Monday, December 30, 2013

The Furnace Filter Perspective

I'm not fond of comparing costs between things that have nothing to do with each other, but sometimes the perspective is useful.

I was at Target today and considering whether to pick up air filters for my furnace to avoid also having to stop at Home Depot on the way back home.  Target wanted $18 for two filters and was willing to throw in a $5 gift card for buying four of them (i.e. $31 for 4 if you consider the gift card same-as-cash).  This seemed slightly high, so I used Target's free wifi (oops for them?) to check the price at Home Depot.  Turned out that I could pay team orange less money AND get more filters out of the deal ($12 for 6).

I don't like these comparisons because my budget for changing the air filter so the furnace in my house doesn't break does not directly compete with my budget for online games.  However, it's worth noting that I could have taken the $20 I saved with a 30 second price check and turned it into any number of online gaming products - a month of game time with some change left over, hero-specific storage tabs for six Marvel Heroes characters, a variety of well reviewed older games, etc. 

Coming to terms with this perspective was probably the single biggest thing that changed for me as an MMO player/blogger in 2013.  Paying attention to money matters, if for no other reason than so you don't have to worry too much about money.  The trick is to know when it's worth driving to another store or slogging through a character without whatever perks, and when to pony up the cash. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interesting Post on Branding and Female Gamers

I generally steer far away from posting about gender issues in gaming.  The majority of these discussions have nothing to do with incentive structures, and it's very easy to talk for a long time (offending multiple people on all sides) without really getting anywhere. 

That said, Anjin Anhut posted some intriguing thoughts on incentives in marketing.  It probably isn't all gospel truth and it doesn't necessarily get us closer to solving the many issues out there.  Still, the post presents a cogent argument for why financial incentives may be driving a long-running trend towards alienating a large potential segment of the market that otherwise doesn't seem to make sense. 

Hat tip to Liore for the link.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Online Gaming Expenditures 2013

I've been tracking my MMO expenditures for a few years, and the top line makes this year look similar to last year - last year I spent $275 on MMO's and another $60 on Diablo III and this year I spent roughly $321 for online products including MMO's, MOBA's, TCG's, and ARPG's.  That said, the way in which I spent that money was a bit different.

  • I was subscribed to a MMO for most of the year, but these expenses were significantly reduced due to various discounts from retailers.
  • I was generally much more willing to experiment with things that cost $20-30, rather than try to tough out the business model without paying for anything.  

The latter definitely increased my bottom line spending, and some of the purchases are going down in the books as disappointments.  Then again, sometimes a comparatively small purchase made life significantly more fun.  As I have less and less time to spend on games, I'm guessing this trend will continue.

Subscription MMO's
I had a subscription to a traditional MMO for most of the year.  These games were typically, though not always, the go-to place I would go when I had time for an extended play session.  

World of Warcraft - $65 (Pandaria, 60 days timecard, 2x 30 days)
I did very well snagging discounts from retail stores.  This "should" have cost me $100.

FFXIV - $70 (PC + PS3 boxes)
The PC box cost $30 for the license plus a month of game time.  The PS3 box cost $40 for a second month of game time (the two stack) plus the license for the Playstation Network (reportedly to include the PS4 version, when it arrives next year).  I guess I should have taken the time to try the PS3 version in beta - playing on the PS3 was a cool novelty, but I had problems with targeting and would need to purchase a keyboard and mouse to make this work. 

SWTOR - $51 (two 60 day timecards at various discounts from retailers, $10 expansion)
Again, discounted time cards for the win here, "should" have paid $70. 

The Newcomers
In general, these are titles I play as a go-to for shorter play sessions. 

Marvel Heroes - $70 (starter pack, Cyclops, X-Force Bundle Black Friday Sale)
I hesitated until the very last minute on whether to pre-purchase a founder's pack, and I'm glad I pulled the trigger.  I like this game way more than Diablo III because it features characters from Marvel's comics.  It was worth the money to play the game with the character I most wanted to play rather than one of the less interesting starter characters.  I decided to throw them another $50 on Black Friday for an additional bundle of characters and some convenience perks.

