Monday, December 30, 2013

The Furnace Filter Perspective

I'm not fond of comparing costs between things that have nothing to do with each other, but sometimes the perspective is useful.

I was at Target today and considering whether to pick up air filters for my furnace to avoid also having to stop at Home Depot on the way back home.  Target wanted $18 for two filters and was willing to throw in a $5 gift card for buying four of them (i.e. $31 for 4 if you consider the gift card same-as-cash).  This seemed slightly high, so I used Target's free wifi (oops for them?) to check the price at Home Depot.  Turned out that I could pay team orange less money AND get more filters out of the deal ($12 for 6).

I don't like these comparisons because my budget for changing the air filter so the furnace in my house doesn't break does not directly compete with my budget for online games.  However, it's worth noting that I could have taken the $20 I saved with a 30 second price check and turned it into any number of online gaming products - a month of game time with some change left over, hero-specific storage tabs for six Marvel Heroes characters, a variety of well reviewed older games, etc. 

Coming to terms with this perspective was probably the single biggest thing that changed for me as an MMO player/blogger in 2013.  Paying attention to money matters, if for no other reason than so you don't have to worry too much about money.  The trick is to know when it's worth driving to another store or slogging through a character without whatever perks, and when to pony up the cash. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interesting Post on Branding and Female Gamers

I generally steer far away from posting about gender issues in gaming.  The majority of these discussions have nothing to do with incentive structures, and it's very easy to talk for a long time (offending multiple people on all sides) without really getting anywhere. 

That said, Anjin Anhut posted some intriguing thoughts on incentives in marketing.  It probably isn't all gospel truth and it doesn't necessarily get us closer to solving the many issues out there.  Still, the post presents a cogent argument for why financial incentives may be driving a long-running trend towards alienating a large potential segment of the market that otherwise doesn't seem to make sense. 

Hat tip to Liore for the link.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Online Gaming Expenditures 2013

I've been tracking my MMO expenditures for a few years, and the top line makes this year look similar to last year - last year I spent $275 on MMO's and another $60 on Diablo III and this year I spent roughly $321 for online products including MMO's, MOBA's, TCG's, and ARPG's.  That said, the way in which I spent that money was a bit different.

  • I was subscribed to a MMO for most of the year, but these expenses were significantly reduced due to various discounts from retailers.
  • I was generally much more willing to experiment with things that cost $20-30, rather than try to tough out the business model without paying for anything.  

The latter definitely increased my bottom line spending, and some of the purchases are going down in the books as disappointments.  Then again, sometimes a comparatively small purchase made life significantly more fun.  As I have less and less time to spend on games, I'm guessing this trend will continue.

Subscription MMO's
I had a subscription to a traditional MMO for most of the year.  These games were typically, though not always, the go-to place I would go when I had time for an extended play session.  

World of Warcraft - $65 (Pandaria, 60 days timecard, 2x 30 days)
I did very well snagging discounts from retail stores.  This "should" have cost me $100.

FFXIV - $70 (PC + PS3 boxes)
The PC box cost $30 for the license plus a month of game time.  The PS3 box cost $40 for a second month of game time (the two stack) plus the license for the Playstation Network (reportedly to include the PS4 version, when it arrives next year).  I guess I should have taken the time to try the PS3 version in beta - playing on the PS3 was a cool novelty, but I had problems with targeting and would need to purchase a keyboard and mouse to make this work. 

SWTOR - $51 (two 60 day timecards at various discounts from retailers, $10 expansion)
Again, discounted time cards for the win here, "should" have paid $70. 

The Newcomers
In general, these are titles I play as a go-to for shorter play sessions. 

Marvel Heroes - $70 (starter pack, Cyclops, X-Force Bundle Black Friday Sale)
I hesitated until the very last minute on whether to pre-purchase a founder's pack, and I'm glad I pulled the trigger.  I like this game way more than Diablo III because it features characters from Marvel's comics.  It was worth the money to play the game with the character I most wanted to play rather than one of the less interesting starter characters.  I decided to throw them another $50 on Black Friday for an additional bundle of characters and some convenience perks.

Note that I'm counting the $130 Advance pack purchase against next year's budget, as is my longstanding practice for long-term subscriptions and content unlocks that won't be used (or in this case won't be available) until the year after I decided to shell out for them.   We'll see whether they've delivered all of the heroes by the time I publish next year's ledger, and how I feel about that purchase.

Hex - $20 (kickstarter)
Technically, this game isn't out yet, but I'm in the alpha as a backer, so I'm prepared to put this one on 2013's balance sheet.  I have concerns about the business model and was not impressed by a very brief visit to the very early alpha.  Even so, my assessment was that the time it's going to take to see whether or not I am going to like this game will be more fun starting with a minimal base of cards versus nothing. 

Guild Wars 2 - $30
I picked this up when the price finally dipped down to my new $30 impulse buy threshold.  I've logged in twice, so it could be argued this was a fail, but at least now I can play GW2 if I want to. 

League of Legends - $15 (gift cards)
I had some Best Buy reward certificates to burn, so I turned them into the $5 starter Champion pack and a $10 RP code to finally try League.  The purchases probably weren't necessary with my current playstyle - I'm currently enjoying trying whatever new champions are available each week.  Then again, the cost was comparatively low, since it's often hard to find things at Best Buy that aren't $15 overpriced to begin with.   

Played, not paid
TSW - I picked this up for $15 very late in 2012 and was still coasting on the month of included subscription time for most of January.

LOTRO and DDO - played a small amount of each using previously paid content, did not purchase either game's expansion (a first for LOTRO, despite a just-unveiled 50% off sale on their month-old expansion).

Hearthstone - Have not spent any money on the closed beta.

Not Played
Rift - Has an expansion that I got without paying courtesy of a promo and can now access freely due to the game's business model relaunch.  I logged in once or twice to preserve my character names, but I never really played.

EQ2 - SOE went the entire year without discounting the expansion from the fall of 2012, and now there's another full priced expansion box on the digital shelf.  The good news is that the new expansion purchase includes the one I skipped, and there aren't really any charges anymore for playing the content if/when I pay to unlock it, so maybe I will get around to this in 2014.

Grand Total
Total - $321

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Analyzing the Marvel Heroes Advance Pack

There was an interesting discussion amongst Syl, Chris, and Tobold last week about the relative values of games, especially considering gamers with different levels of income.  Marvel Heroes' new Advance Pack - which I have elected to purchase - is as interesting a case study as any. 
The Good
So why did I buy this thing?  A few reasons, chief amongst them are convenience and flexibility.
  • Testing a new hero currently requires a separate 12 GB client install of the test center client, some patience to await the next testing cycle, and the better part of an hour reading tooltips, setting up hotbars, and playing through low-level content (that I now know very very well).  Even in this much time there's no guarantee that you'll have a good sense for how the hero plays at higher levels.  All the while you're picking up loot (including Eternity Splinters, used to unlock heroes in-game) that will be wiped for the next Test build.  We're talking probably 10 hours or so of time that I would have spent on Test for these dozen characters.  
  • Building on that point, making the small purchasing decisions can be hard.  There's always the chance that next month's new hero would be better, and so it becomes harder to say yes, spend your 400 splinters today on hero X.  It's easier to make a big decision that the game writ large is likely worth $100-130 over the next year.  
  • With all the heroes for the next year unlocked, I'm free to spend my splinters on whatever else I want.  In this case, I immediately hit the random hero box twice with the splinters I had saved to unlock Nightcrawler in January.  (As you own more heroes, your odds of getting a new hero from the box go down - therefore my odds will be getting progressively worse from here on out and the time to gamble was today.)  I got Phoenix - one of my highest priorities - and Human Torch (second tier of my want list, but unique enough that I'll consider playing him now that I have him).  
  • Bottom line, I'm now free to try many more characters that fit the model of the Torch - interesting but not quite high enough to ever make it to the top of my shopping list.

The Bad:
The most valuable portion of the pack - the upcoming heroes - can be earned in game.  Between this and the bundling of 12-13 characters, most players will find that they have spent more than they might have otherwise, and/or that some of the savings are off-set by having purchased characters you don't want or need. 

There are also risks because this content will be en route for a while to come - you may not like all of the costumes and you could give up on the game (though, as a non-subscription title, the heroes will wait for you if you return).  In my case, I've spent $70 on the game in a relatively small portion of 2013, but that would not have translated directly into spending $130 (probably more like $150 if there's anything else I want from the store in the next year) over a full year - at some point you would normally have all the heroes you need for the foreseeable future and stop buying more. 

Also, one bit of bad news whether or not you buy the new pack - if the hero you want is not on the list (which has two question marks, one of which is almost certainly Rogue), there's a good chance that you're going to be waiting for over a year for them to be added to the game. 

