Thursday, August 13, 2015

Gamescom 2015 Toys to Life Report

I spend most of my gaming time these days on toys to life franchises, which I am slowly introducing to my 2-year-old daughter as a way to populate her dollhouse with dragons and superheroes in addition to the usual princesses and clothed animals. My primary goal during my trip to Gamescom was to focus on both the upcoming games and any good opportunities to collect more stuff.  Various observations:
  • Lego Dimensions, which won the award for best Family Game, was out in force with a full booth and additional playable demo stations in the family gaming lounge.  They had the Dr. Who and Portal figures and periodic panels at the booth (mostly in German, but there was a dev from the US who did a walkthrough of the Wizard of Oz level in English).  People who like the game praise it for being just like the current Lego games… I see the glass half empty in that I saw nothing about the actual gameplay to justify why basically the same game needs to cost 5-10 times more. 
  •  There was a modest Disney Infinity 3.0 area with around 10 demo stations inside the Sony portion of the show floor. They had all the announced 3.0 figures in display cases and playable demos for Twilight of the Republic, Rise against the Empire (exactly one demo station had the Boba Fett figure), and Inside Out. You could generally walk up and get a controller with little to no wait time. Oddly, they went out of their way to prevent you from playing the Disney Originals characters. There were toy box demo stations with a Marvel figure and a Disney figure on the portal, but there was only one controller and the portal was inside a glass case (unlike the Star Wars and Inside out demos where you could switch figures). Not sure what the reasoning for this was, we've seen these figures playable on Youtube and isn't this game coming out in two weeks?
  • There was a single Skylanders Superchargers station in an odd corner of the Nintendo booth, presumably to showcase the two Sky-miibo. They had Donkey Kong, Bowser, Gill Grunt, and their vehicles to cover all three types of terrain for racing mode - I don't think the demo included any traditional Skylanders gameplay.  The only swag for playing was some stickers and a Kaos keychain - for an event Hot Streak I might have considered taking a spot in line from an 8 year old but I couldn't bring myself to do it just to test drive the game since it was literally a single Wii U available to the general public.
  • Nintendo had a large booth with a glass case containing all the Amiibo, organized loosely by franchise. The regular Sky-miibo (no dark variants) were included, if anyone out there is still a Sky-miibo-denier.  If there was any information about Amiibo support, it was in German.  
  • There was also a local game vendor who had a booth in the corner of the merchandise floor and were selling clearance Giants and Swap Force Skylanders (including the only new-in-box Magna Charge's I've ever seen).  I felt the stock was a bit overpriced, so I passed on Saturday afternoon, came back on my way out of the show on Sunday to find that they had sold very little and reduced prices.  I grabbed a S3 Prism Break and a Lightcore Drobot for 3 Euros each ($3.30 or so).  
  • Outside of Gamescom, I visited Saturn (known internationally for announcing the Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack early), Media Markt (kind of like Best Buy, generally has good prices but inconsistent stock), and Gamestop.  There was a lot of older Skylanders and Disney Infinity at discounted prices (3-5 Euro's) and a few discounts on the current game figures.  I grabbed two trap masters, an earth trap with a variant villain, and a Donald Duck Disney Infinity figure for 26 Euros.  
  • I don't actually collect any Amiibo, but I do sort of photo-safari when I see an Amiibo "in the wild" here in Europe that is impossible to find in the US.  I don't think I'm ever going to top a mall Gamestop in Cologne that had all three of the "holy trinity" plus DeeDeeDee, Lucina, Robin, Lucario, Greninja, Pit, and Bowser Jr (not out yet in the US) on a single rack.  That said, I could find at least a few of these guys in most stores, including a random French supermarket we visited later in our vacation.  Perhaps either supply in Europe is catching up or else demand is dying down as the bubble pops out here. I think at this point the only Amiibo I have NOT seen in the wild are Captain Falcon and the yarn Yoshi's.   
  • (Note - writing this from a hotel in France, any additional finds from the tail end of my trip will go here.)  
So, was it a good trip for a toys to life collector? Probably not. If you had your eye on all the free/exclusive figures that Skylanders and Disney Infinity handed out in places like E3, SDCC, and D23, you would have been disappointed, as there was nothing on offer for the general public. Likewise, the shopping was fun but not inherently worth the trip over to mainland Europe.  Also, an in-box collector would probably need to buy and check an extra bag for the return trip if you bought all the rare Amiibo I've seen in my travels.  I also had some more general cautionary notes on Gamescom. Fun, but I can't say I recommend the trip from the US for this experience.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Cautionary Notes from Gamescom

