Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The 50/50 EQ2X AA Slider

One of the more intriguing design decisions SOE made with the free to play variation of EQ2 was the call to lock the AA slider at 50% for free players. 

Background of the AA system
EQ2's Alternate Advancement points - the game's version of talents/traits/etc - are earned through a separate experience bar that advances primarily from discovering new locations, completing quests, and killing new mobs.  Because there aren't enough of these unique activities to earn all of the possible points (250 with the latest expansion), regular experience that would gained by level capped characters is instead converted to AAXP. 

Last fall, the devs implemented an oft-requested feature allowing players to begin converting combat exp to AAXP prior to the level cap.  The feature was in high demand because it is comparatively easy to get enough experience, but new level 90 characters (especially those who attempt to group instead of doing solo quests) are often badly behind on AA's. 

In the traditional subscription EQ2 service, the AA slider allows players to divert anywhere from 0 to 100% of their exp to AA.  Players who opt for the subscription to the free to play EQ2X servers also get to adjust the slider at will.  For all non-subscribers, though, the slider automatically defaults to a 50/50 split in experience, which cannot be altered.

Effects of the fixed slider
This seemingly small decision has much more significant effects than I'd anticipated when I first heard about it.  I rolled up an EQ2X character and have 8 AA's by level 13, which is way faster than I'm used to.  However, I'm also noticing that it's taking significantly longer to gain levels.  There are pros and cons to this approach.

  • In level ranges with large amounts of content, it is easy to outlevel quests, leaving you with a quest log full of trivial quests to either blaze through anyway for minimal reward or abandon.  With the slider set to 50%, you can finish many more quests before outleveling a zone.

  • If your primary goal is to catch up in levels with your friends, and you're willing to be behind on AA's in order to do so, you will not have that option unless you subscribe.  (Your friends can mentor down to your level, but their rewards for doing so are generally not that great.) 

  • Though EQ2X has gone to some trouble to limit the power of non-subscribers by locking them out of higher quality spells and gear, I find that my character feels unusually powerful because I have more AA than normal.  This might balance out over time, because all AA's are not equally large upgrades to your character's power, and I'm going for the ones that will have the maximum impact first.  Then again, even though I'm not "outleveling" content or twinking it to death (the way I do on my live account), right now things feel easier than they should.

  • From a business standpoint, SOE would like to see leveling take longer.  The longer it takes for players to hit the cap, the longer they will stick around to potentially buy stuff.  Also, gear upgrades will "last" longer if it takes more time to outlevel them.

  • Not every level range has equal amounts of content.  In particular, I'm concerned about having enough exp to clear the 60's and the 80's (the current expansion, though they'll be fleshed out a bit by next year's expansion as well) with the slider where it is.  If you do have to scrounge up every last bit of content, that really hurts the level of interest in playing alts (which is normally one of EQ2's strengths). 

Overall, I'm not sure whether the consequences will be good or bad. Either way, it's an interesting experiment.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Competing With Free

I spent a chunk of the weekend checking out EQ2X, and it occurred to me that I'm suddenly looking at four separate MMO's that don't require a traditional monthly fee. With EQ2 and LOTRO joining DDO and Runes of Magic, it's been two months since my most recent MMO subscription lapsed.

These games aren't entirely free - for all but ROM, I have previously paid money that allows my current/future level of access to the game world. Still, for at least the medium term, I can count on being able to access any or all of these games whenever I want to, without any impact on my current month's budget.

Moreover, it doesn't stop here. We have games like Warhammer and Conan running unlimited free trials, and other "true" free to play games, such as Allods, that I have yet to visit. The folks at Cryptic made an official comment that makes it sound like some form of free play might be coming to STO.

In short, there are a lot of options on the market with low or nonexistent entry barriers, and limited requirements for long-term commitment. This may or may not be a good thing for the games in question, but I'd be even more worried about the next round of MMO's.

You can't really compete on price when so many high quality games are available at these terms. You can't really compete on quantity with games that have been around for 3-6 years. You can try to compete on quality, but A) you have to actually succeed in producing higher quality and B) you still need quantity if you want to keep collecting monthly fees.

How do you compete in this market? Hopefully someone's got an answer to that question, but it looks pretty challenging at the moment.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Official Comment From SOE On Race Packs

In what may be a first for this blog, I personally got a response from EQ2's producer, Smokejumper, on the official forums on EQ2's policy of bundling races in packs of three.

Green Armadillo wrote: Can we also get races as individuals, not as packs?  It's even more  irritating to have to pay triple to purchase two races that you will never need than it would be to pay for an extra class that you might in  principle choose to use later.

Smokejumper wrote: No. Races are going to stay in packs. You're not getting charged three times as much. If we sold them individually, we'd still charge in that same neighborhood of a price. We just figured that it was cooler to give players more races to play with for each purchase. That's why we sell them in packs.
Rothgar clarifies later in the thread that the packs were designed to bundle less popular races as "throwins" with the more popular races.  I'm surprised to see them admit that they are happy to charge $7 per race, since that was basically the least charitable interpretation of the way they're selling races. 

Moreover, apparently they are so confident that most people are only in the market for a single race that they're prepared to give away two "bonus" races with every race sold.  The irony is that you now get a very good deal if you happen to like multiple races in a given pack, and what feels like a bad deal if you only want one.  I guess EQ2 races have been homogenized to the point where they're mostly cosmetic anyway.

(Off-hand, Dark Elves, Ratonga, and Fae are presumably the run-away winners of their respective packs. I'm guessing that Gnomes win their pack maybe, since I don't think I've ever seen a Wood Elf, and perhaps Kerra over Arasai and Frogloks?)

Also, as Yeebo (who also got a dev response) points out in the comments, they've announced a plan to sell broker transaction tokens at a suggested price of 10 tokens for 150 SC ($1.50). That's a harsh price if you're looking to access the economy in bulk, but an absolute steal if your goal is to sell one or two items to make enough money for a pair of 40-slot handcrafted bags for your two free bagslots.

