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.