Playing on Their Schedule
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2014, 6:30 pm
Syp has posted his latest action plan for fitting four separate MMO's into a week.  I don't have anything so specific - no one is expecting multiple weekly columns about different MMO's from me - but I am starting to arrive at a decision tree of sorts for my MMO time.  For better or worse, non-subscription titles combined with daily/weekly/monthly quest rewards often leave a clear-cut choice for my limited gaming time. 

My decision tree (in rough order starting from 30 seconds total in front of a computer all day, down the list as time permits):
  1. Log into Marvel Heroes to collect the daily login bonus (+1 daycount towards exclusive pets, team-ups, and other goodies). May immediately log out depending on which of the below is available. 
  2. Log into Neverwinter once daily for 2-3 minutes to invoke (+1 token towards an epic quality healer companion at the end of a year) and send my profession minions off to farm cash store currency for me.  If possible, check the web portal roughly twelve hours later to refresh completed missions. I've bought an account-wide cash store mount this way, time will tell if all this farming eventually pays off in actually playing the game itself.
  3. Time-critical content (will be gone or massively harder forever, may need daily attention).  Last week, that meant several loose ends in Pandaria that I feared would be prohibitive after the patch; in particular, I pushed to finish all of the of the Siege of Ogrimmar LFR wings once so I could say I'd done them, as I feared this could be a huge mess after the patch due to nerfs to "smart" healing abilities.  
  4. Time-sensitive content (typically not unique/not gone forever, but significantly more valuable to play this game at this time).  Last week, this meant the Heroes of the Storm Alpha, which was offering double experience.  I could also see Heroes of the Storm occupying some time every 2-3 days due to how its daily quest rewards and weekly rotation work. Some of Marvel Heroes' weekly events qualify because I like either the event or the rewards.  A monthly visit to the Darkmoon Faire if I have a WoW subscription active falls into this category. 
  5. Other content.  Marvel Heroes has typically fit in here, but this accounts for less of my time as I finish leveling more and more of the game's playable characters.  Expansions - WoW? Rift? would fit here.  I.e. anything else that would ordinarily fit under the category of playing the games normally.
  6. Oh right, I have a blog that I used to post on, don't I?  Funny how you don't get this far down the list when you have a toddler.  See also, not getting around to new MMO launches.
Most of these trends have been around for a while now, and there are definitely days where I feel like some daily incentive is pushing too hard in the direction of having to play a certain type of content a certain way.  Then again, I suppose there are days when having a good idea of the most valuable use of my time can help dodge decision paralysis from having too many options.  It is what it is. 


Pay Not To Play, Revan Style
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 October 2014, 5:30 pm
"The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate."
- Me, back in March
Bioware has launched SWTOR's latest expansion pre-sale campaign with an odd pre-order exclusive - pay to get out of playing anything but your class story. Customers who pre-purchase the digital expansion for $20 and ALSO subscribe to the technically subscription-optional title will gain more than 12 times the usual rate of experience from their class story missions.  The boosted missions grant enough experience to reach the maximum level of 55 without doing any side-missions, PVP, dungeons, or other content to supplement their experience gain. 

Bioware's decision to offer eight distinct class stories - each with writing, production, and acting costs to rival a reasonably sized game - added significantly to SWTOR's notoriously high budget.  The investment largely failed to pay off, as players burned through the one-eighth of the story content available to their characters inside of a month and canceled their then-mandatory subscriptions.  The concept of movie-quality stories for each additional character sounded nice in principle, but in practice I was never able to get excited about taking characters to the same worlds in the same order to do (or work around) the same planetary storylines - sometimes with classes that played similarly - just to eventually earn a minute or two of conversation towards the class story plot. 

And thus the compromise - you still cannot get out of playing at least some SWTOR to see the story, but you can get out of playing most of SWTOR.  Only trouble is, that may still be more SWTOR than I'm willing to play, much less pay for.  Such is the peril of marketing NOT playing your title. 


A Waste of Draenor?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 September 2014, 5:23 pm
I'm on the fence about the schedule for WoW's upcoming expansion and 10th Anniversary celebrations.  I've long since ceased to make purchasing decisions a matter of principle, but I am concerned and a bit puzzled by the rushed pace that the calendar seems to be dictating.  

WoW's fifth expansion has taken so long to produce that it has bumped into the game's 10th anniversary.  An announcement this week clarified how the schedule will work - the expansion launches on November 13th, the anniversary window begins on November 21st, and the last opportunity to get the goodies will be on January 6th.

The centerpiece of the festivities is a revamped level 100 version of the classic Molten Core raid from WoW's launch.  Getting there will require that players purchase the expansion box - at an increased price of $50 compared to past $40 boxes - and gain the ten new levels in just under eight weeks.  (The preceding 90 levels are a moot point, as the new box includes one instant level 90 character upgrade credit.)  On a shallow level, this is a way to sell boxes and game time, but I wonder if this was a missed opportunity.

I sat out Pandaria's launch due to newborn, and thus incidentally got the expansion box for half off on Black Friday and got to experience the game with the 5.0 jitters polished out.  While I'm not opposed on principle to paying full price and showing up at launch, I probably won't enjoy the journey nearly as much with the deadline.  I also don't understand why it's in Blizzard's best interest to rush players to the new max level before month two of the new expansion cycle when they have yet to release an expansion in under 22 months.

Finally, there's the nostalgia factor.  The 10th anniversary should have been an opportunity to bring back millions of former players to see what Blizzard has done with the game in their absence.  Perhaps the cynical math says that $65 for the box and a month of game time is the best outcome Blizzard can expect from these customers.  Otherwise it would seem like slapping a large upfront purchase and a deadline is not the best on-ramp for people who may be one or more expansions behind the times.  Does it really make sense to take players who last saw their characters three talent overhauls ago, catapult them past all the current expansions, and rush them through the new one, landing them right back at the endgame that may have driven them from the game in the first place?

If anything, I'm thinking I might enjoy resubscribing for a month or two now with no particular pressure to do anything but play around in Azeroth since everything meaningful will be reset in two short months anyway.  There are pets to battle, stories to finish, mounts and achievements to collect, and any number of other things that I'll be rushing past if I do take part in the expansion rush. 


The Cost Of Letting Go
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 September 2014, 6:02 pm
Scott Jennings' pretty slideshow about the lifecycle of an MMO player already lured Spinks out of several weeks of retirement, so I suppose there's no harm in joining in.  His bottom line is that MMO design is not set up for players to come, enjoy the game, and leave.  I'm inclined to agree, but I don't see how to address or ultimately solve this problem. 

It's been a less-than-great news week in MMO's.  Wildstar, which by Tobold's estimate sold fewer than half a million copies, announced that they were dropping pre-launch promises of monthly updates and consolidating their remaining players onto "megaservers".  Most people who are actually playing Wildstar seemed to agree that something had to be done to consolidate the remaining playerbase, but objectively it's hard to see this as anything other PR-speak to avoid saying that they are merging servers.  No designer goes to the bother of launching with the 2004 server model and realizes out of the blue three months later that it might be better if everyone playing the game could actually play together, with the added bonus of removing pesky dedicated servers for roleplaying, non-English language EU servers, etc.  Meanwhile the Elder Scrolls, which was the other late spring release that was going to save the big budget subscription MMO business model, has announced layoffs

So why haven't the presumably intelligent people behind these projects caught on to Scott's simple advice to "let it go"?  Or perhaps is that exactly what Zenimax has done?

Re-defining MMO's to have a beginning, middle, and end and a tidy way for scaling as players come and go hits basically all stakeholders in the current genre. 
  • As Scott's slides describe, many old school MMO players are playing to be with their friends, not for the game on its own merits - for these players, accepting churn means that the experience they wanted is already gone.  
  • For investors funding these hundred million dollar projects, the reality that you won't turn each copy sold into $200/year in perpetual subscription revenue means that you can't recoup your investment.  
  • And for the developers - I assume this was Scott's audience - the logical consequence of his modest proposal is the ship-and-layoff-the-team model that single player games publishers have done for years. Some number of players will continue to pay to rent an online version of the Elder Scrolls to use like a single player title, it may not be possible to retain the rest no matter how much you spend on continued development, so why NOT launch with a solid base to monetize and then cut your losses on any continued development expenses?
I've spent the majority of my gaming time and budget in 2014 on Marvel Heroes, which I play functionally as a single player title, so I suppose I'm the market that you gun for under Scott's approach.  This approach, however, has its costs.  In over a year post-launch, Marvel Heroes has added only a single new story chapter - the new one for last year's Thor movie takes me about 30 minutes to replay - so the beginning, middle, and end may be closer together than most players will be prepared to tolerate.  It does not appear that the team has suffered layoffs, but hero releases and events feel increasingly rushed, while everything else is routinely delayed by weeks or months as the team focuses on additions that actually bring in more revenue.

