A look at the BioWare classic, which does actually lead into SWTOR.
A look at the BioWare classic, which does actually lead into SWTOR.
Lord, what did we do to deserve this year? I’ll just steer away from politics, the world, and celebrity deaths for this if you don’t mind. Wow, 2016.
Still, it is time for this post, where I look back at the year gone by and look at some aspects over it, a tradition going back to 2010. Past entries:
This annual post tends to be even more haphazard than my standard fare, an exercise in stream of consciousness writing as I add things to the list as they pop into my head. No links, no explanations, minimal punctuation, and lots and lots of bullet points.
Daybreak Game Company
Standing Stone Games
The Blog and Blogging and The Internet
Anyway, that is what I have in my brain here at the end of 2016. I am sure I left a lot out, so feel free to add anything you feel needs a mention in the comments.
A new year approaches, which at least implies two more of my yearly posts are yet to come, my outlook for 2017 and the inevitable New Years Day predictions post.
Others looking back at 2016:
In which I prove I can be both cranky and cynical at the same time.
I seem to have two standard sort of Friday posts. One is a set of succinct bullet points. The other is a rambling wall of words that never quite gets to a real conclusion. This is Friday post is the latter. You have been warned.
So the topic du jour lately has been Black Something Online. I honestly cannot remember as I write this, and I have probably read the name five dozen times over the last two weeks. So I suppose you can add “jaded” to the my blogging super powers. (The missing word is “Desert,” but I had to tab out and look Feedly to find it. Black Desert Online. I kept wanting to write Black Diamond Online.)
Anyway, since it is free to play, the cash shop became an issue… once everybody was done gushing about the character creator at least… though there is some contention as to what the actual issue is. Is it that the cash shop is too expensive or that people are too cheap or that the whole thing lacks ethics or what?
I think only Bhagpuss has spent much time talking about actual game play, and even he seemed to be tiring a bit.
But game play isn’t where I want to go. I want to join in on the cash shop fun.
I have my own view on cash shops and free to play, which I generally sum up as tired resignation. They are the reality of the MMORPG market today. What started as an attempt to by troubled titles like Anarchy Online, Silk Road Online, and eventually Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online, to grab some sort of competitive advantage over their monthly subscription based rivals quickly became the default method of operation.
Remember back during the pre-launch hype around Warhammer Online when Mark Jacobs said he was considering charging MORE than the then industry standard $14.99 a month for the game’s subscription? Those not caught up in the hype dismissed the idea while even those who were looking forward to the game seemed to think that Mark had better have something pretty fucking special up his sleeve in order to go that route.
He didn’t and that whole idea sank quietly into the swamp, foreshadowing the story of the game itself.
But that is sort of how things are today. If somebody comes along and says they want to launch a fantasy MMORPG with a $14.99 a month subscription as the only option, you would be right to dismiss that as crazy talk. The Edler Scrolls Online and WildStar certainly got schooled on that front, both admitting defeat in under a year.
Only three games seem to be good enough for that route, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, World of Warcraft, and EVE Online. Basically, the new champion of the fanatsy MMO experience, the old favorite, and the odd-ball that doesn’t fit nicely into the genre. And the latter two have the WoW Token and PLEX, so you can play for free so long as you can get somebody else to pay.
As a business model the “monthly subscription only” idea is nearly extinct.
But now the cash shop is the market default. Free is no long a competitive advantage, it is now a requirement to even sit at the table. Everybody is free. Everybody has a cash shop. And most MMORPGs seem to be able to eke out some sort of livelihood in that market… which is a problem in and of itself.
MMOs don’t die very easily. They linger on and on. They don’t necessarily attract new players or grow, but they figure out how to hold onto their core players and get them to cough up enough money to keep the servers on and development going. EverQuest and EverQuest II still have expansions for their core base. Star Wars: The Old Republic has gotten past hot bars and seems to be doing okay selling content… and the forcing people to subscribe to access it. (But a new Star Wars movie probably helped a lot as well.) Hey man, whatever you have to do. DDO still have levels to add and new classes to sell. LOTRO has… erm… let me think about that… no more expansions… no more Euro data center… oh, yeah, Tolkien!