Examining EQ2 F2P Restrictions

Update, December 2012: Greetings, people who are finding this post over a year later courtesy of Google after the main EQ2 service went Free to Play.  This post describes the state of EQ2X as it was in August 2010, and is significantly out of date.  I have written updates here and here

Welcome to the EQ2Ex store, where the race you want is bundled with two utterly random races you didn't!
Whatever my general thoughts on whether EQ2's new F2P model is good for the game, the reality is that it is here, and probably here to stay.  I've had the chance to pay the new service a visit, and the new client does indeed install fast, though it would be nice if it did not require a second 11+GB of hard drive space for players who already have the subscription game installed.

Though things are still technically "web 2.0 beta" and subject to change, they're accepting real money for characters that won't be wiped, so it's probably safe enough to start asking the practical questions about how the restrictions affect me personally as a player. 

Subscriber-only activities (show-stoppers that cannot currently be bought out individually)

  • Group content: There are two major restrictions on overall character power for non-subscribers, who cannot equip dungeon gear and cannot learn the two highest quality spell upgrades (approximately 10% increase in the spell's base power, before modifiers from gear and other stats, PER UPGRADE).  Though players are constantly beating things that are not meant to be beatable, Ferrel tells me that EQ2's raid game uses strict gear checks that might not be possible under the non-subscriber restrictions.  
    (Subscribers beware: Players who do subscribe are still stuck on the free servers, which may or may not have the right demographics for group content, but this is a moot point for me - if I'm going to subscribe, I'll do it with my live account so I can play with my live guild.) 
  • Access to the economy: Non-subscribers are barred from the auction house, and are also stuck with a gold cap that could impede their ability to get enough money on hand to buy things directly from other players.  There are also limits on bag and shared bank slots, but these are less serious than the first two because EQ2 bags get so huge that you don't really NEED more bags than free players can carry for regular questing content (especially if there's no reason to pick up loot because you're already gold capped).
Negotiable Restrictions (may or may not matter to you, can be bought out)
  • Character Options: Some races and classes are free.  Yeebo discovered that the developers will change the original plan and allow non-subscribers to purchase the non-free classes.  Races can also be bought, but irritatingly are only available in packs of three utterly unrelated races for $7.50 (see the screenshot up top for the races in each pack). 
    There's talk of selling additional character slots, but I couldn't find that option in the store at the moment, so it appears that non-subscribers are limited to two slots - upgraded to three with the one-time "silver" purchase - compared to seven for subscribers.  Finally, the silver upgrade is required for any access to the shared bank, but this is less of a must-have feature in an environment where a non-subscriber may not be able to equip heirloom gear in the first place. 

    (Subscribers beware: The $15/month subscription does not lift the race restrictions, which do not exist on the traditional subscription servers.  You must still purchase races under the same terms that non-subscribers face - paying for two races you don't want along with the one you do want.) 

    (Character Tips for newbies: Ironically, I'd argue that the free half-elf race is one of the best for solo players because they get tracking as a racial ability.  Tracking allows you to home in on any mob (or player) in a wide radius around you, which is very useful when a kill quest specifies that you must look for a specific type of rat amongst the local rat population.  The only other ways to get tracking are to roll a scout class (such as Swashbuckler/Brigand) or pay to unlock Kerra, Wood Elves, or Halflings.

    Amongst the free classes, non-subscribers might want to consider the plate-wearing melee healer Inquisitor class.  The Inquisitors are good soloists to begin with, and their AA melee attacks should not be affected by the non-subscriber restriction on spell quality.)
Not Restricted (beyond what's discussed above)
  • Solo contentWith few exceptions, solo content is not balanced assuming that the player has anything that they are prevented from obtaining by the non-subscriber restrictions.  There are some solo quest rewards that are "legendary" quality and therefore cannot be equipped as a non-subscriber, which is irritating, but not insurmountable.  Otherwise, all solo content up to level 80 is 100% free to play and the remaining content from the current expansion is subscription-free once your Station account has an expansion key (SHARED with the subscription servers).
    (Tip for new players: You might want to wait for February's expansion, which will almost certainly include the current one for free, rather than pay for the last 10 levels now and still have to pay full price for the next one as well.) 
  • Tradeskills: Some crafted gear cannot be equipped by non-subscribers, and the economy access restrictions hurt anyone who was hoping to actually craft for other people.  (Remember, even if you subscribe, the BUYER also needs to subscribe to buy from your broker boxes.)  As with solo content, 1-80 is 100% free and the new expansion requires an expansion key.  There might be a recipe or two somewhere that only drops in group content that you might not be able to run due to lack of groups.  Other than these points, crafting - one of EQ2's most highly regarded features - is 100% free.
  • Player Housing: Some house items drop in dungeons that may be hard for non-subscribers to clear.  Other than that, EQ2's housing system - IMO the best anywhere in MMO's - is 100% free.
  • Guilds and Guild Housing: There's a one-time fee of $10 to create a guild, mostly to ensure that the database doesn't get overwhelmed with a million one-player guilds.  (The chart currently claims that the guild creator must also be at least a silver-level player, I don't know if that became obsolete with the fee.)  Non-subscribers may or may not have difficulty paying to buy and maintain guild halls due to the gold cap (though the cap could also be viewed as an incentive to donate, as excess gold is simply discarded).  Otherwise, EQ2's guild system, including guild housing (again, IMO the best in MMO's, at least when it comes to decorating potential), are completely free.
Where I personally stand
Though I don't dislike EQ2's group content, dungeon runs in the game take too long for them to be a serious considering in my purchasing decisions.  As long as I'm prepared to write off dungeon runs and play a free race/class (or pay one-time unlock fees), I can have basically everything that I used to pay to do in game for free.  If SOE is going to make it inconvenient for me to participate in the economy, I can just ignore that part of the game altogether, other than perhaps to get a pair of bags for my two free bag slots.
If I didn't already have a level 90 character in a guild I'm fond of on live, there's no reason why I would ever consider paying a single cent beyond expansion box fees ever again.  You might argue that this represents bad microtransaction design, but I was never the target market for this shift.  Their main concern appears to be keeping current year-round raiders from ditching their subscriptions, and it will be very hard to change that structure (e.g. the gear and spell restrictions) now that the game is accepting cash.

