Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Resolutions for 2013

My annual New Year's Resolution post is usually lengthy but not that insightful - half of the items are short term goals that get done soon afterwards and the other half are more pie-in-the sky things that don't happen at all.  My year for 2012 can be summarized with two lines of facts:
  • Prior to October: Level capped characters in seven different MMO's simultaneously, posting on the blog every 2-3 days (11-18 posts/month)
  • Post-October: Level capped characters remain in only three MMO's due to expansions I have yet to catch up to, posting to the blog once or twice per week, +1 infant
I'm happy with this turn of events, but it does put realistic constraints on what I can aspire to in-game during the coming year.  A few resolutions, which are more qualitative than specific:

Work on what I have
2012 wasn't all bad when it came to trying new things.  I started and capped characters in STO and SWTOR, along with some very brief (often one-evening) visits to Aion, Tera, EQ1, and TSW.  That said, it was a tough year to carve out time for anything new, and that does not figure to change in 2013.

I currently have what I need (access and game time as appropriate) for content I have yet to use in WoW, LOTRO, DCUO, TSW, DDO, STO, and SWTOR.  I don't expect any of these titles to fold in 2013, but it really makes more sense to focus on my backlog at this point.  I'm fine with my budget where it currently sits, but it's pointless to collect more stuff that I don't have time to play - the best sale price is still a waste if I don't use the content.  

Learn when NOT to beat the business model
While my time is scarce, I do get enjoyment out of snagging a good bargain.  Sometimes, when the payoff is high enough, it can make sense to grind in-game to "beat the business model".  

For instance, according to SWTOR Spy's Cartel calculator, I have unlocked more than 10,000 Cartel Coins' worth of stuff by purchasing the relevant unlocks on the GTN for in-game credits.  This would have cost me $80 in the cash shop, while species and inventory unlocks I picked up for alts during my last month of subscription time could potentially have cost another $40.  I did spend a fair amount of extra time in game sending my companions on slicing missions and farming daily quests (which also awarded several high end pieces of gear for my main) to pay for all of these unlocks, but this was definitely a major payoff for my time.  
Even so, cash shops are a reality of the market today, and I should really make better use of them.  If an unlock is purely cosmetic, it makes sense to do without or set it aside as a reward for earning the credits in game.  When it comes to exp potions and other things that affect the rate of advancement, it's worth asking whether the game is worth playing if it's worth paying to play it less.  However, when an unlock actually impacts quality of life - e.g. not being able to harvest materials I encounter in the world because one of my crewskill slots is locked - it really makes more sense to pay a couple dollars and move on.  

Focus on my perspective
This blog will celebrate its 1000th post early next year and its fifth birthday in the spring.  While limited time has been the most immediate cause for my current drop in posts, the results are somewhat positive. 

I don't view reporting the news as one of this blog's strengths.  I will post immediate reactions sometimes, especially if I have an opinion I'm not seeing from other folks, but often the "breaking news" of the MMO world does not even come with enough detail to support in-depth analysis.  Because I know that most of my posts will not be timely, I'm free to spend most of my limited time working on more of the big picture, such as trends that tie recent developments into past experiences.  

I intentionally don't have a set format or schedule for the blog, because this is a hobby and I prefer flexibility to write what I want.  That the schedule happens to support the kind of posts that I like to write is a happy coincidence.

Thanks to all of my readers, best wishes, and a happy new year!  

Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 MMO Expenditures

I've been keeping detailed logs of my MMO spending for roughly two years now, and I elected to publish them for the first time last year.  My experience probably isn't typical, as I spent a total of $275 on eight different MMO's in 2012, where most people probably stick to a smaller number of games.  That said, two broad observations:

  • Game time for specific two subscription titles - WoW and SWTOR (well, it was) - represents about half of my total ($125, counting the first $15 of the SWTOR box cost as payment for the first 30 days).  This number is higher than it could have been due to the annual pass.  Even so, my spending on these two games EACH nearly doubles the next highest item on my ledger.  
  • Setting aside those two subscription payments (WoW's was technically discounted), I did not pay full price for anything that I purchased this year - I'd estimate that I paid about half of the asking price overall.  Some of these savings come from retailers looking to dump stock, but many of them were provided directly from the publishers.  It's not accurate to look at all of this as lost revenue for the studios - some of the lower priority titles would not have made the cut at full price.  Even so, sales are a reality of the business, and are going to be a factor for anyone looking to base their business model primarily on one-time buy-to-play transactions.  As the number of games I play increases, it is easier and easier to wait for the sale before pulling the trigger, especially if there is any reason to be concerned about quality/polish.  

And now for the full ledger.  My accounting practice is to bill purchases of content and cash store currency in the year they were paid for, but to bill game time in the year in which it is actually used.  Titles are listed in chronological order.

World of Warcraft: $80 (+$60?) (+$35 to 2013)
I wrote an annual pass post-mortem when the year of game time I purchased through that promotion lapsed.  The short form is that I don't regret the approximately $80 for ten months of game time that I used in 2012, but the $60 Diablo III purchase (which I'm not counting against my MMO budget because it isn't an MMO) that I made in order to get that deal was a bit of a fail.

One big difference between this and past expansion cycles was the early availability of holiday discounts on the brand new expansion.  Through holiday sales and promos, I was able to snag the Pandaria box and a 6o day time card with which to play it for $35. (I have yet to use these things, so I'm counting them for next year.)

Rift: $10.72
As a brief recap, I had paid for the box at launch last year, ended the included month at level 36 or so, and leveled the rest of the way to the game's cap using Trion's frequent free retrial weekends.  Just when I was thinking of coming back for a month, I ran into a firesale on game time cards - 90 days for less than a single month.  Perhaps they were afraid they'd be stuck with unsold inventory if the game went free to play?  In principle, I still have some time left, though I'd have to purchase the expansion - even if I did want to re-roll, I'd probably want access to the new souls.

Star Trek Online: $11.40
I went foraging for an old retail box of this game to snag one month's subscription time.  This is useful because you get to keep any additional storage granted by being a subscriber at each rank (10 levels) tier.  I also spent $5 on the smallest quantity of Cryptic points so I could purchase an early increase to my duty officer cap.

SWTOR: $70
I waited until patch 1.2, which was widely viewed as the patch that was going to finish all of the odds and ends that didn't get done in time for release.  As a reward for my patience, I got the account key direct from EA for $40 instead of the list price of $60.  (I also somehow qualified for the "loyalty" bonus minipet that was granted to current subscribers for sticking with the game during the early months, despite having shown up that week.)  I subbed up for an additional month to get my first character to the level cap, and subbed up again just prior to the free to play relaunch in order to take advantage of some of the grandfathered perks former subscribers get.

I don't remember exactly why I chose to throw $20 at a station cash sale sometime around April/May.  Through a series of sales so aggressive that they forced all content and game time out of SOE's in-game stores for good, I ended up turning that $20 into the $40 Age of Discovery expansion and 6 months of subscription time in EQ2 (I forget the exact discount you get for six month subs, probably $75ish).

(I also snagged the three DCUO DLC packs I did not already own at the time of the "we are taking DLC out of the cash store because our marketing people have broken the payment model" final sale in August, but I think that was from the Station Cash leftover from last year.)

Setting aside the absurdity of how long it took SOE to notice this was going on, I'll be the first to admit that the status quo could not continue.  EQ2 may also have finally tweaked its payment model to the point where paying on a non-subscription basis is worthwhile.  That said, some of EQ2's recent expansions have been so thin that there really wasn't much more than a month's worth of entertainment that a solo player could carve out of them.  It's hard to justify $50-60 for an expansion box plus either subscription time or unlocks if I'm going to get so little time out of them compared to all the other titles on this list - no wonder Smedley wants to get out of the content creation business.

LOTRO: $43
I paid $8 for a small Turbine Point bundle to snag the barter wallet upgrade.  It is irritating that Turbine is so heavily focused on charging for fixes to longstanding design issues (in this case, their addiction to non-stacking character-bound token rewards), and I probably could have earned the Turbine points in game, but I decided solving this problem was worth the $8.

Then Turbine decided that the first expansion to player inventory since 2007 would be exclusive to the $70 Rohan expansion bundle for several months.  Fortunately, Turbine can be counted on to discount expansions aggressively, so I just waited a few weeks and got the bags and whistles edition for 50% off, i.e. less than what people paid for the regular edition at launch.  This bundle also included a fair number of Turbine points, which I will no doubt need to spend on unlocking basic UI improvements over the next year.

