Friday, August 31, 2012

What I've Been Working On: DCUO

DCUO gets the next slot in my Labor Day round-up in recognition of other news in comic MMORPG's.   I picked up all of the remaining DLC's when I was dumping my now generally useless Station Cash.  As a result, I now own the new Captain America shield weaponset for all characters, along with the Green/Yellow Lantern and the Earth powersets (if I make new characters), along with a few additional chunks of content. 

One of the newer additions - I can't tell if this required DLC or not - are soloable daily quests that award two of the tier two dungeon tokens daily.  On the plus side, this can help grind out the tokens needed to get the gear required to access some of the content I already owned - on the downside, this doesn't make the daily quest grind any less of a daily quest grind.  I'm keeping an open mind, but overall I'm not spending much time in game.

If you'd told me that one superhero MMO had abruptly announced plans to close today, I would have guessed DCUO over City of Heroes/Villians.  SOE is not NCsoft, but DCUO never really took off and is shackled with the costs of a licensed IP - the only significant scenario in which SOE has been forced to pull the plug on MMORPG's.  By contrast, Paragon Studios' offering was an original IP that recently went free to play, and had an eight and a half year history behind it.  I guess we finally have hard evidence that a business model change is not guaranteed to save every MMO that makes the attempt. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What I've Been Working On: World of Warcraft

I signed in briefly to make the rounds of all my characters in the wake of WoW's new patch. 

Triumph of the Brew Kodo earned on one of my alts
As promised, mounts (subject to faction/class restrictions), pets, and achievements are relatively account-wide.  Realistically, the overwhelming majority of these were only on my main character to begin with, but the upshot is that my main character picks up a handful of new options, including the coveted Brew Kodo (which I had won on my Tauren warrior - like he needed more Kodos).  For reference, prior to logging into my main my account had 3565 achievement points, 43 pets, and 20ish mounts (Alliance side).  Afterwards, the numbers were 90 mounts, 168 pets (! - includes some duplicates due to how the new battle system works) and 7495 achievement points.  Apparently account-wide credit was also enough to push me over 2500 daily quests completed. 

More generally, the changes to game systems, like talents and glyphs, are confusing and at least temporarily disruptive for someone who comes into them mid-patch (i.e. basically everyone who played the game prior to Tuesday).  For example, Arcane Blast applying slow automagically is now a glyph and one that I happen not to have because that glyph was previously useless.  That said, I am already liking the system better - there are some legitimately interesting choices amongst the talents and glyphs, and it's not like the overwhelming majority of your talent points under most previous incarnations of the system weren't obvious.  I suppose they should have taken last expansion's revamp this far rather than revamping dramatically twice in a row, but at least they've done the job properly this time. 

In the short term, my plan is still to use the period before the launch to complete some unfinished business from the Cataclysm era.  I can't entirely rule out working on an alt, especially if one or more classes have changed in interesting ways, but ironically all the changes make it hard for me to tell which alt to work on.  That said, the bigger question is whether Pandaria will be the first WoW expansion that I don't bother to purchase on launch day. 

This is not purely a referendum on Pandaria - I haven't paid full price for an MMO box/expansion since probably Wrath, and I have many other things I am working on.  Basically, the only reason why I'd even consider fitting Pandaria into my schedule next month would be because I would have a month of time remaining on my annual pass.  Then again, I can use that time to mess around with pet battles and even roll a baby Pandaren alt through the newbie areas (which will supposedly not require the expansion) and call it even.  Blizzard's decision to forgo a launch event in favor of a one-week level 85 preview of a level 90 scenario is pretty lackluster in terms of competing for my interest in a busy period of MMO's.  Guess we'll see how I'm feeling on this in late September. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What I've been Working On: Dungeons and Dragons Online

I traditionally mark the U.S. Labor Day weekend with a post about each game I'm currently playing.  With that tally rising, the series needs to start early this year.

While everyone else is busy hacking away at Guild Wars 2 of late, I've been working on some Dungeons and Dragons Online.  My highest character is level 10 with enough experience to advance to 11 - the game permits you to bank up to two levels' worth of experience, and doing so can help avoid exp penalties for being over level (starting at -10% for being two levels above the rating of the quest).  While I'm not really halfway through the content yet, I'm making steady progress in a way that I had never been able to in previous visits to the game.  This raises some questions on how to spend my Turbine Point balance. 

My character sheet at level 10, including all my armor bonuses, the AC goes a few points higher with various consumables.
On one level, Turbine points have no cash value.  The cash I spent to get them had cash value, but there are no refunds on this or any other MMO's virtual currency.  The roughly $30 worth of points that have been sitting in my account since 2010 haven't really been doing much for me during that time. 

