Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Free Side of the Force

In February, EA announced that SWTOR had sold 2+ million copies and retained 1.7 million subscribers.  Executives claimed that 500,000 subscribers was the break-even point, and that "At a million, we'd be making a profit but nothing worth writing home about".

In May, they announced that the number was down to 1.3 million.  This was followed by two rounds of layoffs - the first rumored to be 40% of the staff - and mergers of 90% of the game's servers.

On today's conference call, EA described the numbers as below 1 million but "well north of" the 500,000 subscriber break-even point.   It's not clear whether any writing home took place, but they did end the lengthy and unusually public discussion of the game's business model by announcing that it will go free to play sometime around November. 

The Path to the Free Side
Just from the public and not especially hard numbers, we now know that the game has failed to retain over half of its customers and has almost certainly set an all-time record for fastest MMO to lose a million customers (in fairness, partially due to how few games have sold a million copy).  If you make up numbers of 2.1 million total copies sold and 700K current subscribers - which are completely fake but plausible given what we've been told - you're looking at more like two thirds attrition within six months. 

In response, they will be converting the game to a payment model that the studio heads had previously said would not support the scope of their product. Let's be clear, the studio didn't go bankrupt and leave the state of Rhode Island on the hook for a nine-digit bill.  Setting aside the connotations of the word "failure", reasonable people can agree that this was not the outcome that EA had in mind when they ponied up a nine-digit sum of money to have this game made. 

As I wrote last week, the game may be a victim of its times.  Non-subscription payment models are lowering the cost of switching games and may be diminishing the appeal of the repetitive mechanics that previously sustained subscriptions.  It's certainly possible that large numbers of copies were sold to non-MMO players - fans of Star Wars and/or Bioware's single player efforts - who were predisposed against paying a monthly fee.  Even so, the numbers EA cited today are staggering.  If 40% of players who quit cited the subscription on the survey and over a million players have quit, you're talking about potentially hundreds of thousands of votes specifically against the subscription. 

(If memory serves, you're required to complete the survey in order to cancel your subscription, obviously the impact of the number would be greatly reduced if I'm wrong and this step is optional.)

The details are sparse, but the forthcoming SWTOR free to play model appears to be the industry standard for F2P conversions not owned by Turbine - no fees for content or the level cap, with restrictions on quality of life for non-subscribers (races, currencies, etc) and possibly a complete lock-out from endgame group content.  If the game's problem was that players were finishing the game's single player story and then quitting, I fail to see how a payment model that does not charge until players have completed the single player story is going to work out for them. 

While I personally will most likely pay less for SWTOR under the new model, I'm not celebrating.  SWTOR is a quality product, albeit one that may have been especially ill-suited for the subscription model.  The quality and direction of the game's future development, with the reduced staff and revised business model, are likely to suffer. 

More generally, if you are a subscription MMO that has been around for at least a year and you are not named WoW, Eve, Rift, or possibly Final Fantasy (the jury remains out on XIV after it launched so poorly that Square had to decline to charge for an entire year), you're either trying to retrofit a new payment model or abandoned in maintenance mode.  I get that there is more to the current MMO scene than the catastrophes of Copernicus and Prime and the disappointments like SWTOR and DCUO.  Even so, as someone who has very much enjoyed and benefited from playing in an era of multiple high profile MMO's, I can't say that I'm liking the way things are going.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Musings At The Six-Fold Cap

In my post about re-acquiring the level cap in LOTRO, I failed to mention a minor milestone; I now have eight current max-level characters in six separate MMO's.  These are:

WoW: Greenwiz (85 Gnome Mage) and Greenraven (85 Tauren Warrior)
LOTRO: Allarond (75 Human Champion)
Rift: Telhamat (50 High Elf Cleric)
DCUO: Green Armadillo (Level 30 Sorcery Hero)
Star Trek Online: Green Armadillo (50 Federation Engineering) and Narilya (50 KDF Tactical)
SWTOR: Aldabaran (50 Cyborg Trooper)

Allarond just graduated from a shorter list of characters who had previously been max level prior to some previous cap increase.  The folks remaining on that list are:
EQ2: Lyriana (90 Fae Dirge - current cap is 92, increased in April 2012)
WoW: Greenhammer (70 Human Paladin, capped during TBC) and Cheerydeth (80 Gnome Death Knight, wiped at the end of the Wrath beta in 2008, but I count her for posterity's sake)

What I did mention was that I expect this achievement to be temporary.  LOTRO and WoW both have expansions out in September, Rift has an expansion slated for "fall", SWTOR plans to increase its cap in a patch "this year", and EQ2 (assuming I get back to the cap in the first place) will almost certainly have another expansion this year (though it is unknown whether the cap will rise again).  I'm half tempted to focus on EQ2 solely because it may be my last chance to claim seven different MMO's with capped characters for a while to come. 

