Friday, January 24, 2014

Disclaimers and Crowd Funding

We are a highly experienced team of AAA developers and that's what we aim to deliver. So far the project has been funded solely from our own pockets and that is why we are reaching out to you now. With enough support we feel we can provide a AAA experience, but without the proper funding, some of that experience may be limited at launch.
- The entire Kickstarter-required "risks and challenges section" from Pantheon's $800,000 campaign page
I will leave the in-depth coverage of the MMO Kickstarter du jour to people who are actually following it, such as Wilhelm.  Personally, my exposure to the project is limited primarily to articles like this one at Massively, which discusses one of the game's planned classes as described in a Kickstarter update.  If I didn't already know that this is a game that may launch in 2017 if it can raise another $600,000 in the next month and if its creators can actually implement the promised product for that much money, I would not have known that this wasn't a new patch for a game that I can download and play today.  

(Not to pick on Syp in particular here, it's just the most recent post about this particular game on Massively at this particular moment, and he's much more famous than me so I think he can handle the abuse, such that it is.  Camelot Unchained got similar coverage during its campaign.) 

Unsubject has published detailed analysis of video game Kickstarter campaigns that ended between 2009-2012 and concluded that less than half of these projects have delivered even partially on their promises.  The harsh reality is that multi-million-dollar projects by major publishers who fund games for a living - Titan and EQ Next along with countless unnamed canceled titles by studios like EA - fail to reach the finish line for any number of reasons.  I wouldn't expect a five-sentence short post about the game to dwell on this fact.  But what is the appropriate level of caution? 

My concern is that the incentives of Kickstarter inherently put both creators and especially backers in a bad position.  The game doesn't get funded at all unless people get really excited about it, so the creators have to promise the Best Game Ever.  More to the point, they have to promise something that is so much better than real products developed with significantly larger budgets that potential customers will be motivated to pay now for something they might get in the future instead of something real that they can have today. 

Everything about the system encourages the creator to over-promise in a way that will actually make the already-tough job of doing a difficult project on a tight budget even more difficult.  Kickstarter certainly isn't going to object - they get their cut if the project is funded and get nothing if the project is not, and thus you're free to ask for the better part of a million dollars and say that the only risk whatsoever to your project is that it might be "limited" "at launch" compared to AAA titles.  If the project doesn't launch at all or isn't worth playing due to untenable scope, there's no one looking out for the people who paid hundreds of dollars two or more years in advance for unrealistic promises and hype. 

Thus, a question: To what extent should discussions of MMO's that are in the process of seeking crowd funding include a disclaimer about the odds that the product actually delivers? 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Optimal Exp and the Cash Shop

If my records are right, the last time I added to the list of MMO's where I have capped a character was back in mid 2012(!).  I spent a decent chunk of late 2012 and all of 2013 re-capping characters who were not longer max level due to expansions, but failed to reach the cap in any new titles.  I finally broke the streak when I got Cyclops to level 60 in Marvel Heroes around a week ago.  The journey there is an odd commentary on exp boosts in the non-subscription era. 

Like most non-subscription titles, Marvel Heroes offers exp boosts in its cash shop.  You can get a limited number of these in-game; one exp boost and one drop rarity boost per character per difficulty from non-repeatable quests, and up to two random fortune cards (roughly 85% chance of containing a random boost) daily if you farm all the terminal missions and spend all of the cube shards accordingly.  They are also frequently thrown in with character bundles in the game's cash store, so I had a fair number of them in storage. 

Busting out the bonus potions for the last ten levels was a relatively obvious and easy choice - I spent the last 10 hours or so running anywhere from +50% to +200% in exp bonuses, and thus on paper shaved probably 10 hours off of my leveling time.  I had 30 minutes of bonuses adding up to +240% left on the clock when I finished, so I ran some legendary quests on Deadpool and advanced from level 25-29 as the last bonus expired (dropping me down to my new permanent baseline of 40%). 

In total, I definitely saved some time, I "wasted" some content (I didn't finish all of the story missions because they are tougher and less exp/minute, and I will need to do some of these later for quest rewards), and technically I didn't pay anything extra out of pocket since I got there entirely through thrifty use of stuff that came with hero bundles I was paying for anyway.  I wouldn't say the bonuses were required, but in a game where I will be continuing to repeat the content it's nice to be able to move on to the next objective early. 

