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. 

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.

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 account, $40 for the new expansion and the instant level 90, $25 to transfer that new character over within your 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 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. 

Disclaimers and Crowd Funding
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 January 2014, 5:08 pm
We are a highly experienced team of AAA developers and that's what we aim to deliver. So far the project has been funded solely from our own pockets and that is why we are reaching out to you now. With enough support we feel we can provide a AAA experience, but without the proper funding, some of that experience may be limited at launch.
- The entire Kickstarter-required "risks and challenges section" from Pantheon's $800,000 campaign page
I will leave the in-depth coverage of the MMO Kickstarter du jour to people who are actually following it, such as Wilhelm.  Personally, my exposure to the project is limited primarily to articles like this one at Massively, which discusses one of the game's planned classes as described in a Kickstarter update.  If I didn't already know that this is a game that may launch in 2017 if it can raise another $600,000 in the next month and if its creators can actually implement the promised product for that much money, I would not have known that this wasn't a new patch for a game that I can download and play today.  

(Not to pick on Syp in particular here, it's just the most recent post about this particular game on Massively at this particular moment, and he's much more famous than me so I think he can handle the abuse, such that it is.  Camelot Unchained got similar coverage during its campaign.) 

Unsubject has published detailed analysis of video game Kickstarter campaigns that ended between 2009-2012 and concluded that less than half of these projects have delivered even partially on their promises.  The harsh reality is that multi-million-dollar projects by major publishers who fund games for a living - Titan and EQ Next along with countless unnamed canceled titles by studios like EA - fail to reach the finish line for any number of reasons.  I wouldn't expect a five-sentence short post about the game to dwell on this fact.  But what is the appropriate level of caution? 

My concern is that the incentives of Kickstarter inherently put both creators and especially backers in a bad position.  The game doesn't get funded at all unless people get really excited about it, so the creators have to promise the Best Game Ever.  More to the point, they have to promise something that is so much better than real products developed with significantly larger budgets that potential customers will be motivated to pay now for something they might get in the future instead of something real that they can have today. 

Everything about the system encourages the creator to over-promise in a way that will actually make the already-tough job of doing a difficult project on a tight budget even more difficult.  Kickstarter certainly isn't going to object - they get their cut if the project is funded and get nothing if the project is not, and thus you're free to ask for the better part of a million dollars and say that the only risk whatsoever to your project is that it might be "limited" "at launch" compared to AAA titles.  If the project doesn't launch at all or isn't worth playing due to untenable scope, there's no one looking out for the people who paid hundreds of dollars two or more years in advance for unrealistic promises and hype. 

Thus, a question: To what extent should discussions of MMO's that are in the process of seeking crowd funding include a disclaimer about the odds that the product actually delivers? 

Optimal Exp and the Cash Shop
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 January 2014, 10:00 am
If my records are right, the last time I added to the list of MMO's where I have capped a character was back in mid 2012(!).  I spent a decent chunk of late 2012 and all of 2013 re-capping characters who were not longer max level due to expansions, but failed to reach the cap in any new titles.  I finally broke the streak when I got Cyclops to level 60 in Marvel Heroes around a week ago.  The journey there is an odd commentary on exp boosts in the non-subscription era. 

Like most non-subscription titles, Marvel Heroes offers exp boosts in its cash shop.  You can get a limited number of these in-game; one exp boost and one drop rarity boost per character per difficulty from non-repeatable quests, and up to two random fortune cards (roughly 85% chance of containing a random boost) daily if you farm all the terminal missions and spend all of the cube shards accordingly.  They are also frequently thrown in with character bundles in the game's cash store, so I had a fair number of them in storage. 

Busting out the bonus potions for the last ten levels was a relatively obvious and easy choice - I spent the last 10 hours or so running anywhere from +50% to +200% in exp bonuses, and thus on paper shaved probably 10 hours off of my leveling time.  I had 30 minutes of bonuses adding up to +240% left on the clock when I finished, so I ran some legendary quests on Deadpool and advanced from level 25-29 as the last bonus expired (dropping me down to my new permanent baseline of 40%). 

In total, I definitely saved some time, I "wasted" some content (I didn't finish all of the story missions because they are tougher and less exp/minute, and I will need to do some of these later for quest rewards), and technically I didn't pay anything extra out of pocket since I got there entirely through thrifty use of stuff that came with hero bundles I was paying for anyway.  I wouldn't say the bonuses were required, but in a game where I will be continuing to repeat the content it's nice to be able to move on to the next objective early. 

