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.