I'm not disagreeing with Scott, as nothing about the decade post-WoW suggests the old ways work - clinging to shipwreck debris might seem better than nothing but won't save you from the whirlpool threatening to suck you to the bottom of the ocean.  The challenge is that from where we are today the cost of letting go is obvious - either you end up somewhere completely different from old virtual world MMO's (as I have), you jump on a bandwagon likely headed for catastrophic failure, or you gamble your money on a crowd funding project that will take years before potentially ending in catastrophic failure.  It's just not clear where the other side of the maelstrom leads. 

(P.S. On that cautionary note about crowd funding, Camelot Unchained announced this week that it was delaying its alpha by six months, with a vague promise that the over nine thousand backers who pre-paid for alpha access over a year ago will be compensated with some combination of founder's rewards, in-game currency, and game subscription time if it slips further.  The unspoken assumption is that there will eventually be a launched game in which to grant these compensation measures.) 


Canada Day Resolutions for 2014
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 July 2014, 5:08 pm
Despite not being Canadian, Canada Day Resolutions used to be a thing here on PVD, since I often found myself reviewing my progress on my New Year's resolutions on a day that coincided with the Canadian national holiday.  Last year I didn't cover Canada day due to being on summer vacation, and this year I was in the middle of an international move and didn't feel postured to write New Year's resolutions in January, but no need to let these details stand in the way of tradition.

Pursue 2580 Total Hero Levels In Marvel Heroes

Through a combination of purchases, promotions, and in-game awards, I'm rapidly closing on unlocking every hero in the game. Thirteen sit at max level and another five have hit at least level 50 for their second tier synergies.   Without specifically trying, this puts me over halfway to the game's current total level cap (2100 for the 35 current heroes at 60), and just shy of halfway when you include the eight announced characters (six remaining Advance Pack characters, Nova, and X-23 for a total of 2580). 

I'm hesitant to commit to this kind of goal for fear that I will get tired of it, and perhaps that's a fair concern, but clearly chain-leveling characters in Marvel Heroes has managed to hold my interest.  Meanwhile, later characters are definitely getting easier due to steadily increasing amounts of bonuses as the game keeps adding new systems.  We'll see how far I can get.

My current roster: I can immediately purchase four of the seven greyed out portraits, as I currently have 1400 splinters.  I will need 1000 more for the other three, plus 600 for Nova and X-23.
Neverwinter - To 60 But Actually Playing?
Level 30 in Neverwinter was enough of a headstart to get working on the several out-of-game minigames, similar to Star Trek Online's duty officer system.  These are good fun, and it seems highly likely that I will hit the game's level cap through experience gained from these mini-games alone.   A better, and unanswered, question is whether I will ever get back to playing the actual game, or just stick to the minigames as I did in STO.  Not sure if that's good or bad feedback for Cryptic, but there you have it. 

Clear out the PS3 line-up
I passed on the PS4 last year, in part because of looming move and in part because there wasn't much on the release calendar for the holidays that I couldn't just get for my existing PS3 instead.  A year later, the math is flipped - many of the older PS3 games I had yet to beat are now available in re-mastered editions on the PS4, so it's only a few last hold-outs between me and retiring my PS3, possibly for the shiny white bundle with Destiny.  The titles in question are the last few chapters of Uncharted 3 along with all of Infamous 2 (both of which I already own) and Batman: Arkham Origins (which I technically could purchase on the PC if push came to shove).

I have a new set of multi-platform gaming headphones, so I'm feeling good about my odds.

Other MMO's?
And then things are open ended. 
  • I own some prepaid time for SWTOR that I won't use until the next mini-expansion that has adventuring content (apologies to those who are eagerly awaiting the housing mini-expansion).  
  • Honestly, I'm more likely to jump on the Blizzard MOBA than the next WoW expansion, but I'll keep my eyes out for steep Black Friday discounts.  
  • I won't look at either TESO or Wildstar until they offer a free trial, and honestly neither is likely to make the cut with me as a subscription title. 
  • EQ2, Rift, TSW and the Turbine games also seem to be out by default.  EQ2 has the best shot at a come-back, but since they went digital only their expansions are no longer available at a discount, and I'd need to buy an expansion to continue playing my character.  
  • FFXIV is a possible contender.  I left that game with generally favorable impressions, but also feeling that I was starting to need more structured group content to advance.  This would be a deal-killer with my schedule these days.  Maybe in a patch or two, as I hear they are going to have ninjas. 
Could actually be a year where I do almost nothing in traditional MMO's?  We'll see.

Happy Canada Day, and/or best mid-year wishes as appropriate!  




Technically Alpha Of The Storm
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 June 2014, 5:29 pm
I've never heard of a "technical alpha" before an email from Blizzard indicating that I was now part of one for the upcoming MOBA Heroes of the Storm.  My first take was that it was a Phishing scam, as I had not heard of anyone else in this test, but I typed in battle.net by hand and sure enough, my account was flagged for what it described as a "beta".  There's probably a definition somewhere that isn't "this is what used to be called a beta, but that term now has so much marketing hype that we have to technically call it an alpha", but no matter.

(Also, despite being technically alpha, there is no NDA - Blizzard continues to show admirable lack of fear of showing their cards with extended public testing.)  

The Game
So far, I'm liking what I'm seeing.  I was never the core MOBA demographic, but for the occasional pop-in PVE against bots I can see little reason why I'd ever use League of Legends for that purpose now that Heroes of the Storm is arriving.  I'm sure the competitive players greatly enjoy the strategy of forcing the other player out of lane to heal or finding a time when it's safe to return to base to spend your accumulated gold on necessary item upgrades.  I'll take Heroes' talent system (pick one of several abilities every few levels) and healing fountains (which the enemy can destroy) any day. 

The engine is smooth, the UI is clean and polished, and the game is full of Blizzard's attention to detail and sense of humor.  In an era where we show players stories rather than telling them, I'd much rather be playing characters I know from over a decade of Blizzard's lore than possibly deep League backstories that never really intrude into the game itself. 

The game starts with a tutorial in which Uther explains quickly to Jim Raynor how he has ended up in a world of cross-franchise battles, and then it's off to the races. 

The Business
 
A testing bundle of ten heroes for just under $30

The "invite" (there was no key or I would have considered raffling it off, they automatically applied it to my account) is somewhat wasted on me due to how the game's incentives work.  Like Hearthstone and League of Legends, you earn rewards including an alternate currency for unlocking stuff as you play the game.  Thus, there's little to no reason why I'd invest significant time on this test only to see my progress reset when the game goes live.  Likewise, there is a partially functional cash shop up and running for in-game purchases, but these purchases will be "refunded" dollar for dollar in Blizzard credit; there's zero reason I'd take that deal since I might want to spend more or less money if offerings change between now and launch.  


What is in the cash shop will be relatively familiar to League players.  Characters run for $4-10 or some amount of in-game currency.  These are allegedly based in part on the complexity of the character and seemingly with little basis in popularity - Raynor and Malfurion sit in the $4 tier, most characters including Tassadar, Illidan, and Diablo sit at the $7.50 price point, and only a handful, most prominently Kerrigan, occupy the $10 tier.  Cosmetic skins are pricier, generally either $7.50 or, $10 and not available with in-game currency, but are reasonably well done and very clever.  In addition to minor or comedic variations, there are cross-franchise outfits -  Kerrigan as a WoW succubus, or Uther as a Starcraft Terran Medic - and alternate realities such as Arthas as a human and a fallen demonic Tyrael.  Once you own the skin, you can unlock color variants in-game only.  There are also apparently cosmetic mount variants (everyone gets a free basic horse), including a $20 rainbow unicorn, because why not. 
You can take the healbot out of Azeroth....
A promising first look....
It may be technically alpha, but it looks well polished.  League will survive fine due to its massive userbase, but I'd be very worried if I was running any less prominent MOBA when this game hits wider release. 




All In On Wildstar Attunements: Legacy of the Burning Crusade
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 June 2014, 5:17 pm
I have the advantage of a healthy level of distance from Wildstar and its raid attunement system.  I'm not playing the game and wouldn't be raiding if I did, so I can't say if what they're doing is either good or the way it should be.  Based on what I'm reading from Syl and Liore it sounds like an old-school system in which players will have do do all the content multiple times to be allowed in the door for raids.  I think I can see why the studio would want to do this, though there's also a significant risk; if the plan does not pan out, neither the model nor its current target audience will be amenable to changes.

