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. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Missed Events of August

It's been a busy month and I've missed a variety of things - some that I regret and some that I do not. 
  • Golden Lotus Storyline: I was aware that Blizzard was removing the Vol'jin world event introduced in patch 5.3 when patch 5.4 launches, presumably next week.  I was not aware until very recently that the patch also blows up the entire Vale and with it removes a large chunk of the less-than-one-year-old Golden Lotus storyline from the expansion.  I scrambled when I found out, but it does not appear feasible for me to gain the required reputation in the time remaining.  As an aside, I'm gaining this rep nearly twice as fast as was possible when the expansion rolled out due to new mechanics (rep for scenarios, dungeons, and farming) and it still feels slow - no wonder people were less than thrilled with Pandaria's launch.
  • FFXIV Open Beta: I'm frustrated that every studio insists that limited time events run on weekends.  Personally, I play most of my MMO's to unwind after work on week nights and have less time to spend on MMO's during the weekend.  In this case, that missing the party have been a good thing, as I've heard less than ideal things about how Square handled the inevitable soft launch server population issues.  (The open beta servers will NOT be wiped, and is followed by a headstart this week.)  That said, I have not heard anything about a free trial, so it's not clear whether there will be any mechanism to try before you buy for those of us who missed this weekend.  Not necessarily the best move for a game trying to shake a bad reputation.
  • Hearthstone: Got into the beta direct from Blizzard.  Not sure what, if anything, I'll do with that access - why spend time unlocking stuff now when the final game will be F2P and the beta is going to be wiped?
  • Patch 2.3 in SWTOR: New endgame content.  Guess it's not going anywhere.
I guess it's a good thing that the "slow" month of August hasn't been too painfully slow.  Anyone else feeling like they're having trouble keeping up? 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Havok and Hijincks on Kickstarter

My good friend Ferrel of Epic Slant and various podcasts has just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a card game called Havok and Hijincks that he and his colleagues designed.

As a recent parent, I love the idea of a game that requires thought but not a lot of time - something I can play with my wife during nap times, but that won't take a ton of time to set up or put away.  Cute dragons on cards and some light strategy sounds like just what I'm looking for.  Between Ferrel's track record publishing three books (two of which went to Kickstarter only after he finished the manuscripts) and the public record of the game's development over the last year (I provided some rules suggestions myself), this is the relatively rare Kickstarter that I can recommend without reservation to anyone who thinks they are interested in the product. 

More information on the game is at and the game's Kickstarter campaign runs through September 24th.

(P.S. At the risk of derailing this post with broader MMO discussion, there is a big difference between someone trying to crowd-fund a pen and paper game, and all the video game and MMO projects that have gotten so much press of late.  You can actually design, test, and prototype a card game using index cards and a sharpie and have a decent idea of how the product is going to function.  If you are willing to support the development out of pocket through some combination of volunteer-work by the team and fronting the art costs out of pocket, you can get most of the way to the finish line BEFORE you go to your customers and ask them to pay you.  It's not impossible to do the same for a video game - see the valiant efforts of Eric at Elder Game - but that's no easy path either, and I maintain it's only a matter of time before a video game project that received a seven-figure budget from Kickstarter goes bankrupt without releasing their product.) 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Gear Catch Up Versus Bolster

I've been spending some time working on the tips from Blizzard's official guide on "catching up to 5.3" to gather some of the endgame gear from the patches I didn't play at the time.  I'm enjoying most of the process and it's going reasonably quickly, but I can also see how a new player just looking to play current content with their friends would lose patience with even this significantly accelerated pace.  Is this system really better than just automatically bolstering characters up to the entry level gear - a mechanic we're seeing increasingly for PVP in other games?

The Catch Up Method
Blizzard's guide is helpful and I highly recommend it to anyone who does have a new max level character in World of Warcraft.  I also find it unfortunate that the developers of an MMO are in the position of having to write this document, and especially unusual that the authors are encouraging customers to skip so much of the content that Blizzard spent so much money developing.

