Looking Back at 2012 – Highs and Lows

Every year I try to come up with a list of highs and lows for the year.  You can go back and read my 2010 and 2011 editions if you so desire.  I often complain about the same things year after year.  As for 2012, this is what I recall.

Free to Play

Highs:

  • Another pile of games went from subscription to free to play as a default business model.  If you are a fan, you have lots of options now.
  • Free to play continues to offer the best “free trial” option for games.

Lows:

  • Clearly the dominant business model to the extent that being free to play no long bestows any sort of competitive advantage as it did back when DDO and LOTRO made the transition.  Merely going free to play will not save your game.
  • Being a primary source of income, with revenue targets to achieve, the in-game cash shop becomes a major focus of free to play games.  Increasingly, it is players who buy from the cash shop who matter most, even in games like EQII that push you to become a subscriber. Subscribing removes some annoyances and restrictions, but you are still pushed to buy from the cash shop.  They even hand you a bit of their RMT currency every month in order to prime the pump.
  • An early justification for cash shops and RMT currency was the idea of selling thing to players that could not be paid for via credit card due to transaction fees.  The idea was that players would be offered many inexpensive items that they would buy en masse.  Instead, items that cost less than $5.00, or one third of a months subscription, seem to be the tiny minority of items available… at least at the generally understood value of the RMT currency.
  • The vicious circle of discounting the RMT currency to drive people to purchase it, followed by cash shop discounts to soak up the ensuing currency glut may be emerging.
  • Some players seem to think they can get something for nothing.  They cheer when a game goes free to play, but then get upset when the inevitable reality emerges.  There is no such thing as free.

Turbine

Highs:

  • The pleasant Middle-earth charm of LOTRO can still be found.
  • The Riders of Rohan expansion has received much praise.
  • Still one of the few F2P MMOs that lets you earn their cash shop currency in-game.
  • Have I mentioned their music system lately?  Why hasn’t anybody shamelessly ripped this off?

Lows:

  • Not actually playing LOTRO, there is little chance I will see any of that cool new Rohan content… well, ever.
  • The heady days of F2P success have clearly worn off, and Turbine’s WB overlords have been cracking the revenue whip.  So we have the despoilment of Middle-earth moving forward in the cash shop.
  • Really one of the great passive-aggressive community relations fiascos occurred when Turbine asked for comments on their awful hobby-horse idea with the caveat that they didn’t want to hear anything negative.  That sort of thing never turns out badly.
  • And the F2P divide continues.  You can be a fan of the game, but unless you are buying stuff from the cash shop, you don’t mean anything.  And so some long time fans of the game seem to be moving on.  Eru wept!

Sony Online Entertainment

Highs:

  • EverQuest still going 13 years in and now has parcel delivery through the mail, more zones, five new levels, and hotbars that look like they are now from this century.
  • EverQuest Mac got a call from the governor while on death row, so lives for a while longer.
  • Planetside 2 launched!  That is a massive shooter!
  • Vanguard is alive and free to play and getting content updates!  And Brad McQuaid is back working on it.
  • The Krono experiment will make for an interesting change to watch.
  • Vague promises of a more sandbox-like EverQuest game in EverQuest Next in hopes of breaking the “me too” MMO mold where everything is basically based on EverQuest.  Sounds interesting, but we’re a long way from reality.

Lows:

  • They screwed up Station Cash valuation through heavy discounting and cash shop blanket discounts to the point of requiring SOE to stop selling expansions and gold subscriptions for Station Cash.  This in turn puts more pressure on the cash shop people to sell a couple of useful items and piles of cosmetic crap.  Meanwhile, the triple Station Cash sales continue because, of course, they have trained us to hold out for that.
  • SOEmote.  Science experiments are cool and all, but SOE is starting to accumulate a few too many such things in its basement.  Voice control, Station Launcher, will SOEmote join these on the scrap heap eventually?
  • EverQuest Online Adventures fell by the wayside.
  • Didn’t SOE already have a sandbox-like game in SWG?  The word is that Lucas was behind NGE and the closure, but SOE still has blood on its hands.
  • The EverQuest time locked progression servers seem to be dying from neglect, which is ironic because every player on those servers is a subscriber.  That is a requirement.  So I guess we see where a server full of subscribers ranks in the free to play world?

