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Quote of the Day – When You Have a F2P Hammer, Every Nail is a Microtransaction April 17, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Sony Online Entertainment.
Tags: , , ,
10 comments

The micro-transaction is so strong and it’s definitely a much better model. I think all companies have to transition over to that.

Tommy Palm of King.com, interview at IGN

IGN is becoming the place to talk about free to play and micro transactions.  And King.com, the new Zynga, certainly has reason to support that point of view.  They are making a lot of money and, true to Tommy’s word, you can “win” Candy Crush Saga without paying.  But they are also monetizing frustration, as has been pointed out by Laralyn McWilliams, which I am not sure gets them a lot of love.

Buy now or start over

Buy now or start over

People defend King.com by pointing out that a lot of people play through the whole game without paying or by noting how much money they make.  But I do not see many F2P advocates examining their monetization scheme (Laralyn McWilliams aside) and asking if that is the best approach.  The monetizing of frustration aside… which alone has kept me from giving a damn about any other game King.com has made… there is the question of buying progress.

Buying my way out of a level with their boosts… and as far as I can tell, there are no levels you cannot win on the first try if you have spent enough money… feels a bit like cheating.  It is like dealing out a hand of solitaire and then giving somebody $1.99 to tell you it is okay to re-arrange the cards so you win any given hand.  I would say that is, in essence, pay to win, except you are not actually playing against anybody but yourself, so I am sure somebody would take me to task.

So maybe it is more like pay to skip playing, in which case why bother playing?  That might explain why only 30% of players who beat Candy Crush Saga paid any money.  Where is the feeling of victory or the bragging rights if you paid your way through the tough bits?

Or to flip that around, I wonder how many of that 30% would admit to paying?  Sure, King.com knows they did, but would they tell their friends?

Anyway, you might excuse Tommy’s exuberance because of the corner of the market he is in and how much money his company is raking in.  They have likely spent more on TV ads for Candy Crush Saga than they did on actually developing the game initially.

But we also had David Georgeson talking about all games being free to play as well, and he definitely lives in a world where there is a lot of development expenses before you can start ringing up microtransaction dollars.

We’re effectively street performers: we go out there and sing and dance and if we do a good job, people throw coins into the hat. And I think that’s the way games should be, because paying $60 up front to take a gamble on whether the game is good or not? You don’t get that money back.

-David Georgeson, busking out in front of IGN

This is, of course, the utopian ideal, the big upside to the whole free to play thing, the idea that you only shell out money for what you like.

And I can certainly find examples to support this idea.

I spent a lot of money… bought the collector’s edition and a lifetime sub… on Star Trek Online, which ended up being a game I really didn’t enjoy playing.  A big fail on my part.

In comparison I spent no money at all on Neverwinter, which also ended up being a game I really didn’t enjoy playing.  But at least it was only time invested.

Those, however, are both negative examples.  Games where I was better, or would have been better off, with free to play.

But when it comes to the whole persistent world MMO genre, of which I am a big fan, I do not have any real positive examples where a free to play game really sold me.  Sure, I have played a lot of Lord of the Rings Online, even after they went F2P, and I was enthusiastic about EverQuest II Extended when it first showed up.  But those were converts from the old subscription model into which I had invested and I have had my ups and downs with both.  I think I am done with EQII, and if I return to LOTRO again, it will be because of Middle-earth and despite the microtransaction in every window nature of their business model.

So, while I am okay with microtransactions in many forms… I have enjoyed games like World of Tanks and War Thunder, and I think the iOS version of LEGO Star Wars has a great model where you get the base game and a few levels for free, then can buy additional content if you like the game… it doesn’t seem to work for me in certain areas.  The money-where-my-mouth is proof is the persistent world MMOs I am currently playing, World of Warcraft and EVE Online.

Fortunately, as small as the world of game development may seem, it still encompasses a broad spectrum of opinions on many subjects.  So while some are gung-ho on F2P, others are sticking with older models.  The Elder Scrolls Online just launched as a subscription model MMO, and WildStar plans to later this year.  Maybe EverQuest Next or Landmark or something else will change my mind, but for now I seem happiest with the alleged outdated model.

There is no one true path, and I always wonder and people who make declarations in defiance of that.  The industry cannot even decide on DRM.  We have had industry voices wondering while companies bother, yet just this week Square Enix was saying that DRM is here to stay.

Meanwhile, I hope we’re all spending our dollars on things we actually enjoy playing.

Thinking on Free March 4, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment.
Tags: , ,
32 comments

The word “free” comes with quite a bit of baggage.  Just sticking to money, as opposed to freedom, rights, and so forth, the baggage is not always flattering.  I see things being offered as “free” all the time, usually falling into one of these categories (straight from my spam folder):

  • Buy one, get one free
  • Free with purchase
  • Free gift with paid subscription
  • Free if you order now
  • Free consultation
  • Free resort vacation

The first four are not free.  Nothing is “free” if you have to buy something to get it.  And of the latter two, a free consultation is likely nothing more than an extended sales pitch, while the final one on the list is free if you don’t count the time you need to spend at the hard sell presentation to get you to buy a time share condo.  The purpose of the exercise is to get you to buy, not to give you a vacation.

Basically, the word “free” is pretty much a red flag to me.  I am either not getting anything for free or it is just a lure to try and sell me something.

Sometimes it is okay.  At the grocery store, if something on the shopping list is “Buy X, Get Y Free,” then that amounts to a price break, so long as it isn’t something perishable that will likely go bad before we use it.

So, despite the fact that, at an intellectual level, I can accept the MMO free to play business model for what it is and can see that it is beneficial in some ways ( it has probably kept LOTRO alive a couple of years longer than it might have otherwise lasted) at another more emotional level, it still sits on the same plane as somebody trying to sell me a timeshare in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Cue rant about EverQuest II popping up the “upgrade to GOLD” dialog in the middle of combat.)