To oversimplify greatly, the guide's main point is to get to the bare minimum gear level required for the computer to let you queue for the lowest level of the automated raid finder, and then take advantage of several mechanics that have made gearing up in these raids much faster than it was a year ago.   To this end, the authors identify several low-hanging fruit in the reward scale - the kind of advice that five years ago you'd read on a player site like Player Versus Developer, rather than having the developer themselves TELL you to do X content and not Y content because the rewards are better.  They even go so far as to suggest fooling their own queueing system by equipping easily obtained PVP gear - this stuff may actually be worse than the random quest rewards you already had on from leveling because some of its stat budget gets spent on PVP stuff, but the item level is high and this is all the group finder cares about. 

Personally, I don't feel that players who get something early, when doing so is hard, should have a right to demand that future players must work as hard for the same rewards.  However, when you consider how often WoW in particular resets its entire itemization curve, and how extreme the catch up curve is, it starts to seem like your accomplishments will be so temporary that it's hardly worth working for them - better to just show up at the end of the expansion, like I have, drive through quick to see all the sights once, and come back in a year or two for the end of the next expansion.  Meanwhile, the new or returning player is forced to spend time - the guide says a week or two but this appears to assume far more effort far more consistently than what I've been putting in - grinding dailies and running random groups until they have enough gear not to hinder their friends in current tier raid content. 

Bolster and other automated solutions
Just giving players the stats they need to do the content they want seems counterintuitive to a genre that is built on persistent character progression.  Then again, this has happened in a variety of settings - Guild Wars 2 in particular made a big deal of this feature - and in particular in PVP settings.

I'll pick on SWTOR for a moment because their situation has evolved - and brought with it some serious growing pains.  Like many games, SWTOR has a PVP-specific character statistic, which causes problems when placing new characters who do not have this stat against characters who are fully geared out - even if the newbie's gear is very good for normal gameplay, they will fare very poorly. 

Bioware's first attempt to solve this problem was to make the entry level PVP set available for relatively reasonable sums of credits.  Next, they moved to giving every new level 50 character a full set of entry level PVP gear for free (in the process significantly upgrading whatever random stuff you had on when you hit the cap).  In the new expansion, they started implementing an automated "bolster" system that is intended to scale your stats up to some baseline level.  There were many loopholes (i.e. better to go in naked than wearing mediocre gear, because this would get you an overcompensating bolster bonus) but it sounds like most of the issues have settled down.

The end result is that players show up in whatever gear they're wearing, but are boosted up to the amount of PVP stats found on the new entry-level set.  This begs the question of why that's a non-zero number to begin with, rather than just using the entry level as the baseline if you're going to set everyone to at least that number anyway.  Players can still spend PVP currency to get the entry level PVP gear - and I think the intent is for this to be slightly better than the automated bolstering - but the overall effect is that you should NOT need to go do something you do not want to do as a prerequisite to doing something you do want to do with your friends. 

The cost of NOT bolstering
Getting back to World of Warcraft for a moment, prior to the current expansion, the developers stated that about a third of the quests in the expansion pack were daily quests so that players working on any one faction would have a variety each day the logged in.  Today, the guidance straight from the developer is that all of this content is completely optional.  The 3-man scenarios and 5-man instances also seem to be things that you spend only brief time in if you really want to - the real rewards are quicker and easier if you somehow get into the raid finder.  

It just seems like such a waste.  Time and limited resources wasted by the developer on content that won't be worth doing in six months.  Time wasted by players grinding out gear, enchantments, etc, that will be blanked constantly.  Time spend playing but not enjoying the game in the notoriously reward motivated random groups (that would not exist if not for the daily rewards).  And - in my case as someone who actually likes small group content - entire chunks of the game that aren't worth doing because the raid finder is easier and more rewarding. 

Would it really be worse to take stats off of gear altogether, give everyone what they need to do the content they're trying to do, and let players spend as much time as possible doing what they want with the people they want? 

(P.S. Random speculation - a purely subscription game makes its money based on how long players spend playing, so it's especially odd to see the last big subscription game standing giving players advice on how to skip so much of the content.  Either the lost revenue for NOT handing out this advice is even worse - players burning out and quitting early - or perhaps Blizzard is thinking about laying the groundwork for a business model shift where their money is less proportional to time /played.)