On the other hand, Turbine points can be exchanged for things that I would otherwise pay money for, such as content and major features.  While it is theoretically possible to grind out Turbine Points if you value your time at pennies per hour - and while there is a rebate of sorts from points that you earn during natural play - for the most part points I spend now will eventually be replaced at the cost of real cash.  In general things that are in the store now will go on sale or see prices reduced eventually, and in general new things that I want will be added to the store in the future.  The future value of the points could in principle be greater than their present day value.

The TR System
Up until this point, I have played a stable of characters, and the things that I have purchased for them have been account-wide benefits that applied equally to future alts.  Looking ahead, though, I'm tempted to take up the game's true reincarnation (TR) mechanic, whereby characters who reach level 20 can start over at level 1 (in the same or different class) in exchange for more build options, passive bonuses, and other perks.

DDO's character building system is very rich, though it does allow the player to make genuinely terrible characters, and the TR system expands options in a way that sounds fun.  Meanwhile, while the game is built on repeatable content, there is something to be said for beating the level four content once and not coming back to it until my next life.  (One pitfall of being an altoholic in DDO is that you end up starting over in the same level range repeatedly.)  The experience to level actually increases for subsequent lives, but there are also bonuses, such as immediately unlocking higher difficulty levels for quests (a feature that it otherwise available to subscribers, or for a somewhat prohibitive consumable per-quest unlock).

On the other hand, being a TR is in some ways expensive.  Actually reincarnating requires a heart that can in principle be earned through in-game group content, but is more feasibly obtained for around $15 in the store.  There are also bonuses like inventory boosts and tomes (some of which are available in game) that become much more attractive when you can carry them into your next life.  On the downside, these bonuses are tied to the one character, so you can't keep them if you end up disliking your next life (or if future mechanics changes - such as the enhancement revamp they are supposedly working on - break your build).

The decision point for me is still a bit out, but I have slowly elected to pick up things that are immediately useful and that will continue to be useful in future lives.  My main has a greater experience tome through the expansion bundle purchase, stat tomes on some of my in-game stats, and will probably pick up at least the additional personal bag when the next sale cooperates (possibly this weekend).

P.S. "Sword Saint" build

The last time I posted about this, Yeebo inquired about my plans to build a character with cloth armor and swords.  My character was originally going to be a Tempest dual-wielding ranger (approximately like this one) but I found combat uninteresting and the benefits of splashing monk for wisdom and dex bonuses to armor classes somewhat reduced due to changes in this summer's expansion.  Fortunately, DDO levels are added one at a time, and I realized I could repurpose the character in favor of the more active monk combat style.  My current build:

Human w/ Stats (32 pt build):
STR: 16 (+level increases)   DEX: 16   CON: 14   INT: 8  WIS: 14  CHA: 8  
1 Rogue: Toughness, Dodge (human bonus, Tempest prereq), skills including UMD, Balance, Open Lock
1 Ranger/1 Rogue: Favored Enemy Undead (or your choice), add concentration
2 Ranger/1 Rogue: Power Attack, Two Weapon Fighting (class feature)
2 Ranger/1 Monk/1 Rogue: Mobility (Monk bonus, Tempest prereq)
3 Ranger/1/1: Diehard (class feature, Shintao Monk prereq)
4 Ranger/1/1: Spring Attack (Tempest prereq)
5 Ranger/1/1: Favored Enemy Giants (common at this level, take your pick)
6 Ranger/1/1: Improved Two Weapon Fighting (class feature), Tempest Prestige Enhancement
2 Monk/6 Ranger/1 Rogue: Weapon Focus Slashing (level 9 feat, prereq for the following:), Whirling Steel Strike (monk bonus, allows use of longswords as a monk weapon)
3 Monk/6/1: Light Path for solo self-heals

That's where I am through character level 10.  I have great DPS thanks to high strength, swords, and monk special attacks.  I have good armor/avoidance through full DEX and WIS bonuses, enhancement bonuses to armor (now available on robes), and other little perks like the Tempest bonus to dual wielding.  Meanwhile, I can open locks along with full ranks in UMD, balance, and concentration. Planned milestones ahead:

12: 5 Monk/6/1: Improved Crit Slashing
13: 6 Monk/6/1: Stunning Fist (Monk Bonus, prereq for:) Shintao Monk Prestige Enhancement
15: 8 Monk/6/1: Greater Two Weapon Fighting (requires +1 Dex tome no later than level 14, I already got this)
19: 12 Monk/6/1: Shintao Monk Rank 2

I'm actually not sure what I will do with my level 18 feat or my 20th heroic class level, and I guess it won't matter that much if I TR relatively shortly thereafter, but so far I'm loving this build. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Most Threatened By GW2: Rift?

