Category Archives: Lord of the Rings Online

Ji Ham Speaks about Enad Global 7

I am finally catching up on things that happened a month ago at this point.  In this case there was a change at Enad Global 7 that saw Ji Ham, who was heading up Daybreak, become the acting CEO of the company, displacing the well liked Robin Flodin.

Enad Global 7

This led to an interview with Ji Ham, posted to YouTube, where most of us not only saw him for the first time, but heard his voice for the first time as well… which is a bit odd for somebody who has been CEO of a video game company for six years, but hardly the most unusual thing about the Daybreak era.

So I finally sat down and watched the video.

I haven’t seen much written about the video, and that which I did see dismissed it as a whole lot of nothing.

And, I will attest, if you were expecting some detailed information about the company, its operations, or its games, there wasn’t much to chew on.

That said, the 27 minute video was not completely devoid of information.

Ji Ham’s ascension to the CEO role, which was again stressed as an acting position and that he will not be moving to Stockholm, was attributed to the change in the business model that EG7 is now pursuing.  Having grown through acquisition, the company now has a number of live products generating substantial revenue, meaning a different outlook may have been needed in the leadership position.

There was no mention of Robin Flodin’s interview gaffe, so the party line is apparently this was planned and completely normal.

But, while live games are now part of the mix, the company is still seeking more acquisitions to fill what it sees as holes in its offerings or that would fit well within their portfolio.

I have mentioned in the past that growth through acquisitions is a popular choice for publicly held companies as any asset they buy is always assumed to be worth what they paid for it so there is no hit against margins; writing your own code costs, buying somebody else’s’ code is a wash.

No acquisition targets were mentioned, but I suspect that if you looked at what is missing from their current ecosystem that keeps them from being self-contained you might at least come up with some potential segments.

Which isn’t to say that they are giving up on developing their own titles.  Once again a triple-A title was mentioned, but no specifics were given.  However, I think some of us just assume it is going to be a Marvel version of DC Universe Online.  We shall see.

Long time followers of Daybreak will no doubt be amused that Ji Ham said both that communication from the company had been lacking and that titles in their portfolio had not seen much in the way of investment during the Daybreak era, something EG7 would like to rectify.  Whose fault might that be?

I guess at least he didn’t blame it on Smed.

Acknowledging that the Daybreak portfolio was old… most of the titles are over a decade old, with H1Z1 being the young one in the bunch, having only passed the six year mark back in February… one wonders where they might throw some resources.

He did mention two titles specifically when it came to targets for investment, DC Universe Online and Lord of the Rings Online.

DCUO is the most popular title in the Daybreak lineup, claiming more than 400K monthly active users last year and bringing in more total revenue than any of its siblings according to last December’s reveal. (Though EverQuest still beat it for net earnings.)

DCUO has a lot of players on consoles, and was at one time the top earning free to play title on PlayStation, so worth keeping up to date.  One of the investments it needs is to get it onto the latest generation XBox and PlayStation 5 hardware.   Also, it would totally make sense to invest in it if you were going to make a Marvel version of the game.

As for LOTRO, it was singled out because, in his words, it is the only Tolkien online world currently available.  True enough, that statement.  The problem is that I am not sure EG7 has the resources available to make LOTRO into a viable, competitive title fourteen years down the road.  While the world is beautiful in game, character models, responsiveness, and the general interface was poor relative to the standards of the industry in 2007.  While there have been a few graphical upgrades over the years, the UI and the character models are still garbage and all the more so on any monitor over 1920×1080 in resolution.  And that leaves aside the layers of monetization piled onto the game, where every dialog wants to sell you a short cut to get around whatever effort game play asks of you.

There is no financially viable road forward that fixes all of its fundamental issues… and I am not even going to go into garbage mechanics like legendary items, which they’re kind of hand waving a fix for because they can’t get rid of it as the grind is so horrible that it likely leads more players to the cash shop than anything else… when it made maybe $15 million tops last year.

I know, that sounds like a lot of money.  But Tolkien Enterprises gets their cut right off the top I bet, then there are the servers and infrastructure to maintain and keep up to date, and the staff needed to keep things going as they are, and then the amount needed to keep Jason Epstein and Ji Ham in the lifestyles to which they have become accustomed.  And now the whole thing is owned by a public company, so the pressure to earn is even higher.  The time to invest and fix things is when you’re private and can get away with a few quarters of loss without the market calling for your head.

I’ve spent a lot of time with LOTRO and cherish those memories, but the wide appeal of its theme is held back by the raggedly old mechanics of the title.  Such is life.

Not mentioned, much to my surprise, was H1Z1.  Robin Floodin used to bring up H1Z1 every time he spoke about the titles that EG7 held, promising its player base that they were looking to revive the title.  I guess it is the newest title in the bunch and, for a brief stretch, was the flagship battle royale title, a position in managed to squander and is unlikely ever to recover. (NerdSlayer has a new Death of a Game video about H1Z1 that covers all the main fumbles.)

But perhaps Ji Ham, who was the CEO when H1Z1 flailed, flamed out, and ceased to be a force in the market, knows better than most what its value now is.

Anyway, those are the bits that stuck out for me.  There was more in the interview, including a caution on earnings, but I was mostly interested in the product related side of things.  The YouTube page has bookmarks in the description that divide up the whole thing into the various topics discussed.

The next thing we hear from EG7 is likely to be Q3 earning in about a month.

The LOTRO Fate of Gundabad Expansion Targets November 10th Launch

SSG has announced the date for the next Lord of the Rings Online expansion, Fate of Gundabad, which is set to go on November 10th, 2021.

The fate is per-determined by the quest chain I’m sure

The expansion boasts of the following features:

  • New Brawler class
  • Level cap raised from 130 to 140
  • New mobs to face, new zones to explore
  • New instances and raids
  • A new run at the Legendary Item system

The expansion is available for pre-purchase now and comes in three different flavors:

Standard Edition – $40

  • Fate of Gundabad Content
  • Brawler Class
  • Extra Character Slot
  • Standard Expedition Supplies

Collector’s Edition – $80

  • Fate of Gundabad Content
  • Brawler Class
  • Extra Character Slot
  • Improved Expedition Supplies
  • Brawler Gauntlet Box
  • Level boost to 130
  • Gundabad Cosmetics
  • Gundabad Mount & War-steed
  • And more bonus items!