I visited Cologne, Germany last week for Gamescom, and had more than 140 characters worth to say about the show…. funny, I used to have a blog for that sort of thing.  Overall, it is an interesting show but I hesitate to recommend it to people who aren't already in Europe due to a number of quirks.

  1. What you read is not what you get: Gamescom is technically a trade fair and maintains a separate area for press, exhibitors, and other "trade" visitors.  The new Skylanders game was based in the trade area. Neither SWTOR nor GW2 were on the floor.  Marvel Heroes was not on the floor either, though David Brevik personally made up for that by hosting a fan gathering at the end of three straight days of interviews.  Point being, you can show up and not get any closer to the real news than you would have been from home.  
  2. Entrance at the cost of experience: Gamescom claims over 300,000 attendees annually.  They do this by selling tickets to the limit of what German fire code permits, and then re-selling the spots of people who leave the show as space-available afternoon tickets.  As a result, there isn't really quiet time at the end of the day when you can avoid the worst of the lines.  Instead, most lines have matter-of-fact markers indicating that you will be waiting 3 hours from this point.  I'm sure it's lucrative for the organizers but it's not a positive experience to walk the floor at 1:30 PM and feel like you have to line up for something now because if you wait any longer the show might close before you can get to the front of a line.  
  3. German is the primary language: You won't have trouble ordering food, as most signage is also in English, most employees speak English, and English is definitely the second most common language.  The Assassin's Creed demo had English voice acting and German subtitles/instructions. The WoW expansion trailer had German voiceover, but many of the Heroes of the Storm character trailers were in English. Lego Dimensions apparently flew in a developer from America, who would hand off the mike to the German community guy periodically.  Just be aware that you will probably miss out on understanding some of the content  if you don't speak the language. 
  4. German Public Transit, Also German: (Also, I found the public transit system hard to use because you need to identify the right stop to know what to pay and then find the right train and not stay on too long and end up on the other side of the country.)  
I don't mean to be too negative on the show - in some ways US shows like PAX suffer from the same crowding issues.  You do get a very large crowd with all the requisite cosplayers (note: unlike in the US, German cosplayers can use realistic looking guns without running afoul of law enforcement), merchandise, and access to the top games for the fall if you were prepared to wait.  I was coming from England, and tacking this onto a family vacation, so I'm mostly okay with the effort and expense.  I would not have been happy with the effort and expense if I'd flown in from the U.S.  Your mileage may vary.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Three Weeks In Draenor

As Blizzard wraps up the first content patch of the Warlords of Draenor era, I'm marking something like 3 weeks in the expansion.  I'd say that overall it's a good expansion, but I'm not yet convinced of the staying power given that we are almost certainly at least a year from the next edition.

My tale thus far:

- Advanced my main from level 90 to level 100 in 9 days, including full clears of Shadowmoon Valley, Gorgrond, Talador, and portions of the Spires of Arak. 
- My garrison is currently as upgraded as possible given my late start, with all buildings at level 2 (if gated by an achievement I have yet to complete) or 3.  I've collected 30 followers, all of whom are level 100, and am rapidly working on upgrading them to purple quality and ilvl 630 gear.  I'm actually about to start tearing down some buildings where I have already obtained the best rewards. 
- Polished off Spires of Arak and cleared out Nagrand. 
- Captured all pets that can be battled in the wild in Draenor. 
- I'm advancing professions as quickly as the time-gates allowed.  One detour here - I'm continuing to farm the Pandaria farm for cloth, so I can make nearly free 28-slot bags every two weeks or so. 

At this point, I have some amount of stuff that I can loot for zero effort in about 20 minutes each day at my Garrison.  There's a daily quest that I've done once to go to a level 100 area and farm a relatively modest amount of an endgame currency - I can see this getting old pretty quickly.  Otherwise, I can level an alt (including the "free" instant 90 that came with the expansion box) for fun and additional garrisons.... or go do dungeons.  I don't know that I'm going to be sold on doing dungeons.

There is a lot to like in Draenor.  The world is pretty and does much more to encourage exploration than recent expansions have done.  There are constant little blips in the world for looting treasure, killing rare spawns, and even triggering events by just taking the time to kill mobs attacking a town without a quest to do so are in some ways a bigger innovation than anything Blizzard did in Pandaria.  The story is alright, though a bit focused on having major villains escape to go be raid bosses (perhaps appropriate for revisiting Draenor). 

But overall, I'm a month in with a month left on a 60 day time card and I'm not entirely sure what to do with that time.  Perhaps tomorrow's patch will shake things up, but this does not bode entirely well. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Heroes of the Storm Alpha Business Model - Complaints Heard And Disregarded

The Heroes of the Storm "technical alpha" wrapped up on Tuesday with a mostly uneventful patch to what they are technically calling "beta" - seems like the same game it was on Monday, plus a new hero, some usual patch fixes, a new battleground, and addition of the game's new lower-tier ranked mode.  My experiences in the game have been generally positive, and overall I am okay with the business model.  However, I will say that it is very striking how - and why - in this model widespread criticisms are known and simply do not matter to the developer's bottom line.

How I spent my "Alpha"
From the reset in early October until Christmas-time I played this thing about 3-4 hours per week to complete daily quests and work on any heroes I did not own in that week's free play rotation.  At Christmas, they announced a unique portrait icon for reaching the maximum account level of 40 during alpha, so I made a push to do this.  In the process, I advanced all but one of the game's heroes to at least level 5.  This unlocks all talents for the heroes and also a one-time payoff of 500 gold per hero.  Collectively, I hit level 40 with a grand total of 52,000 gold, including one time awards of 6000 gold that all accounts get in the early levels and 15,500 gold for leveling heroes.  (Murky, who has yet to be free to play since the alpha reset, and the newly released Thrall are each worth another 500.)  I.e., I pulled down roughly 30,000 gold in normal (not one-time) income over a three month period.  

As an early alpha player, I was able to take advantage of a heavily discounted bundle that offered ten heroes who cost a total of 64,000 gold for $29 - more than half off, as 10,000 gold heroes normally cost $10 in the store.  This skewed my experience slightly in that I already owned many of my staple heroes before I had to start spending my in-game currency.  I was then able to pick up my top five favorites from heroes I did not own - Anub'arak, Azmodan, Gazlowe, Valla, and Rehgar - for 33,000 gold, and left the alpha with the remaining 19,000.  This sum buys basically any two heroes of my choice, but could in principle have gotten me to a roster of ten characters if I had been starting from zero.

Ten characters matter in Heroes due to how the game has implemented draft mode for ranked play.  In addition to an account level requirement, you must have permanent access to ten heroes - NOT including the weekly free rotation - because you could theoretically get the 10th pick and watch the first nine players pick nine of the ten heroes you own.  The community perceives this move by Blizzard as a way to try to encourage players to buy heroes for cash, though I can see some value in not having the weekly draft strategies vary extremely widely based on who is available for free that week.  The bigger issue is that, especially early on, players will very likely fill out their roster with the cheapest characters, which will skew the meta and also likely lead to acrimony with pick-up-group teammates when someone with does not own any top tier heroes who remain on the draft board. 

At the end of the day, I don't have too many complaints about a system where 2-3 hours per week for daily quests will unlock a character of your choice for free once a month.  The one flaw is that gold gain is heavily skewed towards the daily quests, with very slow gold gains (maybe 20-60 gold per hour) after your dailies are complete, which can make it feel unrewarding to continue playing beyond your first 2-3 matches of the day.  That aside, skins and mounts cost roughly what they do in other games and are purely cosmetic.  Bundles are underwhelming, though prices may do better in the future - you can buy a limited time package of a hero and their skin for 25% off, or you can unlock the hero with gold for $0 (almost always more than the 25%) and then pay full price for the skin (or wait for a future sale). 

Your complaints are known, but don't matter
With all of that as background, if you follow the community for this game anywhere, you will hear roughly the same complaints over and over again:
  • Players feel that gold gain per match (especially beyond the dailies) is extremely low compared to the cost of heroes.
  • Players do not like having to spend time leveling, including an hour or two leveling new characters to remove "talent gating" restrictions that often render that character ineffective, and high account level thresholds for the ranked modes (in my case, up to three months).  My readers can probably guess at this point that experience gain can be doubled through a cash store consumable. 
  • Players are very concerned about the significant one-time cost to get in the door for draft play, and the extremely high barrier before you own most or all of the heroes and thus are no longer affected by cost in your competitive draft picks.  
  • Some players are also objecting to the high price of cosmetic skins relative to heroes.  I buy fewer skins in this and other games as a result of the pricing, but at least these are cosmetic items and will be discounted for sales.  
Blizzard can read, so these complaints aren't news to them either.  In fact, one unusually brave interviewer actually asked about most of these topics and Blizzard stated that they are aware of the complaints but made the decisions deliberately to make money so they can support the game. 

The business model of a game cannot be a democracy, as the people in this case aren't even willing to pay for cosmetic items.  Likewise, there are many issues with the "good old days" of the mandatory subscription model, which among other things is all-but a dealbreaker for me these days.  The one issue we did not have in the subscription era was player buy-in/acceptance of the model; if you didn't buy, you weren't in. 

The decisions that developer make in games like this one (and others, such as Marvel Heroes) don't just write off the non-paying majority.  You can be paying (in my case, $43 for a title that is still in pre-release testing) and still get the short end of the stick to leave room for other people to spend even more.  You can also be paying a lot less (or nothing) if you're prepared to tolerate various limitations.  The price is that we end up with models where your experience is impacted no matter how much you are willing to pay - for example, even if you own all the heroes, your PUG teammates may not. 

I won't say that the good old days were all good, but I feel comfortable saying that there are parts of being a consumer in this era that are frustrating at best.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

2014 Wrap-up: Resolutions, Expenditures, and Questions

2014 was a year when I moved to a new country, largely (though informally) dropped off from MMO blogging, and spent the majority of my time in a single game for the first time in years. (Perhaps 2008?)  I spent very little of that time in traditional MMO's and sat out the major MMO launch events of the year (which don't seem to have gone that well).  What did I plan to do, what did I actually do, and what did it cost? 

Marvel Heroes: $220

I started the year committed to a $130 pre-purchase of the thirteen hero Advance Pack and then added on $50 in cash store currency and a $40 team-up Advance Pack purchase.  I started the year still working on my first level 60 and something like 8 characters unlocked.  I ended it with 2175/2580 total levels, access to pretty much the entire current roster (all but one unlocked, solely because I haven't had time to play the latest two releases) and 32 out of 43 playable characters at level 60.  I might have been able to push through to cap everyone, but I saw no need to rush, especially with a few characters still waiting for their 52 reworks in the coming months. 

Having spent about as much time on this game as a traditional MMO, the amount I spent is mostly reasonable and the game treated me reasonably well.  The resources I did NOT spend unlocking all those heroes and team-ups sufficed to unlock the entire backlog of playable heroes from launch, and at least the next four new releases besides.  That said, with the current pricing strategy I did not have to think long before declining to "renew" the Advance Pack for 2015.  The discount sounds great on paper but it isn't large enough compared to all the frequent sales that don't require a year up-front commitment to bundles that include stuff you don't want. 

