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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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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?

Comments»

1. tms - October 18, 2013

Regardless of what data points are available, speculation about the life or death of a game grow a life of their own and, I believe, can influence people about a game and whether they should be playing it.

Perceptions have power.

If you’d like a different example, look at the stock market and more specifically, Apple stock.

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2. Wilhelm Arcturus - October 18, 2013

@tms – Or, looking at the market today, Google.

But how much influence does perception in the MMORPG market really have relative to the influence of news sites and blogs and such?

Yes, if something gets a horrible review, a lot of people will shy away. But there is always that group of true believers who will discount all bad news who will label all bad news as the work of haters. People seem to stick to their initial impressions pretty rigidly when it comes to things into which they have invested.

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3. Jenks - October 18, 2013

WoW doesn’t close servers because they can sit on their hands and let many thousands of people pay $25~ per character to move off dead servers, while pretending the game’s population is perfectly healthy.

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4. Genda - October 18, 2013

I’m saying this as a former blogger. And I am former not because I don’t want to write any more but because I don’t want anyone to confuse what I say and thing with what my employer says and thinks.

That said, all of this has always been mostly an amusement to me. Even when I was writing I tried (and often failed) to keep from taking myself too seriously. I think you do a great job of that. Better than I ever did. But at the end of the day speculating and figuring and all that stuff doesn’t usually change my opinion of a game. The exception to that is if I haven’t tried it and EVERYONE is saying it’s total piss then I may avoid it. Sometimes I felt like a masochist and tried those games anyway.

Since I have come to be in the business, I am a little more sensitive to speculations about job loss and studios closing. I’ve seen it all around me. I have many friends who have been through it, some multiple times. I’m fortunate that my company has mostly stayed away from that although we have had one well-publicized adjustment of our own.

I’m not sure I have a cohesive thought here. I do agree with your observation of the “F2P” model. I think certain genre do lend themselves to it (think MOBAs) but as a last gasp hail Mary kind of thing I think it’s just that. One last infusion of capital before you start to wind that thing down. I’ve never been fond of that and I’ve never chased that. I don’t like gated content. I’ll throw money at you if you let me buy interesting things, or boosts, or that sort of thing.

I think the Subscription > contraction > FTP > irrelevance observation is spot on though. And I’ve always maintained that would be the trick with MMO’s.

Thanks for giving me a place to ramble. :P

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5. Wilhelm Arcturus - October 18, 2013

@Jenks – Clearly you have dived right into the real point of this post, pushing aside all that nonsense about speculation, perception, and levels of information access surrounding games in our favored genre. No, it was all another shot at talking about server merges.

Sorry, did I drip some of that sarcasm on you? I was laying it on rather thick.

Anyway, Blizz actually did what I would call a “soft” server merge with patch 5.4. They took some of the lower population servers and linked them up with other servers so that they share resources. They had already done that for certain zones, but now the servers are essentially merged, but without the need to resolve names and such.

So it is now theoretically possible to pay for a character server transfer and end up playing with the same people. And they still look like they have a couple hundred realms up and running. Perception win for Anaheim I think.

@Genda – My pleasure. I try never to take myself too seriously. I am more about having the discussion than finding the right answer around here.

And what was that CoW email I got a while back? Was there a forum I should respond in?

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6. bhagpuss - October 18, 2013

One thing that occurred to me about the recent Trion announcement was that the suggested language unification of Rift, which would allow English, German and French speakers to play on the same server while using their own languages, is probably a test-bed for ArcheAge. Supposedly most of Trion’s work on bringing it to a Western market relates to translation so why not do some live testing of the technology on an existing game first?

As for single-server architecture for MMOs, as you may remember I consider it the stuff of nightmares. I would say that my enjoyment of EQ2, GW2 and FFXIV, just to name three MMOS I’ve played recently, has been significantly enhanced by my feelings of personal attachment, and yes loyalty, to the specific server I chose for each of them. It’s like having a local pub or supporting a particular sports team – it adds emotional weight, often a lot of it.

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7. Genda - October 18, 2013

http://www.casualtiesguild.com

Was trying to drum up some interest, but honestly I think the old group is so fragmented right now that it’s a very long shot that we’ll ever get a substantial group going. Still love hearing from everyone though.