In addition to the current expansion, my Station Account happens to own 1750 in Station Cash that I got through various promotions.  I could, in principle, save this balance and apply it towards the box fee for a future expansion, or I could use it to pay for some unlocks, such as the Silver upgrade or races and classes.  I also have a mount attached to my Legends of Norrath account (subscribers get five packs a month for free to try and lure us into the TCG, and this appears to be my year for winning mounts) that could provide a ride to my hypothetical EQ2Ex character instead of an alt on my subscription account (who would be better positioned to buy a mount with cash from Auntie Lyriana). 

(That said, I will not pay for three races when I want one as a matter of principle.  If this forced bundling does not get fixed before I roll up a character I plan to stick with, I'm fully prepared to go half-elf - like I said, one of the best choices in terms of mechanics anyway - and keep the Station Cash so that I can pay SOE less for something else in the future.)

Overall, it's moderately likely that I will, at some point in the future, roll up a half-elf Inquisitor (a class that I've meant to try but never got around to on live servers) and give EQ2Ex an extended trial.  If that happens to mean less money that I give to SOE this year, that's their fault for the way they designed this service.

(Then again, EQ2's annual $40 expansions are comparatively expensive for solo players because they don't actually contain that much solo content.  I might be more willing to pay $40 for next year's edition if it wasn't also going to cost $15 for the month it will take to beat the new content.  Or I might not, if I won't be able to use any of the gear due to non-subscriber restrictions.  Who knows?)  

Update: Official dev comment on the race packs here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Resale As Bad Game Insurance

Penny Arcade decided to flamebait the blogosphere this week with a post about how purchasing used games is comparable to piracy in that the proceeds do not go to the game's developers.  By this standard, PVD is apparently a pirate blog, as the copy of Assassin's Creed that I posted about playing yesterday came not from a retail store but rather from Blockbuster.  More to the point, if buying used is akin to piracy, then waiting for the price to come down before purchasing the game "new" is ninja looting. 

The initial sales figures for games - and increasingly pre-sales - have a huge impact on the game's ultimate fate.  More sales convince retailers to order more copies and allocate more shelf space.  More sales lead to more buzz which generates more sales by word of mouth.  If you're hoping for continued support for a title, whether that's DLC patches, new content, or future expansions and sequels, that possibility is determined by the EARLY sales, not the number of copies that are sold at $20 a year later when the retailer gives up and wants its shelf space back.  At a minimum, there's an analogy to the raider who does not show up to raid nights when the guild is learning new content, but then ambles along to farm nights to reap the loot rewards once the content has been beaten. 

MMO's and the effects of banning resale
All of this matters because, as Zubon points out (too succinctly to quote without stealing the whole post) the potential ability to resell games is factored into the game's value.  For the buyer, resale is a conditional, partial money-back guarantee.  Most of us aren't looking to get rid of the classic game that we've played over and over again.  We're looking to ditch the $60 game that offers 8 hours of mediocre gameplay (a third of which feels like padding added to justify the price tag).  In an era where it is really difficult to get complete and objective reviews at launch, the knowledge that we CAN unload a game we don't like is an insurance policy - this game costs $60, but we can get back $20 of that if it sucks. 

We don't have to ask what the effect of removing resale is on player willingness to take risks on a day one (or before) purchase of a new title.  As MMO players, in a genre where accounts cannot be resold legitimately, we already know.  Though some still swear by the "land rush" of an MMO launch, the more conservative approach is to wait for months or even a year to see where the dust is going to settle before investing your time and money in a new game.  Those of us who do take the plunge on launch day are quick to cut our losses by stopping at the end of the month that was included in the price of the box.

Caution is a natural defense against marketing and hype that is exaggerated and embellished at best, in an era where new MMO's often need six months of continued development to deliver what they promised for launch.  Unfortunately, these delayed purchases and canceled subscriptions can lead to decimated dev teams that never get to finish games that might have had more potential.  Players lose, developers lose, and sometimes even the investors lose. 

An economic decision
Of course, console publishers know this, which is why they're looking to "tax" used sales with $10 or more in one-time DLC coupons in the box rather than trying to eliminating them altogether.  As Chris at Game By Night points out, they could try to capture a larger share of the price-conscious market directly by allowing prices to float downwards with demand (as they do online).  My guess is that they would prefer NOT to do this to defend the concept that all new games should be worth the $60 MSRP, even when some games are arguably worth more and others are worth far less. 

The reason why Blockbuster bought so many copies of Assassin's Creed back in 2007 was because the strong sales at the time suggested that people would still be willing to pay them to rent the game in 2010. In the end, those early sales might actually have been worth more to the developers than the possibility of selling the game to me "new" for $20 three years later.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cinematic Storytelling Vs Failure

I've been making good on my New Year's resolution to work on my console game backlog, wrapping up Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed (yes, the original) in the last week.  The two games differ in some ways - Uncharted is like an interactive action movie with guns and grenades, while AC is more about stealth assassination (except when you abruptly need to kill 10 guys at once) in the era of the crusades.  Even so, the two share the use of cinematic storytelling and an approach to dealing with player failure.

Storytelling and gameplay
If you look at an old school "pure" game, like say Super Mario, the story is generally pretty limited - a scene at the start in which The Princess is kidnapped again and a scene at the end in which she gives the plumber a peck on the cheek.  The "point" of that game, and its incentive to continue, is the gameplay itself, and beating each additional level.  If the game gets too hard, that's okay because you're not missing much.

By contrast, these newer-fangled cinematic games are out to tell a story. Each gameplay success is rewarded with the next scene in the tale.  The game mechanics are conceptually similar - you're using the abilities on your character and the tools in the environment to solve puzzles (which may include beating enemies) - but the philosophy is very different.  When you fail to figure something out in Uncharted or AC, you don't get sent back to the beginning of the level.  The scene resets itself to a point pretty close to where you failed, and you can try it again until you finally beat it and then never look back. 

