Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NPC Companion/Pet Stupidity As A Feature

Yeebo comments on my SWTOR beta post that he hopes "with the right mix of companions you won't be crippled without a dedicated healer in group content".  I only spent a few hours in the beta and never got a companion, so I can't speak from my own experience.  However, I did listen to NDA Roundup episode of the Darth Hater Podcast, where one of the hosts commented that he and a friend had successfully two-manned a flashpoint with their companions healing up to the final boss.  They were unable to beat the last encounter because their companions stood in the fire and died. 

The merits of the scripted "dance" of the modern MMO dungeon/raid encounter can be debated, but survivability of NPC "pets" have always posed a problem. Developers talk about how pet management is supposed to be a part of how you play a class that depends on having their pet alive, but it's hard enough for the player to get their own character out of the fire.  MMO user interfaces seldom offer a reasonable option for micromanaging pets, companions, mercenaries, henchmen, and other allegedly helpful NPC's sufficiently to keep them from standing in stuff that is damaging them.  Some MMO's even make pets immune to AOE attacks because this is the least difficult solution to this problem. 

As someone who likes to do the occasional group content, I would love to be able to use an NPC to fill a tough-to-fill group slot.  The problem is that so many of these "move out of the fire or die" mechanics are so demanding that there is no middle ground - either the NPC never dies in the fire and therefore is a more attractive group-mate than a human (who might screw up), or the NPC is useless because they always die in the fire.  EQ2's always entertaining executive producer David Georgeson spins this as a feature - he claims that NPC's are intentionally designed to be less skillful than humans to preserve a role for other players - but the resulting NPC's will likely be worthless for the purpose that players have the most need for as a result. 

(Aside: Mistakes made by the new EQ2 Mercenary AI are almost certainly increased by the fact that they're abruptly launching their expansion on a single week's advance notice, and less than a month after the start of beta testing.  I see no way this can end well.) 

Part of me wonders whether the solution is to take the specialized group roles that the overwhelming majority of players don't want out of the hands of players.  That way, you're not balancing an encounter around a human tank and creating something too complicated for the NPC to handle - the NPC is the tank for the group, period, because players can't be tanks.  There are definite downsides to this approach - I'm actually starting to like healing a bit, myself - but it does solve the tank/healer shortage.  If MMO's continue to be predominately populated by DPS players relying on NPC's to do the support, it makes increasingly little sense to suddenly force that role on unwilling players at endgame.

Monday, November 28, 2011

An hour of TOR Beta

I spent the requisite hour with the SWTOR "closed" beta, contributing to Bioware's effort to make that term absurd by inviting millions of players.

The art style is different, but the UI is intentionally familiar.

A few comments:
  • If I understand the class system correctly, there are eight "advanced" classes (mirrored between the factions), each of which shares its first ten levels with one other "advanced" version of the base class.  Again, if I understand correctly, you cannot change your advanced class without re-rolling.  Each advanced class has three talent trees that can currently be respec'ed and, at some point in the future, will support dual specs.  Two of the eight advanced classes can only be DPS, while the remaining six have a single tree each for tanking or healing.  Given that each character gains NPC companions capable of tanking or support, this system feels destined to exacerbate the genre-wide issues with convincing players to tank or heal.
  • Each base class has a fixed storyline, with a fixed list of companions and fixed roles.  Need a tanking companion but don't like the one your class gets?  Tough.  Want to solo as a stealth lightsaber fighter and serve as a healer in groups?  Sorry, those are different advanced classes.  Disagree with the writers' call on what is the "right" call deserving of light/dark points?  Too bad, this is the story Bioware is telling.

    The upside here is significant - much more player involvement in the story, and much more of a feeling that your companions have real personalities, rather than serving as loot acquisition assistants.  Unfortunately, the downside is there as well - it's not enough to find a role I like, I also have to find a story I am prepared to enjoy.  
  • One place where Bioware is pushing the envelope is in the use of instances and scripted conversation.  There are sometimes comically large crowds of players standing around a quest objective with speech bubbles over their heads, indicating that they are currently conversing with NPC's.  It's also possible to split off portions of public-looking areas into phases for more conversations. 
On the other side of the door is a cutscene, which these two characters are currently playing through.

I will not be pre-ordering or playing at launch for purely technical reasons.  My laptop does not meet the minimum box specs for the game, and, unlike Rift, I was not able to make the game pleasant to play by gutting the graphics settings.  I will wait until I can play this on a machine that's worth playing it on.

My impression of the game as a MMO tourist was much more favorable than I'd anticipated.  I actively did not enjoy the gameplay of Dragon Age to such an extent that I wasn't willing to tolerate it in order to see the story.  SWTOR appears to use very standard MMO mechanics, which I still enjoy.  This is unlikely to be a long term subscription, but I think I could enjoy playing through once or twice to see the storylines. To that extent, I've come out of the beta weekend much more positive about the game than I was when it began, which is a win for Bioware.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Capped In DCUO

Green Armadillo hit DCUO's level cap (30) on Wednesday. 
He's currently got 31 skill points, 15 from levels and the rest from feats, the game's version of achievements.  I'm not sure exactly what the cap is on this, but realistically most characters are going to want a melee and a ranged weapon with 6-9 points each in attack combos.  Beyond that, you're just picking up additional weapon types and/or passive stats. 

One thing that struck me about the experience was how much of the content I used on the way to the top.  Solo missions are automatically granted when you reach the appropriate level, and I have completed most of them.  There is one level 23 quest instance I skipped due to a massively over-tuned final fight, and two level 29 questlines that I have advanced to the final story instances but not yet completed.  There may be some sidequests that I have missed - I don't know if the ones I have yet to complete are for level 30 or earlier ones that I missed - and there is also exp to be had for completing race courses in the world.  That said, there will be almost no new leveling content for future Hero alts, and the Villain content generally mirrors the Hero questlines. 

On the plus side, there is a fair amount of additional content at level 30, including "challenge modes" of lower level solo instances.  There's also the DLC, which I will probably partake of eventually (either via subscription or paid unlock).  In the mean time, DCUO is now the fourth MMO where I have owned a max level character, so I guess that speaks to the quality of the leveling experience (at least once). 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

MMO Black Friday

Here's a few MMO-related Black Friday sales that are or will be available from the comfort of your own home computer. 
  • Rift Client free with game time purchase:
    Via MMO-Crunch, there is currently no charge for the Rift client with the purchase of game time.  I assume that any of the normal sub-plans are available - $15 for one month or multi-month deals that may or may not be in your best interest.  Note that, while the most recent Digital Collector's edition is included on the sale page, the $10 upgrade package is available for $10 at any time, so there's no need to snag it now.
  • LOTRO Isengard Expansion 50% off for Black Friday
    After a highly aggressive pre-order campaign, which misled several people (myself included) into believing that the $30 price was pre-order only, that price will now be slashed by 50% less than two months after the expansion launch, albeit for a single day.  My patience in refusing the hard sell is rewarded with a major discount, and I will certainly remember this the next time Turbine tries something similar.   

    There's an additional wrinkle in that the sale does not specify which of the three packages is included.  At the full prices, I would not pay for the fancier editions - normal Turbine Point sales let you get the equivalent of 1000 TP for the added $10, and I don't care about the cosmetics.  At 50% off, the choice between the $15 base edition and the $20 edition that adds 1000 TP for $5 becomes much more interesting, as I don't think I've ever seen a rate that favorable.   

