Category Archives: MMO Design

Which Games Hand Out Cash in the MMORPG Space?

I mention in Tuesday’s post about the Grand Heist update for EVE Online that CCP had launched a new login campaign that included an ISK reward for Omega accounts.

Grand Heist Login Rewards

Universal basic income arrives in New Eden!

This got a lot of attention and the usual suspects were quick to call out anybody who seemed to be complaining about it, to the point that there were literally more threads started complaining about people complaining than there were actual complaints in /r/eve.

But there was a lot of “WTF?” in the air all the same.  This was in part because CCP has spent the last couple of years turning down ISK faucets in the game and generally nerfing income, which makes them suddenly handing out ISK a bit… strange.

I mean, I think we all can agree that it was an abrupt change of direction without having to dig into the “why” aspect of the whole thing.

In addition, at least for me, the whole thing was kind of strange because I cannot recall any MMORPG that I have ever played that had a daily login reward that just straight up handed you the basic in-game currency.

I have been given cash shop cash, vouchers, gear, cosmetics, pets, mounts, toys, vendor trash, companions, and all sorts of other game related items.  But the main in-game currency?  Never.

CCP, which has been doing login rewards for a couple of years now, both in ongoing daily and special event related forms, has been pretty stringent on not even giving you something that could be sold in game for cash.  They have over the years made so that most items they give out are consumed on redemption.  You can’t trade that SKIN from the event, so you better redeem it on the right character!  And the items that are not are generally of little value.  I mean, I am sure somebody has found a way to make some ISK off of those 5 run Tech I blueprints that we keep getting handed, but I haven’t.  I generally stick them in my cargo to add to the flavor of my loss mails.

So with this I wondered, for example, if WoW has ever just given me some gold?  Has EverQuest or EverQuest II ever handed me some platinum coins for just logging in?  I don’t think so.

The closest I can come is LOTRO and their daily hobbit presents, which sometimes hands you a pile of coins that you can bring to the vendor for in-game currency.  And they still aren’t just handing you some actual currency, just something you can sell to an NPC.

But my horizons are pretty narrow these days.  Among the many legitimate complaints you can make about this blog is the fact that I am still playing mostly the same games… and sometimes even the same content… that I was writing about nearly fifteen years back.

So maybe this is a thing that just hasn’t landed in the few titles I spend time with yet.

And thus I ask the question: Is this a thing in your MMORPG?  Do you get handed in-game currency in the titles you play?

Somebody has to have seen this.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bhagpuss?

Inquiring minds want to know.

As for the “why” of things, CCP is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and stashed away on a volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic.  We can guess, but I’ve heard from former devs is that CCP is so isolated from the rest of the industry that they end up arriving at various points more due to accidental circumstance than by design, even in an industry where this often seems to be the norm.

So some will say it is because of the sagging player count or the shrinking economy or to cover for the fact that the company will be mostly on vacation for the next month or that Pearl Abyss made them do it.  But it could as well be their form of the rainbow covenant, the sign to all of us that the economic starvation era is really coming to an end.

Anyway, we’ll see where things head.

Proving Some Sort of Point about Video Game Pricing

I published a post about the $15 MMO subscription price… it feels like a while back because I wrote most of it in April and then didn’t get around to posting it until the middle of this month… that went on about Moore’s Law, software, and how the cost of everything in tech doesn’t really go down over time.  It is mostly just the capability of hardware versus price that keeps changing.  The same dollar buys you twice the computing power every other year.  It doesn’t affect the cost of food, gasoline, or rent.

The primary question in the whole thing was whether or not the $15 a month subscription price for MMORPGs… and, by extension, the $60 box price for AAA games… was really a reasonable expectation 20 years down the road from when they were set.

Daybreak subscriber prices

Raph Koster has opined on the cost of making video games for years and has data to back up what he says.  That linked post came from a discussion that started in the comment thread on a post on this blog.

Given the small, rather niche audience that this blog has, I was interested to see what responses, if any, I might get.  The responses were a bit nuanced, though I would say there was a bias towards not paying any more than the current $15 a month.

And then Massively OP picked up on my post and asked the question of the staff and their own wider audience and… well… I can see why Raph Koster said that studios don’t dare raise prices from the current set standards.

Seriously, the staff and most of the comments come across not just against any raise in price, but often insisted that we should be paying less.

A couple of reasonable souls allowed that the overall rate of inflation might justify something like $17-20, but most people were adamantly against any such thing, often for very subjective reasons, like feeling that this game or that isn’t delivering as much content as they once did.

Is it reasonable to expect, as example, Lord of the Rings Online to deliver as much content when they’ve gone from making $100 million back in 2013 to something around $14 million in 2020?

It doesn’t matter, people feel cheated, that they’re paying as much or more due to cash shops and are getting less for their money.

No need to put a bullet in price rise idea, it is clearly dead already.

Of course, as I opined in the thread, the video game industry hasn’t exactly done itself any favors.  The wealthy Bobby Kotick or Tim Sweeney are the poster boys for greed, making obscene amounts of money while keeping pay and benefits for the people who do the work well below what comparable ability would earn a person other tech segments.  When Kotick’s compensation is cut in half and still looks obscene, that says something… it says that video game companies are making plenty of money already, thank you very much.

And the fact that Steam added 10,263 games to its online store in 2020, a storefront long complained about by developers both due to the regular sales that have cut the average sales price for titles and the 30% tariff Valve takes off the top of every sale (something the rent seeking Tim Sweeney wants a cut of, which is the only reason he is battling with Valve, Google, and Apple… it certainly isn’t the concern for gamers he professes),  seems to indicate that there are a lot of developers out there that are just fine with the situation as it is.

I say that because, in a rational economic situation, self interest would drive some, if not most, of those developers to seek better paying jobs in industries where their talents would earn them considerably more in compensation.  But video games are emotional, a “dream job,” that people will sacrifice to pursue.  (Or is it the corrupt developer career path they are seeking?)