Ultimate Fan Bundle – $130

  • Fate of Gundabad Content
  • Brawler Class
  • Extra Character Slot
  • Ultimate Expedition Supplies
  • Brawler Gauntlet Box
  • Level boost to 130
  • Gundabad Cosmetics
  • Gundabad Mount & War-steed
  • Fateful Gundabad Cosmetics
  • Thunder Boar & War-steed Appearance
  • Dye Carry-all
  • 10,000 Virtue XP
  • And more bonus items!

I do find it a bit amusing that the Expedition Supplies include various accelerators, because nothing says your game is grindy like handing out XP boosters with the expansion pack.

All of which seems to be standard fare for an MMO expansion; level cap increase, more stuff to do, a new class to play, and some changes to a key system here and there.  As pointed out elsewhere, not exactly earth shattering stuff.

More interesting to me is where the game is heading.

Lord of the Rings Online is in an odd position in that it cannot just make up new content.  It cannot follow in the footsteps of its Norrathian siblings and just go to the moon for a couple of expansions or decide to go on a sea voyage to discover some new content.

SSG is stuck with the books of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  As I recall they cannot even stray into The Hobbit, which seems like it would be a nice time travel expansion, much less the lore dense Silmarillion.

And when it comes to the main story line of the trilogy, we’re kind of done.  The ring has been destroyed, Sauron has been thrown down, we’ve tidied up Mordor a bit, had a wedding, scourged the Shire, and have generally wrapped up all of the great moments of the Third Age. [edit: or at least I thought we had done all those things… I’m still back in Mirkwood]

So the team at SSG has been working on what I call “plundering the appendix” of the trilogy.  Dr. Tolkien, bless his soul, crammed in more than 150 pages of appendices with all sorts of bits of history, family trees, pronunciation guides and language primers, and other items of tangential interest to the main tale including a timeline of events of the world.

In that condensed history of Middle-earth you will find the tale of Gundabad in the Misty Mountains, where the dwarves first awoke when the world was young and their struggles with the orcs over it.  This has been picked up for the latest expansion.

And that makes me wonder what else is buried in the appendix that they can farm for more expansions.  Where else might they go?  I mean, technically, there is a lot of stuff mentioned in the appendix of the trilogy.  Is something being there an opening to include it in the game, because they do retell a tale of one Thorin Oakenshield and an expedition to the Lonely Mountain… I’m just saying.

Enad Global 7 Q2 2021 Financials and Concerning News

I keep having to remind myself that Daybreak’s parent is a public company once again, and a small enough one that Daybreak’s products aren’t hidden in the numbers but are big enough in the company to get highlighted at every report.  EverQuest is a big name at Enad Global 7.

Enad Global 7

Fortunately I have a Google alert setup for Enad Global 7 which, unlike some of my other alerts, has proven effective at catching updates about the company.  So early this week I got the nod that their Q2 2021 preliminary financials had been announced.  The statement was short and sweet:

During the second quarter, we delivered a net revenue growth of 179%, EBITDA growth of 360% and meanwhile having successfully integrated the acquisitions we closed in the first quarter of 2021. With our rapid acquisition growth, we have digested, integrated and built up the necessary processes to continue our strategic focus. I am delighted to announce that the relaunch of MechWarrior 5 was profitable already after a couple of weeks. It was a testament of the collaboration power between the subsidiaries of the group.

There was also a slide deck investor presentation to go with the announcement. (The income statement covers much of the same ground.) Quite a bit of the deck was information previously shared.  They did note that Daybreak’s seven titles account for 50% of the company’s revenue.

Daybreak, owner of 7 IP’s that are live and account for 50% of the revenue, mainly PC and Console.  Distributed mainly through our own platform.

Elsewhere in the presentation they say that live games make up 50% of the revenue for 2020, which includes My Singing Monsters as the 8th title, so I am not sure how that breaks out.

And, as always, the like to talk about the strong IPs and long running titles that came with Daybreak.

This slide from March was re-run, featuring 6 Daybreak titles in the highlights plus My Singing Monsters

Compared to that 16% of the revenue comes in via Innova’s 4Game platform which hosts titles licensed from other companies for distribution in the EU and CIS including Lineage II, Aion, and Ragnarok Online.

The presentation wasn’t big on news.  The previously announced plan to migrate all their titles onto the 4Game platform was reconfirmed.

We’ll all play on 4Game

Not a big news day for EG7 really.  A good financial report, some rah rah, and back to work.

As I was tracking down the financials I found that the same day a bomb dropped at EG7.  Robin Flodin, the chipper, young, and enthusiastic CEO of EG7 that gave us all such good feels when the Daybreak acquisition was announced, was being given the boot, with Ji Ham of Daybreak stepping in to fill the role as acting CEO.

The Board of Enad Global 7 AB (publ) and Robin Flodin have agreed that effective immediately Robin will transition away from his current role as CEO of EG7 and will be replaced by the current CEO of Daybreak Game Company, EG7’s largest subsidiary, Ji Ham. During this transition Robin will stay on for six months to assist Ji as he assumes his new role within the EG7 family of companies. Ji will be appointed acting CEO of EG7 as a search for a permanent CEO has been initiated. Ji has an extensive background in both gaming and finance and has for the last six years been the CEO of Daybreak. During his tenure at Daybreak Ji has overseen extensive growth and profitability of the company.

Of course, this made hearts sink, and not just because some of us had crushes on Robin.

Ji Ham should have an entry on the IMDB given his ongoing acting roles.  After Smed got the heave-ho from Daybreak, long time SOE exec Russel Shanks took over for a bit.  But that did not last long and Daybreak quietly updated its information to indicate that Ji Ham had stepped in as acting president of Daybreak.

Nobody outside of the company was quite sure who he was.  His profile over at Bloomberg, which has since been scrubbed from the site (classic Daybreak move), indicated that he was with Columbus Nova’s renewable fuels group, working closing with the Russian Renova Group, which owned Columbus Nova.