DDO: $25
Speaking of Turbine expansion discounts, I also snagged the DDO expansion for 50% off through a Steam sale.  Apparently I was lacking in patience, as Turbine slashed the price further down to 75% off for Black Friday.  I hadn't spent any real world money on this game since mid-2010 (albeit only playing the game sporadically during that window), I suppose a few extra bucks isn't the end of the world.

One could argue whether I actually needed this expansion in the first place, as I do not have any high level characters.  The one thing that I have gotten a fair amount of use out of is one of the bonus throw-ins: a greater tome of learning.  I generally don't favor paying for experience boosts, but this particular bonus actually changes the way that you play the game by adding a hefty bonus to each quest the first time you complete it (reset if you true reincarnate).  This effectively removes the requirement to repeat midlevel content for exp.  I'm happy to repeat DDO's content eventually, but I'd rather not do it immediately, and now I don't have to.

The Secret World: $15
I was poised to skip every single MMO that launched in 2012 until a last minute switch in payment model, followed by an Amazon sale offering the newly buy-to-play title for $15, made TSW too intriguing to pass up.  I had initially passed on this title as much due to my crowded schedule and a few rough edges during my very brief visit to the beta as to anything on the game's merits (such as its subscription model).

The game-changer with the buy-to-play switch is not the amount of money, but rather the amount of time I would need to invest immediately to determine whether the product is worth future subscription payments.  I've spent a few hours with the game so far and it does show some promise, especially as a secondary title.  I can't see how my one-time payment suddenly props up the game's finances, but I suppose it couldn't hurt?

Grand Total: $275 (not counting DIII)
Subtotal for Content/Currency Purchases: $123 (includes $25 of the $40 SWTOR box price)
Subtotal for Game Time: $152

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Everquest's $200 Legacy

"Our opinion is that today's MMOs, and I'd include ours in that mix, are stagnant and stuck in this model that we frankly helped create with EverQuest, where we put new content in the game, and they go through it at an incredibly fast rate because of sites like Thottbot and that kind of stuff," Smedley said." - SOE's John Smedley

Keen has some commentary up on Smedley's latest views, including his philosophy on business models.  While the model of killing ten rats to loot and wear their stuff is indeed a core part of MMO's today, I'm wondering if a curious side effect of the old subscription model doesn't cast a larger shadow over the state of games today.  With its monthly fees and expansions, Everquest and the other subscription games appears to have created an expectation amongst a significant segment of the market that the maximum they should be asked to pay is roughly $200/year (i.e. 12 months at $15 per and the occasional expansion).

Under the circumstances, we should have foreseen the downfall of the subscription model for all but the few games that still retain a quorum of the old MMO core.  If you can't make more from your core, you must expand the market, and that means lowering entry barriers.  I don't think it's a coincidence that core MMO players are now standing around wondering what happened to their sandboxes of old.  By holding the line at $200, they voted against this model with their wallets. 

The irony, though, is that Smedley may be wrong.  It's one thing to bring in less dedicated players, but quite another to retain them in an increasingly crowded marketplace - why should I spend $15 for a cosmetic mount, when the same sum will grant me access to an entire different game?  It's distinctly possible that the old core MMO player - the one who chooses the MMO for the community where their friends are playing rather than the one that is the current best game - is still the best option for stable revenue. 

What portion of the churn and instability that we are currently seeing in the market comes out of increased reliance on players with fewer ties, who are more likely to churn out?  How much of the drive for content - which Smedley now maintains is unsustainable - comes from the attempt to retain players who by their nature cannot be retained?  I don't know how to answer these questions, but the bills do eventually need to be paid somehow. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

SWTOR Pre-purchase Run Amok: You Should Have Bought Faster!

SWTOR has announced its first miniexpansion, and with it a pre-purchase ultimatum that is as far as I am aware unprecedented in MMO's.  From the page:
"Receive five (5) days of Early Access* if you Pre-Order by January 7, 2013 11:59PM CT // 5:59AM GMT!"
It's currently December 18th, so that gives you three weeks to decide... on paying in full in advance for an expansion scheduled to release in "Spring 2013".  As Syp notes, the fourth bullet point on why you should buy the expansion is that more information is "coming soon", so even Bioware acknowledges that relevant information for your purchasing decision is not yet available.  

EDIT:  Shintar notes in the comments that Bioware are NOT describing this as a "pre-purchase" in their marketing material.  I think that is the more accurate description if they're charging your payment now and not offering refunds (except possibly where compelled by law), but please let me know if you find evidence to the contrary.

Technically speaking, the ad does NOT promise that people who pre-order after the deadline will not ALSO receive the early access.  If so, it is merely badly misleading, trying to trick players into buying now through a false deadline.  That's the good scenario.  The bad scenario is that four months from now you log in and your guild is split into haves and have nots because some people failed to click buy fast enough.

Paid early access programs are ubiquitous for new MMO launches but rare for paid expansions - offhand, I recall one year where SOE gave retailers a one-week exclusive on an EQ2 expansion, in the process screwing over international players who could not physically obtain a box.  There have been a few games that have temporarily shut off additional sales because their servers could not accommodate more customers.  I know of no situation in which a live MMO with adequate server capacity has divided the community in order to teach them an object lesson that they should be paying in full for content before the details are released and months before it is ready.

Honestly, it makes so little sense that I'm assuming the marketing people are just lying through their teeth when they say there's a deadline in three weeks.  Is that really where you want your relationship with your MMO provider to be?  Is this a business practice you really want to support?  If this really is a fair price for a quality product (which is possible - though unknown at this early date), did they need to resort to this type of strong-arm hard-sell?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Choosing SWTOR Alts

One of the quirks to SWTOR's new business model is that players who know roughly what their alts are going to be in the future can save some money by subbing up for one month, and using that time to start new characters. 
  • Species locks are not enforced retroactively, so you are free to create premium race characters and keep them after your subscription lapses.  There is also the option to unlock races - including ones that cannot normally be used for all classes - using credits (either directly - for 1.5 million a piece, or for whatever the cash shop unlocks are selling for in your local GTN - as low as 400-600K on my server).  Due to the credit cap, this is also a subscriber-only feature.
  • Non-subscribers cannot mail credits, even within their own legacy.  This is allegedly to deter credit farming on free accounts and more likely to make it harder for non-subscribers to get around the credit cap by shuttling credits to alts.  (You can mail items - one at a time - to your alts and then try to auction them.)  I typically spend around 100K credits setting up a new alt with legacy perks, such as mount access at level 10, entry level affection perks for companions, basic gifts, etc, and this option is not available without a way to send your alt the credits.  (Note that you should check the GTN for mounts before buying one from a vendor.  You may be able to find one of the more common options on sale for less than the 8,000 credits required to buy a standard mount from the vendor.) 
  • Nonsubscribers cannot purchase inventory upgrades using credits, only cartel coins (or GTN purchases of cartel coin unlocks, which will cost significantly more for your first few space increases).  Personally, I don't find that I need more than 40-50 slots, YMMV.
  • TEMPORARY: Currently, non-subscribers are capped from creating more than two characters on their entire account (i.e. NOT per server), but lapsed subscribers can access as many pre-existing characters as they have.  It's somewhat inexplicable that Bioware launched free to play without implementing the item that lets you purchase more slots.  Now they're going to have to spring the restrictions on people down the line.  Note that this bullet will become moot when they do implement the character cap, at which point free players will have the two slots and preferred nonsubscribers will have six.
With all that in mind, I set forth on a side project to start up alts during my one month subscription.  I already had a level 50 Trooper Vanguard (tank) that I really liked and a level 19 Sith Warrior (DPS) alt that I hated because of how much time he spent running between targets that my NPC companion was killing.  I decided to roll through to the six character cap, with the thinking that I won't repeat either of the two archetypes I already had for now.  The good news is that all four alts are ready to go.  The bad news is that now I have to figure out which one(s) to play.  
  1. Amargosa, female Rattataki Sith Sorcerer (caster DPS/healing): Purple force lightning aside, this advanced class is interesting in that it's a ranged DPS with regenerating energy that does not depend on how much energy you have remaining.  All of the other ranged classes use a mechanic where how quickly your ammo/etc regenerates scales with how much you have spent.  One downside - your initial companion appears to actively hate you, which I'm guessing could get old. 
  2. Kalestra, female Mirialan Jedi Consular Shadow (stealth melee/tank): I chose to make this the tank because I think the Jedi ranged caster path - somehow miraculously finding the same sized debris to throw at foes with telekinesis - looks really stupid. On the downside, I didn't like the other melee class because of how quickly individual targets die in this game, so the consular could suffer the same flaw.  Meanwhile, I was initially underwhelmed with all the rambling about the Jedi code on Tython, but the story picked up a bit as the planet's class story unfolds.  
  3. Mirish, female Chiss Agent Operative (healer/ranged DPS): The agent is universally hailed as one of the best storylines, the starting companion is a relatively normal character, and there are a few interesting mechanics going on here including a ranged tree, a stealth melee tree, and full out heals.  One question mark is whether I will start to find the cover mechanic irritating, as right now I seem somewhat limited if I don't have something to hide behind.
  4. Chulak, male Twilek Smuggler Gunslinger (ranged DPS): Almost an afterthought, but one of my favorite stories, with a very good Star Wars feel.  I arguably should have flipped the advanced classes on this pairing, as I'm now lined up to have all three healing specs on the Empire and all three tank specs on the Republic, assuming I ever get that far.  Oh well.  One big downside, though, is that I'm really not all that fond of my starting companion, and apparently I'm stuck with him for a bit.  
And so I'm on the fence.  Ideally, I'd choose one Empire and one Republic representing one each of the two archetypes and then backtrack to deal with the last round.  Or I guess I could in principle give the poor Sith Warrior another chance.  What I don't want to do is level more than one alt on the same faction due to how much content is shared.  It's also unfortunate that I seem to be having so much trouble matching up all three of a class story, gameplay style, and supporting cast that I can live with on the same character.  Ah well, I guess trial and error will eventually prevail - at least I'm not paying by the month at the moment? 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Information Access and Gaming Journalism

