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.