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.  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Rise of the (Project) Gorgon?

As has been reported at various fine news and blog outlets, Project: Gorgon has hit Kickstarter.  I've been tracking this project via the blog of its creator for over a year now, and the effort is fascinating in how transparent the development process has been. 

As I mentioned last week, I have some concerns about the planned business model, but to some extent these fall into the "Kickstarter claims not to be a store" camp.  The plan is for a sandboxy, quirky, creative world where a class named "Dark Geologist" barely failed to make the cut and players must learn to die in creative ways if they wish to become a necromancer - who may or may not also be a werewolf (I'm not clear on what happens if you combine the two).  This project is on Kickstarter precisely because it's not the sort of thing that's making it to stores these days.

It's going to be interesting to see where this project shakes out - they are aiming at a sizeable sum when viewed in terms of the numbers of small contributors they would need to hit the mark, but working in their favor is the fact that the project is unique enough that it's hard to put an objective value on it.  Between respect for what they're trying to do and general enjoyment that I've gotten as a reader of Elder Game over the years, I'm definitely rooting for them.

EDIT:  Aside, despite having been a reader of both blogs for years now, I somehow never realized that Eric's wife was "secretly" (real name signed at bottom of blog) Mania of Petopia fame.  Any of you who have ever played a Hunter in WoW, or simply been curious about all the pets they can tame, are probably familiar with her work. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Eight Years, Nothing Learned?

I haven't been tracking Pandaria that closely, but today's blue posts strike me as an obvious "did they REALLY not see that coming?" issue.  For some reason, the current PVE justice point tier (obtained by puggable 5-man content and others) was offering item level 450 gear while the PVP honor tier (obtained via battlegrounds) was offering item level 464 gear. 

Blizzard somehow thought that the PVP secondary stats on the PVP gear would make it unfavorable for use in PVE, but having it be an entire tier higher in base stats was apparently more than enough to offset this.  And thus, players were farming battlegrounds - or even converting their justice points into honor points at a large loss to buy PVP gear instead.  Blizzard will now be normalizing all the items into the middle of the road and adding some extra PVP stats to the PVP items to offset the lost stats. 

I wonder what it was that made this so hard to foresee?   The cardinal rule of MMO incentive design from the last eight years - and I've seen Ghostcrawler acknowledge this - is that you cannot change player preferences with incentives but you CAN and will change player behavior.  Putting gear that is otherwise difficult to obtain on a PVP vendor is one of the most common ways to screw this one up.  I recognize the desire to have the incentives be desirable to all players, but the impact of getting this particular one wrong is too great.