So, it'll be interesting to see where next year goes.  I think I will spend more than $0 and less than $220.  Probably some cash store currency, perhaps a bundle for the Avengers movie, it will depend on what's on offer and how the year is going.

Heroes of the Storm (technically alpha): $43
I was around for the alpha reset and bought up bundles containing a total of 14 heroes, 2 mounts, and a skin at a far greater discount than what Blizzard has offered since.  After trying the remaining characters during free weeks, I unlocked an additional 5 characters with gold.  Collectively, that's over half the roster (with gold remaining to unlock 2-4 more heroes depending on price point), and I have access to characters covering every combination of franchise/role currently implemented in game.  The goal was to get started with a budget around a retail game, and it looks like I'm good to go. 

World of Warcraft: $7.50 (discounted time card)
I used a pre-paid time card to tie up loose ends in Pandaria, including the pre-expansion event and somehow barely grabbing a LFR Garrosh kill before the pre-expansion talent revamp.  I liked Pandaria better when cherry-picking the fun parts at the end instead of trying to grind them them all on a deadline to try and jump the next hurdle.   

I've got some time penciled in for Draenor in a month or two.

Neverwinter: No Cash Spent
I own a level 60 character never paid Cryptic a cent.  Of course, the way this title works, actually gearing out that character would likely churn through a non-trivial amount of money.  Meanwhile, I spent significantly more time leveling and farming currency in the out-of-game portal than in-game, which in principle means that my Astral Diamonds helped encouraged someone to spend real money on Zen to sell me. 

SWTOR: No Cash Spent
I used a double exp weekend to finish up my Sith Warrior's class story.  The expansion presale campaign was a bit wasted on me, as I wasn't willing to clear out that particular month on my calendar to take advantage of it.  At this point I'm likely to leave SWTOR on the back burner for a few more months anyway, and perhaps they'll reduce or eliminate the expansion fee (as they did last round).

Dishonorable Mention: Hex ($20 Kickstarter contribution last year)
I'm not going to list out every game I've previously played and/or spent money on that didn't get my time and money in 2014.  Hex, however, earns special recognition in this category because the defining feature that convinced me to pledge to their Kickstarter in June 2013 remains unimplemented. The game's plans for PVE content were a huge focus of both the Kickstarter campaign and the accompanying website, but have seen repeated delays, most recently a somewhat-obvious late-year statement that PVE would not be added in 2014.

In the interim, they may or may not get wiped out by a lawsuit from Wizards of the Coast (that they may or may not deserve - I've seen completely convinced people on both sides, and doubt that the real legal meat is available to the public at the moment) that certainly wasn't listed as a budget contingency in their Kickstarter. 

I can't say who the dishonor actually falls on (perhaps myself for having decided to offer up $20 and considered paying more), but it's a typical tale for crowd-funded video game projects, and I wish all of you who backed various MMO-hopefuls better luck. 

My relatively modest mop-up project on this front was mixed.  I did complete Uncharted 3, and I also tried Infamous 2 before concluding that I didn't like it and writing the thing off.  I also procured a copy of Batman: Arkham Origins that I'd like to finish someday, but decided not to let that stop me from getting a PS4 for Christmas.

2014 Releases:
I've actually spent a few hours, and zero dollars in the open beta/soft-launch for Infinite Crisis.

That aside, TESO and Wildstar both reached the end of 2014 with subscription business models intact.  Based on the incorrect assumption that the game would launch on consoles in 2014, I had assumed that TESO in particular was unlikely to make it.  Whether either makes it to their respective first anniversaries without replacing their business model is a separate question.  In a possibly related story, Massively reports you can no longer purchase a 6-month subscription to TESO; it would make a ton of sense for the game to rip the band-aid off BEFORE the unspecified console launch. 

I'd also asked if we would see any F2P-relaunched titles get the axe in 2014, and SOE of all people came through by killing several titles, including Vanguard.  I guess that means so long to my former low level Goblin creature, gone off to wherever the inhabitants of Telon have ended up. 

And that's 2014, on to another year.