But the market has grown, there are a lot more MMOs out there than back in 2004 when WoW and EQII launched. Go look at the list of games that launched back in 2004. It feels like ancient history. Battlefield: Vietnam! Half-Life 2! Halo 2! Katamari Damancy! Pokemon FireRed & LeafGreen… on the GameBoy Advance!
Imagine a market when you wanted to launch a new shooter but people wouldn’t stop playing something that went live 12 years ago? And not just a few cranky hold outs on old hardware who couldn’t run your game even if they wanted to, but the mainstream of your market. This is sort of what SWTOR launched into and for all of its faults, it was in large part fighting for market share of an audience that tends to stay fairly loyal to their favored game for years.
We’ve heard and dismissed past estimates of how big the potential MMO market is. People thought it was 100,000 players big or 500,000 or a million or five million or whatever. Those estimates turned out to be far too low. But there was an effective upper limit out there somewhere, a hard stop where the genre simply ran out of players willing to commit the time and effort that MMOs demand. I don’t know how big that number is, but it feels like it has stopped growing and may even have begun to shrink.
This was another Mark Jabobs thing, that the MMO market was going to be bigger than anybody thought… which was true enough. But maybe not as true as he hoped, as he has gone from ironically saying “MMOs are a niche market” to making a niche title because the market isn’t all that big after all.
So in a genre where there are only so many people who will even hear about any new MMO coming out (MMOs are no longer news unless EVE Online has another big space battle or WoW launches an expansion), a subset of which would be willing to commit the time that an MMO requires, and where a good number of those players are already in a long term relationship with their favored MMO, any new title shows up has a steep hill to climb for success.
I am therefore not surprised that any new MMO that comes along goes straight for the cash shop antics that piss a lot of people off. Any MMO that launches eventually has to buy into the trifecta of annoyance with over-priced items (to harvest whales), lock boxes or random card packs (to prey on those with poor self control), and constant reminders about the cash shop and sales and what is new and hot (to cajole the rest of us to buy and keep buying) because that is what it takes to survive and they don’t yet have the luxury of a core audience that would buy things like expansions.
What does surprise me is that anybody thinks they can wander into the MMO market with a game that is a rehash of WoW (2004)… which itself was just a rehash of EQ (1999)… with a few cosmetic differences (as I noted, most of the non-cash shop things I have seen about BDO has been about character models) and some slightly different game play (which is true to anybody besides the connoisseur) and expect market success. It boggles the mind.
Of course, there is no doubt a message in the fact that the last few attempts have been Asian imports warmed over for the western market. Nobody who has to pay salaries in US Dollars or Euros seems interested in going there from scratch. (And just on cue, EverQuest Next has been cancelled. More on that in another post.)
The right move seems to be to go niche, stay small, and build a following around a specific vision, as with Shroud of the Avatar, Project: Gorgon, Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, or Star Citizen… and then maybe gouge the whales on the real estate or spaceship market. Even Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen and its plan to farm the failed mechanics of the past seems to be a better plan in today’s MMO market than going for a release with broad appeal.
Of course, we have yet to see any of those titles… aside from Project: Gorgon, which may be the smallest of the lot… actually deliver on their vision in any substantial way yet. We shall see if that ends up being a good path forward when… and if… those titles reach a salable product state.
So that was about a twelve hundred word stream of consciousness ramble. But at least I linked out to a few people. Hi blog neighbors!
I suppose I need a point of some sort to sum up now. Let me see… here are a few. Pick one you like.
(There is an oh-so-clever poll below this, which sometimes gets eaten by AdBlock, in case you don’t see it.)
Now when is WoW Legion going to ship?