The profile probably disappeared during the 2018 panic when Daybreak tried to gaslight everybody , though “gaslighting” implies some subtlety and skill that was not present in the act, into believing that the company had never had anything to do with Renova, Columbus Nova, or any other Russians that might be facing sanctions from the US government.  And that is what the Daybreak era reminds many people of, a regime of obvious lies.

So why is Ji Ham in and Robin Flodin out?

I suspect we’ll never know the real dynamics of the situation, but looking at the slide deck from the quarterly numbers, Robin didn’t own a lot of the company.  The combined management and board of directors own 49% of the company, broken out like this:

EG7 board and management ownership stakes

I have pasted in the total ownership stake in the company for each individual (you might need to click on the image to view it full size to make those numbers readable) and in that mix that represents 49% of the company, Robin holds just 3.504%  That is a lot of shares, but not enough to maintain any sort of control

Meanwhile our old Columbus Nova friends, Jason Epstein and Ji Ham, own more than 9% of the company.  Add in the fact that Daybreak is responsible for 50% of EG7’s revenue and it probably isn’t a huge mystery as to how Jason Epstein and his partner Ji Ham got themselves in the driver’s seat again.

As for what it means… well, I am skeptical.  The press release says this about Ji Ham:

During his tenure at Daybreak Ji has overseen extensive growth and profitability of the company

That seems to be, from the outside, counter factual.

From the outside Ji Ham’s tenure was one of cancelling new titles, shutting down old titles, laying off staff, and tarnishing the reputation of the company with outrageous historical revisionism.  The company may have seen profits, but it wasn’t due to growth.  Growth didn’t enter into it.  Profits came by cutting costs and not investing in anything new, it came from maintaining the status quo at the cheapest possible rate.

Is that the future now holds for EG7?  Have they finished with their growth through acquisition phase and moved to consolidation and profit seeking?  Is Ji Ham being put on the throne to do to EG7 what he did to Daybreak?

Yes, I know he is “acting” CEO, but he was “acting” President and CEO at Daybreak too, and he had a long run in that role. He has recast his LinkedIn profile in the Daybreak tradition to indicate that he was CEO of the company since the date of Smed’s departure.  There was no Russell Shanks, only Ji Ham.  He did a modest attempt at downplaying the fact that he was deep in Columbus Nova, that company that never had nothing to do with Daybreak ever.

CN? What is CN?

I suspect he hopes people think he worked for Canadian Northern Railway and not a Russian oligarch investment front.

I might be borrowing trouble here, taking the dimmest possible view of events, but back in December, when EG7 announced their acquisition of Daybreak with a vision of growth and investment, a lot of optimism bubbled up for the future of the company and its titles.  That optimism came from the grim times that the Daybreak era represented, so bringing back the same actors to run the new show can hardly be expected to be received with enthusiastic applause.

Of course, some of that December optimism was likely misplaced, especially on the LOTRO front.  Making a console silk purse, as the initial announcements hinted at, out of the sow’s ear that is LOTRO now… and that, honestly, LOTRO has always been… would require an investment in funds that would likely never see a return.

And who knows, maybe EG7 is still looking to expand and grow.  Maybe Ji Ham will be given resources and instructions by the board to go in directions he could not when he was at the helm of Daybreak.  Hey, maybe the “acting CEO” bit isn’t a lie, maybe the company is really looking for a new CEO and Ji Ham will be just a caretaker… though why he needs a six month transition from Robin Flodin raises some questions on that front, though likely it means Robin gets paid as CEO for another six months while not having anything to do after a week or two.

But it is concerning.  It smacks of a return to the habits of Daybreak writ larger as they now apply to even more studios.  As I said with the initial burst of optimism about EG7 I will now say about this dark turn; we will have to wait and see.

Addendum: As pointed out here in the comments, Robin Flodin apparently had problems during an interview he was giving on Swedish television where he couldn’t explain the difference between sales and revenue.

That Tweet, which I also linked in the comments, points to an article about the interview.  Google translates the headline as, “Robin Flodin is forced to leave the position of CEO of EG7 after a high-profile interview.”

So the ascension of Ji Ham was perhaps not premeditated, though we have yet to see what it will mean in the long term.

Related:

Immersion in Middle-Earth

I set myself an ambitious goal.  I was all up in arms about immersion once again and, having had that blinding flash of the obvious association between immersion and enjoyment of certain titles, figures I could explore some past titles to see if that could pinpoint what makes for an immersive experience for me.

The danger here is that what is immersive can easily be confused with things I just like… and thus things that prevent or break immersion must be things I simply don’t like… and so the whole thing might just devolve into things I have praised or groused about in the past.

And “confused” probably draws too dark of a line between likes and immersion.  They are at a minimum fellow travelers.  But I know I can find cases where things I do not always enjoy and up in the mix of immersion as well.  The rather nebulous concept of “grind” fits in there.  Grinding mobs for a quest or just for xp can be bad… except when it is not.  Sometimes it is just what you need, and easy repetitive task that lets you fall into the rhythm of the game and your character.

Anyway, with all that and more in mind I thought I might take a stab at what I consider up front to be an easier title with which to pin down my immersion factors.

And the winner is Lord of the Rings Online.

Straight out of the gate the lore of the game is something I had been immersed in for nearly 30 years before it launched.  I was Book of Lost Tales and other bits and pieces published by Christopher Tolkien deep into it.  I used to knock out The Hobbit on a Sunday afternoon if I had nothing else going on and would re-read the main trilogy every two or three years.

So I was already sold on the idea… though that can be a hazard if the company doesn’t deliver.  But Turbine did deliver.  LOTRO might not be the most unique or well built MMORPG, but it looked and felt like Third Age Middle-earth to me.  The landscape, the buildings, even the stars at night are all amazing.

As well, the integration of the player into the story was done very well.  That was something I was worried about before playing the game.  One of my early posts on the blog, less than two weeks after I started, was a bit of fretting about how Turbine would handle LOTRO and lore.

But parallel path of the player through the tale, where you are handling important side tasks and occasionally crossing paths with the fellowship, is done with such care that it has never caused me much concern.