CCP

Highs:

  • No major player revolt provoking crises.  There is always some drama and things to piss off players, like the inventory changes.  But there was nothing that came anywhere close to the uproar when flying in space was set aside in favor of space Barbies with the Incarna expansion.
  • Really some cool new features in this year’s EVE expansions.
  • A year in null sec was a whole new experience for me.

Lows:

  • With no crisis to rise to, the EVE Online CSM went back to being just a marketing tool. I can see no tangible benefit to players from CSM7.  Roll on galactic student council.
  • DUST 514?  Have you heard of it?  Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you while you were playing PlanetSide 2.
  • So, yeah, null sec.  The wars are over.  What now?

Blizzard

Highs:

  • WoW still has more players than any other subscription MMO you play… not that there are many of those left.
  • WoW remains immensely profitable.
  • Mists of Pandaria shipped, putting WoW back over the 10 million players mark.
  • Diablo III shipped at last, and sold a lot of boxes, both real and virtual.

Lows:

  • Pretty much done with WoW for now.
  • No StarCraft II expansion yet.
  • Diablo III shipped about five years too late.
  • Customer support dickishness around the ability to shut off future payments when you signed up for the Annual Pass.  You can be a dick about many things, but when you start refusing to stop billing credit cards, you have crossed a line.
  • The Blizz obsession with hacks and cheating turned Diablo III into an “always online” experience that lead to the Error 37 fiasco and much complaining about things like server downtime and patch days.
  • The Diablo III auction house, a clear reaction to the illicit RMT that happened in Diablo II and WoW, managed to kill off the “item hunt” part of the game for some.
  • The level based difficulty of Diablo III meant having to play through the whole game in normal mode just to ramp up some challenge.  Some people will be happy to play through the game four times with each character.  I am not one of those people.
  • Stark failure to plan for more content once Diablo III was played out.
  • Titan?  Hello?

Trion Worlds

Highs

  • Rift continued to evolve and add features to keep players active.
  • Rift launched an expansion, the classic “next move” for a successful MMORPG, that added more content, new styles of quests, and player housing.
  • Trion managed to keep to the subscription model for Rift, thus avoiding the ruination of immersion that cash shops inevitably bring.
  • The instance group made it through all the pre-expansion instances in Rift.
  • I managed to get a level 50 character of each of the four classes before the Storm Legion expansion launched.

Lows:

  • Declining subscriptions, soft server merges, lots of “WoW did it first” additions.  They have spun the server merges as a “good” thing and have gotten all of the servers into clusters for warfronts and the like.  But less people means less subscription money.
  • Layoffs.  Not sure yet what this impacts, but it clearly isn’t a sign of sunshine and lollipops.
  • Rise End of Nations seems doomed.  But I couldn’t play it in any case as it refused to run because I have my default text scaled to 120% in Windows, or so said the error message, and I am not going to reset that every time I want to play a game.
  • Cash shop interface is already in Rift, foretelling a transition to eyesore mounts and ugly cosmetic gear… though, honestly, I am not sure I could tell the difference in Rift.

World of Tanks

Highs:

  • The physics revamp was a huge improvement for the game in my opinion.  Power slide that TD down a hill!
  • Free to play that can actually be free without being oppressive.
  • Made gold ammo available for standard credits.

Lows:

  • Got bit by that NA/EU divide.
  • In the end, it is just a shooter dressed up in vehicles.  I will get bored of the same maps and the same tactics in every game sooner or later.

Steam

Highs:

  • Lots of big sales.
  • Still a reasonable way to buy games and keep them updated.

Lows:

  • Has basically trained me never to buy a game until it is at least 50% off of list price.
  • Even with heavy discounts, I have pretty much stopped buying because I don’t really need any more games.
  • I need to delete some of the games I have on my system because there are too many updates downloading.
  • Came home to find the internet down, which meant I could not play any of my games on Steam once I booted up my computer.
  • I still don’t see why anybody would buy or download an MMO from Steam.  I don’t want to log in and start Steam just to turn around and log in and start the MMO, which will then patch itself.

Misc. Gaming

Highs:

  • GuildWars 2 shipped at last.
  • Torchlight II shipped at last!  And it is pretty good.
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic actually has an expansion planned.
  • Kickstarter seems to be getting people excited about games.