Because of this story focus, giving up on a cinematic game is much more of a "failure" than the Mario game.  When you quit, you don't get to see how the story ends.  This is a problem for the developers, because they want you to leave happy and ready to purchase the sequel.

Quests and MMO Storytelling
Here's where this becomes relevant to the MMO audience: the modern quest system is driving MMO's away from the gameplay model and towards the cinematic model. 

World of Warcraft launched primarily as a world, full of threats for players to attack.  Sure, you needed to raid to get at the very end of each storyline, but this mattered less because there were multiple stories to follow and multiple zones to explore.  The game's two expansions, however, have gone the more cinematic route.  With a few sideplot exceptions, every single quest in the new content of these expansions has been focused on building up the storyline to the expansion's signature fight (Illidan and Arthas).  Ignoring the plot is no longer an option unless you simply don't read, and even that won't save you from cinematic events like the Wrathgate.  This, in turn, has left the playerbase less satisfied with paying full price and not getting to see the end of the story.

Bioware's upcoming Star Wars extravaganza will take the format to its logical conclusion, with a multiplayer form of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, complete with cinematic cutscenes and dialog trees.  Players are excited about this, but I wonder whether they'll like the results.  I've never been able to get into Dragon Age personally; the gameplay is too shallow compared to what we have in MMO's to stand on its own merits, but it requires just enough attention to seriously detract from sitting back and enjoying the story while you fumble with inventory management and character sheets.  Somehow, I don't think I'll be first in line to pay for MMOre of the same. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Designing DDO Druids

DDOCast spent a few minutes of this week's episode brainstorming about when and how the Dungeons and Dragons Druid class might arrive in DDO.  The challenges with this class exemplify some of the issues that all games face when adding new classes. 

The Mind is Mightier Than The Microprocessor
As nearly as I can tell, the big issue is that the class would require two major game mechanic systems that currently do not exist in the game.  In addition to spell-casting, Dungeons and Dragons Druids have the ability to shapeshift into just about anything (animals, plant creatures, elementals).  On top of that, Druids can tame dozens of creatures as animal companions, who can advance into sentient, intelligent beings that can then take a character class and gain class levels as if they were a free-standing character.

In a pen and paper RPG, these mechanics work because the game is being run by a living, hopefully intelligent Dungeon Master who can make a rational decision about what exactly happens if the player turns into a Fire Elemental while fighting Ragnaros (or whatever).  Unfortunately, a computer game needs to be told in advance what to do about every possible situation, which requires a far more limited stable of options.

Working within the system

DDO's most recent new class, the Favored Soul, is also a divine spellcaster.  However, unlike the Druid, the Favored Soul is effectively a Sorceror with different numbers plugged into some stats and a different spell list.  The class has some unique quirks, but none of these required new game systems to implement.  My guess is that the length of the wait for the DDO Druid will depend heavily on how much Turbine is willing to compromise on the class features (and how much compromise is possible before the class becomes nigh indistinguishable from its existing counterparts).

SOE and Blizzard have been able to implement shape-changing Druids in Norrath and Azeroth because they own the respective lores; if they say that the local Druids only know 3-4 forms, then that's all they know, and that's a reasonable number to implement.  Turbine has previously implemented some limitations on spells that are not limited in the pen and paper game; for example, the "summon monster" and "summon nature's ally" spells can summon any creature of an appropriate power level in the pen and paper game, but are limited to a single type of creature in DDO.  Even so, shapeshifting raises all kinds of complicated questions, especially when paired with other classes.  This level of effort is not feasible for a single class - if they really wanted to do this, they could also implement self-shape-shifting for arcane casters to gain more milage out of their work on the backend, but that would remain a major effort.

The animal companion system seems more promising.  DDO has NPC hirelings, who take up a slot in your party and can fill some rudimentary party tasks.  It also has uncontrolled NPC pets from a variety of spells, and a recent game update put significant work into fleshing out undead pets for the Necromancy-inclined Wizards.  In principle, these efforts might lay the groundwork for a more advanced pet system, though they're still a far cry from what longtime players might be expecting.

When to add classes?
The real challenge when adding one or more new classes to an existing MMO is determining how much effort it is feasible to spend on a single class.  If you look at, say, WoW, Death Knights entered the game with a variety of new ideas (no single tanking tree, pets and heals and damage, several new types of resources) and have had to change to behave more like normal classes in the long run for the sake of balance.

However, if you do too little, there's no reason for players to be excited about new classes.  In that case, you're just adding work for the class design team, who will need to devise a niche for the new guys for no good reason.  The question is when the tradeoffs involved become worth the effort. 

Will DDO Druids that look like Priests with slightly more robust pets and slight variations in their spell list make the cut?  Time will tell for Turbine and Stormreach. 

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cryptic Considers Trying Quality

"Coming into the launch of STO and Champions, I made sure we had something for everyone. Here was the problem. By following that philosophy, nothing was polished. We ended up having lots of half-done features in some quarters. What I forgot was, inasmuch as a consumer or a player, if it isn't there at launch it might as well not be there, well if it's in half-done or half-done well, that's what you get remembered for. The fact that STO and Champions have gotten better since their launch, we've added content, we've fixed bugs, we've responded to players, all that stuff isn't as important or as forceful as that initial interaction with the game. So we have a very different mindset here. Right now, whatever we do, it's got to be the best possible quality we can."
- Cryptic's Jack Emmert in an interview with Massively

I supposed we're supposed to be impressed by his honesty. Somehow, I don't find the admission that striving for quality is a fall-back position they were forced into by past market reaction all that reassuring.

Friday, August 20, 2010

DDO Free Players Don't Reach Endgame?

"Here's a fun fact: The vast majority of high level characters are on accounts that were created way way before free to play launched. Those bad PUGS at high level? Same people you were playing with before September 2009."
 - DDO Developer Tarrant

DDO is often held up as the pinnacle of what can be accomplished with a transition to a free to play model.  New players came to the game, bringing more revenue.  The game retains a very high ratio of players who are actually spending money on the game, even though access to the world is free.  However, it appears that us new free players (the highest character on my five-month-old account is level 6 out of 20) are not reaching the level cap.