Nothing here is broken - indeed, they're willing to "undermine" their own exp boost sales market by granting permanent bonuses for your alts relatively freely. (I'm currently at 41%, 42% soon, it's relatively easy to get to the mid 70's with four capped characters, and a player who caps all the heroes can actually have 210% permanently for all new characters that are added.)  It's just something to watch for, and something that games that don't use the exp curve as a revenue stream don't have to deal with.

(By contrast, Marvel Heroes has been very willing to add inventory clutter with currencies that don't go in its currency tab, massive variety of relics and boosts that are just slightly different so they can't be stacked, and a new runeword system that will add forty different runestones to the inventory.  They are very willing to make it easy to get more characters on which to acquire loot that needs to be stored but very inflexible when it comes to any discounts on storage.) 

New Year's Curiosities for 2014
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 January 2014, 9:55 am
I went back and forth on whether to bother with New Year's resolutions and predictions this year.  I play a bunch of different games, and I'm not going to change what game I'm playing just to comply with a post from late December - thus I usually end up with a handful of very specific goals that I know I will get done in the next few months and a bunch of vague/qualitative hand-waving for the remainder of the year.  Likewise, it's hard to predict much of anything with any accuracy in MMO's since we don't really have the data we'd need to do so. 

Instead, this year, here are some things that I'm curious about. 

Will Marvel Heroes Pay Off?
I made a late-year-decision to pre-purchase $130-worth of upcoming characters for this game.  So far, so good, but the year is young.  My shortest-term goal is to get Cyclops to level 60 to start the synergy exp gravy train rolling.  My mid-range goal is to have at least 10 characters to level 25 for the first tier stat synergy bonuses (currently 2 for Cyclops and Deadpool), and the long-term is to have at least 10 characters to level 50 for the upper tier stat bonuses (currently just Cyclops).  If at least five of the Advance Pack characters make this roster then it's pretty safe to say that the purchase paid off for me. 

Will TESO/Wildstar/EQ Next/Camelot Unchained customers revolt?
TESO and Wildstar have announced second quarter release dates, presumably with non-refundable pre-NDA-drop pre-purchase offers to follow.  Western console players have not historically tolerated subscription business models, so it's hard to see how TESO does not have a business model re-launch this year.   Wildstar at least has the sci-fi sub-genre going for it, but is it far enough outside the box to beat the non-subscription trend that has now claimed every AAA MMO since World of Warcraft?  Or, will both products (intentionally or otherwise) charge early adopters $60 for their game box and upwards of $100 for pre-paid 6-12 month subscriptions, only to go F2P within the first year? 

Meanwhile, SOE is hard at work pre-selling alpha access to Everquest Next Landmark - which sounds like an odd cross between the real Everquest Next and a paid public test server for EQN player studio content.  Camelot Unchained won't launch this year, but paid alpha testing for potentially thousands of Kickstarter backers (mostly in the $200+ range, plus a smaller number who get earlier internal testing access) is supposed to begin this fall.

Thus, by the end of the year, there are scenarios where large numbers of players are dissatisfied with their pre-purchases.  Will customers actually change their behavior in the future?  Are we as a demographic just willing to accept this as the cost of being present for the launch of each online game?  Are these games even catering to the traditional MMO demographic found on forums and blogs, or are they attempting/succeeding in broadening the market somehow? 

Will a major title's F2P re-launch go under in 2014?
I strongly debated making this heading title "LOTRO" due to uncertainty about its license option years, my longstanding questions about whether revenue from Turbine's version of "free to play" is inherently front-loaded, and the curious decision NOT to develop an expansion pack for 2014.  In fairness, longterm subscribers are correctly noting that with required annual expansions and diminishing restrictions on non-subscribers, it can feel like they're paying more for no good reason. 

Bottom line here is that the closing of City of Heroes can be written off as the wrath of NCSoft, but another high profile F2P relaunch going down could have an effect on customer confidence.  If not LOTRO, then perhaps Aion, Tera, or one of the Funcom titles?  Or perhaps it just isn't possible to affect gamers' consumer confidence - see above discussion.