I just recorded a podcast with Izlain from Me vs. Myself and I. It should be up by the end of the week if you are simply dying to hear my voice. I will put up a post about it when it is ready.
The topic of the podcast was Daybreak and looking back at what has gone on over the last year since Columbus Nova Prime became their new lords and masters. As it turns out we are both, in our own way, SOE/Daybreak fan boys, having been heavily influenced by EverQuest and EverQuest II.
And it came up, as part of our discussion of what I call the “legacy Norrath team,” that both of us would really like to have EverQuest content with a new client. The old client isn’t the worst thing in the world, and it has been improved over the years, but you can still feel every one of those seventeen years since the game was launched. It clunks. It chunks. It does things in bizarre ways which betray that fact that it was created before some UI features became standardized in the genre.
I even wrote about this… whoa, nine years ago… as part of a list of five “insane” things I wanted. Specifically, I wanted EverQuest content with the WoW client, my logic at the time being:
As I put it, “I want to blend these two in perfect measure and make the ultimate super Norrathian experience! I want Norrath to live forever… in a form I can actually stand to play!”
Because I have to admit that half the battle when I want to go back and play EverQuest is simply dealing with the client UI and its quirks. A new client would improve the experience and make the game more accessible to a new generation of players.
Of course, as much as I want it, I know that a new client is never going to happen. It is never going to happen because the legacy Norrath team hasn’t completely lost their minds.
To work on a new client the team would have to divert resources away from other things, including content for and improvements to the current game. But EverQuest is in what I will now dub “MMO Middle Age,” wherein it is done attracting new players in any significant numbers, but it is still receiving content updates on a regular basis. It is still worthwhile to make expansions for the game because enough people buy them.
The legacy Norrath team knows this. They know where they stand. They know the days of an expanding player base are over. They mostly have a pool of current and former players that they can depend on for revenue, and they need to focus on that group.
And, to their credit, the legacy Norrath team has used the last year to great effect. Despite an initial stumble, when they said they were done with expansions, a position they later and quite correctly reversed, the team has spent the whole year catering to their installed base. There were expansions and updates and special rules servers for subscribers only… and let’s face it, if you’re a fan of the game and are playing, you’re subscribed… that included some special treat like the return of the Isle of Refuge, along with some of the best company/player communication in the history of the franchise.
So after a year of being Daybreak, I think the legacy Norrath team can be counted as a success. They had all the right moves and had fewer mistakes and stumbles than one would expect after years of watching SOE in action. I think the worst quote from the team was Holly saying that they didn’t want casuals raiding on the EQ progression servers, something that got reversed on the Phinigel “true box” progression server.
And don’t worry, I don’t think I’ve spoiled the podcast as we talk about all the Daybreak games.
Anyway, this is a team at Daybreak working within the reality of their situation. With a pair of games that are 16 and 11 years old at the moment, there really isn’t anything they could do that would sustain their current installed base and attract, say, 100,000 new players, much less 100,000 players willing to spend some money on the game. Aesop had a story about that sort of thing, letting go of what you have to try and grab something you can’t be sure is even really there.
Youth, that era of sustained growth, is over.
But middle age is respectable. World of Warcraft is also in middle age. It is still a cash cow, it still gets new content, but it isn’t the bright new thing. Granted, Blizzard has bought the game a bright yellow Camaro, coming this summer in the form of the Warcraft movie, in a pretense of youth in order to attract new players.
But I suspect any interest its bitchin’ new ride attracts will fade when faced with its own middle-age reality. It is going to have to adapt to sustaining it installed base rather than attempting to attract a sea of new faces.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is also in middle age, after a short time in youth. But it will hang in there. It seems to have found its balance in middle age.