Can Targeting the Top Work?
Reacting to the steep requirements, Syl writes:
What attunements absolutely shouldn’t be is a way to divide your playerbase and essentially make it excruciatingly frustrating to nigh impossible for the more casual crowd, which constitutes the majority of your paying customers, to ever experience endgame or raid content. It makes no sense to create content for your top 1% or even top 5% and that’s a lesson Blizzard learned down the line, to a point where even flex raids have become a reality.
History may argue for the opposite.  The majority of MMO's in the last five years, assuming they managed to launch an endgame at all, have drastically reduced or eliminated both hard requirements (you must complete this attunement to zone in) and soft requirements (you must have X gearscore, but we're resetting the gear curve every patch) to enter compared to days of old.  Excluding the two titles that launched in the last two months (for which the jury is still out), none of these titles have done especially well at retaining their subscription base, and have instead been forced to relaunch with different business models.  Yes, Blizzard continues to release raids, but I don't see the increasing efforts to  lower raid difficulty as a vote of confidence.  Instead, it seems a reaction as more and more people and guilds either refuse to play them in the traditional formats or struggle to field the requisite rosters. 

Business models are not a democracy, so the percentages don't matter.  What matters is whether the content you are creating is retaining your revenue stream or not.  A possible explanation of the trend, which I believe is what Carbine is banking on, is that it may not make sense to invest the time to develop raid content for the less dedicated crowd, because they are leaving in a few months anyway. 

If there was no top 1-5% then you could always price out a cut-rate option that would fit within in the budget, but there's an additional cost.  Making a raid game that looks like what WoW has today makes the game not worth playing for that 1-5%.  Five percent of WoW's over ten million peak would be over half a million subscribers, which would put Wildstar in solid territory by any measure. 

Legacy of the Burning Crusade
Raiders will often swear that WoW's first expansion, the Burning Crusade, was the pinnacle of the genre.  I don't believe this is solely nostalgia, as TBC existed at a unique time in history.  WoW opened the genre up to players who wanted to spend some or all of their time soloing, but at that point they faced little or no competition to retain those dollars.  This left Blizzard free to do what Carbine may be attempting to do with Wildstar - pocket money from the majority, accept the risk that these people will run out of content faster than you can produce it and leave, and spend your effort on the minority who will only stick around with a robust raid game that's not feasible if budgeted solely on a per-capita basis.

That said, it's a different risk today than it was in January 2007.  As other companies finally caught up to Blizzard's lead, WoW faced real competition for solo players dollars for the first time from titles like the newly launched LOTRO and the largely re-launched solo-friendly incarnation of EQ2.  After cramming three full tiers of raids into the first four months of TBC, Blizzard spent much of the remaining time in that expansion, and arguably most of the time since, trying to make the game more accessible.  You don't make that kind of change to a 10 million subscriber cash cow because things are trending in the way you wanted. 

All In for Wildstar may mean All In
Wildstar launches in an era where the risk is that the majority of players will leave in the first 90 days regardless of anything they do.  Posturing to anticipate who will be left when the dust settles - trying to be good at one thing, rather than mediocre at all things that WoW does - could be a better plan than many games have tried.  The problem with catering to the top 1-5%, though, is that you don't have a lot of room to run in if you're not liking your numbers.  When you're that far off the median MMO player, you'll render the endgame completely useless to its existing demographic long before you make it even slightly acceptable to the median. 

(The same is true of the business model; despite being the heaviest users of games and demanding a disproportionate level of effort on their content, raiding players are generally the least tolerant of any model in which they would pay a higher share of the development and operating expenses.  If you add anything that raiders would actually want, they are quick to accuse your title of being "pay to win".  IE, if Wildstar does have a secret plan to go free-to-play in six months after pocketing the launch box prices, they should probably be focusing on other demographics.)

The real test for whether Carbine can win their bet is not whether dedicated raiders continue to pay their $15, but whether they actually willing to back up their desire for this old school system with their own time.  Forcing players to rehash the content endlessly to flag their guildmates is not a side effect of this system, it's the entire point.  Those guild groups will be short a player or two and that will create the rare opportunity for new players to enter the system.  If the Wildstar elite take the position that neither the PUG masses nor lower tier content that no longer offers worthwhile drops are an acceptable use of their time, the system will collapse. 

That's where I'd look - not to declarations that the system is demographically unjust or that games should be allowed to try different things - but to whether raiders are willing to run PUG's.  If the system works, it'll stick around.  If the system never reaches critical mass, both the elite raid community and possibly the entire game could be in a very tough spot. 


Looking Back on Marvel Heroes
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 June 2014, 6:34 pm
I spent $20 and maybe a dozen hours on the launch of Marvel Heroes.  I returned in November and have spent $270 since (including pre-purchase of post upcoming content slightly into next year), playing Marvel Heroes as my primary title for most of the time since December.  The good and bad of the game as it stands today:

Atmosphere, Gameplay
This game is a licensed property - I can't speak to whether you'll like it if you don't like the source material.  If you do like the material, it's in good hands - including a week-long review process at Marvel for stuff being added to the game.  Characters look like they should, almost always sound as they should (some voice acting is better than others, par for the course), and usually play as they should. 

In one example, they could have half-assed a magic user like Dr. Strange by re-coloring existing projectiles, and they instead spent time and effort on elaborate animations - portals with demons, swarms of magical homing daggers, a giant floating eye - to make him look more like the Sorcerer Supreme.  (One catch - heroes are priced largely based on level of development effort, so characters like Dr. Strange, and Ghost Rider who had a ton of work for his flaming motorcycle, end up costing more.)  The team has also taken the time to go re-review the launch-era heroes - one at a time - to bring them up to current standards at zero additional cost to players who already own that character. 

The gameplay is relatively standard action-RPG combat, with lots of dodging out of damage zones and occasional screen-filling explosions of particle effects.  The Marvel feel is here again, including a storyline that romps through a relatively timeless version of Marvel's major villains.  Personally, I enjoy repeating the story on all of the different characters to see how they handle the same content (which I now know very well) differently.  The action setting also includes shorter levels with more frequent opportunities to sign off and resume your progress later compared to Diablo III.  I feel that I can make progress in a 10-minute session or sit down on a rare occasion and power a character through the entire story in a few hours.

The Business
The game's business model has also seen an overhaul.  At launch, the cash store was all over the place, playable heroes were the priciest items, and just about anything could drop in game with no real way to farm what you wanted.  Today, heroes are cheaper across the board, and a new currency based entirely on time /played can be used to unlock any hero in the game.  The flip side, which the developers have been much more reticent to confirm, has been that everything else, from respec potions to costumes, have been drastically slashed on the loot tables. 

The new model makes sense - personally, my playtime drops off when I start running out of characters I want to play, and that costs the developers the chance to sell me other stuff.   I can also see how someone who focused on a single character and didn't care as much about cosmetic stuff is now looking at increased costs because things no longer drop at any reasonable rate.

This is also, as you might gather from my top line numbers, a potentially pricey game.  If you wanted to purchase just the playable heroes and team-ups released from December through May when there isn't a sale on, you're looking at over $90 without paying for any storage or costumes, i.e. $15/month.  Longer term promotions don't really save you much money but you can expect significantly more stuff - including storage and an alternate costume for each new hero as they are released.  I'm actually in a bit of a dead spot in the business model where I get squeezed harder than most.  Very infrequent players get a lot of playtime without paying at all, and players who get in 40+ hours a week walk away with enough splinters to unlock every character in-game for free.  I play just enough to want new characters faster than I can earn them. 

Also, the marketing team has always focused heavily on aggressive promotions, and recent months have seen a major rise in small but desired bonuses (exclusive costumes and team-ups, permanent experience boosts, etc) for very large purchases of $100 or more.  Thus far the extras have been optional, but the quality and frequency of these promotions is increasing.  A game's business model can't be a democracy, but that doesn't make it fun when it's pointed out that there's a lot of stuff they just won't sell to players who spend $300 per year, in order to make a market for players who spend over $1000 per year. 

Production
The game's developers will readily admit that the initial launch had problems - customer service had to manually flagging accounts for access during launch, the game's first client patcher was routinely redownloading 10GB of data until tech support began telling people to go download the game from Steam instead, and there were huge issues with basic functionality like tracking quests across multiple characters and landing only halfway to the cap after a first trek through story mode. 

The good news is that the game has come a long way and seen a lot added.  Patches with various amounts of stuff arrive monthly, and events of one sort or another run on most weekends.  At least one new playable hero, ready or not, will arrive every month.  And there's the other side of the coin - the team is reasonably good at following up on new releases, but the production cycle is very aggressive, with under a week of public testing for most releases, and new paid characters seldom miss their mark.  Anything that isn't a new paid character is likely to take at least twice as long as the developers say it will to release. 

It's hard to say how harsh to be on this topic.  Blizzard fails to follow through on both its preliminary designs and its time-tables; with frequent releases in Marvel Heroes that aren't held to fill an expansion box, it's more noticeable when features were promised for their actual target date and end up slipping by weeks or months.  Sometimes, small but significant issues even get held up because the team decided to tackle something larger - for example, Life Leech cores were deemed to be overpowered so the developers disabled them from dropping in game and said they would be nerfed in a subsequent review.  The review took something like four months, during which the best costume cores in the game no longer dropped in the game. 