Wilhelm has an interesting post about current events in Rift that got me thinking about the week's major release. While Blizzard is making their traditional obligatory response to the Guild Wars 2 launch by rolling out a new patch tomorrow - there is a tradition to uphold, after all - I'm wondering that WoW may not be the game with the most to lose this week.  When you look at what distinguishes the remaining MMO's - and in particular the surviving subscription games - I'm much more worried for Rift. 

My personal experience in the world of Telara was that it was technically well executed but very dry solo.  Where the game shined was in groups, and I spent more time leveling with other people than I have in any other MMO before or since.  When I read over accounts from people who have stuck with the game, it seems that most have done so because their friends or their guilds have chosen Rift precisely because it is at their best when enjoyed in good company.

Now, in Guild Wars 2, you have a game that was supposedly developed under a philosophy where the first question was always how systems would affect players' ability to cooperate.  Servers and levels, probably the biggest barriers between players, are functionally gone.  The subscription fee is gone, and with it the constant financial incentive to quit the game.  Tapping mechanics that cause other players in the area to become competitors rather than collaborators are gone.  Open world events that encourage cooperation are in.  Ironically, Blizzard dodges a bullet by having a major competitor choose not to tackle WoW head-on, while Trion's model is most similar and most in the crosshairs. 

The Trion Response
Wilhelm says that his Rift server got pretty deserted during the GW2 prelaunch events, which is certainly anecdotal and probably a common experience around the MMO world this week.  However, the approach that the GW2 devs had planned was no surprise given the game's lengthy and relatively public development cycle.  Thus, Trion has had time to respond. 

Within a few months of GW2's anticipated release, Rift has added a popular auto-mentoring system (much like GW2's approach), removal of faction barriers to grouping (which GW2 intentionally never had), and a new world PVP system (albeit with some kinks) to join longstanding features like free instant server transfers and cross-server groups.  And yes, incidentally, a discount on a year-long subscription paired with an expansion - a move that Blizzard tried at the SWTOR launch, when it was widely regarded as a transparent attempt to lock in revenue before players canceled their subscriptions to go play a new game.  The fact that the competitor lacks a monthly fee can't help that math any. 

I don't expect Trion to fold anytime soon.  Even so, they may have as much riding on where the dust settles after this launch and their forthcoming expansion as any other game on the market. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Expansion Launch Timelines

This week, Turbine somewhat unexpectedly delayed LOTRO's expansion, set to go live in about two weeks, back into mid-October. 

I haven't been in the beta, but Spinks made a round-up and it sounds like the expansion was in pretty good shape other than the mounted combat system.  It's certainly possible that this is part of the problem - mounted combat is reportedly a substantial chunk of the expansion, and some of Blizzard's experiences with vehicle/dragon combat in the Wrath era suggests that players do not love being forced into something that changes their playstyle.  Some of LOTRO's game systems already have a bad reputation for being grindy, and I could see some concern if this one was also buggy to boot.

That said, the more I think about it, the more I'm wondering that the real problem is the release date calendar.  Turbine claimed the September 5th date back on June 5th, but on June 28th Guild Wars 2 declared that it would "launch" (early access aside) a mere week earlier, on August 28th.  Blizzard responded by placing WoW's expansion on September 25th, and later added to the scuffle by putting patch 5.0 with talent changes and other system updates on August 28th. 

Turbine isn't new to this game, and they're not afraid to launch against competition - the Moria expansion launched the week after Wrath of the Lich King.  (Then again, Turbine has never placed another product in physical stores since that day.)  That said, I'm wondering if they just didn't like their odds of seeing their expansion drowned out by most of the known MMO world descending on either WoW or GW2.  They'll still be up against Rift with its un-announced expansion launch and possibly some other tidbits (perhaps the end of the year EQ2 expansion, or SWTOR's relaunch), but I like their odds better in October than right here and now. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Digital Retail Undercutting

Last week, there was a one-day 50% off sale on DDO's new expansion.  There is no box to purchase or mark down, and the client is downloaded through the conventional patcher - I had it fully installed and up to date before I made the purchase.  So, effectively all I was purchasing was the key for access to the expansion content.  This was provided at a 50% discount not by Turbine, but rather by Steam, as their daily deal.

Turbine, perhaps understandably, did little to promote this sale to current players who do not yet own the expansion - I only found out about it when DDO Cast re-tweeted a tweet about the sale.  In fairness, the expansion has been around for a few months now, so most dedicated players probably snagged it at full price.  Personally, I was almost certainly going to wait for a sale anyway, so it's not like I jumped on this instead of paying Turbine directly, though at least they would have gotten to keep the whole $25 through a sale on their own store.