Does anybody use “free” as their prime marketing message and not suffer from this?  Can free be a business model without the intent to hit people up early and often for some money?

Free, Free, everywhere!

Free, Free, everywhere!

I like the Rift ad especially.  That they felt the need to add “No Trials. No Tricks. No Traps.” speaks volumes.  And I think, of F2P models, they do offer more for free than most.  Probably too much, truth be told.  But it is clear that they understand the stigma, while perpetuating it at the same time.

Of course, this might just be me.  There is a very strong “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” theme in my world view.

I started writing this post a couple of weeks back after reading a particularly asinine “how dare you expect to play for free” comment in some thread somewhere.  “Devs gotta eat, who are you to question them?” sort of stuff.  I should have saved that link… or maybe it was better that I did not.  Anyway, I started in but my head of steam dissipated quickly, as it tends to on this topic these days.

And then the European Commission announced that they were looking into the use of the word “free” when used with games that have in-app purchases, with an eye to it being misleading.  And while their focus seems to be more on mobile apps, if “free” becomes bad for in-app purchases on one platform, it is pretty easy to then extend it to others.

I thought this would lead to another round of free to play blog posts, but not much has come along.  Azuriel posits that basically nothing can ever be called free if the European Commission’s potential ruling comes to pass, at least in the EU.  Meanwhile, Green Armadillo seems to be more on my own wave length, that using the word “free” when you fully expect somebody to pay is misleading at some level.

I was also interested to learn in that post that League of Legends has apparently stopped marketing with the word “free.”  Good for them.  (Though I had to quickly update my collage of free, as I had an old “Play for Free” LoL image in it.)

I can be a cynic, the world having thus shaped me, and talk about money tends to bring out the worst in people… you can mess with a lot of things, but as soon as cash is involved, the lid tends to come right off… but I also have mixed feelings on this.  Who decides what the litmus test is to determine how “free” something has to be in order to claim to be “free?”  And there is something to be said for personal responsibility.

What do you think?  To be “free” or not to be “free?”

On to BlizzCon 2013 and the Next WoW Expansion November 5, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Blizzard, entertainment, World of Warcraft.
Tags: , , , , ,
21 comments

BlizzCon is coming up.  In fact, it kicks off this Friday.

BlizzCon

We did not have a BlizzCon last year.  Blizzard claimed it was too busy to do the event.  And it did have a lot of stuff going on last year.

The last BlizzCon was 2011, which happened to be the third BlizzCon in a row that I watched via DirecTV.  While it had the big Mists of Pandaria announcement (and the subsequent groaning from just about everybody) I was kind of growing tired of the spectacle of BlizzCon.  I called it the BlizzCon Blues, because a lot of the aspects of BlizzCon… the tournaments, the costume contest, the dance contest, the talent show, Jay Mohr’s jokes… don’t really change from one year to the next.

And while I don’t want to be one of those people who says that Blizzard shouldn’t hold BlizzCon unless they have a big announcement… I am sure the people who attend will have a great time no matter what is said at the keynote or in various panels… those of us on the outside looking in are mostly interested in the news and insights aspect of the convention.

Fortunately, Blizzard appears to have a big announcement teed up for us.  Rumors began to fly when it was reported that Blizzard applied for a trademark on the title Warlords of Draenor.  The consensus is that this will be the title for the next World of Warcraft expansion.  Since this is coming from the same sources that have been correct on previous occasions, it seems likely to be the case.

People are already speculating about how this will fit into the jigsaw puzzle of lore that makes up World of Warcraft at this time, with blue space goats, pandas, and the Caverns of Time wildcard option.  Telwyn and Rohan both have some ideas about where this might fit. (And likely a good call by Green Armadillo for pointing at the Burning Legion.)

For me though, the lore is a second tier issue.  I will be interested in it, but this isn’t the same as Lord of the Rings Online where blue space goats would be an abomination.  Blizzard owns the lore and it is what they say it is.  If people can get past blue space goats and pandas, then I think we can get past whatever they have coming.

No, the primary concern for me is the mechanics of the expansion.  What will it actually add to the game?

History suggests that it will be five more levels, a new overland adventure area that is about 1 level per zone, so five zones.  This will be accompanied by some instances with various levels of difficulty available, raids, a battleground, and uplifts in all the various professions.  There might be a new class or a new race along with an expansion of what races can be what classes.  And all of this will be delivered next year around this time.

Actually, the progression of level cap changes suggests that this ought to be a 2.5 level increase, since the pattern so far has been to cut it in half every two expansions, though I doubt we’ll see that.

But 5 levels and all the rest, that is the safe bet.  It is almost mathematical.

And if that is what you want, you can probably rest easy.  Blizzard will probably try to add in some new game mechanic as a hook.  Maybe a new trade skill or some such.  We will probably find out Friday.

The question in my mind though is what should Blizzard add to World of Warcraft?

The game is about to hit its 9th anniversary and will be close to 10 by the time this expansion goes live.  It has been immensely successful, the industry leader for such games, and has set the standard in many areas, like system requirements, polish, and UI responsiveness.  It has been at the top of the heap for a long time, pretty much since it decisively dethroned EverQuest subscription levels in 2005.

However, being the biggest player, the company with the most market share, the 800 pound gorilla comes at a price.  Being on top often means becoming obsessed with staying on top, which generally means being very conservative so as not to screw up and alienate your customers or otherwise give a competitor an easy inroad on your position.  But that way tends to lead to stagnation and strange obsessions, which can be just as harmful.  For example, do you think anybody asked Microsoft to please make their desktop computer interface resemble that of a tablet?  No, that was all a product of Microsoft’s internal obsession about making ALL devices run on Windows, and since tablets are the latest big thing, Windows must look like a tablet!  So screw you if you don’t have a touch screen or see utility in the Start menu of old.

Unfortunately for us, Microsoft still has a stranglehold on the desktop, so you have may have to go with their awful ideas since your company probably makes you run Office and Outlook and whatnot.  Or your favorite game only runs on Windows.

