Category Archives: World of Warcraft

What is a Niche MMORPG?

A Massively Overthinking topic came up at Massively OP last week that struck me as… well… a bit silly.  Not that every post has to be razor sharp intellectually, but this one was almost the straw man fallacy illustrated, as the staff was asked whether they would prefer a niche MMORPG that focused just on on a couple of strengths or an all-in-one MMORPG that covered all the bases.  Somehow, that became a measure of features as everybody weighed in.

Unsurprisingly, the entire staff decided that they would prefer an MMORPG that had it all.  It was like asking somebody if they preferred a lover who only satisfied some of their needs or one who satisfied them all.  Absent any other details, why wouldn’t you choose the latter.

Left completely out of the post, except in the minds of those opining on the topic (something I wouldn’t swear to even that in court given some of the responses), was any sort of attempt to define what niche vs. all-in-one comparison even looks like.  You know, some details that might serve as illustration.

It is very easy to say that you’d prefer an MMORPG that did 10 things pretty well than one that did 2 things better than anybody else, or that you’d trade graphical fidelity for features (Is graphical fidelity even something niche MMORPGs offer as a comparative feature?), but what does that look like in the real world?  Where is the comparison?  Show me that niche MMORPG that does 2 things so well and compare and contrast it to you favored jack of all trades.

Sure, World of Warcraft, the one live MMORPG that gets a mention,  can stand in for the “does everything” title I suppose.  But what about the niche side of things?  Where is that?

My first thought went to Project: Gorgon.  That is as niche as it gets in the MMORPG world, right?

But I would be hard pressed to declare that Project: Gorgon has focused on doing anything “better” than the rest of the genre, unless you count being weird and quirky.  I mean, graphic fidelity certainly isn’t on the list.  And it does a whole bunch of things… whether they are better or worse than you want seems to be pretty much up to you.

Basically, its niche status is set more by its low production values and departure from the beaten path than anything the MOP staff was railing against.  Maybe of its 10 things, some are you wouldn’t suspect, but it does them.

Then there is Pantheon: Shadows of the Past.  But that hasn’t shipped yet, so while it has been declared niche, we cannot really be sure what that means.  Given Brad McQuaid’s enthusiasm in embracing any feature that gets brought up, I wouldn’t bet on the focus aspect.  And, in any case, I think its niche status is less about features and more about being old school, for whatever value you care to assign to that.  Is walking to school uphill, in the snow, both ways a feature?

Likewise, Camelot Unchained is still under wraps.  It could be the chosen niche game, being focused on RvR and crafting… and building… and housing… and a few other things I think.  Can it be more than 2 but less than 10 features?  Anyway, it isn’t an option yet, so it doesn’t count to my mind.

Shroud of the Avatar came to mind as well, but that doesn’t fit the bill either.  It is niche in its approach I suppose, but it does many things… many of them badly… does being bad make you niche?

Anyway, as I trotted down the list I started to suspect that you couldn’t really be an MMORPG… and my definition of such means worldly online games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft or EVE Online or Star Wars Galaxies, and not instanced lobby games like Diablo III or World of Tanks or whatever… without focusing on more than a couple of features.  Being a two feature MMORPG is like being a two legged tripod, something that just doesn’t work out well in the real world.

In the end, I couldn’t really come up with a live niche MMORPG that met the seeming criteria of the post.  I could, however, come up with examples of MMORPGs that went too far with features, to the detriment of the game.

So I am left with some questions.

What is a niche MMORPG?  Is it something defined only by features?

What defines an all-in-one MMORPG?  I mean, WoW is the easy answer.  But is it?  I suspect that people on that panel would argue against it because it lacks some feature they feel a “real” MMORPG needs, like player housing.

When does an MMORPG have to have all those features?  The response “at launch,” or even “on a detailed roadmap at launch,” seems unrealistic.  EverQuest, which I dare anybody to tell me isn’t as full features as they come, shipped with a feature set that would probably be considered inadequate in the context of “all-in-one.”  But it grew with expansions.  Then again, it also came from an era where MMORPGs didn’t peak on launch day and fall off after that.