Knowing the lore and being predisposed to go along with it helped me get in the zone with the game.  There were certainly problems, especially early on.  The usual problems of running back and forth too much or perhaps spending too much time on the bear/boar/wolf circuit were pain points.  And the UI itself, with odd and sometimes indecipherable icons for skills and attacks… again, I have a post about some of that… were among my gripes.  But at least you got a lot of bag space up front, so inventory management wasn’t an immediate struggle.

Even the kind of goofy take on crafting, where you pick a vocation that gets you a basket of three trade skills plus the related harvesting was at least a slightly different take on things, though it could become something of an unpleasant grind on its own after not too long into the game.

So I found fun and interest and immersion to some degree on our first pass through, and immersion seemed to grown as I returned to LOTRO various times over the years.  I have mentioned before that having knowledge of the game when you come back to start from scratch helps things along and makes me feel more the champion of the free peoples.

To this end there are a string of zones that I enjoy running through again and again.  The starter zones not so much… I’m not really a fan of the Shire, quaint though it be… but once I am headed towards Bree I am very much engaged in the game and the story and the tale of my character.  Bree and the Old Forest and Midgewater Marshes and the Lone Lands and Evendim are my happy path, where I fall under the spell of the game, where I can feel myself get lost in the experience.

Things taper off a bit for me in the Trollshaws and in the Misty Mountains, and I have never been much on either Forochel or Angmar, the former being weighed down by so much running back and forth while the latter is just a bit too grim for my tastes.  But I still can carry on and find the zone through those and on into Moria.

And then somewhere, between Moria and Mirkwood my immersion fades and the game feels like a labor, the story doesn’t capture me and all the quests become like a weight dragging me down.

Mirkwood might explain it.  It is a dark and uninspired area into which you get thrown.  I’ve been through Moria well enough a few times now, but Mirkwood is truly an impenetrable forest in my way.

So I roll up any number of characters and get to level 40 and can be quite pleased.  I can push on and still enjoy myself.  But there is a limit beyond which there is no joy, no immersion, just grind.

It is tempting to blame Siege of Mirkwood, it being a blameworthy expansion, but even Mines of Moria, the epic underground adventure, begins to wear on me.  There is a temptation in me to revert to my “no good expansions” stance.  It is handy to reach for the idea that the initial crafted experience, the base world of any MMORPG, is a solid experience and only besmirched by trying to tack on a sequel.

I’ve played that tune any number of times, and it does have a ring of truth to it at times, especially with titles like Rift.  Changes in philosophy, new features piled on the game, attempts to be both true to the game and yet provide a new experience… to both player and developer, the latter who may chafe even more that the former at having to do the same old thing over and over again… must necessarily dilute from the original focus.

Expect, of course, I can find exceptions to the rule.  For every Storm Legion departure from the core tenets of a title there is a Ruins of Kunark that is a much needed seasoning that enhances an already delicious meal.

But as much as I might like to blame the torpor of Mirkwood and the darkness of Moria, I’ve boosted some characters past those locations.  I have tried my shot at Rohan a couple of times as well and failed, and I am told that Riders of Rohan was not a bad experience.

And here is where I risk sounding as though I am simply going to blame the failure of immersion on a feature I have complained about in the past.  Yes, I am going to lay this on legendary items.

I know, I know, the elevator speech for legendary items is pretty awesome.  I know I went in as a true believer when it came time.  You pick up a weapon that will grow with you, the potential of which you will unlock as you adventure with it.

That is truly the stuff of legends.  Arthur and Excalibur.  Aragorn and Anduril.  Even Bilbo and Sting are pairings many of us wished to emulate in our D&D campaigns or online adventures.  Strider doesn’t hand off his family sword to the nearest shop keeper the moment he finds something a bit shinier or with a slightly better stat.  No, he and the weapon are one and they fight together.

Unfortunately, Turbine screwed that idea up pretty badly and then proceeded to double down on it repeatedly… since late 2008.  Seriously, that is when Mines of Moria launched and as a feature it has just gotten worse and worse.

Let’s start with the basic problem, the immersion killed for me, which is that your legendary item is a needy baby constantly crying for attention.  At times it feels like you can’t get through half a dozen mobs before an alert pops up that it has leveled up and you have new points to apply.   And then there is the need to go back to camp to reforge it, which doesn’t happen as often, but still comes about way more frequently than it ought to.

And then, add on top of the constant nag that is your legendary, you then end up abandoning it down the road for the inevitable upgrade from a new expansion or update.  We are Aragorn abandoning Anduril every ten levels rather than every other level.

I used to think that maybe the whole thing was just a bad idea, that we shouldn’t level up weapons, that it is a flawed mechanic that should be avoided.  Then Blizzard did the legendary weapon thing with the Legion expansion and it was freaking brilliant.  And they even had a bunch of the same things I hated with LOTRO legendaries, like having to go back to town to upgrade it, but somehow made it work.  It was great.  Legion might be the last great WoW expansion.

And Blizzard had the good sense to not try to drag that on into the next expansion.  I mean, I was sad to leave Ashbringer behind and I missed the skills it enabled and the looks you could unlock with it, but it was probably for the best. (I’d seriously consider a WoW Legion Classic server I guess, just to do that again.)

So there it is.  Legendary items.

I mean sure, there are other things.  The monetization can pull me out of the game.  Having a “buy your way through this with some mithril coins!” mechanic does not jibe well with immersion.  But the mithril coin thing doesn’t show up constantly when I am out in the field questing.

I can get through escorting Sara Oakheart and running up and down the lengths of Forochel and people with crappy non-RP names and avoid a good chunk of the monetization by playing on the Legedary servers.  But even when I boosted past Mirkwood into Rohan the first thing in my face was the freaking legendary weapon and the need to do whatever.

There are literally a lot of things that people complain about when it comes to LOTRO that I can overlook like the stiff character models, the indecipherable iconography, the skirmishes, the dull housing, and how grindy crafting becomes as you move forward in levels.  But legendary items… that just kills it for me.

And I am not the only one complaining about them.  I remained amazed that first Turbine and then SSG not only kept rolling on with a system like that for more than a dozen years, but have only now conceded that maybe they ought to look into giving it a rework.

Anyway, after that reconnaissance by text of LOTRO, what are the take aways?  What makes for good immersion and what fails me on that front?

