creating an assault on player bagspace that has been an ongoing issue in the game since its launch.  I was able to free up free up fourteen slots in my bank when tokens that are used solely for reputation were turned into instant consumables last year, but I still have eighteen slots' worth of barter items, event currencies, etc.  Many of these are bound to character and difficult to replace if I simply pitched them, as they are earned through daily quests or group dungeon runs.  It's also worth noting that I have yet to enter the current expansion content; I'm not aware of whether there are more tokens, but I'd be shocked if there aren't any. 

While LOTRO does offer various ways to increase your bank storage (both in-game and through the store), there's nothing you can do to increase the storage on your character once you have unlocked the premium bagslots (either by paying for the unlocks, or, more economically, by subscribing for a single month).  You can bank the things, with varying degrees of inconvenience in terms of proximity between banks and the relevant reward vendors, but there's no help for the tokens that you are currently acquiring from quests, dungeons, etc.

The solution
Details are incomplete, but the forum thread Zubon found says that the new system will allow all of the items to go into the existing barter wallet.  The posts say that the wallet is also going account-wide, which is marginally useful in terms of gear for alts, or perhaps funneling dungeon currency to a different character.  For comparison, EQ2's shared bank, which is free for subscribers and a one-time $5 fee for nonsubscribers, allows transfer of currencies (all of which are heirloom and can be stashed in a free currency tab) function at no additional charge.

In all fairness, this trend of implementing fixes for longstanding complaints about the game's features - including travel, inventory management, and grindy kill deeds - and putting them in the cash shop is not new.  The Turbine hybrid free to play model remains one of the friendliest in the industry when it comes to non-subscribers - I spend way less per time /played in Turbine's games than I do under any subscription model, even with the occasional quality of life purchase. 

That said, these kinds of "convenience" features would be included in the base game under pretty much every other company out there.  This one unlock will eat up the entire 1000 TP "bonus" included in Turbine's middle tier expansion packages for a $10-20 additional upsell fee.  For the game's subscribers (who I maintain pay more over the long run, given Turbine's expansion pricing strategy), the unlock consumes two months' worth of the stipend meant to offset the increasing number of cosmetic, consumable, and functional features that are going straight to the cash shop.  Like Zubon, promotions like this actively make me less excited to be a Turbine customer.