Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Non-Buyer's Remorse Remorse?

The Marvel Heroes online Diablo clone game is attempting to get off the ground right now with mixed and generally unfortunate results.

The game was down for the entire first day of the promised early access period for $200 ultimate founder's pack customers.  It appears from the forums that the game's account systems somehow completely failed to correctly flag accounts with what people had purchased.  Some folks who had NOT paid for the first wave of early access got in briefly this morning, some folks who did pay did not get in, and almost everyone did not receive the correct amount of bonus in-game currency - the devs were so busy trying to make sure people were able to log in that they gave up and credited everyone with the minimum amount of currency and promised to fix the remaining balance later.

On the one hand, this type of debacle is precisely why I don't pay for early access deals, and think they are a terrible (though industry-wide) idea.  When access a certain number of days in advance is a specific selling point, customers have every right to be irked if you fail to deliver.  On the other hand, part of me feels a bit of remorse that I'm not in the crowd that's currently feeling the buyer's remorse for their purchases.

The Pre-Sales Campaign
If you'd asked me back in January when pre-purchases were announced - without any knowledge of what was actually going to be in the game - what hero and what costume from the entire Marvel universe I'd like to play in the upcoming title, I would have said Cyclops in his 90's era costume.  Cyclops has been portrayed very inconsistently over the years, but that particular era's plotlines - and that particular visual look - were amongst my favorite memories of the comics I read in my high school years.  Ironically, that very character with that particular costume was offered as one of the $20 starter packs.

I didn't bite.  It didn't occur to me that the studio would engage in an incredibly aggressive hard-sell campaign.  Shortly after that first post, they reduced the amount of cash store currency included in all bundles without advance notice, and threatened that the deal could get even worse with no notice.  Then they started removing popular characters (i.e. most characters with recent movies) from the $20 tier so that they would only be available in the $60 premium packages.

Then they announced at PAX East that the pre-orders would be the only way to guarantee that you got the specific character you wanted.  At the time, they intended to disallow players from purchasing specific characters post-launch, instead offering a lottery ticket that would contain a random hero instead.  This went over so poorly that they had to walk it back - apparently even MMO players have an upper limit of how much business model abuse we will take.  (Instead, they've rolled out a system where all heroes are available in the store, with most costing $9-12 and a few popular picks as high as $20.)

Overall, as I wrote in February, the pre-sales campaign treated customers in a way that I do not want to be treated.

The alternative...
Of course, I didn't know any of this when I decided not to buy a starter pack back in January.  Rather, my decision was driven by lack of information about how the individual characters would turn out.  Sure enough, many people are saying very bad things about Cyclops on the forums and Reddit, referring to him as "Punchlops" since he seems to have to spend more time punching than firing optic blasts.  Even his defenders say he is a fragile character whose best contribution comes in the form of buffs for groups - and I'd anticipate spending more of my time solo.

Feeling locked into a character I don't enjoy playing because I paid for that character sight unseen months ago would irk me almost as much as the aggressive sales tactics and the significant issues with the game's launch.  On the other hand, in that scenario my decision would already be made, I'd be out $20 and left to make the best of the game one way or another.  In particular, I'd own that costume that I wanted and now know will cost $15 in the game's cash store post-launch - more than I can justify spending on an optional cosmetic item. This means that if I ever do get to play Cyclops - either as an unlikely random drop or by paying for the unlock - he almost certainly won't have that iconic look I remembered from high school and wanted to play. 

The good news is that I like The Thing, he's one of the free options for starter heroes, and supposedly he isn't bad.  I will now plan to roll into the game's non-pre-purchase launch next week without spending any money up front, and they will have a tough sell to convince me that I should give them money after all that I've seen and know now.  Objectively, I made exactly the right decision.  It just remains to be seen whether the cost of having been wrong would have been that bad. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Examining Hex Upsells

Azuriel has been looking at the Kickstarter tiers for the upcoming Hex TCG.  Personally, I'm probably going to pay for at least the $20 tier so I can see what the whole PVE card game thing is about, but I'd been on the fence about what, if anything, to pay for beyond that.

When I look at these kinds of upsells (collector's editions, multi-month subscriptions) I find it helpful to take out the baseline amount that I'm pretty sure I'll spend, rather than looking at the total cost for the total package.  (For WoW's annual pass, I assumed that I'd typically subscribe for 3-4 months during the year in question, deducted that from the total bill, and looked at everything else in the package against the money that was left.)  A wall of text follows, so I'll offer the bottom line up front - based on my analysis, I'm actually leaning towards spending the minimum.