The studio is in the midst of re-branding the title "Marvel Heroes 2015" to match the naming convention of annual sports franchises and attempt to earn re-reviews from game reviewing outlets.  Given the hiccups that they experience on almost every patch, they might want to be careful what they wish for - Simcity still owns a 64 Metacritic score and a 2.1 user rating due largely to server issues (and the company's poor handling thereof) from the launch weekend over a year ago. 

Overall
Overall, I'm playing the game and spending money on the game.  The mechanic of collecting new heroes (some with cash, some earned in-game) and benchmarking them against familiar content is fun for me.  Familiarity with the IP means that I start each new character with some impression of who they are and what they do, and the drop-in style of gameplay works with my lifestyle.  I feel okay about what I've spent thus far, but I do have some concerns. 

Looking into 2015, the team will be releasing increasingly lower-profile characters, and I could see character designs beginning to blur together as roster sizes increase.  I have concerns about how the number of vertical progression systems they are adding to the game will scale over time.  At some point I won't find what they're offering to be worth what they're asking, and because of how I play the game that will likely mean giving up on the game entirely rather than cutting back (i.e. playing with a very limited flow of new characters will no longer be fun). 

As I said up top, this is the first time in several years that I've spent six straight months almost entirely in a single game.  So far, that counts for something. 


Balancing Power And Fun
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 May 2014, 5:40 pm
I had a difference of opinion with a member of my supergroup concerning the Invisible Woman.  He argued that she plays like a weaker version of Cyclops with more support skills, and is further disappointing because she spends less time in stealth than other stealthy characters.  These points may be true, in particular at high level content, but I'm having a lot of fun playing her anyway.

Part of the comparison to Cyclops is that Invisible Woman has a basic attack power that ricochets.  This means you can spam the attack infinitely and it will bounce automatically between a large hostile and inanimate targets.  The damage isn't super high - similar powers that cost spirit to use, such as Captain America's shield toss or Nightcrawler's self-teleporting-projectile Blink Strike, do more damage, but the convenience can't be beat.  Invisible Woman also has some of my other favorite abilities that are commonly found on other characters, including a ground targeted damage over time effect (mob AI is not any better than MMO players at getting out of the fire) and a swarm of auto-targeting force spheres.  Collectively, she can clear out a room of trash very quickly. 

Which gets us back to the other point about stealth/invisibility or lack thereof.  The bad news is that my colleague is technically accurate that Invisible Woman starts combat from stealth (she is automatically and permanently invisible any time she is out of combat) but once she is fighting she typically does ranged combat like other non-stealthy characters.  She can escape into stealth by kiting for a few seconds, but other characters can get out at the click of a spammable button that's also part of their DPS rotation.  But ironically the good news is that you never need to fight any trash if you don't feel like doing so.  Mobs will emote because the AI doesn't know to turn that off just because because the mob can't see you, but you can easily, effortlessly and painlessly skip everything you don't feel like fighting.  This is also true for characters who can teleport, and to a lesser extent to any hero willing to repeatedly dodge-roll for their life across the entire map, but this is a ton more work.

Maybe the appeal for me is that she's the ideal character if you're too lazy to work at avoiding and/or targeting the enemy? 

Getting back to the bigger picture, every game now has way more character variety than you can feasibly balance.  Whether it's dozens of specializations for a smaller number of classes as in WoW or maybe only one or two builds for a really large number of playable characters in Marvel Heroes, it's inevitable that some will be better than others.  It's probably okay for some of the less optimal choices to be fun despite this, though I guess that can be a problem in a game where a significant amount of progress is tracked separately for each character (i.e. you can't really use Invisible Woman to farm gear for Wolverine), or if you felt really strongly about a particular character due to the IP.  Then again, sometimes having the game be relatively easy on the baseline leaves room for a less optimal character build to still get by with enough synergies and bonuses. (Another example is Emma Frost's diamond combat build, which is widely panned and sounded bad on paper, but I liked it better than her popular mental DPS build)

At the end of the day, it is not in the developer's interest for any of the characters to be bad, as they're making money selling all of them.  Novelty characters are possible, but probably limited (and I don't know that anyone would have picked Sue Storm for this).  Maybe this particular character is under-tuned (in fairness, her DPS does seem slightly low), but should the fun factor count for something? 


1000 Total Levels In Marvel Heroes
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2014, 5:25 pm
I hit a milestone in Marvel Heroes over the long weekend, gaining my 1000th combined level. 

The levels are split between 26 different heroes, some of whom are relatively low level, in particular characters who are awaiting their post-launch reworks.  Overall it's 10 characters at level 60, 5 more inactive characters parked at level 50 or 52, and then a small handful of characters I actually consider active.  There are a total of 2040 levels in game amongst the 34 released heroes, with a new 60-level hero added every month, so I'm not even half way to the total cap (especially since the higher levels go slower than the low levels do). 

One odd bit of irony here is that I almost prefer to play when there is NOT an weekly event experience boost in effect.  I have so many different ways to increase my exp gain that I don't have trouble getting my levels and I do sometimes have trouble not outleveling content.  My "baseline" is over 150%, as I'm running at 123% synergy bonus plus 10% for Cyclops and 25% for an experience boon (which will run out in just over five days of /played time outside of hubs due to boon parties).  On top of that, I have the following consumables:
  • 16 of the common 50% exp boosts (32 hours total, I would "store" these by consuming all of them - which I've done with the 50% rare item find boosts - except that sometimes I want it to expire).  The overwhelming majority of these come from quest rewards - three per character. 
  • Triple iridium 50% boosts (6 of these for a total of 12 hours, and these are comparatively more valuable because they stack with the regular boosts.  Mine came from the most recent fortune cards)
  • 100% rush bars (available in exp only - reasonably common and I have 9 of these - or triple iridium, where I have a whopping 14 due to the recent cards and promo codes, i.e. 23 hours of 100% bonus)
All told, I can get above 350% bonus exp with a couple of mouse clicks and stay at that level for at least twelve hours /played before stuff starts falling off, and all of that is multiplicative with any server bonuses.   Thus the reduced enthusiasm for server exp events.  Then again, it does seem like the events are so frequent and so impactful that it's almost anticlimactic to play when there is NOT an event available. 

So that's where I am going into the game's touted 1st birthday.  I'd say expectations - speculation runs anywhere from free G's for the cash shop to a surprise hero - are unrealistically high, but they have done a pretty impressive job with past events.  Guess we'll know in a bit over a week. 


Auction Errors and Cash Currency
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 May 2014, 6:09 pm
If you've used player auction houses in an MMO, chances are you have experienced significant pricing errors from both sides of the equation - as the player who screwed up and listed an item for a fraction of its value, and as the person fortunate enough to grab a major windfall as a result.  As interactions between cash shops and tradeable currency/items increase, the stakes feel somewhat higher.  

I snagged an item I've been camping on Neverwinter's auction house that typically sells for around $30 worth of Astral Diamonds for a mere $1 worth of AD.  This was almost certainly a pricing error on the part of the seller - opening the lock boxes that the item drops from requires a key that costs $1.50 worth of AD so it's pretty unlikely that anyone would sell any of the good prizes for less than the cost of a single key.    

I haven't equipped the thing yet.  I've done nothing wrong here, and I probably wouldn't think twice about it if it were just in-game gold - as I said, everyone makes these mistakes, you live and you learn.  The thing that bugs me is that this currency is so close to effectively real money.  It's possible that $20 worth of diamonds really matters to the person who made the error, because they don't have much money to spend on games.  Back in the subscription days, everyone could be assumed to have the $15/month price of admission on hand, and capitalizing on someone's mistake for gold was not going to take away something that they paid money for. 


Should the mechanics of auction houses be different when there's sort-of money at stake?  Or is it best to let people learn from their hard knocks? 


Neverwinter: When are Stats Cosmetic?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 May 2014, 6:40 pm
My Neverwinter character has advanced steadily through level 31, halfway to the game's level cap.  If you're looking for a decent single player experience with little (though probably not zero) money down, the game seems to fit the bill.  If you play MMO's because you are seeking to fill every gear slot on your character with a reasonable quality item, you're in for an expensive and frustrating haul.  The question I can't quite answer yet is to what extent your stats matter.

The Gameplay
According to the game's map, I've seen fewer than half of the zones, though some of these areas may be dungeons and/or level 60 endgame areas.  The game plays roughly like other recent MMO's, with click-to-attack, a requirement to play in mouse-look mode (which is clunky when it comes to actually using anything on the UI), and lots of dodge-rolling in response to red danger zones on the ground. 

One innovation on this point is that you are not actually required to get OUT of the red area - as long as you perform a dodge roll, the game will treat you as having dodged that attack, so you can get back to killing and don't need to worry about failing to travel far enough for whatever reason.  (I guess this is technically consistent with Dungeons and Dragons rules, where making a saving throw against something does not necessarily physically move the character out of the way?)  I don't generally play rogue type characters, but with all the rolling around that you have to do regardless and less penalty than normal for being caught in melee range, an agile character just feels right in this particular game.