Immersion pluses

  • Familiar lore
  • Good adaptation of the lore to the game
  • Feeling of place within the game
  • Mechanics are familiar but not identical to other fantasy MMORPGs
  • Familiarity with the game
  • Well done landscape that feels like Middle-earth

Immersion minuses

  • Legendary items (primary)
  • Monetization (somewhat avoidable)
  • Poor content mid-game (Mirkwood)
  • Poor iconography
  • Lack of large monitor support (my 34″ monitor specifically)

In the end, LOTRO remains a game I have been happy enough to go back and play multiple times… at least the original content.  It is a game where I have often found immersion, traveling through the game, both as confidently as a ranger and as lost as a neophyte, depending on where I am.  (I don’t get lot in the Old Forest anymore.)

So this post was a bit of a gimme.  I already had strong feelings about what draws me to the game and what has pushed me away.  With this post I have set something of a baseline.  The question is, where do I go next?  Do I pick another fantasy title and compare immersion points, or do I try another direction and see if a very different game shares points of intersection?

What I Have Played so far in 2021

2021 is past the half way mark now and, as usual, the months seem to have slipped by.  But it did seem like a good time to maybe stop and look at what video games I played in the first six months of the year.  Thanks to ManicTime I have a handy list to work with.

Unfortunately, ManicTime can only tell me what I have played.  It cannot make my list longer or more interesting.  Still, let’s see where I spent my play time budget.

  1. Valheim – 40.18%
  2. WoW Classic – 39.50%
  3. EVE Online – 17.89%
  4. War in the Pacific – 0.97%
  5. Burning Crusade Classic Beta – 0.43%
  6. World of Warcraft – 0.39%
  7. Runes of Magic – 0.31%
  8. MMO Tycoon 2 – 0.24%
  9. LOTRO – 0.09%

Not even an even ten games, though these are just games on my PC.  We can add Pokemon Go if I need the round number I suppose, but I don’t have times for that, so we’ll skip it.  Anyway, looking at that list we have:

  • Valheim

Proof that I do play new games now and again.  It came out of nowhere in February and distracted the instance group from WoW Classic for more than two months.  It is actually in second place now in my Steam library based on hours played, just barely ahead of RimWorld and out in front of Age of Empires II and War Thunder, but still quite a ways behind Civilization V.

  • WoW Classic

The title I expected to be in first place, though it isn’t far behind Valheim.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while it making the list is probably no surprise to you

  • EVE Online

I am sure it is a sign of the current state of World War Bee that my time spent in New Eden is less than half of the time played in either of the first two titles.  Still, it is in the top three that together make up about 97.5% of my PC gaming time so far this year.  I do wonder sometimes if I should give EVE a multiplier for play time because there is no other game I spend so much time playing while tabbed out in a browser looking something up, and ManicTime only counts the time when the game has focus.  Then again, I do also sit docked in a hangar doing nothing a good chunk of time too.

  • War in the Pacific

My apparent attempt to prove that I no longer have the patience to get into a complicated war game title.  22 year old me would have managed it.  Even 35 year old me might have made it.  But far side of 50s me isn’t getting there it seems.  I blame the tiny text and the lack of a zoom feature.  And even as a failed experiment it makes it into 4th spot, so I tried!

  • Burning Crusade Classic Beta

You can argue that this ought to be under WoW Classic, but it had its own executable and was tracked on its own line.  Plus, given how little time I spent in beta, about which I have posted, there is a statement on how little I played anything below this.

  • World of Warcraft

Oh retail WoW, I was so into your Shadowlands expansion right up until I got my first character to level cap and decided I didn’t want to do dailies and grind anima or whatever it is.  I was seriously excited about some of the zones.  I’ll probably come back next year when the catch up mechanics kick in and make everybody who did it the hard way feel like a schmuck.  I mean, unless you enjoyed the journey.  I don’t want to take that away from you.  Anyway, my time spent here is mostly the monthly Darkmoon Faire login… and I even missed a month of that.

  • Runes of Magic

This isn’t a bad game, and it even works on my big monitor.  It suffers from the fact that there are just half a dozen other games at least that I would rather play.  I got hooked up into it for its anniversary for a bit.  Actually, it is probably for the best I didn’t carry on, because I never got as far as having to rent bag space or the dreaded $10 horse, which would have made me pissy about them having converted my account somehow causing me to lose all my diamonds.  Maybe it is a bad game.

  • MMO Tycoon 2

A single player game?  Whaaaaa?  Purchased this on a bit of a whim at the end of last month.  It seemed like it might be a bit of a laugh.  How meta, the one game on my list that has no MMO characteristics is about simulating the creation of an MMO!  Me so crazy!

  • Lord of the Rings Online

Grumble, grumble, monitor size and UI scaling.  I do log into the game once in a while, though I suspect if I went back into ManicTime and added up the time spent in the launcher patching and added that to the list, it would push LOTRO down another position.  Some day SSG will get around to supporting large screens.

What an entirely predictable list!

The good news, I suppose, is that I have picked up a couple items on Steam so the list ought to be a bit deeper before year’s end.  Everything won’t be “the siege of 1DQ carries on” and “the instance group rides again!”

Down the Rabbit Hole of Immersion

This could be the first of a multiple post thread on the topic… or it might all end right here.  I am not sure yet.

Last week I wrote about immersion from my usual point of view, which was trying to pin down what it is while trying not to become the pedant that cannot see that it can be different things to different people, that getting there and getting pulled out of that state are very much things that vary from person to person.

In reflecting for a while on things I found immersive, games and moments in time from those games, I came to the not all that startling in hindsight conclusion that there is very much a pattern of immersion when it comes to games I have enjoyed, played for long stretches, or for which I feel a great deal of nostalgia.

More of a “that makes sense” discovery than a “eureka!” moment, and yet I feel that there is, perhaps, a “eureka!” to be found if only I could approach this from the right angle.  It feels like if only I could somehow parse through the games that I liked because I achieved some tipping point level of immersion in them that I might find a pattern, some common thread… or maybe several parallel threads… that links those games together.  If immersion is truly a key aspect that dictates how much I like a particular video game, then discovering what factors lead to immersion might not only explain my video game preferences, but help me find games more likely to get to that immersion point.  To figure that out I need more data.