The Cost
Yes, you are almost certainly paying for at least some stuff you would not have purchased.  That said, the marketing folks priced this thing aggressively.  Part of the studio's revised strategy since launch has been to get new characters into players hands - at significantly reduced or even no cost - so that those players will keep playing and consider paying for storage, costumes, and more characters. 

I expected the bundle to be $120 for twelve "hero packs", which have historically contained the hero, their launch day alternate costume, and their STASH tab (for gear storage) along with some goodies.  They actually went with a $130 price tag that includes a thirteenth hero pack as a pre-order bonus.  I'm prepared to accept Ghost Rider with his stash and misc stuff for an extra $10 given that the hero and stash are priced at $17. 

More surprisingly, they elected to offer a just-the-basics bundle of just the dozen heroes and their STASH tabs (optional when you just have a few heroes, start to become much more significant when you have a dozen new heroes inbound) for a slightly lower $100 price tag.  If you don't ever like or purchase costumes and did not want Ghost Rider (or don't buy the pack before his deadline), this could be an appealing option.  With Ghost Rider, though, you don't have to like very many of the included costumes for an extra $30 to be a very good deal. 

Finally, the comparison.  Retail prices for digital products are arbitrary, especially with the inevitable sales.  That said, $100 buys you 11,500 G's and $130 buys just under 15,000 G's.  At an average price of 900 G's - Ghost rider is coming in at the premium 1350 G's level - $100 is just shy of what you need to get the thirteen heroes.   Thirteen stashes cost another 4,550 G's.  If you actually buy costumes, you are generally looking at 950 G's per.  Either you think of it as saving a fair chunk, or you can think of it as a small discount and then a bunch of costumes thrown in. 

(The big advantage of skipping the bundle and buying the G's instead is the flexibility to choose which things to buy.  Also, you can use any existing currency balances rather than paying the full price in USD (as the new bundle is not available through the in-game store with G's.) 

Bottom Line
At the end of the day, I was definitely going to buy two heroes (Psylocke and Venom) regardless and I was probably going to want to unlock at least four more characters.  I could have spent less by going this route, and perhaps that's what I would have done a few years ago.  Today - with a kid, limited time, and disposable income in my pocket - this particular purchase was not a tough call.   It may or may not have been the correct choice - I'll evaluate in a year - but in the mean time I expect to have some fun as a result of having made it.  Isn't that ultimately the point of playing games? 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Is this MMO Burnout?

December has returned, bringing us to that introspective window for the end of the year.  I think the term MMO Burnout is generally over-used and over-dramatized.  However, looking back at the year gone by, it looks like that may have crept up on me after all.  A few arguments for and against:

Things I have NOT done
  • LOTRO: This was the year I finally gave up on even the token effort to maintain the level cap and epic story.  
  • FFXIV: This is arguably the best pure MMO to (re-)launch in the last two years, there's nothing I would change about the game... and it hasn't made it to the top of my playlist, causing me to stall out midway through the level curve.  
  • GW2: Bought, barely played
  • TSW: Bought at the tail end of 2012, played a bit in early 2013 until the included VIP-time ran out
  • Rift, EQ2, DDO: New expansions, haven't done either
Things I have focused on:
  • SWTOR: Significant amounts of time subscribed here, including clearing the expansion on my main Trooper, finishing the class story for an Agent, and getting most of the way through a Sith Warrior.  That said, I'm playing this game primarily for the single player-like story experience.  I'd consider paying real money to trade the entire game in for an interactive movie where my character wins all the fights automatically and moves on to the next story scene, as I might actually like that product better.
  • Marvel Heroes: Pure action RPG here, I've spent more time helping to sleuth out the hero release schedule on this game's forums than I've spent on several of the above games.  
  • League of Legends: Instant action MOBA
  • Hearthstone: Instant action card game
Overall, the trend appears to be towards instant action and gameplay experiences.  While there is still some progression in all these things, it's very different from the traditional vertical progression model for an MMO. 

Which brings us to the exception that proves the rule - I have spent significant amounts of time subscribed to and actually playing World of Warcraft.  I did technically hit the level cap, and farmed all of the gear out of the first 2-3 tiers of raid finder.  I also skipped the majority of the questing content in the expansion - and incidentally didn't even try to level until my lack of having leveled caused problems for my pet collecting efforts.  In many ways, Azeroth is actually a lobby that I use to access the pet battling minigame, the farming minigame, and sometimes even the daily quest or random dungeon minigame.  I'm arguably not using the game as an MMO.

Is this the new face of MMO burnout?  Or am I just in a rut waiting for the hypothetical next big thing? 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Counterpoint on LOL Streaming

Riot has issued the probably inevitable walk-back of their controversial streaming policy.  Contracted professional players will now be allowed to stream whatever games they want so long as they are not paid by competing studios to do so. 

With the benefit of additional information, I can see a bit more of Riot's side of this issue since my post from last week.  Apparently this happened in large part because Blizzard gave Hearthstone beta keys to high-rating Twitch streamers, which just so happened to include a large number of League of Legends pros.  There is some question of whether Blizzard also threw in extra keys for the streamers to give away, resulting in even more screen time spent on Blizzard's upcoming product.

I still think the initial policy was an over-reach, compounded by a denial that it was a problem even though they would be forced to concede the obvious a day later.  I still think the real impact on the policy would have been on regular players watching the streams who had no say in the matter, rather than on the paid pros who are compensated for their time.  That said, Riot's point makes some sense as well.

We as a society have not caught up to the reality that employees' off-hours social media may not always say what employers want it to say.  Personally, I made a decision when I finished school that henceforth I would only blog about my MMO hobby - I strongly doubt that I will ever work in anything related to MMO's.  Many folks don't draw such a fine line, and I don't fault them.  However, when you are posting about something directly related to your employment - and indeed when you were employed in part BECAUSE of your online social presence - I don't think your employer is wrong to ask at least some questions in a situation where it looks like you are being sponsored by a competitor.  Raffling off beta keys isn't the same as getting a sack of money, but it could still benefit your stream's revenue and viewership numbers.   

Interesting times we live in, I suppose. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

League of Legends Streaming Rules - Their Way Or The Highway

I don't care much about e-sports, but I find the current controversy over streaming restrictions on professional-level League of Legends players fascinating.  As officially confirmed by Riot, pro players are required to agree never to livestream themselves playing any "competing product" for the duration of the upcoming professional season.  The forbidden list includes every current Blizzard franchise, other current and upcoming MOBA's, the World of Tanks/Warplanes games from, and the canceled-during-beta Warhammer Online MOBA Wrath of Heroes (good luck "live" streaming that one).

This type of restriction is almost certainly within Riot's rights, since no one is forcing anyone to play League in general or participate in its competitive play in particular.  As the run-away leader in this particular sector, they can likely get away with the move, regardless of rational arguments that it's not a good idea or in their long-term interest.  Nor is it entirely without precedent - Bioware's official fansite program for SWTOR restricts sites from promoting other products or using any advertising, in exchange for a link on their official listing and possibly other perks (e.g. in the past fansites got exclusive dev comments). 

The thing that resonates with this policy is that it's not so different from the position that regular customers find ourselves in every day when service providers (including but not limited to MMO's) do things that we don't like.  In some ways, the real victims here are NOT the professionals, who are being compensated for their commitment, but rather the viewers of streams that will be less interesting to watch due to the restrictions. 

You always have a choice to walk away, and your choice is almost always going to hurt you - by depriving you of a service you thought was worth paying for - more than it hurts the company that made the decision you disliked because it was in their interest to do so.  This particular case just had the misfortune of making it obvious how little power the customer actually has.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

MMO Black Friday 2013

Another year, another round of sales - or not - in honor of the day after American Thanksgiving.  The things that are already announced are below, other observations are welcome.
  • World of Warcraft: Base game (up to Cataclysm) for $5, Pandaria for $10, direct download from Blizzard; a total of $15 to get into the game, i.e. a single month's subscription.  I'm predicting now that the new expansion next year will be the first to go ahead and bundle in all the old content - with the new expansion featuring "one free level 90 character" to attract new and returning players, it isn't going to make sense to insist that players pay for a Pandaria box that they're never going to set foot in.
  • Turbine Games: Standard "double bonus point" Turbine Point sale bundles are in effect in both LOTRO and DDO.  DDO's new expansion from last summer is 50% off, and all of its multiple tiers of upsells are also 50% off.  LOTRO's new expansion from last week is NOT included.  They've slashed the price as early as 5-6 weeks after the fact in the past, but apparently last week was a bridge too far.  They are bundling all of the previous expansions in one package for $20. 
  • Guild Wars 2 is on sale for $30 again, which they are promoting as their "lowest price ever" even though it's the same price I paid a month ago.  I guess it's technically accurate that they haven't offered a lower price?
  • Marvel Heroes is offering 25% off of almost everything in their cash store, other than two heroes who were released this month.  Storage stash tabs for general and crafting purposes are NOT included in the sale, and character specific storage tabs are only discounted indirectly if you purchase a bundle containing that character.  The main catch here is that, as with most cash shops, you may have a hard time purchasing exactly the right amount of currency to pick up the stuff you wanted.  There's also an in-game bonus of 50% exp, rare item find, and special item find for the weekend. 
  • SWTOR is not doing any direct sales that they've announced yet, but they are running double exp through Sunday.  
  • SOE Station Cash is 30% off… seems underwhelming since they often offer double SC, and since SC can't be used to purchase content anymore.
  • FFXIV is 50% off from Square's website.  If you own a PS3/PS4, this is a great way to pick up a console key, as it's only $20 and includes 1 month of game time (i.e. $5 for the right to play on both consoles).  