Any Late Year Surprises?
In 2013, the big expectations were for end-of-year TESO and Wildstar news, leaving the beginning of the year pretty quiet and the end of year similarly quiet once both titles punted to 2014.  All these moves mean a relatively crowded schedule for the 2nd-3rd quarters (TESO, Wildstar, EQN:L, WoW's Warlords expansion)... and what precisely for the back end of the year?  Syp's annual list notwithstanding, I don't see a ton of waves here.  I know better than to suggest a Titan reveal will happen this year, but this could be a good platform for someone with something up their sleeves - SOE? Turbine? - to make some waves.

What are you curious about in 2014?

The Furnace Filter Perspective
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 December 2013, 9:57 pm
I'm not fond of comparing costs between things that have nothing to do with each other, but sometimes the perspective is useful.

I was at Target today and considering whether to pick up air filters for my furnace to avoid also having to stop at Home Depot on the way back home.  Target wanted $18 for two filters and was willing to throw in a $5 gift card for buying four of them (i.e. $31 for 4 if you consider the gift card same-as-cash).  This seemed slightly high, so I used Target's free wifi (oops for them?) to check the price at Home Depot.  Turned out that I could pay team orange less money AND get more filters out of the deal ($12 for 6).

I don't like these comparisons because my budget for changing the air filter so the furnace in my house doesn't break does not directly compete with my budget for online games.  However, it's worth noting that I could have taken the $20 I saved with a 30 second price check and turned it into any number of online gaming products - a month of game time with some change left over, hero-specific storage tabs for six Marvel Heroes characters, a variety of well reviewed older games, etc. 

Coming to terms with this perspective was probably the single biggest thing that changed for me as an MMO player/blogger in 2013.  Paying attention to money matters, if for no other reason than so you don't have to worry too much about money.  The trick is to know when it's worth driving to another store or slogging through a character without whatever perks, and when to pony up the cash. 

Interesting Post on Branding and Female Gamers
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 December 2013, 9:28 pm
I generally steer far away from posting about gender issues in gaming.  The majority of these discussions have nothing to do with incentive structures, and it's very easy to talk for a long time (offending multiple people on all sides) without really getting anywhere. 

That said, Anjin Anhut posted some intriguing thoughts on incentives in marketing.  It probably isn't all gospel truth and it doesn't necessarily get us closer to solving the many issues out there.  Still, the post presents a cogent argument for why financial incentives may be driving a long-running trend towards alienating a large potential segment of the market that otherwise doesn't seem to make sense. 

Hat tip to Liore for the link.

Online Gaming Expenditures 2013
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 December 2013, 10:26 pm
I've been tracking my MMO expenditures for a few years, and the top line makes this year look similar to last year - last year I spent $275 on MMO's and another $60 on Diablo III and this year I spent roughly $321 for online products including MMO's, MOBA's, TCG's, and ARPG's.  That said, the way in which I spent that money was a bit different.

  • I was subscribed to a MMO for most of the year, but these expenses were significantly reduced due to various discounts from retailers.
  • I was generally much more willing to experiment with things that cost $20-30, rather than try to tough out the business model without paying for anything.  

The latter definitely increased my bottom line spending, and some of the purchases are going down in the books as disappointments.  Then again, sometimes a comparatively small purchase made life significantly more fun.  As I have less and less time to spend on games, I'm guessing this trend will continue.

Subscription MMO's
I had a subscription to a traditional MMO for most of the year.  These games were typically, though not always, the go-to place I would go when I had time for an extended play session.  

World of Warcraft - $65 (Pandaria, 60 days timecard, 2x 30 days)
I did very well snagging discounts from retail stores.  This "should" have cost me $100.

FFXIV - $70 (PC + PS3 boxes)
The PC box cost $30 for the license plus a month of game time.  The PS3 box cost $40 for a second month of game time (the two stack) plus the license for the Playstation Network (reportedly to include the PS4 version, when it arrives next year).  I guess I should have taken the time to try the PS3 version in beta - playing on the PS3 was a cool novelty, but I had problems with targeting and would need to purchase a keyboard and mouse to make this work. 

SWTOR - $51 (two 60 day timecards at various discounts from retailers, $10 expansion)
Again, discounted time cards for the win here, "should" have paid $70. 

The Newcomers
In general, these are titles I play as a go-to for shorter play sessions. 