Blizzard, however, does not have a similarly unassailable position.  There are a lot of competitors in the MMO space and in the gaming space in general.  Blizzard has seen its numbers slide from “over 12 million” to 7.7 million at last count, and I suspect that we will see quarterly drops until the next expansion.  And even then, I would be surprised if the game popped up to beyond 9 million again unless there was something huge to bring people back.

So what could Blizzard add to the game that might be a draw?

Well, not to cut too much on Blizzard, but they are really good at taking other people’s ideas and refining them into something better.  Note their homage to EverQuest at a past BlizzCon.  Without EverQuest there would be no World of Warcraft.  I would thus exclude anything really new and different.  So any new feature would likely have to be something a competitor already has.

What would that give us as possibilities?

Player Housing

This one has gone back and forth.  At one point Blizz said they were looking into it.  Later, they said that they did not want to pull people out of the common areas and into their own little zones.  Every company has their own cultural obsessions, and Blizz is obsessed with its servers looking populated and busy.  They like bustling home towns and crowded zones.

So housing seems like a long shot, which is sort of a shame.  I think Blizzard could do a really good job with housing, it could open up a whole new harvesting and crafting path akin to carpentry in EverQuest II.  There is the option of additional storage, trophy displays, prestige housing that would take gold out of the economy, guild housing, and so on.  Other games have really gone deep on this, and it is one of those things that will keep people tinkering after they have hit level cap.

Mentoring

Being able to go down in levels to experience content you have blown past or to be able to play with lower level friends without being the overkill king has its appeal.  Right now levels are a separator in WoW.  If your friends are at level cap and you are still on the 1-60 run, you won’t be playing with them any time soon.

Other games have attempted to solve this.  EverQuest II has had mentoring for ages.  Rift has it as well.  Guild Wars 2 forces you down levels when you go into lower level zones.  And the various implementations seem to mostly work.  Down leveled players always seem to be somewhat overpowered.

The question is, how would you want this to work in Azeroth.  In my heart of hearts, I would like to see the Guild Wars 2 method, though I think it would cause such an outcry from level cap players that it would end up hurting the game.

Mercenaries

This worked for EverQuest and EverQuest II, as well as showing up in other games like Neverwinter.  This lets you fill out your party or be able to go do multiplayer content alone.

I am not sure this would be a fit for WoW.  There just isn’t any overland multiplayer content any more, is there?  In EverQuest all of the overland content is pretty much multiplayer, so it was almost a required enabler to let people play when groups were becoming scarce.  But I don’t think this actually solves a problem for WoW, unless you think a tanking or healing mercenary will make Dungeon Finder queue times go away for DPS players.   And I do not think that it would fit in with Blizzard’s philosophy of the game.  They have Dungeon Finder and Looking For Raid to help players play with other players.

Free to Play

As much as Blizz loves crowded servers, I think they like buckets of money slightly more.  This change would give them more players, but every conversion is different and when you are already making buckets of money, even a strong likelihood that you could make more might not be enough.  A bird in the hand and all that.  Plus it would be incredibly disruptive.  We have seen with other such conversions that content updates pretty much go on hiatus while your team works on free to play.  And then there is simple pride.  Games go free to play when they cannot cut it on the subscription model.  No matter what you say, it is perceived in many quarters as a desperation move.

I could see them going on a path towards a monthly subscription getting you more.  Maybe there will be a tie-in or benefits with Hearthstone or Titan or other games.  But going the free route does not seem likely to me.

Player Designed Content

Cryptic has the Foundry.  SOE has its Dungeon Maker in EverQuest II and is pushing ahead with Landmark, its player focused building tool for EverQuest Next.  And player designed levels have a history with Blizzard in games like StarCraft and Warcraft III.  That is where DotA came from.  So there is precedent for this.

On the flip side, player created content is very uneven.  How many Dungeon Maker modules are “level you up fast” as opposed to actual adventures?  And the Foundry, while it has lead to some truly wonderful instances, does give players ample opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot of create otherwise crap content.  I think Blizzard could only do this if they committed themselves to vetting every single piece of content, a job which I think is beyond their abilities.

Other Ideas

What else is out there that Blizzard might have latched on to in the last year?  I would love them to steal the music system from Lord of the Rings Online, but it won’t happen.  Public quests or open zone events?  Level cap heroic versions of all instances?  An alternate advancement path?  Twitter and Twitch.tv and other social media integration?

What will World of Warcraft need when it hits its 10 year anniversary?

And what else do you think will come out of BlizzCon this coming weekend?

Rift and the End of the Happy Time October 16, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Rift.
Tags: ,
28 comments

The first thing I did when I leaned Rift was going free to play was cancel my subscription.

RiftFree

This was not a rage quit over the business model.  While I have reservations about F2P because of where the quest for monetization seems to eventually lead, I also see, as a player, some upside to the model as well.

The upside for an MMO going free to play is… or generally has been… a surge in players.  Servers, once desolate, are renewed with the very life’s blood of the game as new and returning players crowd into the game.  The world seems alive again.  You no longer have whole zones to yourself.  Queues for battlegrounds and such become tolerable.  Heck, if things are going really well, people might have to wait to log on.

I call this “The Happy Time.”

Every MMO that transitions from a monthly subscription model to a free to play model goes through it.

This is the time of the joyous press releases and the “everything is just grand” interviews.  Player numbers are up, revenues are up, and everything is going so remarkably well.

And then the glow fades.

The people who showed up to kick the tires or see what had happened since they left the game begin to fade away.  If the cash shop was stocked with one-shot purchases, like hot bars or bag slots, and vanity items, the ongoing grind to create and sell players on the next item begins in earnest.  And things begin to settle into reality.  The party is over and the need to make payroll and pay the the electric bill every month looms just a little larger in the gray morning.

The population isn’t likely to drop all the way back to the level it was just before the transition to free.  But the percentage of your population giving you money every month is likely to sink.  The point of free is to boost the population so that the economics of the cash shop work in the game’s favor.  And if you cannot manage that… well… things do not look good for the long term.

The happy time is over for Rift.  The warmth of summer has faded and a cold, dark winter looms.  Server merges have been announced.  The US server count will be dropping from 6 to 3 servers, while in the EU the number will drop from 8 to 4.  And, if I read the press release right, the only reason the number is as high as 4 is because Trion cannot currently support multiple languages in the interface on a single server.  But they are working on that, so you can expect the EU server count to drop further shortly after they get that working.

(Addendum: Per Scott Hartsman in the comments, and the shard status page, the total server count is actually more than that. The US count will go from 10 to 7 servers while the EU count will go from 12 to 8 servers with the planned consolidation.)

Game Director Bill “Professor Farnsworth” Fisher  has presented this in a “Good news everyone!” style announcement under the banner “Shard Unification!”

But this is not good news at all for Rift.  With the game already shut down in Korea and in the process of closing down in China, finding that the US/EU servers, which were running at capacity back in June, now need to be merged to sustain a viable population mix is a serious blow.

Of course, Trion Worlds is in the midst of other issues.  Scott Hartsman, who left as Rift’s executive producer back in January returned as CEO in August and quickly had to make some hard choices.  The Trion offices in San Diego and in the UK were shut down and the staff laid off.  Their game Defiance, which is tied in with the TV show, seems to be on shaky ground, while their MOBA title, End of Nations, remains in development after issues of its own.

So where does Rift stand today?  Once the plucky upstart that, under the “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” banner, was going to be all the things that World of Warcraft was and more while being more flexible and responsive and just better.

No, not Azeroth!

No, not Azeroth!

Rift seems to have lost its way.  The ambitious Storm Legion expansion seemed to get a lackluster response.  I know I had trouble getting into it.  The big transition to the new business model meant the live game faced some neglect.  And now that the big bet on free to play hasn’t paid off as handsomely as one might have hoped, we are left hanging, wondering what will happen next.

I wonder how Trion will move forward.  Will there even be an independent company named Trion in a year?  Or will investors sell the company to another publisher… EA is just up the road and not only has Trion done some work with SOE, but that is also Scott Hartsman’s old home… or merge the company in with some other investment.  Time Warner is one of Trion’s investors, and they also own Turbine.

As for why I cancelled my Rift subscription… well… the free to play plan as presented offered me no real incentive to do otherwise.  The was nothing that comes with being a “patron,” as subscribers are now called, that I felt I really needed.  The deal was, quite possibly, too generous.

Subscribers are called "Patrons" now

Your patron benefits

Meanwhile, the cash shop… which we discovered was linked in with all NPC vendors, so is completely unavoidable… has very little that interests me.

Welcome to every store in the game

Welcome to every store in the game

I haven’t spent many of the 20,027 units of Lucky Charms currency I was given as a veteran reward/pump priming exercise at the free to play transition.

I do not know where Rift will be in a year, but I have cannot imagine it will be sitting where it is today.

Where do you see Rift in a year?

Conspiracies, Immersion, and the Secret Life of PLEX August 26, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, The Elder Scrolls Online, WildStar.
Tags: , , , , ,
36 comments

In which I attempt to set a record for insulting the most gaming industry professionals in a single post as I meander towards a conclusion you probably saw coming a mile away.

The business model announcements last week for WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online have gotten a lot of people writing about subscriptions and free to play.  The subscription-only model, declared dead and buried after SWTOR got through with it, is now generally cast as a proposition that is all downside.  Any perceived benefits of subscriptions are illusory, or so says the man who failed to make it work.  So he ought to know I guess.  Just don’t disagree with him, he gets upset.

But then WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online inexplicably threw in with the model.  And the question of the day became “What the hell are they thinking?” as people declared en masse that they would never play a subscription only game.

My completely uninformed opinion is that the TESO team is just hopelessly naive, though in an endearing sort of way.  Down there at the Hunt Valley end of the MTA light rail line, life is good, the air is clean, and the atmosphere just fills you with hope that it is still 2001 and you can launch an MMO that is simply better than the original EverQuest and have a winner.

Cynics… whose outlooks have no doubt been shaped by the industry… have opined that the ZeniMax Online team has an evil plan to launch as subscription, cashing in to the maximum amount possible, only to be ready to swap to a F2P model as soon as the sheep realize they are being shorn.  Then it will be flying pig mounts, pinwheel hats, and hotbars for sale all day every day, with regular in-game pop-ups to remind you of the latest currency specials.  Because fuck immersion… as far as I can tell only about 6 people on the internet believe there is such a thing… and these are just video games, so why not turn them all into a carnival midway?  Just crank the crap volume to 11 already and be done with it.

In my world view… and really, the only thing driving my world view in the regard is the TESO team’s seeming lack of understanding as to what drives the popularity of Elder Scrolls games… hint: It isn’t the availability of something like Barrens Chat… the team at ZeniMax is planning a picnic on a nice green median strip in the midst Interstate 83 and are going to get hit by a semi-truck while crossing the blacktop.

Irony demands that it be THIS truck

Irony demands that it be THIS truck

(Picture stolen from the EVE Online Facebook page, where they were encouraging people to suicide gank this truck, and then cropped and edited.  Don’t view the full-size version. Like people my age, it only looks good at a distance, if at all.)

And then all the subsequent drama will be the result of an emergency team trying to stitch things back together while the aforementioned cynics nod their heads and point out that it was all a setup.

We shall see how that works out.

And then there is the WildStar team at Carbine.  What the hell are they thinking?

You could easily assume that they, too, were just another start up in a self-contained reality distortion bubble where “we can make a better WoW” seems like a reasonable proposition.  They have the experience, the talent, and they have thrown in with the monthly subscription model.  Easy to dismiss as either misguided or, again, hatching an evil plot to bilk players out of money for boxes before jumping to a F2P model.