What I personally bought:
Probably no surprise to folks who have been reading of late, but Marvel Heroes is my current surprise game of choice.  I've been waiting on this sale to decide what to buy, and I decided to splurge here.  I spent $50 for the G's to unlock:
  • The X-Force bundle (Cable, Colossus, Deadpool, and Wolverine, with two extra costumes each, stash tabs for all four heroes, and some misc consumables), on sale for 4,500 G's, normally 6,000 G's.  (Can be purchased on the website for exactly $45, or you can buy 5500 G's for $50, which is what I did - an extra 1000 G's for $5 is a much better exchange rate than you'll get any other time.)
  • A holographic crafter, summons an NPC who gives you access to your stash for storing the stuff you want to keep, and accepts donations (for crafting exp) of the junk you don't want to keep.  In my view a much more versatile purchase than the similar portable stash token, works in Castle Doom (where you can't teleport out to sell your stuff), and highly recommended for all players.  On sale for 700 G's.
  • A crafting stash tab, NOT on sale, for 300 G's.  One crafting tab is nigh must-have for all players with as many as 40 slots worth of basic crafting materials - you can expand or compress that number but this is time-consuming, and you'll be hurting for the space if and when you go beyond a single character.  I don't begrudge the maybe 75 cents for buying it not on sale, though I might regret that stance if I come up precisely 75G's short of being able to buy something in the future, oh well.  
To be clear, I consider this as somewhat extravagant.  I could have cleaned out my existing currency balances to snag the bare minimum stuff I considered must-have - the crafting tab, the holographic crafter, and the hero unlock for Wolverine.  That said, the other three heroes were all on my "would play if I owned them" list, so I now have a nice diverse list of folks I will actually play (as compared to rolling the dice with the random hero box and getting additions I don't want).  I will use at least one of the costumes, and I can see how the hero-specific gear tabs may be useful when actively playing more than just the one character.

There's a good chance that I "overpaid" by paying for stuff that I ultimately won't use, but my total investment in this game is now up to $70 - just over what I paid for Diablo III, and I've gotten far more mileage out of this game than DIII.  Also, this way I've got my previous G balance and a growing stash of Eternity Splinters to spend on future releases.  I wouldn't say that a new player should expect to need to spend this much, but for me personally it's been worth it thus far. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cosmetic Audience - For Yourself Or Others?

" Once a game is clearly massive, like Hearthstone or LOL it's worth paying to differentiate yourself from every random player because a lot of people will be audience for your flashy cosmetic outfit."
- Stabs, commenting on my post

Stabs' comment assumes that displaying cosmetics to other players is a primary motivator for purchasing cosmetic items in a cash store.  I'm sure some people care about this sort of thing, but I guess for me it is a matter of how you define audience. 

I own Cyclops' 90's costume, after deciding to pre-order his founder's pack at the very last minute pre-launch.  If there had been even a small discount available for displaying the mediocre default costume to the audience of complete strangers who see me passing by in Stark Tower, I would have taken it.  The audience that I cared about in making a purchase to snag this costume is precisely one person large - myself.  Playing existing characters from the Marvel universe is a key selling point of this game, and I strongly associate this particular character with the costume he wore during the era when I was actually reading the comics and watching the cartoons.  I see my character on the screen far often than any stranger I run into in-game will, and it is worth having my character look the way I want him to look for my personal benefit. 

Marvel Heroes is not an open world MMORPG, and thinking back I can remember just one time when I ever had anything in an MMO that actually drew significant attention/comment from other players.  I had a horse for my gnome in World of Warcraft back in 2006, before riding skill or easy spill-over rep gain, and I did occasionally get compliments for having pulled it off.  That said, I'd argue there are two key differences - first, earning the horse was an in-game achievement (which took a lot of time back in the day) rather than just a small cash fee, and second, WoW servers in that era had much more of a community feel of days gone past when someone might actually remember the gnome on the horse.  For better or worse, those days aren't around anymore. 

Today, if I do but a cosmetic item, it's going to be primarily for my own enjoyment.  How do you all feel?  Would you pay extra for the sole purpose of showing off to other players? 

A rare sight back in the day (because it was hard to get a horse), and even rarer today (poor Marcus).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Paradox of Generosity

An odd quirk of the non-subscription business model is that generosity can make paying for the product less attractive.  The more stuff you give away for free, the less stuff you have left to sell people.

Case in point, Marvel Heroes has possibly the most generous model I've seen in a recent online game.  All the content in the game is free, there's a decent selection of free starting heroes (see Yngwe's guide for details), the developers have repeatedly cut prices on the paid heroes, and changes since the game's launch allow players to unlock all of the playable heroes through gameplay. 

I've gotten way more mileage and enjoyment out of an optional $20 unlock purchase for this game than I did out of the $60 copy of Diablo III that I paid for as part of WoW's annual pass deal.  It feels ungrateful to complain about whatever prices they want to charge for whatever else they want to.  But when I look at what they're selling I can't help but look at the prices and feel that the benefit of paying is lower than the benefit of paying in other products that have less generous models. 

The purely optional cosmetic costumes are pricey (comparable to League of Legends - in both titles, these cosmetics cost significantly more than the characters who can use them).  There are storage issues - in particular caused by the dozen different types of relics - that you can alleviate with modest amounts of real money.  Like most other games, the cash store currency is only sold in $5 increments and almost nothing is on sale for even amounts - they're actually adding a free 250G grant to all accounts this week which is just below the price of the lowest unlock (crafting storage) that offers any real in-game benefit.  Overall, the prices are comparatively low, but so is the benefit of paying them. 

As multiple commenters pointed out last week, players who are not paying can still contribute significant value to the game's community.  Meanwhile, freeloader or not, you cannot sell anything in the future to people who aren't playing the game at all.  I just find it all counter-intuitive coming out of a subscription era, when purchasing decisions were strictly business - the product either was or was not worth continuing to play and you paid or did not accordingly.  Knowing that something is for the most part optional and paying for it anyway to support the product?  Strange new world we're living in.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Daily Rewards and Non-Subscription Games

I've been taking League of Legends for a test-drive over the last two weeks.  I play for about 30 minutes per day.  That's how long it takes to win a Twisted Treeline match against NPC bots to collect the daily "first win" award.  Playing a second match after that would yield maybe 1/4 of the rewards, so I'd rather go spend my time elsewhere.  Is this incentive functioning as intended? 

Influence in the League
For context, in League of Legends gold and items are all temporary resources that are granted and used in a given match.  The biggest things that are persistent are your roster of unlocked champions - each week there are ten champions available to try for free and beyond that list you can only use your unlocked champions - and the Runes attached to your summoner's Rune pages.  These things are earned with two currencies.  
  • Riot Points, named for the studio, are used in the cash shop to unlock Champions, cosmetic skins for the Champions, and a few other things such as boosts for additional rewards.  There is a one-time grant of 400 RP for new accounts to unlock permanent access to one basic Champion (so you aren't totally dependent on the weekly rotation), but otherwise this currency is only obtained by spending real world money. 
  • Influence Points are earned in-game by playing matches.  These can be used as an alternative to Riot Points to unlock Champions (though not the other stuff like the skins), and are also the only way to purchase the runes for your rune slots.
There is more precise math on Influence Points but I find that 2 IP/min on a match that you win (which will be all matches against NPC bots, since probably one good player can carry your team to victory if needed) is not a bad estimate.  This means that a 20-30 minute Twisted Treeline match against the bots is offering up somewhere around 50-60 IP base.  The cheapest basic Champions are available for 450 IP but from there it quickly goes up as far as 6,300 IP, which means you're looking at 100+ matches for the high end Champions.

The wrinkle here is the daily award for winning a match, which is a flat 150 IP.  That's a big deal because suddenly you're looking at only 30ish matches for the high end Champions - i.e. the Champion of my choice for free every month (more if I choose cheaper characters this month).  As a result, if I know I will want to play around 5-10 matches this week, I have a strong incentive to make sure that's one per day rather than all on the same day. 