But how do you even go about compiling data for what is, at its heart, a very subjective and often transitory experience?

My initial thought is to simply list out all of the games that I have really enjoyed, that series of special titles that rise up above the rest, and explore, one by one, what worked for me within each.  Call that “The Immersion Files” and we are probably talking about a minimum of 50 posts exploring various titles through the years.

That can’t be enough though.  I have to at least spend some time with titles that, for whatever reason, did not hit the nebulous and indefinable immersion threshold, but perhaps should of due to their similarity with titles that did.

Why, for example, did EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online cross into immersion territory, but Star Wars: The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2 never did?  That comes close to trying to say why World of Warcraft succeeded and Warhammer Online failed when somebody like Richard Bartle says that they are, with enough distance, pretty much the same game; an exploration guaranteed to make somebody angry!

Not that such would stop me.  I’ve already had people shout “willing suspension of disbelief” at me like it was an answer on that front, I can handle that.  Plus, I would be exploring my own likes, which need not feel obligatory to anybody else.

Also, any such exploration depends on my own recollection, and memory is notoriously faulty in most people.  If I go through all the possible titles I am going to have to dig way back.  Literally the first really immersive video game title that comes to my mind was from the mid 1970s, somewhere between Pong and the Atari 2600, when a friends dad brought us into the office while he was watching us one weekend and let us play Star Trek on the mini computer in accounting.

Star Trek in vt52 emulation

The source code for a variation of that in BASIC is all of 425 lines long.  We were so into that game we had to be dragged away and we went on to create a board game version of it so we could play it independent of the accounting department.

But this very early title brings up some important… to me at least… questions about the relative nature of immersion.

First, how much has what triggers immersion changed for me in almost 50 years?  I found this very deep at the time, but I was also 10 years old.  I suspect I wouldn’t find the same level of immersion in it today.

Second, how much does the state of technology at the moment affect immersion?  A 425 line BASIC program was pretty spiffy back then, but today it hardly makes the cut.  I was playing much better Star Trek games in the 80s and 90s, and even those games seem somewhat primitive by today’s standards.  I don’t need AAA photo realistic titles to find immersion… I can find it in un-modded Minecraft for Pete’s sake… but it seems likely that my experience since that game would make it less likely to hold my attention.

And third, how much does the associated theme and/or IP affect immersion?  While I practically need rose-tinted binoculars to see that far back in time, I do know that part of the appeal was that my friend and I were very big fans of Star Trek and this gave us an opportunity, simplistic though it was even at the time, to sit in the captain’s chair and fight Klingons.

This is not a throw away idea, either.  I suspect, could I fully explore my subconscious, that I would find that part of the reason I found, and continue to find, LOTRO compelling and immersive is its association with the books I read not too many years after my friend and I were playing our board game version of Star Trek.

Does my love of EverQuest at launch stem from it being a great game at the time or from the fact that it was very much a translation of TorilMUD, so I came in with some familiarity of what was going on?  I would argue that it was more of the former, but the latter was not absent.

How much impact does familiarity have?

Then there is playing with others.  That is always a big draw for me.  I am pretty sure I put up with WoW at first, which I didn’t like all that much at launch, because friends jumped over to play.  What impact does that have?  Does it improve the chances of immersion?

And given all that, how do I explain Star Trek Online?  I was into and familiar with the IP, wanted to play, and was there on day one with friends… and yet it never grabbed me.  Was it lack of immersion?  Was it just not a game made of of elements that appealed to me?  Or were expectations that the stars would align on such a combination of factors so high that disappointment was inevitable?  Does hype, anticipation, and high expectation impact the possibility of immersion?

Then, let me pile on top of all of that the “me” factor of how I felt, thought, and reacted to the world at various times over the last half of a century.  Leaving aside the tech aspect, there was a time when I would play NetHack all night long… I had the source code and would throw in my own tidbits at times just to see if would run into them… and then there was a time when I would no longer find that interesting.

Did I change?  Did something better come along?  Did I just wear out the possibilities of the game?  I suspect it was all of those combined and probably a couple other items as well, but there was a point when immersion was possible, and then that passed.

So is it even worthwhile exploring why Tank was immersive and Pong was not?  Why the Atari 2600 games Air Sea Battle and Pac Man were dull but Adventure and River Raid would keep me up past my bed time?  Why I played so much Wizardry and Ultima III?  Why WoW Classic is immersive now, and much more so than retail WoW, while early WoW wasn’t terribly immersive for me back in the day until around Wrath of the Lich King? How far back does the exploration of immersion remain valid?  What applies to me today?  Does TorilMUDEverQuestWoWLOTROValheim?  Where do the answers to this lie?

Perhaps the study of a single title that has both immersive and non-immersive aspects for me?  We shall see if I get to that.

The Burden of Returning to Middle-earth

While I am still not planning to play on either of the Legendary servers that the LOTRO team launched last Wednesday, I did decided to log in to take a look and see if there were queues or a big crowd in the starter areas.

You have to go for a bit into the game to see much because the initial start tutorial is a single player instance.  But it was in that instance I was reminded again of how long I’ve been playing LOTRO and the baggage that comes with it.

One of the early interesting aspects of LOTRO was the fact that you got plenty of bag space right at the start.  That bags were fixed in size and number eventually became a burden on the game… no bag upgrades… and after free to play, unlocking those bags became something to sell to people… but at the start it seemed pretty neat, inventory space always being one of those aspects of MMORPGs that most players have had to deal with.

But, while all that early bag space seemed like a luxury back in 2007, here in 2021 it is almost a necessity.  I rolled up an new character on Shadowfax and, once in the game, I found my bags well on their way to being filled up already.

At least there are six bags

What you see here is the culmination of a 14 year relationship with Lord of the Rings Online.  In my bags is every bonus item, from the Glass of Aglaral (bag 1, second row, first slot), which was the in-game item that came with the LORTO Special Edition box back in 2007, to the 14th anniversary gift box we received back in April.

Anniversary related items take up a whole bag of their own, there being 14 boxes and a house item.  Some of them include fireworks, so there is the tie-in to US Independence day, which is today.