Finally, what counts as a feature in any case?  Seriously, how granular can one go before things count or do not count?

In the end I remain unconvinced that features are the defining benchmark that post suggests.  There are plenty of MMORPGs out there with a lot of features that do nothing for me.  I certainly go back to WoW time and again in part because of the feature set it offers.  But there is more to my affinity for the game than that.

Of course, we could dial this back another step and start in on what an MMORPG really is.  I may be defining that more narrowly than others.  But, then again, I am not sure comparing and contrasting World of Warcraft against something like Occupy White Walls leads us anywhere fruitful either.

Quote of the Day – Possible Side Effects

Further, there can be no assurance that our business will be more efficient or effective than prior to implementation of the plan…

Activision Blizzard – SEC Filing about the impact of laying off 8% of staff

Activision Blizzard caught more than a bit of heat last month when it announced record revenue and layoffs in the same investor call when going over its 2018 financial reports.

But, you know, Activision Blizzard is a publicly held business and so cannot rest on its laurels.  It has to set expectations for the next period, which it said would see a decrease in revenue.  To show they were addressing that up front they opted to give the axe to 8% of the company.  It was their fiduciary responsibility.

I do wonder how fiduciary responsibility plays out when CEO Bobby Kotick is asked to explain the $33 million in compensation he received last year.  Is he really worth the 100+ senior developers that kind of money could hire?  That number was enough to earn him the #2 spot on the Top 100 Most Overpayed CEOs list, which ranked CEOs on the financial performance of their company relative to their compensation.  He is ranked worse than Virginia Rometty, the latest charlatan trying to keep the corpse of IBM shambling down the road just long enough to cash in.  Not a good look.

Anyway, people got the axe because the company needed to trim sails for 2019.  It was required.

And then this past week came the SEC filing that covered the planned staff reduction, which said this about it:

In February 2019, we announced a restructuring plan under which we plan to refocus our resources on our largest opportunities and to remove unnecessary levels of complexity and duplication from certain parts of our business. While we believe this restructuring plan will enable us to provide better opportunities for talent, and greater expertise and scale on behalf of our business units, our ability to achieve the desired and anticipated benefits from the restructuring plan within our desired and expected time frame is subject to many estimates and assumptions, and the actual savings and timing for those savings may vary materially based on factors such as local labor regulations, negotiations with third parties, and operational requirements. These estimates and assumptions are also subject to significant economic, competitive and other uncertainties, some of which are beyond our control. Further, there can be no assurance that our business will be more efficient or effective than prior to implementation of the plan,or that additional restructuring plans will not be required or implemented in the future. The implementation of this restructuring plan may also be costly and disruptive to our business or have other negative consequences, such as attrition beyond our planned reduction in workforce or negative impacts one employee morale and productivity, or on our ability to attract and retain highly skilled employees. Any of these consequences could negatively impact our business.

Basically, this planned layoff might not change anything and could possibly make things worse.

Now, I know that in the litigious world in which we live a public company has to cover its ass lest their publicly announced plans not go as expected, leading to lawsuits.  It is pretty much the same way that drug companies have to list all possible side effects… and I love when “death” gets its own spot on those lists… so that they can later claim that they warned you that you might end up with eczema, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, or death.

But it still undermines the confidence shown on the call that laying off almost 800 people from the company was necessary to see it through 2019.  And it further exposes the assumption that a CEO like Bobby Kotick is paid so much because he knows what to do, that his expertise is somehow worth all that money.  The ATVI stock price, the all important absolute measurement of a company’s value for Wall Streets, seems to indicate that over the last he wasn’t all that.

Meanwhile, as a side note, buried in that filing, is a statement about the top franchises of Activision Blizzard:

For the year ended December 31, 2018, our top three franchises—Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and World of Warcraft—collectively accounted for 58% of our net revenues.

So if you’ve been gloomy about WoW, or worried that something else might be taking over the main focus at Blizzard, you can feel a bit better.  If you’re an Overwatch fan though… well… Overwatch made the “top franchise” cut in 2016 and 2017, but appears to have fallen below the line for 2018.  The line is apparently set at the 10% or more of total revenues mark.