Note that I'm counting the $130 Advance pack purchase against next year's budget, as is my longstanding practice for long-term subscriptions and content unlocks that won't be used (or in this case won't be available) until the year after I decided to shell out for them.   We'll see whether they've delivered all of the heroes by the time I publish next year's ledger, and how I feel about that purchase.

Hex - $20 (kickstarter)
Technically, this game isn't out yet, but I'm in the alpha as a backer, so I'm prepared to put this one on 2013's balance sheet.  I have concerns about the business model and was not impressed by a very brief visit to the very early alpha.  Even so, my assessment was that the time it's going to take to see whether or not I am going to like this game will be more fun starting with a minimal base of cards versus nothing. 

Guild Wars 2 - $30
I picked this up when the price finally dipped down to my new $30 impulse buy threshold.  I've logged in twice, so it could be argued this was a fail, but at least now I can play GW2 if I want to. 

League of Legends - $15 (gift cards)
I had some Best Buy reward certificates to burn, so I turned them into the $5 starter Champion pack and a $10 RP code to finally try League.  The purchases probably weren't necessary with my current playstyle - I'm currently enjoying trying whatever new champions are available each week.  Then again, the cost was comparatively low, since it's often hard to find things at Best Buy that aren't $15 overpriced to begin with.   

Played, not paid
TSW - I picked this up for $15 very late in 2012 and was still coasting on the month of included subscription time for most of January.

LOTRO and DDO - played a small amount of each using previously paid content, did not purchase either game's expansion (a first for LOTRO, despite a just-unveiled 50% off sale on their month-old expansion).

Hearthstone - Have not spent any money on the closed beta.

Not Played
Rift - Has an expansion that I got without paying courtesy of a promo and can now access freely due to the game's business model relaunch.  I logged in once or twice to preserve my character names, but I never really played.

EQ2 - SOE went the entire year without discounting the expansion from the fall of 2012, and now there's another full priced expansion box on the digital shelf.  The good news is that the new expansion purchase includes the one I skipped, and there aren't really any charges anymore for playing the content if/when I pay to unlock it, so maybe I will get around to this in 2014.

Grand Total
Total - $321

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Analyzing the Marvel Heroes Advance Pack

There was an interesting discussion amongst Syl, Chris, and Tobold last week about the relative values of games, especially considering gamers with different levels of income.  Marvel Heroes' new Advance Pack - which I have elected to purchase - is as interesting a case study as any. 
The Good
So why did I buy this thing?  A few reasons, chief amongst them are convenience and flexibility.
  • Testing a new hero currently requires a separate 12 GB client install of the test center client, some patience to await the next testing cycle, and the better part of an hour reading tooltips, setting up hotbars, and playing through low-level content (that I now know very very well).  Even in this much time there's no guarantee that you'll have a good sense for how the hero plays at higher levels.  All the while you're picking up loot (including Eternity Splinters, used to unlock heroes in-game) that will be wiped for the next Test build.  We're talking probably 10 hours or so of time that I would have spent on Test for these dozen characters.  
  • Building on that point, making the small purchasing decisions can be hard.  There's always the chance that next month's new hero would be better, and so it becomes harder to say yes, spend your 400 splinters today on hero X.  It's easier to make a big decision that the game writ large is likely worth $100-130 over the next year.  
  • With all the heroes for the next year unlocked, I'm free to spend my splinters on whatever else I want.  In this case, I immediately hit the random hero box twice with the splinters I had saved to unlock Nightcrawler in January.  (As you own more heroes, your odds of getting a new hero from the box go down - therefore my odds will be getting progressively worse from here on out and the time to gamble was today.)  I got Phoenix - one of my highest priorities - and Human Torch (second tier of my want list, but unique enough that I'll consider playing him now that I have him).  
  • Bottom line, I'm now free to try many more characters that fit the model of the Torch - interesting but not quite high enough to ever make it to the top of my shopping list.

The Bad:
The most valuable portion of the pack - the upcoming heroes - can be earned in game.  Between this and the bundling of 12-13 characters, most players will find that they have spent more than they might have otherwise, and/or that some of the savings are off-set by having purchased characters you don't want or need. 