And then there is EVE Online, which enjoyed the longest period of youth… which is to say growth… of any MMO I can think of. I think that long youth has skewed the expectations of many residents of New Eden. Having enjoyed seemingly endless youth, it sometimes feels like the game has just stumbled for a moment or is maybe just having a bad hair day. If only we could have another big headline grabbing battle or some shiny new feature like walking in stations, then youth, and growth, would return.
I think that is just us kidding ourselves however… though creating a new player experience that doesn’t confuse and confound probably 90% of players who try it out couldn’t hurt. The game needs to focus on its installed base and keeping them happy… which is as difficult as anything in EVE Online, since the game has so many niches, each of which feels neglected when another gets attention. I think we need to admit the game is now in middle age.
For these games the next stage… I’ll call that retirement I suppose… when they are still worth keeping online but not necessarily getting updates… as with Guild Wars… still looks to be a ways off. Better to have the problems of middle age and catering to a shrinking base of loyal fans than to face that and the eventual shut down that follows.
I can attest, middle age isn’t so bad. You have things. You know things, like how escrow works. You just can’t necessarily be all the things you once were.
What other MMOs are in middle age now? They seem to grow up so fast these days.
More bits and pieces that I feel like bringing up but which I don’t care enough about to turn into full blog posts. And I wasn’t really in the mood. Plus, my office chair was take over by cats.
So this is what you get.
Wild Times for WildStar
Fans of WildStar cannot be happy with the news of late. The F2P conversion was done in hopes of reviving the games fortunes, but Korea’s Daewoo Securities, which keeps a close eye on NCsoft, thinks the game is going to tank in 2016.
And if it wasn’t bad enough that analysts close to NCsoft were down on the game, former employees of Carbine, the studio which created WildStar, were following the long tradition of recriminations, exemplified by EA Louse and that guy from Turbine, have come out to tell people just how screwed up the organization was. The whole thing was summed up on Reddit.
My take away: In the second decade of the 21st century they chose an old school, price per seat, source control system like Perforce, and then used it badly? They could have saved a lot of money doing things wrong with any of the equally bad open source options available.
The Force Awakens Many Things
As I often note, timing is everything. EA released Star Wars: Battlefront into the teeth of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens hype and, hey presto, despite mixed reviews (PC, PS4, Xbox, and Yahtzee) EA says they have made bank on the venture.
And, as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, even the Tortanic it seems. EA says that, in addition to the above, they also saw a surge in revenue for Star Wars: The Old Republic as well, reporting subscription levels for the four year old game were at their highest level in almost the last three. Quite a change from the time when John Riccitiello didn’t want to talk about the game on an investor call because it wasn’t a very important property for EA.
As I noted in a previous Friday post, even my daughter was keen to give SWTOR a try… and then the whole Boot Camp drivers issue got in the way.
One wonders how Star Wars Galaxies might have fared in this mood of revival.
Anyway, I hope this doesn’t go to EA’s head. Not that I had a lot of hope in their plans for a “make nice” campaign plan, but it was something at least.
Paving the Way for Xenuria 2016
As part of the run up to the CSM 11 elections CCP reworked some of the CSM Whitepaper… again… including some updates about who could run for the CSM. The result was vague enough to make people think if the ran a blog they might not be eligible. After some outcry there was a slightly less ambiguous version that still wasn’t all that clear, so CCP eventually had to come out and just say that if you were affiliated with The Mittani dot com you couldn’t be on the CSM, it being professional gaming media site compared to the fan sites that are EN24 and Crossing Zebras.
Or something like that. CCP has a couple stories on that front, but I guess they have to put a question like, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Commumittanist Party?” on the CSM application.
This means that Sion Kumitomo, the loudest critic of the relationship between CCP and the CSM, is barred from running for another term. Funny how that worked out. A statement from the Church of Siontology expressed both smugness and a sense of relief at the rule change.
Meanwhile, the slate of candidates for The Imperium now looks to be Xenuria, Suzy RC Mudstone, and that KarmaFleet guy who links all those cat videos in local… and I’m not sure about those last two. Onward the Goon plan for world domination!
