Towards the EverQuest Tutorial

As part of the post last week about the EverQuest progression servers that Daybreak announced for the 20th anniversary, Bhagpuss and I ended up exchanging comments about the tutorial.

There is a tutorial, though it was added at some point well after launch.  Neither I nor Bhagpuss nor Google could say exactly when… so if you know, here is an opportunity for you to leave a comment… and it has been through various iterations, so there is probably somebody out there who longs for the “classic” tutorial.

Anyway, I said that, despite its unknown provenance, I kind of like the tutorial.  I’ve been through it a couple of times, though not recently.  In fact, I think the last time I went through it was when Daybreak opened up the Vox server, which I think coincided with the game going free to play… which would make it 2012.

It has been a while.

Anyway, all this thinking about it made me want to go try it.  At least it would get me warmed up for the game in time for the big day next month.  So I cranked up the EverQuest client, logged in, and looked at the old server list window once again.

Choose a server, choose a race, choose a class…

There I realized that I was still subscribed to Daybreak All Access.  I mean, I knew that in some part of my brain… and I’ve let it slip some since I was playing EQII late last year because I did the three month at a go subscription, but they stop giving you Daybreak Cash if you unsubscribe early and so I let it run, log in to collect, but lose track of the point when I should subscriber… so they’ve clearly got my number on that one… but the fact that I had all the pay to play progression servers on the list kind of pressed that home on me.

Also, I like the little scroll window that first tells you how many of the expansions you own… a useful number I suppose… and then proceeds to list out, by name, in order, all of the ones you do own, followed, again by name and in order, all of the ones you do not.

Given that there are now 25 expansions in the wild, that can take a while, even if most of them are just three word names.  I had to wait a bit for the scroll to come around so I could get a screen shot with my own count.  I own everything through The Darkened Sea, which was more than I could mentally account for… but whatever.  Even watching that list scroll past I kept seeing names that seemed like they only just shipped, but.  Everything from House of Thule forward seems like it was recent.

Once I was done staring at that I decided to go back to the Vox server once more.  I have characters on all of the progression servers… my thing seems to be to at least roll up a character and stand out in front of Qeynos even if I don’t play… but I wasn’t sure where any of them stood these days and I didn’t want any special rules of restrictions.  I wanted the tutorial.  So Vox it was.

I already have four characters on Vox, three in their low 20s and one at level 85 from that time they gave a free boost and then I couldn’t get to where the game was telling me to go.  That was almost five years ago.

Also, I thought surely the launcher was wrong when it was telling me about level 85 boosts.

Level 85 is hardly your best these days

Seriously, that was what the boost was five years ago.  Since then the level cap is 110 now.  Though, I guess looking through that list of expansions, it was 100 back then so it was hardly an invite to battle with anybody’s best back then as well.  The boost for EverQuest II has moved forward, but like so much in EverQuest, the boost there stays locked in the past I guess. (Bhagpuss seemed similarly bemused about this.)

But, again, I wasn’t here to boost, I was here for the tutorial.

So I rolled up a fresh character.  I had already done the usual suspects on Vox already, a paladin, a shaman, a warrior, and a druid, so I went out for something I hadn’t looked at in a while.  I considered a bard.  I do love EverQuest bards.  However, bards have always seemed like more of a group oriented class to me, and I wasn’t planning to group.  Instead I decided to go for a cleric.

EverQuest clerics are good, old school clerics, wearing heavy armor and beating people with blunt objects.  I like a healer that can take a punch and have always been a bit chagrined in WoW with cloth wearing clerics.  I mean, sure, they have mind control.  But wearing cloth like some sort of common mage?  But I guess you have the paladin if you want an armored cleric in WoW these days.

I ended up with a dwarf cleric named Dolenz because I was thinking about Circus Boy the other day or something.  I clicked the tutorial option… it is a bit confusing, because there is a button there on the character page that says “Tutorial” but I wasn’t sure what it did, so I clicked it a couple of times and figured it was just a toggle to indicate whether or not you wanted to go through the tutorial.  But then I couldn’t remember its initial state and, honestly, even if I did remember, it was not clear to me which state got me into the tutorial and which would drop me straight into Norrath.

Whichever I ended up choosing, it turned out to be the right one, because it sent me into the tutorial as I had wanted.

