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.