February in Review

The Site

I was away on vacation for a week this month.  Did anybody notice?  No?

Well, me being away must have been good because total traffic was up when compared to January.  Not bad for a month with three fewer days.  Of course, it helped a lot that I posted about Burn Jita 2019.  That drove a lot of traffic here.  I don’t have a follow up post about the even however because I was away for the entire thing.

On other site topics, we learned back in October that Google Plus was getting shut down.  At the time we were told it would end in August of 2019.  Then, in December, Google found some more security issues, and that date was moved forward to April 2.

They knew enough to avoid April 1

With that new date rapidly approaching, Google has been warning people of the impending end for the service.  But April 2nd isn’t the only date in play.

Come March 7th, Google Plus will stop allowing external applications like WordPress to post to the service.  In advance of that WP.com has been warning its users that support for Google Plus publication will be terminated in advance of that date.

WP.com letting people know

So if you follow the site through Google Plus… and I suspect that might be as many as three people… posts there may cease as early as tomorrow.  This could be the last post to Google Plus you ever seem from me.  (Or from Richard Bartle, whose blog also publishes there.  For me Google Plus is pretty much the Richard Bartle tracker.)

Unlike Facebook, which cut automated posting to combat “fake news” (with little success, since ignorance is generally a grass roots affair), I won’t be bothering to sporadically post links to my posts following the demise of the integration.  So if you follow me there and want to keep reading my stuff, you will have to find another service.

Twitter maybe?  It isn’t so bad if you are careful about whom you follow.

The posts are also pushed to Tumblr as summaries, and I haven’t been banned yet as part of the great Tumblr porn panic, where the algorithm doesn’t know much about art, but knows if nipples are involved it must be porn.

One Year Ago

I was wondering if EA might be a better company if they were owned by Microsoft.

Trion Worlds announced that Rift Prime would launch on March 7th, putting it a good two weeks ahead of the previous estimated “spring” opening.

SuperData Research released their review of 2017 and it seemed to be missing a key title.

In World of Warcraft it was Battle for Azeroth pre-order time.  I bought it so I could start unlocking allied races.  Not that I needed more alts.  I also did a little raiding with leashes and got the Mr. Bigglesworth drop.

In New Eden the Monthly Economic Report showed a dip in activity , at least in overall NPC bounties, as we all turned to the Million Dollar Battle that January.

CCP was also proposing changes to the CSM election process as well as updating their game news RSS feeds.

The February update for EVE Online saw a change that allowed players to attack Upwell structures at any time and changed it so that unfueled structures only had one timer after hitting the shields rather than two.  That led to a spike in destroyed citadels.  There was also the Guardian’s Gala event and CCP still calling mission spaces “dungeons.”  The coming March update promised players a new ship.

In game I hit the meaningless milestone of 190 million skill points.

Actually out in space, Pandemic Horde gave up their space in Fade and Pure Blind to move to the Vale of the Silent, leaving a hole in null sec for somebody to fill.

Daybreak finally declared H1Z1 out of early access, but the battle royale market had already moved on.  Fortnite, significantly, was now available on PC and consoles.

And Extra Credits was going over the whole lockbox thing some more.

Five Years Ago

A lot of people got their panties in a twist about Steam tags.  It was the literal end of civilization as we knew it… for about 30 minutes.

EA handed over the running of Camelot Unchained and Ultima Online to Broadsword.

I spent some time with Warcraft III attempting to discover the pre-history of WoW.

There was Diablo III version 2.0, and the changes looked promising.

On the World of Warcraft front, we were still talking about Warlords of Draenor.  Pre-orders were announced an there was a rumor that the expansion would cost $60, which seemed a bit steep.  Also, insta-90s looked to be coming as a cash shop item.  Would all of that stem the tide on subscription decline?

Meanwhile, I finished the last of the LFR raids, witnessing the downfall of Garrosh Hellscream.  For all of the complaints about LFR, I enjoyed my raid tourism.  The instance group did Grim Batol, then made the jump to Pandaria before returning with slightly better equipment for Heroic Deadmines.

