Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The True Story of Theramore and Pandaria

Nearly a year ago, Blizzard rolled out a pre-Pandaria special release of the in-game World of Warcraft scenario that destroyed the long-standing Alliance town of Theramore.  My reaction at the time was that the events shown in game made no sense without context provided from the novel, Tides of War, that was released around this time.  I picked up a copy of the novel as part of my pile of offline trip reading, and it turned out that I had only part of the partial story... it's the entire expansion that is only now making sense to me after having read the book. 

In addition to explaining how and why Theramore was wiped off the map, the book describes how numerous Alliance and Kirin Tor NPC's were killed in the bombing.  Their deaths were not immediately apparent in-game, and are a key part of the political context for the entire expansion - why it is such a big deal for both sides when conflict breaks out over the newly discovered continent of Pandaria.  The player finally encounters the survivors of Theramore in the Alliance Thunder Isle storyline (patch 5.2), and is left to piece together what happened to them in the time since last they were seen in game from random snippets of dialog. 

A Blackrock Orc named Malkorok is introduced in the novel as Garrosh's personal enforcer, at a minimum helping to enable the Warchief's fall to the dark side.  His actions - murdering anyone who disagrees with Garrosh and denying the Warchief's most closest advisors access to their leader - are apparently a big part of how the other leaders come to the conclusion that Garrosh must be removed, even if it means working with the Alliance to do it.  In game, this character is a throwaway character in one of the scenarios added in patch 5.3, and in a quest along the Horde storyline.  I guess he'll probably be a raid boss next patch, and most players won't know why. 

More generally, my initial impression of the Pandaria expansion storyline, NOT yet having read the book, was extremely mixed.  I felt that the Pandaren stereotypes (serene but hungry) were jokes that got overused and that the faction tension appeared artificial with the two sides in the conflict somehow taking on the same foes as they work across the continent.  Now I understand the narrative decision that brought us to Pandaria, and the seemingly odd decision to pre-announce that the Horde's own faction leader would be the expansion's final boss. 

The entire continent is a narrative gimmick, used to introduce the concept of "Sha" - physical corruption of people who have negative emotions - to take Garrosh's story to the end of his career as Warchief.  Knowing that this is what the story is about - and knowing all the context that was only available in the book - now makes me much more interested in seeing this seemingly bizarre detour in the story of Azeroth through to its ending.  It also emphasizes how inadequate the in-game treatment of the story was, when a player could go to the level cap, covering a fair amount of the content in the process, and have no idea what was going on. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Things I Missed In Game

The downside to being away from MMO's for a month is that stuff happens when you're not around.  A few things I observed from afar:
  • Another round of double exp weekends in SWTOR.  A bit disappointed to have sat this one out, the exp rate would have gotten my third character through their class story and made a decent dent in a fourth.  
  • FFXIV's third closed beta phase (received invite).  Indifferent to having missed this, as characters were wiped at the end of beta 3, and supposedly characters will NOT be wiped at the end of the open beta/phase 4.  Not sure how they're going to have both a non-reset open beta and a pre-purchase headstart program, guess we'll know in a month or so. 
  • Growing pains in Marvel Heroes.  The game's launch was a bit of a mess.  The patcher kept re-downloading the entire game client to the point where technical support was recommending that you install the game through Steam.  There were a variety of bugs and quality of life issues associated with quest rewards.  Perhaps most interesting, the studio has announced plans to move away from the completely random drop system for earning heroes in game and instead use a token unlock system.  Given that playing real characters from the IP is a central selling point of the title, I don't know if it's more puzzling that they refused to give ground on this point for so long, or that they reversed so suddenly.  Either way, the game looks like it's in much better shape than it was a month ago.  
  • Other things I'm not tracking so closely include Rift's business model shift (came down just before I left, haven't really heard much discussion since) and TSW quietly putting out DLC at a decent clip after the game's relaunch and the relocation of its studios.  
It could have been worse, seems to have been a relatively quiet chunk of summer.  I also learned today that WoW's patch 5.3 world event is apparently going away in the next patch, but I'm hoping there's still time to catch that.  What else has been going on in game this summer? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Adapting to MMO Churn

I enjoy the occasional time "offline" from my hobby reading and writing about MMO's.  It's a change of pace and a chance to get perspective on the way things have been going, both in my personal gaming life and in the bigger picture.  My thought, sitting back and observing the major discussions of the last month, is that this entire genre - players, developers, financiers - is still struggling to adapt to the current reality that MMO's are no longer a long-term commitment to a single title. 
  • Business model discussions remain the hottest issue in MMO's, in part due to Blizzard's effort to create the infrastructure and groundwork for a significantly expanded cash shop in World of Warcraft.  The upcoming title Wildstar is actually announcing in advance that they intend to make a business model announcement in the future. This environment is affecting the direction of game development, as studios struggle to recoup ever rising costs, but no one seems to have found a solution that is as mutually acceptable to both producers and consumers as the monthly subscription was in the days where players stayed put for the long haul.   
  • Increasing portions of the innovation that we're seeing in MMO's focuses on lowering entry barriers to combat the effects of churn on PVE groups and guilds.  WoW announced a new raid format with flexible group sizes in early June.  SWTOR is rolling out story mode flashpoints which remove the requirement for the holy trinity, and has also added guild bonuses that require players to be in guilds that have at least 25 active accounts.  Titles including FFXIV and WoW are adding instanced content intended to train players to function in groups.  These features simply weren't necessary in the old days where players stuck with games for the long haul and were forced to learn to group as they leveled. 
  • Another topic of the day is the decline of MMO bloggers - especially blogs that focus on a single title.  In an era where more and more people are hopping in and out of games, the investment required to set up a dedicated blog for a single title is harder to justify and sustain.  The same seems true for single-game podcasts - the recently concluded 200-episode run of Casual Stroll to Mordor is the highest profile example, but I've been seeing both smaller numbers and shorter runs on game-specific podcasts for a while now.
  • I think the story of the Pandaria era in WoW is that Blizzard attempted to use incentive design to replicate the level of daily engagement that players had in Azeroth back in the days where people stuck with the title for years.  My view is that people stuck with WoW in 2005-2006 largely because no other title on the market in that era was as focused on solo play, and that people formed legitimate social bonds that led to ongoing long-term engagement as an accidental consequence of not having anywhere else to go.  You can get players to log on for daily quests, dungeons, and raids, but you cannot replace genuine social ties with an alliance of convenience motivated purely by the fastest path to the daily incentive reward.  Instead, the artificial drive for commitment leads to faster burnout. 
People who lived through the old days and liked them continue to hold out hope that some future niche-focused title can recapture the level of stability that MMO's took for granted 8-10 years ago.  I wish them the best, but I see this outcome as highly unlikely.  The wide array of titles on the market today is a huge driver of player mobility, and a major challenge for retention - I believe a title that succeeded in this approach would need to be revolutionary, not merely evolutionary, such that no one who played the new title would be willing to return to anything we have today.  If the road back where we came isn't likely, and the place where we are now isn't financially sustainable, then the only hope is to adapt to modern demographics and find a way forward.  It's just not clear whether and how this can be done.