    (If the Legendary version is included, this deal would be spectacular for new players - $25 would be all you would need to spend from level 1 to the cap, including the not-yet-released new endgame content.  I own most of the quest packs included in this bundle, and I'd still be strongly tempted just because this blows any other deal they've ever offered for the two zones I'm missing out of the water.) 
  • WoW Speculation
    As of now, the only WoW deal I know of is a black Friday price at Gamestop, offering the base game (which now include TBC) for $10, with Wrath and Cataclysm at $20 each, in exchange for potentially risking your life in the retail stampede.  I only mention this because Blizzard offered a similar price on their web store last year, and has Starcraft II on sale for half off through Monday.  I'd watch this one if you have a WoW account that you have not yet upgraded, but I could turn out to be incorrect. 
I'm primarily interested in game clients/expansions/etc, but feel free to post anything else interesting in the comments and I will try to update this post with your info.  For example, EQ2 has an unspecified sale, which could be interesting if EQ2X race/class or gear unlocks that will be usable in the base game next month are included.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Happy Commerce, everyone!

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Poster Boy for DCUO

    Wilhelm the Ancient Gaming Noob has cited my recent posts about DCUO as proof of the success of the free-to-play conversion.  I suppose it is a success by the central tenet of the free to play business model - it's hard to make money off of people who aren't playing the game at all.  At the same time, I can't imagine that I'd be John Smedley's choice for DCUO Poster Boy. 

    I hear Wilhelm likes travel posters.
    I'm a player who tried the DCUO beta but decided to wait and see how the game came out.  When I didn't like what I was hearing about polish, quantity of content, and the inexcusable decision to host PC and PS3 players on separate servers, I continued waiting.  My patience was rewarded on November 1st, when a game that would have cost me $60 for the PS3 box ($50 for the PC) plus $15/month thereafter back in January was handed to the world for free. 

    The resulting game is high quality, and different enough from my other activities that it has been my primary MMO this month.  It also looks likely that I will be at the max level and finished with all of the solo content from the launch game by the first month's anniversary of free to play, all without having paid SOE a dime.  I guess they are getting some free publicity from my blog, and they may eventually get the equivalent of $5/month or so in DLC purchases, but that's a far cry from the $60 + $15/month they had been hoping for at launch.

    The real hero
    If you're looking for a real hero of DCUO, the person to look to is Apple of the DCUO Unlimited Podcast.  Apple has been covering this game since 2008, and when he jokes that SOE finally listened to the Unlimited crew by taking the game F2P, he's not entirely wrong.  It's one thing for the forums to go nuts when the subscription pricing was announced, and another thing for players to cancel their subscriptions for any number of reasons.  From my standpoint following the game from the outside, the true faithful in places like DCUO Unlimited were the only people still defending the game for the months between its launch-time fade from view and its re-emergence as a free to play game. 

    As if Apple's accomplishments weren't enough on their own merits, he revealed last weekend that he has accomplished all of this while battling Parkinson's Disease, relying on cohosts to post the news when he could not type and deftly wielding the camera to avoid capturing signs of his symptoms on film.  I don't know of anyone anywhere in any MMO community who has played such a prominent role despite such challenges. 

    If DCUO does make it through the tough times - I maintain that this is no certainty given SOE's track record with games that have expensive licensed IP's and disappointing revenue - they will have players like Apple, not late-coming tourist bloggers, to thank. 

    Monday, November 21, 2011

    Dailies and the Subscription Endgame

    I've been sporadically working on WoW's daily quest endgame, and I'm staggered by how many of these there are in Cataclysm these days.  Studios - Blizzard foremost amongst them - have gotten really fond of using daily progress limits to extend the life of content in the era of the monthly subscription fee.  I wonder whether this mechanic is going to be less welcome now that so many games aren't charging one. 

    Tales of Tol Barad
    Today, I finished an achievement called Just Another Day in Tol Barad, awarded for completing each of the daily quests related to the Cataclysm world PVP area.  No actual PVP is required for this achievement, but it does require a decent amount of real-world time.

    Most of the quests in Tol Barad are randomly selected on a daily basis, and it's taken over two weeks (not counting days when I didn't actually play) to get all of them.  Additionally, nine of the quests for the achievement are tied to control of the Tol Barad keep - after each battle, one of three random questgivers spawns, with quests pointing at one of three mini-prisons that are only open when the appropriate questgiver is up.  There is no time limit on these quests once you have accepted them (e.g. if the next battle happens - even if your faction wins, the same area might not be open afterwards), and you can complete the quests if the opposing faction controls the zone and the appropriate questgiver spawns for them.  (Unlike Wintergrasp, none of this area is flagged for PVP on PVE servers.) 

    This is not the end of the Tol Barad dailies, however.  There is a quest achievement for completing 100 dailies in the area (I'm currently just over 60), and I would probably need around 40-60 more quests beyond that for exalted with the faction (currently partway through revered).  These daily quest totals would be enough for me to collect the tokens for the minipet (already purchased) and maybe the cheaper of the two mounts, with another 200 tokens if you want both mounts. 

    Other daily quest-related activities on my theoretical to-do list in WoW include:
    • I'm working on the revised Wintersaber cub grind, currently completed day 11 out of 20.
    • I'm on one of the earliest stages in the Fireland daily quests from patch 4.2.
    • I'm currently revered with Therazane, which has a bunch of daily quests for rep.  There are also two achievements here, each of which depend on completing a specific quest 10 times.  Neither of these is a guaranteed spawn either, and one, for the Pebble minipet, is actually very rare.  
    • There are two open daily quests I can theoretically work on for Ramakhen rep (currently revered), though realistically it's quicker to get this by pugging dungeons with the appropriate tabard.  
    • There are also two dailies for the Wildhammer clan, but I have yet to unlock these, and, again, there's a tabard for that.  
    • I'm done with cooking dailies, but there are fishing (and possibly archeology?) dailies I haven't bothered with.
    • This is not strictly a daily, but my mage still has his hearthstone in Sholazar Basin because he's still waiting on the green proto-drake mount from the Oracle eggs, which take three days of real time (reduced down from a week in Wrath) to hatch.  I have several bags-worth of duplicate super-common and thus un-sellable minipets from this activity, and may or may not be willing to do out-dated Wrath era daily quests to switch over to the Wolvar side if I ever get the mount, just so I can slaughter Oracles in retribution for how long this has taken.  
    • Patch 4.3 will revise the Darkmoon Faire to include a number of daily quests and currencies, all of which are only available one week per month when the Faire is open.  
    The role of the daily in the subscription game
    Overall, it's pretty clear the daily quests are what's for entertainment for the solo player at endgame, and there are times when I don't mind doing them.  They're a great way to pass the time while waiting for dungeon queues, waking up bleary-eyed first thing in the morning, or just in situations where you can't be sure you won't be called away from the computer on a moment's notice.

    That said, I would be seriously irked by all of the places where my ability to complete my goals is blocked by daily progress limits if I was still paying for a month at a time and trying to wrap things up quickly.  Because I elected to sign up for the annual plan for this year, I know that I have lots of time to take care of all this stuff (or not), and it doesn't really bug me if I don't feel like doing dailies today - I just don't do them.  In hindsight, part of why I haven't spent much time on Cataclysm's endgame was not wanting to try and focus on getting these grinds over with in as few paid months as possible.

    The last few remaining subscription games, like WoW and Rift, are faced with competition that offers payment models which are more based on how much you choose to play than when.   Free to play games want to charge money too, but they have less reason to care if a player wants to go all-in for a weekend - see my experience with Runes of Magic bonus exp.  Ironically, this may mean less pressure to include too much of a (marginally) good thing. 