Marvel Heroes - $70 (starter pack, Cyclops, X-Force Bundle Black Friday Sale)
I hesitated until the very last minute on whether to pre-purchase a founder's pack, and I'm glad I pulled the trigger.  I like this game way more than Diablo III because it features characters from Marvel's comics.  It was worth the money to play the game with the character I most wanted to play rather than one of the less interesting starter characters.  I decided to throw them another $50 on Black Friday for an additional bundle of characters and some convenience perks.

Note that I'm counting the $130 Advance pack purchase against next year's budget, as is my longstanding practice for long-term subscriptions and content unlocks that won't be used (or in this case won't be available) until the year after I decided to shell out for them.   We'll see whether they've delivered all of the heroes by the time I publish next year's ledger, and how I feel about that purchase.

Hex - $20 (kickstarter)
Technically, this game isn't out yet, but I'm in the alpha as a backer, so I'm prepared to put this one on 2013's balance sheet.  I have concerns about the business model and was not impressed by a very brief visit to the very early alpha.  Even so, my assessment was that the time it's going to take to see whether or not I am going to like this game will be more fun starting with a minimal base of cards versus nothing. 

Guild Wars 2 - $30
I picked this up when the price finally dipped down to my new $30 impulse buy threshold.  I've logged in twice, so it could be argued this was a fail, but at least now I can play GW2 if I want to. 

League of Legends - $15 (gift cards)
I had some Best Buy reward certificates to burn, so I turned them into the $5 starter Champion pack and a $10 RP code to finally try League.  The purchases probably weren't necessary with my current playstyle - I'm currently enjoying trying whatever new champions are available each week.  Then again, the cost was comparatively low, since it's often hard to find things at Best Buy that aren't $15 overpriced to begin with.   

Played, not paid
TSW - I picked this up for $15 very late in 2012 and was still coasting on the month of included subscription time for most of January.

LOTRO and DDO - played a small amount of each using previously paid content, did not purchase either game's expansion (a first for LOTRO, despite a just-unveiled 50% off sale on their month-old expansion).

Hearthstone - Have not spent any money on the closed beta.

Not Played
Rift - Has an expansion that I got without paying courtesy of a promo and can now access freely due to the game's business model relaunch.  I logged in once or twice to preserve my character names, but I never really played.

EQ2 - SOE went the entire year without discounting the expansion from the fall of 2012, and now there's another full priced expansion box on the digital shelf.  The good news is that the new expansion purchase includes the one I skipped, and there aren't really any charges anymore for playing the content if/when I pay to unlock it, so maybe I will get around to this in 2014.

Grand Total
Total - $321

Analyzing the Marvel Heroes Advance Pack
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 December 2013, 11:16 pm
There was an interesting discussion amongst Syl, Chris, and Tobold last week about the relative values of games, especially considering gamers with different levels of income.  Marvel Heroes' new Advance Pack - which I have elected to purchase - is as interesting a case study as any. 
The Good
So why did I buy this thing?  A few reasons, chief amongst them are convenience and flexibility.
  • Testing a new hero currently requires a separate 12 GB client install of the test center client, some patience to await the next testing cycle, and the better part of an hour reading tooltips, setting up hotbars, and playing through low-level content (that I now know very very well).  Even in this much time there's no guarantee that you'll have a good sense for how the hero plays at higher levels.  All the while you're picking up loot (including Eternity Splinters, used to unlock heroes in-game) that will be wiped for the next Test build.  We're talking probably 10 hours or so of time that I would have spent on Test for these dozen characters.  
  • Building on that point, making the small purchasing decisions can be hard.  There's always the chance that next month's new hero would be better, and so it becomes harder to say yes, spend your 400 splinters today on hero X.  It's easier to make a big decision that the game writ large is likely worth $100-130 over the next year.  
  • With all the heroes for the next year unlocked, I'm free to spend my splinters on whatever else I want.  In this case, I immediately hit the random hero box twice with the splinters I had saved to unlock Nightcrawler in January.  (As you own more heroes, your odds of getting a new hero from the box go down - therefore my odds will be getting progressively worse from here on out and the time to gamble was today.)  I got Phoenix - one of my highest priorities - and Human Torch (second tier of my want list, but unique enough that I'll consider playing him now that I have him).  
  • Bottom line, I'm now free to try many more characters that fit the model of the Torch - interesting but not quite high enough to ever make it to the top of my shopping list.

The Bad:
The most valuable portion of the pack - the upcoming heroes - can be earned in game.  Between this and the bundling of 12-13 characters, most players will find that they have spent more than they might have otherwise, and/or that some of the savings are off-set by having purchased characters you don't want or need. 

There are also risks because this content will be en route for a while to come - you may not like all of the costumes and you could give up on the game (though, as a non-subscription title, the heroes will wait for you if you return).  In my case, I've spent $70 on the game in a relatively small portion of 2013, but that would not have translated directly into spending $130 (probably more like $150 if there's anything else I want from the store in the next year) over a full year - at some point you would normally have all the heroes you need for the foreseeable future and stop buying more. 

Also, one bit of bad news whether or not you buy the new pack - if the hero you want is not on the list (which has two question marks, one of which is almost certainly Rogue), there's a good chance that you're going to be waiting for over a year for them to be added to the game. 

The Cost
Yes, you are almost certainly paying for at least some stuff you would not have purchased.  That said, the marketing folks priced this thing aggressively.  Part of the studio's revised strategy since launch has been to get new characters into players hands - at significantly reduced or even no cost - so that those players will keep playing and consider paying for storage, costumes, and more characters. 

I expected the bundle to be $120 for twelve "hero packs", which have historically contained the hero, their launch day alternate costume, and their STASH tab (for gear storage) along with some goodies.  They actually went with a $130 price tag that includes a thirteenth hero pack as a pre-order bonus.  I'm prepared to accept Ghost Rider with his stash and misc stuff for an extra $10 given that the hero and stash are priced at $17. 

More surprisingly, they elected to offer a just-the-basics bundle of just the dozen heroes and their STASH tabs (optional when you just have a few heroes, start to become much more significant when you have a dozen new heroes inbound) for a slightly lower $100 price tag.  If you don't ever like or purchase costumes and did not want Ghost Rider (or don't buy the pack before his deadline), this could be an appealing option.  With Ghost Rider, though, you don't have to like very many of the included costumes for an extra $30 to be a very good deal. 

Finally, the comparison.  Retail prices for digital products are arbitrary, especially with the inevitable sales.  That said, $100 buys you 11,500 G's and $130 buys just under 15,000 G's.  At an average price of 900 G's - Ghost rider is coming in at the premium 1350 G's level - $100 is just shy of what you need to get the thirteen heroes.   Thirteen stashes cost another 4,550 G's.  If you actually buy costumes, you are generally looking at 950 G's per.  Either you think of it as saving a fair chunk, or you can think of it as a small discount and then a bunch of costumes thrown in. 

(The big advantage of skipping the bundle and buying the G's instead is the flexibility to choose which things to buy.  Also, you can use any existing currency balances rather than paying the full price in USD (as the new bundle is not available through the in-game store with G's.) 

Bottom Line
At the end of the day, I was definitely going to buy two heroes (Psylocke and Venom) regardless and I was probably going to want to unlock at least four more characters.  I could have spent less by going this route, and perhaps that's what I would have done a few years ago.  Today - with a kid, limited time, and disposable income in my pocket - this particular purchase was not a tough call.   It may or may not have been the correct choice - I'll evaluate in a year - but in the mean time I expect to have some fun as a result of having made it.  Isn't that ultimately the point of playing games? 

Is this MMO Burnout?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 December 2013, 8:57 pm
December has returned, bringing us to that introspective window for the end of the year.  I think the term MMO Burnout is generally over-used and over-dramatized.  However, looking back at the year gone by, it looks like that may have crept up on me after all.  A few arguments for and against:

Things I have NOT done
  • LOTRO: This was the year I finally gave up on even the token effort to maintain the level cap and epic story.  
  • FFXIV: This is arguably the best pure MMO to (re-)launch in the last two years, there's nothing I would change about the game... and it hasn't made it to the top of my playlist, causing me to stall out midway through the level curve.  
  • GW2: Bought, barely played
  • TSW: Bought at the tail end of 2012, played a bit in early 2013 until the included VIP-time ran out
  • Rift, EQ2, DDO: New expansions, haven't done either
Things I have focused on:
  • SWTOR: Significant amounts of time subscribed here, including clearing the expansion on my main Trooper, finishing the class story for an Agent, and getting most of the way through a Sith Warrior.  That said, I'm playing this game primarily for the single player-like story experience.  I'd consider paying real money to trade the entire game in for an interactive movie where my character wins all the fights automatically and moves on to the next story scene, as I might actually like that product better.
  • Marvel Heroes: Pure action RPG here, I've spent more time helping to sleuth out the hero release schedule on this game's forums than I've spent on several of the above games.  
  • League of Legends: Instant action MOBA
  • Hearthstone: Instant action card game
Overall, the trend appears to be towards instant action and gameplay experiences.  While there is still some progression in all these things, it's very different from the traditional vertical progression model for an MMO. 