Nothing here is broken - indeed, they're willing to "undermine" their own exp boost sales market by granting permanent bonuses for your alts relatively freely. (I'm currently at 41%, 42% soon, it's relatively easy to get to the mid 70's with four capped characters, and a player who caps all the heroes can actually have 210% permanently for all new characters that are added.)  It's just something to watch for, and something that games that don't use the exp curve as a revenue stream don't have to deal with.

(By contrast, Marvel Heroes has been very willing to add inventory clutter with currencies that don't go in its currency tab, massive variety of relics and boosts that are just slightly different so they can't be stacked, and a new runeword system that will add forty different runestones to the inventory.  They are very willing to make it easy to get more characters on which to acquire loot that needs to be stored but very inflexible when it comes to any discounts on storage.) 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

New Year's Curiosities for 2014

I went back and forth on whether to bother with New Year's resolutions and predictions this year.  I play a bunch of different games, and I'm not going to change what game I'm playing just to comply with a post from late December - thus I usually end up with a handful of very specific goals that I know I will get done in the next few months and a bunch of vague/qualitative hand-waving for the remainder of the year.  Likewise, it's hard to predict much of anything with any accuracy in MMO's since we don't really have the data we'd need to do so. 

Instead, this year, here are some things that I'm curious about. 

Will Marvel Heroes Pay Off?
I made a late-year-decision to pre-purchase $130-worth of upcoming characters for this game.  So far, so good, but the year is young.  My shortest-term goal is to get Cyclops to level 60 to start the synergy exp gravy train rolling.  My mid-range goal is to have at least 10 characters to level 25 for the first tier stat synergy bonuses (currently 2 for Cyclops and Deadpool), and the long-term is to have at least 10 characters to level 50 for the upper tier stat bonuses (currently just Cyclops).  If at least five of the Advance Pack characters make this roster then it's pretty safe to say that the purchase paid off for me. 

Will TESO/Wildstar/EQ Next/Camelot Unchained customers revolt?
TESO and Wildstar have announced second quarter release dates, presumably with non-refundable pre-NDA-drop pre-purchase offers to follow.  Western console players have not historically tolerated subscription business models, so it's hard to see how TESO does not have a business model re-launch this year.   Wildstar at least has the sci-fi sub-genre going for it, but is it far enough outside the box to beat the non-subscription trend that has now claimed every AAA MMO since World of Warcraft?  Or, will both products (intentionally or otherwise) charge early adopters $60 for their game box and upwards of $100 for pre-paid 6-12 month subscriptions, only to go F2P within the first year? 

Meanwhile, SOE is hard at work pre-selling alpha access to Everquest Next Landmark - which sounds like an odd cross between the real Everquest Next and a paid public test server for EQN player studio content.  Camelot Unchained won't launch this year, but paid alpha testing for potentially thousands of Kickstarter backers (mostly in the $200+ range, plus a smaller number who get earlier internal testing access) is supposed to begin this fall.

Thus, by the end of the year, there are scenarios where large numbers of players are dissatisfied with their pre-purchases.  Will customers actually change their behavior in the future?  Are we as a demographic just willing to accept this as the cost of being present for the launch of each online game?  Are these games even catering to the traditional MMO demographic found on forums and blogs, or are they attempting/succeeding in broadening the market somehow? 

Will a major title's F2P re-launch go under in 2014?
I strongly debated making this heading title "LOTRO" due to uncertainty about its license option years, my longstanding questions about whether revenue from Turbine's version of "free to play" is inherently front-loaded, and the curious decision NOT to develop an expansion pack for 2014.  In fairness, longterm subscribers are correctly noting that with required annual expansions and diminishing restrictions on non-subscribers, it can feel like they're paying more for no good reason. 

Bottom line here is that the closing of City of Heroes can be written off as the wrath of NCSoft, but another high profile F2P relaunch going down could have an effect on customer confidence.  If not LOTRO, then perhaps Aion, Tera, or one of the Funcom titles?  Or perhaps it just isn't possible to affect gamers' consumer confidence - see above discussion.

Any Late Year Surprises?
In 2013, the big expectations were for end-of-year TESO and Wildstar news, leaving the beginning of the year pretty quiet and the end of year similarly quiet once both titles punted to 2014.  All these moves mean a relatively crowded schedule for the 2nd-3rd quarters (TESO, Wildstar, EQN:L, WoW's Warlords expansion)... and what precisely for the back end of the year?  Syp's annual list notwithstanding, I don't see a ton of waves here.  I know better than to suggest a Titan reveal will happen this year, but this could be a good platform for someone with something up their sleeves - SOE? Turbine? - to make some waves.

What are you curious about in 2014?