I was wondering why PvP seemed to be a requirement for all MMOs.

I got into The Edler Scrolls Online beta and declared it Skyrim-like enough for me, then never played it again.

Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Further Falling of the Fallen Kickstarter campaign was winding down, doomed to failure.  There was talk about what would happen next.  Plan B anybody?

I ran another EVE Online screen shot contest to give away some items from the Second Decade Collector’s Edition which I scored for free… after having bought it for myself.  And then there was the monument and drone assist and campaign medals and the repercussions of B-R5RB to talk about.

And I wondered what was going to happen with people being given free reign in Landmark.

Ten Years Ago

My 8800GT video card died.  That was the second one to go.

I had been looking at my dis-used GAX Online account and wondered what gamer social networking needed to be viable.  Since then, GAX Online has shut down.

PLEX showed up in EVE Online ten years ago.  It doesn’t seem like it has been around for that long.  And then there was the whole Goonswarm disbandment of Band of Brothers, and act that effectively ended the Great War, and which made the BBC news.  This led to talk of how much control players should have over their destiny.

In game I got the mining foreman mindlink as a storyline mission drop, I upgraded to a Raven Navy Isssue, and finally bought the freighter for which I had been training, and got some ships blown up in the Worlds Collide mission… again. There was EVE Vegas, which was just a player run meet up at that point.

I was still active in Lord of the Rings Online, playing characters on the Nimrodel server.  Looking for a class on which to affix the Reynaldo Fabulous name, I put up a poll on the subject.  While Minstrel won the poll, Reynaldo ended up being a hunter with a fabulous hat.  And when I wasn’t fooling around with alts, I was leveling up my captain who made it all the way to Rivendell at one point.

While over in Azeroth, it was revealed that my mom plays WoW.  I wondered at how active Westfall seems to be most of the time.  But the answer to that seems to be the Deadmines, which I ran my mom and daughter through. (No dungeon finder back then!)  There was a little pet drama with my daughter who wanted a raptor.  I also managed my first exalted status with a faction in WoW, the Kalu’ak in Northrend.  I wanted that fishing pole.

On the Wii, we had Wii Musicwhich was crap, and LEGO Batmanwhich suffered a bit from being yet another variation in the successful LEGO video game franchise.

And then there was the usual blog war shenanigans as somebody was still looking to blame WoW and WoW players for Warhammer Online’s failure to meets its subscriber goals.  I think we’re all over that now, right?  Warhammer did what it did on its own faults and merits in a market that was well known before they shipped.

Fifteen Years Ago

The aptly named Gates of Discord expansion for EverQuest launched.  While Smed called its bug-ridden launch “SOE’s worst mistake in five years” it did see the game to its subscription peak of 550K and introduced instancing as the default dungeon mode, something WoW would make a genre default soon enough.

The creator of the original Castle Wolfenstein game from 1981, Silas Warner,  passed away at… oh dear, my age.  I played that game a lot back on my Apple II.

Twenty Years Ago

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, arguably one of the best entries in the Civilization series, ships.  My only nit-pick is that it ran full screen at pre-set resolutions so, unlike its predecessor Civilization II, if you play it today it either has to be in a small window or distorted full screen on your likely much-bigger-than-1999 monitor.

Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance also launched, one of the better Star Wars titles.  But Star Wars was never plagued by bad titles the way Star Trek has been over the years.

Most Viewed Posts in February

  1. Burn Jita back for 2019
  2. How Many People Play EVE Online?
  3. Rumors of Future Daybreak Projects and the End of EverQuest
  4. Burn Jita 2019 Kicks Off
  5. Burn Jita 2018 Aftermath
  6. Minecraft and the Search for a Warm Ocean
  7. Alamo teechs u 2 play DURID!
  8. Trying Out the Guardians Gala Sites
  9. What Should EverQuest 3 Even Look Like?
  10. No Good Expansions*
  11. The First EverQuest II Progression Server is Coming to an End
  12. Activision Blizzard – Famine in the Midst of Plenty

Search Terms of the Month

is raptr dead or what
[Or what!]

darkfall unholy wars 2019
[Keep on dreamin’]

anything else like all access from daybreak
[XBox Live maybe?]

eve online passie tank vs buffer tank
[Passie tank better than a failie tank]

library of congress “server code”
[The Library of Congress server code is open source]

give usual predictions of new year
[Covered that back on the first of the year]

Game Time from ManicTime

Month two of time tracking with ManicTime. My gaming division of time for February.