Much like physical retail, the daily deal on steam does get a slot on the frontpage that all steam users see when they log in each day - I have no idea whether the studio provides Steam with a discount in exchange for this coveted placement, but it would not surprise me.  Presumably, being discoverable by steam customers is the primary incentive for games going on the service in the first place, especially for online games that can generate ongoing revenue that cuts out the steam middle man. 

The Secret World's investor update states that increasing distribution through channels that include Steam will somehow help their current predicament.  They may not be the best exemplar, but most MMO studios not named Blizzard seem to think Steam's cut is worthwhile.  They can't all be wrong, can they?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Incentives For World Events

My initial take on rumors of a SWTOR world event this month was that it would be a good time to re-subscribe to get characters in order for the free-to-play relaunch.  I'm going to want a couple of races - especially Chiss - that are unlikely to be free for non-subscribers, and they have announced that races for existing characters will be grandfathered at the relaunch.  Then the event actually landed.

Rohan and Werit have some good qualitative impressions of the event, while full spoiler/guides can be found at places like Darth Hater and Dulfy's.  My first - apparently incorrect - impression from the reward list was that this was a daily quest gear grind, in which case I was decidedly uninterested.  In reality, the event is a scavenger event designed to be done once per character - most of the rewards are legacy-bound, allowing players to spread the token farming amongst multiple characters.  In fact, we found out today that the event will wind down on Tuesday, after having been live for a mere week. 

On one level, I respect the willingness to make an event that is NOT designed as a multiple week grindfest.  However, while having such a short event does make for a unique experience for people who happen to be around, I'm not sure if I will have the time to play it, even if I do decide I'm willing to resub for this purpose.  Between this and the Rakghoul infection, one-time events have represented a surprisingly high proportion of Bioware's post-launch content in the game.  I suppose the event may still be a bigger draw than a comparable number of quests in a patch, but it's a tough call whether this is a good use of developer resources. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rift To Remove Player Factions

Today, Trion announced plans to functionally all but remove factions from Rift.  As far as I can tell, all guilds, group content, instanced PVP (the random groupfinder already puts "mercenaries" into cross faction groups, so this is only a change to queueing), chat, and most other functional portions of the game will now be shared between factions.  Quest content, lore, and the two capitol cities will remain in place, presumably because re-writing all of the above would be a prohibitive amount of work. 

Trion is spinning this as the two factions recognizing the need to come together against common foes after having beaten four of the six elemental dragons.  This isn't actually new - we saw it in the game's first world event, back in March 2011, and frankly the faction system added so little to the game that I was questioning what purpose it served before launch even happened.

One area that may be kind of screwed up is non-instanced PVP.  Residents of PVP servers will be locked out of most of these features - good I suppose if you rolled on that ruleset because you really like it, but bad if you are being left behind for PVE purposes.  At least Trion offers free server transfers?  There could be some odd quirks in terms of faction spying, trash talking, etc, but some of these are already possible.  Trion also recently added a three-way PVP system where players choose to join one of the sides independent of their racial faction alignment, so I suppose they may intend for this system to replace the game's original lore. 

As always, tip of the hat to Trion for doing what they think is necessary, rather than allowing a situation they clearly felt needed to be corrected to continue - most developers would not consider doing something this dramatic to a launched game.  As long as the two factions are always fighting the same enemies anyway, there is very little value to the two faction system.  Since developers don't really have the time to develop completely separate content for their factions, this is a logical alternative. 

(Meanwhile, Blizzard is supposedly ramping the Alliance/Horde rivalry back up, other than the detail that the Horde's hated warchief is the final boss of the expansion.  The whole Galactic War thing kind of rules out merging the SWTOR factions.  I don't know that anyone is going to come scrambling to follow suit in retrofitting their games, but it will be interesting to see whether future developers stop doing two factions simply because that's how WoW did it.) 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Aggressive Marketing Vs. Content and Convenience

No Content For Station Cash
As Wilhelm's analysis notes, SOE is getting out of the business of allowing Station Cash to pay for anything that was previously worth paying for under the old subscription model - no expansions or other content and no subscription fees.   They are fully entitled to do this.  Indeed, it's puzzling that they are just now noticing that Station Cash sales were reducing the cost of their product - I'm pretty sure that February 2010's Sentinel's Fate expansion was available for Station Cash (after the one-week retail exclusive window).  As Bhagpuss notes, they even managed to announce it properly and in advance.  (On the downside, they just learned that lesson the hard way, but at least they learned it rather than repeat it.)

The last time I took part in a triple Station Cash sale, sometime around April, I was on the fence about whether to purchase $15 or $20 worth of credit.  I elected the latter, rather than fund the stuff I wanted to purchase out of my existing balance - I figured that I would likely use the extra SC to pay for content or game time in either EQ2 or DCUO.