A recent "feature" article of dubious quality on SWTOR's new business model has prompted Scott Jennings to critique the state of gaming journalism.  The situation has not changed much since his comments from four years ago regarding coverage of Tabula Rasa's collapse.  I remember that post because I had planned to comment on it at the time but never got around to it.  Apparently this is a week for dredging up years-old relics, so here are my thoughts.

When it comes to publicly available information and analysis, the professional gaming press sites are always at a disadvantage compared to the crowdsourced masses due to sheer force of manpower.  The place where the media outlets have an advantage is in information provided directly from game developers/publishers.  This serves a valuable function for the gaming public, but it also puts the gaming press in a very different position from those who cover politics or finance.  When all the real information is coming from the people you are covering that - not the product placements or full-screen ads - inevitably affects the tone of the coverage.

It's not impossible to do real investigative journalism when it comes to online gaming - Unsubject's work to back up what many of us are thinking about Kickstarter with real numbers comes to mind.  It's also unavoidably subjective because the information you'd really need to make a correct call is not public and will never become public.  More often than not, you end up with something that looks more like my recent post about Turbine - the best speculation that can be cobbled together using old, vague, and limited data.

You could argue that gaming isn't actually important enough to deserve real journalism, but there is a real demand.  Whether a company is actually going to deliver what they're telling the press they plan to deliver matters, because it affects purchasing decisions.  When we get to the point where - even as my income has gone up to the point where I can reasonably afford as many games as I feel like playing - the default purchasing decision is "wait and see" for lack of information, it's the folks who made the product that doesn't get the sales or subscriptions it merited who are going to suffer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Examining SWTOR's endgame

When I first hit level 50 in SWTOR, I was in no hurry to try the "elder game".  My leveling path went solely through solo story content - I don't believe I joined a single group - and I was not in the mood to make the transition to grinding dungeons and farming daily quests.  Having returned, I have been pleasantly surprised to find the game well-designed and executed.  

However, given how much progress I made in a single month, I can see why Bioware is touchy about calling its max-level content the "endgame".  SWTOR's high production value story-driven content is especially vulnerable to growing stale with repetition, and its incentive curve is already buckling under the pressure of how to accomodate new players. 

Grouping for An Assassin
The HK-51 companion has some interesting design.  The droid is a specialized DPS beast designed to chew through the stronger mobs in daily quests - for each five mobs HK-51 damages, he can open the next fight by one-shotting a "strong" level mob, which can save a lot of time and danger. 
My immediate incentive to jump into SWTOR's group content was the addition of the HK-51 assassin droid in last month's patch 1.5.  Though NPC companions are only used while solo - they take up a slot that is almost certainly better filled with a human player in max level content - the quest to obtain this new companion has multiple steps that require group content.  Worse, two of the steps that basically require a second player occur in special instances that are specific to this questline.  With no incentive to ever repeat this content in the future, I rushed out to complete them ASAP for fear that it would no longer be possible to find players who still needed them. 

Setting aside the issue of whether players will ever be able to complete this quest chain in the future, Bioware got what they wanted.  I claimed the free level 50 starter gear from the mission terminal (at the time, there was only PVP gear, but now you can supplement this with some PVE stuff), respecced my character into the DPS tree that sounded easier to play, and jumped into the hard mode flashpoint queue. 

The first few groups got a lousy deal with such a green newbie.  When solo players complained that this arc required groups, many players responded by arguing that grouping should be required for something in a MMORPG.  I'd be curious how many of those players would have changed their minds and concluded that they would rather not have had me taking up a slot in their party.  The good news is that the learning curve settled down eventually, I enjoyed the flashpoint game enough to continue beyond the required two hard mode runs, and eventually I picked up enough gear - and perhaps experience - to vaguely carry my weight. 

Incentives ahead, but short-lived?
Triumph of the very blue speeder bike, obtained for running each hard mode flashpoint once
Your first few group zones at max level in an MMORPG are generally pretty rewarding, as everything is an upgrade.  After running around a dozen hard mode flashpoints - each of the eight options once, and a few repeats - my character has left behind almost all of the endgame starter gear.  Most of my Tionese gear (the PVE starter set - I actually bought this stuff with dungeon tokens, but players now receive it for free) has since been handed down to my companions, while I'm wearing mostly Columi stuff (originally found in the easy mode of the game's first raids), and a few pieces from the next tiers up. 

Unfortunately for the game's longevity, very few outright upgrades remain for me in flashpoint content.  A few pesky drops aside, most of the upgrades that I can still obtain come from the "black hole commendation" vendor.  Like WoW, SWTOR hands out raid quality gear as an incentive to keep players running the flashpoints (and also at least some daily quests).  I could see this getting old really quickly given how much non-skippable story dialog happens in the flashpoints. 

The other goal I've been pursuing are cold hard credits.  On a good day, I pull down several hundred thousand credits, which I've been able to use to purchase a variety of stuff - legacy perks, and F2P unlocks to use when my subscription expires.  This too has a limit, especially for the non-subscriber with the strict limits on currency. 

Overall, it was a fun month, and perhaps there's another month or so worth of stuff to do at some point, but this endgame does not feel sufficiently robust to continue for month after month.  Perhaps it should have been no surprise that the game's subscriber retention suffered as it did. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Critical Look at Turbine's Status

Roger at Contains Moderate Peril has a summary of some of the recent developments indicating that all may not be as well as gamers believe at Turbine, makers of Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online.  The fate of any one studio or project aside, Turbine's status matters because DDO's relaunch kicked off the modern wave of free to play revamps.  Bloggers like myself frequently cite the company's content-selling approach as an alternative to the more subscription-driven models at studios like SOE and Bioware. If Turbine's situation goes south, there are implications for the entire industry.

The missing context of DDO's revival
Turbine's success is often taken as gospel based on press statements that lack context.  Yes, revenue increased by 500 percent over the first two months after the famous DDO re-launch.   Yes, even the subscriber numbers went up 40%.  What these relative numbers lack is a baseline.

For a nine month period while Turbine was revamping the game, no new content was added - a situation which would be tailor-made for increased subscribers after the next big patch, even if there had not been the hype of a relaunch.  Revenue would almost certainly have been further depressed by some players choosing to cancel their subscriptions and await the relaunch before paying more.  If we assume that Turbine's press people chose the most favorable numbers - which is their job after all - then that 5-fold increase is not a realistic baseline.

None of which matters if the increase in revenue were sustained.  I've been arguing since 2010 that the limited data we have does not bode well on that front.  According to a 2010 Game Developer's Conference talk - to my knowledge, the only such information Turbine has disclosed - the DDO's top ten revenue items included five one-time account unlocks, and three additional purchases (character slots, supreme +1 and +2 tomes) that are paid for only once per character.

We don't know whether this trend continues.  That said, my experience with the Turbine model has been that customers can expect somewhat high one-time costs in setting up their accounts, but longterm savings that are significantly below the price of the subscription.  This year to date, my total expenses are $25 for DDO and $40 for LOTRO, and both purchases will carry me well into next year.  I'm not a heavy player of either game, but those numbers pale in comparison to what even an infrequent subscriber will spend.  To the extent that my experience is representative, I suspect that Turbine's revenue has definitely dropped off from that one-time re-launch peak.