I don't know that there's anything bad about my current plight - indeed, it's probably for the best that games are adding new content.  If anything, there may be upsides to having the cap increase more frequently but by smaller numbers of levels (2-5); some games have struggled to generate enough leveling content for larger increases, and many have suffered to come up with any significant changes in the way characters play at higher levels.  That said, yet another reason why I'm struggling to find time to try new games (though I'm certainly tempted).

A few random superlatives:
  • Most time spent in groups while leveling: Rift, courtesy of public groups, and later an instance finder - I even healed
  • Least time spent in group while leveling: SWTOR and STO - as far as I can recall, none of my capped characters in either game has ever joined a group for any reason (my low level sith warrior alt once took a blind invite from someone who needed a second warm body to collect a datacron).  
  • Most time in endgame groups: hands down WoW  - worth noting that EQ2 is the only other MMO where I've spent significant amounts of time in endgame group content
  • Most time in PVP: Other than a few weeks playing a LOTRO Warg back in 2007, WoW is probably the only entrant here.  
  • Favorite Crafting: EQ2, best crafting-related content
  • Favorite minigame/system not already named above: STO Duty Officers
  • Favorite Story: LOTRO, they have an unfair advantage in the license, but they have executed well given the opportunity
  • Least Memorable Lore: Rift.  Unfair I suppose since the competition is Azeroth, Norrath, and a bunch of licensed IP's, but nothing about Telara sticks out in my mind
  • Best Races: I'm still inclined to tip the hat to EQ2 here with its selection of scaly and furry races, but I have to admit that WoW is doing about as well these days with the non-Tolkien races.  LOTRO has an excuse, but what does everyone else have to say for themselves?
  • Lowest Mob Life Expectancy: WoW - even con mobs for your typical kill ten quest are lucky to survive for ten seconds each.  It's probably not a coincidence that WoW is the only game where I have a pure ranged character for a main - I'm willing to kite on special occasions, but I find it tedious if that's what I'm doing every mob.
In an unrelated story, MMOGC has a post up today along similar lines.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Blizzard's Response to Guild Wars

A few weeks back, I predicted that Blizzard would start the public testing of World of Warcraft's patch 5.0 around the August 28th launch of Guild Wars 2.  This seemed like a good bet given Blizzard's responses to Rift in 2010 and Warhammer in 2008.  For once, however, Blizzard actually moved faster than I expected.  Public testing went live last week, and the expansion now has a September 25th release date.  Working backwards, an August 21st launch date for patch 5.0, placing the new expansion's talent revamp and other features in players' hands before Guild Wars 2 can roll out (along with expansions in LOTRO and Rift), looks reasonably likely. 

I had a conversation with Spinks and Suicidal Zebra via Twitter about the release possibilities a few weeks ago.  I wonder if Blizzard felt they had to get the expansion out with non-zero time remaining in the annual passes of players (like myself) who signed up when the thing was first offered.  They never committed to doing so, but having a month of pre-expansion launch event and a month after the expansion arrives within that one-year window is a bit of a difference, since many of us would have paid for that time anyway.  Then again, perhaps the portion of the populace who are not annual pass subscribers - most likely the majority despite the surprisingly large number of annual subscribers - are the biggest flight risk.

Other than my lack of interest in Guild Wars 2, I suppose I'd be the kind of relatively inactive annual pass player that they might be targeting with this launch window.  I don't know that I would have changed plans based on the date, but I'll definitely to see how my characters fare with the new talent system.  As long as I have some Cataclysm-era stuff to wrap up anyway, there's no reason not to wait and combine that with test driving the new systems. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Back at the LOTRO Cap

My Champion hit level 75 in LOTRO, which brings me back to the level cap, albeit for a relatively brief time.  I finished the main story from the Isengard launch, but plenty of content remains, including the entire Great River zone and large portions of the sidequests of Isengard. 