(Two asides: Losing cuts your IP rewards significantly.  I doubt this is the only reason why this game's community is known for being so toxic, but it can't help your teammates cope with a loss when they know their IP salary just got docked.  Also, the need to buy Runes with this currency undermines the "you can unlock all your heroes in game" model a bit, as in the long term you're looking to fill 30 rune slots with runes that can run 400-2000 IP each.  You can actually pay with Riot Points - i.e. cash - to earn IP faster, and I assume this is almost exclusively for Runes, since you can just buy the Champions if you already have the RP.) 

The Daily and the Non-subscription
The daily quest system in a traditional MMO has an obvious path for netting the studio more money - players are paying for access to the expansion, game time in which to complete the content, and can be enticed to purchase any other perks the studio offers for sale. 

By contrast, the League of Legends model seems to have the opposite effect - with some patience, a less frequent player who wants to get a new champion each month goes from paying $5-10 for that character to paying nothing.  And, to be clear, League is not alone in this regard.  Hearthstone's daily quest system functions similarly, while Marvel Heroes' cash store alternative is NOT on a daily cooldown but can similarly compete with real cash purchases.

Any business model is going to cause some revenue to fall through the cracks.  Of the customers they could be losing out on, players with my level of patience may be the best group to write off if we aren't that common or wouldn't spend that much in the store anyway.  Perhaps they're thinking that if I find I don't even need the real cash store currency to buy Champions I'll be more willing to spend it on cosmetic skins.  Whatever the case, I appear to be in a position where I can see a little bit of a lot of games for very little money down.  Not sure it's working as intended but I guess I'll take it. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

What is Blizzard's Direction?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery than WoW's newly announced expansion is a remarkable condemnation of what has come before.  On paper, being willing to re-evaluate anything and everything is commendable.  The problem is that smart people implemented the things that Blizzard spent the weekend backpedaling from, and they did these things for a reason

Blizzard's genre-defining MMO has always struggled to reconcile its two heritages - the social, progression-heavy virtual worlds MMO's like Everquest and the accessible online gameplay of Blizzard's own Diablo II.  The trade-offs needed to allow these demographics to co-exist are no longer scaling well in an increasingly crowded marketplace, but I'm not yet convinced that willingness to change alone will prompt a longer-lasting solution.  

Three major focuses from the last five years of WoW that are now out of favor:
  • Blizzard is touting that Warlords will feature few if any daily quests at max level.  Pandaria featured a heavy push on daily quests - Blizzard stated that a third of the quests in 5.0 were level 90 dailies so that players would be offered a variety of dailies in rotation.  Also worth noting, Blizzard probably wasn't the first to stick a daily progress limit on repeatable quests back in Burning Crusade, but they certainly helped popularize the format.    
  • Cataclysm devoted a massive level of effort to replacing low level content, in the process removing more content from WoW than most MMO's ever produce.  In revisiting Draenor, Blizzard is making the entirety of level 1-90 optional instead of repeating the probably futile effort to update the content.  They are also preserving the current incarnation of Outland (possibly through the Caverns of Time, which I had thought might be a good idea back in 2011).
  • Wrath introduced the dungeon finder and near single-handedly made it a mandatory feature for all MMO's to have an automated system that puts players in a group that will defeat the content quickly and painlessly.  Blizzard is now saying that they want random groups feel like your last resort.  This would be a much bigger deal except that I doubt they will follow through.  
  • (Two other reversals that aren't as relevant to my theme:  Re-forging items?  Gone, along with some of the stats that made this system necessary (especially hit rating, which was hard-capped for casters.  Also, as Nils notes, the entirety of Pandaria will be optional, though seeing Pandas in Draenor presumably will not.) 
For people who play the game for accessible gameplay, having to slog through 90 levels to get to their friends is unacceptable, and there is an expectation that the game will provide something to do - dailies and random dungeon groups - once you do get to level cap.  For people who play with an eye towards progression with their friends, however, constantly wiping progress (both the levels, and the gear resets every 6-12 months - a sacred cow that's not on the table at the moment) undermines the point of the game, while all of the intentionally non-challenging dailies become a chore. 

The coalition of the smaller but more stable demographic of social MMORPG players and the siginificantly larger but less committed masses of more independent online game players held in WoW's prime from 2005-2007.  Today, Blizzard faces much more competition for the online instant action crowd (both from other MMORPG's, and from action-RPG's and MOBA's that cut out the persistent world for even faster access).  At the same time, when you have 90-100 levels and over a dozen tiers of raid content it becomes harder and harder to retain critical mass amongst the progression MMORPG players.

Personally, while I expect to return to WoW frequently, I suspect I will spend more total hours in Hearthstone and the Blizzard MOBA Heroes of the Storm (which was by some accounts the surprise hit of the show).  Moreover, when I do visit WoW, I expect to continue to focus on more accessible minigames like pet battles and the new and bigger version of the Pandaren Farm in garrisons.  (Aside: The Garrisons are being widely called "player housing", but Blizzard also stated that they don't want to make systems - such as the farm - from previous expansions mandatory.  Wonder how they're going to deal with this in three years.) 

I suggest it's no accident that Blizzard is focusing on these areas.  It would be really interesting to know whether the version of Titan that got killed this year was guilty of the offense of being an MMORPG in an era in which that's no longer where the money is. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Transmedia Synergy, the Marvel Way

Trion and their partners with Defiance coined a novel marketing term - "Transmedia Synergy" - to describe the crossover between the TV show and associated MMOFPS.  Marvel has chosen the speak softly and carry a big stick approach to this problem, namely to implement it without a fancy marketing name.

Case in point, Marvel Heroes is rolling out a new level set in Asgard to promote the new Thor movie, and have also made Loki into a surprise playable hero to commemorate the occasion.  The cross promotion with licensed films is not new, but the ability to take the digital files used to make the effects in the film and hand them straight off to multiple licensees is something that I haven't seen done to this extent before.  See for comparison the sample screenshots in this article about the new Marvel Heroes content and this announcement for the standalone Thor licensed game on Android.  

All of the Iron Man suits in game
In some ways, it's a win/win for everyone.  Players get higher quality stuff - for example, Marvel Heroes has an insanely large number of Iron Man costumes in-game because Marvel provided all of the files for all of the suits in the movies.  The game gets extra traffic from Marvel's promotion of the film.  The film gets cross promotion to players of the game who might not have heard or bothered. 

The downside is that if you really don't care about Thor or his movies, you need to put up with having this be a focus for a bit.  We're seeing heroes added to the game quickly but new content is presumably going to be further in between.  I suppose it's a peril of working in a licensed IP.  Even so, I could see this being a model that other licensed products hope to attain. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Nomadic MMO Autumn

I've spent most of 2013 subscribed to one primary MMO and dabbling in maybe a single other non-subscription title at any given time.  For whatever reason, I ended up resolving to tackle some of the backlog and logging into seven different online games in the last week.  I dunno how folks routinely cover as many games as Syp or Chris from MMO Reporter manage this, because it's exhausting.  Anyway, what I've been up to:
  • FFXIV: This game has quietly been my go-to since mid-September.  It's a good mix of keeping enough of the new school - public quests, group finder, and solo-ability - but with some old school elements that are a welcome change of pace.  I don't mind that I was playing for over a month before I qualified for a mount or that I'm less than half-way to level cap after six weeks.  In some ways, this game caused my current "crisis" by pushing everything else off the plate. 
  • Guild Wars 2: This went on a one-day sale for $30, which is the price point at which I'm willing to snag a AAA buy-to-play game as an impulse buy.  I had a ton of trouble actually playing the game because their email authenticator would not work and it took seven CS tickets to get someone to read the ticket and agree to remove this feature.  (Aside: the only other MMO where I have ever needed an extended exchange of tickets due to new login restrictions that the provider added - Guild Wars 1.)  I spent an evening, gained a few levels, and it didn't leave much of an impression.  I definitely could have been looking in the wrong places, or this might just not be a title that I'm going to like (which was why I didn't buy it earlier).   Not going to rush this one, pinging some folks I trust for suggestions on where I should be looking before I spend more time heading in the wrong direction. 
  • LOTRO: Turbine has turned on double exp for an entire month in advance of their upcoming expansion.  I've been behind on solo content in LOTRO since a few months after the game's launch, but 2013 has been the year when I haven't even managed the token effort to finish the epic story and hit the level cap.  At this point, my favorite part of the leveling game are the non-combat quests where I wander around the towns of Rohan doing things that feel like the belong in Middle Earth, but that interactive story isn't quite enough to convince me to come back.  Also, possibly odd decision by Turbine to try and bring back inactive players just before a major class revamp that is drawing much concern from current players - it might actually have been easier to get the new system if I didn't just take a refresher on how things used to be. 
  • Hearthstone: I'm not playing this thing daily - maybe once or twice a week - and I'm still losing the overwhelming majority of my games, but I am at least starting to get a hang of which characters not to play or at least how to revamp their decks so that I might have a chance against the non-overpowered heroes.  Game imbalance may play a larger role in my mixed experience in this game than I initially realized.
  • Rift: Not sure this one counts, but I did log into four characters long enough to tell Trion not to recycle all my names.  I sympathize with the intent, but I feel these drives are misguided - you're still not going to get the name DeathKnight because A) your current characters are already named and B) someone else is going to beat you to it if it does get freed up, which means you're going to have to go back to either spelling it wrong or adding non-English characters that will make it harder for normal players to type your name in a day or two at most. 
  • Marvel Heroes: I forget why I popped back into this game - probably for the sole reason of continuing the "different game each day" trend that I had going.  Well, there was a bonus exp/loot weekend that kept me involved long enough to finish the story and explore all the improvements.  This game had a rocky launch week and I'm really impressed with how far they've come - both quality of service and quality of life are dramatically better for such a short time post-launch, and bode well for the team's ability to set and meet a schedule.  My biggest complaint now is that there are so many heroes in the queue that it's going to be months before the ones I really want get added to the game, and secondarily that you need to download a second 12 GB client to access the test server if you want to try before you buy.  That's not bad in the broader scheme of things.
  • SWTOR: I've been mostly out of game for a few months now, and thus have missed two content patches.  The new stuff is great as always, but it doesn't seem like it's going to last that long.  I've also got an unfinished Sith Warrior about to tackle Hoth followed by his final story chapter, after which I may move a character over to play with the Ootinicast folks. 
Have you found yourself wandering the halls of multiple MMO's, or is it just me?  