Then there is how consistently two-faced various companies have been about monetization in the face of their inability to raise box prices.  It is always fun to call out EA for saying dumb things like that their pseudo gambling lock boxes are ethical and fun surprise mechanics as they target children by advertising in a toy catalog, but the industry group that represents them tried to upstage the FTC hearing on industry practices by holding a press release where the promised, cross their heart hope to die, that the industry could regulate itself even as Activision patenting game matching algorithms that would pair cheapskates up with those who paid to win to get superior gear so that they would feel the need to spend in order to compete.  As I said previously, this is all a very strong approach to getting the industry regulated.

And so I suppose I cannot really blame the people commenting that they should be paying less for games.  The big players in the industry have cultivated an environment where the whole thing feels like… a business?

Wait, that can’t be right, can it?

How Long can the Fifteen Dollar Subscription Hold Out?

I remember, way way back in the day, a user review for EverQuest that was an all caps exercise in outrage over the fact that, on top of the purchase price for the game it required you to pay a fee every single month you wished to play.  It ended with a call to boycott the publisher of the game to put a stop to this complete rip-off of a business model.

I think EverQuest was $9.95 a month back then too.  It wasn’t even to the $15.00 mark we’ve come to accept as the norm.

Daybreak subscriber prices

But we’ve been at that $15.00 mark, with a discount for purchasing multiple months, since before the launch of World of Warcraft.  The fact that WoW adopted it pretty much set the price in stone.  I recall Mark Jacobs being soundly rebuked when he suggested that maybe Warhammer Online would cost more, a premium price for a premium game and all that.

We have been conditioned by Moore’s Law to expect tech items to cost less over time.  While the law itself specifically concerns itself with the number of transistors that can fit in a given space, the corollary effects include the iPhone 8 in my pocket outperforming a 1970s Cray supercomputer for a tiny fraction of the former’s original price.  We get better, cheaper hardware all the time.

And some of that has been reflected in other pricing.  It used to cost an hourly rate to log onto the online services of the 80s like GEnie and CompuServe.

GEnie Price “cut”

Now most people in urban and large suburban areas have access to some form of high speed internet and the web, while splattered liberally with ads, is mostly free.

But that is mostly hardware and bandwidth driven.  Software is different for many reasons, though the immaturity of software development methodology and the constant need to update due to security issues and defects has a lot to do with it.

The outsider view is that you write your code and, having written, move on.  The reality, which I can harp on about ad nauseum, is that a development group on a mature product can easily find itself spending most of its time dealing with problems that come up simply due to changes in the environment the code lives in.  Every product manage wants more new features to sell and hates to hear the dev team talking about the need to upgrade outdated libraries or other maintenance functions.

So we are in an unnatural situation when it comes to video game software, with their pricing stuck in time. (There was a good discussion of this in the comments on a post here a few years back.)  Triple-A titles are $60.  MMORPG subscriptions are $15 a month.  And so it has been for coming on to 20 years.

Enterprise and productivity markets have long since gone to annual licenses and even Microsoft wants you to rent Office365 from them rather than buy the hidden, but still available, stand-alone Office package. (And, having just moved an Office 2013 license from an old machine to a new one, let me tell you that they are keen to throw a lot of chairs in your way to get you to give up and get on board their rental bandwagon.  But I don’t think many of the products in the Microsoft Office bundle have change enough since the 90s to warrant a rental fee.  If I could still use Microsoft Word 5.1a, I would.)

But video games seem stuck.  Worse than stuck in the case of MMOs, where free to play has become the norm and only a few strong titles can afford to hold the line on requiring a subscription beyond what is essentially a demo period.  My headline is a lie in that the fifteen dollar subscription hasn’t held… but in the opposite way that I meant!

Stymied on the box price and subscription front, video game studios have ventured out in other directions.  So now we have cash shops and DLC and season passes and cosmetics and pets and mounts and character boosts and special servers and game time tokens and skill points and xp boosts and anniversary editions and premium editions and collector’s editions and even a $250 “friend’s and family” edition, all to eke out a bit more cash from the end users who inevitably shout “Greed!” and “Pay to Win” at the first hint that they might feel mildly incentivized to make one of those purchases.

It isn’t that I want to pay more for any of these games.  I have a kid in college, and education is one front where people haven’t been shy about raising prices.  And I have been notably prickly about some of those items listed myself.

But even though these games I play were launched in 2007, 2004, 2003, and even 1999, the people who work on them have to pay rent, buy food, medical care, and everything else here in 2021.  And stuff has not gotten cheaper.  It feels like eventually we hit one of those “you must pick two” scenarios where the options are:

  • Don’t pay more for games
  • Don’t have Pay to Win in your games
  • Your game stays in business

So I wonder when we’re going to have to pony up some more cash to pay.  Until then I try to temper my ire when companies do things they said they wouldn’t do or trot out packages or plans that seem ludicrous to me.  If they don’t pay the bill then there isn’t a game to be played.

The Allure of the Thin Client

For a couple of decades various companies have been trying to get us back to the thin client model of computing.  Oracle has suggested this loudly more than a few times and Google ponders it now and again, with things like Stadia being based on the idea.  Also, if you work for a big company I assure you that your IT department has wet dreams about taking away all your laptops and desktops and making you work on some sort of thin client appliance.  IT at my company keeps pushing Citrix virtual desktops as the solution to every problem.

I say “back to” because I am old enough to remember when dumb terminals and terminal emulators were a mainstay of computing.  In addition to my time spent in the computer lab in college, the online games I played back in the 80s and into the mid-90s, things like Stellar Emperor or Gemstone on GEnie, MegaWars III on CompuServe, and Sonjourn/Toril MUD, were all built on that model.

Star Trek in vt52 emulation

As personal computers came along and started growing in computing power, much of the heavy lifting was put on that end of the equation.  Air Warrior rendered its very primitive visuals on the player end, and shooters and action games like Marathon and Diablo made the user’s system do the graphical work while just data about inputs and positioning were shared.   This meant that in the low bandwidth of the time… I played Air Warrior on a 2400bps modem… the back and forth between client and server was kept to a minimum.