Not much new to report here, but one minor quirk - because Turbine's model offers free players access to the current level cap, exterior zones, and epic story, it is important that I finish this content now, rather than after the expansion.  There's no option not to purchase the new level cap, and therefore no option NOT to advance beyond it until I've run out of content.  Ah well, at least it's been a good ride thus far. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Is Free To Play Killing Daily Quests?

I find Electronic Arts' highly public lack of faith in SWTOR's business model disturbing.  That said, the CEO may not be wrong when he suggests that the rise of non-subscription payment models is hurting some of the mechanics that MMO's were previously able to use to retain subscribers. 

One of these is the daily quest.  If you set aside the unnecessary loading screens courtesy of the personal starship system, SWTOR has a perfectly functional daily quest system.  In fact, these quests offer large quantities of credits that can be used to unlock the pricey-sounding Legacy perks.  These sorts of incentives are precisely the sort of thing I used to work towards in other MMO's, but in SWTOR I have yet to run a single daily quest.  

World of Warcraft added daily quests in the content patches of the Burning Crusade expansion, starting in mid-2007.  Previous reputation grinds had allowed players to choose the rate at which they advanced, while daily quests remove player choice by dictating how much progress is allowed each day.  The game may offer you other things to work on  - Blizzard plans to offer approximately 48 daily quests across half a dozen factions each and every day in WoW's new expansion along with expanded non-daily options - but you will advance no further towards any given objective until tomorrow.

Back in 2008, I was doing daily quests despite mostly the same objections.  At the time, having access to multiple MMO's was generally going to cost you multiple monthly fees.  Today's non-subscription payment models make it that much easier to simply switch to another game after collecting whatever low-hanging daily fruit I'm working on.  I've started many daily quest chains - WoW's get more intricate with each patch - but continuing to repeat the content is less attractive when I could be doing something completely new in a different game. 

I'm not convinced that Blizzard's brute force approach - earmarking over a quarter of the quests in the upcoming expansion as dailies to offer greater variety in the random pool - will solve this problem. 

(Aside: I don't mean to over-emphasize one aspect of the daily quest, as there is quite a bit more - good and bad - that daily quests accomplish.  There are social advantages to encouraging players to sign on daily, though these can become disadvantages if the incentives tell players not to help their guildmates until after finishing their personal daily quest quota.  There are also potentially strategic choices to be made in what to go after first if the limit on quests - which WoW will no longer have - is low enough to be meaningful.  Finally, extending the real world days required to finish the grind has obvious implications for games that charge a monthly fee, which was almost all MMO's back in '07.) 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Interactive Novel of Isengard

I'm currently part of the way through the solo storyline of LOTRO's Isengard expansion.  Like all of the game's recent and/or revamped content, the epic storyline takes the solo player through a core path of lore that runs parallel to the adventures of the Fellowship of the Ring.  In this Volume, the people of Dunland - and soon Rohan - prepare for war against Saruman.  Perhaps as interesting are the trends in the game's development.
  • LOTRO has always had NPC's involved in soloable portions of the epic story.  Even so, this expansion feels like it's increasingly putting the player in larger conflicts involving large numbers of NPC's, presumably in preparation for the battles that are to come in the IP over the next few years.  
Turbine appears to think this NPC is win for whatever reason.
  • Unfortunately, this setup leans very heavily on instances that actually forbid players to complete it in a group.  I realize there are some logistical issues to be managed - how to handle player moral choices, SWTOR style, and how to balance the content - and I haven't joined a LOTRO group in years, but I don't see this as a good thing.  In particular, Turbine spent a lot of effort a few years back building a scalable skirmish system but seems reluctant to use it in the story content.  
Is Tec-Win some form of fighting game combo-breaker that makes this NPC superior to Win? 
  • Like most recent quest-based MMO's, the story of each area (in this case, Dunland subzones) is told through lengthy chains of completely linear quests.  At least Isengard's epic story explicitly offers the option for players who just want to follow the epic books to skip the side-quests in each area.
Overall, the game is well-executed.  Like many story-heavy MMO's, I'm finding that the exp curve is a bit under-tuned - a player who actually completes all the quests to see all of the story will end up over-level compared to the content (currently level 73 and nearly to the level cap, with lots of content left to play).  Unlike many MMO's, though, I do still enjoy the story of LOTRO, even when a higher level makes the combat relatively under-challenging.  If there's any game that can get away with playing like an interactive novel, it would be this one.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Judging a Pre-Launch Game By Its Beta (Or At All)

MMOGC has a post up wondering about judging The Secret World too harshly based on its beta.  I can't speak to her experience, since I didn't really spend any time in TSW (before or after launch), but the story seems to run counter to the current trend. 