Some of this makes sense based on the game's payment model.  DDO (and soon LOTRO) are called free to play, but effectively charge players per content (whether you pay via a monthly sub or one time quest/adventure pack purchases).  This is a difference from traditional free to pay models (see Runes of Magic) that don't charge for content, and it means that there are some financial barriers between new players and max level.

The long term challenge, though, is what you do if indeed your population begins to skew more and more heavily towards the low levels over time.  You're not going to stop developing high level content that you were working on before you went F2P (e.g. LOTRO's Enedwaith zone, high level content in F2P DDO's early updates), but knowing that high levels make up a smaller and smaller proportion of your playerbase is bound to affect the direction of future content.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Should Runes of Magic Sell Gold?

There are a number of big problems with developers entering the business of selling in-game currency for real money.  However, based on the specific history and current circumstances in Runes of Magic, I'm not convinced that this outcome would be worse than the status quo. 

Money Laundering and your Local Auction House
ROM was designed with the intent that players would be able to purchase the cash store Diamond currency using in-game gold.  The auction house still has a category for this currently unavailable functionality.

The theory is that this type of model allows the developers to monetize players who are not willing to spend any of their own real money on the game.  From the developers' perspective, it doesn't matter if I spend $10 on a horse or if someone else spends $10 on diamonds that I buy off them for gold and then use to buy the horse.  There are a variety of potential drawbacks to this design decision, but the real problem that seems to have killed this feature is outright fraud. 

For an illicit gold seller, this system offers a perfect opportunity.
  1. Use stolen credit card numbers (perhaps from former customers) to make an unauthorized diamond purchase from the game.
  2. Sell diamonds on the AH for gold.
  3. Offer to sell the gold for real money at rates that are significantly better than the diamond -> AH rate.
The gold seller does not care if/when the owner of the original stolen card contests the charges, because it's not their money.  Their cut comes from the customer in step 3, who has no reason to contest the charges because they actually received the gold they paid for.  Meanwhile, the "stolen" diamonds are in the hands of a player who had no way of knowing that they were stolen, as they were posted on the legitimate in-game auction house.  If the gold buyer has spent the gold already, there are even more innocent third parties in the loop.  In the end, the developers lose money from chargeback fees, support time, and whatever they ultimately decide to do about the illicit currency. 

Passing the buck
Under the circumstances, you might figure that the logical solution would be to cut off the diamond trade entirely.  Unfortunately, ROM's developers were apparently counting on this revenue stream, and are unwilling to consider this approach. 

As a result, newly purchased diamonds that were paid for using online payment methods cannot be traded to other players (or at least cannot be traded for some amount of time, to ensure that any protests are resolved).  Diamonds purchased through any sort of gift card program, where the retailer rather than the game's developers eats the losses if the charges prove to be fraudulent, can still be transferred to other players, but NOT via the in-game auction house.  

This means that players must engage in completely insecure trades with other players, with no way of verifying that the other player has what they're promising to pay.  It's not entirely clear from my vantage point as a player whether customer service will intervene when these types of deals go bad.  Either way, the developers can't plausibly feign ignorance, as people looking to buy or sell diamonds/gold are constantly posting this in the global chat.  More to the point, the devs don't WANT to lock down this trade, because they're counting on the revenue. 

Will official gold trading solve the problem?
There's a rumor on the US forums (the developers and their official forums are in Germany) that the long term solution to this problem may involve the introduction of an NPC who sells gold for diamonds at some fixed rate.  The developers have also already locked down the use of in-game mail to send gold to other players.  Given the history of these things, it's not entirely clear that these steps will actually manage to eradicate the gold trade, but let's assume for the sake of argument that they do succeed.  Will this be a good thing? 

The effects on the economy are going to be a bit hard to predict.  On the one hand, this move might cause inflation, as new gold would be introduced to the economy when players purchase it in this way.  However, the current system also drives inflation in some ways, if players are currently willing to farm monsters to get gold to trade to players for diamonds.  In any case, as nearly as I can tell, the developers' WANT inflation, as this would leave more players feeling that they need to purchase gold. 

There's also a potential market among spendthrifts like myself, who CAN afford to pay for diamonds but CHOOSE not to when offered the option of handing over virtual gold instead. Meanwhile, I would speculate that the developers get less of the revenue from gift card sales compared to straight up credit card purchases, as there are more third parties involved (the gift card issuer, and a cut for the retailer).  So, the effects on revenue are not clearcut. 

On the other hand, the effects on transaction security for legitimate players would be dramatic.  Players who want to obtain gold would not have to worry about finding a legitimate buyer for their diamonds.  This change would most likely remove the ability to "gift" diamonds (realistically, I doubt that very many of these transactions are genuinely altruistic gifts without any form of compensation or scam involved), but at least then it would be official that there is no safe way to obtain diamonds without paying real money. 

In the end, the developers have made a decision that they want to take money from players who are intending to convert diamonds into gold.  In my view, this creates a responsibility to safeguard those transactions that trumps any other ill effects that official gold selling would have on the game. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fixing LOTRO F2P By Sept 10

The LOTRO Free to Play Beta seems to have been winding down for a bit now - all of the major features are in the game, and the patch notes have been getting progressively shorter.  Yesterday came the big unveil - new players can no longer sign up for LOTRO's free trial program because the free to play revamp launches September 10th

Store In Need of Polish
Though there is still nearly a month's worth of beta left, the LOTRO store in particular looks like it could use some work.  There are bugs, such as players not receiving purchased items, which are being worked on and should be fixed by launch.  Just as concerning, though, are store items that are confusing. 

For example, consider inventory upgrades.

This purchase, for 495 TP, unlocks the fourth inventory bag for non-subscribers.  Subscribers get access to all five of the current bags as part of their subscriptions, but are still allowed to purchase the fourth bagslot because they might eventually go free to play.  Even then, any characters they played while they were subscribers would be grandfathered in for the fourth and fifth bags (this may change later in beta), but any NEW characters would need the fourth bag.