But then there is the whole CREDD thing.  The PLEX comparison is obvious, but just as easily dismissed due to the nature of EVE Online.

These guys aren’t dumb though.  Right?  This isn’t SOE with its seeming blind spot as to the obvious next question the moment they announce something.  Maybe they have a plan, maybe they feel they can build a player driven market with EVE Online-like participation levels.

And maybe, just maybe, they have their own model where running multiple accounts gives you a serious, tangible advantage in-game.

Because it is that, plus the advent of PLEX, that could be driving growth in EVE Online.

Think about this.

In EVE Online I think we can all agree that playing multiple accounts gives you an advantage.

And that has been the case for quite some time.  Even when I started playing the game, way back in 2006, you were only really serious about your internet spaceships if you has an extra pilot in space.  Multi-boxing was common.  And hey, if you enjoyed the game, then one or two additional accounts wasn’t a huge stretch.

But then along came PLEX back in 2009.

EVE Online was growing before PLEX.  It continued growing after PLEX.  But I do wonder what impact PLEX had on growth.

Because after the introduction of PLEX, it was suddenly viable to run more accounts, so long as you could use them to create enough ISK to buy PLEX to pay their subscription.  Having two or three accounts gave way to having five or six or ten or a dozen.  Seeing formations of mining ships clearly controlled by a single person became more common.

Pretty blue lasers

One fleet, one guy

In fact, CCP has expressed concern about the rising price of PLEX at times.  A single PLEX was selling for over 600 million ISK earlier this summer.  That concern has always been couched in terms of being concerned with the in-game economy.  And it is hard to deny that CCP takes the in-game economy seriously.  But I have to wonder if there isn’t also some concern around the out-of-game economy; specifically the bit that pays the bills that keeps payroll going and servers humming.  Because, while some players play for “free” by buying PLEX, every active account is still paid for by somebody, and nothing says “winning” more than an always increasing subscriber base.  Grow or die, as they might say on Wall Street.

Is that what the WildStar team is hoping to achieve with CREDD?  Because if it is, they aren’t convincing me.

I have been through this before, but I would be hard pressed to name another MMORPG where the player base is as invested in the in-game economy as in EVE Online.  And the in-game is what drives PLEX and enables it to succeed to the point that it likely contributes noticeably to the subscriber base totals.  And WildStar hasn’t said a thing that makes me think that they can manage that.

So I am throwing in with the conspiracy group on this one.  Carbine must be making a cynical cash grab with this “buy the box and subscribe” plan up front, while readying the transition to F2P once the sheep are well and truly shorn.

Did I use that metaphor already?  I can’t help it.  I have seen sheep shorn, and they always come out looking pathetic, cold, and pissed off, in the same way certain MMO players do when their game makes that F2P transition.

Anyway, there is no other logical explanation for Carbine’s plan aside from a complete loss of grip on reality.  And the TESO team will probably claim they own that and sue.

But it sure has given us all a lot to talk about.

Oh, and Brian Green’s hair continues its complete and total migration towards his chin.

I felt I needed just one more insult to secure the record.  Did I make it, or do I need to bring up the NGE?

The Elder Scrolls Online: Throwing Itself Under the Subscription Bus? August 21, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, The Elder Scrolls Online, WildStar.
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21 comments

I moan a lot about the price we pay… both in cash and annoyance… for games that go free to play.  That is, in many ways, a reaction to people that seem to believe that “free” really means “free” and that there is absolutely no downside to dumping the monthly subscription model.  I try to sum it up from time to time.  But I still see plenty of people giving the free to play model unconditional their love.

That doesn’t mean I have left planet Earth however.  I can see still the scoreboard.

The reality of the situation today is that, if you are a new MMORPG on the market, the barrier to entry for the vast majority of your competitors is pretty low.  A couple games can get away with just a monthly subscription plan at this point.  World of Warcraft, because it remains more popular than any five western MMOs you care to mention.  EVE Online, because it offers an experience unlike any of its competitors.

But after those two, the market is pretty much free to play, with a few niche subscription model games hanging about.  Darkfall stuck with the monthly subscription because it is a niche game.  Camelot Unchained will have a monthly subscription under the current plan, but it seeks a niche and not market dominance as well.

So if you are going to go into the MMORPG market and you want the maximum number of players to play your game, free to play seems to be the only way to go.

Unless, of course, you are bringing a brand new experience to the genre.

I mean, if you have something that people will seriously want and won’t be able to get elsewhere, then there is your market advantage.  If you believe in it, you can skip free to play and move directly to Go, collect $200, and get with the monthly subscription plan.

But you had better well and truly be right.  Because everybody seems to think they have something special.  And the last few who have put their money where their mouths were on being special enough to command a monthly subscription… SWTOR or Rift or The Secret World for example… had to retreat from those positions.

So if you have an MMORPG project under way and you are considering a monthly subscription plan as the sole method of playing your game, you gotta to ask yourself a question, “Do I feel like a special snowflake?”

Well, do ya, punk?

So it was a surprise to me yesterday when WildStar came out swinging with the monthly subscription model.  Carbine has some interesting idea, but for the most part the game seems to be a mild remix of the same old thing.  More evolution of the genre without any “secret sauce” in evidence.  They left themselves a “free” fig leaf with CREDD.  But if that makes a game free to play, then EVE Online is free to play as well.

And, in a one-two punch, I was surprised again today when The Elder Scrolls Online threw in with the monthly subscription model.

Of course, I remain surprised that they are making this game as an MMORPG in the first place.  The primary “win” for this game is to fill the demand for people who love The Elder Scrolls games and who want to play them with their friends.

In playing Skyrim, my biggest disappointment so far is that I cannot play this with Potshot and the rest of our regular group.  My daughter, on watching me play, her eyes wide as she took in the scenery, asked, “Is this multiplayer? Can I play with you?”