Mark Jacobs notoriously talked a big game about how keeping a beta NDA up within a month of the product's launch is a vote of non-confidence in the product, only to keep Warhammer's NDA up until four weeks before the launch date.  Today, four weeks is actually a comparatively generous amount of advance time for the closed beta NDA to be released.  (Exception - Blizzard is still holding closed testing that remains in progress but free from an NDA for multiple months.  Perhaps that's a quirk to their glacial development cycle?)

Instead, we see scheduled "beta events" which carefully manage what can be accessed by potential customers - or sometimes actual customers, since access to even these staged previews increasingly requires a non-refundable pre-purchase.  From a marketing standpoint, these events are no doubt a huge success.  Besides driving pre-sales, the limited and staged access fertilizes the grassroots, such that all the blogs are talking about the same parts of the same game at the same time for one weekend only.  Meanwhile, all of the information that a customer would need to make an informed purchasing decision about the product remains sealed away for as long as possible. 

I get what people are saying when they complain of feeling nigh persecuted for being overly enthusiastic about the upcoming hyped product.  As gamers, their anticipation is perfectly natural.  I think what we're seeing in this backlash is misplaced frustration on the part of each gamer that's also a consumer - trying to piece together enough information to tell whether to invest their time and money in a new product.  As consumers, we're put in a position where it is all too easy to make the wrong call, whether it's purchasing an unfinished product, or, in the rare and fortunate case of MMOGC et al, in writing it off too soon.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

DDO Directions

According to my New Years resolutions for 2011, my highest level DDO character had been parked at level 7 for over a year and a half.  This week I finally hit level 8, a milestone level in that it allowed my 6 Ranger/1 Rogue/1 Monk to finally pick up the Tempest two-weapon fighting specialty I'd been planning towards since I built the character.  While the content of the newly released expansion focuses primarily on high level characters - in fact, there is a promotion going that allows players to skip all the way to level 16 in order to quality for the earliest expansion content - a number of things have changed since the last time I played. 
What difference, a year

First off, I finally bit the bullet and forked over most of the platinum on my character to a vendor for a medium collectables bag.  Failing to pick up collectables puts a huge dent in your income potential, but my character currently has over two dozen different non-stacking items across the two bags.  This move single-handedly solves most of my inventory woes, and has been a huge impact on my quality of life.

Next up are a variety of mechanics changes.  Though my ranger was built assuming I would wear robes to take advantage of monk stats, I found myself in a middle ground where it wasn't quite worth ditching light armor.  Through a variety of mechanics changes designed to make the game's hit and defense calculations scale better, I'm now able to run around in monk robes with better defense than I had before the patch. 

That all aside, the big change from my time away from the game was a matter of perspective.  A huge part of the fun for me is in designing and building characters, but I had initially found that the learning curve was too steep and opted for a cookie cutter forum build.  The results were effective but relatively boring - a character who basically autoattacks to victory with some off-healing skills and buffs, preferrably complemented with a healing companion.  Reviewing the new character options beyond level 20 prompted me to examine whether I could make my current build more interesting, and I think I've found a way to revise the character into a sword-wielding monk that almost looks intentionally designed that way.

Focus on one or many?
Looking ahead, I have a choice to make in terms of future advancement.  Focusing on one character offers significant perks over time, but it's also a risk in a game where it is all too easy to render a character unplayable through poor design choices.  Then again, the problem with diversifying - e.g. through the new upgrade to veteran status allowing players to roll up level 7 characters at will - is that you can get bogged down in a single stretch of content and get tired of it, which is arguably what happened during my last stint in DDO. 

On the plus side, I have some resources I can spend - both on my current character (who will either become my main or become permanently abandoned) and on my account.  The one big perk to free to play models is that all the stuff I paid for back in 2010 is still around waiting for me if I decide to stick around this time.  We'll see where that takes me. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Turbine Rebate, and Downsides of the Model

I've been back in LOTRO this week, as I try to get to the game's current level cap and complete the current expansion content before the cap rises again in September.  I'm currently level 72 (out of a cap of 75) and have completely skipped several sub-zones due to outleveling the quests.  While I'm doing this, I'm also re-examining the Turbine Rebate I saw while working on Enedwaith back in April.  As long as I'm at it, having taken a less than favorable view of the SOE model last week, I feel it's only fair to subject Turbine's approach to the same scrutiny.