By contrast, this relatively similar looking upgrade - also for 495 TP - increases the amount of space in the player's bank by the same 15 slots as the extra inventory bag would.  There are, however, two big differences.  First, this unlock is PER CHARACTER (note the "Uses: Character" line versus "Uses: Account" for the inventory bag).  This was improved after Beta players left strongly worded feedback that this distinction needs to be clearer, but I think there is still room for confusion.  Second, bank space expansions are the same expansions that are currently purchasable with in-game gold, and will remain purchasable under free to play.  Players who think that they must pay real money to unlock this feature and later find out that this was not necessary may wish they'd spent their TP on other things.

This type of issue is not unique to inventory bags.  For example, you can purchase the two Moria expansion classes separately from the expansion, but the expansion is required as the only way to increase your level cap to 60 (and unlock legendary items).  Presumably, there are no refunds for such wasted purchases when you get to level 50 and realize that you MUST pay for the expansion to continue playing the game.   These points of confusion are not some hypothetical question that I'm coming up with because I'm "looking for things to complain about" - the guys at LOTRO Reporter were confused by the bag issue on their recent 50th episode. 

Will all this stuff get fixed in time?  Maybe, maybe not.  Also, as an evolving store, there will always be room for new confusion every time a new item is added.  Either way, I'd advise extreme caution in purchasing things during the early days of free to play.  Turbine's customer service in DDO seems to be relatively good about fixing these sorts of misunderstandings when they happen, but it will save you some time if you let someone else be the guinea pig who finds the issue.

State of the Game

For existing players, my guess is that free to play will be a good thing.  Long-awaited additional content will be added to the game, while the newbie zones will get some updates and polish.  Though there are a few places where Turbine is offering cash store items to decrease excessive grinds in lieu of decreasing the excessive grinds, the fact is that they were not doing anything about these areas anyway.  Subscribers who intend to continue to subscribe can just use their monthly Turbine Point stipend to buy up a few trait potions or whatever, which is a few more trait potions than they would have had while the game stagnated under the old system.

For new players and non-subscribers, though, I feel that the merits of the new model are less clear cut.  Obviously, you get something - the ability to log into your characters, chat with your guildies, etc - where before you had nothing.  On the other hand, Turbine has held back a fair number of things - such as access to all swift travel routes, PVMP, and rested exp for subscribers only, regardless of how much you're willing to pay.  Also, because the game consists of linear quest hubs, players will need to do some creative thinking to determine whether it actually makes sense to buy quest packs rather than renting them via the subscription. 

One final tip for new players (or former players who quit before Moria) is to consider looking for a retail box copy of the Moria expansion (e.g. from online retailers).  As I mentioned above, this expansion is NOT optional, and it is available online for far less than the price the LOTRO store is asking for it.  For under $10, you can obtain the two expansion classes, the level 60 level cap (+ LI's), permanent free access to all the content in Moria (level 50-60 stuff), and two additional character slots (plus two additional slots if you have never previously spent money on the game for the one-time upgrade from "free" to "premium").  You may also get a month of subscription access included (which will net you 500 Turbine Points if you wait for the F2P launch) for your trouble.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lacking Replay Incentives

Runes of Magic provides players with "free samples" of a variety of cash shop items, including "marking ink" (can be used to mark any location) and "transport runes" (used to teleport to these locations at a later date).  As you can see, I've been using the inks (which are also available cheaply via daily quest tokens) to mark the major cities in the game as I reach each one.  I have yet to actually use a rune to teleport to any of these locations.

Though the game does provide alternatives - a hearthstone equivalent and an NPC teleport service - the main reason why I'm still sitting on all of my runes is that it is very rare that I ever feel I *need* to backtrack.  I travel to a quest area, I complete all the local quests (or maybe all but one or two group quests that I will come back to solo at some higher level), and I leave. 

Why Backtrack?
This particular feature of games is by no means unique to ROM - the unused teleport runes just happen to be an especially noticeable way of keeping "score" to show just how little use I have had for worldwide travel on a scale that most games do not offer.

Pretty much every game offers some reason to go back to quests that you have yet to complete (assuming that there actually are enough quests that you have extras left over, which looks like it will no longer be true of ROM by the 30's).  In ROM the reason is experience for your second class, while WoW has its achievements, EQ2 has AA's, LOTRO has deeds, and DDO has favor.  Once you've completed the quests once, though, it's usually only a small subset of repeatable endgame content that actually provides any real push to return.

(DDO is an exception because literally all of its content can be repeated on higher difficulties for additional favor - in my view, this aspect of the game is part of what makes the purchase of adventure packs feel more compelling than even larger amounts of content sold in paid expansions for other games.)

The world behind
This aspect of vertical advancement - complete one zone and move on - is creating some of the genre's biggest challenges these days.  It is very challenging for developers to provide any kind of group leveling path because the inexorable upward movement of the player population means that there won't be anyone left at the lower levels to group with.  It is challenging for atmosphere, as supposedly remote areas are overrun on expansion launch day and populous towns are deserted a year later.  This approach is also clearly taxing development budgets, as it calls for more and more content at a faster rate than even the largest studios can sustain.

At the end of the day, perhaps the main solution will have to be providing compelling differences in gameplay (either revised quests or compelling class choices for alts) in the hopes that players will re-roll.  It will be very interesting to see what Cataclysm - with possibly the largest scale revamp of a leveling game ever to hit an MMO - does to WoW's demographics.  Will longtime players re-roll, zoom through at 85 for achievements, or just wonder why this feels like a shorter expansion than some?  That said, it wouldn't be all bad to have some reason to revisit locations in the world beyond the occasional Fed-ex quest.

Friday, August 13, 2010

EQ2 F2P And Taunt Skill

This week's episode of A View From The Top reminded me of a seemingly short-sighted change that SOE announced for EQ2 a few months back.  Low level characters will no longer receive certain group-focused skills - such as taunts/detaunts - automatically upon hitting the appropriate level.  Looking back, the upcoming shift to free to play appears to be part of the context of this seemingly short-sighted decision. 