There are also risks because this content will be en route for a while to come - you may not like all of the costumes and you could give up on the game (though, as a non-subscription title, the heroes will wait for you if you return).  In my case, I've spent $70 on the game in a relatively small portion of 2013, but that would not have translated directly into spending $130 (probably more like $150 if there's anything else I want from the store in the next year) over a full year - at some point you would normally have all the heroes you need for the foreseeable future and stop buying more. 

Also, one bit of bad news whether or not you buy the new pack - if the hero you want is not on the list (which has two question marks, one of which is almost certainly Rogue), there's a good chance that you're going to be waiting for over a year for them to be added to the game. 

The Cost
Yes, you are almost certainly paying for at least some stuff you would not have purchased.  That said, the marketing folks priced this thing aggressively.  Part of the studio's revised strategy since launch has been to get new characters into players hands - at significantly reduced or even no cost - so that those players will keep playing and consider paying for storage, costumes, and more characters. 

I expected the bundle to be $120 for twelve "hero packs", which have historically contained the hero, their launch day alternate costume, and their STASH tab (for gear storage) along with some goodies.  They actually went with a $130 price tag that includes a thirteenth hero pack as a pre-order bonus.  I'm prepared to accept Ghost Rider with his stash and misc stuff for an extra $10 given that the hero and stash are priced at $17. 

More surprisingly, they elected to offer a just-the-basics bundle of just the dozen heroes and their STASH tabs (optional when you just have a few heroes, start to become much more significant when you have a dozen new heroes inbound) for a slightly lower $100 price tag.  If you don't ever like or purchase costumes and did not want Ghost Rider (or don't buy the pack before his deadline), this could be an appealing option.  With Ghost Rider, though, you don't have to like very many of the included costumes for an extra $30 to be a very good deal. 

Finally, the comparison.  Retail prices for digital products are arbitrary, especially with the inevitable sales.  That said, $100 buys you 11,500 G's and $130 buys just under 15,000 G's.  At an average price of 900 G's - Ghost rider is coming in at the premium 1350 G's level - $100 is just shy of what you need to get the thirteen heroes.   Thirteen stashes cost another 4,550 G's.  If you actually buy costumes, you are generally looking at 950 G's per.  Either you think of it as saving a fair chunk, or you can think of it as a small discount and then a bunch of costumes thrown in. 

(The big advantage of skipping the bundle and buying the G's instead is the flexibility to choose which things to buy.  Also, you can use any existing currency balances rather than paying the full price in USD (as the new bundle is not available through the in-game store with G's.) 

Bottom Line
At the end of the day, I was definitely going to buy two heroes (Psylocke and Venom) regardless and I was probably going to want to unlock at least four more characters.  I could have spent less by going this route, and perhaps that's what I would have done a few years ago.  Today - with a kid, limited time, and disposable income in my pocket - this particular purchase was not a tough call.   It may or may not have been the correct choice - I'll evaluate in a year - but in the mean time I expect to have some fun as a result of having made it.  Isn't that ultimately the point of playing games? 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is this MMO Burnout?

December has returned, bringing us to that introspective window for the end of the year.  I think the term MMO Burnout is generally over-used and over-dramatized.  However, looking back at the year gone by, it looks like that may have crept up on me after all.  A few arguments for and against:

Things I have NOT done
  • LOTRO: This was the year I finally gave up on even the token effort to maintain the level cap and epic story.  
  • FFXIV: This is arguably the best pure MMO to (re-)launch in the last two years, there's nothing I would change about the game... and it hasn't made it to the top of my playlist, causing me to stall out midway through the level curve.  
  • GW2: Bought, barely played
  • TSW: Bought at the tail end of 2012, played a bit in early 2013 until the included VIP-time ran out
  • Rift, EQ2, DDO: New expansions, haven't done either
Things I have focused on:
  • SWTOR: Significant amounts of time subscribed here, including clearing the expansion on my main Trooper, finishing the class story for an Agent, and getting most of the way through a Sith Warrior.  That said, I'm playing this game primarily for the single player-like story experience.  I'd consider paying real money to trade the entire game in for an interactive movie where my character wins all the fights automatically and moves on to the next story scene, as I might actually like that product better.
  • Marvel Heroes: Pure action RPG here, I've spent more time helping to sleuth out the hero release schedule on this game's forums than I've spent on several of the above games.  
  • League of Legends: Instant action MOBA
  • Hearthstone: Instant action card game
Overall, the trend appears to be towards instant action and gameplay experiences.  While there is still some progression in all these things, it's very different from the traditional vertical progression model for an MMO. 