So the end user client became fat.  Eventually so much data was stored at the user end by the late 90s that EverQuest had a little test module app that let you run around a mini-zone to test your 3D card, but you could rename many of the game maps and run around the main, if empty, world if you knew what you were doing.  You couldn’t zone or do much, but if you wanted to explore it was a boon, and you were not even connected to Sony while you did it.  And that is the way that many MMORPGs and other online games went, keeping data on the server and letting the end user machine do the graphical work.

For video game developers there are many benefits to going with a thin client, of keeping all that data on their servers.

For starters, the downloads and patching at the user end are kept to a minimum.  This has often been viewed as a point of friction that keeps players from trying out new games.  The holy grail is for a player to just be able to play without any sort of download, something CCP has been experimenting with recently with EVE Online and their EVE Anywhere browser beta.  If you can just play the game on any computer, then your potential market is greatly expanded.

It also makes updates easy, since things only have to get pushed as far as the servers.  Very little need be pushed to the player’s machine.  New content just appears or is unlocked without a download.  You also get all your settings and configurations as you move from device to device.

It is also a major boon for security.  If all the key files are on the company’s secure servers, then secrets can be kept.  We are familiar with every new pet, item, mount, or NPC being spoiled for us in WoW by the race to datamine any pre-patch update.  And, of course, addons, illicit or benign, and hacks are kept at bay.  This all falls under Raph Koster’s admonishment that “the client is in the hands of the enemy.”  Overall the environment is more secure.

Finally, all the end user issues that come from the wide variety of PC configurations, a huge problem for many applications, are largely eliminated.  A thin client stops caring about processors and video cards and operating systems and the like.  Your game can theoretically run on somebody’s TV or refrigerator.

All in all there is a lot of upside.  Control! Security! Ease of access!

Sign me up today!

So why isn’t every new online game in a thin client in the cloud?

Since I used the word “cloud” there, I am going to take a moment to point out that cloud computing is not the same thing, or required for, a thin client, though when people who should know keep conflating the two things I get how you might be confused on that.  Thin clients are as old as computing.  See my reference to dumb terminals at the top of this post.  And cloud computing is, simply put, a scalable server architecture with redundancy built in… though, again, some things that get referred to as “the cloud” are better labeled “somebody else’s computer” and not used as examples of the technology.  Talking about cloud computing as though that means any remote computer is a simplification that renders the term meaningless.  If that is your frame, then every online game is “cloud” and there is nothing special about it.

Anyway, why is Google’s Stadia something of an outlier rather than the norm for the industry, at least when it comes to 3D rendered world-based games?  (Because you kind of have to count early RuneScape, Club Penguin, Star Wars: The Clone Wars Adventures, Nation Geographic Adventures, and all those Cartoon Network games if you don’t put a barrier somewhere.  So I am speaking of high end games where some level of realistic graphic fidelity is a requirement.)

And maybe Stadia is a bad example in that it is attempting to be a virtual console that can play titles that were not otherwise designed for such an environment, but if you take it off the list we don’t have a lot of other big name examples.  Well, at least no successes.  A few companies have tried to do what Stadia is doing in the past and have ended up failing.  But given that it is common as shit unless you want render a ton of polygons, why isn’t already a common thing?

Part of the issue is likely due to the cost of the infrastructure.

The problem is that if you’re going to take over all the rendering functions of the remote device, you essentially have to do all the processing that the end user’s PC or console was going to do.  If you want to run that all yourself or you want to use somebody else’s data center, that still means a lot of extra hardware.  The company basically has to pay to run your client rather than letting you run it on your own hardware.

For example, EVE Online has a minimum system requirement of a 2.0 GHz dual core processor and a modest GPU.  If it went entirely thin client, if EVE Anywhere was the only way to access New Eden, you would have to have the equivalent of 20,000 minimum spec PCs in processing power on hand just about all the time, scaling up to 35,000 or even 40,000 at prime time on weekends.

You can probably get away with less processing power for most operations, but you would most assuredly want to put more processing power behind GPU support unless you want the whole game to run in potato mode for everybody all the time.

In a modern cloud architecture where you can bring capacity online easily and only pay for what you are using at a given time, you can keep the costs down somewhat, but everybody playing is incurring a cost, and somebody has to pay for it.  I don’t think it will be like my days back in college where your online account had an allocated budget to spend on processing time (which inevitably got squandered on Rogue), but the company is going to have to find some way to pay for using their processing power rather that your own.  Expect to pay more.

And, while the company saves on bandwidth when it comes to things like pushing patches to every client, the need to pipe high quality video at an appropriate resolution and quality will more than offset that.

Meanwhile, latency and connection quality issues will become a much more visible, something that Google’s Stadia demonstrated.  These are issues in current games like WoW, but you often don’t see it because the client with all the assets and world data will keep you walking, running, riding, or flying along while it tries to catch up after any data blip.  But if you lose connectivity for a bit and far end is only routing video to you, everything stutters or stops quite noticeably.  And even when the is able to get to you but the network traffic is slow, you’ll see your video quality degrade.

Also, if you live some place with restrictive bandwidth caps you’ll find streaming all that video might put you in danger of exceeding them.  You need high speed and lots of bandwidth to play a thin client game at the quality level you’re used to with an equivalent fat client title.  But you can play the thin client title on your refrigerator, so there is that.

But, if the game decides to take full advantage of the potential platform independence aspect of a thin client, if they’re going to support your high end desktop PC with the 34″ ultra wide screen monitor AND that refrigerator screen, there is likely going to have to be some sort of compromise on quality and UI.  So even if bandwidth and network hiccups aren’t dragging down your quality, the game itself, optimized to some happy medium, might not deliver the same satisfying, high definition experience that you would get if your own gaming rig was doing the work rather than some standardized system on a remote server.  Oh, and I keep using the term “thin client,” but for most uses you can substitute in “web browser,” though a light app is also possible. (Though with that comes the temptation to fatten it up.)

Finally, if the thin client game shuts down… see MetaPlace… you have nothing left but memories and credit card bills.  All of the major pirate /private server projects to restore online games that have been closed rely heavily on people being able to get a hold of a copy of the fat client.  All the graphics and a lot of the data is stored there, which is how so many of these rudimentary projects get stood up so quickly.  The world is in the client, you just need to get a system with the right responses going to get basic walking around the world functionality running.