Lows:

  • As is typical, the Guild Wars 2 fanboys remain pretty much blind to any faults.
  • Torchlight II still isn’t Diablo II.  But expecting that it would be was probably too much.
  • SWTOR basically slammed the door on the subscription model’s dick, while introducing some new noxious ways to implement free to play.
  • City of Heroes gets the axe based on opportunity cost.  It was making money, just not enough money.
  • Glitch fails to get the quirky/greedy balance right, has to close.  I never played it, but I hope something was learned.
  • Most Kickstarter projects don’t make their funding goal, and apparently most that do make it find that they have underestimated the money they really needed or the time it was going to take to get the project done.  Sometimes things are delayed because the funding went way past the goal and the developer decided to add in all sorts of new things, as with Steve Jackson Games and their Ultimate Edition of O.G.R.E., but that seems to be the exception.  Of the six projects I have backed, two failed to meet goal while three of the other four are way behind schedule.  (Go Defense Grid team!)  I am not saying that Kickstarter is a bad thing, but you have to go in with your eyes open.  It is less Wall Street and more “The Producers” than you might expect.
  • Streaming.  I completely fail to get that whole fad.  Why would I want to sit in front of my computer just to watch somebody else play a game?  And really, most of us aren’t as witty and amusing as we think we are.  I’ll just actually PLAY a game, thank you.

Well, that was all I could come up with.  But sitting at the end of the year looking back, I am sure I missed or forgot some key items.

What else should be on the list of highs and lows for 2012?

Reviewing My Questions for 2012

At the beginning of each new year I have a special post.  Sometimes if it predictions.  Some times it is demands.  Last year I decided it should be questions.

2012pic

I asked 12 questions of the new year.  12 questions for the year 2012.

I think it is time to see if I received any clear answers.

1. What fate awaits the Old Republic?

Love it, hate it, see it as a revolution in MMOs or as a symbol of that all is wrong, Star Wars the Old Republic is now a force to be reckoned with on the MMO landscape.  It has everybody’s attention for good or ill.  Where will it lead us?

That was the position at the beginning of the year.

Unfortunately, the answer since then seems to be “Over a cliff.”  That cliff was described by the chart showing ongoing drops in total subscribers every quarter after launch.

Apparently story and voice acting will only keep people interested for so long.  That works for a single player game.  For a subscription game, not so much.  And so the Tortanic began to sink, and it was heralded as the death of the subscription model for MMOs.  They did announce an expansion, so they will have some content to sell along side action bars and raid access.  But there do not seem to be clear blue skies on the horizon for SWTOR yet.

2. Can Blizzard stem the World of Warcraft subscription trend?

Sort of.  The annual pass option, which got you a shiny mount and a free copy of Diablo III, kept at least a million people locked into their subscriptions.  And while numbers still fell, they rebounded some with the release of the Mists of Pandaria expansion.  The peak of “over 12 million” appears to be in the past, but 10 million isn’t so bad.

And, of course, WoW still rakes in cash like no other MMO out there.  Reports of the death of the subscription model may be a bit premature.

3. Will Free to Play continue to be the gold mine/panacea for subscription games?

Panacea?  It certainly seems so.  SOE has thrown in fully for the free model, bringing all their titles save the original PlanetSide into the fold.  And certainly SWTOR is looking to that model to rescue it and revive their fortunes.

Is it a gold mine though?  Early reports from the LOTRO transition to F2P seemed to indicate that there was indeed gold to be had.  However, since then, there appears to have been some iron pyrite mixed in with the real thing, leading companies to try and cast an ever wider net to get players to buy their RMT currency and then turn around and spend it in their cash shop.

LOTRO, which at least lets you earn their RMT cash in-game, went towards the odious prize boxes and started suggesting things like the hobby horse mount.

SOE screwed up their RMT currency so badly with heavy discounts that they had to stop selling premium memberships and expansions in Station Cash.

And reports I have read indicate that SWTOR might not have figured out the magic formula for F2P success quite yet either.

So there appears to be a lot more work to be done on the F2P front.  Merely being F2P is no longer enough, as there are a lot of choices out there.

Companies keep bringing their games to the F2P altar, but that alone is no longer enough.

4. Who will really win the “Just Like Diablo” battle of 2012?

It depends on what you value.

I started to write a full post about it with the objective of declaring Diablo III the winner, but only on technicalities.  Basically, it does more to capture the atmosphere of Diablo II, while at the same time doing the most to destroy the game.  It just feels more like Diablo II, if you ignore the auction house, the always online aspect, the need to play through the game repeatedly in order to get to the most challenging game play, and a few other things.