  • RimWorld 37.58%
  • WoW 26.12%
  • EVE Online 20.09%
  • EQ 14.28%
  • Minecraft 1.24%
  • LOTRO 0.68%

LOTRO went from top of the heap in January to not much activity at all.  I also binged on a stretch of RimWorld, which replaced LOTRO at the top.  WoW and EQ, which were negligible last month, saw big boosts as I went to those places for my MMORPG fix. And EVE Online stayed about the same.

EVE Online

I was fairly active in fleets during the first half of the month as Liberty Squad brought “freedom” to the inhabitants of The Kalevala Expanse. (I have to look up the name of that region every time. My brain thinks anything that starts with “Kale” should end with “yuck.”)

However, for the back half of the month I was busy with other things, including being away on vacation last week.  As such I missed some big fights in null sec, all of Burn Jita, and the whole Guardian’s Gala event.  I heard that the latter was a bit messed up, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you much beyond it.

EverQuest

Nostalgia for times now 20 years in the past is swelling.  I logged in for a bit in order to get myself back up to speed on the game.  Or down to speed, depending on how you look at it.  That brought me through the Gloomingdeep tutorial.  Will that be enough of a warm up before the big anniversary event?

Lord of the Rings Online

I finished up Volume I of the epic quest line, putting a cap on my Shadows of Angmar experience on the LOTRO Legendary server.  Actually, I did that last month, but only got around to the final post this month.  After that I was sort of done with LOTRO for the time being, and haven’t bothered logging in more than once or twice since then.

Minecraft

I did spend a bit of time playing Minecraft.  I didn’t do anything complicated or start any new public works projects.  I just pottered around a base, improving it, building up some paths and such.  I just wanted to do something simple while listening to an audio book.  Minecraft is often perfect for that.  I am still waiting for the Village & Pillage & Panda update to hit.  It seems like we’ve been waiting for that for quite a while now.

Pokemon Go

Not a lot to report here.  I am closing in on level 36, largely due to several people hitting the “Ultra Friend” level, which is good for 100,000 points.

Level: 35 (+0)
Pokedex status: 388 (+3) caught, 415 (+10) seen
Pokemon I want: Meltan, but I still have a several tasks to go in order to get there
Current buddy: Togetic

RimWorld

I have carried on with RimWorld, and with the colony that had such a disastrous turn, about which I posted earlier in the month.  I’ll have to carry on with that story.  As I have said before, RimWorld has that “one more thing” aspect to it that will keep me up late when I had sworn I was going to go to bed early.  There is always something else to do.  Also, as an MMO player, having a game you can pause and walk away from is a nice change as well.  On the other hand, I think my pausing and walking away might be inflating RimWorld‘s play time stats.  There is always another problem.

World of Warcraft

Finishing up the epic quest line in LOTRO lined up just right with the start of Darkmoon Faire in WoW, so I went and did that since they’ve fixed the trade skill quests.  I also finished up both the exploration and quest line achievements for Drustvar.  That opened up World Quests for me.  While faction grinds are generally bad, taking them in daily four quest bites isn’t such an ordeal.

And then they had a week of double experience for pet battles, so I was in on that as well.  I do that with an alt, who is now level 112 but has never been into the BfA content.  Gaff also joined in on the WoW front, so there have been times with all of three people in guild chat, myself, Gaff, and Earl.  Earl is never not playing WoW.

Coming Up

EverQuest turns 20 in just over two weeks.  I’ve mentioned the special servers already this week, but I suspect that there will be other special things going on as well.  Gnomish things, among others I guess.