The thin client idea is an attractive proposition for the dev side.  It simplifies a lot of things for them, gives them better security, and hands them all the control.  Done right in a cloud environment, it could even solve the first day server load issues if they can scale successfully.

But somebody is going to pay for the additional cost, your experience may be degraded if you do not have an ideal internet connection, if the studio wants to run their title across platforms and devices you may find the experience and interface less than you desire, and the whole thing becomes a virtual world that can disappear, never to be seen again, as fast as any virtual good.

Quote of the Day – The Passenger and the Sailor

A player-driven economy isn’t about the money. It’s about having every way to play the game serve a role in the ecosystem. It’s about all the wonderful and weird ways we choose to live and play, and how we find out that our silly hobbies are vital necessities to someone else.

Raph Koster – Player Driven Economies

Last week’s nothing ball of a vision message, which sounded like the intro to an actual presentation rather than a presentation on its own, left me wondering left me wondering if Raph had anything actually up his sleeve.  It is unlike him to be so empty of depth in a post.

But he is back, so maybe that past post was just the intro, and this time there is some actual meat to chew on. He jumps right in on his vision of an MMORPG player-driven economy.

Raph on the economy

Getting to the end of the post and that quote above brought Guy Kawasaki to mind and his book The Macintosh Way.  I still have a copy sitting on my book shelf, which I never managed to get him to sign even though he used to roll into the computer store I worked at for a while during a low spot early in my career.

The book is a tale of his time at Apple and after, and the vision of product development and marketing that came of his experiences.   When in comes to product, he was a proponent of DICE, products that are deep, indulgent, complete, and elegant.

It was an era when companies shipped complete products because they couldn’t assume you could update.  Imagine that!

But “deep” gets to what Raph is going for here, which is that a it should have appeal for a wide range of users, from the passenger to the sailor, as the metaphor in the book puts it.  And that range of users, or players, from casual to hardcore, should be able to provide something to the greater economy of the game and benefit from their contribution.

Seems solid enough and certainly evokes some of the Star Wars Galaxies player economy, which I have no doubt will rouse the keepers of that sacred flame.  That Bree, one of those keepers, used an image from SWG featuring the entertainer profession in the post about this over at MOP was no accident I am sure.

Raph loses me a bit when he writes “OK, enough lofty theory stuff. Let’s get concrete” and then presents a diagram of the macro economy he has planned, which has been obfuscated into a meaningless flow chart, then carries on as though he has delivered actual support to his assertion.

Playable Worlds and their unreadable macro economy chart

I get why he doesn’t want to show the details, but give me 30 minutes with Visio and I’ll crank out something that looks meaningful if you zoom out far enough too.  That chart is just as empty as his last post.

So it is all philosophy.  Not that philosophy is a bad thing, and Raph is very good at philosophy.  Have you read his book?  But the translation from philosophy to mechanics is another thing altogether.

And it is clear Raph, despite the earlier empty virtual world vision, is making a game.  But we knew that almost a year ago.  It will be a sandbox game, and not a “gankbox” (which, following the usage of the term, means no non-consensual PvP I guess, that being the only consistent defining metric of the term), but will have constructs in it that will give people purpose and frame the mysterious macro economy almost pictured above.

Overall, a more worthwhile read than the previous post, and you can lose quite some time diving into the linked post about trust relationships and game design, but it is all still just vision.  Vision can get people excited and keep people going, but execution is where the rubber meets the road.  And this is still the MMORPG genre, which has a history of being long on vision and short on execution.  Promises abound, delivery not so much.

Finally, in my experience over the years, any system that allows more casual play styles to thrive or be competitive or add value tend to be abused by the more hardcore end of the spectrum and end up being nerfed into oblivion.  So I remain skeptical.

Quote of the Day – Empty Vision

Yes, today’s world is a magical place. But our online alternatives have gotten kind of… mundane. Predictable. Kill some blues, collect some purples, fetch ten of whatever. They don’t have to be that way.

-Raph Koster, The Future of Online Worlds

I enjoy a good Raph Koster post.  He can bring a lot of insight into the history of online games, especially MUDs and MMORPGs.  So I was anticipating something good, something with some heft, something that would leave me thinking when I saw a new post pop up in my feed from his blog.

That turned out to just be a “go look at the thing I wrote elsewhere” post, directing people to a new item over at Playable Worlds, his current venture.  So I went and read that.

The future is somewhat vague

And it was a whole lot of nothing.

I mean sure, he invoked a some nice ideas, which I will sum up with bullet points that are the phrases he highlighted in the text:

  • We dreamt of living worlds
  • A lot of those big dreams did not come true
  • It’s time
  • yes, worlds can feel alive
  • fits into your life
  • it shouldn’t matter what device you have or how much time you have free
  • playable worlds

And in between those phrases is a lot of empty filler.

Seriously, I got to the final sentence of the whole thing…

We can dream big again, together. It’s time to turn those dreams back into playable worlds.

…and wondered where page two was.

The whole thing reads like the opening of an investor pitch or a GDC talk… throwing in the name of the company as the final words is almost too trite… that will then proceed to get into the meat of the topic.  But there is no meat.  That is all you get, a vision so nebulous that one hesitates to call it a vision.

Of course, the mere fact that he posted even that vaporous tidbit will get some people worked up.  This is Raph Koster, who has Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies on his resume, both of which stand out as special in the long line of online worlds.  Part of me gives him the benefit of the doubt just based on that.

But another part of me, the somewhat more abrasive and cynical part that has been nurtured by the industry over the last 20+ years, wants to shout out, “But what have you done for us lately?”

Because those two titles were also from a long time ago in the current technological timeline.  And, after leaving SOE in 2006, his sole public venture was MetaPlace, which had a similar open vision, and which shut down rather suddenly, taking with it any work that those who invested time with it had created.  And even that happened more than eleven years ago at this point.

It is almost a tech industry genre, the young designer with vision who has a huge impact early in their career, and then never has similar success afterwards and ends up on Fitzcarraldo-esque journey to relive and even top their youthful acclaim.  Their names alone generate interest and a following… think Richard Garriortt, Chris Roberts, Brad McQuaid, Mark Jacobs… and set expectations that their new vision, which is generally their early vision reinforced and revised upwards, will deliver.