That said, I think Torchlight II is, overall, a better game if you take the “heir to Diablo II” aspect out of the picture.  It doesn’t get anywhere close on story or atmosphere compared to Diablo II, but it managed to avoid the manifold mistakes of Diablo III while being light, fun, and full of options denied the players of Diablo III.

Basically, the answer for me is that neither game really wins the “Just Like Diablo” crown, mostly because it just isn’t the year 2000 any more, so neither game could really have the same impact.

5. When will we lose a game to hacking?

We seem to be safe from this still, at least on the MMO front.  Lots of security breaches, but  I haven’t read about a game completely brought down and destroyed, never to run again because of hacking.

So the only answer here I suppose was, “Not yet.”

6. Will SOE remain the only player in the MMO nostalgia game?

This stems from the Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server, about which I have posted often.

And my answer up until last week would have been “Yes.”  SOE is the only purveyor of MMO nostalgia.  I even got impatient by mid-year and went after the issue in a blog post.

After all, it seems like WoW could make a bundle with a similar scheme.  There are literally dozens of private WoW servers out there trying to recreate the “old” WoW, that being anywhere from day one to before Cataclysm.  I spent a bit of time on the Emerald Dream server and can vouch for the cathartic effect of playing an old-school version of the game.

But no such official venture looks to be forthcoming.

And then Turbine showed up with Asheron’s Call 2, fresh from the crypt, electrodes bolted on firmly in an attempt to create life where there was none.

I am not sure if it is quite the same thing, but it is something.  And it is nostalgic.

So SOE does not own the MMO nostalgia market completely.

7. Will Guild Wars 2 be the game changer in the MMO market in 2012?

Well, a lot was promised for Guild Wars 2.  But did it really change anything?

I have seen a number of GW2 fans lauding The Secret World for adopting the GW2 revenue plan, conveniently ignoring all the details that prove that they did no such thing.  Yes, there is the “buy the box” aspect for a free to play game that sure sounds a lot like GW2.  But what about the continuing monthly subscription model that unlocks things and hands out RMT currency as a reward?  That sounds a lot like an SOE game, doesn’t it?

I suspect that the “buy the box” aspect was a requirement only because they admitted they did not make their sales numbers, so it is either throw away all those boxes or find a way to keep selling them.

And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the “buy the box” plan was from Guild Wars, not GW2, so rationalize harder please.

Anyway, I think it is too early to tell.  GW2 only launched at the end of August, which didn’t leave a lot of time for anybody to react to anything they did in 2012, conspiracy theories not withstanding.

Maybe next year?

8. Will CCP ever be anything but the company that makes EVE Online?

Of course, they also helped make Lazy Town, right?  Next question.

Okay, yes, DUST 514.  It looms.  It seems like it could be something some day.  But that day was not this year.  So I can only say, “We shall see.”

Call me when DUST 514 is a thing and maybe I will be able to build enough enthusiasm to download it.

9. What will the earth shattering MMO announcements be in 2012?

I have to go with NCsoft shutting down City of Heroes, SWTOR going free to play, and Turbine reviving Asheron’s Call 2.

Oh, and that 38 Studios fiasco.  An MMO that never was will never be.

Anything else?

10. Will MMOs get redefined in new and interesting (or bad and annoying) ways?

No, nothing new here, move along.

Okay, maybe PlanetSide 2 moved the ball a few inches down field with a really massive online shooter.  But what else was there really?

11. Are we every going to get another decent MMO news podcast?

No.

12. What will Lord British do next?

Apparently jump on board the Zynga train just as it drives over a cliff.   Timing is everything in comedy!

So those are my questions and the answers as I see them.  I am sure somebody will remind me of a few items I missed… or will want to argue about Diablo III vs. Torchlight II.  But that is about it for me.

Now to consider next year’s post.

Quote of the Day – Worlds and Race Tracks

You can’t live on a race track. Races tracks are for racing. You go around a few times and quit.  Why subscribe to that?

Edward Castronova, The Decline of Worlds

Ever the virtual world visionary, Professor Castronova, in the post linked above, takes a quick look at how he feels being a “world” might affect which revenue models people are willing to accept, with Star Wars: The Old Republic and EVE Online trotted out as examples.

I think this ties into another quote from him:

Being an elf doesn’t make you turn off the rational economic calculator part of your brain.

That probably works both with the subscription model as well as the in-game economy.  And it certainly applies to elf, Minmatar, and Twi’lek alike.