(As an aside, one analysis of the studio's 2010 sale to Warner Bros indicated that the studio had previously raised at least $100 million in investment capital, which would make the rumored $160 million sale price an underwhelming return on investment.  While I'm largely ignorant of how investors compare annual operating profit to the purchase price of a company, my guess is that there is an upper limit to how well the games can have been doing at that time.) 

What we can tell about today
As Roger reports, what little we know of Turbine's status this year includes layoffs, hiring of senior officials with job descriptions like "responsible for our digital technology platform that helps drive online engagement and monetization", and the termination of foreign language support for DDO.  What we are seeing on the game development front is not more heartening.

Turbine's major releases this year in both games have drawn fire for uncharacteristically high rates of show-stopping bugs, even after a high profile delay to this year's Rohan launch.  Prices have trended upward, with DDO's latest high level adventure pack coming in at 750 Turbine Points, compared to 450 for most releases in 2010, and expansions (themselves a new thing to DDO) coming in at $50 for the cheapest DDO bundle that includes the new class and $70 for the LOTRO bundle that includes the game's first bagspace increase since 2007.  Turbine was quick to promote 2011's Isengard expansion as the best-seller in the studio's history, but I haven't seen even such vague comments on either of this year's releases. 

Meanwhile, monetization is indeed on the rise in Middle Earth, with apparel mannequins displaying cosmetic outfits that initially appeared in the most remote, dangerous locations in the world, a $10 cosmetic purchase that lets Dwarves take off their shirts, and the joke hobby horse with its hypothetical $50 price tag.  Meanwhile, it feels like buggy and unpopular systems - kill deed grinds, legendary item grinds, holiday festival grinds, etc - are being retained in part so that fixes for them can be saved for the cash shop.

None of these individually allows us to distinguish a for-profit company making reasonable efforts to increase revenue from a less favorable scenario in which the studio is struggling to maintain revenue as the short-term gains from the game's front-loaded business model are translating into non-subscribers who no longer need to purchase much of anything.  All of the above collectively, however, starts to suggest the less-cheery scenario.

2013: make-or-break year?
I don't think Turbine is going to be the surprise MMO studio closure of 2013, but I do think this may be a moment of truth for the company.  According to a 2008 press release, the LOTRO's license for the intellectual property runs through 2014 with options to extend it through 2017.  Having a sudden and unfavorable chance in the license terms is the one thing that can suddenly kill a game that had been coasting along without issues.

We don't know the terms of the license, and it's certainly possible that Warner Brothers has the clout to negotiate a more favorable rate if they feel it's worth their time.  The big question is whether it is worth their time, or whether this was primarily a transaction intended to net the parent corporation online community transaction technology and infrastructure.  I'm certainly hoping it's the former given my investment in Turbine's games, and their generally enjoyable qualities.  Time will tell whether that view is realistic. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Should You Want To Pay?

Should we as players (i.e. consumers) of MMO's want to pay for our games?  Most people who can count will have some level of selfish desire to pay less, get more, and somehow have the developers not go out of business in the process.  That aside, should you want to play a game where you are paying your fair share?  Equally important in the era of non-subscription payment models and cash shops, should you NOT want to play games that are structured in a way where you are not paying much? 

My complaint about SWTOR's new model - which should not be a surprise to longtime readers since I have raised the same objection to several SOE games that have taken a similar approach - is that I actually want to pay them more.  Bioware does not think it's in their interest to allow non-subscribers to pay for a fully unimpaired experience in their product.  If the only two options are to subscribe or suck up quality of life penalties and pay nothing more once I've unlocked the handful of things Bioware is willing to sell, I may just go ahead and freeload.  That's not really the happiest outcome for either myself or Bioware. 

I would argue that studios have done themselves a disservice by hyping the "free" angle on for-profit products that have to make money somehow.  The games can never be completely without cost, and there will always be one restriction that is the most onerous one left no matter how many things the studio relaxes.  (EQ2 may be running into this wall today after several years of doing the dance that SWTOR is doing today.)  Meanwhile, the dual business model creates a variety of expectations, with most non-subscribers misguidedly begrudging every penny and subscribers insisting that their $15 should be the only money anyone is allowed to ever pay and anything more would be "pay to win". 

And so we have the talk of whales, mounts that have gone from $10 outrage to $25 sparkle ponies and perhaps $50 soon, and the ongoing slippery slope of cash shops as studios claim that more revenue is needed and the majority of players rush to say "not it!".  I'm not about to run out and pay hundreds of dollars for premium stuff, but in general I think that players who are not supporting the product can expect to be disappointed with its future direction.  Perhaps the middle ground was the old world in which everyone paid $15 and the developers did whatever they wanted to with the proceeds, but that ship appears to have sailed.  If the result really is a generation of games whose primary revenue stream is catering to the highest cash store bidder, I don't think anyone (other than that one big spender) will be happy with the result.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Punishment or Gameplay?

"In an earlier draft of F2P, we had it so that F2Pers couldn’t use spacebar inside cutscenes and we almost had a riot inside this building. So we being listening to feedbacks the whole way."
 - Dulfy's transcript of a Bioware Q+A
As context for those who have never played SWTOR, the space bar is used in cut scenes to interrupt the NPC who is talking and make them start their next line of dialog.  This can be used when you have to repeat a conversation - for example if you do a quest over (either an alt or as a repeatable quest) or cancel out of a dialog because you were unhappy with the results.  However, the main association that SWTOR players have for "spacebar" as a verb is for the equivalent of refusing to read quest text.  The only difference is that in SWTOR, that "text" is the result of expensive voice acting that had a huge impact on the game's budget.

Having explained that, I have absolutely no idea what Bioware's business people - who unlike myself are presumably paid a decent salary to know what they are doing on this front - could be thinking.  The very idea of using the hallowed "fourth pillar", Bioware's epic story, as a punishment that non-subscribers would have been forced to endure boggles my mind. Bioware has not been afraid to think outside the box for good or for ill - and more often (e.g. restrictions on hotbars) for ill - but this one is absurd. 

During the past week, including the Q+A, Bioware has relaxed more of the restrictions imposed on preferred non-subscribers (i.e. lapsed players and those who have spent money in the cash shop).  Preferred players will now have four hotbars - the number the game launched with - and six character slots (up from two currently, and close to the eight that subscribers had at launch, though this limit is supposedly per account rather than per server).  

On the one hand, they're willing to give away a tremendous amount of stuff that would have been worth paying for.  However, they're on the record as unwilling to budge on things like credit caps, mail restrictions, and content pass pricing that greatly reduce how attractive it is to pay for anything as a non-subscriber.  I get that Bioware is very afraid of being dependent on creating new content for revenue, and would prefer for players to subscribe.  It just seems strange that every change they make shifts the game away from a state where people who won't subscribe are still paying for the game and closer to a state where a single one-time payment is all most players will ever need, want, or have the opportunity to make. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is the SWTOR Credit Cap Killing Unlock Resales?

A few weeks ago, I pondered whether SWTOR's credit cap was going to cause issues for the game's business model.  It's a bit early to tell, but the answer may be yes.

To recap, non-subscribers cannot ever have more than 350,000 credits on their person - in context, it's easy to make over 100,000 credits per day doing endgame daily missions.  By design, every item in the cartel market is available for re-sale, subject to a several-day waiting period to deter fraud.  This includes the items whose purpose is to lift restrictions on non-subscribers.  These items have zero value to subscribers (except if they can be flipped for a profit), so the only real market for them are non-subscribers (who cannot pay more than 350,000 credits by definition) and subscribers who are stocking up because they plan to let their subscriptions lapse in the near future.  The latter demographic is limited because the game's model in general discourages people from playing at all while unsubscribed.

Right now, the market is distorted by large grants of cartel coins that were granted to existing subscribers, many of whom seem to feel that these should immediately be spent, rather than saved to pay for future additions to the marketplace.  As a result, my server at least is seeing the global trade network flooded with unlock items that cost several dollars worth of cartel coins but that cost well under 350,000 credits.

An especially egregious offender is the unlock for access to Section X, the new daily quest area and also the home to the quest to claim the HK-51 droid companion.  This unlock costs 600 cartel coins in the cash shop (roughly $5-7 depending on your exchange rate), but the item is also available as a (presumably unwanted) reward in the "cartel pack" gambling boxes.  As a result, unlocking this area for my main would currently cost me rough 75,000 credits, or less than the credits that I can earn back by doing all of these quests once each.

The sector X unlock may be a special case because of the decision to include it in the gambling packs, which players are purchasing in large quantities for the other possible rewards.  Demand for this particular item may be especially skewed because subscribers don't need it and neither does anyone below level 50.  That said, I cannot imagine that a secondary market in which players actually fork over several dollars worth of cartel coins for a day or two's worth of daily quest rewards is in any way sustainable.  If I'm right, either supply will drop to the ground as players realize that cartel coins cost money and stop wasting them, or else something will have to be done about that credit cap on non-subscribers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

MMO Black Friday 2012

U.S. Black Friday is upon us, and there are some discounts to be had.
  • For those willing to brave the stores, WoW's Pandaria expansion will be 50% off.  Blizzard does not feel obliged to offer a similar discount online, so presumably this is in part to help retailers move their boxes.  Not sure if this is technically a sign of weakness, as WoW's last two expansions were not timed right to be discounted on Black Friday, and digital sales are almost certainly a bigger piece of the pie this year.
  • As is traditional, Turbine is offering deep discounts on expansions, including 50% off of the six week old Rohan expansion in LOTRO and 75% off of this summer's DDO expansions.

    Both products bundled various extras that may or may not be of interest to players in order to justify higher price tags ($50 for the cheapest DDO bundle that includes the new class, $70 for LOTRO's legendary bundle, which was the only way to get the sixth inventory bag until recently).  Both become attractive upsells when the price is slashed 50%.  In LOTRO, the $40 base edition comes with the content and 1000 Turbine Points, while the $70 edition comes with the sixth bag (which costs 995 TP itself and is specifically excluded from this week's sale on inventory upgrades), an extra 1000 TP (for a total of 2000), and some various cosmetic miscellany.  At half off, you're getting those extras for $15 and still paying less than the full price on the base edition.  
Various other MMO's have launched expansions probably too recently to offer deep discounts - both Rift and EQ2 rolled out last week.  I don't expect major discounts on Guild Wars 2 because they don't have a subscription fee that would motivate them to dump boxes (though Amazon is currently offering it for $45).  However, we could see some cash store sales in various games that don't have a dirt cheap expansion on offer.  If you know of anything interesting, leave a comment and I'll add it to this post assuming I'm not in a turkey coma or fighting for my life in stores at the time.  :)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

SWTOR: Selling Around What They Can Produce?

As the comments on my SWTOR impressions post point out, the obvious alternative to the approach that Bioware has taken with the game would have been to sell access to the game's solo story content.  The game's leveling content is viewed as the best part of the product, and it would seem counterintuitive to have given all of it away for free.  The catch is that Bioware could NOT afford to get into the business of exclusively selling content because they are incapable of making content fast enough to sustain that model.

When you look at the minority of nonsubscription games that do charge for content - Turbine (DDO, LOTRO) and Kingsisle (Wizard 101, Pirate 101) - typically nonsubscribers have to be treated relatively well.  If you restrict the non subscription experience too heavily, players won't stick around to buy content.  For this to work, your content must be produced in small, repeatable chunks that you can release regularly.  Many of the issues we are seeing in LOTRO - bundling purchases into larger packages, preserving poorly implemented grinds and charging for features that no other company bills for - arise because that game's content is NOT bite-sized, repeatable, or quick to produce.

If you can't stay afloat by selling new content, you have to generate ongoing revenue from people using your existing content.   This is the route taken by the majority of nonsubscription games, whether they were originally designed that way or retrofit in a relaunch (like SWTOR).  For subscription retrofits, this often translates into restrictions that nonsubscribers cannot pay to remove, in an effort to make the "optional" subscription less optional.  If you can continue to retain the subscribers you had, collect some new nonsubscription revenue from people who were not subscribing, and incidentally rake in a ton from cosmetic cash store items, the thinking is that you will come out ahead.  More important to your bottom line, your revenue is less dependent on you ability to generate new content.

If Bioware has erred, their error may be consistency.  You don't want to charge too early and drive players away before they've given you a chance, but perhaps they should have been more willing to let people who still aren't paying more than halfway through the game leave.  What I'm guessing they were most afraid of was that introducing charges for stuff that was free earlier in the game (e.g. quests) would have an especially strong effect on players sticking around.  This fear of inconsistency may be what led to the game only charging for things that were introduced later in the level progression, such as group and PVP content.

Misc Notes
  • While it is possible to play the leveling game completely free, I'd suggest that almost all players who expect to stick with it will benefit from spending at least some money to qualify for the "preferred" status.  The best bang for buck here is to snag the $5 coin bundle and take either a third crewskill slot for your main or a third hotbar and some points to spare.  If you're willing to go to $10, you can snag both the third crewskill and the third and fourth hotbars for your main (or a third hotbar accountwide if you plan to play alts).  Including the perks for the preferred upgrade, this fixes many of the most glaring deficiencies in your leveling experience.
  • The cash shop allows players to pay money to unlock things earlier than it would be possible to earn them through class and/or legacy level.  For example, you previously needed a character most of the way to the level cap if you wanted the legacy level required to pay credits to unlock species for use with all classes.  Now you can pay to have a Sith Pureblood Jedi Knight almost immediately (limited only by the need to get to level 10 first so you can unlock a legacy on which to place the unlock).  It's also worth scanning the character perks tab of the legacy UI, as some options are available for relatively few Cartel Coins and sooner than they would have been if you had tried to earn them in-game.
  • Bioware is trying a few tweaks that I haven't seen previously when it comes to the point stipend for subscribers.  Multi-month subscribers get increased stipend rates, and there's also an increased stipend for subscribers who use an authenticator.  I don't expect to change any purchasing decisions over this, but it's a nice perk for those who are already on board.  
  • Character slots are a big X-factor in the game's business model.  Bioware does intend to add the ability to purchase character slots, and will enforce limits when they do get that up and running.  The Legacy system is a big incentive to stay on one server, but in principle players can go to multiple servers if the price is too high - in particular, some of the cartel store account-wide unlocks are good across servers.  

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Early Observations for SWTOR's Non-subscription Model

SWTOR's big relaunch day has finally arrived.  The model can and probably will change over the coming weeks, but things have settled down enough to get an idea of what we are dealing with.  I have actually gone into the relaunch with a recently renewed subscription - no, not because I wanted to pay $15 for $5 worth of "bonus" coins.  SWTOR as currently implemented may be the first model where it can make sense to jump back and forth between the two payment options.

For endgame, not so much...
For better or worse, Bioware has made the decision to give away most of the game's content.  This leaves them in the position of trying to convince players to fork over cash for playing the game as a service.  Thus, it does not appear that Bioware is keen for existing subscribers to switch to a non-subscription model and pay less.  There are various things to unlock - including some extraordinarily petty options such as a charge to hide your helmet (certainly not mandatory, just petty) - but the bigger story is what you cannot unlock. 
  • Endgame content requires the purchase of consumable weekly passes per type of content you wish to play.  Even at the most favorable exchange rate, unlocking two of the four types of content (raid, PVP, space combat, flashpoints) will cost you more than $15/month.   
  • Nonsubscribers are stuck with a currency cap that cannot be lifted.  This limit applies not only to credits - the standard currency - but also the various token currencies used to purchase items.  
  • Nonsubscribers are also slapped with a permanent penalty to vendor prices, which includes gear vendors that take tokens.  
  • The cap plus the penalty combine to make it impossible for non-subscribers to purchase certain token rewards, and more generally require 25% more grinding at whatever you are grinding (raids, PVP, flashpoints, etc) for gear. 
There might theoretically be a very specific niche of players (perhaps if you and a group of friends have an appointment to log in and do flashpoints precisely once a month) that can save with the non-subscription model, but most players at endgame will be worse off for the attempt.

Leveling and grandfathered unlocks
Setting aside the endgame, what if, like myself, you are primarily interested in the game for the solo story content?  This scenario is a bit more interesting.

There are certain restrictions that you can't lift (or won't want to pay for) including the currency penalties (you won't hit the credit cap but you may have problems with commendation vendors on planets) and restrictions on travel.  There are also restrictions on your rate of exp gain, but that is ironically a mixed blessing in that I found the game's exp curve to be faster than I needed and skipped most of several planets to preserve challenge.  And there are things you will probably need to pay for, such as access to your crewskills, probably a third hotbar (I don't know that all four that players had previously - or six that subscribers now get - are completely mandatory, but you will probably need a third bar).