The next time that pans out will be the first time so far as I can tell.  The jury is still out.

Of course, I might commend Raph for not going too deep or too grandiose with his vision, though it still feels too light to drum up any enthusiasm in my jaded heart.  At least he didn’t lay out a bunch of specifics that we will later hold against him when they fail to appear.  But I remain confident that we’ll find a way.

Related:

The Perils of Entering the MMORPG Market

The MMORPG market has been rolling along for about 25 years at this point, depending on when you want to start counting.  I like to think of Meridian 59 as the starting point of the things, but you could make arguments that the roots of the genre go back to MUD1 or Island of Kesmai or any of a number of antecedents. 

Live in 95 is you count early access

But M59 was an early, commercial, 3D world MMORPG and, to the point of this post, while I haven’t seen anybody running a server for a while, the code is out there and the game could reappear if somebody felt the need to bring it back.

And that is kind of the problem here.  Fans of the genre tend to bemoan its stagnation and blame WoW or free to play or whatever for the fact that things can seem stale.  But the real problem is that old games don’t go away, or at least not fast enough.

Leaving aside M59, the next game on the list is Ultima Online, which will turn 24 years old come September.  Unlike M59, it is still there, ready to play.  It has been hanging out all this time, holding onto a group of players that might otherwise have gone off to explore other games… or maybe they have and then returned… and generally holding its own in a corner of the market.  I mean, EA owns it (Broadsword just has a contract to run it), so if it isn’t making some sort of return it wouldn’t be around.

That is, of course, a core aspect of the MMORPG space, games as a service, where players have an ongoing relationship with your game as it grows and evolves.  But games that make the transition to success and achieve financial stability tend to stick around forever. 

Scott Jennings gave a presentation at IDGA Austin back in 2014 titled Let It Go – A Modest Proposal, which I would link to if I could find it again (maybe here or here), which suggested that maybe these games shouldn’t hang around forever, that maybe it doesn’t make anybody happier or healthier to perpetuate these games past a certain point, that maybe there ought to be an exit strategy, a denouement, an end to the story.

Wishful thinking.  The only sure exit is to stop being profitable, and even that is no sure exit.  The fans, unwilling to let go themselves, will build their own private/pirate servers just to prolong the experience.  I would suggest that it is easier to list shuttered titles that don’t have some sort of emulator or server project running except that I am not sure I could even list one title.  Club Penguin maybe?  Is there a Club Penguin emulator out there?

We have reached a point in the genre where farming nostalgia for the old days and the old ways and the old experiences is a certified path to keep the fans on board and paying. (Because, it turns out, they’ll make emulators for that too if you won’t provide it yourself.)  So we have EverQuest progression servers, WoW Classic, Old School Runescape, Aion Classic, and others out there serving that portion of the user base.

As Jennings pointed out, these games have come to belong, emotionally at least, far more to the fans than the companies. It is their experiences and histories now and they won’t let it go.  It almost isn’t up to the company anymore because the fans will take matters into their own hands if the developers won’t cooperate.  And if the game is going to be running in some form with or without the studio, the studio might as well keep its hand in and make some money from an official version rather than losing what control they do have.

So the market never really contracts.  Nearly everything that ever was is out there in some form.  Think of all the video games you played over the last 25 years and how many of them are viable and playable still today.  Yes, nostalgia farming has arrived in the rest of the industry and we have some remasters and 4K remakes of older games, but I cannot go back and play every game. Of the ones I can, anything over a certain age that had some form of online support has probably lost that aspect of the game.  As an example, literally every Pokemon DS/3DS title has lost its online support.

But if you want to play The Sims Online or Dungeon Runners or most any past title, there is probably a project out there for you.

Which brings me around, at last, to the point I think I was aiming for when I started out this wall of text, which is what does this mean for new games in the genre.  One of the complaints about MMORPGs is that there is nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing different, just the same old stuff, mostly WoW or WoW knock-offs, along with a few pre-WoW titles.

But, in a market segment where nothing ever dies and the fan base is constricted by the level of commitment the genre demands (a “causal MMORPG player” is almost an oxymoron) where is the incentive to actually try something new, to invest in something in an increasingly fragmented and entrenched field?

I do not have an answer, and the fact that most of the Kickstarted, will arrive some day (just not today), titles that some have pinned their hopes on all seem to be grounded solidly in nostalgia doesn’t strike me as a hopeful sign.  Pantheon, Star Citizen, Camelot Unchained, and others all carry the message “Remember that cool thing we did nearly 20 years ago? We’re going to do it again!”

Thus endeth the genre, drowning in a pool of nostalgia, always asking for something new and never getting it because nobody seems to want it.

I suppose this should be a warning to the rest of the industry, which has been going down the path to games as a service for a while now.  I saw a quote from Chris Livingston at PC Gamer about Grand Theft Auto V about how he had by this point completely forgotten the original story of the game having spent so many years since in the sprawling open world content of the game.  And there it is on SuperData’s digital revenue charts every month.  It has essentially become an MMORPG in all but name.

So the question, to which I most assuredly do not have an answer, is can we get out of this situation?  Has the genre become like the RTS genre before it or, I would argue, the MOBA genre now, where the dominate players have so defined the genre that it is locked into stagnation?  And, were something fresh and new to come along that fit within whatever definition you might choose for MMORPG, could we pry enough people away from the treasured memories long enough for it to find an audience?

Expecting Too Much from New Eden

Last Tuesday afternoon, just after I got home from work, I brought up the launcher for EVE Online.  I did so by accident, as I meant to bring up the Blizzard launched to play WoW Classic.  But I let it patch and run up just to keep it current.

Then I looked at the online player count and was a bit surprised to find it below the 15K mark, and you know what came to my mind right away.

First known occurrence of “EVE is Dying”

I realize that a weekday afternoon, and one after a three day weekend in the US, isn’t necessarily a peak time, but 15K seemed pretty low.