Mechanics aside, it's a reasonably high production value game with about the requisite quests, some voice acting and cut-scenes, and basic MMO features.  I haven't had trouble soloing on the rogue with a healing NPC companion - more on this in a minute - and thus far I haven't hit major roadblocks.  Things could go downhill but overall it seems like the game is not out to stop me from getting to the level cap.

Filling the gearslots
I happened to have some Astral Diamonds I didn't have to pay for courtesy of some promotional codes, but if I had not I probably would not have spent money on the game to this point.  I don't know where the cutoff is, but I expect that trying to get all the way to level cap without paying would be less pleasant.  Even at this early level, pretty much everything can be upgraded to somehow boost your stats. The cost (generally in real money) of gear, item quality, etc, could be a major issue for someone approaching the game with an MMO min-max mindset.  A few examples:
  • Almost all equipment has slots for enhancements.  Refining enhancements (done by feeding them other unwanted enhancements and then using a consumable item that is not readily available without diamonds) is costly, and it's not clear that it's worthwhile; I'm finding rank 3-4 enhancements in loot now, so spending diamonds to upgrade my rank 1's would not have been a good plan.
  • Players can equip one artifact for stats and a special effect (like trinkets in other games), and two additional artifacts at max level for stats only.  Costly upgrades are required to increase these in quality from green to blue and blue to purple.  (There is also a purely cosmetic and even more costly upgrade to level 100 that does not appear to grant any additional stats, only change the tooltip to legendary orange status.)  
  • Each character can have one active NPC companion and 2-4 additional companions (the slots unlock with levels 30 and 60) for passive stat bonuses.  In addition to costs to obtain the companions, these guys also have quality tiers that affect both the companion's rank cap and their passive bonuses. 
My top priority with my Diamonds was to obtain a healer NPC.  Neverwinter characters don't have significant passive healing or food to heal up between combat, so either your character or your active companion just about has to be some kind of Cleric if you intend to solo.   You receive a white quality Cleric for free at level 16, but this character is capped at rank 15 out of 30 due to its low quality; by most accounts, soloing at high levels will be unpleasant. 

I don't know if you absolutely need to go all the way to Purple quality and rank 30 (though each companion has a third special ability that requires this rank), but paradoxically the cost of upgrading that companion was actually significantly higher (300K for white to green, 500K for green to blue, and 750K for blue to purple) than just buying a purple healer from a past promotion (about 600K) and not having to worry about the problem.  This solution costs around $12 depending on the current exchange rate, and I'd consider it a near must have. 

If I was paying out of pocket, I'm not sure what, if anything, I would buy.  Since I didn't pay for my diamonds, I did spend a chunk on an upgraded mount, which moves twice as fast and can take significant more hits, in exchange for looking like a steampunk scorpion-mech.  I spent my remaining diamonds on additional companions who offer passive bonuses I wanted to slot on my character for adventuring, while also providing a party of four companions to play the Sword Coast Adventures minigame on the web portal. 

There are fees for storage, though I haven't had issues here.  There are fees for respecing, but I either didn't screw up my build that badly or else haven't done anything hard enough for it to matter.  The real place where the cost will be problematic would be if the game gets to the point where it's hard to scrape together enough DPS with non-upgraded gear.  Of course, I don't care about PVP or even dungeons, so it's easier for me to shrug this side of the game off.  If you play MMO's to acquire gear, this system - bearing in mind that acquiring the currency naturally is not especially convenient to create demand for currency resales, could be a deal-breaker.

A side effect to grabbing the cheapest purple quality healer and mount I could find is having a giant scorpion mech for a mount and a Lamia with a sword-harp for a companion.  This tasteful stuff doesn't exactly fit the lore as far as I was aware, but at least it's not costing me anything out of pocket.



Currency Re-selling in Neverwinter
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 May 2014, 5:36 pm
A double exp weekend finally got me to try out Neverwinter a year into its run - I played a few hours in beta, had no particular problem with the game, and just didn't get back to it until now.  I was a bit surprised to find that the business model appears to emphasize currency resale on a scale I would have associated more with an underwhelming Neal Stephenson book.  By making the game's primary currency extremely inconvenient to farm, Cryptic has somehow carved out a niche where it puts non-payers to work farming currency to sell to people in exchange for cash store currency (which they pay Cryptic for in real money).  

The Economies of Neverwinter
Neverwinter's primary currency is tied into the game's business model in a way that isn't possible for games that had to retrofit a payment model revamp post launch.  If you were to take WoW non-subscription today, you'd have years of player experience that gold is the currency for all player and many non-player transactions, and you'd have a massive inventory of gold already in the economy to deal with.  Instead, Neverwinter started with a clean slate.  Some context on the various economies:
  • There is gold in the game, looted from mobs and used to pay NPC's for some things (primarily common consumables), but notably is NOT the currency for the auction house.  
  • There is a cash store, with a currency called Zen (common name for all Perfect World games, though the actual funds cannot be transferred).  This contains all the usual stuff - bags, mounts, outfits, etc.  There are some places where the game mentions that you can buy stuff with Zen, but it's nowhere near as common as many other titles.   
  • There are the obligatory tokens used to barter for gear.  These at least go into a currency tab as far as I can tell. 
  • The game includes the ubiquitous obnoxious item gambling lock boxes, which you have to manually destroy out of your inventory because they are the only item in the game that is automatically picked up upon walk-over (like gold).  Like many other titles where these have a bad name, there is zero transparency about drop rates and a server wide spam message claiming that someone has won the top prizes, though I see many less of these than I do in other games. 
  • The game does NOT include an optional subscription, charges for content, etc. 
All of which brings us to Astral Diamonds. 

Using and Trading Diamonds
Diamonds are the currency for the auction house, and the majority things that you would expect to pay for in an MMO, including consumable components of crafting, tier upgrades for gear/mounts/companions, along with some free-to-play additions like instantly refreshing cooldowns in most mini-game systems. 

The primary source of diamonds are a variety of daily quests or other objectives.  The currency is routinely looted in quantities of a few hundred or maybe a thousand, is routinely spent in the hundreds of thousands or even millions on the auction house, and can't really be farmed short of planning your entire life around logging in every hour to take advantage of every last event and cooldown that offers diamonds as a reward (which still has a hard cap of 24,000 diamonds per day).  The only quick way to obtain more diamonds is to pay other players. 

In addition to the auction house, where players can trade items (including many cash store items, as long as they aren't account-wide), there is a separate currency exchange used to swap between the Zen - which you can purchase from Perfect World at any time - and Astral Diamonds, which are farmed by players.  The exchange rate floats based on supply and demand.  The upshot is:
  • Completely free players (and I suppose anyone willing and able to play the AH for profit) can eventually acquire enough Zen to buy any item they desire from the cash shop
  • Because people who are actually paying are such a minority, the supply of diamonds for sale is constantly increasing and thus the amount of diamonds a player can expect to get if they are willing to buy and resell some Zen are perpetually increasing
  • $20 worth of diamonds almost always gets you more stuff and more interesting stuff than the $20 worth of Zen; also, the NPC prices aren't subject to inflation
It's an odd setup, but apparently players are more willing to tolerate this approach than having Cryptic cut out the middle man and sell the diamonds outright.  There's a niche for the clever, a way to monetize players who are never paying a cent of their own money, and a way for the player who does not want to be bothered to solve the problem with their wallet.  Clearly it's working for Cryptic well enough for the game to stay up and running.  Whether this approach can fly in the long run with inflation is another matter. 





The Give and Take of Marvel Heroes Promotions
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 April 2014, 9:22 am
Marvel Heroes is throwing the biggest "10 month" celebration I'm aware of in an MMO, continuing an impressive trend of high value give-aways and live events.  They're also running yet another presale promotion in a way that leaves me less than thrilled with their marketing practices. 

The Freebies
If you are currently or have ever played Marvel Heroes, you want to go to the account profile tab on the game's website and enter the following promotional codes ASAP:
  • RNDMHRO - Provides a token that either unlocks a random playable character (retail cost: $4.50/$9.00/$13.50) or upgrades the random character's ultimate power if you already own them.  These are also handed out this weekend with the purchase of a hero (standalone only, not bundled) in the game's cash store for the above prices.  Your odds get worse as you own more heroes, but it's a heck of a freebie.   
  • RNDMCSTM - Provides a free random costume (retail cost: $4.50-$19.50) for a random character.  If it's a dupe you can apply a different set of stat affixes to it, or grind for an item used to re-roll three unwanted costumes for a random costume. These are also handed out this weekend with the purchase of any costume in the cash shop.  
  • PEWPEWPEW, VENGEANCE, FASTBALL, NOTASKRULL, REDWHITEBLUE: Free one-hour Iridium Triple Rush bars.  Gives 100% rare find, special find, and exp for 1 hour (additionals can be stacked for severe diminishing returns, or you can wait for the first to expire which is generally better).
  • InfiniteRetconWeek - Grants one free retcon device for respeccing your character.  It's described as infinite because Retcons are not consumed on use for the next week to allow people to respec after a large number of balance changes in this week's patch.
  • SPRCNDY2, possible also SPRCNDY (last week's code, but it may still work if you haven't used it) - Grants an easter consumable that grants +70% to various things for 70 minutes, not sure how these stack with other consumables.
In addition to all of these things, logging in every day this week results in a flood of event items good for vendor exp, fortune cards, eternity splinters, and other consumables.  If you are reading this on Saturday, log in ASAP, as today's gift includes an easter basket with at least one free unique item and generally at least two cosmics for your current hero, a four hour pentaboost, a level 60 cosmic medallion, and the Cowbell runeword if you missed it last month. 