The tutorial, unlike a lot of what I remember about EverQuest, has a story of sorts.  It isn’t a very original story.  You’ve been captured by kobols and are in kobold jail and have to escape… because by industry convention all RPG starting stories must be a jail break or a ship wrekck scenario… and after a bit of an intro you end up in a room with a shirtless barbarian named Arias who has come to help.

Look at that oiled chest, 100% in my book

Arias takes you under his wing and introduces you to the basic concepts over EverQuest, like movement, the quest log, looting, and beating the tar out of kobolds.

Arias and I have done him in

I recognized the quest log, was hazy about being able to click on the keywords in dialog rather than having to say them, and was surprised a bit by the looting mechanism, which was a new one on me.

Well, new-ish.  It seemed to be very similar to what I saw had ended up in LOTRO when I came back for the legendary server there.

The loot just waits for you

It looks a little better in LOTRO, but it seems to act about the same.  And it was comforting.  One of the things I forgot to mention in my ramble about returning to World of Warcraft was how, after three months in Middle-earth, I kept forgetting to loot.  You get used to the loot just showing up in a window for you to pick and choose among.

After looting that key and learning again how to hand it to an NPC, Arias led us out of the initial story and into thee stronghold of the revolt.

The revolution begins here

From there I was set to learn a whole range of game mechanics.  But I will pick that up in the next post.

PlanetSide Arena Delayed Until Summer for a Simultaneous PS4 Launch

The launch date for PlanetSide Arena keeps moving further away, and at an accelerating rate.

The game, aimed to be a combination of Battle Royale and classic shooter scenarios, was announced back in back in December with a January 29th launch target.  I mean, it was just PlanetSide 2 recycled into an arena game.  It isn’t as though Daybreak hadn’t already built an arena shooter in H1Z1 already… and H1Z1 was built off of PlanetSide 2.  Seemed like a reasonable target or a low bar, depending on how you looked at it.

Meet the Promised Battle Modes

Then, just days before the promised launch, Daybreak came out and said it wouldn’t go live until March 26th, though if you had pre-ordered on Steam… because of course there was a pre-order offer… you would be invited to the Founder’s Season on February 20th.

Then, five days before that Founder’s Season, Daybreak has announced that the whole thing is being pushed out until Summer.  At least that was the correct usage of the Friday afternoon press release.  But here I am on Monday morning dredging it all up again.

The ostensible reasons given were related to feedback received during the closed beta as well as a desire to launch the game on across both the PC and PlayStation 4 platforms simultaneously.  We’ll see if a cross-platform launch includes cross-platform play, something Sony says it wants but acts like it is keen to avoid.

Maybe the reasons behind the push for a summer date even true.  But there are some other factors in the wind here.

One might be the recent launch of EA’s free to play entry into the Battle Royale arena, Apex Legends.  The title launched at the beginning of the month on Windows, PlayStation 4, and XBox One and is reported to have had more than 25 million downloads and 2 million players going at it concurrently.  Launching into the teeth of that with a pay to play title might be a big ask.

And then there is the refunds for those who pre-ordered.  Per the announcement:

In light of our revised launch plan, we are refunding all Planetside Arena pre-orders.

My guess is that while Fortnite alone didn’t scare them off the selling the box, the emergence of Apex Legends might have.  I expect, at a minimum, that this will mean PlanetSide Arena will be moving to a free to play model while Daybreak watches the market and starts building up a cosmetics cash shop.  They’re going to need to work hard on that, because I’ve never thought PlanetSide 2 was a pretty game.

Meanwhile, the pessimist in me thinks that this might be their Infinite Cisis, Turbine’s attempt to get in on the MOBA market that was too little and too late and which pretty much broke the company. (We got some dirty laundry aired after that.)

Not that Daybreak is down to just two aging fantasy MMORPGs the way Turbine was at that point.  No, Daybreak has two aging fantasy MMORPGs, an aging superhero MMORPG, an aging MMOFPS, and that Battle Royale game, though that last seems to be part of NantWorks at this point.  Also unlike Turbine, they don’t have a big company like Warner backing them.

We’ll see when the next bit of news about this hits I suppose.