Do you think that the “worldliness” of an MMO impacts what revenue model will work for it?

Does this play into the “three monther” issue?

A SWTOR F2P First Impression

One of my friends who played Star Wars: The Old Republic… until he ran out of content and unsubscribed… news flash, I know… decided to to check it out now that it has gone free to play.  He left me a few messages on IM about the attempt.

so i logged into swtor.  it is ridiculous

you have to buy hotbars.  you get one.  you get 2 character slots, and i cannot find anywhere to purchase additional ones

past that i said the hell with this and logged out.  the other highlight–you have to buy the ability to toggle whether your head gear displays or not

I thought they had canned the single hotbar thing?  Didn’t that cause a huge blow up on the forums?

And it sounds like they haven’t gotten the store quite worked out yet.

So much for first impressions.

SWTOR Update 1.5 – A New Hope

…our Free-to-Play option has arrived! For players who want to experience the dynamic world of Star Wars: The Old Republic without committing to a monthly fee, there is a truly viable option to experience all of the incredible content the game has to offer. Free-to-Play players can now play all eight classes up to level 50 without committing to a monthly fee.

We also now have our Cartel Market up and running so players can purchase unique items like the Gamorrean Axe or Cartel Packs that hold fantastic treasures such as the Kowakian Monkey Lizard and the Overlord’s Command Throne, in addition to allowing Free-to-Play folks the opportunity to purchase unlocks for Free-to-Play restrictions .

-From the Producer’s Letter for Game Update 1.5

So there it is, Star Wars: The Old Republic has now joined the rebellion against subscription-only MMOs.  They announced it back in August, but now the plan is in place.  They have turned off the subscription requirements computer and are going to let the economic force of free guide their path.

Free on their main page

This, along with their plan for regular content updates every six weeks (has anybody been tracking that?) is the plan to keep the game afloat.

I obviously have no real insight into the economics of the game, but the number floating around was “500K,” as in “the game needs 500K subscribers to be viable.”  And I find it difficult to believe that this move will give them the cash flow they are looking for.

Of course, I remain dubious of free to play in general, so you have to take what I say on the subject with that in mind.

While I like the idea of not having a subscription running for games I may only play occasionally, what the conversion does to games,  how the economic model forces them to throw some garish new shiny things in your face every other week, does not endear the model to me.  It tends to drive me away.

Anyway, we shall see what the future holds for SWTOR in the free to play galaxy.  Will it be a new hope, or just a false hope?

Certainly, less likely scenarios have come to pass in the Star Wars universe.

Complex Gaming Declares EVE Online Best PC Game of All Time

Complex Gaming has a list, and we all love lists!  Well, I love lists.

This list is a list of their Top 50 Best PC Games of All Time.

And their top pick on the list is EVE Online.

Stuff blows up in space!

I cannot imagine that will cause any controversy.

Actually, the whole list is pretty controversial to me and seems pretty heavily weighted towards more recent games.  I would argue about whether Civilization V should be on the list relative to past versions. (I prefer Civ II still, and I know there are Civ IV partisans out there.)  And should both Torchlight AND Torchlight II make the list?  And both StarCraft AND StarCraft II?  Really?

On the MMORPG front, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Star Wars the Old Republic and, of course, EVE Online make the cut.  No EverQuest and no Guild Wars 2 though.

And LEGO Star Wars III but not LEGO Star Wars – The Original Trilogy?  Heresy!

Ah well, such lists are pretty much designed to stir up controversy.  How do you pick 10, 20, or even 50 “bests” out of such a huge body of work without leaving something out?

Maybe I should work on my own list.

SWTOR – Two Years After EA Louse

You remember EA Louse, right?

He was the guy who wrote the tell-all post about the failure of Warhammer Online?  If not, well, you missed it.  At least in its original habitat.  The blog was shut down for violating terms of service, though you can read the original post here.

More is the pity, since it had something approaching the most epically self destructive comment sections… nearly 1,500 comments long… that I have ever seen.  It even had some great throw backs to past events.

The main focus of the post was why Warhammer Online failed and it included the usual aspects you find in most of these stories; unrealistic goals, out of touch and lying management, a dramatically over optimistic public spokesperson, and bad marketing.  The only likely suspect to be exonerated was Mark Jacobs, who was described as being too heads down trying to fix things, though that sounds like a leadership sin as well.