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Incorrect Blizzcon Predictions for 2013

It's been so long since a Blizzcon that I've forgotten how I used to post my comically incorrect predictions before the show to see how badly they would turn out.  Coming in late means there are some gaps that have already been filled, but there's plenty of room for me to write stuff that we'll be mocking in a few weeks!

  • New expansion is all-but confirmed and I'd say level 95 is a given - no reason they'd suddenly go back to 10 levels now, but I doubt they'd do fewer than 5.
  • I suspect the foe will be the Burning Legion.  For one reason or another there seems to be a ton of nostalgia for TBC and we're running out of things that are on Azeroth that anyone has heard of but that we haven't fought before.  I'm suspicious that the end of the Garrosh raid leaves a loose end that the Burning Legion would be happy to tie up.  
  • I'm going to go out on a limb and predict no new adventuring classes or races.  We had three races in the last two expansions, and Blizzard had historically said this was a huge load on the art people.  Meanwhile, with holy trinity imbalance being what it is, they cannot add any more classes that are unable to tank or heal, and at some point there are going to be unsustainable balance issues if they have to keep juggling more tanking and healing specs every expansion.  
  • Instead, I'm going to predict a continuing focus on minigames and other things that offer progression but NOT direct adventuring advancement.  The Farmville minigame and Pet Battles have been two of Pandaria's best-regarded features.  A significant overhaul to professions, possibly including one or more new ones and profession-based content would make a ton of sense.
  • Blizzard will NOT announce the game is going Free to Play.  The Blizzcon crowd is the demographic who signs up for the annual pass subscription, not the crowd that wants to pay less.  Even if WoW was going non-subscription, the news would NOT play well to this audience.  
  • I don't expect to see any faster than Blizzard's normal 20-month time table, placing the expansion in summer 2014.  If they were to stand up for the keynote and say "oh by the way, beta starts on Monday and you're all in", that would certainly be the show-stealing headline, but Blizzcon has not been that good at show-stealing headlines.  
Diablo III

The expansion is already announced, will be playable (I think they've confirmed this?), and presumably going to be a big push of the show.  Ditto the console ports.  If there is any major Diablo news, it will be some sort of new cash shop or other form of ongoing revenue to replace the soon-to-be-closed real money auction house. 

Starcraft II

I haven't heard anything about the second expansion (a.k.a. third game in the trilogy, to justify a $60 price tag for a new game rather than a $40 price tag for an expansion).  I assume Blizzard will remedy this.

Heroes of the Storm

Blizzard re-titled their upcoming all-stars MOBA, suggesting that it is moving along.  There will probably be an early build playable.  I doubt this will be launchable anytime before mid 2014.


Probably the closest launch window of Blizzard's projects, so I expect a fair amount of chatter, but probably not a lot of real news with the beta already well underway.  I predict that all attendees will be given closed beta invites. 


Nothing to see here (back in January, I'd predicted this would finally be the year).  

Say what you will about WoW's decline, but Blizzard actually has four separate projects that are in the plausibly live and charging money for something new in the next year (NOT counting SC2, but their expansion is recent by Blizzard standards).  They're pushing a new integrated launcher for all their games through the Hearthstone beta, using one friends list across their entire platform, and handing out cross-title goodies in their Collector's Editions.

I predict they are going to go a step significantly further, to SOE's model with a single in-house currency shared across all the titles (probably re-branding Balance and no longer expressing it in real world dollar amounts), and increased incentives to try multiple games. 

At a minimum, I expect the WoW subscription will include a nominal amount free gold in Hearthstone and possibly free gold or other cash store currency for DIII (if I'm right about expanding that game's cash shop) and Heroes of the Storm - WoW's own longstanding pet and mount shop may move onto this new model.  (Not innovative, SOE has done this for years, even before they were champions of non-subscription models.)  I don't expect to see a higher premium plan along the lines of SOE's All-Access plan because it's not clear what they would offer players of the non-subscription titles other than more Blizzard Bucks.   

What do you all think is coming in just over two weeks?  Are you likely to care? 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blizzard: Last Bastion of the Real Beta

In a comment over at Azuriel's place, Zardilann says my post about Hearthstone had him worried about the game's business model.  It hadn't occurred to me that my post might be an example of the trend which has caused us to cease to have real MMO beta's anymore.

Hearthstone hits two of the three main criteria for a free to play title that claims to remain in beta for marketing reasons, but has actually soft-launched.  The game has a functioning cash shop and recently conducted its last wipe of beta account data.  It also has a level of polish - albeit not necessarily balance - that most live launched titles would envy.  Thus, I'd all but forgotten the final missing piece - the beta is still a closed beta (not open to the general public). 

I wasn't thinking of this product as a beta because MMO's don't do public closed beta testing anymore.  Say what you will about them, but Blizzard is basically the only studio that still does multi-month NDA-free come-as-you-please public testing of its upcoming products.  Pretty much every studio out there uses one or more restrictions:
  • Many beta tests remain locked down under a non-disclosure agreement until the last possible moment (see increasing grumblings about LOTRO's Helm's Deep expansion), while heavily marketing non-refundable pre-purchases.  Some titles have gone so far as to offer long-term or lifetime subscriptions as an offer that expires before the NDA on the beta test does. 
  • Games that do conduct public testing often restrict access to limited time weekend events.  These are unrealistic for three reasons - they artificially cram word of mouth into a single weekend because that was the only time when people could play an upcoming title, they prevent players from digging too deep (both due to the short time and restrictions on available content/levels) and by doing so they create unrealistic populations for open world events during the beta weekend that will not be seen in the live game as players spread out in levels.  
By contrast, Blizzard's approach is to let their product speak for itself.  To be clear, Hearthstone's positive buzz is not in any danger from a negative post on Player Versus Developer.  If anything, more than one lower profile title has taken an overly critical article and turned it into a publicity stunt for the game by calling media attention to protest how their poor little game was wronged.   The real concern is that if the underlying title is actually bad, it won't just be one post on one blog, but bad posts on all of the blogs.  This is why we don't get to have nice things such as real beta tests anymore from anyone other than the too-big-to-care Blizzard.  It never occurred to me that in accurately reporting my experiences, I might be part of the problem.

Aside: More Hearthstone commentary
Not the main point of today's post, but I figured it only fair to address some of the comments about my earlier Hearthstone impressions. 

Commenters make a case that my criticism was unduly harsh given the game's beta status.  There is some question about whether match-making is working as intended, or at all, at the moment.  Meanwhile, my win-loss record seems to vary dramatically based on what class I'm playing, which suggests some combination of balance issues and/or nuance to certain classes.  I lost six games in a row - including a 0-3 Arena elimination - playing as a druid, and then immediately won two games to finish the daily quest after blowing up my custom deck and starting over from scratch with a completely different strategy. 

Because they are accepting real money for entry into arena tournaments, I maintain there is a limit to how far the "it's still beta" excuse can be carried.  Moreover, if there is no good way to learn to play the game because of the game's focus on sending players to be slaughtered by general PVP population, that is a legitimate flaw with the title.  Time will tell, especially as more of the general public gets into the game. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hearthstone Constructed Match-Making: Profiting From the Stomping of Newbies

Blizzard's Hearthstone is a well polished game that I would have enjoyed greatly if not for its trading card game (TCG) business model.  After a few hours in the beta, I am finding my newbie basic decks consistently demolished in un-ranked one-on-one play by decks stacked with epic and legendary cards.  Based on where Blizzard does - and does not - get paid for their work, I am not optimistic that things can or will change going forward.