I expect that we’ll hear something about EVE Online CSM elections.  And there will be the monthly update.  Otherwise the low intensity wars in Perimeter and the east side of null sec seem set to carry on.

On the LOTRO front it seems like a lock that the Mines of Moria expansion will be coming our way on the Legendary server.  I am still not certain how strongly I’ll be in for Moria.

March otherwise looks to be a quiet month.  Spring starts towards the end, at least in the northern hemisphere, and of course daylight savings time starts in the US, for states that observe that (I wish California would opt out even though that would literally mean a bunch of work and testing with time zones yet again in my job), so I will be cranky(er) from sleep pattern interruption and people will be asking what “PDT” stands for again.

What else does March have in store for us?

SuperData says Digital Sales Were Down in January

As we roll into the end of February, SuperData Research has their digital sales numbers for January, and the headline was that sales were down year over year, with the PC platform down 29% when compared to 2018.

I guess we got everything we wanted for Christmas this year.

Anyway, the chart is available.

SuperData Research Top 10 – January 2019

On the PC side, Fortnite fell from fourth to fifth spot, allowing the long standing top four to reunite.  League of Legends fell out of first place, something that started to happen last year, replaced in the top spot by Dungeon Fighter Online.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds remained behind rival Fortnite, though they are adjacent on this list now.

World of Warcraft, again tagged as “West,” remained in seventh position, one step ahead of World of Tanks, which regained the eighth slot from Sims 4, which fell to ninth.  And in tenth position, DOTA 2 returned to the list, replacing Hearthstone West.

On the console side, FIFA 19 jumped ahead of last month’s top duo, Fortnite and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, while the venerable Grand Theft Auto V hauled itself up into forth position yet again.

And on the mobile end of the chart the top five remained unchanged from last month, shaking out as Honour of Kings, Pokemon Go, Fate/Grand Order, Candy Crush Saga, and Clash of Clans.

Nothing too exciting on any of the lists.  But next month’s charts should show the impact of two EA titles, Anthem and Apex Legends.  That pair ought to shake things up a bit.

Other items from the SuperData post:

  • Worldwide digital game spending declined on Console, PC and Mobile in January. Consumers spent $8.4 billion on digital games across all platforms in January, down 6% year-over-year. Premium PC had the biggest drop off of any platform with a 29% decline. Meanwhile, console revenue also decreased by 3% even including a favorable comparison from Fortnite due to tepid performance from top Premium Console franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA and Overwatch.
  • Fortnite dips month-over-month after a strong end to the year. Fortnite revenue on all platforms combined declined 48% month-over-month in January, although sales are still up significantly year-over-year. This comes after a peak month in December and points to an increasingly lumpy revenue profile heading into 2019.
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 Online (beta) fails to pick up momentum. RDR2 Online (beta) revenue fell by 14% month-over-month in January due in part to declining MAU levels. Combined sales from both RDR2 Online (beta) and GTA V Online, which makes about 5x more than RDR2 Online (beta) from in-game spending, were flat year-over-year versus GTA V Online alone last January. (Note that Red Dead Redemption 2 Online (beta) is still not fully launched, which may create an unfair comparison against full-fledged live service offerings such as Grand Theft Auto V Online.)
  • Super Smash Bros. Ultimate unit sales decline sharply. We estimate that Super Smash Bros. digital units were down 83% from December, indicating that sales were more front-loaded than usual, as well as closely linked to Switch hardware purchases during the holiday season. In-game spending increased month-over-month as more players purchased the Fighter Pass.
  • Counter-Strike: Global Offensive‘s high engagement levels aren’t translating into revenue gains. CS:GO MAU grew 8% year-over-year in January after benefiting from the switch to a free-to-play model in November. However, digital revenue fell considerably compared to last January as new users showed lower conversion for in-game spending.

No Good Expansions*

*Some expansions excepted

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

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

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

Maybe the only fully good MMO expansion ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activision Blizzard – Famine in the Midst of Plenty

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

Let’s talk about Activision Blizzard for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Activision Blizzard Q4 2018 Financial Results Presentation – Slide 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other posts on this topic:

Awkward in Azeroth

One of the baseline things of coming back to World of Warcraft after playing another MMORPG is that you are returning to the silky smooth polish that is Blizzard.  Or it has generally been that way in my experience.  This time around it felt a little different.