None of that was very controversial by the time EA Louse posted it.  Warhammer Online was a year old and had come and gone as far as the mainstream MMO market was concerned.  If that had been the sole focus of the post, it would not have seen so many comments.

But EA Louse took some time out from his Warhammer Online reminiscences to go after BioWare and Star Wars: The Old Republic, a product which had at that point been in the public eye for more than two years, and was still about a year from being launched.

Rehashing the past is easy, predicting the future though….

Anyway, thanks to the magic of the internet, I still have his original post. (And all of the comments. RSS feed local save for the win!)  And this is what EA Louse had to say about SWTOR:

And Bioware? Don’t make me laugh. They’ve spent more money making the Old Republic than James Cameron spent on Avatar. Shit you not. More than $ 300 million! Can you believe that?

And you know what they’re most proud of? This is the kicker. They are most proud of the sound. No seriously. Something like a 20Gig installation, and most of it is voiceover work. That’s the best they have. The rest of the game is a joke. EA knows it and so does George Lucas,they’re panicking , and so most of Mythic has already been cannibalized to work in Austin on it because they can’t keep pushing back launch.

Old Republic will be one of the greatest failures in the history of MMOs from EA. Probably at the level of the Sims Online. We all know it too…

This, of course, drove the BioWare/SWTOR fanboys absolutely insane.  This was the fire that fed the comments section, as a lot of people were (and remain) very emotionally invested in SWTOR.  They called bullshit, grabbed torches and pitchforks, and created an epic comment thread of bile and hate.

That is all history.  But here we are, about 10 months after SWTOR launched.

Yes, it did not make the clearly hubristic numbers initially set out as subscription number goals, and the subscription numbers they did get started dropping after the first quarter.  Then after only a few months and some layoffs, EA was claiming that SWTOR was not an important title to their lineup as people seemed to think.  Which, along with the whole conversion to free to play, starts to sound like things have, at a minimum, have not gone as planned.  And then key players at BioWare started jumping ship.

But it isn’t dead yet.  And they are talking about regular updates.

Still, that is a lot of money spent.  And you can just bet that LucasArts gets their cut every month, which no doubt is part of the overhead that made the 500K subscriber mark the line in the sand for profitability. (Then again, SWG remained viable while never hitting the 500K mark, and SOE was always adding to the game.  So does SWTOR face more overhead or simply more greed?)

So here we are, two years after that post.  Has EA Louse and his view of SWTOR been vindicated by history?

I am My Character, and He is Mine

There was an AD&D campaign that we started way back in the neolithic age.  This was the version 1.0 AD&D era.  Our Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals still looked good, the dungeon master’s screen was a new and exciting item, and strange philosophies, like the cult of THAC0, were still years in the future.

I still have these three books

The older brother of a friend of mine was going to run it.  He was one of those very smart and very creative types… and a college boy at a time when we were all in the pre-driving stage of high school… who could generate a campaign out of thin air that would get you excited to play.

So we sat around the living room of his parent’s place, rolling up characters and arguing as to whether characters from other campaigns could be brought in.  Arguments broke out over some powerful weapon that had no back story and how in the hell Spit the Spellbinder gained so many levels and whether or not that guy who always had to play a female role would be allowed to bring his character “Bodacious Ta-tas” along or would have to roll up something new that actually fit in a goddam fantasy setting outside of his wet dreams.

The usual stuff.   Many a campaign has died a quick death after a session like this.

In the midst of all of this I quietly rolled up, named, and equipped a ranger.  It wasn’t a bad class back then.  And, of course, I was under the influence of Tolkien at the time, and we know what his rangers are like.

Surprisingly, once a rule lawyering argument wrapped up about the relationship between experience and gold (The rules, as I recall, assumed that gold came with experience and getting experience should always be accompanied by a specific gold payout. Our DM didn’t hold with that, declaring that each was its own reward, but then insisted on holding to the rather steep fees required by guilds to level up a character.  It was a more complicated time.), the party actually started to come together.  Spit was in, Bodacious was out, and we actually looked like we might get past this first hurdle.

When the call came for my character sheet, I handed it over.  The DM glanced at it, tossed it back at me, and said, “No rangers.”  Being the only person in the room at this point who had not engaged in a heated discussion with the DM, I began to wonder if an argument was a requirement to join in.  I asked why not and the DM said he did not like rangers.