Having learned that this month is my last chance to spend the SC on content, I elected to call the $5 a relatively cheap reminder of what happens when you purchase more virtual currency than you have immediate plans to spend.  I cut my losses and grabbed three DCUO DLC packs that I may not ever use, rather than continue to hold a SC balance that increasingly cannot be used to buy anything that I want.

Aggressive Marketing
As Spinks kindly noticed, just last week I was rambling about whether the DLC model for MMO's is actually sustainable.  I'll be the first to concede that paying SOE $20 for all of the paid content they added to both of the two SOE games I played over the course of a year certainly does not fall into the sustainable category.  That said, I'd have more sympathy for their desire to receive an honest day's pay for an honest day's work if it weren't for their own self-inflicted and self-described "aggressive" marketing practices.

The problem is that the cost of Station Cash item can vary by more than six-fold if you stack a triple station cash promotion with a 50% off sale and a Walmart-exclusive point card bonus.  Players did not create that situation, and you don't see SOE similarly crying about the need to "protect the revenue they need to offset costs" of the mounts and vanity items they will continue to offer in the SC store for nominal prices that exceed $10 per item per character.

To preserve this "aggressive" regime, they are cutting off the ability to pay with store-bought cards.  To my knowledge, EQ2's most recent expansion was not offered in retail stores (presumably due to the retail cut), so SC was one of the last avenues available for those who don't want to provide a company that got hacked last year with their credit cards.  They're also removing a mechanism for price discrimination by players like myself who don't play enough to justify $220 annually in expansion and subscription fees but who would otherwise be happy to support the product.  Given how thin this year's content is, I'll be hard pressed to justify yet another $40 expansion box - potentially the third in 20 months - this fall if I have to pay full price.

P.S. In a mostly unrelated story, Bioware's single player DLC division has some commentary on how successful the model is  - the comments have a distinct feel that people who don't like it are out of luck because every single player game will be diverting content from the release game to paid DLC within five years. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

PSA: SWTOR Racial Grandfathering

Details are presumably subject to change, but this week's SWTOR community Q&A has a previously un-answered tidbit about the game's free to play shift.  Previously created characters will NOT be locked due to their species, though they will be subject to limits on character slots. 

(We already knew that no classes would be restricted, so this appears to mean that you can have all of your old characters.  I'd also be shocked if they did not offer character slots for sale to non-subscribers.  While companies do want to preserve some incentives to subscribe, more slots means more characters, which should in principle mean more revenue, regardless of payment model.)

For players who have their eye on some of the non-human races, this is potentially a significant benefit to (re-)subscribing prior to the changeover and creating any characters that have been on your to-do list.  (Personally, I plan to wait for the rumored August world event.)  If you are considering trying the game in November and have your eye on a specific race, it might also be worth your while to download the newly unlimited free trial (through level 15) - no promises that these characters will also be grandfathered, but it would seem like spending effort to make sure they slam the door on the fingers of potential customers would be counterproductive.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Reset Too Far

Lyriana hit level 91, leaving her a single level - about 1.4 million exp - away from EQ2's current level cap.  Armed with bonuses from vitality and veteran status, I'm pulling down 8000 exp per quest completion and a few hundred exp per mob.  This could take a while.

The last time EQ2 raised its level cap, back in 2010's The Sentinel's Fate (TSF) expansion, SOE provided only two overland zones for an increase of ten levels - the previous ten-level increase had added four overland zones.  This resulted in some absurd quest design, in which one hub awards nine quest completes for killing seven mobs just to hand out more quest exp.  Even with this extreme measure, players were level 90 within hours of the expansion launch.  The irony was that TSF had a variety of factions and repeatable quests solo players could have used to earn reputation.  It would have been a far better expansion with a smaller cap increase (2-5) and a faction curve that allowed solo players to continue leveling as they worked on daily quests.

(Last year's Destiny of Velious expansion did not raise the cap, despite adding two overland zones, and, again, offered robust endgame daily quest options.  This expansion too could have come with a few levels that continue into the daily quest grind.) 

The game's current cap increase - two levels - came with a single overland zone.  This should have been fine, except for a minor problem - an aggressive gear reset obsoleted every single piece of content that existed in the game prior to the current patch (other than an extreme hard-mode raid that was only marginally more rewarding than current, easier content).  As a result, all the factions I failed to complete last expansion are no longer worthwhile.  In their place is a single daily quest - once per day I can do a single dungeon (assisted by my mercenary) in exchange for a piece of random level 92 gear.  There are some other repeatable quests in the new zone, but these are pretty much pointless, as there are no factions or items associated with them - effectively, you're just grinding exp. 