For the past year or so I have come home in the afternoon to find the count between 20-22K most weekdays and, as I have written in the past, I generally consider low ebb later in the evenings, when the Euros have gone to bed and it is safer to move things around, to be about 18K players online.

I had heard The Mittani talking about diminishing peak numbers on consecutive Sundays since the start of the Chaos Era, but that seemed premature to me.  That was two weeks ago.  You could chart small declines, but I thought you really needed to get past the login bonuses and free SP event before the numbers would start to really be telling.

Well, here we are, Chaos Era in full swing, more nerfs on the way with the September update, and no promotions or events in progress.  So Goons are working on gloomy charts (with some add on charts in the comments), Nosy Gamer is having a look at NPC and player destruction that doesn’t bode well, the MER has NPC commodities as the new biggest ISK faucet, and my own anecdotal evidence all seem to add up to something being amiss, manifested in the concurrent player count numbers, which you can see over at EVE Offline.

I realize that CCP doesn’t mention concurrent player count anymore, preferring the trend towards daily and monthly active users, the darling metrics of the mobile domain where ads are often part of the revenue stream. (Have you seen Candy Crush Saga lately? There has been a pretty big swing towards “watch an ad video, get a booster!” in their model.)  But the concurrent player count feels more like the reality we play in, so a dip is not good news.

This has, naturally enough, led to a cottage industry over on /r/eve and in the forums and wherever else about what CCP needs to do to fix this.

What I find interesting is how many people can move straight from the stance that CCP is both slow and incompetent to a grand master plan for fixing EVE Online that pretty much demands that the company be both quick and excellent at their craft.

My poster child right now is this post, which is a master class in glossing over reality.  The premise is that CCP should add back walking in stations, shove whatever Project: Nova is right now into the mix, and try to turn the game into what Star Citizen aspires to be some day.

Leaving aside my myriad objections to avatar play in EVE Online (summed up as: You have to build a whole different game to support it), the very easy jokes to be made at the expense of Chris Roberts, and the completely half-assed, evidence free, changing horses mid-stream vision being espoused, what in the last sixteen years could lead anybody to believe that CCP has the capability of doing this in any time frame that doesn’t include the heat death of the universe as a benchmark measurement?

I remain convinced that people outside software development think that just because it is easy to describe something it must therefore be easy to develop.

That is not the way of the world.

Just last week I suggested that CCP wasn’t going to be able to fix the new player experience in any meaningful way that would have even the slightest impact on new player retention.  I mean, I wrote “point and laugh” as my possible response to whatever they come up with, but that was what I meant.  And I say that because of CCP’s history.

It is like when people say that CCP should make things like level 4 missions more fun… something else I have seen come up as part of this… and I again wonder what people think has been going on since 2003.  Do you think that CCP has not tried?  Also, your idea on how to do this is badly considered garbage that won’t work.  Just accept it.

The game is what it is, having grown and developed almost spasmodically over the last decade and a half.  It hangs together on social bonds, vengeance fantasies, pretty screen shots, angry memes, and the sunk cost fallacy, and anything that CCP could do to “fix” the game has a pretty good chance of upsetting that balance.  I swear the corporate motto ought to be, “We did not see that coming!”

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think CCP can do things to help the game along, and even make the NPE better.  There are lots of ways the game could be made better.  But what CCP needs to do is way down in the fundamentals, blocking and tackling level stuff.  There is no room for Jesus features any more as there are too many balls for CCP to keep in the air as it is.  That one labelled “faction warfare” rolled under the couch a couple of years ago.

But what you don’t do is mask things with uncertainty.  Chaos is not a viable business strategy unless you’re selling safety from it.  Rational people, when faced with chaos, tend to try and find a safe place to weather the storm.

Anyway, we’ll see what comes to pass.  I fear that the Chaos Era may have officially pushed me into the bitter vet status, so i’ll probably just go play some more WoW Classic.

Others on the Chaos Era:

Quote of the Day – How to get Your Industry Regulated

A Kinder Surprise Egg does not collect your data. The Kinder Egg does not learn more about the person buying and opening the Egg, such as his or her preferences for its contents. The Kinder Egg does not adjust its contents according to an algorithm based on population data. People do not link their credit cards to Kinder Egg vendors. Kinder Eggs are physical and can be given away or traded, unlike virtual items.

-Dr Daniel King, quoted at GameIndustry.biz

I like this quote because it gets to something I think people miss when it comes to the lockbox debate.  I often see people go straight for the idea that randomness equals gambling and therefore lockboxes should be banned.

Not gambling

And, while randomness is an element of gambling, it is not the sole defining factor.  That something like Kinder Surprise Eggs exist and are sold legally in many countries tends to indicate that randomness is not the only thing we should be considering.

Randomness is not necessarily bad.  And while I tend to discount when devs tell us people enjoy opening up lockboxes… I am sure the payday loan industry would tells us that people like getting money from them as well… you can find players who enjoy the randomness of loot drops and such.  Bhagpuss, one of the sources that pointed this quote towards me, is on that team.

This makes the gambling argument feels like a dead end to me.  You either have to change the laws to widen the definition of gambling (wait for the push back on that) or go the Belgium route and make a special exception for a specific set of circumstances, which leaves people with the question about why this one outlier is special.

Fortunately, the quote nicely brings up how randomness isn’t the sole factor that makes lockboxes odious to so many people.  There is the virtual nature of any prizes, the persistent reminders and offers from the cash shop, the fact that you have to pay to for a random chance to get things otherwise not obtainable in game, the manipulative practices, and the suspicion that the whole thing is rigged just to get you to spend more money.  Another quote:

“The ‘not forcing anyone’ argument is undermined by the fact that many of these games appear to employ systems that are designed to present constant in-game purchasing opportunities,” says Dr King. “The promotions and solicitations are unavoidable in some cases, and the game may have design elements that make it very frustrating to players unless they spend money.

“Our review suggests that there are some emerging designs that aim to capitalise on player data to present individualised offers that the system ‘knows’ the player is more likely to accept. So it’s not about being ‘forced’ — it’s about the game anticipating or making the best judgement about what the player is likely to accept.”