I would rather be paying....
Hearthstone is free to download.  Playing against "basic" and "advanced" NPC AI decks is completely free, and allows you to unlock all nine heroes with 20 "basic" cards each.  Once you are satisfied that you know how the game works, entering the game's one-on-one constructed PVP lobby is completely free.  And here is where my experience went south very very quickly.

My experience makes me suspect that the "unranked" play mode operates on a hidden ranking system.  I faced roughly equal opposition for my first ten or so games, but as I had half a dozen wins under my belt I found that the games were increasingly lopsided against me.  I have slowly clawed to about a dozen wins, and I'm increasingly getting stomped into the curb five or more times in a row before barely winning the occasional match.  

In a one-on-one card game, one of the players is going to lose each and every game.  A perfect match-making system would aspires to pair opponents who have a roughly even chance against each other - which would mean that streaks of wins and losses are going to happen.  For that reason, the way in which you lose the game matters.  Losing because you made a poor choice or because the odds weren't with you or because your opponent built a deck that you could not answer can still be fun.  Losing because the other person has more and better cards than you do - the entire basis of the TCG business model - is not especially fun. 

Right now I am spending an hour at a time losing five or more games in a row because the match-making system is pairing my out of the box basic decks against players with cards that are objectively better than the cards I have.  I have had my entire health pool go from full to zero in a single turn as an opponent somehow strung together a combo in which they played a dozen cards due to draw and cost reduction mechanics.  And, to be clear, because this is a free to play game that I have not bought into, this abuse is the price that I am to pay in exchange for being able to play the game. 

Blizzard wants me to get stomped so I will want to buy more cards.  Failing that, they categorically don't want me to be able to click an option for "other people with basic - read unpaid - decks only" because that not only denies the people who have spent money the opportunity to stomp me, but it also means higher queue times for those players who are actually supporting the product. 

I would gladly pay a one-time fee for this product.  I would consider paying a subscription for this product.  I have zero willingness to pay into a system where I spend money and get a random assortment of cards that probably aren't the cards I wanted.  And as to the free option - on paper you can "win" booster packs every few days - the experience is not worth my time.

Two alternatives worth noting, that will probably be the only way I spend more time on this product:

1. You can supposedly challenge specific friends if you have their Battletags.  This would mean that you could come to an out-of-game handshake agreement to use the basic decks, and, ironically, not pay a dime for the product as a result.
2. The game's other format is the Arena.  Normal TCG's offer "sealed" formats in which you buy new packs of cards for a specific tournament (thus ensuring that the game maker gets paid) and then pay an additional entry fee, in exchange for a comparatively level (random card draws aside) playing field.  This is potentially fun but guaranteed to be costly - the sealed cards you bought are yours to keep, but you're probably never going to assemble a competitive constructed deck with these small random draws. 

The Hearthstone twist is that you do NOT get to keep the cards in your Arena deck, but that the format only costs $2 per draft because the entry fee is all you are paying.  As Azuriel notes, this does mean that a losing streak costs you real money per loss, but at these prices you're going to have to draft, play, and lose very quickly to be racking up more than $1-3 per hour in entry fees.  That's potentially high compared to MMO's (or potentially not if you subscribe to a game where you don't spend 15+ hours per month) but very very low compared to any other TCG on the market. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Paid Bypass For Levels

With one click of a button, my old Warden crafting alt in EQ2 gained 48 levels and presumably a variety of gear, perks, and AA's.  I don't even know what I won because I have yet to log on to check.  I made my decision to throw this free upgrade at a crafting alt based on why I do - and do not - play MMO's. 

Indirectly passing on the free 85
Before pushing the win button, I used the "try before you buy" feature to test drive a level 85 Beast Lord.  This expansion class would have been the most likely choice if I were rolling a new character to actually play the game with.  Even on the partially locked down trial status - you start with limited AA's but a full set of high quality gear - I concluded that it was pointless for me to spend the free level 85 token on that character. 

I was killing things so quickly that I could not get a good feel for the class.  More importantly, I actually enjoy playing solo content in EQ2.  If I ever do play a Beast Lord, playing it from level 1 would be the entire point.  Since the free upgrade is a limited time offer (for the next week), there was no reason NOT to use it to grab some random perks for my highest level crafting alt to facilitate future crafting. 

Now my 62 Tailor is suddenly a lot harder to kill for any mobs I encounter during crafting quests, and supposedly he has a free flying mount for his troubles.  I wouldn't have paid the $35 SOE is asking for this service, as there is a non-zero chance that I will never actually benefit directly from having this character at level 85.  Still, I don't have a problem taking the upgrade as a freebie.

The myth of the perfectly-balanced player
There are two real drivers for this feature. 

First, the modern MMO model of vertical progression is completely failing people who play MMO's because they want to play with their friends.  There is no way for games to maintain critical mass for group leveling in a game that's multiple years old using traditional MMO mechanics.  Even in games where there is some sort of down-leveling or "level-free" system it is almost always somehow less rewarding for players to come help their newer brethren.  Thus we have a situation where soloing to the level cap - 80 or more levels in MMO's that have been around for a while - is the frequently only option.  

This would be fine if everyone who played MMO's actually liked all aspects of MMO's, but many people do not - for valid reasons - enjoy soloing.  However, you can't just punt on allowing solo content unless you are willing to write off a significant chunk of the market (not a bad decision in principle, and I tip my cap to the games with the guts to go this way).  And thus the developer's dilemma.  No matter how many times you nerf the content, the player who does not want to be there soloing is still going to see it as a speed bump between them and the group content they want to be doing with their friends.  Meanwhile, you will ruin the content for players like myself who actually want to play it long before you make the grind palatable. 

While it was EQ2's producer who floated the idea of jumping players to max level back in early 2011, it was actually World of Warcraft who implemented it first, with a revised win-back program a year and a half ago.  I supported the plan then and I still support it now.  Developers are not going to change player preferences on whether or not leveling solo is a good thing.  Killing levels outright for everyone (which Keen proposed a year ago) does fix the on-ramp problem but it does not provide an alternative solution to the design problems that levels exist to fix.  Offering instant levels is the most expedient - and, with fees, mutually beneficial - solution that I've seen to date. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Advice for New Bloggers - Write what you want

The Newbie Blogger Initiative is back for another year courtesy Roger of Contains Moderate Peril and Doone On of T.R. Red Skies.  I'm never sure what advice to offer a newbie because it depends on who you are and what you are attempting to achieve.  Personally, even five years ago when I generally played one MMO at a time, I felt strongly that I did not want my blog to be tied to a single game - then again, some of the best and most helpful blogs out there are game-specific.  Tobold makes some good points about not blogging under your real name if this is purely a hobby for you, but these go out the window if you are looking to make the jump into gaming journalism or elsewhere.

Thus, I'll offer up one tip.  Write what you want.  Player Versus Developer started five and a half years ago partially so I would have a spot to write about the Wrath beta (having won a key in a contest) but partially because I realized that I was already creating enough content for a blog, I was just doing it in the comments at other peoples' sites.  In some ways, posting that content to a site of my own was not any additional work.  

Keeping a blog running for years will take some dedication, and you need to enjoy it.  Your readers may have come to expect one thing from you, whether it's how often you're going to update, what game you play, or even what opinions you have, but I do not think you can keep a blog going purely on what others want your blog to be.  In fact, as someone who also reads a lot of blogs and listens to a lot of podcasts, I've found you can tell when the person creating the content is starting to get burnt out (often shortly followed by them closing up shop).

To me, making sure that this blog remains a hobby and not a job is what has allowed me to continue.  If you do stay in it for the long haul, your life will change - whether it's your job, your daily routine, or your family - along with what you play and how you think about what you're doing.  My daughter celebrates her first birthday this weekend, which also marks the better part of a year in which I have been posting just once a week to allow time for family and actually playing the games I write about.  Perhaps I don't have the readership I did back when I was updating more frequently, but I can say with confidence that I would not still be writing the blog at all today if I had tried to force myself to stick to the old schedule in changing circumstances.

Whatever your goals are, find a way to fit them within what you want to be doing.  The rest will come as it may.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Content Sales, or Lack Thereof in SWTOR

I've been having a conversation with the folks at Ootinicast, who are celebrating their 100th episode this week, about the latest changes to SWTOR.  My thoughts don't really fit into an email that anyone would want to hear read aloud on a podcast, and I've mangled them slightly by trying.

At a minimum, Bioware appears to feel that keeping players out of current endgame content is not worth the modest amounts of money they previously charged for access.  In the longer term, I think Bioware is trying as hard as they can to have more of their money come from people subscribing to partake in traditional MMO endgame staples that are more sustainable than the game's famous story content.