No Good Expansions*

*Some expansions excepted

A post somewhat sparked by what Kaylriene wrote, though I have been harboring bits and pieces of this for ages now.  Ready for a Friday ramble?  Here we go.

I suppose that EverQuest needs to take some of the heat on this.  Coming up to its 20th anniversary it already has 25 expansions past the base game that launched back in 1999.  While expansions and updates and sequels and such were clearly a thing long before EverQuest came along, the success of EverQuest in the then burgeoning MMORPG space made it a standard bearer and template for games that came later, including World of Warcraft.

EverQuest went more than a year before launching the first expansion for the game, Ruins of Kunark, which I sometimes refer to as “the only good expansion,” and then embarked on a quest to launch two expansions a year in order to keep the community engaged and happy with new content.

Maybe the only fully good MMO expansion ever

That kept that money machine printing, but brought with it a series of problems like keeping people up to date, rolling past expansions up into consolidated, all-in-one packages like EverQuest Platinum, and what often felt like an exchange of quality in the name of getting another expansion out.  And some expansions barely felt like expansions at all.

SOE eased up on that plan in 2007, opting to dial back to just one expansion a year for both EverQuest and EverQuest II, which also launched with similar expansion plans.

So, if nothing else, EverQuest solidified the norm that expansions are a requirement, something the players expect.  That we complain about Blizzard only being able to crank out a WoW expansion every other year is directly related to the pace set by SOE.  Sort of.

But the one thing we know about expansions, that we complain about yet never think all that deeply about, is how they undue what has come before.

An expansion to a live MMORPG, by its very nature, changes the overall game.  And change always alienates somebody.  As I have often said, every feature, every aspect, no matter how trivial or generally despised, is somebody’s favorite part of that game.

MMORPG players also represent a dichotomy.  If they’ve played through the current content, it is likely because they have enjoyed it as it was laid out.  They’ve reached the end, they’re happy, and they want more of the same.  Mostly.  Some played through and were unhappy about some things, but happy overall.  Ideally an expansion will give players more of what made them happy, plus adjusting the things that made people unhappy.

Adjusting, of course, will make other player unhappy, as you’re pretty much guaranteed to be changing somebody’s favorite thing.  And every expansion brings change to the world, on top of the usual restart of the gear and level grind which, as people often point out, replaces their top end raid gear with better quest drop greens almost immediately.

Just handing out more of the same when it comes to content can feel repetitive and uninspired, but changing things makes people angry, because change makes people angry.  But leaving everything as it is means people finish the content and eventually stop giving you money via their monthly subscription.  The theoretical best path forward is the one that engages the most people while angering the fewest.

I refer to Ruins of Kunark as the one good expansion because it seemed to thread the needle almost exactly right.  I delivered more of what people were into, more content, more levels, more races, more dragons, more gear, all without having a huge impact on the game as it already stood.

Ruins of Kunark isn’t really the “one good expansion,” if only because “good” is very subjective.  And there are other expansions I have enjoyed.  It is more that it represents an expansion that did more to expand the game than annoy the installed base.  But first expansions can be like that.  Or they used to be like that.  Desert of Flames was like that for EverQuest II in many ways, and certainly The Burning Crusade had that first expansion magic for WoW.  I’d even argue that WoW, ever more fortunate than one would expect, got a double dip at that well, as Wrath of the Lich King continued on and did very well without disrupting the apple cart.

Eventually though, expansions begin to work against the game.  There is always a core group that keeps up, both others fall behind.  For EverQuest, the every six month pace meant a lot of people falling behind.  Expansions also put a gap between new players and the bulk of the player base.  That’s not so bad after one expansion, but each new expansion makes it worse.  And then there are the changes that anger the core fan base.

That leads us to Cataclysm.  The team at SOE, in their attempt to crank out new content, often neglected the old.  If I go back to Qeynos today it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1999.  There are a few new items, some new vendors scattered about, and the new mechanics added in to the game over the years.  But I can still stand out in front of the gates and fight beetles, skeletons, kicking snakes, and the occasional Fippy Darkpaw.  Yes, they redid Freeport, much to the chagrin of many, and the Commonlands and the Desert of Ro, but they have mostly left the old world looking like it did back in the day.  Enough has changed over the years that can’t go back and relive the game as it was at launch, which brought out the Project 1999 effort, but at least  I can still go bask in the eerie green glow of the chessboard in Butcherblock if I want.