So my first question is why this isn’t being developed as a 4-6 player co-op game in the style of Borderlands, with a ton of DLC to help finance things?  I may be missing something here, but that seems like the win.

But no, it is going to go the MMORPG route.  And the team has a reasonable tale as to why they feel it needs to be subscription, which I would sum up as “we don’t want to pollute the game with all the necessary evils that a free to play game requires in order to make money.”  You should read that article in full and soak in what they are trying to say.  It points at a lot of the things I complain about in free to play, and it is refreshing to see a developer in the genre admit that they might be an issue for some players.  The usual line seems to be “suck it up.”

Maybe they are right in going that route.  Certainly the franchise would not be enhanced by an in-game cash shop, crazy mounts, pirate hats, and lock boxes.

And maybe they can afford to.  The Elder Scrolls is a pretty impressive franchise.  That name alone should sell a lot of boxes.

And perhaps they have a plan.  Maybe they are not shooting to eclipse WoW, but to meet a sensible goal that they know can sustain the business and let them keep the subscription plan that they feel best fits the tone they want to set for the game.

Or it could all be a crass attempt to grab as much cash up front as possible while keeping their servers from getting completely swamped on day one while they work on pink cow mounts, pirate hats, and “talk to the hand” emotes for the big free to play transition nine months down the line.

We shall see.

But the monthly subscription model appears to still have some adherents in the industry.  Not everybody appears to have drunk the cash shop Kool-Aid.

Do these two games, WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online, have something special?  Do they have what it takes to sustain themselves on a monthly subscription model?  Or are we just watching two more victims of self-delusion headed for a fall?

And is the move by these two, plus Final Fantasy XIV, a last gasp for the monthly subscription model, just a chance to poke Smed in the eye again, or a harbinger of change?

Quote of the Day – Defending SWTOR… Badly August 21, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, MMO Design, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
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11 comments

Was this supposed to be sarcastic?

kuja1988a

That was my exact thought when reading the Massively Hyperspace Beacon post Six misconceptions about SWTOR free-to-play.

The post purports to defend the SWTOR free to play model from people who “make it out to be something that it’s not.”

And yet, for me, the article managed to damn the game through defensiveness and hair splitting to the point that I really had to question if the author was secretly trying to undermine the game while pretending to be a fan.  Was this SynCaine writing under a pseudonym?  The author seemed more keen to reinforce than debunk a couple of his assertions.  For anybody looking to play the game for the first time, the post is not much of an endorsement.

I certainly had some trouble reconciling that post with the words of SWTOR’s lead designer, who says he has gotten religion about free to play, and who recently wrote:

One of my mantras about being a free-to-play game is that, in order to call yourself that, your evangelists have to feel good about telling their casual friends, “Yeah, you can totally play for free!”

I guess you can still feel a little guilt for not telling your casual friends that the restrictions on free will come early and often and will seem at times like they are specifically designed to make the game frustrating to play unless you pay.

Not that such methods makes SWTOR unique in any way.  I seem to recall that at one point somebody from SOE came right out and said that their model was to drive people to subscribe if they really wanted to play. [citation needed]  And LOTRO, which I have been playing a lot this summer, sure seems to have its hand out all the time, reminding me there is a cash shop almost constantly.

It comes with the territory, and doubly so with a subscription game that has been retrofitted into the model.

I have rambled on about my ambivalence towards the free to play model as currently implemented in popular MMORPGs.  I can see the upside.  New players, for example, are the life’s blood of such games, and free to play seems to be the only way to keep them showing up.  But I can also see the cost, the fact that revenue generation always gets a primary focus.  So if your model is based on unlocks and cash shop companions, that becomes the top priority and anything beyond that shares whatever resources are left.

The free to play model is certainly here to stay.  I am just not sure if were “there” yet when it comes to the model maturing into something I am really happy with.  But that might be a futile hope.

On The iPad – DragonVale, Candy Crush Saga, and Constraints July 18, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, iPad.
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I have maintained in the past the idea that it is often the difficult bits… the annoying, high effort, failure prone adventures… that end up being the good part of games.  We remember overcoming adversity, defying the odds, working hard (or just staying up late) to achieve a goal, or finally defeating a boss after far too many wipes.  Heck, even long journeys for dubious purposes and misread quests stick in my mind after years later.

Basically, I would put forth that it is the constraints that make the game, and that overcoming particularly onerous constraints are what make memorable moments in the longer term, even if they are frustrating at the time.

Which, as it turns out, is bad news for the makers of casual games when it comes to getting me to give them money.

DragonVale

I have several games on my iPad that are there for my daughter.  I leave them alone and she plays them.  DragonVale is… or was… on that list.  One of her friends was playing it so she wanted to try it.  My first glance review of the game was “FarmVille by another name.”

DragonVale

DragonVale

Instead of growing crops, you are running a dragon zoo where you can breed new and different types of dragons.  The constraints are the typical time and currency.  It takes time to build or upgrade habitats as well as to breed the dragons.  And then there are the three currencies, gold, food and gems.

Food isn’t really a currency I suppose.  It costs gold to grow and is required to raise the level of the dragons you breed which, in turn, increase the amount of gold they bring in over time.  But it feels like a currency.

Gold is the easy, in-game currency that you buy most thing with, from paving stones to the floating islands that make up your dragon exhibit.  You earn this over time by just having dragons on display, though you have to open the game and collect it from time to time, as each dragon habitat

And then there are gems.  Gems are the constraint removal currency.  When a new, limited time dragon comes out, you can spend time trying to breed it, or just buy the egg outright for gems.  If that breeding cycles is 48 hours long, you can skip it for just 1 gem per hour.  And the top tier habitats, which hold the most dragons and gold, can only be purchased with gems.

All of which would have remained unknown to me had my daughter not come to me asking if she could buy some gems.

Gems! They Cost Money!

Gems! They Cost Money!

My immediate answer was “no,” after which I asked why she wanted them.

She explained that there was a limited time dragon she wanted, but since I am notorious for hogging the iPad, she was afraid time would run out before she was able to finally breed the dragon.  This lead to some negotiations which ended up me becoming the day-to-day manager of DragonVale while she was the owner/CEO.

She set policy, which was basically about what dragons to breed and how (usually helped along by web.) along with handling all of the cosmetic work.  I would make it part of my daily routine to click on habitats to collect gold, breed dragons as specified, exchange gifts with her friends (one of the ways you can earn gems in game), and a couple of other routine items, all of which generally takes about a minute to do maybe three times a day.

That left us with a game we both played and which we could discuss and make plans around without spending any money.  And the constraints drive that.

More Gemstone Dragons Please!

More Gemstone Dragons Please!

For example, gems remain in short supply for us primarily because the top tier habitat for each dragon type can only be purchased with gems.  However, the benefits… they are able to store more gold, increasing the time to full, thus allowing you to collect less frequently without “wasting” time with a full habitat as well as the ability to hold more dragons, allowing an increase in your overall population… were such that I convinced her to embark on a slow but continuous plan of habitat upgrade.  I would keep 50 gems in reserve, in case something we had to have came up, but would spend anything beyond that on the upgrades, which were 25 gems each.  We earn, depending on friends and the whims of a mini-game, between 2 and 10 gems a day.  We had a couple dozen habitats to upgrade, so this was truly a long term plan.  We are only about three quarters done at this point.

And the upgraded habitats themselves take up more space, leading to a park-wide layout redesign of paths and decorations.

Our "High Value"Dragon Island

Our “High Value”Dragon Island

All of which has made the game… well… an actual, long term game for us.

Unfortunately for Backflip Studios, it only maintains that status so long as we don’t give them any money.  Sorry guys.

Double Rainbow Dragon Pukes Rainbows!

Double Rainbow Dragon Pukes Rainbows!

Still, people do give them money.  On visiting the dragon park of on of my daughter’s friends, I noticed that she had a lot more rare dragons than we did as well as more than 800 gems in her inventory.  So clearly somebody is paying our way in the game.

Candy Crush Saga

I only found out about Candy Crush Saga because I heard people complaining about it.  Always the best endorsement of a game, right?

I would describe it as something of a Bejeweled clone, and apparently it is huge.  The Facebook version is one of the biggest game there, having eclipsed the once mighty Zynga on all fronts.  There are versions now for iOS and Android.  I have even seen ads for it on TV, and not just during the 3am Tom Vu time slot.

It is a classic “social” game in the odious Zynga style with a huge number of constraints which can only be bypassed by paying money or recruiting your friends by polluting their wall with posts.

Or by just waiting.

You only get so many losses before you have to stop playing, pay, or prostitute yourself.  And the game sets you up to lose with some pretty hard levels… though you can also pay your way out of not losing with extra turns, time, or other bonuses.  The game has absolutely no shame in hitting you up for money to get yourself out of a tight spot.

But the game itself is cute and light and fun in that Bejeweled sort of way and the constraints make progress in the game all the more satisfying.  I think I spent five days on a really tough level in the high 30’s. I would just lose until I ran out of plays, then go away until they regenerated.

No More Plays!

No More Plays!

There are occasional gates where you have to pay, post to Facebook, or pass three special levels.  But you can only do one of the levels per day, so you are locked out of progress for at least three days.

Come Back Tomorrow!

Come Back Tomorrow!

And yet, saying “no” to the constant “pay to win” offers, makes me feel all warm inside, like a Christian that has said “no” to the temptations of Satan.  And I continue to make progress, slowly but surely.

Now stuck at... level 59!

Now stuck at… level 59!

Which, I am going to guess, was not the designers intention.

Constraints Make The Game… for me

Which I am sure all says more about me than game design in general, but which does illustrate one of the problems I have with the free to play concept.  The constraints that are in there to make you want to pay money actually work as a deterrent towards me paying money, as the only thing the money would do is relieve me of actually playing the game.

Which makes me feel odd, because I wouldn’t mind rewarding the designer… I just don’t want to remove the constraints that make the game interesting.   And, really, that is the only path they have left me.

Well, I actually don’t feel odd when it comes to Candy Crush Saga.  They rub the “pay” button in my face so often that I have made it one of my missions in life to play their game without paying them.  But I think you get my point.

On the Verge of Moria July 11, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Lord of the Rings Online.
Tags: , ,
4 comments

Our Summer run through Lord of the Rings Online has actually been quite successful so far, given a pretty specific definition for success.

For me, success is advancing in the game to a point where I am seeing things I haven’t been through before.  I am almost there.  Basically, I have to get into Moria and go a few quests in and I will be beyond my past peak in the game, which came about two years back.

All of which would have been a lot easier if I did not end up on a new server every single time I went back to play the game.

Ah well.  I am on the cusp.  I have been through much of Eregion, having made the leap from Evendim at 40 and muscled through a combo of the Misty Mountains and Forochel a few levels early.  That high quality halberd, amongst other equipment, you can buy when you have sufficient faction with the Wardens of Annuminas helped a lot, though it still won’t make the slowest elf in creation move any faster.

Said without an ounce of irony...

Said without an ounce of irony…

I have been to the door of Moria, in the little zone that contains the quest line to get in.  It is the beginning of the Book II quest chain, so there is no skipping chapters, everything must be done in order.

The Moria wall neighborhood

The Moria wall neighborhood

The chain includes quite a few “lift and carry” quests for the dwarves who, following behind the fellowship of the ring, are trying to reopen the doors to Moria that have been mysteriously blocked.  I wonder how that happened?

Hear something? In the water maybe?

Hear something? In the water maybe?

So you spend some time in the mini-zone picking up sticks or stones… which could at least break my bones if correctly wielded… delivering packed lunches, and solving the ubiquitous “Orcs stole my homework… and map… and supply list…” issues that seem to crop up in these sorts of game.

You do eventually get stuck into things… you know, you get to kill something… and reach a climax, though it might not be what you expect if you have never been there before.

Yeah, let's go!

Yeah, let’s go!

After which there is a diversion back to Hollin to pick up your epic weapon.  I went with the halberd, as I always think of it as the true weapon of a captain, though I might splutter a bit if asked to explain why.

The epic halberd

The epic halberd

DPS-wise, it was a bit of a step down from what I had been swinging.  I have an alt… of course I do, and more than one… who I has been working on the weapon smith craft and who has kept me well supplied with sharp objects as I have moved along.  You do not need to worry about armor if you kill the bad guy quick enough.  Though now that I have hit the epic weapon stage, I do wonder what I will do with him.

But the epic weapon grows as you feed it the blood of your victims… erm… as it gains experience.  Which it does through killing things.  I am actually on the chapter in the Book II quest line where I have to level up my epic weapon 10 levels, at which point it has to go through a reforging or some such, and then I can move along to the actual story again.

So that is where I stand.

As for the cash shop intrusions into the game… I have been able to ignore them for the most part when required.  I do buy things now and again.  And it helps that, as a lifetime subscriber, I get a monthly 500 Turbine point stipend, which after a long stretch of not playing, added up to small fortune.  So I have expanded my shared storage a few times to accommodate the passing of an ever larger array of crafting materials between alts.  I am going to have to either make a scholar or stop collecting all that crap soon.  I bought a stack of boosts for crafting experience, the ones that boost you by 50% over 10 minutes, to help make that stretch to the next tier every so often.  And I bought probably the most useful item in the store for my main, who harvests.

Universal Toolkit

Universal Toolkit

Basically it means I do not have to swap tools to change between mining and chopping wood.

Also, I must admit, I did buy a pile of Mithril Coins.  Their utility in getting to next travel point in the horse network proved too much to resist.  And, I have spent a coin now and again at the end of the night to get to back to a quest giver to go to bed.

Walk or take the bus?

Walk or take the short bus?

And once you do it, it becomes easier to do it the next time.  Grumble, grumble, hurf durf, damn free to play conveniences have corrupted me again! *shakes fist*

I also am fine opening up the present every day, though that whole mechanism does feel like they are spreading things a bit thick on the cash shop front.  You can have limitless presents, if you are prepared to pay for them! (At which point, they aren’t really presents, right? And what business model do we tend to associate with the phrase “the first one is free?”)

Still, if I end up with an equipment upgrade, it isn’t like I throw it away.  I do refuse to play the lockbox game though.  Yet another wrinkle in the whole free to play scheme of things.  Hand out locked boxes, but sell the keys.  We hates it, and the work that went to create it.  My primary complaint about free to play remains that the game becomes focused on getting you to make that next purchase rather than keeping you subscribed.  But it is a mixed bag and there are good points as well.

Other than that, it has been a reasonable revisiting of Middle-earth so far.  There is still much I like about the game, not the least of which is the sense of being in Middle-earth when you are out and about, away from the quest hubs, when you have turned off the general chat channels, and you come across some odd ruin or bandit camp or other feature that the game doesn’t even require you to see, but is just there because it helps set the tone and atmosphere for the occasional adventurer that stumbles across it.

There is still good in the world.

Meeting Up in Rift After the Big Change June 20, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, Instance Group, Rift.
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10 comments

After having skipped a couple of weeks, we decided that we ought to have some sort of instance group night last Saturday.  And seeing that Rift had just done the big free to play change over, we thought we ought to patch up and see what things looked like in Telara.

1.7GB of patch later, I logged in only to find out that my character Hillmar had been deposed as guild leader because he had not logged in for 36 days.  Jollyreaper was promoted to guild leader on the basis of the “who touched it last” algorithm.  I had actually logged into the game more recently than that, but not with Hillmar.  And, something for the list of unhelpful features, when I did log in with Hillmar, I found not only the “you’re out!” message waiting for me in my mail box, but also several warnings that I would be deposed if I did not log in within the 36 day timer.  Messages that I could not have seen unless I logged in, at which point they would be moot.

Somebody did not think that through.

Sadly, Jolly was away for the weekend, so we could not celebrate his ascension.  Earl was also away, which left just myself, Zahihawas and Gizalia to see what Rift had to offer in its new free to play incarnation.

The first thing was a new mount, also waiting in our mail boxes.  Veterans of the game got a shiny, ice blue tauntaun mount.

And I thought it looked bad on the inside...

And I thought they looked bad on the inside…

After looking at that for a bit, the three of us formed up in the same location and started talking about what we should do.

The group assembled

The group assembled

We decided on Instant Adventures more out of a lack of motivation than anything else.  And that lack began to tell as running IAs quickly became tedious.  The problem is that IAs are pretty much about getting experience and some sourcestones now and again.  But as a group, we are still waiting to get together to knock off the first Storm Legion instance.  We don’t really need any new levels and sourcestones rain on us no matter what we do, so chasing a series of “kill n rats” quests with a few strangers wasn’t really doing much for us.

So we ended up talking more than playing.  We talked about Need for Speed World for a bit, a game which Potshot and I both seem to want to like more than the game is willing to let us.

There was also a long discussion about how hard it is to stay up as late as we used to.  Back when the group started, we used to kick off at 10pm Pacific time and often did not finish up until as late as 3am at times, depending on what we were doing.  Wailing Caverns took a long time back then, and I am pretty sure the sun was not far from rising when we knocked off Archaedas for the first time.

Now we start at 9pm and people are yawning by 10:30pm.  And I am not sure how Earl does it, aside from being the youngest member of the team.  He is on the east coast, so starts at midnight.  We may need a new plan at some point going forward.

And then there was the examination of the Rift cash shop.

I am going to put a cut in before that… just because.

(more…)