Finally, you still have a chance to win ISK by entering the Signal Cartel anniversary screen shot contest. Act now.
And that is all I have. I will have to make my search minions work harder next time.
It is the middle of January already in the year 2016, a date that literally seemed like “The Future” when I was a kid. Yet it feels really normal, right up until I watch some TV re-run from the early 90s… my daughter and I started watching The X-Files earlier this week, starting with season 1 episode 1… and not only aren’t there any iPhones or iPads or flat screen TVs, but there aren’t any cell phones at all present.
Clearly, future me is some sort of alien, since I can barely remember a time without such things. 1992 wasn’t THAT long ago, was it?
Anyway, some small items to note.
Diablo III Patch 2.4.0
We’re getting pretty much the only thing Blizzard deigned to speak about on the Diablo III front when it came to BlizzCon last year.
I was disappointed by the lack of new stuff for the Diablo franchise… like another full expansion or something about Diablo IV… but I must admit that, reading the 2.4.0 release notes, they did deliver a decent pile of stuff. A new island, some expanded areas in older zones, new rifts, a new season, and the inevitable new gear sets.
It makes me want to go back and take a look. On the flip side, I am more about playing through the story… and exploring every single square centimeter of the map… than I am about the post-story gear grind. Maybe I will start a season 5 character and run through the story again.
WoW Legion Alpha
I keep reading bits about the alpha for the upcoming WoW Legion expansion.. because it has no NDA… and I have to wonder what this means. Is this how Blizzard is trying to keep their fans invested, by letting them into the next expansion even earlier than usual?
My gut says that this might mean the actual launch will be far closer to the September 21, 2016 than, say, the Warcraft movie release. We’ll see.
I also wonder if this now constant exposure to the expansion content starting in alpha will make the post-launch enthusiasm window for the expansion even smaller than we saw for Warlords of Draenor, which lost 46% of its audience in under six months. Basically, will all but the non-hardcore be mostly “done” with the expansion before it starts?
Anyway, I am averting my eyes from this… which means not reading a couple of blogs and avoiding some stories that are grinding through every detail… so as to keep myself fresh for the eventual launch.
Amazon Prime Discounts
Amazon announced that Prime members would be getting a 20% discount on new and pre-ordered games this week. We have Prime at our house, and get our value out of it largely via the video service, the occasional free Kindle book, and a bit of free shipping now and again. But now I can pre-order the WoW Legion expansion at 20% off months before it goes live.
Remember back when The Burning Crusade stayed at list price for nearly a year after it launched?
Stormhold Moves On
During the summer I was trying to get myself engaged in the Daybreak first run at an EverQuest II nostalgia server; specifically the Stormhold PvE time-locked expansion server.
I failed to get there… I played a bit, and actually had some fun, but I never got quite enthusiastic enough about the whole thing to get very far.
Time, however, moves on… as noted at the top of the post. Last week the Stormhold and Deathtoll servers both moved to the Kingdom of Sky expansion, which also moves them out of my prime nostalgia zone. That whole pacing question comes to mind again I suppose, but my nostalgia for the game sort of ends with Desert of Flames, with everything after that feeling like “the new stuff.” Again, time is strange.
New LOTRO Servers
Earlier this week the team at Turbine moved Lord of the Rings Online over to their new server farm. This was part of their 2015 plan that also involved server merges to boost populations along with promises better performance and all the other things that go with fancy new hardware.
Unfortunately, with new hardware there can also be new problems, something the game has been experiencing. On the bright side though, the server upgrade did fix my inability to log in on the Brandywine server, something that shut down my nascent return to Middle-earth in early December. Maybe once they get this settled down I can get back to Mirkwood.