My odds of getting a new hero were slim due to how much of the roster I currently own, but I lucked out and got Punisher - not a priority obviously or I would have him by now, but a heck of a freebie.  Also got the grey Black Widow costume (costs $7.50), which is low on my list, but there are very few costumes I actually want so this was pretty much guaranteed to be fodder for the random re-roll anyway. 

With this much stuff to celebrate 10 months, what are they planning for one year? 

The new bundle
The team has also kicked off a new pre-order bundle for the new team-up hero feature.  I have mixed feelings.
  • A marketing email announcing the pack was factually inaccurate.  The bundle claimed to be at least 50% off of retail price at its $40 price tag, but it also claimed that you are buying eight team-ups and getting a ninth team-up and an enhanced costume for free.  Both statements cannot be true at the same time - the highest price for eight team-ups is under $60, so you can't get to the $80 MSRP without including the "free" bonuses.  The websites have since picked one or the other.   
  • I pre-ordered the year's worth of heroes in December knowing that Team-ups were coming and would be available for the in-game Eternity Splinter currency (which I would not be spending on the heroes I just paid for).  Then the feature arrived, and it turns out that they cost twice as many Splinters as comparably priced playable heroes would, which means that you're wasting a huge amount of splinters unless you're never going to pay cash for another playable hero.  So I bought the cash store currency, G's, at a sale a bit over a week ago.  They don't accept G's for pre-order bundles, so now I either buy the new bundle on top of the money I already gave them for the G's or else spend nearly $40 worth of G's for half of the team-ups in this bundle.  Fooled me fair and square, but do you really want a customer who has spent $250 in a year to feel like you tricked them?
  • The hero pre-order bundle came with a bunch of extras, such as costumes and character-specific storage for all thirteen included characters, so it felt like a choice to pay more and get a lot more stuff.  Because Team-ups don't come with any extras, this feels like the choice is to pay the money now or pay the same amount later and get way less stuff. 
  • (Aside: Team-ups are supposedly priced in three tiers, but there are no options available or announced in the "basic" cheap tier.  They've confirmed that the bundle heroes will be at least middle or top tier to ensure the value for your bundle purchase, so we're looking at maybe two of the cheaper characters out of the first 20 or so that will be released.  This makes it feel like the bottom tier exists primarily as a stepping stone to have two pricing tiers above it.)  
I will say two positive things about the promotion - they have chosen characters that I would be happy to add to my roster (if all but 1-2 were terrible, skipping the bundle would be an easy call), and part of the reason why prices are such a high portion of the price of playable characters (who are much more work to produce) is that they are taking the time to do good quality VFX and voice work for them.  If you actually like the character, you get a good version of that character in a situation where they could probably dump out the cheap versions for much less work and still sell them.

At the end of the day, blog and forum posts are fine for posting discussion like this, but you can only buy or not buy the stuff that's out there.  From a rational perspective, withholding my $40 now isn't going to change the business model, I'll end up paying almost as much later for less stuff, so there isn't much to do but suck it up and save the G's I paid for to purchase future releases that are not part of bundles.  It's just always a bit unfortunate to be in a position where you view a $40 purchase as something you should suck up, even if they are giving out a bunch of unrelated free stuff elsewhere.  


Content Reuse and Horizontal Progression
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 April 2014, 4:07 pm
A thread on the Marvel Heroes forums over the weekend discusses how the game's priority has been to add new stuff to sell - playable heroes, costumes, and now new NPC "team-up" mercenary-like heroes - rather than new zones.  That part is obvious enough - you are what you sell, and Marvel Heroes is not in the business of selling new zones, nor could they make reasonable revenue doing so given how long content lasts in an ARPG.  The part of the discussion that I find more interesting is what they have done instead.

Since launch, the game has added a wide variety of new item slots or game systems that increase character power and are NOT tied to specific new zones.  Whether it's synergies for leveling additional characters through existing zones, runes and enchantments as world drops for farming existing zones, the new team-up characters to accompany you through the existing zones, almost nothing on offer requires a specific type of content (some of the rarest artifacts and rings are the exception). 

I'm not sure what to call this steady inflation to character power.  It's arguably not vertical progression since characters levels are staying the same and you aren't replacing one system with the next (i.e. you don't stop using synergies because you've gotten runes and those are better).  It's also arguably not horizontal progression in that the relative level of character power compared to the content - mobs have stayed at roughly the same stats and thus gotten progressively easier - is skyrocketing in a way that I find concerning.  Will players in 2017 zone into the newbie area, click their basic attack, and one-shot Dr. Doom from eight story chapters away?

There are many differences between an online ARPG like Marvel Heroes and a traditional MMO, but in some ways I wonder if this is the logical evolution of the theme park non-subscription model.  Don't be in the unsustainable business of trying to sell content - see version 1.0 of SWTOR.  Give away the content (roughly the equivalent of a single player console game) and make your money selling stuff to do in that environment.    Focus on replayability, accept that your most dedicated players will burn out and/or trivialize the game, but hopefully return after a break. 

Not saying this is better or worse, just different. 





Movie Pricing Perspective
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 April 2014, 5:29 pm
We were not able to get out to see the new Captain America movie this weekend due to the logistics of babysitting.  This got me thinking of perspective in costs. 

Two tickets were going to cost us roughly $30, and probably a similar amount or more for babysitting.  We don't go out to theaters the majority of the time because we'd rather stream stuff to our couch and have the option to take breaks etc - this typically costs between $4 and $20 per film depending on what streaming options are available.  So you're talking about a wide range - as low as $4 and as high as $60 or so - for a two hour movie. 

By contrast, Marvel Heroes had a variety of bundles for Captain America and Black Widow (who also appears in the film).  Some of these don't make a ton of sense to me as someone who pays attention to the business model, which may just mean I'm not the target audience (e.g. if you love Captain America enough to be willing to pay $50 for all of his costumes, wouldn't you likely already own the hero and at least some of said costumes?).  Setting aside whether the bundles are a good deal, the one that would make the most sense - if you want and don't own the heroes and at least two of the three added costumes - runs for about $28.50. 

I don't like direct comparisons between online games and other forms of media, such as movies, because they are inherently not apples to apples.  Amongst other things, I would not spend the money required to go to the movies every night, and it's actually very rare to find a film where both my wife and I are willing to deal with the time and expense to see it in theaters.  The models are also completely different, in that Marvel studios is releasing two films per year and thus typically has only those two opportunities to get money from me, where Gazillion has a new sale every week.  

I wouldn't even make the comparison except that I am spending the majority of my gaming time in a licensed MMO that's running cross promotion with the films.  It's just interesting to be reminded periodically - costs of going to the movies are steadily rising and that industry is fighting tooth and nail against making it more convenient to pay for their product, while MMO costs are flat or falling and entry barriers have been reduced to near nothing. 


A Brief Return to Diablo III
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 March 2014, 5:32 pm
A 100% bonus exp weekend was enough to get me back into Diablo III - a title I tried for a few days post launch and ultimately wrote off as a total failure of a purchase.  The good news about buy-to-play is that if you want more of the thing you didn't like, it doesn't cost you a renewed subscription fee.  In my case, I wanted to see the rest of the story I paid for, and I figured there would not be a better occasion to do so. 

I have no idea why this was the lone screenshot I took all weekend, but the bugged "marker location" text is vaguely amusing.
My old character was literally unplayable when I logged in, dying repeatedly to every trash mob I encountered.  I spend most of my time in an ARPG these days, so I was pretty sure the problem couldn't just be that I was suddenly a terrible player.  The issue is that I was level 22 and mid-way through Act II, but wearing gear an average of ten levels below my level and most of it at the lowest non-trash quality the game awarded.  Apparently the game was very stingy with loot back in the day in the misguided attempt to create scarcity for the real money auction house. 

It took surprisingly long to figure out how to backtrack far enough to a point where I would be able to survive.  (For the record, you have to log out and click on the "game properties" on the character select screen if you want to backtrack to a previous act.)  I died a few times to trash early in Act I as well, but then I replaced every single item on my character with higher quality gear within the space of a few fights that I actually survived.  Between that, speccing my Whirlwind Barbarian out like I have Colossus set up in Marvel Heroes, the rest of the game on normal mode difficulty went by pretty quickly.  I completed the story at level 44 with gear that appears from the tooltips to be vaguely level appropriate. 

Over than the overall rate of loot acquisition, it's hard for me to tell how much has changed versus how much I simply never got around to seeing the first time.  (There is an endgame alternate advancement system that was added post-launch, but I'm still not high enough to access this.) 

I will say that I was struck by how freaking depressing the game's setting is.  Maybe I just wasn't old enough to think about the horrors of war fifteen years ago as a student, maybe it's a matter of having a kid myself, or perhaps it's the game's use of voice-over to read lore updates to you as you continue the action.  It just seems like a staggering number of NPC's die - you periodically find and loot a letter from a dead soldier's wife about how their kid is growing up - in an eternal conflict that doesn't seem to have a point or any resolution.  Maybe this lore just worked better when the plot consisted of finding the village of Tristram dead and spending the rest of the time killing everything that moved because they were all demons. 

All that aside, I guess the weekend was a win for Blizzard.  This expansion moves on my watch list from "why would I pay for more of that game I never finished" to "maybe it'll be worth picking up on super sale next Black Friday".  Doesn't mitigate having paid full price for the game, but having written the purchase off as a total loss I guess that makes this a pleasant surprise windfall. 


Is a MOBA Crash Coming?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 March 2014, 5:36 pm
Are MOBA's in 2014-2015 heading for the kind of crash we saw in subscription WoW-like MMO's post 2009?  

I ask the question looking at the increasingly crowded slate of major and minor MOBA's of various flavors.  I'll probably play Blizzard's upcoming MOBA when it comes out.  Like WoW and Hearthstone before it, the game does not appear to have many revolutionary ideas, but it has some no-brainer quality of life improvements (e.g. try new champions in a closed practice environment for free) that you'd expect from Blizzard.  I may or may not ever get around to trying Turbine's DC Universe MOBA.  I almost certainly won't get around to trying the half a dozen other MOBA's in various stages of beta. 

All of which gets me thinking of the flood of MMO's that imitated WoW's basic design - support solo play and attempt to retain subscriptions with something for everyone.  Rather than grow the market with further success, the last five years have seen titles based on the WoW formula cannibalize each other.  The resulting drop in revenue has forced recent titles to downsize their staffs and ambitions at best, or close down at worst. 

The golden age of the subscription MMO's in the early 2000's was a virtual frontier in which every title enjoyed its own private captive audience.  Each title had something unique - soloing in WoW, RVR in DAOC, playing music in SWG cantinas, space piracy in EVE - that you could not get elsewhere, and even if you could find an adequate substitute you probably couldn't talk all of your friends into coming along for a change of game.  Thus, each title could count on its reliable subscription revenue to invest into further development of the game. 

We have this belief that choice and competition are good, and that the alternative is the parody video about the proposed Comcast merger.  The downside to an era with more choice is that the LACK of choice is what made the subscription model viable in MMO's and the subscription was what made the development of those MMO's financially possible.  In an era where your new title is competing with half a dozen games with similar budgets that have also had the benefit of years of polish and added content, new titles are getting cut off before they can get off the ground, as people choose to leave. 

Modern MOBA's aren't identical to subscription MMO's - in particular, the business model is much more suited to non-subscription payments than retrofitted monthly fee MMO's ever will manage.  League of Legends probably has the critical mass after five years to continue.  I'm just wondering if we're going to be looking at a bunch of failed MOBA's in a few years. 


Staying Power for Added Rewards
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 March 2014, 5:40 pm
A few weekend events this month offered up rewards that seemed designed to encourage me to play.  Ironically, the side effects of this sugar rush sometimes leave me feeling even less inclined to try the content once the incentives have expired. 
  • Two weekends ago, Marvel Heroes held an event in which certain terminal (think dungeon) bosses dropped four times the normal loot.   This event was actually inspired by a bug a few months back in which Kingpin summoned Electra and Bullseye to assist him as normal, but the game incorrectly considered the two adds as bosses and awarded loot accordingly, leading to much farming of Kingpin that weekend. 

    I typically don't spend much time in terminals, and when I do get a Legendary Quest sending me to one I almost always do the easier green difficulty so I can complete the quest faster.  During the event, I opted for the slightly harder red difficulty hoping for better rewards, did the scheduled bosses, and didn't get anything of note.  I guess this is a challenge that ARPG's face - when you're killing bosses every 10 minutes they can't drop loot that frequently, but having an experience like this one definitely sends the message that I shouldn't waste my time on harder difficulties. 

  • SWTOR offered up double exp last weekend, which made it time to finally finish off my Sith Warrior.  The sad truth with SWTOR is that I'd pay Bioware a fair amount of money - possibly as much as I've spent on the game during sporadic subscriptions - if they just removed the gameplay and offered an interactive movie version of the story in which my character just wins all the fights after I've chosen my dialog.  I suppose double exp is the next best thing in that at least I don't have to do any side quests, but this also does NOT motivate me to get back into the game when the exp drops back down to the normal rate. 

  • The Marvel Heroes event of the week (started on Thursday and runs through Thursday morning) offered up rainbows used to earn pots of leprechaun gold in honor of St. Patrick's Day.  The items aren't great for power gamers, but they're good for leveling alts, which is most of what I do in game. 

    Rainbows drop anywhere loot drops, and the best loot drop rates in the game are in a challenge mode called X-Defense.  This is the only mandatory group content in Marvel Heroes at the moment - random groups of five are assembled by the group finder, and the mode features infinite waves of increasingly tough foes until the group fails, with better loot for each wave.  The good news is that there was NOT a specific bonus to X-Defense this weekend, so what I saw was what I got.  The bad news is that ironically the rewards were perhaps too good. 

    I dusted off a character I wasn't really enjoying much in story mode and chewed through fifteen levels, gaining unique items (the game's top rarity) for three of my five gear slots and multiple duplicates besides.  People always swear that group content should be more rewarding than solo, and this definitely fit the bill.  And I didn't hate it, so that's good.  However, it's arguably so much better than playing the game the normal way that I've been playing it for the last three months that going back to story mode almost seems like wasting my time.  
I guess it's a hard balance -  how do you shake things up in a way that leads to sustained interest in something the player has not been doing, rather than a one-time blip and disappointment thereafter? 


Interview on Turbine's MMO's and Future
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 March 2014, 3:58 pm
Syp has pulled off a journalistic coup in an interview with Turbine on the studio's future.  He actually asked the tough questions about whether the studio's large scale layoffs and impending transition of the entire Asheron's Call franchise to maintenance mode is going to affect DDO and LOTRO.  He actually got answers. 

Turbine is notoriously close-held with info - even at the bitter end for the AC IP they still won't discuss player numbers! - but customers have had legitimate questions about what to expect from the studio's other products going forward.  This article is especially unusual because it is a Massively exclusive - usually, when there's news to be had, everyone gets it at once.  Perhaps Syp's interest in following up on the venerable AC franchise was what earned a little more open-ness.

Anyway, well worth a read if you follow the studio's titles, or have any interest in how turning a major MMO over to its community is going to work. 


The Common but Misleading Use of Free
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 March 2014, 5:13 pm
The EU is making rumblings of cracking down on the use of the word free to market games that are in the business of making money.  The effort is aimed primarily at makers of cell phone games marketed for children, which have an unfortunate habit of encouraging kids to run up bills on their unsuspecting parents' stored payment information.  While I'm not thrilled at potentially hapless government intervention, removing the word free from titles that are clearly not intended to be free is a perfectly reasonable effort.   

To be clear, developing games or any other product costs money.  Many people are less than thrilled to discover how those costs are being recouped by companies like Facebook and Google that are in the business of not charging users and then re-selling their personal information.  Sometimes an independent developer will choose to absorb the entire "cost" (primarily their time) of developing a "free" application either because they aren't in it for the money or because they're looking to establish a portfolio for future paid work.  That all aside, I don't share Azuriel's view that it's somehow hard to determine whether or not a product is offered at zero cost to the consumer. 

Examples
While this discussion is primarily aimed at phone games, I think some pictures might help illustrate the point that, whether you technically have the ability to download the client and create an account for free, pretty much every title that uses the word free prominently in their marketing is actually not intended to be played at zero cost to the user. 

For LOTRO's splash page, "completely free" is literally the bottom line.  This claim hangs its hat on the concept that you can chain re-roll and delete alts to earn pennies' worth of Turbine points per hour and thus theoretically earn access to $40 expansion packs. 

I haven't gotten out my ruler to measure, but it sure looks like "Play Free Now" is in bigger font than the Star Wars title in SWTOR.  In fairness, you actually can play pretty much the entire game for free, subject to some time-exclusivity for paid mini-expansions and some significant and annoying restrictions that can only be lifted by subscribing. 