Had I been a more experience player at this time… or at least not a surly teen… I might have accepted that for the flashing red light warning that it was, crossed out ranger, wrote in fighter, and just got on with things.

But, dammit, I wanted to play a ranger.  A brief argument started in which it was declared, among other things, that rangers do not go under ground so he couldn’t come along in any dungeon or some such.  But the weight of the room was on my side.  Everybody else was ready to go and a lot of people were annoyed by the demands of the DM to that point, so I had support for my cause.  We just wanted to get on with it.

So with a huff, my ranger was allowed on the list with all the grace of Darth Vader accepting the failure of a subordinate.  My ranger would be made to suffer.

Not that it really mattered.  It was a diverse group that had not played together as a whole before and, as fate would have it, would never sit down together in the same room ever again.  It was the simply the amazing optimism of youth that set us down that path to another failed campaign.  And even if we had managed to get the whole group back together, things were not going well.

The DM made one of the classic blunders of campaign starts.  He put us all in a small town with an inn and expected us to go where he wanted without being totally strong armed into it.  One of the issues with this sort of free form campaign is that many holes come up in the environment, which is the sort of thing that attracts players like moths to a flame.  It is like handing the players a map with a town, a castle, a dungeon, and a blank area on it.  We will go to the blank area, thinking that the DM is hiding something cool there, never considering it is blank because the DM didn’t finish that bit.

We managed, as a group, to make it to the inn.  But we never left.   Things fell apart in all the expected ways.  For example, our DM was worked up about having a ranger in the party, but didn’t care that an elf and a dwarf were on the list and failed to take into account that Mr. Bodacious, who was now playing the elf (of course), would role play dwarf/elf enmity for all it was worth just because he was in a pissy mood at that point.

And part of the reason that things fell apart was that the DM decided to take over my character.  Not literally.  But every time my ranger did anything he would roll some dice behind his screen… rolling unseen dice is a DM method of validating whatever the hell he wants to do… and would call out what actually happened, as opposed to what I was trying to do.

Essentially, my ranger became Stomper from Bored of the Rings.  If he grabbed his mug of mead, he would knock it into somebody’s lap.  If he managed to pick it up, he would spill it on himself.  If he stood up, he would knock over his chair… or the table… or both.  Other patrons would ignore him or laugh at him.

The DM decided to make a very amusing tale for himself by overriding stats and skills and turning my character into a bumbling oaf.

Most of the details from that day are pretty blurry some 30+ years later.  I do not recall how the game broke up, just that we never resumed.  I got in a fight with my friend a couple months later that lead to a parting of the ways.  I never saw the older brother DM again.  Spit never played again that I know of, joined the Army after high school, and ended up on a farm in Montana. (Thanks Facebook.)  Bodacious fled the valley for San Francisco after graduation, while another player’s family moved to Minnesota shortly thereafter.

It was a minor moment in my life, a few hours were spent together in a room with this group, after which we were scattered to the winds.  Literally.  I think of the group, I am the only one who still lives in Silicon Valley.

Yet to this day, I remember this session.  It was one of dozens of games played during high school, most of which have been lost to the mists of time.

I remember this session because it represents something I really do not like in games, which is the game putting words in my character’s mouth or otherwise dictating what they do or say.

It was a defining moment in gaming for me, and forever has it dominated my destiny.

Which leads me back to MMOs.  And quests.  And that sort of thing.

I hate it when games start to dictate how my character behaves, when they try to impose a personality apart from my own upon the game.  I will go along with the flow of your story or quest chain, but I will do it on my own terms.  That for me is the essence, the “role playing” part of a “role playing game.”  If I cannot have at least that, my connection with my character becomes weak.  And it is often that connection that keeps my playing.

Beyond my moaning about bad blaster based combat in the game, this was the other big failing for me in Star Wars: The Old Republic.  I found their fourth pillar, their dialog wheel, quite alienating.  About half the time I wanted a “none of the above” choice for my response.

I much prefer being left to my own devices.  And I think this gets reflected in the MMOs I choose.  Rift, which presents quests very much in the WoW model, offers up a take it or leave it choice.  Accept the mission for whatever reason or don’t, it is up to you.

And in EVE Online… well… nobody even pretends to understand your motivation.  You do what you will in the universe for what ever reasons you find.  In fact, finding reasons to do things is part of the trick of playing EVE.

Even Lord of the Rings Online, which ostensibly  is a very story driven game, doesn’t spend much time ascribing motivations to your character.