Boot Camp Denied
I have a spoiler laden post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens sitting around waiting for the right time to post. Maybe this weekend. But as an indicator of the reaction at our household, my daughter had the sudden urge to play Star Wars: The Old Republic. I gave her a taste on my computer, but to get that back I had to promise to setup a Windows partition on her iMac. Easy stuff, right? She has a fairly recent iMac… it is probably the best computer in the house… I have the Windows 7 media and an extra license key and there is plenty of drive space on her system.
And it mostly worked, right up until Boot Camp wanted to install the drivers for the iMac hardware, at which point it announced that the version of Boot Camp was not for this Mac model. Google gave me a variety of possible solutions (the problem seems to come up a lot), none of which solved the problem. Without the drivers, I have a fairly useless version of Windows 7 hanging around the house.
Now I have to guard my computer to keep her away from it. Nothing is ever simple.
Such is life in the video game lane for me this week… at least for some games I am interested in but do not actually play.
Some of you might remember before launch, we talked a lot about the “four pillars” of RPGs – combat, exploration, progression and story. Star Wars™: The Old Republic™ is an MMO, but it’s also a BioWare game. Three years ago, we set out to deliver a product that contained the best of two worlds – the immersive story experience from a single-player RPG and the vast array of systems and social connection from an online multiplayer game. Since launch, we have mainly focused on the latter, adding Galactic Strongholds, achievements, legacy perks, reputation tracks, and Galactic Starfighter. But with the success of the Shadow of Revan expansion, we think it’s time that we return to our roots and what truly makes our game unique: story.
BioWare games have their own special feel. I am not a particular fan… I rebel against that whole “putting words in my mouth” aspect they insist on with their dialog wheel… but it is undeniable that there are a lot of people out there who do enjoy them.
As noted in that quote above, BioWare has expended a lot of resources in trying to make SWTOR an MMO in the old model, where social was a thing, while still trying to have the single player RPG aspect in the middle of the whole thing. That sounds familiar, a studio insisting that their MMO needs to be all things to all people.
Roll stock footage of Smed trying to somehow graft PvP onto EverQuest II in yet another awkward and unsuccessful way.
But now they are back to story… story allegedly because of the success of the Shadow of Revan expansion that went out late last year.
The Shadow of Revan expansion wasn’t the first SWTOR expansion. It wasn’t even the first attempt to go back to that fourth pillar as a driver for the game. It did, however, come with a pretty special pre-order offer.
Yes, if you bought the expansion in advance, and you were a subscribers, you got a 12x experience boost that essentially allowed you to play a character to level cap by simply following your class story. Or, to put that on its head, it allowed you to get to the cap while avoiding all of those annoying MMO aspects of the game.
This was, if nothing else, a new twist on the whole insta-level thing that came into vogue in 2014. And I guess it worked, turning SWTOR into a BioWare game, which is something that BioWare understands.
So I suspect that, in addition to a return to the fourth pillar, we will see another round of things allowing people to play only their class stories, be it 12x experience boost or just better paced content that doesn’t require the player to break stride and go after unrelated side quests.
Meanwhile, at BioWare Austin, they have announced that they are discontinuing work on their “sounds remarkably like Evolve” title, Shadow Realms. The announcement said that the Shadow Realms team would be moving off to work on Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC, the next game in the Mass Effect series and other new IPs. The key item though would be SWTOR.
But the biggest focus for our team in BioWare Austin will be on Star Wars™: The Old Republic™. As every Star Wars™ fan knows, this is a massive year in the Star Wars universe. We have some great plans for expanding this epic game this year, and look forward to sharing the news about those plans with our players in the coming weeks.
So BioWare has discovered they can make a BioWare game out of SWTOR again. Oh, and they clearly also want to position themselves for a revival of interest in the Star Wars franchise as the next movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is slated to hit theaters at the end of the year. That too. Details.
Anyway, if you are a fan of BioWare games and like the story driven aspects of SWTOR, this looks like it might be a good year for you. We are in the post development age of the game and EA has an asset positioned to take advantage of a clear pop culture trend.