Breaking down the upsell tiers
My results, including stretch goals (with the starter and Penny Arcade merc on the $85 package, which I'm told is intended), and deducting the contents of the base $20 package (two starters, ten boosters, 3 free booster drafts -which I'm told include the required booster packs- 1 promo card, and hypothetically one pack for set 2 if the final announced stretch goal is met)

  • $35 ($15 upsell): One starter deck, 15 boosters, and four extra promo cards (1 mercenary).  
  • $50 ($30 upsell): Two starter decks, 35 boosters, and 11 extra promo cards (3 mercenaries).  (+2 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)
  • $65 ($45 upsell): Two starter decks, 45 boosters, 1 "primal pack", and 16 promo cards (5 mercenaries) (+2 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)
  • $85 ($65 upsell): Three starter decks (one of which is "KS exclusive"), 80(+12) booster packs, 1 "primal pack", 20 promo cards (7 mercenaries), and three months of VIP status (one free booster per week, thus the estimate +12 above). (+4 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)

When you look at the Kickstarter page, the $35 and $65 packages look underwhelming, probably to encourage people to jump from $20 to $50 to $85 (as Azuriel did).  I still think that's accurate for the $65 package, but I re-examined the $35 tier since Carson mentioned it in the comments at Azuriel's place, and your extra cards per dollar of upsell aren't that bad.  I can agree that the $85 looks tempting in principle - though your returns per dollar are starting to taper off (I would not even consider going higher) - but I'm hesitant to spend that much on an un-released product I haven't had the chance to play, even if the prices are "discounted".

Two additional ways of looking at this question:

According to the Q+A on the forums, post-launch booster drafts will have a $1 fee (not clear whether this can be traded) plus you will need to provide the boosters.  This is good and bad - good in that you can run a fair number of booster drafts for a greatly discounted price if you save your Kickstarter rewards, but bad in that A) this requires you to not open your boosters for use in PVE until you can complete the requisite number of drafts and B) it's in some way a hidden fee (i.e. if I got the $50 package and wanted to use all the packs in booster drafts I'd be looking at paying an extra $15 in booster draft fees).

The other thing to look at is the glass half empty approach - how much MORE would I pay if I declined to upgrade now and then paid for the stuff later.  Not counting the promo cards, what would the extra starters and boosters in each package cost if I were to change my mind later?

  • $35 package: $40 retail, $25 penalty for not spending $15
  • $50 package: $90 retail, $60 penalty for not spending $30
  • $65 package: $110 retail, $65 penalty for not spending $45
  • $85 package: Analysis starts to break down due to exclusive starter deck and VIP time, call it $215 retail and thus a $150 penalty for not spending $65

At first, it looks like you're getting really good returns for your additional money.  However, this assumes that you actually NEED more starters beyond the one free newbie deck everyone gets and the two that are included in the base package.  If you have some degree of patience, you can also join the VIP program for $4/month and get one booster per week (i.e. 4 boosters for $4 plus some other benefits, versus $2/booster retail).  If we take the $35 package, forget about the extra starter deck, and instead use the $15 (well, $16) to subscribe for four months, we end up 16 extra boosters... one more than the number of extra boosters in the $35 package.  I believe I have my winner.

I will wait and see whether new and exciting stretch rewards get added to this system later.  Right now, though, I'm inclined to stop at $20 and mentally set aside another $20 or so for VIP subscription time and booster draft fees.  It isn't as sexy as a massive day one collection of cards including unique promotional cards (like the Penny Arcade mercenary).  If I end up loving the game and spending $85 or more later I guess I'll regret it.  Then again, that would be a good thing because it would mean that I actually liked the game, and I'm prepared to pay a premium later rather than risk putting down a lot of money now on a product that I don't end up enjoying.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Raptr and it's Rift Promo

I recently took part in Trion's cross promotion with Raptr to snag a free copy of last fall's Rift expansion.  I'm not playing Rift at the moment, but the rumor is that you will have to buy the new soul for each calling individually post F2P.  Getting all the souls now for free seemed appealing, but this created a minor question of how to log the hours /played to qualify for the promotion. 

The marketing campaign requires players to create a Raptr account and log roughly 13 hours of time "playing" Rift - the unlimited free (re-) trial version will do - with the Raptr client open.  This would be difficult if you were legitimately trying to play the game, as the trial caps at level 20 and you'd run out of stuff to do before you logged the requisite hours.   