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Combat Pacing and Feel

    A few semi-related ramblings about combat pacing, which are aimed in the vague general direction of this question: To what extent can/should the mechanics of actually playing the game (pushing buttons etc) influence what roles the player can perform?
    • LOTRO got a bunch of complaints in the early days for "sluggish" feeling combat.  I think this can be chalked up to several different factors; the time to kill a solo mob is much higher than in WoW (which was the only other MMO that focused on solo content at the time LOTRO launched), there were some issues with lengthy animations that would have to complete before characters to execute their next attack, and there may have been some other factors as well.  Regardless, this was a major critique of the game at the time of its launch.

      Speaking of things dying quickly, I've been getting much more interested in healing now that I'm actually grouping in games that aren't WoW, and a big part of that may be that WoW has always had faster paced combat - with less reaction time for the healer. 
    • I blogged about DCUO weapons last week, and I've since earned enough skill points to allow my main to equip any weapon he wants (though he only has special attacks for a handful).  Weapons differ drastically in their combat speed, what types of click combinations are necessary to execute special attacks, etc.  Some, like the slow 2-handed weapon and brawling types, I dislike for slow speed.  Some, such as dual pistols and staves, I'm not so fond of due to the attack sequences.  The assault rifle I dislike because it has a really bad habit of hitting far away mobs that I did not intend to pull, which I suppose is a valuable lesson in firearm safety courtesy of SOE and Superman.

      At the end of the day, I have some options I can live with - Bows and 1-handed weapons are my current favorite.  I think these are passable options for my two roles (DPS, healing), but it's certainly possible that there is a more optimal choice that I'm not using because I don't like it. 
    • When talking about their plans for the new monk class in the Pandaria expansion, Blizzard admitted that the design of not having an auto-attack may be so far out there that they will have to fight to keep it through testing.  DCUO meanwhile has confirmed its new Flash-themed DLC pack, and stated that the new "Lightning" powerset will do some sort of ward-based smart-healing.  Given my namesake, you'd think that I've be playing a Green Lantern, but I'm less interested in their group role (crowd control/regen) than in healing.  I'm reasonably happy with the Sorcery powerset I'm using on my main, but the Flash powerset may or may not make the new DLC more appealing, even if the subject matter is of less interest.
    I don't know that I really have a bottom line today, quirky/pensive mood I suppose.  

    Wednesday, November 16, 2011

    Fishy Free To Play

    Scott Hartsman, who happens to be running one of the last handful of subscription MMO's standing, appeals to populism in his defense of the subscription model.  He calls the free to play model "going whaling", stating that "you have to be willing to create a game that has the ability to make huge sums of money from relatively small numbers of people".  It is a thinly veiled threat - those other publishers don't care about the non-paying majority, and only care about the paying minority to the extent that they can extract more money. 

    Fishy Business Models
    I fully agree that taking an existing game free to play, when it was never designed for this change, is likely to be problematic.  None of the free to play conversions we have seen to date has been especially voluntary, and many of them have arrived at models that are likely ill-advised as a result.  Even so, Mr. Hartsman's argument sounds like a fishmonger telling passers by that the fishing instructor down the street is not looking out for their best interests. He might be correct, but he's really worried about the effect on his sales if too many of his customers learn to fish. 

    (Yes, I believe I did just call Scott Hartsman a fishmonger.  Oh snap?)

    The subscription model is no paragon of virtue itself.  Time and time again, we have seen incentives used to try and extend the repetition of content far beyond the point at which it is fun, because the developer gets paid or does not based on whether or not the player is still playing 30 days later.  Meanwhile, the fish analogy continues, albeit at a smaller scale.  Less frequent players are forced to pay the same price as the big fish or quit, because the publisher cannot offer a payment model that is more equitable based on usage.  More frequent users might quit in protest, or, worse, they might reduce their own consumption to reduce their expenses. 

    There is a middle ground between the subscription model and the free-for-all of "going whaling", and it's a space that developers are reluctant to compete in - ditching the recurring fee but still charging for content.  Guild Wars has done this since its launch, DDO has done it since its re-launch, and others are going to attempt it, albeit with the disadvantage of having started with a different model. 

    Paying the bills
    The problem is the widely reported $100 million in venture capital it took to create Trion Worlds and allow them to keep Rift in development until it was ready before launching it.  Now that the game is done, the investors can rest assured that players will keep re-purchasing the same content each and every month, or be cut off from their friends.  A model where a lackluster monthly rift invasion event means that Trion doesn't get paid this month is terrifying, and perhaps with good reason. 

    A studio like SOE putting out DCUO is at a disadvantage when competing dollar for dollar in the same space as the single player Batman Arkham Asylum, whose developers don't have to worry about server infrastructure or databases.  Then again, this is exactly where DCUO has ended up, because their product was not attractive when it delivered comparable amounts of content as their competitor at significantly higher recurring prices.  Ironically, SOE has fallen into the whaling trap - their single minded focus on catching the great white whale (i.e. retaining the subscriptions of the few who were still paying) has caused them to ignore the smaller fish who might have paid for a model that is not designed to force a subscription at the higher end. 

    I would like to think there is a better approach than hoping to hit the subscription jackpot and retrofitting a non-subscription model only as a last-ditch effort to recoup your investment if the subscription fails.  What we need are fishermen willing to look for a new method, instead of fighting to preserve their out of date approach.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    The Content of DCUO

    After two weeks of DCUO, my main hero, the Green Armadillo, is sitting at level 18, out of the cap of 30.  I've also run two villain characters through the first story arc for their respective mentors on the PS3 side.  The content has been high quality, but I'm somewhat surprised to find myself running out of level-appropriate quests.

    If the intent is to force me into group content to round out the exp curve, that is a potentially interesting design decision, albeit one that will leave me with no content to use on alts.  If the issue is that the game simply doesn't have enough content to go around, that would probably explain a fair amount of why it did not do well as a subscription title. 

    A Tale of Two Cities
    The non-instanced world of DCUO consists of the cities of Metropolis and Gotham, which, in the view of this biased Batman fan, is one city too many.  Catwoman has more personality than Wonder Woman, and Superman is such a generic boyscout that I thought a voice actor portraying a vendor was mocking me when they sneered that they could sell me stuff to help my fight for truth, justice, and the American Way, until I realized that Superman actually says that.  It's also not clear to me why the three Villain mentors would want to team up, other than defense against the Justice League, maybe there's more lore for this at higher levels.  Again, I am biased, but the Metropolis content is the stuff I do to try and get the exp I need to get back to Batman Universe Online.

    Speaking of exp, the outdoor quests (all of which are effectively semi-public quests) go quicker than they sound (20 kills per objective is common) due to the fast paced combat, and the likelihood that other players are around to help.  That said, I am not receiving enough exp to be the listed level for the next questline when I finish each story arc.  I doubled back and completed all of the low level content that I have access to (each mentor has one exclusive questline for levels 3-5 that other characters can't get), and it looks like I will be up against higher level mobs very shortly unless I go digging for sidequests or start running PUG dungeons. 

    Each quest arc ends in an "iconic" fight against a DC character.  Judging from the "feats" panel, I have completed 8 of 28 solo iconic fights, which was surprising given my level.  That said, it may be a bit concerning that I'm already more than halfway to the level cap, burning through all the content in the game on my first playthrough.  Moreover, it appears based on storyline and presence of opposite faction players in my quest areas that all of the content beyond the newbie area is mirrored for both factions - even switching sides may not help. 

    Overall, I'm definitely not dissatisfied with what I've gotten from this game for my payment of $0.  That said, I'm not sure when that number will become non-zero; I have taken to hitting the cosmetic appearance vendor to sink excess cash so that I don't hit the currency cap (which is apparently very low), but it's not like I need the money for anything else thus far.  I would care about the character slot limit if I wanted to do more alts, but it looks like the unique content for each mentor is limited.  Perhaps I will pay for DLC eventually?  In any case, the content may be limited, but at least it's good, which is more than some games I've tried can say. 
    Useful feature - the quest log can be sorted by quest type.

    Saturday, November 12, 2011

    The Remaining Conflict In EQ2

    "Personally, the argument that they're leaving things separate out of deference for existing players would ring more true if SOE didn't have a consistent track record of pushing through unpopular expansions of RMT and item shops in defiance of those same customer expectations.  I think that it's more likely that they're just holding off on sending the golden subscription goose to the butcher for as long as possible so that they can get a better idea of whether people will actually pay to see the golden wolf cub they're planning on feeding the carcass to."- My post titled "EQ2's Unsustainable F2P Divide", July 2010
    EQ2 is currently the most expensive major subscription MMO, with a full priced monthly fee plus $80 in expansion boxes over a ten month period, plus a cash shop that gets things as significant as a playable race (for $20 on top of the $80 in expansion fees).   When they convert the old subscription servers to the new free to play model in December, SOE will no longer be maintaining two clients, communities, and business models within the same product.  

    They will, however, retain a core challenge of the old split; making the non-subscription model attractive to players who were not interested at the old prices, while attempting to make the swap down to the less costly plan unattractive to veterans. 

    A year apart
    Sony's decision to test the waters for a year may have longterm consequences: 
    • There are now complicated character slot issues because the two services had separate character limits - it sounds like affected players will get temporary additional slots, but the process for determining which characters go in those slots for non-subscribers is unclear.  Also unclear is what happens if you want to free up a character slot for a new character but you are currently temporarily over the cap due to grandfathered characters.
    • Opening up the remaining servers to non-subscribers is attractive for players who specifically want to play on those servers, such as returning players and friends of existing players.  Absent such pre-existing ties, I see little reason why new players wouldn't choose the most popular servers, such as Freeport or Antonia Bayle.  EQ2 could quite possibly become the first game to simultaneously experience massive queues and server merges.
    • Some of this material appears to be out-of-date copy+paste of stuff that changed since the press releases for EQ2X.  For example, the feature matrix states that the non-free classes can be obtained by subscribing, but Producer Smokejumper continues to refer to paid class unlocks for non-subscribers.  My guess is that they're just trying not to spell out how current subscribers can drop down to Silver, but I can't entirely rule out the possibility that they are rolling back some of the changes that made the non-subscription service less crippled as an alternate payment model. 

      Even if they are keeping the current EQ2X model, there will still be restrictions (e.g. the low currency cap) that cannot be bought out by non-subscribers for any price.  DDO and LOTRO's hybrid subscription models also have subscriber-exclusive perks, but nothing that is really mandatory.  SOE's model in EQ2X and DCUO really feels like they're doing everything they can to keep the non-subscription model from being viable at endgame. 
    Limited impact
    EQ2's reunification under the free to play model is unlikely to have the impact of other conversions, such as LOTRO, DDO, DCUO, or even EQ2X's original rollout.  Players who want the deal SOE is offering have been able to get it for over a year now, if they are willing to play on the Freeport server. 

    Personally, I would be looking at more than $20 in unlock fees to unlock Lyriana's race, class, and gear, and approximately 50 cents per gear upgrade thereafter.  (This assumes that legendary gear unlock tokens remain available, though I haven't seen this explicitly confirmed.)  I would be willing to pay this is it actually means that I no longer need to pay for the subscription.  Whether SOE is willing to accept that agreement remains to be seen.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    DCUO Powers, Weapons, and Roles

    The first week of DCUO is in the books, and the game now has some of the longest, but fastest moving, queues I've seen.  On the lone US PC server at 9:30 PM Eastern on a Thursday, my queue number was  2600, but I was in game within 17 minutes.  I'm not sure what's going on here - is the bottleneck the login/zone server, or are there really 150+ people logging off or disconnecting every minute? 

    I spent the queue time writing the below, intended it to be part of a longer post, but it's long enough that I decided to hit publish as is. 

    During the first week, I have advanced Green Armadillo to level 14 as a Sorcery character with Flight.  I also have a level 6 villian mentalist on the PS3 side.  Here are some more details about the game's character building options.  DCUO source has the only character builder I'm aware of, and it hasn't been updated since the Green Lantern powers were added, but it has the six powersets that free players will have access to, so it will do for the purposes of this discussion.

    Powers and Roles
    One of the two trees for Sorcery characters.  Yes, that is the entire tree, not just a portion. 

    Characters gain one power point every even level, for a total of 15 at the game's level cap (currently 30).  You can spend these points on one of three trees - two specific to your class with a dozen points available in each, and an "iconic powers" tab with 22 choices that include generic powers and and passive stat boosts.  These choices apply to both of your two roles (damage and one of tank/heals/crowd control), but some powers have different functions depending on which role you are currently using.  For example, I have several spells that do AOE damage in my DPS role and AOE healing as a healer.  You may only have six powers on your "loadout" bar (there's a separate one for your other role), so beyond level 12 you are either picking for versatility, your off-spec, or you can just dump the points in passive stat boosts.

    Powers drain your energy bar, and do not appear to be designed to be spammed indefinitely, though I see horror story posts of how much healers spend on "colas" (the game's version of an energy potion).  There's also a "supercharge" bar used to run or enhance certain powers.  I assume this is the thing thermometer-like line on the bottom of the character health UI, but none of my current powers consume supercharge and thus I have yet to figure out how this works. 

    Weapons and Feats
    A standard looking achievement page... but what's that meter on the top?
    All characters start with one of three travel powers - speed, acrobatics, or flight - and one of the ten types of weapons.  You get skill points on your odd numbered levels, and additional skill points for completing the game's version of achievements (yes, this is the first game I've played that actually uses your number of achievements for advancement). 

    Skill points can be spent on special attacks (either from your weapons or your travel power), passive stat boosts, or unlocking new weapons you don't know yet (starting at level 10).  There's a core path for each weapon type that grants both some baseline attacks and passive stats.  Personally, my plan is to unlock most or all of the weapons first and then go back to pick up more specialized attacks. 

    The bow skill tree.  The top point unlocks the weapon and a passive stat boost, the next three below it unlock both an attack and some stats.  The panel on the left is the tooltip, and also depicts how to activate the highlighted combo attack.  Each tree has four places to sink three points each (the four that say 0/3) for passive stats. 
    Weapon attacks, including "combo attacks", do not cost any resource other than time.  All attacks are executed by some combination of clicking and/or holding the melee and ranged attack buttons (L/R click on your mouse, two of the buttons on a game pad).  You will be spamming these, even as a healer, because the number of hits you have in your attack combo (which is lost after a few seconds, or if you use a power) determine your power regen rate. 

    All weapons have some form of both ranged and melee attack - your bow can be used to beat people, and your sword can be used for an unspecified form of energy attack.  They also differ in terms of speed of attacks and how click-happy that combat style is.  My first selection was the hand blaster, which is very clicky, with rapid but weak attacks that build combo counts quickly.  This is good for a healer because I frequently stop attacking to heal.  I decided to go with a bow next because I'd looted one and it had a good reputation as a DPS weapon.  It does indeed seem to do more DPS, with slightly slower and more reasonable attack click commands.  On my villian, I have dual wielding, which also seems to be click-heavy, but fit with the more agile concept I had in mind.  I need to try something bigger and slower - e.g. the rifle or the two-handed weapon - to see how that feels. 

    Overall, the system is fun, but I am a bit disappointed that I'm suddenly carrying around a bow (and apparently infinite supply of arrows).  This type of choice is pretty big from a cosmetic standpoint, and it's unfortunate to be forced down specific paths based on what archetype you want to play. 

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011

    Which Blizzard Title Could Miss 2012?

    I don't really care that much about the latest in WoW subscriber numbers, for the reasons that Tobold and Wilhelm describe.  While it is likely that some of the current losses represent a vote of no confidence in the Cataclysm, what happens in the next year will matter a lot more to the future of WoW than what happened in the last year.  It will take more than one down expansion to spell the doom of what is likely the world's most lucrative game.  Two expansions that are not well received, with 18-24 month dev cycles each, would leave the game in "unsatisfactory" status for 3+ years, which would be far harder to rebound from.   

    In this context, I'm more interested in a separate tidbit from the call, reported by both Gamasutra and MMO-Champion: 2012 will see a "minimum of two highly-anticipated new titles from Blizzard Entertainment, including Diablo III". 

    Assuming no one wants to quibble about whether Blizzard titles are "highly-anticipated", most people would probably agree that they expect three Blizzard titles in 2012 - DIII, the first Starcraft II expansion (Heart of the Swarm), and Mists of Pandaria.   So, which one of the two expansions could potentially miss 2012? 

    It's possible that Bobby Kotick is simply being conservative - i.e. that both expansions are equally likely to launch comfortably within 2012, but that saying a "minimum of two" just provides insurance in case an asteroid destroys half of the Blizzard HQ.  Given that SCII was out six months earlier than Cataclysm, however, its expansion should be six months closer to completion.  The possible implication is that Heart of the Swarm is slated for a Q2 release with no reasonable possibility of being delayed to 2013, while Pandaria is penciled in for a Q3 2012 release - just close enough to the end of the year that Kotick doesn't want to go on the record promising that it won't slip into 2013. 

    What we saw at Blizzcon seemed to be further along than past expansions at their unveiling, which had me thinking that a mid-late summer release might be on the table.  If my new guess is right, the plan is for Blizzard to respond to possibly the most serious threat in the game's life with the same leisurely 20+ month development cycle that they have always taken (and a release date of September or later).  This would be much more concerning than plus or minus a few hundred thousand customers to the subscription count. 

    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    F2P Assault on the Hard Drive

    Yesterday, I posted a full run-down of five separate free to play games that are currently installed on my computer: LOTRO, DDO, EQ2X, Runes of Magic, and now DCUO.

    In addition to these, I have clients for WoW (annual pass subscription), EQ2 Live (yes, this requires a separate full client install) and Rift (the latter two of which I do not want to uninstall because I want to be able to patch up quickly for free retrial weekends).

    The net result of all these clients, all of which I could potentially use on short notice, is that my hard drive is 77% full and climbing rapidly.  Already gone from the hard drives of this and my previous machines are various games that I'm not actively playing, including Age of Conan (tried sometime last year pre-F2P, did not feel any particular desire to return), City of Heroes (tried back in 2007 or so), FFXI, Guild Wars, Torchlight, Warhammer, Free Realms, Vanguard, and Star Wars Galaxies (soon to be a moot point).  This does not include betas or test server clients (none of which I currently have.) 

    In addition to all of the above, my post and the following comments identified half a dozen high quality F2P or formerly paid games that I have never played in any form, including: Champions Online, soon Star Trek Online, Fallen Earth, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Allods, and Wizard 101.  (Honorable mention to the soon to be closed Lego Universe.)  I'm sure there are plenty I've missed in that number, feel free to post shout-outs in the comments. 

    A year or two back, I remember someone mentioning on a podcast that they had installed an MMO to an external hard drive and thinking that this was a weird call.  Now I'm vaguely considering whether I should add an external drive (perhaps SSD?) to my Christmas list, as hard drive capacity is about to become a limiting factor in my ability to try additional games.

    Is anyone else's hard drive buckling under all the MMO clients, now that it is increasingly both possible and desirable to have so many at your disposal?  Any suggestions on creative or high quality external storage solutions? 

    PVD On The Multiverse Again

    I was fortunate enough to get to record an episode of The Multiverse, one of my favorite podcasts.  Topics of discussion included:
    • Blizzard's controversial expansion plan and whether Cataclysm can hold the subscribers long enough for Blizzard's slow expansion cycle.  
    • FFXIV getting ready for the big day when they actually start making money.
    • The latest MMO's going F2P.  
    • Round table discussion of the future of the subscription model. 
    Overall, this went pretty well when we taped and aired it last September - most of what we said doesn't sound completely irrelevant over a year later - so I was extra fortunate to be invited back to a second taping of the show this weekend for the 50th episode. 

    A few random tidbits about being a blogger who makes the occasional guest appearance on a recorded-live audio podcast:
    • Chris of Game By Night is a teacher by day, and some of the questions he asked last time out fit that mold.  We spent 15 minutes exploring topics raised by the games we were playing that week, and I fielded questions like, "So, Green, tell us about what you do at PVD.  This is your time to showcase your work for our listeners who aren't so familiar with it." 

      Chris wasn't able to make it this time, which left Ferrel, author of the Raider's Compendium, calling the shots.  The games we were playing this week segment took 75 seconds combined between the three of us, and I got thrown questions like "Green, what do you think of the FFXIV free to play conversion?" I don't actually play FFXIV, but I made this work and we chain pulled the next topic.  Draw your own conclusions.
    • I'm used to writing out all my thoughts and then reorganizing or deleting as necessary.  By virtue of having a live conversation, there's no opportunity to reorganize, clarify, or insert that extra thought you had a few minutes later when the conversation has already moved on. As a result, it's really hard for me to have an honest opinion of how I did on the show - when I listen to it right now, I'm highly critical of what I could have said more concisely (I think I did terribly on this front this time out), or the arguments that I'm not as convinced were worth presenting at all after hearing the guys' comments. 

      Maybe in a year when the memory of actually having the conversation is less fresh, I'll have a different view - I definitely thought the show from last year was much better than I remembered it when I re-listened it to prepare for this week. 

    • I did talk for what feels like 10 minutes straight about DCUO.  This wasn't necessarily out of line since DCUO was one of the three news stories of the week and I was the only one who had actually played it.  I also talked for probably a bit more than the other guys (Dr. Klassi was pretty quiet) during the discussion.  Again, it was my suggested topic, and I don't know what exactly the right balance is.  Ah well, practice makes perfect I suppose.  
    Anyway, the link again for those who want to listen to a few guys rambling for an hour is here for Season 2, Episode 17 (episode 50 overall) of the Multiverse.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    F2P Business Model Rundown

    An anonymous commenter on my post from last week asks the following:

    I want to start a new free to play game in December. (I've done LOTRO and been pretty good at it, paid about 30 dollars in a year and a half and had enough TP to get Isengard).

    Which would you recommend for this? It seems like you've spent alot of time in EQ2, but I worry about the stability of that game (do alot of people really still play it)?
    A rundown of all the F2P titles I play, even excluding LOTRO, is a bit long for the comments field, so my answer is posted below.

    Update, December 11th, 2011: EQ2X has now been merged with EQ2 Live.  I have posted an updated rundown of EQ2's new model, which is similar to what EQ2X but with some changes.

    The EQ2X server is the game's most popular, so I doubt it's going anywhere.  If you can tolerate limited bagspace, you can play completely free until level 80 (or pay the one-time $10 fee for silver status), which is a decent chunk of content, probably on par with what you got out of LOTRO.

    One somewhat significant catch is that 2/3 of the game's classses and a similar portion of its races are premium unlocks for something like $7.50 (for one class or bundles of three races).  I don't consider that completely prohibitive if you correctly identify what you want to play the first time (or if you're willing to tolerate a free race/class combo, such as my Half-Elf Inquisitor), but this is not necessarily easy if you've never played the game before.  My advice would be to look into whether the new free trial program for the EQ2 Live game has started, so you can go in there to audition classes before committing to unlock one.

    Unfortunately, your costs are going to go up sharply if you want to advance beyond 80.

    SOE has yet to announce pricing for the new expansion, so I'm speculating that it will be $40 for an all-in-one box that also contains all previous expansions, which has been the model to date.  If this is the case - look for news on this front over the next month - the all-in-one for Age of Destiny will be your best bet, as it would include Sentinel's Fate (2010's expansion, raised the cap), Destiny of Velious (Feb 2011's expansion, more AA's and all of the new content including the next year), and Age of Destiny (presumptive release in the next month or three, another AA cap increase, will also contain the Beastlord class if you're so inclined).  Whenever AOD launches, it's probably safe to bet that SOE will hit you up for another $40 within a year.

    In addition to expansion boxes and character build options, non-subscribing EQ2X must pay per item posted to the broker (last I checked, this was something like 10-20 cents per stack), along with 50 cents per spell upgraded to the Master level and 50 cents per piece of legendary/fabled/mythical gear unlocked for use on the non-subscription tier.  Starting in DOV, the first expansion launched after EQ2X, there is no more gear of lower than legendary status, even from solo quest rewards, so you will be hit for that fee early and often.  The good news is that this will still work out to under $15/month if you're running dungeons - how often do you get 30 loot upgrades in a month? - but the bad news is that it is going to be a recurring cost in a way that LOTRO's content unlocks aren't.

    Finally, if you care about endgame group content, you might want to investigate what the demographics look like.  The low levels are definitely dominated by free classes, but there are definitely more players in these level ranges than you'll find on the live servers, but there are by definition no complete freeloaders at the level cap, and many are transferred characters from the live service.  (Note that this is a one-way transfer.)  I haven't put in the time to determine whether the upper levels have a skewed population, how the grouping scene is, etc.

    (Full disclosure: I have not copied my character over to the F2P server, even though I would probably pay less under that business model than I do for my occasional one-month visits to the live game.)

    Runes of Magic
    Again, the good news is a low barrier to entry - I would recommend purchasing a permanent mount (under $10 even at the bad exchange rate with no sales), and this is the only thing you need between level 1 and 55.  Depending on how much you enjoy experimenting with class combinations, this could last you a while.

    The bad news with ROM is the major investment - you have a bit of choice of investing time versus cash - that it takes to enhance your gear as you get to higher levels.  Some people have gotten to the highest tier of content without paying a dime, but they may or may not value their time less than you do.  There are shortcuts - it is possible to unbind your old, fully enhanced gear and sell it for gold, which you then use to either buy someone else's old gear or to pay someone else to buy you cash shop items to enhance your new stuff.  Again, though, you're looking at a recurring cost.  Because this cost is per gearset, it also means strong pressure not to continue to use more than one of your six possible class pairings.   

    Good news here is that, as I posted this weekend, non-raiders can get a free ride for the entire launch game, and I doubt they'll be able to produce DLC often enough to be prohibitive on your pocketbook.  Bad news is, I don't see how this model gets them more revenue, because 1000% more players who pay $5 once is not a lot compared to what they were expecting with a $60 box price and a $15 monthly fee.

    Games based on licensed IP's are the only games that SOE has ever cancelled, and I do not have much confidence that this one will avoid that fate unless I'm deeply mistaken on the longterm revenue potential of this model . That said, it's a pretty darned good ride to get for mostly free, catch it while you can if you're so inclined.

    This one is last on my list because I figure that you probably already considered and rejected it if you're already playing LOTRO and looking elsewhere.  If you're not in the mood for the game's action combat, there's no real helping that.

    The good news is that, like LOTRO, you're looking at a model where you only pay when you want more content, and you get to keep everything you unlock indefinitely.  It's also completely "stable" to the extent that it's been on the F2P model for the longest and shows no particular signs of giving up ground. 

    Summing Up
    I may or may not have fully answered the question, in part because I'm not certain exactly what you're looking for.  Maximum reasonably fun solo questing time for the money?  Access to endgame content with no recurring real money fees?

    My best advice is to try a bunch - these and others that I haven't gotten to yet (e.g. the Cryptic games, Age of Conan, Fallen Earth, Allods, Pirates of the Burning Sea, Wizard 101, probably many others).  The biggest advantage we the consumer have in the F2P marketplace is that we can try more than one of these before we make some big commitment in time and money.

    That said, my paradoxical conclusion is that the most gamer-friendly "free to play" models are the ones that are in the business of charging for content, as LOTRO/DDO do.  Under this model, the developer is forced to keep the game fun and deliver content often, or not get paid.  Models that are designed to have recurring payments may or may not be an improvement over $15/month - for EQ2X I'd say that answer is yes and for ROM I'd say probably not - but my experience has been that this encourages the developer to make the game require more of whatever it is that you're paying them for.
    Edit: LOTRO
    Joe in the comments here asked for the LOTRO summary.

    The game mechanics of LOTRO are going to be much more familiar to WoW players than something exotic with click-to-swing combat like DDO or DCUO. 

    You're looking at a more standard MMO hotbar setup with autoattacks, global cooldowns, etc.  DDO is more of a lobby-based world with all the action happening in group-sized instances (up to raid size), while LOTRO's standard MMO quests happen in non-instanced open world zones.  Note that combat is definitely at a slower pace than you find in WoW, which may leave you feeling like kill ten rats quests are tedious because they're taking way longer than you're used to. 

    Unlike DDO and EQ2X, all of the races and all but two of the classes are available for free players.  With DDO, you might start a character that you have to re-roll once you've decided to pay, and that will not happen with LOTRO unless you have your heart set on a Warden or Runekeeper.  You can advance into the late 20's without paying a dime, and what you see is basically what you're going to get going forward. 

    One weird quirk to LOTRO's model is that there are a number of things that are permanently unlocked on a per-character basis for any character that you sign onto while you have a valid subscription.  Bags, currency cap, trait caps, riding skill requirements (provided you'd rather do a tedious questline than pay 50 cents), all go away with a single month's subscription, which also includes rental access to all of the level 1-50 content and 500 Turbine Points for future use.  The best value for your money is to level until the end of the free content, then pay for a single month of subscription (so that you're ready to use the content you are only renting) and see where you stand at the end of that month level-wise before you decide what else to purchase.

    In LOTRO, you are never obligated to pay for level cap increases - if you are prepared to grind away at mobs and repeatable level-scaling content (e.g. skirmishes), you can in principle reach the cap eventually.  You will also have free access to the game's epic story quests (generally the best content, worth doing even if you don't need the exp), whether or not you pay for the associated zones.  If you do think that you will pay for the current expansion, which costs $30, spending an extra $20 (for a total of $50) for the "legendary edition" will get you enough content to get from level one to the cap, all of the new endgame content, and 1000 TP (plus what you earn while questing).

    One downside - in my personal opinion, which others may disagree with, is that endgame group content is not Turbine's biggest priority.  There is a single new raid in the expansion (a single encounter, not a full dungeon), and three group (6-player) instances that will in principle be implemented in the patch three months after the expansion launched.  The previous expansion launched with a single raid, a single group zone, and three three-man zones, and added a couple in a patch a bit over a year later.  Turbine has tried to make due with less, focusing on revamping old instances to scale with player level, but the bottom line is that LOTRO gets new dungeon content at a slower rate than any of the above games. 

    That all said, LOTRO may be the best choice out there if you want a traditional fantasy MMO.  The game stays true to the lore, which means just the four Tolkien playable races, no flying mounts, and the occasional klunky work-around for minor details like death and fast travel.  It's clear that they spend serious time making Middle Earth work as well as it can within the MMO genre, and that is a good thing if you like Middle Earth.

    Saturday, November 5, 2011

    DCUO Platform Vs Platform

    One of the big reasons why I didn't get into DCUO sooner was that I could not decide on which platform to play it on.  Until this week, the $50-60 fee for the box effectively locked you into a single platform.  Now that the barrier is gone and I'm trying both systems, my indecision is not entirely resolved. 

    While the keyboard/mouse controls on the PC are not as bad as I expected, I definitely find the core gameplay - especially the camera - feels more natural on the controller.  Perhaps that is just because I am familiar with using the right analog stick for this purpose.  Unfortunately, all of the secondary functions, including access to menus and especially any concept of using chat for anything, are painful when you have to hold down one button, move the stick, open a virtual keyboard, etc - checking the map for reference, for example, is a substantial irritant. 

    Meanwhile, the game is almost certainly cheaper on the PC.  I don't remember the last time I heard of a sale on PSN point cards, but Station Cash goes on double bonus sale every other month or so.  Those of us who play EQ2 can also earn free station cash by canceling our subscriptions so that SOE will pay us to reactivate them at the next "winback" promotion.  Finally, if you pay for other SOE games, it's possible that a $5 upgrade for rental access to the DLC content packs might make sense for you.. 

    I suppose the best solution to this problem would be to use the money I didn't spend on a game box to purchase some sort of game pad for my computer.  Win all around? 

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    F2P DCUO Day One

    DCUO has finally gone free to play, and the Green Armadillo - yes, finally an MMO where my pseudonym is actually appropriate - has hit the streets of Gotham to investigate.  A few early impressions after a few hours in game:

    I was dreading the attempt to play this thing with a keyboard and mouse, because the PS3 beta made it feel tailor made for a controller.  On this front, I've been pleasantly surprised.

    The control scheme is definitely different - your character (hopefully) turns in whatever direction you move the mouse (no keyboard turning), and if you're extra lucky the camera turns with you.  Your melee attack is the left click button and your ranged attack is the right click.  You generally will only hit stuff that is in front of you at the time you click, and combos are executed by various combinations of left and right click/hold.  WASD handles forward, backwards, and strafing.

    You have one hotbar that you cannot click - you have to actually push the number keys to use your non-basic-attack powers, and I believe you're only allowed eight total active powers at a time.  The "e" key is bound to interacting with objects, the "f" key is used to toggle "fast" mode, and there are other keys for various menus, as is par for the MMO course.

    I'll have to take the PS3 version for a spin over the weekend, but after trying this on the PC I'm wondering if the less popular PC version isn't the better choice after all, if for no other reason than to let players type.  One aside, though, I think you probably need a real mouse - I don't hate my fingers enough to try and play this thing on a laptop trackpad. 

    Costumes and Customization
    I last attempted to play COH sometime circa 2007, but that game then had way more options than DCUO does now.  There are only three body types - muscular brute, almost as muscular but not quite so brute, and kid/sprite (i.e. disproportionately large head), each of which comes in small/medium/large and both genders.  You do have relatively broad discretion to change the color of your skin textures, but it's nothing like the more powerful character generator in COH/Champions.

    Likewise, your power options are limited.  Everyone gets one of three travel powers - speed, acrobatics, or flight - and one of 6-7 powersets.  (The seventh, from the Green Lantern DLC, is a paid unlock for non-subscribers.)  Each of the powersets comes with a dual spec option - DPS and something that is actually useful for groups (tank, heal, or crowd control) - as well as two "trees" with something like 10-12 powers on each one.  There are supposedly respecs, but the variety does not look that impressive.

    The style panel contains all the loot textures I have ever equipped.
    One thing that is very different in DCUO compared to other MMO is the way cosmetics are handled.  Every time your character equips an item, they receive the permanent option to use it as cosmetic armor.  All of your armor is automatically recolored to match the three colors in your palette, though it may be possible to change this somehow.  Either way, it's an interesting feature that lets you keep your preferred superheroic look as you get gear.

    Overall, the game feels a lot like a console superhero beat-em-up.   There's a lot of button mashing, a combo meter that I've already run up to 100 hits, and plenty of mobs to beat down.
    The combo counter in action

    Interestingly, every quest in the game that I've seen so far is effectively a public quest - you don't get credit for everything that happens around you, but most times I do get credit for a mob kill if I did significant amounts of damage, and most times I get credit for helping the beleaguered cops of Gotham if I damage something that is trying to stop them.  

    There's also a dungeon finder equivalent that automatically throws together groups.  The only group quest I've gotten so far is a Halloween event against the Scarecrow, and it appears to be way too hard for a group of newbie F2P players of appropriate level, but at least the thing works in principle.

    On the plus side, the feel of the world and the lore is alive and well - it's always fun when a new iconic character makes their appearance. 

    The Business
    As a free player, I didn't feel that badly limited.  There are some unfortunate quirks - NPC's send me mail that I'm not allowed to receive because free players can't open attachments.  In principle, I will eventually care about my bagspace.  I get only one weekly trip to "the vault" - effectively a slot machine for more cosmetic appearance unlocks.  I am completely banned from receiving items from other players in any way until I upgrade to premium, which is okay because I wouldn't have any cash with which to trade due to the game's escrow account - non-subscribers must pay real money to access their currency.
    I'm clearly supposed to want to spend $5/500 SC for the permanent upgrade to "premium" status, which increases my character slots from 2 to 6, adds more than 50% to my total bag+bank slot inventory, and opens up the broker.  I just don't see precisely why I do want this, since I'm not feeling that I lack anything. 

    If you are looking to spend the 500 SC, there are cosmetics and consumables in the cash shop, but probably the most attractive options to meet this quota are character slots (500 SC per, though I'm not sure if I need seven slots with only seven powersets in the game) or inventory and bank slots (300-400 for additional slots, unclear whether this is account-wide, and the numbers do not add up to a convenient way to spend exactly 500 SC).  If you're prepared to spend a bit more, there's the Green Lantern DLC, which costs 1100 SC but actually includes a decent chunk of content along with the Green Lantern powerset.  Alternately, non-Green Lantern fans could wait for future DLC, which will probably run in the same price range, and possibly snag a double Station Cash weekend for a hefty discount in the process.

    I'm not at all hostile to the cash shop as currently organized, I just don't see anything that I really want in it either.  If this does turn out to be a good game that I'd be willing to support, this is unfortunate. 

    The Outlook
    If this game had come out as a single player game with paid DLC and optional online multiplayer, it would have likely been a huge hit - as it is, the game is reportedly three times more popular on the PS3, and that market is willing to pay $60 for a box and $10 for the occasional DLC.

    Instead, SOE went for the monthly fee model and came up short.  Now the game is in the unenviable position of having gone Free to Play ten months too late, after having effectively failed to make it as a paid game and dwindled to the smallest number of servers the payment platforms allow.  (PVE and PVP rulesets are two phases on the same server, with shared queues for instanced PVE and PVP content.  It sounds like world PVP is problematic in any case, because apparently people who want to be Batman greatly outweigh people who want to be Killer Croc.)  Like many games that have had to retrofit their payment models, I'd argue that this one does not make a ton of sense. 

    On the plus side, there's definitely some interest in the game, and I suspect that it will get many more players on the PS3 side - PS3 players will download anything they can get for free off the PSN store.  This may even translate into some additional money for SOE, though clearly much less than they were hoping for.  That said, I can't help but wonder that this game won't be around in a year - the only games SOE ever cancels are licensed IP's, and this one probably is not cheap.  The fact that there's little doubt in my mind that I can finish the content in the game before the lights get turned off doesn't do much to reassure me about the game's outlook. 

    P.S. Two additional potential losers in this deal - the Marvel Universe online MMO, which will now arrive in a marketplace where all three previous superhero MMO's have gone F2P inside of about a year, and anyone else who thinks putting a subscription MMO on the PS3 is something the PSN customers will tolerate.  (I half feel bad for FFXIV trying this, they've already been through a lot.)

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    A Lesson In Pay To Win

    I spent most of the last few evenings working on Runes of Magic's triple exp weekend.  (Yes, the high end exp curve is set in a way that you can literally triple exp awards.)

    My primary class (Druid) had been sitting at level 53 for some time while I worked on my secondaries (first Rogue, then Warden).  As I pushed on past level 55 - occasionally called the start of the real game due to increased exp requirements and steeper gear curves - I decided I was willing to spend $5 to see what the game is like for the pay-to-win crowd. 

    What I got for my money was disappointing, and the way in which Frogster delivered it makes me seriously question whether I should trust them with my money in the future. 

    Note the exp curve - 5.3 million exp for level 50, 11.6 million exp for level 53, and 25.5 million exp for level 57.  Exp gains for content do not increase nearly so quickly.

    A Bad Purchasing Experience
    I had about $5 in diamonds left on my account from a sale last summer, in which I had deliberately left myself a bit of spending money.  That money had not been spent since for lack of anything that I wanted to spend it on.  Other than permanent mounts, the entire contents of the cash shop are either time-limited rentals (e.g. storage) that don't make sense for infrequent players or pay-to-win consumables. 

    The one thing that would genuinely improve my quality of life would be permanently expanded storage.  I'd willingly pay $5-10 to buy an extra tab outright.  Unfortunately, the only way to obtain permanent storage tabs is to gamble - you purchase a lottery ticket called a Gasha with diamonds (that cost real money) and you get some consumables along with an undisclosed chance of obtaining the item you want (in this case, a backpack).  My back of envelope math based on the forum thread about this weekend's gashas puts the drop rate around 10-15%.  Readers with an understanding of probability can probably see how this can end very poorly.

    Despite a semester of statistics in grad school, I decided that I was willing to spend precisely $5.50 - the existing credit on my account plus a chunk of an additional $5, which would leave me with enough diamonds to buy a horse for an alt later - on some daily quest tickets with the low chance of getting a backpack.  Frogster's touted new payment provider ended up muddling this plan, by taking something like 36-48 hours after my purchase to deliver the diamonds. 

    This delay, allegedly for a manual review for fraud, is unacceptable in a business model that routinely runs sales for a single day at a time.  This particular sale was still going when the diamonds finally arrived, but Frogster's EULA and Customer Service are very clear that there are no refunds given for situations in which their payment provider fails to deliver the promised currency before the end of the sale.  Effectively, they can deliver your pizza two days after you wanted to eat dinner, and you still have to pay for it because they eventually delivered you something you can use later. 

    I had heard rumors of similar issues with delivery in the past, but I did not have issues over the summer (when I paid through a third party provider, Zeevex).  If these are the terms of doing business with Frogster America, there is a very good chance that I have done my last business with them. 

    What I got
    So, I ended up stopping at 3 daily quest ticket gashas, which turned into four daily quest reset tickets and (as is predictable) no backpack in exchange for roughly $4.12.  I redeemed three of these over the course of the weekend, obtaining as much exp as I could have earned by doing ten dailies per day for nine days straight (or some smaller number of quests over a longer period). 

    The ROM exp curve heavily biases quest completion over mob kills, in part because there is no stopping players from grinding mobs.  I don't tend to play ROM every day, and I have routinely ended a play session with two or more days' worth of backlogged daily quests to turn in.  Where daily quest tickets suddenly become very valuable is when exp is tripled for one weekend only.  With each level 50 daily in Xaviera suddenly awarding over 750K experience, the three tickets that I used during the weekend translated into at least one level for my Druid, just as she hits the point where the exp curve starts to get really steep.   
    Butterfly raid
    As an aside, there was a very interesting subculture with these dailies.  Though the content is soloable, the quests can be completed in a raid group.  This becomes necessary because there are not enough spawns to go around.  The result was that all weekend long there were one or more raid groups farming butterflies in Xaviera, presumably burning daily quest tickets all the while.  (Some players were financing this habit by looking for players to gift them tickets in exchange for gold.) 

    Unfortunately, I have to rate the actual gameplay experience as a disappointment.  For one long weekend, the rate of advancement in high level ROM was accelerated to a rate that I would consider reasonably fun.  I would gladly pay some amount of money to have that same experience on days that aren't triple exp bonus weekend.  I'm less impressed by the opportunity to spend $4 to spend more time stomping solo butterflies in a raid group for unreasonably large amounts of exp towards an even more unreasonable exp curve. 

    What I did instead
    Out of a small army of alts, I was able to find a female character who is actually wearing something that passes for clothing.

    In the mean time, I ran a fair amount of the non-repeatable content on my main, advancing from 53 Druid/50 Warden/50 Rogue to 57 D/53 Wd/50 R on the remaining quests of Xaviera and the Weeping Coast.  This was fun. 

    I also leveled five different alts, most of which had been parked around 10/10/0 from when I was trying out classes, to 25/25/25.  Coast of Opportunity is very good for this on bonus weekend - I'd say it took about 60-90 minutes per alt, a bit longer for the one alt I rolled up from scratch.  This was fun, and it positions me to test drive a ton of dual class elite skills I haven't had access to previously, as I try to see which one, if any, I'd like to stick with for another long term character. 

    (Interestingly, permanent mounts have actually been reduced in price since last I checked, perhaps because it is the one thing in the cash shop that you really should have for all characters.  Because I spent fewer diamonds than I had planned thanks to the payment provider snafu, I can probably buy horses for two different alts the next time there's a sale, if I'm so inclined.) 

    All of these things were reasonably fun, and ironically did not cost me any real world money.

    The Irony of Pay to Win
    The end result of this deal is that I basically purchased 1-2 levels' worth of exp. I don't look at my character as tainted or feel that this transaction was morally wrong.  It also clearly is not imbalancing to the game, to the extent that grinding the dailies was so popular. 

    Even so, I'm extremely unlikely to ever do this again.  Not because I'm ticked at the company for customer service issues or because of moral outrage on behalf of the purity of the game.  The problem I have with pay to win is that, to the extent that the game is fun to play, paying to get out of playing the game is pointless.  On the flip side, to the extent that the game is NOT fun to play, paying to win is equally pointless.