There are some things I can do to speed the journey along.  I have some veteran reward potions stashed away, I probably still earn non-zero amounts of exp from last expansions' content (even if I no longer need the rewards), and I can always betray and/or mentor down.  (Or even group.)  That said, it does seem unusually wasteful to cast aside so much content, with so little to take its place. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Can We Monetize MMO's Via DLC?

"The use of a free-to-play monetization model requires careful placement of your best content, what I call "carrots," on the other side of payment opportunities that I call "gates.""
 - "Game monetization expert Ramin Shokrizade", writing for Gamasutra
We've had a week to process the bombshell of SWTOR's sudden (albeit in development through November) planned change in business model.  Many of us, myself included, have thrown out roughly the same ideas about how the game's solo leveling story content was its best feature, while its endgame appears to be failing to retain players. 

For the sake of argument, I will assume Mr. Shokrizade means that Bioware should have monetized access to the story missions, which he calls the "best parts" of the game.  I was fumbling around the same suggestion a few months ago in light of rumors about a potential added fee for the game's forthcoming new planet - this seemed inconsistent with a subscription model, and I had assumed that they would not take the subscription off the table so early.  Could selling access to content throughout the game - perhaps on a planet by planet basis similar to LOTRO's model - really have doubled or tripled Bioware's revenues?

I'm not convinced for a number of reasons. 
  1. It would be hard to justify the $60 fee for the box if very little of the content were included.  While retail definitely ate a chunk of this revenue, we know that over two million copies were sold.  That's a lot of microtransactions. 
  2. Just as charging the monthly fee rewards players for finishing early, charging by the planet rewards players for skipping optional content or quitting outright if they're not loving the story.  Offering up opportunities to quit every few levels might not be in the developers' best interest, especially if you run into players like myself who struggle to find a class with both a good story and fun mechanics.  
  3. The real issue, though, is development costs.  Say that Bioware could have sold the base game with just the Act I stories but no subscription for the full $60 and charged some amount of money per planet per class thereafter.  This doesn't add up to much more than the revenue they get from their single player offerings and paid DLC, which cost much less to develop.  Further, adding more planets in the future may well be cost prohibitive (a theory that I suppose we are about to test).  
Alternately, Mr. Shokrizade may be implying that Bioware's mistake was developing this kind of game in the first place.  For SWTOR, we know that the subscription model did not pan out, and I stand by my initial reaction to the new plan - confusion about how a model which does not charge for story content fixes the problem of players beating the story content and then quitting.  (Tobold seems to agree.)

Meanwhile, for all the hype concerning the performance of Turbine's approach to free to play, which is roughly what we're discussing here, there are some signs that Turbine may be struggling with the sustainability issue.  We are seeing both point bundles and expansions bundled into larger and more expensive packages, while more and more power is added for sale in the store. That said, if the answer really is that we can't have games like SWTOR because there is no way to make them commercially viable, that's a pretty big disappointment for the future. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Scaling And Novel Loot

Like many players, I have been quick to complain about the gear treadmill - how MMOs focus on the acquisition of gear that increases arbitrary stats by arbitrary amounts, only to have the increases canceled out by corresponding improvements in the stats of the enemy.  The story of class foci in EQ2 goes to show that the alternatives aren't that much easier.

Last year, I picked up two major upgrades that go beyond mere numbers - the bonus from my epic class weapon and a pair of boots that removed the cost from a key buff, allowing my buff-based class to cast 20% more buffs.  This week I logged in to find the same pair of boots missing the focus effect.

The boots when I got them
The problem, as I noted at the time, was that this bonus was so large that it became mandatory on future gear upgrades.  When April's patch increased the level cap, along with a full gear reset, SOE went in and added a generic class focus stat that effectively says "your class buff here" on every piece of gear you loot.  This was pretty much pointless, so the system got another overhaul in this month's patch.  Now the foci are an inherent part of your character, earned as you level, and there's correspondingly one fewer line of text on every piece of gear in the game.
The boots today, with the key effect moved to my class focus tab (the random stat buffs are doled out to replace a separate portion of the focus system, which was tossed because there was generally only one sensible choice)
In some ways, this is a win for players.  A key mechanic is available earlier in the level progression, and we have neither the irritating scenario of having to find groups for old content (still required for the epic weapon bonus, at least for now) nor the absurdity of having the same stat assumed to be on every piece of gear in the game.  That said, the major thing that made certain pieces of gear somewhat unique and desirable is gone, leaving only arbitrary quantities of arbitrary stats.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Players Cannot Win In the EA vs Zynga Lawsuit

As Scott Jennings notes, the stakes are high in the lawsuit between Electronic Arts and Zynga.  Relatively few MMORPG players are likely to find sympathy for the defendant given their reputation.  As the lawsuit notes, has previously been accused of grand theft intellectual property by smaller studios who could not stand toe to toe with the studio in a fight.  I haven't gone anywhere near either game, but Tobold called this coming two weeks out - given his prominence in the page rankings, I'm half surprised that his post is not exhibit A for the plaintiffs.