And while some people would be on board with the suspicion that things are rigged no matter what, the game companies have helped feed that paranoia themselves.  Further down in the article there are some patents game companies have filed for mechanics designed to get people to spend more.

Activision had an especially good filing back in 2017 for a system that would deliberately match players with people have superior gear from lockboxes to make you feel you need the same gear in order to compete.

Randomness is not bad in and of itself and we appear, as a society, to be okay with gambling, but when you start targeting people based on their behavior and rigging the system against them on the fly, all algorithmically and invisibly behind the scenes, we have strayed into what some might label as predatory practices that strikes against a basic sense of fairness.

Going down that path in pursuit of the most effective lockbox scheme is how you end up with legislators and regulators taking a close and person interest in your industry.  It has all been rather haphazard up to now, but momentum is building.

So it was probably no coincidence that there was a press release from the ESA about how various companies are now committed to displaying the odds of obtaining items from lockboxes on the very day that the US Federal Trade Commission was holding a workshop about industry practices around lockboxes.

The ESA isn’t dumb.  They know they need to do something as any regulation is going to hurt them.  They know they need to get in front of this issue and make some concessions before laws or regulations force them to back off their lucrative lockbox schemes.   And so they have a grand announcement.

And posting the odds somewhere would be a big step forward.

Of course, the ESA isn’t saying where the odds have to be posted, if they have to be in-game, or even linked to in game.  Posting them on some dead end path on their web site might be what they have in mind.  And how often do the odds have to be brought up to date?

This is the problem with something as empty as a “commitment” to something like the ESA has announced.  They want to sound like they are doing something good for the consumer without actually being bound to follow through in any reasonable fashion.  With no laws or regulations in place, what are you going to do if half of those committed platforms fail to follow through while the other half does so in the least helpful way possible?

Companies don’t go out of their way unless it is in their best interest.  Right now I am sure the ESA sees their problem as a few loudmouths that need to be appeased so they can go back to business as usual.  There will need to be a lot more government scrutiny before the ESA follows through.  But follow through they will, if the pressure gets high enough.  I remain convinced that the ESA will do the minimum amount needed… pinkie swear promises and strategic campaign contributions… to stave off regulation at least in the US.

And, in a final twist to the comparison in the initial quote, Kinder Surprise Eggs are not allowed in the US.  It has nothing to do with gambling or manipulation and everything to do with the FDA not allowing you to sell candy with toys embedded inside.  So we only get the Kinder Joy eggs, sans surprise… and given how rare they are here, few seem to buy them just to eat.

That EVE Online Starter Pack Controversy

So as not to bury the lede (one of my favorite things) the title refers to the updated Starter Pack which you can get from CCP’s EVE Online DLC page.  It includes one million skill points and runs just $4.99 currently.

There are, and have been for ages, some reasonably priced packs you can buy to give yourself a leg up on the game.  They have come in assorted flavors.  In the past they were sometimes related to professions like mining or exploring or even combat.  Now they are more generic.

The reasonably priced packs

And then, of course, there is the Galaxy Pack, for the more whale-ish of customers.

The Galaxy Pack!

The theme of these packs has been pretty consistent over the years since Alpha clones showed up.  You get some Omega time, to get you a taste of being a subscriber, you get some PLEX so you can buy something in the cash shop, and you get a some cosmetics, something nice to wear and/or a ship SKIN.  Maybe there is an implant or a multiple character training cert, but that was about it.

Even the Starter Pack used to be mostly that.  It’s previous payload was:

  • 7 days of Omega, ensuring Double Training and many more benefits
  • 250,000 Skill Points, giving you a head start in skill training
  • Skill and Damage Booster (Cerebral Accelerator)
  • A stunning bundle of starter ship SKINs
  • Blood Raider apparel

For no doubt emotional reasons, 250K SP as part of the bundle wasn’t viewed as a betrayal by CCP.  That much was available via a friend referral.

However, CCP changed the Starter Pack so, as the screen shot above indicates, it includes:

  • 1,000,000 Skill Points
  • Skill and Damage Booster
  • A stunning bundle of starter ship SKINs
  • Blood Raider apparel

No more Omega time and 4x the skill points now.

And some people are quite angry about that change; specifically the move to handing out a million skill points.  That crossed an emotional barrier.  And I can see why.

In the three years since what I called the Mardi Gras Release in February of 2016, which brought Skill Extractors and Skill Injectors into the game, the whole skill point market has put a lot of players on edge as they have expected CCP to step over the line and start injecting skill points into the game for cash.

Skill Injectors have also been blamed, and not without merit, for ruining the game already, for specific definitions of “ruin.”

The intentions were, if not pure, at least not straight up evil as presented.  With a then 13 year old game based on the skill training queue, there was a large negative perception that new players could never “catch up,” could never be on an equal footing with those who started before them.

The long held vet opinion that this meant players had to learn the game and that newbies have a place in fleets in things tackle frigates and should work their way up the ladder the same way we did back in the day fell on deaf ears.  Nobody wants to be told to do it the hard way, they want to fly a titan today.

And with PLEX able to turn real world money into ISK and then with ISK able to buy Skill Injectors, anybody with enough cash could fly a titan today.  New players could catch up.  Problem solved.

Well, sort of.  The more likely scenario was this.

Iron Bank buys ALL THE SKILLS

More so than new player, old hands ended up buying Skill Injectors to boost up titan alts and now we have more titan pilots in the game than CCP ever imagined would be possible.

But this did not lead to a wide player revolt like Incarna for a couple of mitigating reasons.

First, you had always been able to buy characters in EVE Online, so technically you could buy your way into a titan pilot before, though getting the ISK was for it was a challenge.

Second, this was not introducing new skill points into the game.  All of the skill points would be extracted from the current player base.  In fact, because of the diminishing returns of Skill Injectors… somebody like me only gets 150K or the 500K skill points an injector contains… it was actually removing skill points from the game.

350K SP go to waste for me…

But most important was what the dev blog about Skill Injectors stated:

It’s very important to note here that this means all the skillpoints available to buy on the market in EVE will have originated on other characters where they were trained at the normal rate.  Player driven economies are key to EVE design and we want you to decide the value of traded skillpoints while we make sure there is one single mechanism that brings new skillpoints in to the system – training.