Then there are an odd handful of things that can be unlocked in principle, but in practice are cheaper to unlock via a temporary subscription.  Access to races - which are purely cosmetic in this game - will run you 600 Cartel Coins, but your existing characters are not affected when your subscription lapses.   Your first two inventory upgrades can be paid for with 5000 and 20,000 credits as a subscriber, while non-subscribers must pony up 175 Cartel Coins per unlock - 350 total.  In short, if you're looking to start up one - or better yet several - new characters, a one-month subscription may be the way to go.

And finally, there's the question of content.  The new "Section X" content added with this patch will run non-subscribers 600 Cartel Coins.  This content features new daily quests, which will be markedly less attractive to non-subscribers due to the currency issues, and the one-time questline for the HK-51 droid companion.  This sort of content may well be more attractive as a rental than a permanent unlock.

Looking Ahead
On the horizon, Bioware plans at least one major content drop.  It will also be interesting to see whether some of these restrictions get relaxed - either by default or through additional purchases - as  the model matures.  In the mean time, I don't regret my one-month subscription, and I might even see an advantage to subscribing for a month at a time periodically.

I suppose the risk you run - and perhaps the reason why Bioware is willing to make the temporary subscription attractive - is that you get used to the perks that cost money and do not want to give them up.  Then again, I suppose that is a good thing to the extent that it would mean that you are playing the game and enjoying it enough to want to pay. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Optional Is the New Hard

Two years ago, players were complaining that the dungeons of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion were not fun because they were too difficult.  The Blizzard response - that content should possess non-zero challenge - was as accurate as it was irrelevant.  Customers were dissatisfied with the level of fun they were having with the results of the design, not the quality of the design itself.

Today, Blizzard argues that various non-raid activities - such as daily quests and running the looking-for-raid difficulty in pick-up-groups - are optional for raiding because only the very top difficulty setting is balanced so tightly as to assume that players have the best gear available.  I like to call this the "pants optional" argument - no MMO I am aware of has a mandatory requirement that characters wear pants, but very few players opt to go pantless.  The choice technically exists, but is largely uninteresting, as there is almost always (*) no benefit to going without pants and the player would then be obligated to upgrade the rest of their gear to off-set the stats from the missing leggings.   More to the point, every bit by which you exceed the theoretical minimum requirement gives the player - and the group of 9-24 friends they are raiding with - that much more margin for error to help secure victory.

We could sit here and argue the academic/semantic merits all day, but this misses the point for the same reason Blizzard's 2011 defense of the game's difficulty missed the point.  If paying customers feel like they are obligated to do something that they do not believe is fun, it does not matter if the customer is theoretically incorrect.  Lecturing the customer on why they are incorrect, not as good at playing the game as people who are beating the content with the minimum gear, and need to find new friends with lower expectations - however accurate all of these statements may be - is not a good business strategy. 

The structural issues with Cataclysm as an expansion probably would not have gone away had the game's initial cadre of heroic dungeons launched with lower difficulty and shorter completion times.  Even so, it was an inauspicious start to what turned into the game's least successful era to date.  If Blizzard continues to build a game whose core endgame mechanic is upgrading character performance through acquisition of better gear, and continues to require non-raid content for access to upgrades that raid players want, Pandaria may not be off to any better of a start. 

(*) - There have been several eras of WoW in which certain tanking classes were obligated to intentionally lower their mitigation when attempting content that was significantly below their gear level, because their classes were dependent on taking sufficient quantities of damage in order to generate resources.  Several players I knew would remove their characters' pants in this scenario, because it was the quickest and most humorous way to accomplish this. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Currency Caps And Cash Shops

Two indirectly related stories over the last week: SOE has implemented a tradeable in-game time card for Everquest 2, while Bioware is testing SWTOR's free to play model and allowing the resale of most cash shop purchases for in game credits.

Both moves seek to harness the desire of customers with out-of-game money to get a headstart on their in-game finances.  In the process, both moves potentially convert non-paying players into sources of revenue by making their in-game currency into an incentive for the moneyed crowd to pay more to the studio.  However, both are potentially hampered by strict currency caps aimed at preventing legacy subscribers from switching down to less lucrative non-subscription models. 

Both studios invested the money to re-launch existing products with presumably hundreds of thousands of subscribers in the hopes of coming out ahead financially.  Thus, both struggled with how to make an "optional" subscription less optional without alienating the new potential customers coming in under the new model.  Currency caps have stayed on the table as a subscriber-only perk because they fit both bills.  New players are unlikely to hit the restrictions until later in their careers, while existing players who bump up against the caps may already be using enough other services to make the subscription worthwhile.

Allowing players to effectively pay others to farm in-game currency for them calls more attention to players who fall in the middle ground, as this type of option will inherently be most attractive to people who are, for whatever reason, looking to limit their real-world expenditures.  Unfortunately, here is where the business models conflict - a player who can offer only a pittance - 18.4 plat in EQ2 or 350,000 credits in SWTOR - is not much of an incentive for someone else to open their wallet and pay the studio real world dollars. 

It's possible that both studios will ultimately relent on the currency restrictions.  Prior to the announcement, SOE's David Georgeson told me on twitter that they were re-evaluating the game's currency cap - in hindsight, perhaps due to this very concern.  Meanwhile, the Bioware folks are still iterating their model, though the game's senior producer stated that the current escrow functionality was intentional as of two days ago.  Perhaps this sort of continued mishap is just the price of doing business in an era of retrofitting non-subscription business models onto existing games. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Liberté, égalité, free-to-play

Rohan has a post up categorizing what he dubs "payment methods".  This is a more systematic approach to a question I tackled colloquially - you are what you sell.  Current players appear to dislike almost all of the options that Rohan has described for how it appears that SWTOR plans to make money after its non-subscription re-launch.  I would suggest that the real issue at hand is that the changes upset the balance of how the game is developed - and how the developer will value these customers in the future

As long as the angry mob is out anyway, let's break out the guillotine and look at this question with the motto of the French Revolution.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité - Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood
Under a subscription MMO model, customers are relatively equal in value.  Longtime subscribers are going to pay more in the long-run, and may serve as pillars of the community in a way that retains more than just their $15.  However, when it comes to the quarterly earnings call, each customer's $15 is the same. 

If anything, this equality motivates companies to focus on endgame. The raider is most likely to quit now if they are out of content, and most likely to be retain-able if the studio makes more raids.  The solo player may also quit when they run out of content, but they might re-roll instead.  Worse, the developers might spend their effort on more solo content only to have the solo player beat that content as well and quit anyway. 

The non-subscription model adds variety to the payment models, and, in so doing, adds Liberty.  A non-subscriber might pay less than $15, while non-subscribers and subscribers alike can potentially choose to pay MORE than $15.  This freedom means some customers are literally worth more than others.

The obvious and most-feared extreme is that the one person who is addicted to gambling for cosmetic items through so called "lock-boxes" is literally worth more than a small guild of loyal players who had been with the game in its previous incarnation.  That aside, having a model where players can pick and choose what they pay for potentially reverses the developer's incentives for the future direction of the game. 

If only a small proportion of players raid - and said players vehemently oppose any mechanism whereby they make themselves proportionally more valuable by paying more money, on the grounds that this would be "pay to win" - then only a small proportion of future development can support them.  By contrast, if the majority of paying customers are located in the leveling curve, that is where the developer must focus their efforts, even if said customers are certain to depart after spending some amount of time in game.

To use another concrete example, the patch will add a new NPC companion, an HK-51 droid.  Bioware hopes that nonsubscribers will pay for an unlock to access the content that awards this NPC.  However, even though companions are basically solo tools that cannot be used in serious group content, the questline requires a max level character and several group dungeons.  Merits of this decision aside, a non-subscription game can ill afford to put barriers between customers and stuff they want to pay for.

With this kind of split in the interests of the playerbase, it should come as no surprise that Brotherhood is in short supply indeed. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Competition From Single Player On Killing Rats

Massively has some elaboration from Sony Online Entertainment's John Smedley on his views on the need to move beyond traditional content - the kill and loot model - in the name of sustainability.  He is not the most impartial messenger since he has to endorse whatever his products are currently doing, that doesn't negate the message. 

Over the weekend, I beat the main story in 2010's Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and got to work on side missions. The series had always featured various minigames used to unlock helpful NPC's or other rewards, and this edition adds some optional missions with chase sequences and vehicles that rival its main storyline.  However, alongside these major undertakings are less elaborate outings that feel remarkably like the kill ten rats quest. 