That said, consider for a minute the consequences.  User interfaces in the MMO world are not known for their originality - if you've played one hotbar-based MMO, you will find that the competition has intentionally designed their systems to reduce your learning curve when you take their product for a test drive.  All talk of "WoW clones" aside, is this really a bad thing for players?  These interfaces survive not just because they are familiar, but also because they work. 

In that context, I'm concerned about a massive company with massive numbers of lawyers establishing a precedent for killing games based on their similarity to a competing product.  The US system of permitting patents on abstract concepts has created an environment where companies can no longer create new devices without paying someone - either a competitor or someone who never intends to market a product - for broad patents on the concepts behind their inventions.   Small and independent developers face enough challenges without the potentially prohibitive costs of licensing concepts from the EA's, Activisions, and - yes - Zyngas of the world who can afford to litigate.

I realize that the iterative evolution of MMO's, the conduct that Zynga stands accused of, and the state of the rest of the US Intellectual Property system are potentially three distinct points.  I'd just like them to stay that way. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gameplay Trumps Business Model

The conventional wisdom in discussions about the future of the subscription MMO is that the continued success of World of Warcraft proves that players are willing to pay each and every month for a quality product.  I think the quality of the product and the experience ultimately trumps the business model, which is precisely WHY I'm not buying this theory. 

What if the truth is that every MMO that has succeeded under the subscription model has done so because that game - at the time - offered a compelling experience that was not available elsewhere?  Looking at MMO history through this model, have games succeeded DESPITE the monthly fee - because players had nowhere else to go to get that particular experience - and not because of it?  What portions of the conventional wisdom survive under this alternate model for events, and which fall by the wayside?   

Survivors of the Subscription Era
According to's list of all games by business model, there simply aren't that many MMORPG's with a mandatory subscription fee left on the market.  Many are either abandoned veterans that aren't worth the money it would cost to relaunch them or newbies that have yet to prove they can last under a subscription model.  Setting aside the 9.1 million subscriber gorilla for a moment, let's look at the highlights:
  • Eve Online: Poster child for this model, whether it's space piracy, corporation scheming, hardcore PVP, or fully player-driven wars for galactic domination, Eve always has offered something that no other game on the market attempts.
  • Rift: Technically speaking, having a well-produced game that sets and meets achievable goals and therefore delivers the most consistent update schedule in the industry isn't part of the in-game experience. 

    What I'd suggest is unique - based on my experience playing the game and comparing it to the other quest-based MMO's on the market - is the focus on playing with other people.  Soloing in Rift is 100% feasible and supported, but it just feels flavorless compared to all the other solo quest MMO's.  By contrast, Trion has made it easier than any other game to join groups, and I've had more fun grouping - including while leveling and even healing PUG's - than any other recent MMO I've played. 

    (Incidentally, if I'm correct, Guild Wars 2 may be a bigger threat to Rift than WoW, since its content is closer to what Trion does well.) 
  • Darkfall: I don't know exactly what their state of financial success is, as the game is currently charging a reduced monthly fee and no price to create an account.  Again, though, the game offers hardcore sandbox PVP of a kind that "mainstream" games run screaming from.
  • FFXI: Another title where I'm not so informed about current success.  In the past, though, this game has been the rear-guard of numerous old school mechanics like harsh death penalties, lengthy travel, and grinding mobs to level, but without the PVP focus of other more sandbox-ish games.  (FFXIV is harder to gauge because it only began charging a fee recently.) 
  • Warhammer Online: At the risk of kicking a game that's down, I'd suggest that this demonstrates the flipside of the model.  Things like solo quests, group dungeons, and instanced PVP warfronts would NOT have been enough to sustain a subscription game because there were alternatives with these features on the market in 2009.  The unique portion that they did attempt to provide - RVR - proved less than compelling due to incentive and population balance issues.  
I'm not going to try and rehash this analysis for the heyday of every MMO in history, but a cursory examination looks promising.  Everquest brought the Diku MUD model into 3D.   Dark Age of Camelot did the open PVP thing correctly, with a third faction to balance populations.  LOTRO, back when it was moderately successful while charging a mandatory subscription, combined solo-accessability with a far more immersive story experience than the competition had to offer in 2007.  Games that failed to catch on often have a reason - poor execution (e.g. Vanguard) or lack of differentiation (DCUO versus similar action-based gameplay in non-subscription console games, many of which are even online these days). 