Wizard 101 has managed to reserve the largest text for their game's title, though FREE is the second word on the page and the "Play for free" button has the most prominent location (followed by two more uses of "free" in bullet points and sentence explanation of the product.  This title is marketed to kids, and its use of free is by far the biggest stretch because you can't even access the entire first world in the game without paying.  Having your kid's character available as a hostage before you discover that this "free" game costs money is literally the point of the business model.

A world without free 
One last picture for you, from the world's biggest MOBA:
Funny how there isn't the word Free anywhere on that page - there's a link for "play now" and another link for "download the game", neither of which discuss cost.  League is commonly called a "free to play" game, and it can be played as such, but most people would agree this title is not set up to be played at zero cost to the user.  Instead, it's a solid title that stands on its own merits and pricing without the need to abuse the word free. 

I get where Azuriel is coming from when he points out that companies will still bait and switch as best they can, even if forbidden to use the word Free.  I just don't accept the lack of a complete and permanent solution to the marketing problem as a reason why a small change that makes the advertising less misleading is a bad idea.  From the other side of the coin, we will probably still see players complaining that things in game cost money even if we did remove the intentionally misleading word free from the lexicon.  I still see the removal of a promise that no one ever intended to keep as a positive change. 


Demand for Instant WoW-90's
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 February 2014, 11:10 am
Blizzard says that their instant level 90 service was not priced to maximize profit by selling the maximum number of character upgrades.  These economic arguments feel like an oversimplification of what's going on here.

Context
First, some numbers and context.  World of Warcraft's instant level 90 (the current level cap, soon to be the entry level for the next expansion) service was obviously going to be available for direct purchase, and this week we learned that the price tag would be $60.  This is not quite the maximum possible price they could have charged - that would have been $75-95 - but it's pretty close. 

($10 for a new copy of WoW to register to your existing Battle.net account, $40 for the new expansion and the instant level 90, $25 to transfer that new character over within your Battle.net account so you can cancel the new subscription.  I'm not sure if you will need to purchase Pandaria before you can buy Warlords for the level 90, thus the possible extra $20.) 

Why are we playing again?
Blizzard's comment has two interesting pieces.  First, they assert that they are protecting the value of having leveled the old fashioned way, claiming that no one would level anymore if the service cost only a nominal fee (such as $10).  This seems like an overly economic look at time spent playing a video game.  Economics would argue that you have to be very poor before it makes sense to grind for 60-100 hours to save $10, in the process probably paying at least one $15 subscription fee. 

The problem with this argument is that obtaining the end reward - a max level character - is not the only reason for playing the game.  Many people who choose to level a new character will do so because playing that character is fun.   When EQ2 offered a similar service COMPLETELY FREE as an introductory promotion, I went back and forth on whether to use the thing at all, and ultimately clicked the upgrade button on a crafting alt that I don't think I've even logged into since.  There's no point in paying to get out of leveling the character - I just won't play it at all. 

So who will pay?

Charging the folks who need the service
These services exist and make sense because that leveling game - generally a solo experience for a variety of reasons I discussed when talking about the EQ2 service - is not for everyone.  If the reason you want a new character is to play that character in a group with your friends, the experience of playing the game is no longer part of your entertainment.  There may be some people who come back and don't want to see any of the old content for any reason (they will get one level 90 with the expansion box), but the primary reason to need an instant level 90 is to remove this entry barrier.

Which brings us back to Blizzard's statement that the service is not set at the price that will maximize profit by selling the most upgrades.  $60 is high enough to discourage impulse purchases and might discourage players from bumping up multiple alts (bearing in mind that basically all active WoW players will pay for one of these upgrades with the expansion box).  My question is whether the decreased number of sales will be largely offset by the higher sale price. People who have invested hundreds of hours in raiding and plan to continue to do so are going to purchase the upgrades whether they cost $10 or $60.  Maximizing the revenue from these folks may end up outweighing the lost revenue from impulse purchasers. 

Blizzard may have other reasons for wanting to discourage these upgrades - they make it easy to shed an unpopular identity, and they might hurt long-term retention by removing players' reason to play the game.  I'm just not so convinced that their stated pricing economics is the true story behind this decision.


Burned Alive
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 February 2014, 4:59 pm
The action genre in general, and super heroes in particular, tend to gloss over the fate of minions.  When you're shooting ray guns it's easy to handwave that this is non-lethal because Star Trek thought of setting phasers to stun decades ago.  If your character is a martial artist then you can imagine that they aren't hitting people hard enough to kill them.  If you are using guns and high explosives then people are probably dying, but that's sort of a genre thing.  And then there's the Human Torch.

Burning bodies everywhere - and strangely that doesn't stop the remaining muggers from continuing the attack
Fire as an attack type is pretty common in MMO's.  It's a staple of mages of all types, but then I suppose you're free to handwave and say that it's magical fire or whatnot.  Or perhaps there is a convenient stream of aliens, robots, and other foes who are at least able to fight back. 

Whatever the other excuses, something about having a game in a modern setting and facing thugs, mafia, and ninjas and setting them all on fire feels a bit off.  These mobs would be dying, horribly, and Johnny Storm is cracking jokes about it, presumably because his dialog is the same when roasting Doombots, demons, and dinosaurs.  He's a well implemented character, someone I did not expect to like and have enjoyed playing.  I don't think of myself as overly sensitive to violence etc.  Still, the images on the screen just seem a bit unfortunate.


A Parlimentary Forum
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 February 2014, 4:27 pm
Things have been quieter than usual on the blog as PVD headquarters relocated across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom.  Thanks to Spinks and Roger from Contains Moderate Peril for answering some random questions about telecommunications as I got ready for the move.  I suppose I should be dreading whatever Blizzard is going to demand that I do to verify my identity the next time I try to use my Battle.net account, but otherwise things here are going relatively smoothly.  Server maintenance and developer events are most likely going to land on inconvenient hours in this time zone, but I knew that going in and I guess someone always ends up with the short end of the stick.

Amongst various British customs that I find amusing, the British Prime Minister regularly holds live televised Q+A sessions with the British House of Commons.  It's oddly like the MMO forums.  The people asking the questions are not afraid to phrase a complaint in the form of a question, to include random and obscure issues that have nothing to do with the rest of the conversation.  The PM, like a good MMO community team member, is going to give answers that make his government look good regardless of whether he agrees or anything is going to change.  They don't appear to have image macros, response memes, and leet speak, but I suspect this is only because those hadn't been invented at the time of the Magna Carta. 

I don't know whether this means that MMO forums are more respectable than I realized, or the British Parliament is less so. 


To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 February 2014, 4:10 pm
When it comes to the era of non-subscription MMO's, I'm more worried about monetizing nuisance than so-called "pay to win".  The game either is or is not fun on its own merits, and for me personally it doesn't matter whether someone else is able to pay to get out of it.  By contrast, non-subscription titles are far more likely to create inconveniences and nuisances and charge to alleviate these problems.  This approach bothers me because it affects the quality of the game experience even if I am willing to pay the fees.

Case in point is Marvel Heroes' new "runeword" system.  Largely copied from Diablo II, the idea is to collect random runes and enhance gear with them.  The issue is where to store these items.  DII implemented a total of 33 Runes during its run, but Marvel Heroes has chosen to launch their system with 38 runes and plans for "dozens" more in the future.  Runes stack with other like runes (though this prevents you from dropping them on the ground to trade with other players - supposedly to be fixed in a patch later this month) but that doesn't do you much good once you've got 72+ different types of runes to stack. 

The money in the system then, is in selling players crafting storage tabs in which to place all this new clutter.  The price tag is for the most part reasonable - roughly $3 buys you a crafting stash tab that should solve your problem for the foreseeable future.  From a rational perspective, unless you intend to just donate all of the runes to vendors for exp and credits (not a horrible idea in the short term for all but the rarest of runes), it's a no-brainer of a purchase.  No doubt the developers sold a bunch of these things this weekend.  And that's what concerns me. 

The metrics are going to say clearly come Monday morning that adding over three dozen drops to the game dramatically increased their revenue on crafting storage tabs.  By making this purchase - a purchase that is well within my means - I'm sending a message that every patch should add another several dozen drops (I'm not making that number up, the FAQ on the feature says that "dozens" plural of new stones are planned) and rewarding the developers for a decision that in my view adds clutter without adding fun or interesting gameplay. 

The subscription MMO era was not without its dirty little secrets - the whole daily quest system was invented to make repeatable content take more real world days and thus more real world subscription dollars.  Even so, I'd suggest that having a single payment model enforced a constraint that the game in its one pay-or-not state had to be fun.  The monetary reward for doing something obnoxious - say, adding dozens of additional runes in the future rather than new recipes that use the existing runes - was less direct.  With the new model, you can pay to store the stuff but there's no way to pay not to have dozens of items that are designed to be stored cluttering your inventory with each new patch. 


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