Unlike the optional plot-related missions, side missions for the thieves, courtesans, and assassins of Rome occur in the regular game world of the city proper.  There is a brief load screen as the appropriate NPC's spawn, but you are otherwise free to wander around and collect other things - Borgia flags, treasure, building deeds - on your way across town.  The other thing that set them apart in my mind was that they are less like unrelated minigames - e.g. the rooftop footrace against the clock - and more about the game's regular activities - sneaking around, stealing, and, yes, assassinating bad guys.  Perhaps this has all always been there, but grinding out the last few percent completion needed to unlock the last story scene made me realize that this single player game basically includes the core of modern MMO's - and arguably as well or better than many MMO's themselves do.   

(Aside: It occurs to me that I'm fine for now playing with a sleeping infant resting on my shoulder, but at some point I may need to consider not playing these games in front of my daughter.  I'm not especially worried that she will grow into a Dexter-style serial killer who believes in killing people so long as they are bad.  I'm marginally worried that seeing Assassins attempt to climb buildings will exacerbate the likely inevitable urge to climb household furniture. Also, perhaps most likely, I'm not sure if I need my first parent teacher conference to be about why my kid thinks George Washington enlisted the help of an elite order of Assassins to combat the Templar menace on both sides of the Revolution.) 

One of the things that struck me about Smedley's own DC Universe Online - curious how his product failed to appear on his list of recent MMO's that peaked and dropped after launch - was how its closest competitors were in many ways console superhero games, rather than other online offerings.  Single player games are getting larger and more elaborate in ways that erode some of the advantages of scope that larger virtual worlds once enjoyed.  Moreover, the need to free up time for some more in-depth action sequences on the core storyline has created the same pressure for "filler" quests that utilize the existing engine and world.  It's going to be interesting to see how these two types of games continue to collide. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

WoW Annual Pass Post-Mortem

To start, a quick update on the WoW Annual Pass billing issue I discussed on Thursday, along with some other thoughts as my time with the annual pass ends. 

Billing Update
Wilhelm reports and I can confirm that that the cancel subscription button is no longer locked out for our accounts - as far as I could tell, it was still blocked when I wrote the post four days ago.  Wilhelm had previously been told that the billing system was somehow structurally incapable of processing customer requests to discontinue recurring billing - even AFTER you had paid for enough time to fulfill your commitment - until the end of the one-year pass term.  Having this option quietly re-appear at the proverbial 11:58 PM invites speculation that Blizzard had a more cynical motivation for failing to honor cancellation requests back in May. 

Most of my advice from Thursday stands - whether or not you were prevented from canceling previously due to this policy, you will be billed until you change settings.  That said, now that Blizzard is honoring requests to discontinue billing, this issue is downgraded to a case of a corporation trying to sneak a $15 charge past its customers.  Sadly, if you don't do business with every company that tries that these days, you're going to have to go become a hermit somewhere.

Was the Year in WoW worth it?
Last October, I chose to account the annual pass fee as a $60 purchase of Diablo III and a $96 subscription to WoW.  On this basis, I think I did pretty well.  My best guess is that I would have subscribed for roughly 4 months - one at a time at $15/month, for a total of $60 - in the absence of the annual pass.  That would mean I paid $36 for the other 8 months - roughly $4.50 per month.  Even though that's $4.50/month that I would not have otherwise spent, I'm reasonably confident that I got at least that much value out of the off-months.

If Blizzard had chosen to offer the same deal again with the Pandaria box taking the place of DIII, I would probably be inclined to take it (even though this would be a slightly worse value due to the lower price of the expansion box).  The problem that I had this year was that pesky Diablo III purchase.  I've enjoyed the portion of the game I played, but it hasn't been a high priority, and there have definitely been opportunities to snag it for less than $60.  If you zero out the value of DIII purchase (overly harsh, but for the sake of argument), I was effectively paying $12/month for the off-months; nearly full price and far from a bargain.  The reality is probably somewhere between these extremes - not the best bargain, but not that expensive as far as gaming life lessons go. 

Last year, I speculated whether Blizzard would be doing anything to make the base price of the WoW subscription more palatable to people like myself who are open to paying a bit more for uninterrupted access, but not $150/year.  Despite the success of the program - over 1.2 million customers took Blizzard up on it - the answer is apparently not.  This could mean that Blizzard is more confident that people will stay subscribed with a new expansion on the shelves and alleged plans for more frequent content updates.  Alternately, it could mean that the majority of people who took the annual pass deal were long-time loyal subscribers who would probably have remained subscribed anyway, and that lost revenue from these folks may have canceled out any gains from less frequent visitors like myself. 

In the mean time, later this week will be the first time in a year when I will not be able to log into World of Warcraft.  I will be back - amongst other things, there is a new expansion awaiting my attention - but almost certainly on a month-to-month basis.  This will very likely save me money, but it remains to be seen whether Blizzard's current product is better experienced over the longer term.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

PSA: Check WoW Annual Pass Bill Dates

UPDATE (10/22): Wilhelm reports and I can confirm that that the cancel subscription button is no longer locked out for our accounts - it was still blocked when I wrote this post four days ago.  Most of the below advice stands - whether or not you were prevented from canceling previously due to this policy, you will be billed again until you change settings.  I'm also not inclined to give a ton of credit to Blizzard for changing their stance on this without any notice or comment on the very last weekend of the one-year pass window. 

This post is to advise World of Warcraft annual pass customers to check their billing information and, if they intend to cancel for whatever reason, to change their billing increment down to one month.  Blizzard rolled out its annual pass program for World of Warcraft about a year ago, which means that the more than 1.2 million players who signed up for it are going to start hitting the end of their commitments over the next week.  The following is NOT to argue the merits of a WoW subscription in general, but rather to call attention to a billing issue that may affect these players.

According to the Terms of Use for the Annual Pass promotion, players who signed up for the annual pass:
"must .... have provided Blizzard with a valid credit card which can be used by you to purchase World of Warcraft subscription game time on a recurring basis to participate in this offer.
...agree to maintain a fully paid up, World of Warcraft license that is in good standing with Blizzard Entertainment, Inc., or its authorized licensees for a twelve (12) month period beginning on the day that you sign up for the offer (the “Twelve Month Commitment”)."
A one-year subscription can be paid in two installments of six months each.  A reasonable person, such as myself or Wilhelm might reasonably have assumed paying for the second installment back in April insured that our commitments were met.  Blizzard has chosen to interpret this commitment to mean that you cannot withdraw consent for recurring billing until the expiration of your pass term.  The account page will not allow you to cancel recurring billing BEYOND the duration of the annual pass until AFTER it has expired.  Customer service also will not help - the best advice Wilhelm could get was to attach a pre-paid credit card with $1 on it so that it would pass the "is this a credit card?" check but fail to bill.

Personally, I have a bit over a day between the time the system claims my commitment will be satisfied and the time of my next billing.  Wilhelm was somehow less fortunate, and has only a few hours - according to his commenters, customer service is claiming that they will refund any charges resulting from being unable to cancel between the end of the annual pass and the next bill date.

My best advice would be for annual pass customers to check their billing information and, if they intend to cancel for whatever reason, to change their billing increment down to one month to ensure that if there is any billing dispute, the amount at issue is as small as possible. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

MMO Death Penalties Are The Harshest Ever

Tobold muses about whether the success of two recent strategy games in which the player can actually lose the campaign against the computer pave the way for tougher failure penalties in MMO's.  Ironically, today's seemingly lenient penalties are arguably MORE punitive than the seemingly harsher penalties in the days of old.

Based on my experience with X-Com in the late 90's, seeing how different strategic choices influence the outcome is the fun part of the strategy game.  In some ways, "losing" the game meant a fresh start where you could try a different approach to combating the alien invasion.  The penalty for failure was only a penalty if you did not like the game that you were playing.

Meanwhile, as I've written for a long time now, all death penalties in MMO's can effectively be expressed in terms of the time it will take to get your character back to the state they were in prior to their unfortunate mishap.  Whether it's the time to run back from the graveyard, payoff exp debt, replace lost gears and levels, or even to re-roll after hardcore perma-death, there is always some quantity of time that will repair your losses.

The difference between Tobold's bygone era, where this threat brought communities together, and today is a more diverse playerbase.  In an era where the predominant form of play was grinding mobs in a group of your friends, the loss of exp just meant more time grinding mobs in a group of your friends - i.e. only a penalty if you did not like the game you were playing.