The mob was mollified, if still wary.

And then CCP started straight up selling skill points they injected into the game.

The daily Alpha Clone injector

This was the daily Alpha Clone injector, which came into the game back in November of 2017.  I thought surely this would be the breaking point, that the mob would come unglued and that there would be rioting in Jita and so forth.

But there wasn’t.  The Alpha Clone injector had just enough limitations to be mostly palatable, or at least not worth an insurrection.   Those limitations were:

  • Only one Daily Alpha Injector may be used per day, per character [not account] (resets at downtime)
  • May only be used by characters in the Alpha Clone State
  • Can be purchased in the NES for PLEX or purchased for your regions real money currency via secure.eveonline.com
  • Can be activated to immediately to add 50,000 skill points to your character’s unallocated skill pool (roughly one day worth of Omega training)
  • Can be traded on the in-game market
  • Does not award Omega Status

Still, the seal was broken, CCP was just injecting skill points into the game for cash.

I guess CCP had been generating them on occasion before, giving out skill points as compensation for game problems.  But the lid was well and truly off last November when they added in the login reward mechanism, and gave us some skill points just to test it out.

And then came the 16th anniversary where any Omega logging in for 16 days got ONE MILLION skill points.  At that point you could argue that CCP was just printing skill points for cash… cash via Omega subscriptions, but cash none the less.  CCP created skill points were now the norm.

Which brings us to today and the Starter Pack and the straight up “give me five dollars and I’ll give you a million skill points” deal.

Things have moved along incrementally.  If you have accepted everything CCP has done up to this point it is a tough be taken seriously if you argue that this is the breaking point, that CCP has gone beyond the pale, that CCP has broken faith with players, that the Pearl Abyss cash shop gold ammo power selling apocalypse is upon us, because we were practically there already.  Why didn’t you say something before?

And, Jin’taan’s unlikely work-around aside, you can only apply one Starter Pack per accoun., (Along with some other fresh restrictions, threw in only after people began to object loudly.)  So what is the big deal?

The flip side of that is how the incremental changes have continued on, which means that they will likely continue on going forward.

Today is it just the Starter Pack, which you can only use once per account.  But if that is okay, if we accept that, then how soon until skill points are part of the Meteor Pack or the Star Pack?  How soon until that $99 Galaxy Pack comes with a Skill Injector or three filled up with skill points CCP created just for that purpose?

That is not at all a stretch.  CCP has been close to this in the past.  They used to sell industry packs that came with Aurum, the old cash shop currency.  At one point Green Man Gaming was selling those for a dollar each (they were normally $10) and there was no limited per account.  So seeing that happen with skill points is very easy to imagine.  After all, CCP didn’t add them to the Starter Pack by accident.  Somebody thought that was a good idea, and nobody objected to it.  Somebody within CCP will always be looking for ways to boost revenue, and skill points are always going to be there as a temptation.  CCP edged back some when it got push back, but the company is certainly looking for that next step forward.

It is hard to stand up to any incremental change because it can be argued away as not being radically different from what you had accepted before.  But in the face of an ongoing march of incremental changes that set a pattern that appears to lead to an unhappy conclusion, it doesn’t seem exactly radical to reach a point where you can see the pattern and feel the need to push back on it.  At some point the frog realizes that boiling is in its future.

So I get why somebody like Manic Velocity, a passionate member of the community, has found his breaking point with this move. (I wonder what would have happened had he made it onto the CSM.)  It isn’t that the move is so radical, it is that it appears to be yet another step on the path towards a game we won’t like.  Sometimes you reach a point where you just can’t go along with it any more.

Most people won’t mind though.  Some people will complain.  On Reddit there will be threads about betrayal, predictions about the next steps, and calls for protest that will be ignored by the vast majority of the community.

I’m aware of the situation, but I am unlikely to walk away from the game.  I see the path being trod, but I am of a fatalist bent and cannot see CCP deviating far from that path as time goes forward.  We can perhaps slow their pace, but in the end they will get there.  CCP will continue on down this trail.  They pretty much have to.  The game isn’t growing, they have no other products, past attempts at other products have failed, so what is left?  Monetize harder!

Meanwhile, the retention rate of new players will remain weak.  I don’t think CCP is capable of addressing that, and I am skeptical that there is anything they could do in any case.  And as time goes forward the older player base will erode… from tiring of the game or from whatever outrage comes along… which will also hurt new player retention… until the population hits a tipping point and the economy starts to collapse.

Then there will be huge inflation as the endless ISK from NPC bounties chases the dwindling PLEX supply while the Jita market deflates otherwise as fewer and fewer players buy ships and modules and ammo and what not.

CCP will step into try and stabilize things.  They’ll hit NPC bounties hard, but that will just drive more players away by then.  They will setup NPCs to sell things again, putting an effective floor on the price of minerals the way shuttles used to, but driving out miners and industrialists.  Pockets of null sec that can maintain self-sufficiency will keep fighting, throwing excess titans at each other and dropping low power Keepstars with abandon as the PCU dwindles.  It will be hilarity, a Mad Max post-apocalyptic spaceship demolition derby, in the midst of tragedy.

The last gasp will be CCP putting out a fresh server so people can start anew.  That will be fun for a bit, but it will kill TQ and signal the beginning of the end.  CCP won’t change their ways and all the old problems will crop up, in weeks or months this time rather than years.  We have seen that in every retro server.  The go back in time only accelerate it.

Eventually a few old players will be sitting around chatting in local about what a great game it was.  What other online game let you do even half of what EVE Online did?  What a wild ride it was while it lasted. And then Sadus will remind us that WoW was the first MMO.

Or maybe it will all work out.  We’ll see.  Either way, CCP has a PLEX sale going, because of course they do.  It is the end of the fiscal quarter and CCP has to make Pearl Abyss happy with their numbers.

The Triglavian’s only known weakness: PLEX

Because if they don’t make Pearl Abyss happy… well… buy some PLEX today or we’ll be buying skill injectors and gold ammo tomorrow.

Other coverage: