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A New Player in Azeroth! July 10, 2014

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

When it comes to World of Warcraft, I can divide my friends and acquaintances into two groups:

  • Those interested in playing WoW
  • Those not interested in playing WoW

The former group is mostly made up of those who currently play the game, those on a break but who know they will come back for the next expansion, and those who once played and still have some interest in the game and who might come back some day.  The union between that group and the group made up of those who have played WoW would make for a Venn diagram that would almost completely overlap.  Being a member of that first group almost requires that you have already played WoW at some point.

The second group is more diverse.  It includes people who played WoW and didn’t like it, or who felt betrayed by some change along the line, as well as those who don’t like the MMO genre, or didn’t like some other game in the MMO genre and are thus soured on it forever (EverQuest being the primary source of those people), or people for whom video games are pretty much a game console only thing, or, of course, people who just don’t play video games.  Lots of those out there.

Basically, nearly ten years into the life of World of Warcraft, most anybody I know who is going to play WoW already has.  The pool of people who haven’t played WoW, but might at some point, has basically dried up.

Or so I thought.

The other day a friend mentioned that he and his wife had started playing WoW.  They downloaded the very limited Starter Edition, of which I wrote recently, rolled up trolls, and started in on Azeroth.  He reads the blog occasionally, so I’ll have to ask if that post planted a seed.

WoWStarterEdition

In hindsight, I suppose them picking the game up wasn’t a huge leap.  They play Diablo III and StarCraft 2, so have Battle.net accounts already and probably the Blizzard Launcher installed as well.  It is just a short step from there to having WoW installed.

And they are both MMO players.  He played EverQuest at launch with a big group of us from work way back in the day, though since then he and his wife have trended more towards free to play titles like Runes of Magic and Rappelz.  Their free time can be “bursty,” with stretches of not being able to log on being common, which tends to make a subscription game something of a drag.  You hate to pay if you aren’t going to play.

But the fact that they picked up WoW… so technically there are TWO new players in Azeroth… got me thinking again on the whole MMO lifecycle again.

At the start an MMO is nothing but new players, and new players drive the game and are its life’s blood.  You basically fizzle on the launch pad if that is not so.

Then at some point there is a transition, a time when the audience for a game is primarily people who have played the game.  New players are still important, but maintaining a loyal installed base becomes a primary mission.  EverQuest has been in that zone for about a decade.  WoW, while still seeking new players, is clearly past the tipping point and catering to the installed base, and keeping them subscribed is the primary business model.  It is certainly no coincidence that housing (of a sort, in the form of Garrisons) is coming now, as Blizzard probably hadn’t felt the need to play that card until Cataclysm.  Given their speed of development, it wasn’t going to happen for Mists of Pandaria, so Warlords of Draenor becomes the expansion where Blizzard finally responds to the realization that their business model needs people to settle down and live in Azeroth.  The game needs to be a bit stickier.  Dailies and faction and things like Timeless Isle aren’t quite enough if the content gaps are going to keep getting longer.

Of course, stickiness and people living settling down to live in a world is great for the game of choice, but is another problem with the genre.  I won’t play the fool and say that the potential market for MMOs is only n players big, as some have in the past.  The potential MMO audience is big and probably getting bigger.  But we also, as a group, tend to stick with our MMOs over time.  I remain interested in the next new game, but when it comes down to playing, I spend my time in WoW, which is about to turn 10 years old, and EVE Online, which is now past 11, as do a lot of people. (And I pine for EverQuest now and again, though so much time has elapsed that I probably will never really go back.  Maybe there is an expiration date on MMOs if you’re away too long.)

As a group, we don’t jump to the next game so much.  That Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Dark Age of Camelot remain viable, money-making enterprises in this day and age speaks to that as much as those of us who try the next new thing, only to return to the game we feel is home.  It isn’t that the genre doesn’t have a big enough audience, but that MMOs are like sponges.  They soak up players and hold onto them.  Even after all these years sitting in a corner, EverQuest is still moist, just to push the sponge metaphor a step too far.

Anyway, I was happy to hear about friends starting off playing WoW.  I was careful not to smother them with a burst of welcoming gifts.  When somebody is discovering a new world, it is often better to let them explore on their own rather than jumping out from behind a bush and shouting, “Come to this server! Join our guild! Have some free stuff from the guild bank! You should really go here and do this and kill that mob and get that drop and run this dungeon and blah blah blah…”  I’ve killed games for people doing that, and have had the same done to me.

So we shall see if a new seed grows in the game.

What do you think?  Do you know anybody who hasn’t played WoW who might still be interested in playing it nearly a decade into its life?

A Long History of Gear Obsession June 23, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, TorilMUD, World of Warcraft.
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5 comments

Back in the mid-to-late 90s, back when I was playing TorilMUD, there was a point when a couple of people had been caught cheating… multi-boxing or exploiting game mechanics or some such… and the game had to come up with punishments for such transgressions.

The people who ran the at the time came up with a few levels of action, which included deletion of characters and banning people permanently.  But the for the first offense rumor had it… rumor, because while the staff had policies about this sort of thing, they were not documented for the player base, but the whole community was small enough that word got around about nearly everything if you knew who to ask… that the punishment involved a choice.

The choice was:

  • Removal of half your levels from your main character
  • Removal of all gear from your main character

And, of course, as we sat around in experience groups chatting about this and that while waiting for the zone to respawn, this topic came up and we declared which choice we would take.  Universally we opted for losing levels.  In fact, in exploring this topic, I think we were in favor of being busted down to level 1 if we were allowed to keep out gear.

All Slots Filled

Gear, circa 2000

Levels were replaceable, and in a game where there was experience loss on death… and level loss with enough deaths was a thing back then… working on experience and leveling up often continued for players at level cap.  We had all been through the leveling process.  We knew the ins and outs and could find groups.  Leveling up was work, but work we knew how to do.

Gear though… gear was a different story.  This was a time where gear commonly had class, race, or alignment restrictions, but level restrictions were almost unheard of.  And there was not such thing as attunement.  A rare item might be flagged as “no trade, and some items were “cursed,” which meant you could not drop them without somebody casting a spell on you, but most items could be traded to other players or handed off to low level alts.

Plus gear often made your character… or made you character viable.  If you had knocked my level 50 warrior back down to level 1 but left him with his gear, he would have torn his way back to level 40 in very little time solo.  While being able to solo was generally over by level 20 for a fresh character, and alt with good gear could easily go to 40 and possibly to the level cap at 50 with the right outfit.

Obtaining gear though… that was the hard part.

As I mentioned in a previous post, gear was available once per server boot.  If you wanted an item from a particular mob and somebody else had already killed it during the current boot, you would have to wait until the server crashed and restarted again. (Or until a kindly GM decided that the server had been up long enough and we needed a reboot to keep us all busy.)

While a good proportion of items were on a given mob every single time, some were random.  Of course, the better the item, the more likely it was to be random.

Then, to obtain the best items, you had to run zones, the TorilMUD version of raiding.  That meant getting together a group of 16 people of the right mix of classes, getting yourself included in that group, and spending anywhere from 1-8 hours taking down a zone. (No zone, to my recollection, took beyond 2 hours if done right, but mistakes happen.  I recall a City of Brass group that took 4 hours just getting to the zone because things went horribly wrong in the Plane of Fire.)

And, finally, once you had completed a given zone, you had to roll on items.  People would put in bids on a given item, numbers would be assigned to people, and a random roll would be done to determine who got the prized item.  So you could get in a group, go through a successful run, and still end up empty handed and waiting for a reboot so you could try again.

Of course, this doesn’t sound all that strange today.  Sure, bind of pick up, gear attunement, and level restrictions on gear have axed the whole twinking of alts to a certain degree.  But gear still rules, and there are still some twinking options, like heirloom gear in World of Warcraft.  Rare is the MMORPG where gear is not a major focus.  Sure, there is reputation, titles, mounts, pets, achievements and what have you, but gear does seem to drive people more than anything else.  I went to Timeless Isle not so much because I needed something new to do but because it was an efficient way to gear up at level cap.  I am past wanting to commit to raiding, but I still will seek out the best gear I can.

Have shovel, want mallet!

Have shovel, want mallet!

And what happens when an MMORPG doesn’t focus so much on gear?  We seem to bring our gear orientation with us all the same.  Darkfall didn’t specifically de-emphasize gear, but with full loot of PvP victims in place, people sought to protect their good gear by going out to battle in cheap drops.

Likewise, one of the main fears people have in EVE Online centers around loss.  People with a gear orientation coming into New Eden can be quite discouraged by the fact that when your ship explodes it is gone and you have to buy a new one.  The can often, abstractly, see the benefit of such a system.  Destruction of ships drives the market, makes industry viable, and basically keeps the player economy going despite the game being full of magic sources of in-game currency like most other MMOs.

And I must admit to letting out a resigned sigh when my own ship gets blown up.  I’ve gotten past attachment to individual ships.  You can always buy another just like it.  And the ISK thing isn’t a big deal, especially when you are eligible for reimbursement.  But actually getting a ship together if you don’t have a backup can be a pain.  If their aren’t some on contract, you end up having to head to a trade hub, buying what you need, and then shipping it to where you want to use it.  Again, an economic opportunity for some… shipping corps are a thing in EVE… but a bit of a pain if you want to do something but, instead, have to clone jump and spend a day in high sec buying parts and arranging transport.  That is just the way it works when you need a specific ship with just the right fit.

Because it all comes down to an obsession with gear in the end.

You Can Be Almost Space Famous… April 21, 2014

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online.
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8 comments

In partial fulfillment of Blog Banter #55, which fame in EVE Online.

The specific topic statement is:

Write about somebody who is “space famous” and why you hate/admire them, somebody who isn’t space famous but you think should be or will be, or discuss space fame in general, what it means, how people end up so famous, is there a cost of being famous in EVE, and if so, is it worth the price?

That is a pretty wide net.  You can go most anywhere with that one.

Almost...

Almost…

When I proposed this topic to Kirthi Kodachi back in September (*cough*) I actually had somebody in mind to write about, with a post mentally sketched out.  And then time passed, other monthly topics were proposed, and since I never bothered to write down my notes my post disappeared to wherever thoughts and memories fade to when they are gone.  Does science know what happens to the things I forget?

Anyway, another reminder to always write things down now.  I tell myself I’ll remember, and I never do.

But here we are, my topic has been picked up for the blog banter this month, so I figured I had best have something to say about it.

EVE Online is currently involved in ones of its measures of space fame, the elections for the 9th Council of Stellar Management.  You have just one more day to vote if you are a subscriber.

CCP tries to put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the CSM, to the point that you might legitimately question why would they would trust something of value to the whims of the player base?

Players are notoriously selfish and short sighted, as customers of any business tends to be.  As Henry Ford was purported to have said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Other MMO companies have official player advocacy groups, but they have always been cherry picked by the companies involved.  Turbine has been asking people to volunteer for its DDO and LOTRO player councils but they pick who gets on. SOE has had at various points throughout its history some sort of guild council or player advisory group, always by invite only.  Blizzard has solicited the input of major raiding guilds over the years, but you had to be a major raiding guild that got their attention.

So why does CCP go with a player election?

Because they can.

Sure, there was incentive for CCP to have a player council that at least had the appearance of not being completely in their pocked in the wake of the T20 scandal. (An aspect from the origins of the CSM which turned to irony during the Ishokune Scorpions brouhaha last summer, when we saw that people who get free things from CCP are surprisingly unsympathetic to complaints from people not getting free things from CCP about other people getting free things from CCP.)

But it is the very nature of EVE Online that allows something like a player election.  The fact that the game really needs cooperation, which spawns corporations and alliances builds bonds.  That it is a sandbox where PvP is always an underlying aspect of what you do makes your fellow player content, so you tend to know them or know who to avoid.  That travel can be long, annoying, and dangerous tends to keep people focused on “their” part of space, so they get to know their neighbors.

And the very difficult nature of the game, which seems disinclined to teach you anything by the most basic skills, means that new player have to seek the advice of others… both in-game and out… just to figure out how to do things.

All of which leads to something like a community.

And I am not talking about the fractured mini-communities that spring up in a game like WoW, where you can pretty much ignore the people you do not like and live in a happy little bubble.  EVE Online is more like my neighborhood.  I know some of the neighbors well, some are good friends, some are wave-from-the-driveway acquaintances, and some are just jerks.  But they are all in my neighborhood so I make do, because I am not going to pack up my belongings, sell my house, and move to avoid a couple a block over that yells each other so loud that you can hear them with the windows closed or that guy with the circular saw that seems to think that 11pm on a weeknight is a good time to cut wood.  I have lived enough places to know that such things come with the living in any sort of community.

So, as I wrote before, when people talk about EVE Online having a horrible community, I often get the feeling that they are objecting to having a community at all.  And clearly some people like to espouse the ideal of community while being intolerant of actually having one, or having one that is anything beyond happy agreement on all points.  They don’t want any drama.  But frankly, drama is what happens when you put people together.  If you don’t have some drama, you probably don’t have a community.

And if you don’t want drama, that is fine.  Some people just want to play a game, hang with friends, and avoid all conflict.  This is recreation time, and sometimes you just want to relax.  But I am not sure you can go that route and then complain about a lack of community without looking like you don’t really know what community is.

Anyway, it is this stewpot of things that allows people to become known or famous in the EVE community.  And while there are people who are clearly infamous, I am not sure that is as cut and dried as some would make out.

The Mittani is space famous, primarily for being the leader of a large alliance in game.  You may not like him, but a lot of people do… or he would be running that alliance and accepted as the head of a coalition of alliances… so does that make him famous of infamous?

Likewise, you could make claims of fame or infamy for Gevlon.  He showed up in EVE Online and got noticed fairly quickly by injecting himself and his opinions into the community.  He rambled about doing various things, eventually deciding to become the nemesis of Goonswarm in high sec space.  I am not sure a lot of people like Gevlon… or that he cares really… but he has become a staple of the EVE community in something like a year of effort and is clearly space famous at this point.  Compare that to his years playing World of Warcraft, where I doubt he was known at all beyond a the blogging community and a small group of players on his server.  But why would he be?

In WoW you cannot really have an impact on other player if they do not want you to.  They can ignore you, move to a different zone or server or whatever.  EVE is much more like my neighborhood, for good or ill.  You get known for what you do, if you do anything at all.

And even in EVE, space fame doesn’t make you as famous as one might think.  There are always people moving into the game or who are fixated on their own little out-of-the-way corner of space who never really run across anybody else.  But the potential and ability to become space famous is one of the defining aspects of EVE Online, and all the more so because so much of what happens in the game depends on the actions of individuals which become the lore of the game.  You can become known to the community through your own efforts in a way you cannot in games like WoW or EverQuest or GuildWars 2 or whatever PvE focused game you choose name… or any randomly matched PvP game as well.

Which doesn’t make EVE Online better or worse than these other games, it just makes it different and gives it its own flavor.

Others bloggers writing about space fame in EVE Online for Blog Banter #55:

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.

MyDream is to do What to Minecraft? March 13, 2014

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

First there was Minecraft, as it was good.

Minecraft

Or many people thought it was. It flourished and blossomed and jumped to different platforms and generally made Notch and his company quite a large pile of money.

It never really appealed to me, but I could still see the magic.  It was open and allowed you to do many, many things.  My daughter played it quite a bit, including on a PvP server.  I didn’t even know that was possible until she showed me.

Of course, where money flows, so do copy cats.  There were knock-offs like CastleMiner.  And, as time went by, bigger and more sophisticated players started into the market with their own spin on the Minecraft idea.  SOE’s Landmark is one and Trion’s Trove is another, both of which have a look and feel that sets them apart from mere clones of the original.

I know there are other examples out there, but since the genre really doesn’t do much for me, their names tend not to stick with me.  Fill in the blanks for me, because my writing things like, “And that one that people keep mentioning” doesn’t really work so well.

But even with all of that, there seemed to be room enough in the market.

Then, yesterday, I got a press release in my inbox… because PR people are a desperate sort and are happy when even when somebody so far down the food chain as myself mentions the product they are pushing… for a “Minecraft killer.”

Actually, it was (Minecraft killer), in parentheses, but it was right there in the subject line of the email.

And I actually groaned aloud upon reading that.

I groaned because I have lived through the age of the quest for the WoW killer.

Did I say “lived through?”  I meant “live in,” since if you Google “WoW killer” you will see that the quest is still alive and well and crushing souls.

Still, I had to wonder who would have the audacity to make such a claim.  So I went to the Kickstarter for MyDream (which I mentally read as “MyDream is to KILL Minecraft!!1″) to see who was standing up to slay the beast.

MyDream

To the company’s credit credit, the Kickstarter page doesn’t actually say “Minecraft killer” anywhere.  Neither does the actual press release.  I suspect that the injection of the phrase into the subject line came at the insistence of their PR person and does reflect the elevator pitch mentality of our society today, where you cannot describe something from the ground up, so you have to jump straight to associations like, “Think ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ meets ”Aliens!'” or some such.

And, reading through the Kickstarter, the whole thing sounds much more like SOE’s Landmark, which I would imagine is neither well known enough nor far enough along to have attracted a “killer” yet, than Minecraft, with a bit more emphasis on creating content.

Think Landmark meets Neverwinter’s Foundry… if you must.

A bit of it does seem a bit blue sky naive.  This in particular stuck out:

The MyDream team is currently working on a leveling system based on the novel idea helping others. We would like to eliminate hating, griefing and other forms of abuse that run rampant in other MMO’s. By creating a reputation system that promotes cooperative team play and honest rating of others, we assure a self-policing positive environment for all.

That sent my cynicism spiking off the meter… they assure this… while at the same time making me think, “Oh God, don’t put it like that, you’re practically daring people to prove that they can grief and otherwise behave badly!  You don’t know their power!  Don’t make eye contact!”

I suppose I am a product of my environment, which does include EVE Online.  But rare is the multiplayer game where I haven’t seen some amount of bad behavior exhibited simply because it could be done.

Anyway, I thought I would bring this up because… urm  uh… I’ve forgotten now.  I don’t plan on pledging or even playing.  Variety? Something about “Minecraft killer” possibly?  Or maybe because their office is just up the road in Palo Alto.  Go local devs.

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?”

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

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

In which I chase my tail in ever smaller circles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could hardly disagree with that idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Decisions and Inventory Management July 8, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Design, TorilMUD, World of Warcraft.
Tags: ,
13 comments

I must agree.  I love that button.  I feel that pain all the more because I am playing Lord of the Rings Online at the moment, which makes vendoring items about twice as annoying as most other MMO I have experienced.  Meanwhile, Rift has put that button in the cash shop, so you can rid yourself of vendor trash wherever you may be.

Well… at least I agree at that instant, gut reaction, convenience level.  Long live the button!

Hell, as one person responded to that tweet, why have gray items at all?  If you want to reward players, just drop coin and be done with it.

But then I start thinking about how we got there in the first place, which seems to me to be a convergence of a couple of things.

First there is the reality of currency and the fact that wild animals rarely ever carry any at all.  If you want to give your players a currency reward for every kill, then you have to do it indirectly with item drops or explain why your wildlife feels the need to have coinage on them at all times… and how they carry it.

Granted, these sorts of drops do not necessarily have to be vendor trash.  LOTRO has turned those gray remains into quest items that generate a little experience and a small boost with the local faction, though in the end I still vendor them most of the time because I usually need cash more than faction.

I will call that the lesser reason for gray drops.  It could be worked around it in all sorts of ways if you set your mind to it.

Then there is what I think of as the greater reason, which is essentially to drive us crazy.

Well, not explicitly.  That is just a side effect for some.

It really is/was a way to put constraints around the game to force us to make choices rather than simply having things our own way.  This aspect has some deep roots.

Much meandering on that after the cut.

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Further Mutterings about MMO Revenue Models May 15, 2013

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Need for Speed World, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Tanks, World of Warcraft.
Tags: , ,
20 comments

A few years back, at the height of the housing boom, we decided to move.  We listed our house at the market price for our neighborhood, and the first day on the market we got an offer for roughly 60% of what we were asking.  Somebody sensed, as we all were beginning to at that point, that the bubble was going to burst soon, and wanted to know if we were desperate.

We were not, and actually sold the house for what we were asking a couple weeks later.  But there was no possibility that we were going to come to an arrangement with the person who made that first offer.  Their offer was so insultingly low that it made it completely unlikely to be able to negotiate any deal at all.

We have a garage sale at least once a year.  Often we have two, one in the spring and one in the fall.  Just the process of finding stuff to sell helps us keep the house clear of clutter, so that our home, with the exception of my office and my daughter’s room, feels clean, open, and spacious.

We tend to put out all manner of things on the driveway for sale.  I often have a pile of books that have made it into the category of “won’t read again” out on a table.  At one garage sale I had done a big purge and had 40+ paperbacks lined up, with the asking price was 25 cents each.  Cheap enough that anybody with an interest would pick them up, and it wouldn’t kill me if I decided to give a couple away to any kid who looked like they wanted to read one.  And, as always, quantity discounts are available.

A woman, who rolled up in an expensive car, offered me a dollar for all of the books, and then started gathering them up like it was a done deal.  A dollar turned out to be exactly the right price to start a fight.

In the cold logic of hindsight, it was just an offer I could freely reject.

In the reality and emotion of the moment, it was insulting.  I started with “no” and worked my way up to using them for kindling before I would sell her one at full cover price.  Her offer stayed at a dollar throughout, leavened with sneers and insults.  But we could have stopped after our first pass through offer and rejection, as no deal was possible after that point.  I cannot imagine she thought her negotiation technique was going to be effective.  It is always interesting to meet people who are worse at interpersonal relationships than I am.

What did those two little stories have to do with anything?  We’ll get to that.  First, a foundation of words needs to be built.

With the announcement that Rift is moving from the once traditional monthly subscription model to a cash shop driven free to play model, there have been the usual range of reactions, from feelings that no good will come of this to expressions of joy at the demise of yet another monthly subscription barrier to entry.  Some people really hate the subscription idea.

My own response is somewhere in between.

Good things will come of this change.  I know that.

More people will play Rift.  It won’t make it suddenly popular with people who wouldn’t play a fantasy MMORPG in the first place.  But people who wouldn’t otherwise commit to $15 a month will want to play.

An annoying amount of words, and some irrelevant pictures, after the cut:

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