Content Sales, or lack thereof
The core of Bioware's re-launched model is to use their content to sell subscriptions, rather than selling their content.  Games that have succeeded on a content sales model are generally able to deliver small releases of highly repeatable content every 2-3 months.  If people are only paying you when you have content (new or old) that they want to play available - whether that's a one-time payment as in LOTRO and other games or a subscription that players only pay to see the next chapter in the Sith Warrior story - and you cannot maintain that release pace, you are going to have problems getting paid.

Bioware launched the game's first expansion - with the only significant new story content to date - back in April at a cost of $10 for subscribers and $20 for non-subscribers.  Five months later, subscribers get permanent access to the expansion for free (even after their subscription lapses), making it cheaper for non-subscribers to pay for a $15 one-month subscription (which includes 500 Cartel Coins) than purchase the expansion at full price.  This could be a routine mark-down/discount (albeit unusually early compared to other games' expansions), but I feel it's worth considering Bioware's patch strategy as well.

At the Free to Play relaunch, Bioware implemented a fee for non-subscribers to access Section X, a new daily quest area that also offered a new NPC companion.  This may not have been a great test case - as the Ootini crew point out, it's the least popular of the pre-expansion daily quest areas, and Bioware gave away the unlocks in random Cartel Packs to subscribers who had no use for them and therefore resold them for trivial prices on the auction house.  Good test case or not, though, there was no fee for a new daily quest area added in patch 2.3 and to my knowledge no fee planned for new content - including some story - scheduled for patch 2.4.

Towards the endgame
A for-profit company does not reduce or eliminate fees that are successfully generating revenue unless there is some other consideration.  If newly level 50 players were routinely taking out their credit cards and paying for the expansion then there'd be no need to change the pricing.  The alternative is that significant numbers of eligible accounts have declined to purchase the expansion.

Because the expansion is tied to a level cap increase, not paying that fee means not having access to current group content and not having access to new daily quests and revised world events in new patches.  Likewise, counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe you can be a subscriber and still represent short term revenue for Bioware if you are only paying to solo the story content.  Such a player is unlikely to pay extra for access to a daily quest area with little new story.  In both cases, Bioware may be hoping that the player will ultimately pay for more game time if given the content for free.

Making Money
Damien Schubert once told the Ootinicasters that he would like to develop Capital Ships as guild housing in SWTOR - during that conversation, he admitted that part of the development process would have to consider how Bioware could expect to make money off of the project.  This is why this seemingly academic question may matter to the game's full-time subscribers.

Endgame PVE can't suffer exactly the same fate as ranked 8-player warzones (axed after months of promises of attention to the format this fall) or craftable cosmetic gear (all reserved for the cash shop henceforth), but the level of emphasis it gets can definitely shift based on where the money is.  The less money Bioware can rake in at endgame, the larger the portion of their effort they will need to shift to stuff that is open at lower levels and thus able to be paid for by more of the playerbase.  Coincidence that the game is now working on a revamp to space combat that will very likely be open well before max level?  Time will tell.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Failure to Transfer-proof MMO Launches

There are at least four US/EU servers in FFXIV where people I know from blogs, twitter, or podcasts have characters.  I will need to pick one of those servers as a home.  That choice has huge implications on my future in the game. 

If I pick a newer server that is populated too heavily with tourists - players with established social ties are seldom willing or able to re-roll when new servers open post-launch - it could be deserted in a few months, leaving me high and dry in a search for groups.  If I pick one of the more crowded servers and the game does somehow continue to trend upwards, I could be facing the kinds of extended performance issues that I experienced in 2004-2005 having rolled on one of the 40 WoW servers whose names were announced prior to launch.  Perhaps most importantly, if I roll on a specific server to join specific people and those folks don't stick with the game, as I did in SWTOR last year, I'll be looking at a lonely experience.

I find it frustrating that we as customers who pay for online gaming services seem to have a misguided focus on the portions of the server population discussion that should be easiest to forgive.  We dwell on overcrowding on launch week, even though these problems are almost always fixed in a week or two.  We brand as a failure any product that ends up with too many servers and has the nerve to make the correct decision to consolidate them. 

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here with a server list and a choice that's harder than it should be.  There's no choice I can make today that is transfer-proof, and the provider really doesn't have an incentive to care since they stand to pocket the transfer fees if I get it wrong.  It just seems like the rare thing that we as customers who are paying for a service actually have a good basis to complain about, but we don't complain much and the problem persists. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wasted Content in WoW 5.4

World of Warcraft's patch 5.4 finally dropped this week, adding another gear reset to the game's progression.  As a result, the unfortunate but efficient way to win Pandaria's endgame is to skip the overwhelming majority of the endgame content.  It just seems like such a waste, and I continue to question whether having stats on gear is even worthwhile if it's going to waste this much content. 

Raids gone by
By design, players can jump straight from heroic 5-man content into the new looking for raid content (with a very brief visit to Throne of Thunder - more on how this works in the next section). This is a good thing if your goal is to join your friends in the new content, either because you are returning to the game or rolling up a new alt.  It's probably a good thing if all you want is to beat the Garrosh raid once on LFR mode to say that you've been there and looted that.  If you were actually enjoying playing through multiple tiers of content and steadily acquiring new gear as you did so, however, this sort of spoils a fair chunk of content.

I have now run the Throne of Thunder LFR's once each (with an additional run through a partially completed final wing this week).  That's four raid wings I could be doing weekly and getting real gear upgrades each time.  At least I finished the five LFR wings from patch 5.0 before this new content arrived, because changes to gear vendors render that content pretty much entirely obsolete. 

I can still go back and do the old content as it was designed - in fact, the expansion's Legendary questline sort of favors that approach (you can go straight to the Ogrimmar raid and do almost all of the steps there, but you will be grinding the same content for a very long time) - but knowing that I'm getting worse rewards for the same time investment feels like doing it wrong. 

Appendix: Comparing 5.3 to 5.4
For context, an explanation of what changed and how it got us here:

Endgame PVE in WoW uses two currencies, which were not changed in the new patch.  Justice points are obtained in relatively large amounts and there is no cap on how many you can earn as long as you're spending them before you get to the 4000 point cap in your currency wallet.  Valor points are typically obtained in smaller amounts per reward, and there is a weekly cap in how many you can earn.

In patch 5.3, these currencies were of somewhat limited value.  Your goals were to get to ilvl 460 to get into LFR and then slowly increase your ilvl up to 470 and then 480 for the higher tier content.  The problem was that the justice point gear was low enough that it wasn't going to boost your average by very much, and you couldn't actually purchase any of the valor gear without first grinding reputation (primarily through solo daily quests).  As a result, I basically skipped random 5-mans, and got to 460 primarily by doing the daily random scenario once per day and spending the rest of time working on miscellany (the farm, archeology, etc).  Then I did the LFR's as intended. 

Patch 5.4 removed the reputation requirements and downgraded almost all of the gear from the valor vendor to the justice vendor.  As a result, ilvl 496 gear that previously required lengthy reputation and valor grinding to obtain is now quickly earned through unlimited random dungeons for easily obtained justice points.  This obsoletes the five LFR wings from 5.0, as it takes longer to earn fewer, lower quality rewards that will still actively hurt your average for the newest content in patch 5.4. 

Additionally, ilvl 522 rep rewards from the 5.2 raid now require only friendly reputation with that raid's faction.  You'll get this in maybe 2 hours by running 3-4 wings of 5.2 LFR's.  Once you have this rep, the return on your time in 5.2 content is questionable - you can earn valor points faster in other formats (including heroics) and those points get you ilvl 522 vendor rewards rather than scraping for a chance at ilvl 502 stuff in the 5.2 LFR's. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is SWTOR Space Combat a Good Idea?

SWTOR all but announced over the weekend that their long rumored "super secret space project (SSSP)" is a new off-rails space dogfighting minigame (see Ootinicast for a detailed summary of the event).  This idea is pretty universally popular (see Werit) - does that make expanding the game this far beyond its current scope a good idea?

The big trade-off when adding a major new game feature is the time that the developers weren't able to spend developing something else.  When your game already has instanced dungeons for 4-6 players including a tank and a healer, and you go to add instanced content for 3 players with no class restrictions, you are building something that is plausibly of interest to people who are already playing your game.

By contrast, we have EVE Online's decision to expand their space economy game into a First Person Shooter spin-off (that was platform exclusive to the PS3 for no reason that I've ever heard explained by anyone).  I haven't heard how this effort has done recently, this idea has always faced a challenge because of how far it strays from both its parent and its new genre.  Why would someone looking to play a new FPS want their battles to be dictated and decided by people playing a different space combat game? 

SWTOR's project isn't quite that extreme.  Space dogfights are a major part of the Star Wars lore and movies, and the game was widely criticized at launch for including an on-rails space combat game rather than a more open system.  That said, the current system is also completely optional - I never completed a single space combat mission (I did somehow fail the first one I tried about three times before giving up on the system for good), and it's even access-restricted for non-subscribers. 