What about WoW?
All of which brings us back to WoW and the conventional wisdom.  At its launch, WoW fit the model to a T - it was the only game on the market offering the virtual world experience to players who wanted to solo or otherwise shed the inflexibility inherent in past group-oriented MMO's.  Today, though, every game that launches is derided as a "WoW Clone".  What is this dinosaur still doing if a subscription game indeed cannot endure viable competition?

I would suggest that modern WoW offers two things that its contemporaries don't:
  1. Critical Mass.  While diminished by years of attrition, Blizzard's game still has the largest playerbase.  The success of Facebook does not mean that any competing social network can succeed simply by fielding a better product because the userbase is part of the value of the product.  In some ways, Blizzard's game remains an easy consensus choice because they successfully support the major forms of gameplay - solo, group, raid, PVP - under one roof.
  2. Production Values.  No other game has the luxury of two-year expansion cycles with multiple months of non-NDA'ed public testing.  Many MMO's struggle for the resources to support all the major playstyles and ultimately end up doing one or more poorly.  It's very possible to fault Blizzard's decisions, and the game does still have the occasional bug or rough edge, but it's hard to fault Blizzard's execution in comparison to the rest of the market.
Do these things really add up to a compelling game experience not available elsewhere?  Both have their downsides - the broad playerbase makes it harder to please everyone, while the long development cycles mean lengthy droughts with no new content.  These are certainly not as big of a revolution as introducing solo play to the genre - and perhaps that's a part of the game's slow but inexorable decline.  

Back to the big picture
If the bottom line is that the game, and not the business model, defines success, how have we arrived at the era of the free to play conversion?  Entry barriers and flexibility are almost certainly part of the story - it's hard to be so worthless not to be a bargain at some reduced price.  For some games, like DDO, it's possible to have such a low profile that the free to play relaunch is actually many gamers' first chance to make a first impression.  Moreover, in the early days of the F2P switchover perhaps payment model flexibility was unique enough to be a selling point.

Today, however, many of the games that appear to have failed to compete at the price-level of the monthly fee have all made the switch.  Still charging a fee may or may not be a dealbreaker, but it's harder to spin the lack of a fee as a selling point (especially if the "optional" fee is not so optional).  In that case, the real question going forward is: When will we see a major F2P relaunch fold?  Perhaps not so soon, since many of these titles are owned by larger developers who can keep the lights on relatively indefinitely, especially propped up with a cash shop.  Still, if I'm right this question will begin to loom large in the coming years, because there just aren't that many subscription titles left to fail to sustain the subscription model. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Impact of Retail on SWTOR

One of the odd quirks of the SWTOR story is where all the revenue went.  With over two million copies sold at full price during the first months, that's hypothetically well over $120 million in revenue, not counting copies sold beyond the first month.  We have no way of knowing what the churn rate was, but even an average of 1 million subscribers paying $90 each over the course of six months between January and July is another $90 million.  No one knows what it cost to make the game - EA previously denied that the rumored $300 million budget was true, but development continued and then the advertising campaign kicked in, and there were ongoing staffing costs (prompting the two rounds of layoffs), so who knows what EA's total outlay is.  Still, one would imagine that gross revenues that can be no lower than $210 million would have put a dent in it. 

The catch is who gets the $210 million.  The store doesn't put the box on their shelves and pay an employee to run the checkout line for free.  The distributor doesn't ship the boxes to the store for free.  The pressing plant doesn't make the DVD's and stuff em in boxes for free.  WoWhead doesn't run full border ads for games that compete with WoW for free. 

For console games - not a perfect analogy because the console maker collects roughly 20% off the top - figures that are routinely cited give less than 50% of the revenue to the developer and publisher (in this case the same corporation).  The numbers get much more favorable for direct downloads and recurring subscriptions, which is a big part of why studios like them, especially since they're often serving multiple gigabytes in patches to even the retail customers.  This, in turn, is why the high churn rate hurts the game's outlook so dramatically - one of the biggest benefits to the developer to having a monthly fee is that they get a much larger cut of that revenue compared to the initial box sales. 

In this context, it starts to make sense why EA is throwing around numbers of half a million subscribers - it's never been stated for precisely how long but presumably a few years - to break even on this game.  If they're keeping only half of that initial revenue, seeing box sales decline in both volume and pricing, and continuing to bleed hundreds of thousands of subscribers each quarter, it's going to take a long time for them to break even on even $300 million in total development plus marketing costs.  One wonders if the picture would have been different had they gone online only - but I suppose EA's console retail presence wouldn't have allowed them to try such a move.