The value of the solo taunt
Currently, low level fighters (tanking-capable classes) are designed to include taunts as part of their normal attack rotation, even when playing solo.  The taunt completes a combo called a "heroic opportunity" that does some damage.  With the changes, the taunts will be removed from the combo (since players will no longer have the spells on their hotbar) and existing damage attacks will be updated to take their place.  In principle, this change makes sense - why would anyone want to taunt a mob when they're the only player on the mob's aggro list? 

First off, EQ2 combat skills all have cooldowns of at least 10 seconds, with some skills locked out for 30 seconds or more after use.  Because you start off with a small number of skills, it's all-too-easy to end up sitting for 10 seconds watching your character autoattack because you don't have anything better to do.  The taunt button is literally something extra that you can do to fill that time, even if it does sound kind of pointless.  With the changes, your heroic opportunity combo will automagically complete itself using damage attacks that you were going to do anyway, and you'll just have less to do.

Second, and a bit more problematic, is EQ2's continued use of casting skills to determine whether abilities hit.  This outdated mechanic is neither challenging nor interesting - as long as the game provides you with the tools to advance your skill level, it will automatically find itself at the cap for any given level.  The occasional taunt to complete a heroic opportunity is currently enough to keep a character's "aggression" skill (only used for taunts) at its maximum level. 

With the change, EVEN AFTER the player eventually gets their taunt skills (at a higher level than in the current game), they will have no reason to ever use them.  Soon enough, players will be hitting level 90 with an aggression skill rating of 5/450, which they'll have to fix by spending a few hours taunting a target dummy since it won't be possible to group with non-functional taunts.  I'm sure that players who discover this will be ever so grateful that SOE spared them the bother of pushing an extra button back at level 8.

Diverging demographics
When the taunt change was original announced, more than a month prior to the unveiling of the free to play model, it seemed shortsighted.  Knowing what we know now, it makes a lot more sense.  The game's producer claims that the new service is aimed at a different playerbase from the existing audience, and he appears to be backing that view up with his actions. 

Having a nonexistent taunt skill is a problem if you figure that your new player is eventually supposed to go on and tank instances.  By contrast, being gimped at tanking group content doesn't matter if the player never tries to tank a dungeon because the various restrictions on their free account will keep them out of instances in the first place. 

The catch is that, under SOE's plan to run the same game using two different payment models, changes like this affect both versions simultaneously.  This particular change is more of an annoyance than a game-breaker, but it could well be a harbinger of more problematic conflicts between the two systems in months to come. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Resetting ROM Talent Points

Runes of Magic got a new patch today that included a significant skill/spell balancing pass.  (Inexplicably, the US official forum post only offers the patch notes in the form of a text attachment; the EU forum mods somehow managed to paste the text into a post like normal people.)  The initial reaction has been ugly, as practically all spells that previously cost a fixed amount of mana now also cost a percentage of your mana pool (less of an issue for my Druid/Rogue, whose nukes are powered by energy rather than mana), but this is as good an occasion as any to talk about the game's talent point system.

Unlike talents in WoW, TP in ROM are a sort of currency used to pay for upgrades to skills.  You get 10% of any exp you earn as TP, with an extra bundle each time you level up.  The cost to train each upgrade goes up with each level, so you can afford to max a few key skills, keep a larger number within a rank or two, or keep just about everything within half a dozen levels of the top.  Each of your two classes has a separate TP pool and you're free to pursue different strategies with each of them.

Given the full refund, I took the opportunity to divert TP from less used spells - my Druid now maxes three key DPS spells and spends the rest of the TP on keeping some heals up to par, while the Rogue has a more complicated rotation that includes half a dozen attacks and a variety of useful passive bonuses.  Apparently you can continue to gain TP after hitting the level cap, offering a form of alternate advancement and eventually getting all the upgrades to all the skills.  Though there are cash store items to gain more TP and/or reset your current choices (it is a free to play game after all), none of the choices are really irreversible since you can eventually gain more.

Overall, though I can see the potential for grind, it is also an interesting system.  The other thing that I like about it is that it avoids some of the advance study that goes into planning out a spec in other games, because you can upgrade your spells as you use them.  You might, as I did, end up with a few points sunk in spells that you don't end up using, or without the points to fully upgade a new ability at the level you receive it.  In the long run, though, it's much less of a learning curve than we see with alternate advancement systems in other games, where you need prebuilt builds from the forums or extended reseach before you start to make sure you don't make ineffective choices.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Buying Vs Renting In F2P EQ2 and LOTRO

While I was out, the NDA on the LOTRO F2P beta dropped, and we also got a few more details on EQ2's shift to F2P.  Both models are still in testing, and it appears that both are weighing what to do about buying character features versus renting them. 

EQ2E Class Rentals
Over on the EQ2 side, the game's producer confirms that it is not possible for non-subscribers to purchase access to the non-free classes.  Eight of the game's 24 subclasses are available to non-subscription free to play accounts.  For the moment, the remaining 16, including popular group classes like bards, shamen, and enchanters, are only available to subscribers. 

(In a minor nuance, players who pay the $35 fee to copy their characters from the existing traditional subscription version of EQ2 will be allowed to continue playing those characters as long as their EQ2 subscription remains active, even though they would not be able to create a new character of the same class in EQ2E due to not holding a subscription there.  Players who use SOE's all-access Station Pass will be considered subscribers to both services.) 

This is a very clunky and counterintuitive way to handle things, and Smokejumper concedes that even SOE's own marketing materials fail to adequately explain the split.  The entire selling point of the free to play service is not having to pay a recurring subscription.  If you're paying the $15 anyway, you're better off playing the subscription service, where you don't have to pay extra for things like the majority of the game's races (available in packs of 3 for $7.50) and aren't stuck on a server whose class balance will be overwhelmingly stacked towards the third of the game's classes that are actually available without a monthly subscription. 