Fortunately, to make a long story short, Raptr's client does nothing to deny you credit if you want to AFK to pad your playtime.  The clock starts when you open the Rift client and the clock stops when you close the Rift client.  If you choose to leave your the client on the "you have been disconnected, push okay to close client" screen for ten hours, that's your business. You can even play a different game simultaneously, if your computer can handle the load, and Raptr will log and credit your time /played in the second game as well.

Gaming and social media
Besides getting something I guess I sort of wanted to have without spending real money, this was an interesting visit to the social experiment that is Raptr.  I have misgivings about mixing social networking with online gaming, and the experience did little to assuage them.

My Raptr profile - which I immediately changed to self-only - proudly proclaims that I played a "crazy session" of 10+ hours of Rift during working hours on a weekday.  Publicizing this information - Raptr will spam your twitter feed for you if you provide your credentials - is what makes Raptr valuable to advertisers, as it can go back to Trion and say that every play session I logged is a advertisement for Rift spammed out to all my friends for free. This is also why they have zero incentive to prevent me from AFK'ing - Raptr knows perfectly well that I was idle (and will even mark me AFK in the chat system if I want), but it's just as happy to add my AFK hours to the total it includes in its marketing materials.

It's less clear to me why it's to my benefit to have my gaming activities broadcast so publicly.  I suppose the sheer length of time involved makes it relatively obvious that I opened the client, went to work, and stopped for groceries on the way home before checking to see if I'd made the required hours yet, but I can imagine questions being asked by current and potential employers if this type of activity log was public and a frequent pattern.

The client also helped itself to scanning my hard drive for all the games it could find (which was NOT most of them, because it didn't think to look on my data drive) without any warning that it was going to do so, and posting those to my profile as well.  You can delete them manually - and I assume re-delete them every time you let it rescan - but if you don't want the world to know that you have Hello Kitty Online Adventures on your computer, you're probably going to have to work at it. 

At the end of the day, it's your choice whether to opt into these sort of things - so long as you read the fine print closely enough to realize what you've agreed to, and think ahead to the reality that information that you placed on the internet voluntarily is probably never coming down if you change your mind later.  If I had any aspirations of making money either covering or making games, I suppose I could see some benefit to having this kind of record as a public resume of my achievements.  Perhaps if I was looking to catalog time /played for myself or someday my kid (i.e. if I see you on the computer playing and you're not in Raptr chat, I assume you've closed the client to cheat the logs and you lose your computer privileges) , having a log handy would be helpful. 

As an every day user, though, I think I'll pass, even if that does mean that I won't be getting credit for hours that might someday qualify me for some future reward. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Financial Incentives And WoW Daily Burnout

Recent thought-provoking posts have got me pondering whether MMO's got to the mixed place where they are today because the people making them were not sufficiently careful in what they wished for.  Specifically:
  • Rohan wrote a thought-provoking post over the weekend suggesting that communities are too focused on business models.  As exhibit A, he noted that even the notorious WoW forums largely stick to complaints about the actual game, while non-subscription titles like SWTOR have forums full of threads complaining about the business model.  
  • Psychochild is continuing his discussions about how MMO's are losing their stickiness, why players may be to blame, and how the resulting impact on revenue may also be rendering the genre financially unsustainable.  (Scott Hartsman is also making this case 140 characters at a time on Twitter - someone buy the man a blog?  :)) 
The example that has me thinking is the controversially high number of daily quests in the current WoW expansion.  Many people defended these "optional" daily activities at the expansion's launch, but even the developers are acknowledging in hindsight that the model they created may have contributed to burnout.  How did this "mistake", if it is one, happen?

A sidenote to Rohan's business model thread is that WoW's business model has changed relatively little since its launch over eight years ago, or indeed even since the older MMO's from the decade prior.  The game makes money when people stay subscribed, people cancel their subscriptions when they run out of stuff to do, so clearly the answer to the question is to provide an unending supply of stuff to do.  The reasoning is sound but apparently misdirected. 

As Psychochild notes, the virtual world style MMO's of last decade were a different beast.  These products emphasized long-term goals over short-term fun and community over convenience.  On paper, the daily grind brings people into the game every day and thereby increases their interaction with the community.  In practice, the sheer repetition of the daily grind de-emphasizes community - people burn out and are forced to lean more heavily on strangers to fill out their required daily groups - and instead emphasizes repetitive gameplay that will always struggle to compete with a crowded marketplace including increasingly deep and online-enabled single-player games. 