Which brings us to the exception that proves the rule - I have spent significant amounts of time subscribed to and actually playing World of Warcraft.  I did technically hit the level cap, and farmed all of the gear out of the first 2-3 tiers of raid finder.  I also skipped the majority of the questing content in the expansion - and incidentally didn't even try to level until my lack of having leveled caused problems for my pet collecting efforts.  In many ways, Azeroth is actually a lobby that I use to access the pet battling minigame, the farming minigame, and sometimes even the daily quest or random dungeon minigame.  I'm arguably not using the game as an MMO.

Is this the new face of MMO burnout?  Or am I just in a rut waiting for the hypothetical next big thing? 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Counterpoint on LOL Streaming

Riot has issued the probably inevitable walk-back of their controversial streaming policy.  Contracted professional players will now be allowed to stream whatever games they want so long as they are not paid by competing studios to do so. 

With the benefit of additional information, I can see a bit more of Riot's side of this issue since my post from last week.  Apparently this happened in large part because Blizzard gave Hearthstone beta keys to high-rating Twitch streamers, which just so happened to include a large number of League of Legends pros.  There is some question of whether Blizzard also threw in extra keys for the streamers to give away, resulting in even more screen time spent on Blizzard's upcoming product.

I still think the initial policy was an over-reach, compounded by a denial that it was a problem even though they would be forced to concede the obvious a day later.  I still think the real impact on the policy would have been on regular players watching the streams who had no say in the matter, rather than on the paid pros who are compensated for their time.  That said, Riot's point makes some sense as well.

We as a society have not caught up to the reality that employees' off-hours social media may not always say what employers want it to say.  Personally, I made a decision when I finished school that henceforth I would only blog about my MMO hobby - I strongly doubt that I will ever work in anything related to MMO's.  Many folks don't draw such a fine line, and I don't fault them.  However, when you are posting about something directly related to your employment - and indeed when you were employed in part BECAUSE of your online social presence - I don't think your employer is wrong to ask at least some questions in a situation where it looks like you are being sponsored by a competitor.  Raffling off beta keys isn't the same as getting a sack of money, but it could still benefit your stream's revenue and viewership numbers.   

Interesting times we live in, I suppose. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

League of Legends Streaming Rules - Their Way Or The Highway

I don't care much about e-sports, but I find the current controversy over streaming restrictions on professional-level League of Legends players fascinating.  As officially confirmed by Riot, pro players are required to agree never to livestream themselves playing any "competing product" for the duration of the upcoming professional season.  The forbidden list includes every current Blizzard franchise, other current and upcoming MOBA's, the World of Tanks/Warplanes games from, and the canceled-during-beta Warhammer Online MOBA Wrath of Heroes (good luck "live" streaming that one).

This type of restriction is almost certainly within Riot's rights, since no one is forcing anyone to play League in general or participate in its competitive play in particular.  As the run-away leader in this particular sector, they can likely get away with the move, regardless of rational arguments that it's not a good idea or in their long-term interest.  Nor is it entirely without precedent - Bioware's official fansite program for SWTOR restricts sites from promoting other products or using any advertising, in exchange for a link on their official listing and possibly other perks (e.g. in the past fansites got exclusive dev comments). 

The thing that resonates with this policy is that it's not so different from the position that regular customers find ourselves in every day when service providers (including but not limited to MMO's) do things that we don't like.  In some ways, the real victims here are NOT the professionals, who are being compensated for their commitment, but rather the viewers of streams that will be less interesting to watch due to the restrictions. 

You always have a choice to walk away, and your choice is almost always going to hurt you - by depriving you of a service you thought was worth paying for - more than it hurts the company that made the decision you disliked because it was in their interest to do so.  This particular case just had the misfortune of making it obvious how little power the customer actually has.