Then there are the expansion related items… I never opted for the super collector’s edition, but many of them had something special, and often an extra item for pre-orders… that I have collected over the years.  There are six cloaks with stats, another five cosmetic items, three mounts, two boxes with more cosmetic items, two pocket items, some tokens that can be redeemed for other things, a writ for a title (in addition to the dozen I got without an item to bestow them), and a stack of scented candles.

This is still a nice cloak

On the one hand, this is an long time veteran problem.  No new player is going to have to juggle this much stuff on entering the game.  On the other hand, I am going to guess that this is why other games I could mention…  a couple of Norrath MMOs come to mind… have a redemption interface that lets you go and claim things when you need them.  I am sure I have even more items I could pile onto a new character in EverQuest II… due to quirks of the early game old hands are a year ahead on anniversary items…  but I can go get it at need.

Anyway, there is enough bag space left that I can play through the tutorial and the starter area before getting to the bank and still have enough room… at least if I don’t try to open up all those boxes.  I haven’t tried, but I suspect that doing so would take up all my inventory and then some.

And I have to leave some room because the game keeps filling my bags with junk.  On my Treebeard character… I was checking to see if there was a queue on either server… there was not… I noticed that the intro quests were trying to and me gear that were downgrades from the stuff the game equipped me with for just logging in.

Why are you insulting me with this item?

Unlike my bag space issue, that seems like a problem that could mess up new players, or at least highlight that perhaps SSG hasn’t been as studious of a caretaker of the game as perhaps they should have been. Seriously, this should be an easy fix.

After years of focus on the new player experience by CCP in EVE Online I might be a little more sensitive to the dumb that companies do.

LOTRO Launches the Shadowfax and Treebeard Legendary Servers

Yesterday saw the arrival of two more legendary servers to the LOTRO lineup, joining the late-2018 Anor server (and the memory of the since closed Ithil server).  Named Shadowfax and Treebeard, they are supposed to offer players faster or slower progress through the tale of Middle-earth.

Shadowfax and Treebeard

As to what “faster” or “slower” progress actually means, SSG waited until launch day to tell us what that even meant.  Over on their newly updated legendary page the differences are laid out:

Shadowfax – Fast mode

  • Get +50% XP, Legendary Item XP, and Mount XP along with +20% Virtue XP!
  • Unlocks more quickly than normal, about every two months.

I am curious as to how fast this will get you through the content.  I suspect that it won’t be the LOTRO Epic Storyline server idea that I suggested back in January, but it is getting there I suppose.

Treebeard – Slow mode

  • Get only 40% of the XP you would normally receive (-60% reduced XP).
  • Unlocks less frequently than normal, about every five to six months.

I will be interested to see which of the two servers ends up being more popular, but my money is on Shadowfax.

The Anor server also offered a slower XP experience in order to keep players from outrunning zone quest content before they finished, and that worked quite well.  And I would be more confident in Treebeard if SSG indicated how close to the Anor XP curve it was, but SSG has not yet been forthcoming.  Just saying “slow” seems likely to put players off as we saw with one of the EverQuest special servers.  Certainly people who want to get to raids or other end of expansion content will favor Shadowfax, and that crowd tends to be made up of some of the most dedicated supporters of these sorts of servers.

In addition the two new servers are getting the new “landscape difficulty” option which, to my surprise, has nothing to do with hedge trimming.  I thought surely this was a hobbit gaffer challenge mode.

Instead it lets you set how dangerous mobs are out in the world.

Sorted alphabetically because programming is hard

The settings, which I believe go Normal, Hard, Dangerous, then the Deadly range, will offer benefits, boosting XP by 10% to 20% and virtue XP by 1% to 5%.  In addition, those who boost their difficulty to Hard+ before level 11 and stick with that difficulty will earn special titles at levels 50 and 130, and those who do the same at Deadly+ will receive additional titles at those levels to commemorate their achievement.

As for how hard is “hard,” some players did an analysis of the feature when it was on the test server.  In order to allow players with different settings to play together, the impact of the settings adjusts how much damage you take and deliver.  The analysis linked above show that with the maximum Deadly +6 setting your damage output is throttled to less than 17% of normal while boosting incoming damage 9x.  From the forums:

The difficulty mostly works by making you more vulnerable to monster attacks, and reducing your damage – so that it won’t interact too badly when other players who may not be at the same difficulty are present.

There are a few enrage buffs that you can trigger on an enemy when you are in higher difficulties that other players would notice, but these shouldn’t be too much of a hindrance for players running around at normal difficulty even if they do encounter them directly.

In 3+ group instances difficulty is disabled for all participants, as we assume that most of the time you’d be upping the instance difficulty tier for a harder challenge, and we don’t want to make it hard for players with different personal difficulty settings to do group instances together.

While SSG has been hinting about the idea of a LOTRO “classic” server… or at least no longer completely rejecting, which is the same thing to some players in that “so you’re saying I have a chance” level of logic…  in the vein of WoW Classic, the LOTRO Legendary servers are not that.

The Legendary servers have reduced cash shop options, but are otherwise mostly feature aligned with the normal live servers, which means you can play classes or races that were not there at launch and the whole talent tree update from a few years back is part of the mix.

Legendary servers are more akin to fresh start servers with some special rules which unlock content as time goes by.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I found the Anor experience quite enjoyable.  Just don’t kid yourself about what you are getting.

And, as usual, in order to play on Shadowfax or Treebeard you will have to have a VIP subscription or be a VIP lifetime member.

Anyway, the servers appear to be up and active.

There they are on the list

I won’t be joining in this time around.  As much as I enjoyed the Anor experience, that was still fairly recent for me.  I am also pretty invested in WoW Classic at the moment as well.  And then there is my big monitor, which makes playing LOTRO an exercise in eye strain.  The minimal UI scaling they have is pretty bad.  Making things bigger also makes them blurry and pixelated.  So while I support the effort, I will watch from the sidelines.

What are the Prerequisites for a Retro Nostalgia Server?

The whole retro nostalgia server thing has gone from something those weirdos at SOE did once in a while to a idea that has helped sustain the profitability of titles as large as World of Warcraft.