In short, Blizzard may have gotten exactly what they asked for - people who ground dailies, scenarios, dungeons, LFR, pet battles, etc until they couldn't take anymore.  Worse, because the only financial feedback in their model is to quit the game outright, the only feedback they got was when they started losing subscribers by the millions.  Under a non-subscription model they might have gotten the message that people were getting tired of dailies before people were irreparably burned out - or at least made more money off of the players in question before they left. 

Funny how our spending habits may mirror our response to in-game incentives - it's much easier to get what you ask for than what you actually want. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rift Goes Pay-For-Others

Rift's newly announced "Free-to-Play" relaunch was so obvious that even I saw it coming.  One of their more interesting decisions harnesses an emerging trend in payment models - turning the traditional RMT incentive structure on its head with a system that encourages people who have money to pay for others to play the game

It's a subtle but important distinction that makes sense when you look at the incentives and motivations for why people pay real money for stuff in MMO's.  On paper, this approach could be much better for gamers than many of the other things that have been tried. 

Traditional RMT - Paying for Progress (to Win?)
Traditional "Real Money Transactions" (RMT) - people buying swords or accounts on Ebay, currency from illicit third party sites, or all of the above from official exchanges - is motivated by a desire not to play the game.  The buyer wants to obtain something - currency, a pre-leveled character, etc - that they could in principle earn in game.  For whatever reason - lack of time, unwillingness to group, lack of interest in timesinks that are a prerequisite for endgame, etc - they are unwilling or unable to earn their incentive the traditional way, but they have money they are willing to part with. 

Setting aside all of the logistics, legalities, ethics, and design issues that these systems inevitably raise, you are left with a fundamental problem - a game that people are willing to pay NOT to play.  Blizzard accidentally took this to the logical, absurd extreme in Diablo III, where it became so easy for players to buy gear with trivial amounts of gold on the auction house that nothing the player ever earned in game would be relevant. 

Unless you have designed your game in a way that requires one playstyle as a prerequisite for another - most commonly requiring people who want to raid with their friends to first grind out 90 levels solo and then run random PUG's to get the gear to be useful to the raid group - there is no scenario where the player who pays for progress isn't ultimately going to wash out that much faster for having done so. 

Paying for Others
Beyond the traditional RMT, we are seeing a growing trend - regardless of genre and type of payment model - towards games that somehow allow one player to pay another's way.  A few examples:
  • EVE was the first game to my knowledge to implement a mechanism they dubbed PLEX, effectively an in-game time card that is bought with real money, can be consumed to extend your subscription time, and is also free to be bought, sold, bartered, stolen or destroyed like any other in-game item can be in EVE.  SOE has adopted the same system (minus the thievery and destruction) in EQ2, and I expect more will follow.
  • SWTOR's free to play model didn't make a lot of sense to many people - myself included - in part because it did not seem to ever make sense for someone who is NOT subscribing to pay money for the game.  Weekly access to content like PVP added up to around $8/month, but you also had to pay significant one-time unlock fees for gear and other things you'd need before you could start on this discounted (but still hobbled) plan - and if you wanted to add in a second type of content unlock, such as raiding, you actually failed at math because you'd be paying more than the subscription but getting stuck with greater restrictions. 

    The difference in this model is that every single unlock in the cartel market can be resold for in-game credits on the auction house.  I was dead wrong when I assumed that this secondary market would be unsustainable because people would not pay real money for the paltry number of credits a non-subscriber can pay them.  Even the most expensive unlocks and items can be had for affordable prices because people are unwilling or unable to earn amounts of credits that I consider to be trivial - Bioware is even expanding this market by adding a consumable, resellable item that pulls credits out of non-subscribers' escrow accounts.  In a perverse way, it makes sense to be a non-subscriber who gets less for the money because it's someone else's money.  

    The real story with SWTOR is that the number three (optional) subscription MMO in the West is quietly convincing some demographic of players (probably casual Star Wars/Bioware fans who have money and aren't interested in learning to crew skill or farm dailies) to pay significantly more than the standard monthly fee in exchange for credits.
  • Rift's new model will feature a variant of PLEX that awards not game time, but rather the game's new item shop currency.  It's not clear whether this currency can be used to purchase subscription time (which sounds unusually optional, though we need more details to be sure), but it can definitely be used to purchase all kinds of items.  Many free to play games offer some mechanism for gifting stuff from their cash shops - sometimes for resale to other players (and sometimes at the players' peril when it comes to scams) - but this is not a common mechanism and Rift is the highest profile F2P relaunch to do anything like this.
The difference between pay for others models and traditional RMT is subtle, but important.  One side of the demand curve is still driven by people who wish to trade real world money for in-game currency.  The other side of the demand curve is driven by people who want to play the game - presumably because they enjoy playing the game - but are unwilling or unable to pay for the game. Under a pay for others model, the person with the money can pay that person's way in exchange for their in game currency. 