The Rebate
Turbine Points up for Grabs - 5 TP each for exploring 10 subzones and a 10 TP bonus for finishing all of them
I maintain that the Turbine "Premium Free to Play" model is a model where you pay for content.  While it is theoretically possible to grind for Turbine Points at a "salary" of pennies per hour, I can't recommend this approach to anyone who values their time at any non-zero amount given the cost of stuff that you'd be trying to purchase with said points.
What the Turbine Points do reliably get you is a bit of a "rebate" on your purchase price.  In Enedwaith, I snagged 75 Turbine Points (around 15% of what I paid in Turbine Points for the zone).  The Isengard expansion was more costly, but there are probably around 200 TP in easily-obtained deeds (quests, exploration, reputation). 

I've never run an alt high enough to matter, but theoretically such a character would be earning the same rebate for content that I don't need to pay for a second time.  The catch is that there are some things that I do consider reasonably useful (especially the second millstone and the decrease on map cooldown) that you pay for per character, but at a minimum I suppose said character could be run on a Turbine-Point neutral basis.

The Downside of Selling Services
The virtue of doing business with someone who sells content is that they make money when they make content, which is generally a win/win for players.  However, Turbine also sells "services" - I'll expand on this shortly - and people who are in the business of selling services make money when they create or maintain demand for the purchase of services.

Marginally related - the "terms and conditions apply" asterick under "access to ALL quests"?  Quests from three and soon to be four paid expansions are an additional fee.  Minor terms and conditions, really.
Case in point, today Syp yet again points out the issues with LOTRO's virtue system.  These have been fundamentally the same since the game's launch in 2007, and the Sypster's solution is but one of several functional approaches to the problem.  No solution to this will ever be implemented, because Turbine is presently in the business of selling consumable deed accelerators and permanent virtue unlocks.  No matter how necessary, no producer is ever going to approve having their people spend time to remove a source of revenue for the company.

In fact, quite the opposite, Turbine has worked harder to monetize more of the longstanding design shortcomings in the game.
My current supply of rep tokens - a few are unbound but most are bound to character
  • Inventory?  During 2012, Turbine will be rolling out two major features - a recently-released "premium barter wallet" and the first expansion to player base inventory in the game's history - for a total cost of 2000 Turbine Points (roughly $20 - and NOT included for people who still subscribe).  Bear in mind that these things are only necessary because the game generates excessive numbers of tokens, crafting items, etc - of all my MMO's, the two Turbine games are the only ones where inventory is a consistent struggle.
  • Travel?  For several hundred Turbine Points here and there you can unlock the previously mentioned teleportation options, and this week's patch opens the system up for players to purchase as many as eleven destinations for instant teleportation.  This solution is definitely excessive compared to the problem, but it also allows Turbine to collect roughly $40 in points PER CHARACTER from interested buyers.  
  • Finally, we have the Legendary Item system.  The Sypster said he was "0% sure why Turbine felt it necessary to complicate an already complicated system" with yet another way of enhancing items that are designed to be disposable, rather than "legendary".  And yet, Turbine added yet another mechanic in Starlight Crystals, which immediately went to the cash shop.
Finally, there's the issue of bundling.  From the earliest days of the Turbine system, many of the best-selling unlocks were one-time purchases.  Unfortunately, this may have created a situation in which many customers are not worth a lot of recurring revenue once they have their basic stuff unlocked.  In response, we've seen a steady trend of increasing prices on unlocks, moving stuff that would typically be included in patches into the cash store (see the two inventory features), and now a trend towards ever-more expensive expansion bundles.  You can theoretically pay for your expansions a la carte with Turbine Points, but these options are priced to make them as unattractive as possible when compared to the price of points.

The Isengard expansion offered all of the new stuff for $30.  After this was a success, DDO followed suit with the just-released Underdark expansion, in which the cheapest bundle that contains everything other than the cosmetics cost $50.  (As an aside, DDO also made an odd decision to offer "epic levels" that do relatively little to everyone so they can claim that the level cap is still free, while splitting off a huge portion of the increase in character power from levels 20-25 into a separate "Epic Destiny" system that is included in the bundles, but costs prohibitively extra a la carte.  I don't get why they didn't just say that the cap increase required the expansion, as a level 25 without Epic Destinies won't be getting far.)