Cataclysm though… well, it had a number of strikes against it from the get go, not the least of which was following on after two successful and popular expansions, which together played out the Warcraft lore as we knew it.  So Cataclysm had to break new ground on the lore front.

Cataclysm also only offered us five additional levels, a break with the pattern so far.  We also didn’t get a new world or continent, with the five new leveling zones being integrated into the old world.  We also got flying in old Azeroth right away, a feature that can start an argument faster than most.  I suspect flying is something Blizzard regrets in hindsight, but once they gave it to us they had to keep on  finding ways to make us unlock it all over again.

But most of all, Cataclysm redid the old world.  Zones were redone, new quest lines were created, and the 1-60 leveling experience became a completely different beast.

Arguably, it is a better experience.  I have run all of the redone zones.  I have the achievements to prove it. (Another divisive feature.)  And the zones all now have a story through which you can progress rather than the, at times, haphazard quest hubs which had you killing and collecting and killing some more over and over, often without rhyme or reason.

To give J. Allen Brack his due, for a specific set of circumstances, you don’t want the old game.

The rework, which was also necessitated by the need to give us flying throughout Azeroth, save for in the Blood Elf and Draenei starter zones, was spoiled by a couple of things.  First, the level curve had been cut back, so that the pacing of the new zones was off.  You would easily end up with quests so low level that they went gray if you chased down every quest in a zone.  And second, the rework of the 1-60 instances made them all short and easy and the optimum path for leveling using the dungeon finder.  You could run three an hour easy, even queuing as DPS, so you could, and probably did, bypass all that reworked content.

But, bigger than that, at least over the long haul, the removal of the old content led to something we might now call the WoW Classic movement.  There was already a nascent force in action on that, since the first two expansions reworked classes and talents, so you couldn’t really play the old content the way you did in 2005.  Vanilla servers were already a thing.  But they became a much bigger deal when Blizzard changed the old world.

Overall though, Cataclysm wasn’t a bad expansion.  It took me a while to get to that conclusion, because I did not like it at first, to the point of walking away from the game for a year.

The new races were fine.  The 80-85 zones were good.  Val’shir might be the prettiest zone in the game.  It is like playing in the most beautiful aquarium ever.  (A pity about the motion sickness thing.)  I ran and enjoyed all of the instances, with the reworked Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub raids being particularly good.  Being at level and doing the content was a decent experience.  I still use my camel mount regularly in no-fly areas.  Regardless though, the changes burned.  They were divisive. Blizz pissed off a lot of the core player base, even if the whole thing ended up getting us WoW Classic.

I think, even if Blizz hadn’t done all of those changes… which I guess would have meant calling it something other than Cataclysm… that it would have been a let down of an expansion.  Having to follow on after TBC and WotLK was a big ask.  How do you follow up Ice Crown Citadel?

Mists of Pandaria revived things a bit, though I think that was as much by being a really solid expansion as it was that expectations were low after Cataclysm.  But Warlords of Draenor?  Doomed.  The expectations set by reviving the themes from TBC meant eventual disappointment.  Garrisons were not great.  They were not the housing people wanted.  They took people out of the world, just like Blizz said housing would, without being a place people cared about and could make their own.  But I think the fact that it wasn’t the return of Outland and the excitement of 2007 was what led to the eventual drop in subscriptions.  People realized there was no going back to their memories of the old game.

As every feature is somebody’s favorite feature, the thing that keeps them in the game, every expansion is somebody’s breaking point, the thing that gets them to walk away.  The more expansions that come along, the more people end up dropping out.  Or, if they don’t drop out, they return to play casually, as much out of habit as anything.  The investment in the game isn’t as deep.  You play for a bit, see the sights, do the tourist thing, get the achievements, then unsubscribe until the next expansion.

Eventually there is an equilibrium it seems.  EverQuest and EverQuest II seemed to have found it.  They still do an expansion every year that plays to the installed base, that gives them just enough of what they want… be they invested or tourist… to buy-in and spend some time with the game.