Classic is as classic does

The idea has officially been part of the EverQuest business model since 2015 and has spread to other Daybreak titles and beyond.  Old School RuneScape has a life of its own, Aion just launched a classic server last week, and the Lord of the Rings Online team is launching two new legendary servers next week and has started hinting about a real “classic” server.

So I started wondering what it takes to make one of these sorts of servers viable.  I came up with four… I’ll call them “common threads”… that seem to be involved with successful ventures of this sort.  They are, to my mind:

  1. Player versus Environment Progression
  2. Expansion Based Content
  3. Multiple Server Architecture
  4. Some Past Era of Fame or Success
  5. A Monetization Scheme

Player versus Environment Progression

The first item on my list, PvE, is probably the most controversial.  I mean we only have to look at how many PvP servers Blizzard stood up for WoW Classic to convince just about anybody that PvP is not necessarily a detriment to the nostalgia idea.

But I am going to argue that even on a WoW Classic PvP server that PvE progression, doing quests and killing mobs and getting to the level cap, is the primary.  Getting ganked in Stranglethorn Vale or coming to an uneasy truce with somebody from the other faction when you just want to finish up a quest out in Un’goro Crater, that is some extra spicy topping on the PvE game and not an independent PvP experience.  It is PvP in a PvE framework, and that PvE framework is what you need.

Which isn’t to say that PvP can’t screw things up even with a PvE framework.  The story of PvP in EverQuest II basically consists of a few brief moments where a PvP server was fun… under very specific circumstances, like leveling locking yourself at a specific point in progression and sticking to low level zones… and most of the rest of the fifteen years of the game trying and failing to recreate or recapture the magic of those moments.  They keep breaking PvE progression to make it work, which makes it otherwise unsustainable.

Expansion Based Content

This might not be as critical as the first item.  It is more of a factor as to how long your nostalgia experience can be expected to last.  EverQuest, with 26 expansions, is the poster child for this.  You can unlock an expansion a month and still keep the party going for a couple of years.

But you might not want to drag people through every expansion.  The Fippy Darkpaw time locked progression server for EverQuest ran for nine yearsEverQuest was only seven years old when they rolled out the first such server.  Nine years is long enough to feel nostalgic for the good old days of the launch of the server.

For World of Warcraft it feels like there is an argument to stop after the second expansion, if only for the sake of simplicity.

And, of course, having expansions where the game changed all in one go gives the company and the players nice, clear markers as to where the nostalgia is.  It is handy.

Multiple Server Architecture

The MMO in question ought to support the idea of multiple shards, servers, realms, or whatever you want to call them.  This seems like a bit of a gimme, but it does leave out EVE Online, where not only does everybody play in a single version of the game (except those in China), but the game itself is a success based on the critical mass of players.  Splitting off a nostalgia based New Eden would be a non-started for this reason alone… but it also doesn’t have PvE progression nor expansion based content.  No retro server for EVE Online ever.

Anyway, you should be able to roll up a new, special rules server and not kill your game or over-tax your staff.

Some Past Era of Fame or Success

Can you have nostalgia for a game nobody has heard of?  Sure, why not!  Will anybody else come and play?  No.

A big part of the retro server plan is farming your installed base, appealing to them with visions of the “good old days” when the game was new, they were young, and everything seemed much simpler.  While those who missed out on the original launch might show some interest, the success of your server is largely based on how many people have fond memories of your early game.

EverQuest does very well on this front because, while the game never achieved anything like WoW level subscription numbers, in the five years between its launch and WoW‘s launch a lot of people came and played for at least a little while.  Brad McQuaid said at one point that there were a couple million former EQ players before WoW was a thing.  These are the people who will be tempted to come back.

And then, of course, there is WoW Classic, where Blizz had to roll out about 150 servers to handle the nostalgia overload.

Even Lord of the Rings Online, which never met Turbine’s grandiose visions of popularity, did score a lot of players over the year.

On the flip side there is EverQuest II, which launched just weeks before WoW, and never achieved the kind of success its older sibling had, or Anarchy Online, 20 years old this month, which had such a bad launch it became the first title I knew of to go down the free to play path.  Both games have dedicated followings, but neither has the depth of installed base that makes the idea of a retro server a big deal.  EQII has had a few of those at this point, but they tend to launch quietly and shut down even more quietly.

A Monetization Scheme

The company isn’t doing this for nostalgia, it is doing it to farm the installed base for money.  And to get that money, they have to have a plan.  WoW Classic has the simplest of all plans.  Since you still have to subscribe to play WoW, they just included WoW Classic in that plan and they were set.

EverQuest and other Daybreak titles, which still have a subscription plan as an option, just put their special servers in a special “subscribers only” room.  Not too tough, that.  (Though can we get LOTRO and DDO on the Daybeark All Access plan now that we finally know Daybreak owned them before EG7?  or How about an EG7-wide all access plan?)

Aion Classic has… a monetization plan of sorts.  If I am reading things correctly, it consists of a special pay to win cash shop and an optional subscription for benefits, but at least that is a plan.

But I wonder if a game like Guild Wars 2 could ever pull off the nostalgia server idea.  It seems like there might be a market to re-roll the event experience of the game from scratch.  Maybe?  But their business plan is buy the box and cash shop items.  I guess they could have some special cash shops items, but I am not sure they would bring in the money needed to make a classic server worthwhile.

Anyway, those are my somewhat off-the-cuff thoughts this morning.  I am sure I missed something in the mix.

EG7 Will Consolidate MMOs onto 4Games Platform, Hints at New MMO Title

Enad Global 7 did a live video presentation for their Q1 2021 results.

Enad Global 7

Highlights from the presentation:

  • Highest revenue and profit in the history of the company
  • Live games, including the Daybreak titles, made up 50% of their revenue, with recurring revenue items making up 80% of the total
  • There are plans to consolidate all their titles to the Innova 4Games platform, which currently handles some of their European licensed IPs; this includes all of the Daybreak titles
  • Acquisitions will continue
  • There is a new AAA MMO in the works based on “one of the greatest brands in the world”

You can watch the replay of the presentation on YouTube:

There is also a PDF of the presentation available at the EG7 investor relations site here.

Related: