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What You Get in the Absence of Actual Information… October 18, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Rift, World of Warcraft.
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12 comments

In which I chase my tail in ever smaller circles.

Over the last seven years of blogging I have evolved something of a regular style and structure to my online musings.  There are a few standard posts I make, which I would sum up as:

  • I did a thing!  -  The general log of what I have done lately.  Generally things I want to remember;I moved a ship to Curse, I re-subscribed to WoW, I made it to the 21st hall in Moria.  Simple telling of a tale.  Probably the most common post on the blog.
  • The Instance Group did a thing!  -  A sub-set of the above, the ongoing tales of our group adventure.  Lately it has evolved into “The Instance Group did not do a thing.”
  • Remember that thing? – I pull out memories of some old game… Air Warrior, Stellar Emperor, TorilMUD… and try to assemble them into a coherent post.
  • A month passed with a lot of things – With 85 month in review posts already written, this is clearly part of the standard fare.
  • Things from my email – As you might suspect, something for days when I have nothing else to write about.
  • Quote of the Day – Somebody said something worth discussing.
  • Marking an event – A game shut down, an anniversary or other milestone has come, someone notable has passed.
  • I attempt something akin to a review – This never goes well.
  • Announcement of a new thing!  – A new game, patch, expansion, or feature is announced and I bring it up and try to figure out what it means to me.
  • A thing was announced, what does it really mean?  – Different from the above in the extent of information provided or how it links to the bigger picture are not stated outright, leading me in to speculation mode.

So that is ten standard-ish formats, with bit bucket, catch all, miscellaneous undeclared category to cover the remainders.

But it is that last one on the list that is often the most fun or interesting to write.  You take an announcement and whatever actual information is floating around on the web and you try to come up with a big… or at least bigger… picture assessment of what is going on.  It is a pretty standard format.  You see it on a lot of blogs.

I find it fun because it is the sort of thing I like to talk about.  But it is also pretty meaningless except as a discussion exercise because, as a complete outsider I (and most of my fellow bloggers) lack access to the whole story.  Key facts are missing and we are left to fill in the blanks.

For example, on Wednesday, I put up a post about Rift and the announced server merges.  It seemed to me that this was a sign that the post-F2P transition boom in popularity was over.

This was not unexpected.  It seems to be a standard phenomena when an MMO goes from monthly subscriptions to a F2P business model.  Once F2P hits there is a rush of new and returning players interested to see what is on offer, something I refer to as the “Happy Time.”  There is often a public statement about a revenue increase, which given that the business model transition was done for that reason, seems like a gimme.  Plus, the comparison often seems to be between low ebb of the previous model and the peak of the “Happy Time.”  You had best be able to multiply your revenue in that environment.

Eventually that settles down.  The company stops talking about revenue and players and such, unless they are a public company and it appears in the financial reports, and those of us outsiders are left to try to divine how things are going by inspecting goat entrails, reading tea leaves, and expressing disgust at the latest abomination being offered up in the cash shop.

I think the above scenario pretty much applies to Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest II, DC Universe Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and probably a few more;  business model transition, immediate declaration of success with increases in revenue and players, and then not much more on the subject.  No big deal.  All those games are carrying on and I do not expect that any will fold up shop in the next year.

But with Rift there were other data points.  The game had shut down in Korea and is headed the same way in China.  The parent company, Trion, had been through layoffs and office closings.  Outside of Rift, the company only has Defiance as a going concern, which has been awfully quiet while the companion TV series has been in re-runs.  And on the horizon for Trion there is End of Nations, which seemed troubled in beta when I tried it, and ArcheAge, which looks to me, perhaps unfairly, like yet another attempt by an Asian MMO to conquer the West.

So my speculation was that Trion might not be around as an independent entity a year from now.  Given the information available to me, that didn’t seem exactly like a shot out of left field.  The key there is “the information available to me.”

Later, in a special guest star, walk-on appearance, Scott Hartsman, CEO of Trion, left a comment on the post correcting me on my server count and dropping a tasty morsel about Rift’s F2P performance, saying that Rift has had the most sustained success in a F2P transition “by the numbers.”

On one hand, this is a fresh new data point for me, and a fair comment from the person who must certainly know more than I on the subject.  The “Happy Time” might be over, but it is far from gloom and gray skies for Rift.  My relationship with the game is…complicated… but I don’t want the game to go away.  Some day our regular group will return and finish its run through the five person instances.

On the other hand, that comment just opens up a new can of “what the hell does that mean?”  What numbers?  Representing what?  Compared to whom?

Must have more information!  Stop me before I speculate again! (And will Rift then make Raptr’s yearly list?)

Following this up was a comment from another reader who, among other things, expressed a desire to get away from the sharded existence (against which I have railed in the past) that seems to be the norm for MMORPGs and to move towards a single server concept, even if it meant going with instanced versions of zones as Neverwinter is doing.

I could hardly disagree with that idea.

The odd thing about the comment though was that he did not suggest moving away from shards for the good of the community or for letting friends play together rather than being stuck in different versions of the world.  No, he seemed more interested in removing servers so that people like me wouldn’t report server merges as bad news.

With a single server, there are no merges!  Nothing to see here, please move along!

That seemed to be going down the path towards gaming companies making even less information available, which actually seems to invite more speculation about the health and well being of such games, not less.  After all, we will find a way.  We will look at Raptr reports or weekly Xfire numbers or the number of instances of a given zone on a Saturday night (Only 2 instances of the Frostfang Sea? The game is clearly dying!), and build fresh sand castles in the face of the storm.

Which brings me to what I suppose is the question of the day.

Is it better for companies like Trion or Turbine to keep the health of their games under wraps, dribbling out a tidbit now and again but otherwise letting speculation run wild without a retaining wall of fact?

Or is it better to be in the boat with NCSOFT, Blizzard, and EA who must, as part of their financial reporting requirements, pony up an assessment backed up with financial data every quarter?

Which is better… or worse?  Rift announcing the closure of 30% (22 to 15) of its servers in a single announcement or being able to track, quarter by quarter, WoW losing 36% of its subscribers (from “more than 12 million” to 7.7 million) since the Cataclysm peak?

Or should we… you know… just go play the damn games already?