Meanwhile, it used to annoy me that once in a while EverQuest II would attempt to put more than bare minimum dialog in the mouth of my character.  SOE seemed to start off with dialog based question interactions as a goal, but then quickly reverted to basic “I’ll take your quest” or “Screw off, I’m busy” options most of the time.

But, as always, that may be just me.

How about you?  How much do you want a game to dictate your characters motivations and actions?

BioWare Not Learning Lessons

Publicly announcing metrics that are easily tracked and can be assumed to denote success or failure… isn’t that kind of how we got here in the first place, with the second most popular subscription MMO in the US/EU being hailed as a failure as it tries to change its fortunes by going free to play?

Support recycled graphics!

So color me mildly disappointed that some lessons remain unlearned as BioWare publicly commits to a major update to Star Wars: The Old Republic every six weeks.

“Well we’re committed to about every six weeks, doing a major update for the game — which would be a new warzone, a new operation, a new flashpoint, a new event — and to doing that on a really frequent cadence, every six weeks. So we’re going to stick to that”

Matt Bromberg, BioWare General Manager

Well, he did say “about” every six weeks.

And I suppose the things he mentions are self-contained enough.

But still, six weeks down the road, nobody is going to remember “about” or “frequent cadence,” they will only be looking at the calendar and saying, “Where is it?”  And if it isn’t there… well, we are back to Failsville, Arizona man.

Not that it cannot be done.  Look at what Trion has done with Rift.

But can BioWare, with its staff reduced and in the midst of a transition to free to play even begin to track to a six week tempo for “major” content updates?  Their track record so far doesn’t support this sort of pace.  Then again, without this sort of pace, they probably won’t succeed.  And I am sure they know it.  I suppose we shall see.

In the mean time, does this spell the end of the fully voices fourth pillar in SWTOR?  Is story dead?

SWTOR – Did The Lore Choice Hurt It?

As part of writing my homage to the stylings of SynCaine when it was announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to go free to play, I spent a bit of time looking for the right picture to go with the piece.

While I eventually went with another graphic, I was initially drawn to this piece which Google images was kind enough to bring to my attention.

Tortanic and the original cast

I really like the picture.  If it is yours, I apologize for using it without credit or permission.  I will happily assign credit where credit is due.  It is a master work of referential parody.

The reason I did not use it is pretty obvious; none of the characters pictured actually appear in the game.  That fact seemed to distract from the Titanic metaphor, and so I set the picture aside and went with another choice.

Later, I ran across the picture again in a folder of collected images on my hard drive and, in looking at it, I began to wonder if there wasn’t another message in it altogether.

If you were to make the picture correct for the SWTOR/Tortanic reference, what characters would you include?

Now, I fell off the SWTOR wagon pretty quickly in beta, so I may be way off base in saying that there are no of sufficient stature in the game to stand in for the original cast.  The game lore struck me as completely of Expanded Universe quality, which can be indifferent, and characters in such lore have a tough time breaking out enough to match even third tier characters who happened to be around for some screen time during the life and times of Anakin Skywalker.

Which makes a Star Wars MMO, where one of your key selling points is “Hey, Star Wars stories,” a bit more challenging.  Not that I think a Star Wars MMO has to trot out Han Solo the moment I show up just to get me to play.  That is crazy talk.

Okay, stop that you!

But looking at Star Wars games in general, those taking place in and around the movies out number those outside of that time frame by a fairly lopsided margin.  Just being original trilogy focused obviously doesn’t make a bad game good, but it certainly seemed to make some mediocre games more popular than they might have managed otherwise.

I realize that this ignores the popularity of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which is clearly the standard bearer for Expanded Universe games.  Certainly when it was announced back in 2008 that BioWare was going to be making what was essentially a KotOR MMO, there was quite a bit of cheering.  But were the cheers because the lore from KotOR was so good, or was it because KotOR was a good SINGLE PLAYER game regardless of the lore?

And I will also admit that eulogizing a game that was still, at last report, the second most popular subscription MMO in the US/EU, might seem more than a bit premature.  But even the stalwarts have to admit that the subscription trend was going badly and the decision to go free to play is the sort of radical change you do not make if things are going well.

All of which brings me around to my real question.

Do you think SWTOR would have been better, more popular, or longer lasting had it been framed in the lore of the movies as opposed to BioWare’s setting 4,000 years before the movies?