I maintain that there is going to be significant buyer's remorse among players who invest time and money on the F2P side only to realize its limitations at endgame, and that this unproductive model arises solely from the need to keep current subscribers from ditching their fees

The LOTRO Beta Subscription Downgrade Paradox
Meanwhile, LOTRO is struggling with the same type of issue surrounding the game's free to play rollout.  The beta forums remain closed to the public, but the previously published account type chart illustrates some of the potential pitfalls in dealing with players with lapsed subscriptions (from before or after the F2P shift). 

Using updated prices from today's beta build, it would cost more than 1700 Turbine Points (about $17, plus or minus depending on sales and exchange rates) PER CHARACTER to unlock all of the various things that are locked for free players but not for subscribers.  This includes things like trait slots, the gold cap, the ability to ride mounts, and bags.  The ability to advance reputations is also sometimes gated by subscription status, either because the quests needed to do so require the purchase of quest access or because there's a physical unlock to purchase (in the case of crafting guilds). 

The thorny issue is what to do with characters who have already acquired these perks when their subscriptions lapse.  Apparently, the way it currently works allows players to keep everything they have at the time their subscription expires, if for no other reason than because the game would otherwise need to be set up to temporarily ignore traits and reputation levels based on subscription status. 

The result would be that a one month $15 subscription comes with 1700 TP worth of perks on as many characters as you have available at the time of the subscription (which would leave anyone who unwittingly pays the 1700 TP feeling like a sucker, since the one month sub also comes with 500 TP and a month of subscription access).  The alternative, though, is the path that EQ2 plans to use, where lapsed subscribers can't log into their characters because of lapsed perk rentals. 

The purpose of free to play?
For me personally, the entire point of having a free to play model is not having to remain shackled to a monthly fee.  This can be beneficial to the developers as well as the players, because it allows me to stay involved with games that would otherwise be on the back burner.  If I go from spending $45 per year for three months' subs (spread through the year as content is added) to spending $60/year in item shop currency, the developers win, and I'm not going to spend any currency on a game I'm not playing at all because of the monthly fee.

I don't have a problem with temporarily locking down features (though I can see how that approach is technically more challenging), but locking down characters kind of defeats the purpose. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

Are MMO's Financially Sustainable?

Upon arriving back home from vacation, I've found a blogroll full of concerning news from the world of MMO financing.  A few hits:
  • Scott Jennings reports on the practical demise of Earth Eternal, lamenting that "online gamers are saying with their dollars, yeah, we actually don’t want to play anything that isn’t World of Warcraft".  In the comments of that post, Psychochild suggests that the EE devs did not do enough to keep the time and cost of development (4+ years on a game that was still in beta) under control, arguing that "a smaller game absolutely needs to limit scope drastically".
  • Complete Heal delivers some sad details from SOE's Fan Faire, where he learned that EQ2's subscription numbers have dwindled to the point where the game is about even with its predecessor from 1999, EQ1.  Echoing reports from earlier this year that EQ2 devs were pulled away from the game to work on Free Realms, CH mentions that EQ2 is now sharing at least one dev with the "EQ Next" team.  Against this backdrop, EQ2's next expansion sounds smaller than this year's (which was, in turn, smaller than the older ones).   
  • Keen observes a "new MMO slump" on the horizon, as we've hit an era where new games have a shelf life of 3 months (if they're lucky) before burnout and disillusionment set in.  
The current generation of MMO's was built with the expectation that a million subscribers was an attainable goal.  This demanded that developers aim high, and has only exacerbated a trend of over-hype and under-delivery that has gutted the reputations of many high profile and otherwise decent games. 

When reality set in, we've seen dev teams decimated (e.g. Warhammer, Fallen Earth) to meet the new, lower revenue potential.  I would have named LOTRO and EQ2 as two of the more successful games of the current generation, and populations in both games are supposedly steady.  However, both have seen trends of less and less new content added in expansions as developer resources shift elsewhere, and both games are now hoping that dramatic shifts to free to play can bring in enough revenue to justify reversing that trend. 

Returning on investment
Until Psychochild gets enough player contributions to build a high quality MMO without relying on profit-driven investors, we're stuck with what those investors are willing to pay for.  The problem is not, as Keen suggests, that it somehow hasn't occurred to anyone that there's a market for games smaller than WoW.  The problem is that bringing in enough money to keep the servers on is very different from bringing in enough money to offer investors a profit on an initial outlay in the tens of millions of dollars. 

A game with 100K subscribers paying $200 per year brings in $20 million annually BEFORE expenses (servers, customer service, salaries for the live team).  Who's going to front the developers a $20 million budget in the hopes of being paid back in five years (after, say 3 years of development and two years of live service if all goes well, with any profit even further out in the future)?  The answer, apparently, is no one - the risk is only worthwhile if the prize is $200 million, but that would require a subscriber level that only one game in history has obtained. 

Rising Price Tags Ahead?
Though I'm sure that there are ways to cut costs and increase efficiency, I don't think we're anywhere near having a virtual world on the scale of Azeroth, Norrath, or Middle Earth built cheaply.  Meanwhile, the market is less and less tolerant of any perception that corners have been cut or left unpolished, which means that revenue will have to increase somehow. 

Unfortunately, the history of the genre argues that anyone counting on more than 300K subs to keep their game afloat is making a risky bet, so this goal cannot be the longterm plan for a game breaking even. If all this is true, the last variable in the equation is how much money each player is spending.  If our hobby is to go on in the manner in which we're accustomed, there may be significant price hikes in our future.  Whether those hikes are presented in the form of "optional" item shop transactions (the current trend, which has its pros and cons) or other less voluntary mechanisms remains to be seen, but I don't see how things can continue at their current pace. 

Sunday, August 1, 2010

PVD On Vacation

PVD is off on summer vacation in the wilderness, where I don't expect to have internet access.  Comments are temporarily moderated and will appear upon my return.  (Actually, I see there's a setting to only moderate comments on older posts - I might use that in the future, because 95% of comments on anything more than a week old are spam.) 

Stay out of trouble and I'll see you all in a bit over a week.