Why making the non-payer valuable is a win for everyone
What happens to people who choose not to pay under the various payment models?
  • Mandatory subscription fee: The player who is not willing to pay leaves, thereby ceasing to support the game and indirectly removing the incentive for the developer to address their concerns.  Meanwhile, the player with excess money has no legitimate way to spend it, as their $15 is all they can pay.
  • Traditional free-to-play/buy-to-play: Assuming the system isn't so poorly monetized that no one pays and the game goes under, the player who is not willing to pay is still asked to pay and still leaves as a result.  The player who is willing to pay more than $15 can do so, and becomes disproportionately valuable to the developer as a result.  However, they can also lose in the long run, as the financial incentive for the developer is to find ways to "encourage" them to pay even more.
  • Pay-for-others: Instead of leaving the game, the player who is not willing to pay becomes the incentive for the person with more than $15/month to spend their money.  Theoretically, this can keep all of the players within the community (good for their friends, paying and not), while retaining a financial incentive for the developer to support their whole community, not just the "whales".  
It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.  The one thing you cannot do is go back and restrict things that you gave away later if you're not happy with the revenue, and Rift is giving away so much stuff that they won't have much left to sell if this plan does not work.  They are also offering entry level gear for cash store (and thus indirectly in-game-currency) purchase, which could alleviate some of the entry barrier issues for new max level characters by letting them skip the much despised PUG grind and pay for what they need to join their friends in raid content. 

A final note - this change causes the ranks of mandatory subscription MMO's to dwindle further.  We will now have WoW (losing a million subscribers per quarter, with Activision predicting that the numbers will drop further by year end), EVE (which offers a very unique experience that can't be had anywhere else), the online Final Fantasies (assuming that 14 launches and survives) with their strong subscriber numbers from the Japanese market ... and then we're down to stragglers and titles on life support.  It would not surprise me to see some of these titles join EVE in offering some sort of mechanism for players to pay for others going forward, especially if Rift's new model works out. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

PVD @ Game On: Epic Slant Press Edition

Over the weekend, I put in a guest appearance on Game On: Epic Slant Press Edition.  Chris of Game by Night and Ferrel of Epic Slant are now hosting the official podcast of and were kind enough to have me "back" on their show after two previous appearances on their old show, The Multiverse.  Topics of discussion included:
  • Buying all of the cash store things for in game currency in SWTOR (my "what I've been doing" update)
  • Camelot Unchained meeting its Kickstarter goal
  • Neverwinter's soft launch
  • Final Fantasy XIV's forthcoming relaunch (ironically, this game has now been in the news all three times Ferrel and company have had me on their show)
  • Ferrel's upcoming card game, Havok & Hijincks
One of the things I like about podcasting with these gentlemen is how it's a reasonably casual conversation about MMO topics of the day.  That said, the new and popular short format (we covered all of that and more in under 35 minutes) does take some mental preparation, and I'm definitely appalled at how many vocal pauses I managed to fit into such a short time. 

A few bonus comments that didn't make it into the show one way or another:
  • EA's quarterly earnings call confirmed that SWTOR is below half a million subscribers, which would make it the number three subscription MMO in the west behind WoW and Eve... before you count all the cash store revenue.  Players may or may not like the direction that future development takes, but I don't think there's much question in the short term that they're making money. 
  • To clarify a comment I made on the show, I would hope that no one who backed Camelot Unchained is going to be surprised or impatient that the game is going to take two years to launch (which was clearly stated).  The point I was trying to make is how much patience players will need to have if we get to mid-2015 and the game still needs work.  There will be no possibility of delaying the launch because they won't have the money to keep paying their staff.  Meanwhile, thousands of people will have been playing the game in pre-alpha and alpha for over a year, many of them paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be allowed to do so. 

    If people aren't happy with what they're seeing by the middle of the beta, will they be patient, urge folks to keep the faith, and remain subscribed when the game launches (assuming they haven't already paid for lifetime subscriptions)?  Or will word of mouth take a sharp and unforgiving turn for the worse?  This is not a title that can afford to have its early adopters burned out or disillusioned before the game launches, and they will have to make the project work in an unusually public fashion due to how much access they sold as Kickstarter rewards. 
Hope you enjoy the show!