Thus, the question remains - if you weren't willing to play the game before, why would you want to put up with an MMORPG as a condition of getting your space combat game?  If you are a current player but off-rails space combat was an absolute must-have deal-breaker feature, wouldn't you have quit SWTOR by now?  More likely, the question of whether this was a good use of Bioware's time will hinge on its ability to extract more revenue from existing players.  The sale of cosmetic ship appearances in the cash store gambling packs is an absolute certainty, and it remains to be seen what else they will have to tack on in terms of sales of power and/or access to recoup their investment.  I wonder if the system will be as popular when it's more than just a teaser video. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

PVD PAX Prime Recap

I managed to tack a single day of PAX Prime onto a trip to the Seattle to visit family - apologies to any readers who might otherwise have wanted to chat, I'd planned to post about this trip in advance, but the family vacation cabin rental turned out not to have internet access.  Anyway, it's not ideal to try and cram a show this large into a single day, but I accomplished significantly more than I'd expected.

The good - the community
As with my previous PAX experience, the best part of the gathering is the chance to see the people.  I managed to just stagger in the door in time to catch the MMO Reporter pre-PAX gathering on Thursday.  I'd met Chris back at PAX East in 2012, and this time I got to meet the rest of the crew.  In addition, I finally met up with Syp of Bio Break and various other projects. We've been chatting online through our blogs for five years now, and neither of us knew in advance that the other would be in attendance, so it was pretty cool to walk up to a table and get introduced.

These blog celebrities aside, it's always to be a treat amongst our folks.  I had some nice conversations with total strangers at this gathering, FFXIV's debacle of a launch party, and elsewhere in the show.  I also got a fair amount of swag - neither LOTRO nor Trion were in attendance with official gatherings this year, and they appear to have shipped their allotment of prizes on to the MMO Reporter shindig.  Good time all around.

The Bad - crowds, lines, etc
There's a certain amount of chaos that is inevitably going to happen when this many people show up.  That said, PAX Prime's bigger scale seemed to make for larger logistic snafu's than in the East in 2012. I showed up 30 minutes after the show floor opened, expecting to find the lines dispersed into the venue.  Instead, I was directed to a 20 minute line that went around the equivalent of two city blocks.... that ultimately deposited us back at the same place where we'd been ordered to go get in line, where people who showed up after we had were being allowed directly into the venue.

There were at least 200 people behind me in that line who also would have been better off waiting a few more minutes before they got in line.  I understand a need to spread out the crowd, but this absurdity felt like it was punishing those of us who played by the rules and did what we were told - if you're going to make people line up, it's only fair to let the people in the line into the venue first.

That said, this paled in comparison to FFXIV's launch party.  The game re-launched this week and had major issues with server load despite the experience from both the original launch and several beta/headstarts.  (See - Saylah and Keen for more info, I sat out the re-launch due to my vacation.)  It appears to only be appropriate that the party went at badly.  I showed up at the 3:30 PM "doors open" time and was number seven in line when the room was declared to be full for the developer panel - no additional people were admitted to the room during the panel even as folks began to leave.

You might have imagined that the developers could have repeated their presentation for the several hundred people in line outside, but this was not in the cards.  The activities when we were finally allowed into the room included a total of eight demo stations for the early game, a greenscreen booth for people who want to be photoshopped onto the game's Facebook page, and a massively long line for the chance to do a PUG raid encounter to win some t-shirts if your group was successful.  The SE people were admitting to each other that even folks who showed up when I did - over five hours before the end of the event - might not make it through this line in time, but still there were large numbers of folks waiting to get into the line when I gave up and left to spend my time elsewhere.  Ironically, this was my number one MMO to check out at the show and I would even have considered picking up a copy (they had them for sale, but on a cash-only full MSRP basis and no bonus swag for buying on the spot), so they really blew the chance to make a good impression.

The unfortunate, lowered hopes
  • Wildstar: By far the best experience I had at the show was at the Wildstar booth, which was my other top priority (and happened first because the FFXIV did not start until later in the afternoon).  They were handing out lanyards to anyone who signed up for beta, but the real prize was for playing the game.

    They had something like 24 stations up and running for timed 25-minute play sessions.  The options were the new starting area for the maniacal Chua race (though this was open to the entire Dominion faction for the demo) and a newer higher level area.  You were in for a bit of a wait - I waited around 40 minutes, which was also an opportunity to scout out what the other people were playing, and not bad return on investment as far as these lines go.  As if the play session for one of the most anticipated MMO's out there wasn't reward enough, there was a free t-shirt for everyone who waited long enough to get a demo station.

    I went with a Dominion Human Esper class, a ranged psychic damage dealer, in the new starting area. The nuts and bolts of the game are the standard quest-based MMO, with the addition of secondary objectives based on your chosen "path". Unfortunately, the combat was action-based, which is not an MMO trend that I'm fond of. Almost every ability for both player and enemy attacks is targeted on the ground, so combat requires frequent but uninteresting movement out of the enemy's target area.  I respect people who like this, but I don't feel that it adds real depth, just additional work.  Thus my best convention experience also seems to all but drop this game off of my watch list.
  • Assassin's Creed 4: For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, Ubisoft has decided to make the next game in this series an open world piracy (that's 1700's era people with swords and boats who say "Arr") game.  It looks like a great game about pirates.  Unfortunately, the Order of Assassins are really ninjas, not pirates.  There is some stealth, but they did not show any actual sneaking up on people to assassinate them, and instead focused on naval ship battles, spear-fishing for sharks, and 18th century diving for treasure.  
  • WB Games Booth: The only Turbine game present was the new DC Universe MOBA, and it appeared that you had to sign up in a team to play a live televised match to be allowed to play it.  There was also the newest single player Batman game, which, fortunately, does not appear to focus on whaling and naval combat.  
  • Elder Scrolls Online: This was another lengthy line, and one I decided to bail out on due to the length and what I was seeing over the shoulders of the people playing.  It looks like the single player games that I declined to play over the years, so I guess that's a good thing.
  • SOE: SOE was in the house to talk up Dragon's Prophet, EQ Next, and surprisingly DCUO.  EQN wasn't playable, but it had a respectable following.
  • Square Enix: FFXIV was all off-site, but they had stations available for two HD re-mixes and the new Lightning Returns game.  Looked reasonable enough.
  • Next Generation Consoles: I'm not expecting to buy a next gen console at launch.  If I had, I probably would have tried to fit in the new Infamous title.    
Overall, I guess it's not a bad thing that there are so few major titles on my radar - more time to catch up on all the MMO's I'm behind on.  If I'd had more time I would probably have tried to catch the big MMO panel and TESO, but really I covered basically all of my high priorities.  

What are you all watching out of the show?  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cash and Burn

I'm concerned that MMO Gamer Chick and Tobold are correct in their suspicions about this week's business model announcements.  Two of the highest profile upcoming MMO releases - Wildstar and Elder Scrolls - plan to launch with a mandatory box purchase and mandatory subscription fee despite nearly nine-years' worth of post-WoW MMO launches that have failed to sustain that model.  Both bloggers note that it would be borderline irresponsible for a business launching a subscription MMO NOT to have a back-up F2P plan - indeed, it appears that both titles may be setting the groundwork, with Wildstar's implementation of in-game time card items seen in other MMO's (including the F2P relaunches of EQ2 and Rift) and the cash shop that Elder Scrolls apparently confirmed in a German interview.  

Unfortunately, the same financial incentives dictate that launching with a subscription is an opportunity to extract $60 for the retail box (with $150 or higher price tags widely accepted for collector's editions) and some subscription revenue in the interim - especially if there's a chance to sell people on "discounted" pre-paid six-month subscriptions before they've had the chance to play the game. 

The problem isn't the subscription fee itself, the entry barrier created by the initial box price, the bad press often generated as games visibly fail to live up to their original promises (Elder Scrolls is already making the same promises that they plan to update every 4-6 weeks that so many studios have failed to sustain), or whether the final business model when the dust settles is in any way sensible.  My main concern isn't even that this model puts MMO studios in the business of exploiting hype and vague, misleading information to make a quick buck.  As Bhagpuss points out, these things ultimately have limited impact on the merits of the actual gameplay. 

The real casualty of these cash and burn tactics is the community.  When the dust settles, the tourists have come, overpaid, and gone.  The jaded veterans like myself have waited for the inevitable re-launch and gotten a high quality product at a fire sale price.  The cost is that the community is shattered as the majority of servers shut down, the majority of your friends leave for games that are looking more promising, and the folks who do return do so for brief periods as the content release schedule permits.  This may not change the gameplay - especially as more titles are offering more ways to play and win with limited time and commitment - but it definitely changes the experience of playing these games and experiencing these worlds.

If this is the solution to the problem of how to finance MMO development, it's a sad day.