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8. mbp - October 19, 2013

It strikes me that f2p transition makes it much harder to gauge how well a game is doing. Partly this is because the revenue model becomes much more complex and you can no longer just count players and servers. Also f2p games do attract a larger more diverse group of players who are not plugged into the normal mmo blogosphere channels. A game that disappears off our radar may still have many thousands of paying customers. I have even noticed that a games own forums become even less relevant than they normally are after a game goes to f2p. The small subset of usually highly opinionated players who actually post on the forums (disclaimer I am often one of them) bear little or no relationship to the bulk of the paying customer base. This is true probably of all games but the phenomenon is amplified after f2p transition in my experience.

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9. Jonny 5iVe - October 22, 2013

Some interesting stuff mentioned here.

I too am often guilty of letting server population take over the leash and influence my decisions.

I’ve even been guilty of stopping playing a game I actually rather enjoyed, just because the server population dropped too much (read SWTOR).

Is that wrong? Should I of stuck with it?

Personally, I don’t think so. Playing an MMO when you don’t see anyone, and can’t perform group content is the total inverse of what the genre is all about.

I normally instantly try to find the auction house whenever I start playing a new MMO. It’s the best way to get an idea of how busy your server/faction is, and get a rough idea of how many people are active. A dead AH normally means that you’re going to really struggle to make any meaningful amount of cash too, and forget about getting some bigger bags anytime soon.

I do personally like the idea of a all-in-one server, even with instancing. If not for anything else, it makes for a much healthier economy.

All-in-all, there really isn’t anything more unsettling than logging into a game for the first time, and noticing there’s no one there.

Guild Wars 2 has tried furiously to get people using the early areas of the game, but it still hasn’t really worked. The only way I ever see that happening is by having scaling across the board, or simply doing away with levels altogether.

That brings about its own problems, but I don’t see any other method of achieving their dream.

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10. johnnliu - October 23, 2013

I’m pretty pissed off at my views being misrepresented in your blog. Fine, your blog, your final say. This is my last comment, I’m going home.

> Voice your opinion… but be nice about it…

Ha! I tried to be nice but all I got was this bruise on my face. Consider my tiny fragile ego bruised. Here’s my retort.

> 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!

You throw two ideas under the same bag. You see “server mergers as a good thing – because it helps the community”. You see “hiding numbers as a bad thing, because it means you can’t talk about this, and you will get your numbers separately from Raptr.

I see things far differently. “server mergers” is a good thing, because it encourages more players to play. This helps the community. And subsequently, more people will play. Yay XFire/Raptr higher rankings! Honestly, I take Raptr numbers with a massive pillar of salt. Even Blizzard throw in freebies in Raptr to get people to log more hours while they play.

I also see “hiding numbers” as a good thing. Because this doesn’t help the community. Because it is an inaccurate number, in fact, it is only used by people that aren’t playing the game. Because Game media loves bad news and a “server merge” or “drop in subscription” is a a great piece of bad news to write home about. It is also an unfair number since a number of new games now created completely hides this number behind auto-magical shard instancing technology.

All I saw from your post, and I think Hartsman tried to at least divert your train of thought, was: “oh look I’m not playing Rift at all, I don’t see the players being active in the world doing crazy events, all I see is Rift is dying due to my own personal situation and reading news headlines” Thus Rift is dead. Shame about the community part. RIP.

I see no value in this type of reporting. This is just “reading tea leaves” since it matches my personal belief and interpretation, everyone is guilty of cherry-picking their own data points and vindicating their own assumptions.

You should judge the game by seeing if you can get into a dungeon group, solo queued as DPS.

Judge the game by seeing major world events and how many players are participating and murdering your PC’s fragile (yes I used this word twice) graphics card.

Judge the game by the speed that limited quantity store items that are being bought, and the number of people upset that they weren’t able to get home early enough to have a chance to buy that very rare skin for the mount…

But this type of reporting is far more difficult. Because it requires you to be playing the game to see.

YOU, sir, sit on your couch in a different game, and make blanket assumptions based on completely flawed assumptions to start with. THIS I have a lot of issues with.