On wrapping up Volume I of the LOTRO epic quest lines last week I decided, after a pretty focused three month run with the game, to step away for a bit.  I was already feeling that my passion for the game was ebbing a bit.

Usually, going from LOTRO to WoW is a bit of a relief.  I have not been shy over the years about mentioning some of the UI problems with LOTRO, its cramped and awkward style, its responsiveness, legibility, and such.  This time though…

It was a combination of factors.

First, I had setup a rotation for my guardian in LOTRO on specific keys and, after three months of that, my fingers were going to those keys to fight pretty much automatically.  The problem was that my ret pally in WoW, those keys didn’t line up.  My time in Middle-earth had so solidified my response to combat that I eventually just changed my mapping in WoW to mostly line up that rotation to match where my fingers were going.

Second, on returning, I noticed that my bag were pretty full, so I decided to clear them out.  Forgetting the whole “don’t raise your item level or solo mobs will start beating the crap out of you because Blizzard thought that would be funny” aspect of Battle for Azeroth, one of my least favorite bits of the expansion, I emptied my bad by equipping all the much better gear I had stored away and selling off everything else.

I remembered that problem once I got out in the field.

It isn’t the worst thing in the world, this mobs “grow more powerful than you do as your item level goes up” thing.  But I had just come from playing a guardian in LOTRO, a class that doesn’t kill all that quickly, but which can handle a lot of mobs at once.  Running into the thick of things was easy with the guardian, but a big mistake with the ret pally.  One or two mobs were doable, and even three, but after a three mob encounter some healing was required.  I had to die a couple of times before I got a grip on how much less powerful I was at level 120 in WoW versus level 50 in LOTRO.

And then there was the game itself.  I played for a couple of long stretched on Saturday and Sunday, and several times I ended up with the game lagging out or the UI going unresponsive.  I am very much not used to hitting a hot key and the game not catching it.  This seemed to be a particular problem on Saturday evening.  That is a busy time for the game, and maybe that had something to do with it as I haven’t seen anything similar since the weekend.  But for a stretch WoW was not acting in a very WoW-like manner, but no other games seemed to be lagging.

Despite the less than auspicious start, I pressed on.  I wanted to pick up where I had left off back in early November in Drustvar.  I had one more faction to work on before I would unlock world quests.

But even that seemed to be going against me.  All I wanted was to get to honored with the Order of Embers.  The problem was that the zone opens up with a lot of quests, none of which boost you at all with that particular faction.  That, and the coming of the LOTRO Legendary server, put me off WoW for this three month stretch, and in returning I found myself in the same situation.

I persisted though.  The quest lines are, as I have noted, pretty good.  The zones are all pretty well put together and look good as well.  I managed to find my stride and started to just enjoy following up on one task after another.  Eventually I hit quest chains that catered to my particular factional needs, but that didn’t happen until I really got into the far side of the zone.  By that point I didn’t have to go very far before I got the exploration achievement.

Also, the best exploration mount ever

It wasn’t too far after that when I managed to hit my faction goal as well.  That sent me back to Boralus to turn in the quest that unlocked World Quests as a reward.

World Quests

In a way, that might seem like a step backwards.  I earned enough faction to unlock the ability to earn more faction related quests.  But I have to admit I kind of liked the world quest stage of Legion back in the day.  Doing the daily three or four quests for the emissary ended up being a nice little chunk of content to keep me going.

Also, along the way, I seemed to be climbing out of the item level pit.  Or I am getting better at playing a ret pally in BfA.  Either way, I seemed to be doing better.

I still have to finish up the story lines in Drustvar.  There is an achievement to be done in that.  And I seem to be back in the groove again.  But for a strange day or three it seemed like WoW was losing the playability battle against LOTRO.

Addendum: Also, I really got used to LOTRO putting hostile mobs on the mini-map as little red dots, so kept looking for that in the WoW mini-map for days.