A year later, LOTRO's Rohan expansion was announced with a base price tag of $40.  These bundles were received poorly for coming in at a higher price than the previous year's editions, while offering less than the comparably upgraded packages.  Turbine eventually added more Turbine Points and a promise to throw in the forthcoming instance cluster (which they most likely hoped to sell for an extra fee, since Turbine's marketing department has basically never failed to mention something that is included), but the place they would not budge on was the price tag.  If they're only going to get paid once per year by some (many?) players, they're going to do everything the can to increase the minimum size of that one sale.

To add additional flavor to the world, Turbine just added "dummies" which will display model outfits available for sale in the store.  Nothing says "town occupied against its will by Saruman" like department store display models - wonder when we'll start seeing these for expansion bundle perks.
I ultimately decided to put some money into my account during this weekend's point sale, so that I will have the balance on hand to pick up the barter token wallet the next time it goes on sale.  It irks me to pay for something that is free in most other games, especially when Turbine willfully exacerbates the problem with multiple new tokens in each zone, but it's no longer worth my time to work around the two dozen stacks of bound tokens wasting over a third of the space in my vault.  As to the bundles, well, I guess I'll do what I always do, which is wait for a sale and pay substantially less so that I'm not out-of-pocket for the fluff they crammed in to justify the higher price tag.   

At the end of the day, the problem I run into with LOTRO is the same one I had prior to the game's revamp - I will gladly pay for as much content as Turbine can produce, but they just can't make new content all that quickly.  With the new model, I'm able to get much more flexibility in terms of when I can play the content (i.e. anytime after I purchase it, rather than shackled to a monthly subscription) but I'm occasionally forced to pay for stuff I don't want as Turbine tries to keep the books roughly balanced.  That said, if your biggest complaint about an MMO is the pricing, you're usually in a salvageable situation, because eventually the price will come down in some fashion - if the game's not worth playing, that problem is unlikely to get better. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Free to Pay SOE's Way

SOE often rolls out bonus exp on major holidays, and July 4th was no exception in EQ2.  I took Lyriana for a spin through the middle part of the Withered Lands, the game's latest high level solo content.  I've used up about 2/3 of the content from this new zone - ONLY playing when double exp is active - but I'm only a quarter of the way to the new level cap.   

Endgame EQ2 (not) for the Non-subscriber
That said, I'm not complaining about the quantity of solo content.  The idea that leveling content needs to get you to the level cap matters when the player is trying to get to the cap as a prerequisite for doing something (notably group content).  If your solo endgame is daily quests, there's no particular reason (until the next expansion arrives and gear resets wipe out all the rewards for the old dailies) why you can't have the player continue to gain exp and levels while doing the daily quests.  Meanwhile, this lengthens the exp curve in a way that hopefully left some more room for groups to advance at rates that do not trivialize the cap increase. 

Rather, my issue is with SOE's AA slider, which can only be adjusted by subscribers.  If I did not happen to have a subscription to the game thanks to some poorly thought-out promotions (I paid about $20 for the expansion and 6 months game time due to Station Cash sales), I would be even further from the cap, with half of my exp going towards AA that barely offer anything to my character. 

A non-subscriber in my shoes would also be struggling for the money to pay my mercenary (an "optional" feature from the "optional" expansion, though the new content seems suspiciously designed to make a mercenary highly beneficial) since nonsubscribers are barred from looting a single copper until they are just about broke -under 18 plat.  For reference, hiring the merc costs 5 plat, and he takes a quarter of a plat every 30 minutes, and every time he needs to be resummoned due to death or dismissal. 

Alternatives to the subscription, or just an extended trial?
Longtime readers will know that I'm not afraid to spend money on my MMO hobby - so far in 2012 alone I've spent money on five separate MMO's (not counting stuff unlocked using cash store currencies that I paid for last year).  In fact, I am willing to pay MORE total dollars in exchange for greater flexibility in when and how I can play.  Instead of flexibility, however, SOE requires the same old rigid billing cycle that they pretend to be working to change. 

Indeed, with Vanguard's upcoming free-to-play change they're not even offering a premium non-subscription tier and the game's producer describes their philosophy as "offering more flexible options for every type of player".   How are they offering more flexibility?  By determining that it is "in the best interest of our players to eliminate the Silver membership and instead provide primarily a Gold membership offering".  If I wanted the flexibility of paying a monthly fee to subscribe to Vanguard, I could have done so without SOE spending however much money on revamping the game.

Ironically, SOE lost this round because it took their accounting people six months to address a Station Cash pricing loophole that was immediately obvious to players the moment it was announced.  With that issue fixed, SOE has unified its catalog under a model in which they give away most of their content but refuse to offer a viable non-subscription alternative for continuing to pay for their service.  Perhaps this makes me a "content locust", but I'm not likely to pay people who don't offer what I want to purchase, no matter how much stuff they try to give away as an incentive. 

P.S. In other news that is going on around the same time, see Wilhelm's commentary on the announcement that Brad McQuaid has been brought back to the Vanguard team.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Voting with Non-Fantasy Feet?

I would not characterize myself as explicitly "burned-out" or tired of the fantasy MMO.  That said, I belatedly noticed an interesting fact in what I've been up to of late.  Since DC Universe Online went Free to Play in November, I have capped characters in three non-fantasy settings - DCUO, Star Trek Online, and SWTOR.  

In fairness, I've also spent some quality time in fantasy settings as well - I cleared the patch content of Cataclysm, I picked up half of the levels I was missing in LOTRO, and I finally capped out my Rift character.  I'm also not planning to jump on The Secret World, which is the newest non-fantasy launch.  That said, perhaps there is a trend here that I wasn't paying attention to? 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Canada Day Resolutions For 2012

Another half year has gone by, and Canada's national holiday remains well positioned for a mid-year look at my New Year's Resolutions.  Let's see how things have gone.

WoW (Pre-Pandaria)
  • Complete quests of Cataclysm: I'm still not finished with Hyjal, Twilight Highlands, or Firelands on my main - I tend to work on dailies first, and there are enough dailies that I haven't gotten around to these.
  • Finish out armor set from 4.3 heroics
  • Use the raid finder to kill Deathwing
  • Cap out TBC-era dungeon reputations: Most of these rep's stalled out at Revered when the content was new.  Two expansions later, these heroics are quick and easy rep farming.
These have gone remarkable as predicted.  As of now, I have completed the quests of Hyjal and Twilight Highlands, I have beaten the raid finder, and five-man dungeons hold no more loot for me.  I have not yet completed the Firelands storyline, primarily because it's gated by daily quests.  I also have a way to go with both Therazane and Wildhammer factions.  Overall, if the sun sets on the Cataclysm era, I won't have many regrets in terms of goals.

Pandaria, on the other hand, seems poised to arrive no earlier than late August and possibly as late as October, with Blizzard's announcement that the expansion cinematic will be unveiled on August 16th.  Not exactly what I was hoping to hear, though I suppose I should have known better to hope that Blizzard could manage an expansion in a "mere" 20 months. Meanwhile, I suppose I might as well go on the record now and predict that the 5.0 PTR will hit within a few days of the 28 August Guild Wars 2 launch, since that's how Blizzard always does it

  • Reach the new level cap on my main (currently 67 of 75)
  • Don't feel obliged to "save" content for future level cap increases
LOTRO is an odd duck out this year.  I'm currently at level 70, halfway though the new levels for the Isengard expansion even though I'm only just barely into its content.  I would really like to finish the remaining content before the next expansion so that I'm not once again forced to choose between skipping high quality content and outleveling the new stuff.   Unfortunately, LOTRO never quite seems to make it to the top of my plate.  I plan to work on this one sometime over the summer.

  • Finally reach the level cap
  • Investigate the endgame
I did reach the level cap, but I continue to find the game's solo content (and especially the dailies) underwhelming.  The lore has failed to make any impression on me, and solo combat feels like it drags out - probably intentional so that the second and further players in a leveling group actually have something to do.  As an aside, I'd rate this game as probably the best out there if you're spending most of your time in a group (small or raid) of folks you know, but unfortunately that's not me.

I'd say that the monthly fee is what is holding me back, but I've actually got a time card in my back pocket and I haven't even been tempted to use it.  Perhaps with the new expansion?