Today's genre attempts to draw a wide range of playstyles, such as solo players, small groups (who may not have tanking/healing), structured groups, raiders, crafters, etc.  More to the point, developers are increasingly using incentives to get players to use the other forms of content, as they cannot afford to let the development time used to support all of this stuff sit idle.  The result is that, if you were to lose gear or exp as a result of death, you would probably be forced to go do something you do NOT enjoy to get it back.  Having to spend an hour to re-queue and repeat a dungeon finder PUG that failed is arguably WORSE than losing a level in EQ1, because you did not want to be doing PUG dungeon finder runs to begin with. 

As long as this is the case, making more substantial death penalties only serves to increase the amount of time your customers have to spend doing stuff that they did not want to do to begin with - not the best business plan for a genre that depends on retaining satisfied customers.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Random Vertical Progression Musings

A few tidbits from the blogs that address vertical progression:

  • Keen proposes that levels should be removed from WoW because they are easy but time consuming to obtain, and are required for access to group PVE and PVP content.  This is perhaps a natural extension of the issues with PVP gear and reputation that have been hounding Pandaria since its release. 

    I generally agree that MMO's should not be designed to require one form of content (solo, group, PVP) for access to another - frankly, I think the quality of WoW's leveling game as a solo experience has suffered for all the changes required to keep the level cap accessible to group players.  (EQ2 has the same problem.)  The challenge is that levels are tied to meaningful progression - acquisition of spells, talents, etc that actually influence how you play the game.  I've spent a fair amount of time one-shotting my way through story content I have overleveled in WoW and LOTRO, and it can be fun, but the complete lack of any change to your character becomes very noticeable.  I also don't think it's good design to hit newbies with three hotbars full of spells, but I don't see how any form of up-mentoring that does not include every meaningful form of character advancement - levels, spells, talents, etc - will be acceptable for min-max'ed endgame content.

    I think it is far more likely that we will see some form of instant max level functionality added to the game, probably in the next year or so.  The lack of a function for mentoring down in levels from WoW in 2012 is a bit sad, but we haven't commonly seen the opposite approach offered because it does not actually solve the problem.

  • Spinks reminds me that Assassin's Creed 3 is coming.  This is a game I am looking forward to playing - it was the only line not directly tied to Turbine swag that I stood in at PAX East this year - but I do have an odd vertical progression block.  I'm currently partway through the storyline of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the middle game in what became a trilogy around AC2 protagonist Ezio Auditore.  While it looks like the new game will be doing a ton of cool things, and I'm guessing they will probably offer some form of synopsis, it seems a shame to have a future game spoil the end of the previous entries.  Oh well, I suppose console games only get cheaper. 

  • Meanwhile in my baby-friendly MMO of choice. WoW Pet Battles have some odd vertical progression.  In principle, the system is independent of the game's regular leveling curve, though it is far easier if you have a flying mount and outlevel the local mobs.  Each pet gains levels separately, while the level of wild pets scales such that all of the zone in the game map in approximately the correct order to the 25 levels of battle pets. 

    If you really need a pet of a certain level, you can always go tame whatever you can find locally (up to the highest level of a pet you currently own) - you can swap out your pets anywhere at any time when not in a pet battle.  However, if you want to keep a specific pet handy - perhaps a favorite that you had from prior to the pet battle system, or perhaps a wild pet that has useful stats - you will need to keep that pet leveling as you go.  You also generally want to have approximately level appropriate pets handy for taming attempts, as it is possible to (and extremely sad when you) one-shot a blue quality pet you were hoping to capture. 

    All of that said, it's a relatively non-linear progression in that you can always choose to go backwards, and that is a good thing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pet Battles For The New Parent

Doing our part in the blogger baby boom, my wife and I welcomed our first child last Friday.  Our little girl appears to be a gamer before birth - she arrived over a week late becasuse she wanted to get in just one more round of the "practice kidney shots on mommy" game - but both are doing well.  Ironically, despite the fact that I still do not own World of Warcraft's new expansion two weeks post launch, this addition to the family may make WoW a must-subscribe game for the near future.

I'd deliberately held off on trying both the new pet battle feature and finishing off my archaeology skill grind from last expansion, knowing that the baby was on the way.  These features turn out to be ideal for attending to a newborn.  The actual pet combat is turn-based, and the use of flying mounts means that I have no difficulty going AFK on no notice to deal with an unhappy baby.  Flying around the world and clicking on stuff (pets or digsites for the occasional change of pace) is pretty much ideal gameplay.

The game itself is pretty much literally Pokemon down to duels with enemy trainers - good thing you can't copyright a game concept.  That said, the brilliance of this system is that I can perform it on my own characters (progress is account-wide), with my own existing stable of pets (well over 100 from before pet battles).  I suppose the catch is that I don't really have as much reason to care about catching new pets given how many I already own - I already have pets with cool looks, unusual skills, and all the families.  Even so, it's a well-implemented addition that no other MMO does nearly so well, and happens to fill a niche for the new parent.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

WoW Reputations To Be Nerfed 25%+ in Pandaria

Blizzard is planning some substantial decreases to reputations in World of Warcraft.  This is the latest tweak to a system that struggles with a dual identity as a progression system in its own right - primarily for solo players - and as a prerequisite for group content amongst players who do not want anything to do with daily "chores". 

The Changes
Getting a character at revered reputation with a given faction qualifies characters on your account to receive double the normal reputation.  The character who unlocks the bonus is immediately included for their advancement from revered to exalted, which works out to fully 25% of the old trek from neutral to exalted since the last stage is the longest.  Additional characters on your account - supposedly including all servers and all accounts on your account, though I'm unclear how this works cross-faction - will see doubled rep for an effective 50% reduction in requirements.

To put the numbers in chart context:
Change To Rep Gain After 1 Character Hits Revered
Rep LevelCurrent Rep Per LevelAfter qualifying
Friendly3000 (~12 quests)1500 (x2, ~6 quests)
Honored6000 (~24 quests)3000 (x2, ~12 quests)
Revered12000 (~48 quests)6000 (x2, ~24 quests)
Exalted21000 (~84 quests)
No longer ever required
10500 (x2, ~41 quests) 
Includes 1st character
Quest estimate assumes 250 rep/quest, not counting bonuses (guild, human racial)

History of the dual role
We've seen Blizzard struggle with this sort of thing since the use of rep grinds became increasingly common in the Burning Crusade. Prior to WoW's first expansion, reputations were used - sparingly - for certain rewards, but these things tended to be specific items you obtained and could skip if you had some other source for comparable/better stuff.  In general, it has been accepted that additional characters have to obtain their own gear somehow, and I don't recall that much outcry on the fate that befalls additional characters needing to repeat the same reputation grinds.

WoW's expansions slowly increased the use of reputation to gate things that were less optional - TBC controversially required revered reputation (later lowered to honored) with four separate factions for access to heroic dungeons (which were then required to complete quests for access to raid content).  More significantly, WoW's first three expansions pushed the use of daily-quest based soloable rep grinds as a way to gate access to enchantment options for specific armor slots (head, shoulders).

The latter change mattered because - unlike gear that you will eventually replace - the rewards were not skippable.  Everyone had to complete the relevant daily quest grind or they would be unable to enchant their gear.  Late in the Wrath era - and continuing with Cataclysm, Blizzard decided to make these items account-bound.  This alleviated portions of the problem, but you still had to grind each daily quest faction once per account.

Why now?
Blizzard elected to remove head enchants from the game entirely rather than continue this trend and/or re-introducing them elsewhere - high end shoulder enchants are also gone from rep vendors, and are now produced with the Inscription profession.  Unfortunately, Blizzard created other issues to replace these.

Pandaria expands Justice and Valor points beyond the traditional group content of past expansions, and Blizzard opted to use rep restrictions to gate access to this gear.  In years past, this would have been relatively optional, but the dungeon finder has made item level checks mandatory.  This became especially prohibitive for players needing to get multiple characters up to par.  Spreading the entry level gear amongst four factions does not seem terribly consistent with the design of removing enchantments from vendors to make them more optional. 

On one hand, it seems unlikely that the changes go far further than the immediate problem by accident.  The effects on players grinding rep on a single character are significant, at a time when Blizzard was pushing to make the rewards for getting to exalted less significant and more cosmetic.  Based on the scope of the fix, perhaps Blizzard felt the length of the rep grind ladder was a deterrent, especially with increased numbers of reps in Pandaria. 

That said, it seems counterproductive to reduce the amount of repeatable content in the game for people who like repeating daily quests solely to fix an avoidable issue with gear vendors.  Perhaps the daily quest isn't going over as well as Blizzard had hoped, but that too is a weird and potentially troubling circumstance with all of the investment they made in daily quests this expansion.