Basically, expansions are change, and change has a habit of breaking the bonds players have with your game.  However, if you sit still and have no expansions then people will leave over time anyway, so you cannot simply avoid expansions and change either.  It is probably better to move forward in the end, make the changes, earn a bit of extra money, and carry on.

Just don’t expect everybody to thank you for it.

EverQuest 20th Anniversary Progression Servers Announced

More build up to the EverQuest 20th anniversary next month.

As promised in the previous Producer’s Letter there will be two progression servers set to open on Saturday, March 16 as part of the anniversary celebration.

Let’s take a look at what we’re getting.

Ultra Casual

The first of the pair will be called Selo, a name no doubt derived from the bard class song Selo’s Accelerando, which let your group move more quickly.

Selo moves you faster

This is appropriate because the Selo server will be the fast/casual progression server, with an experience curve that will  likely let you get to level cap much faster than you ever did back in 1999.  It will still be slower than live servers, but not as slow as any past progression server.

It will also advance much more quickly, starting in the Shadows of Luclin era and opening up a new expansion on the first Wednesday of every month thereafter, starting with the Planes of Power unlock on May 1, 2019.  That will give people a little extra time to get ramped up on those initial levels.

After it catches up to the current expansion level, something that will still take close to two years (so many expansions, and probably a new one at the end of the year), it will become a normal live server.  There is a FAQ for the Selo server available.

Hardcore

The second server will be named Mangler, named for the black guard dog that hangs around in one of the back rooms of the Fool’s Gold in Rivervale.  It is of the more traditional progression server style.

Yes, my dog bites

The experience rate for Mangler will be somewhat slower than the usual, already slowed progression server norm, and is aimed at the more hardcore raider faction.  For this server, expansions will unlock every 12 weeks until Gates of Discord opens, after which expansions that include level cap increases will last for 12 weeks while those without will last for 8 weeks.

That still puts the life of this server out in the five year range.

There is also a FAQ up for the Mangler server.

True Box

Both of these servers will be in the “True Box” model that Daybreak has adopted, which means that you will not be able to multibox.  Multiboxing was deemed the literal worst thing ever by a loud faction of the progression server community.  And I get that it can be annoying to see one obvious group all being controlled by a single person owning your favorite spawn.  Further, I agree that on a server like Mangler, it is probably in the zone.

My Reaction

I want to say right up front that the idea of starting a progression server on the 20th anniversary of the launch of EverQuest that kicks off anywhere but classic is complete bullshit.

Seriously, who at Daybreak thought, “Let’s celebrate classic by bypassing classic!” was a good plan?  That was enough to make my playing on it go from “sure thing” to “maybe.”

That aside, I am also confused as to what “ultra casual” means to the team at Daybreak.  On hearing them use the term “casual” I thought they might relax the whole “true box” thing so people could dual box a tank and a healer or something, like I did back with Fippy Darkpaw.

Or, even better, maybe allow mercenaries onto the server from day one… in classic… so that you could hire your own in-game healer to follow you as you explored.  But neither will be the case.

I guess I am okay with the faster XP curve.  I can see the argument for not wanting to wear the hair shirt if you’re in for a casual tour.  But the whole faster expansion unlock thing?  That seems to be the opposite of what casuals have been asking for out of a progression server.  It is the hardcore raiders that always want the next unlock once they’ve finished up the current expansion.  Casual players have traditionally been the holdouts looking for longer stretches with each expansion since they tend to play at a casual pace.

Giving substance to that unlock history, it seems as though the hardcore raiding guilds are planning to avoid Mangle altogether and hit Selo instead, since it pretty much gives them what they have been asking for; the ability to level up more quickly in order to raid and faster unlock times for expansions so they can have new content for their guilds more often.

The casuals… well, if you trust the Progression Server section of the the EverQuest forums… are feeling left out.  I don’t seem to be the only one who thinks that starting anywhere besides classic is simply wrong, but there is the usual amount of arguing back and forth as to what the server ought to be, interrupted only by the person who opened a thread asking for a PvP progression server.  That seemed to unify a lot of people… against PvP.

But the key factor here seems to be badly set expectations.

Daybreak told us there would be an “ultra casual” progression server back with the Producer’s Letter, but did not bother to explain what that might really mean.  So for a couple of weeks people got to make up their own idea “ultra casual” server in the head, setting the expectations themselves in the big blank that Daybreak left open.  I certainly did so with my thoughts about mercs or true box.

And then Daybreak told us what they had in mind and it failed to match almost everybody’s self-constructed view.  No surprise there I suppose.  Remember when they told us H1Z1 was going to be for Star Wars Galaxies players?

We shall see if the heat in the forums leads to any changes.  Unlike EverQuest II, where the company often seems to blow with the loudest wind in the forums, the Progression Server section of the EverQuest forums has a long standing tradition of being ignored by Daybreak.  An actual post by a Daybreak employee there is generally looked upon as something akin to a miracle.

But starting a progression server anywhere except at classic… no… just no.  That has got to be fixed.  On a server where the unlocks will be once a month, I can’t even imagine an argument for skipping straight to Shadows of Luclin.  It will be unlocked soon enough already.  Seriously, what the hell?

No Alliance Tournament for 2019

I have to admit that I am not a huge fan of the annual EVE Online Alliance Tournament for various reasons.

The Alliance Tournament

It happens outside the game, which is not good thing for a single shard sandbox game to my mind, and all the more so since the special rewards come back into the game. (Though that you have to supply ships from the game for the tournament, and if you lose them they’re gone, does redeem that some.  Especially when a tournament reward ship blows up.)

Also, as with a lot of video game tournaments, seeing it online involves watching action on camera that wavers between being too distant to tell what is going on or too close to understand the context, making the commentary pretty much vital.  And the commentary can be… uneven.  You all aren’t Elise Randolph I’m afraid.

In addition, the skill needed to participate doesn’t translate through the screen very well.  If I watch a StarCraft tournament I know enough to appreciate some fine unit handling and situational awareness. With the AT you can be left wondering if one side was really better or if somebody just picked the right/wrong fleet composition for that round.

So, on any given year I might watch two or three of the matches.  I get more excited seeing a Drake in the mix than I do over any particular team winning or losing.

Still, I get that it is important to some people.  That it isn’t my thing doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a thing.  There are groups out there that take this annual event very seriously.  As the joke that isn’t really a joke goes, if you want to do something in null sec without Pandemic Legion dropping on you, you doing during the ramp up to the AT because a lot of their key players will be busy with practice for that.

And I do enjoy hearing those involved talk about the AT.  More than anything else, stories are the essence of EVE Online to me.  The game is objectively not that good.  You wouldn’t play it solo.  Well, somebody would, but most wouldn’t see the point.  I wouldn’t see the point.

But the stories it produces, the tales of how things ended up coming to pass or how a given strategy came about or just the behind the scenes reactions to changes or unexpected turns of events are the secret sauce that allows EVE Online to transcend its obtuse UI and unwieldy mechanics.

And the AT produces stories, which is enough for me to support it as an ongoing event.  I’ll read or listen to those stories so long as somebody wants to tell them.

So I was a bit disappointed to see that CCP has decided not to hold the Alliance Tournament in 2019.  I am not even sure I get the reason why.  How do you go from saying the AT is a huge aspect of the game’s heritage and a big part of the annual game calendar to it being a good idea to take a break?

I mean, it doesn’t impact me directly, but it will be a hit to some, a kick in the nuts to their morale, a reason to take a break or not come back from one.

Meanwhile, as I wrap this up I see that Rixx Javix is going further in asking what it really means when CCP decides to give this event a miss.  Is this really just an opportunity to reflect or concentrate on other tasks?  Is there a bigger agenda here that we ought to know about?

I’m still digesting the rather grim view for Blizzard and now this.

Activision Blizzard – Famine in the Midst of Plenty

I already had a post queued up for today, one about EverQuest and the anniversary progression servers they just announced. But events have overtaken that, so it has been pushed off until tomorrow.  It can wait.  Instead there is a fresh turd in the punch bowl calling attention to itself and which I can’t seem to ignore.

Let’s talk about Activision Blizzard for a moment.

There are few things that can raise the ire against capitalism than a company declaring record revenue and announcing layoffs on the same day.  And yet that was yesterday for Activision Blizzard.

Unless this blog is literally the only video game site you read… in which case I am sorry… you have probably seen the news of yesterday’s earnings call spread around.

Bobby Kotick led the investor call yesterday and was able to declare that Activision Blizzard had its best year ever, earning $2.38 billion in revenue.  However, it wasn’t as good as he had previously promised.  Wall Street was led to believe that the numbers would be closer to $3 billion.  Furthermore, there was expected to be some decline from this earnings summit, with 2019 being described as a “transition year.”

To appease Wall Street for this it was announced that the company would be laying off 8% of its staff, adding up to roughly 800 people.  In my mind I see the scene from The Fifth Element where Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg callously approves a layoff, though that probably flatters the Activision.

The company was quick to follow that with a statement that these layoffs would not be hitting the actual game developers and that “in aggregate” it was expected that game development staffing across the company and its many titles was expected to grow 20% over the course of the year.  What “in aggregate” means is left to the imagination, since I doubt that we’ll every see any follow on indicating if or how this came to pass.  In aggregate some more developers at NetEase working on mobile games for Blizzard might count.

But this ritual sacrifice apparently worked for the moment as ACTI stock has been up a bit today, though the share price is still almost half of what it was back in October before BlizzCon.  I’m not saying that BlizzCon tanked the stock completely.  The price was already down to 65 before then.  But the week following BlizzCon it was down to 50, after which it fell into the 40s during the tough December for the market, finally dropping to its recent nadir in anticipation of the overall company not meeting its estimates.

And so it goes with public companies, where stock price and margins are everything.

When I was younger, back in college, there used to be concern about the dividends that stocks paid.  That was a key factor in their valuation.  It was, you know, an actual investment.  There were programs from companies like Coca-Cola that would allow you to buy some of their stock and then use the regular dividends to buy more so that over time you might have an investment that provided a decent income, something to help you later on in life.

That changed, largely because of Silicon Valley, with the trend in the late 80s that companies would deliver value in the form of growing stock prices.  Companies like Apple and Microsoft pay dividends rarely and very reluctantly. [Edit: Okay, those two do now, but they fought doing that for ages, and a lot of tech companies do not.]  Thus the stock market became became much more about speculation.  What was important was not how consistent a company had been in paying dividends in the past but how much the stock would be worth in the future.  You didn’t buy stock to hold but to sell.

So stock price became all important, and margins became the key measure by which Wall Street valued stock.  Margins, the ratio of expenses to revenue, as the Wall Street obsession has its own distorting effect.  You can boost margins easily by laying people off, or at least look like you’re attempt to boost margins.  You can also boost margins by buying other companies for their products rather than building your own.  Activision spending $5.9 billion to develop a mobile games library?  A huge hit to margins.  Activision buying King for $5.9 billion?  No hit to margins at all since it is assumed in all such transactions that what you bought was worth what you paid for it.  Want to know why EA buys so many studios?  That’s why.

Anyway, that is all based on my experience over the last 30 years in Silicon Valley, where the CEO, the board of directors, and the major investors all care primarily about stock prices if your company is public, and about setting up an optimum structure for going public if you are not already.  I don’t like it.  But if I attempted to avoid companies that behaved that way, which is almost every publicly held company and most larger privately held companies looking to go public, I’m not sure how I would get by.  Go read this series about what it takes to avoid the big five tech giants.

More interesting I suppose is what all this will mean for Blizzard, the one part of the company I actually care about.

On that front things do not look good.  On slide six from the investor call presentation the Blizzard portion stands out in its tepidness.

Activision Blizzard Q4 2018 Financial Results Presentation – Slide 6

You may have to click on that to view it full size for it to be legible.

Both Q4 and in 2018 overall Blizzard was third place in margins and second place in revenue, with King running close behind on that front.

Meanwhile the highlights listed are pretty stark.  Activision had a huge Q4 because that is when the release the latest Call of Duty every year, so you expect that to be huge for them.  But this year it set records.

King also showed quarter over quarter and year over year growth and was recognized for having a leading entry in the mobile games market.

And Blizzard?  I don’t think “sequential stability” is a winning phrase on Wall Street.  Signing a renewal with NetEase is nice, but I don’t think that was a surprise after BlizzCon, where we found out that they were building Diablo Immortal.

And World of Warcraft seeing “expected declines” post expansion already is downright depressing.  That used to be what happen at least a year after an expansion launched, then maybe something that was referenced six to nine months down the road.  But Battle for Azeroth launched in August, in the middle of Q3, and we’re being told that the “expected declines” hit in Q4?  That’s not good, not good at all.  I’m tempted to double down on my “early launch for WoW Classic” prediction from the beginning of the year.

I’ve already seen somebody suggest that this means that Blizzard will abandon WoW, which is ludicrous.  It doesn’t track logically at all because Blizzard doesn’t have anything else to fall back on.  Heroes of the Storm getting set aside was easy, it wasn’t a key revenue generator.  WoW is practically the company’s right leg, and the left leg, Overwatch, hasn’t been doing so well recently either.

And, on top of all of that, it has come out that Blizzard has no major “frontline” releases slated for 2019.   I am assuming that WoW Classic doesn’t count towards that and, as I have said, I expect it will do well.  But reviving the WoW subscriber base for the months that WoW Classic with be hot doesn’t sound like it will be enough.  A remaster Warcraft III isn’t going to be a big enough draw either.  And you can only have so many Hearthstone expansions in a single year.  That doesn’t leave much.

So I expect 2019 will become the year that is marked as the one that Blizzard became something else.  The departure of Mike Morhaime, the Diablo Immortal fiasco at BlizzCon, the rumors and leaks that Activision is getting more and more into the daily operation of the division to make it more like the rest of the company… a company run by a man who said he wanted to take the fun out of game development… and less like the Blizzard that could take the time to hone and polish a product before launch.

Anyway, we shall see what happens.  But I do not think it bodes well.

Other posts on this topic:

EVE Online February Update Brings Little Things and the Guardian’s Gala Event

With the update to the EVE Online launcher already in our hands, the February update for the game doesn’t have much in the way of big features.

No UTC Clock yet, but more space for announcements and accounts

Instead February brings us something of a little things release.  And that is not necessarily a bad thing.  In a complex project like EVE Online with many moving parts there are plenty of refinements possible.

One of the highlighted changes for the update is a reorganization of the Neocom menu structure, including removal of the “holds and bays,” “ship hangar,” and “item hangar” options, as those all roll up into the unified inventory window already.  CCP will also be reducing the number of items that are on the Neocom by default to help with the sensory overload problem that is the game’s UI.

Another change being called out affects the overview, where cynosural fields will be moved to their own selection in the configuration, separate from other beacons, allowing capsuleers to filter on just those.  A placeholder slot was put in the UI in advance of this, to allow people to update and have their overview ready to go.  If you want to see cynos you should probably check and update your settings.

And there there is the dev blog post about many of the other little things that are arriving with the update.  One silly little item I am looking forward to is a change to how links show up in chat, color coding them so you have a better ideas as to what to expect.

Link colors update

There is always somebody out there that forms a link to look like a kill mail, but when you click on it adds you to a specific chat channel.  That ruse will at least be a bit more obvious now.

The UI will also now prompt you when you attempt to map a key already in use, allowing you to reassign the key right then as opposed to having to hunt down the current key and unmap it manually.

This would have been handy a while back

Also in the mix are two larger font sizes for contextual menus, no doubt a boon to the aging population of the game.

The update also kicks off the now annual Guardian’s Gala event in New Eden.

Coming to The Agency today

The event will run from today through until February 25th.  As usual, it is hooked into The Agency interface in the game and will offer special drops from various activities as well as the usual points system used to accrue towards specific rewards.  Expect SKINs, cerebral accelerators, and the like.  Also, special pink SKINs are for sale in the New Eden Store.  I might need the Eagle and Basilisk SKIN.

As usual we’ve gotten word that the update has been deployed successfully.  For the details there are the patch notes and the updates page available for your perusal.

Also coming soon, CCP think they have nailed down the major problems with the XMPP based chat system they introduced last year.  As a reward for our patience, accounts that were Omega status on March 20, 2018 will be getting a 500K skill point reward on the character with the most skill points.  It’s like a free skill injector.  Details here.

And, finally, CCP has announced a new initiative called CCP Please which will act as a tracking methodology for their ongoing work when it comes to quality of life improvements in the game.  You can visit the CCP Please site here.  Among the first items to be tracked, progress towards a 64-bit client.