  • Enjoy world events on my main without having to subscribe
  • Try to complete current dungeon content
  • Betray to the evil side to see content, collect houses, perhaps try the Troubadour
This entire heading was somewhat blindsided by the surprise decision to raise the level cap in April's game update.  As far as I can tell, this is the new content that wasn't ready in time to be included in the "optional" expansion last fall - it feels quite a bit like it was balanced for players who have access to "optional" mercenaries.  Fortunately, I was able to abuse the triple station cash + SC store sale loophole to pick up the expansion and six months worth of game time (a loophole they have finally closed, albeit with typical poor communication) for $20.  Sometime between now and November I'd like to reach the new cap and also betray over to the evil side to test drive troubadour (probably betraying back to good and Dirge before the gold time runs out). 

  • Gear my main up for DLC content
  • Work on one or more alts to see the other storylines
After hitting the level cap, this game has largely fallen off my plate.  The focus of the game is grinding group content for gear, and, unlike most MMO's, SOE has thus far stuck with strict tiering requirements.  New DLC content continues to strictly require gear from the old instances - even the solo content in the DLC I paid for can't be accessed without grinding gear in PUGs that frankly don't want players like myself in their groups.  Oh well, at least I can spend my SC in SOE's other offerings.  

  • Play one or more storylines
So far, so good, Trooper story complete, Sith Warrior in progress. I will almost certainly do the Agent story next, since that's a well-regarded plot that covers an additional class buff archetype, allows the Chiss race, and would also let me try a class that can heal.  I could hypothetically chart a course through all eight class stories, but I'm not inclined to go quickly, with new legacy options potentially opening up over time.

Star Trek Online
  • "By the time the dust settles, there will probably be at least a dozen major MMO's I haven't played that originally launched as subscription games - I could literally try a different one every month for 2012."
I'm nowhere near a dozen, but I have one in Star Trek Online. Ironically, the main reason why I tried it when I did was because of an anniversary promo for an Odyssey-class cruiser that I eventually cashed in and christened the U.S. Faydwer.  I'm definitely spending much less time in game now, but there were enough unique things about this game that I'm glad I took the time to try it out.

Other MMO's
DDO is perennially in this category, because I'm still sitting just shy of level 8 on my highest level character.  Everyone gets a free respec as part of the new expansion, but there are also a fair number of things that got blown up - changes to hit and spell mechanics, with more changes to the entire enhancement system yet to come.  DDO is very unforgiving when it comes to respecs - for the most part they are cash store only - so I'm inclined to wait and see what happens with the enhancement revamp before I mess with any characters, new or old.

I've also spent about an evening each in Aion, EQ1, and the Secret World Beta.  I haven't really played Runes of Magic, in which I have a mid-level character and which now offers a new race with new classes.  I will probably try Mechwarrior Online when it goes live for the free-to-play masses. Vanguard is going free to play, though I didn't exactly stick with it when I paid for access last year. 

Beyond all of that, I hesitate to predict what other MMO's I may or may not try over the year.  I have a fair number of clients for free to play games that I have yet to try installed on my computer.  I'm not chomping at the bit to be first in line for either Secret World or Guild Wars 2.  The bottom line continues to be that any new game is really going to have to fight for more than a one night trial on my current schedule.

So far, I've finished off Assassin's Creed II, Arkham City (though I enjoyed this enough to try it again on the higher "new game plus" difficulty, which allows use of all the bat-gadgets from the beginning), and a chunk of the Tomb Raider trilogy.  The push for Uncharted 3... did not end so well.  Other games on my playlist include Infamous 2, Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, followed by Revelations (and eventually followed by ACIII), and perhaps FFXIII-2.

PC Building
I did indeed build my first desktop gaming PC this winter.   Overall, it's been a pretty big success so far.  I am still running with an old graphics card salvaged from my old desktop, primarily because it doesn't seem to have any problems with any of the games I'm playing.  I'm in wait-and-see mode on the nVidia GTX 660/660Ti, which will supposedly blow the current mid-range cards out of the water - or at least drive their prices down dramatically, such that I could snag an upper-mid-range card.  I'd be in more of a hurry on this front except that I just am not finding that I need the increased performance on any games that I play. 

The Blog
I published 84 posts in the first half of the year, which continues a bit of a downward trend.  I haven't hit 15 posts in a month since February.  Part of that trend may be that I stuck with both STO and SWTOR beyond the points in either game where I have significant new things to say about them on a near-daily basis.  Part of it is longer posts like this one.  And part is life - a trend that I don't expect to change (in fact, quite the contrary).

In any case, thank you for reading, happy Canada Day to our neighbors in the True North, Strong and Free, and here's to the rest of the year!