Let me label this clearly for you:

How is it fair, that a game like Neverwinter doesn’t get any flake when they spawn more or less servers based on demand.

But any older server architecture gets the unnecessary headline next day morning: ” server merge. It’s surely the end of the road”. Immediately followed up by ex-players with “It is as I have predicted. See I’m vindicated.”

I really like what @mbp said above. You need to read it over a few times.

These numbers might mean something once upon a time with the subscription model. Since a player unsubscribing from a game is unlikely to return.

In the free to play model, players come and go as they please. Perhaps they will return when their gaming group comes around. There are no barriers to entry. Rift, and many other MMOs will do well, and have transitioned successfully over to F2P. When a major content is released, they come back. Server shard instances surge. Then they move away again.

May be your *thinking* and general Industry headline reporting needs to transition away from reading subscription (or server merge) numbers and thinking that is your only data point in measuring the success of a game. If you feel that reporting based on this one type of data is necessary to bash a game, then I’m all for companies designing games so this number isn’t available.

Trion has a lot of issues in their attempt to diversify their portfolio. I with Hartsman all the best to navigate the company through this.

BTW Rift itself is fine. You should play and see for yourself. I read recently some of the new F2P guilds had cleared Tier 1 raid content. That’s pretty huge.

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11. Wilhelm Arcturus - October 23, 2013

@Johnnliu – If you actually read what I wrote… and, you know, understood it… then you would see that @mbp and I are pretty much on the same page. This whole post was about the absence of information, a clue you might have taken from the title.

As for your suggestions, you are pointing at very anecdotal things. If I log onto my server on Rift and I queue for a battleground or a dungeon group and I get one right away, I should assume business is great, but if it takes an hour I should assume business is bad? Right, it cuts both ways and is a pretty small picture view of the world when trying to divine how the game is doing as a whole.

“You throw two ideas under the same bag. You see “server mergers as a good thing – because it helps the community”. You see “hiding numbers as a bad thing, because it means you can’t talk about this, and you will get your numbers separately from Raptr.”

Actually, you have again misread what I wrote. I never said server mergers were a good thing, I said a single server environment like EVE or what Neverwinter is going towards are better that putting players on a scattering of discreet servers. That is a mile away from what you are trying to pin on me. And yes, people will try to look at how games are doing because they are interested in them. Trying to turn that interest and spin it as hate is distraction from the actual discussion at hand.

As for misrepresenting you, this is what your ended your comment with:

“Get rid of any other server distinction. Get out of this stupid smelly pool and go to the next one where reporters/gamers don’t talk about.”

You didn’t say you wanted single server environments because it makes games better, you said you wanted it so reporters/gamers wouldn’t talk about it. How else was I supposed to take that? And given what you have said above, it seems like a consistent message from you.

Seriously, I took your comment to heart and wrote a whole post here questioning whether companies should let out more data or less while poking at our desire to find these things out however we can, by whatever dubious devices we have to hand. So I am not sure where the rage is coming from.

> Voice your opinion… but be nice about it…

“Ha! I tried to be nice but all I got was this bruise on my face. Consider my tiny fragile ego bruised. Here’s my retort.”

Did I call you names, swear, or otherwise do anything that might be construed as less than nice? If you cannot handle people responding to things you have written by disagreeing… which, I didn’t really do, I just found your motivation different… I am not sure what to say. Have a nice day?

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12. Brian 'Psychochild' Green - October 23, 2013

I think most company activities are like a Rorschach test for most bloggers; you see what confirms your own biases. Login queues? Sign the devs are idiots that couldn’t plan ahead, or sign that the game was way more popular than anticipated. Free-to-play transition? Sign the game is poor quality, or sign that subscriptions are a dying business model. Server merges? Sign the game is dying, or sign that it’s settled into it’s core number of users after a spike of interest.

Perception is reality in MMOs. You learn this quick when running a PvP game. Something doesn’t have to be mechanically overpowered for people to feel it is overpowered. If “everyone” says that a game is dying, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because people won’t go play the game.

As far as single-shard, I still think there’s value in the individual server communities. But, yeah, having one shard makes it easier to “hide” how badly your populations are doing.

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