Which brings us to the exception that proves the rule - I have spent significant amounts of time subscribed to and actually playing World of Warcraft.  I did technically hit the level cap, and farmed all of the gear out of the first 2-3 tiers of raid finder.  I also skipped the majority of the questing content in the expansion - and incidentally didn't even try to level until my lack of having leveled caused problems for my pet collecting efforts.  In many ways, Azeroth is actually a lobby that I use to access the pet battling minigame, the farming minigame, and sometimes even the daily quest or random dungeon minigame.  I'm arguably not using the game as an MMO.

Is this the new face of MMO burnout?  Or am I just in a rut waiting for the hypothetical next big thing? 

Counterpoint on LOL Streaming
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 December 2013, 9:58 pm
Riot has issued the probably inevitable walk-back of their controversial streaming policy.  Contracted professional players will now be allowed to stream whatever games they want so long as they are not paid by competing studios to do so. 

With the benefit of additional information, I can see a bit more of Riot's side of this issue since my post from last week.  Apparently this happened in large part because Blizzard gave Hearthstone beta keys to high-rating Twitch streamers, which just so happened to include a large number of League of Legends pros.  There is some question of whether Blizzard also threw in extra keys for the streamers to give away, resulting in even more screen time spent on Blizzard's upcoming product.

I still think the initial policy was an over-reach, compounded by a denial that it was a problem even though they would be forced to concede the obvious a day later.  I still think the real impact on the policy would have been on regular players watching the streams who had no say in the matter, rather than on the paid pros who are compensated for their time.  That said, Riot's point makes some sense as well.

We as a society have not caught up to the reality that employees' off-hours social media may not always say what employers want it to say.  Personally, I made a decision when I finished school that henceforth I would only blog about my MMO hobby - I strongly doubt that I will ever work in anything related to MMO's.  Many folks don't draw such a fine line, and I don't fault them.  However, when you are posting about something directly related to your employment - and indeed when you were employed in part BECAUSE of your online social presence - I don't think your employer is wrong to ask at least some questions in a situation where it looks like you are being sponsored by a competitor.  Raffling off beta keys isn't the same as getting a sack of money, but it could still benefit your stream's revenue and viewership numbers.   

Interesting times we live in, I suppose. 

League of Legends Streaming Rules - Their Way Or The Highway
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 December 2013, 10:28 pm
I don't care much about e-sports, but I find the current controversy over streaming restrictions on professional-level League of Legends players fascinating.  As officially confirmed by Riot, pro players are required to agree never to livestream themselves playing any "competing product" for the duration of the upcoming professional season.  The forbidden list includes every current Blizzard franchise, other current and upcoming MOBA's, the World of Tanks/Warplanes games from, and the canceled-during-beta Warhammer Online MOBA Wrath of Heroes (good luck "live" streaming that one).

This type of restriction is almost certainly within Riot's rights, since no one is forcing anyone to play League in general or participate in its competitive play in particular.  As the run-away leader in this particular sector, they can likely get away with the move, regardless of rational arguments that it's not a good idea or in their long-term interest.  Nor is it entirely without precedent - Bioware's official fansite program for SWTOR restricts sites from promoting other products or using any advertising, in exchange for a link on their official listing and possibly other perks (e.g. in the past fansites got exclusive dev comments). 

The thing that resonates with this policy is that it's not so different from the position that regular customers find ourselves in every day when service providers (including but not limited to MMO's) do things that we don't like.  In some ways, the real victims here are NOT the professionals, who are being compensated for their commitment, but rather the viewers of streams that will be less interesting to watch due to the restrictions. 

You always have a choice to walk away, and your choice is almost always going to hurt you - by depriving you of a service you thought was worth paying for - more than it hurts the company that made the decision you disliked because it was in their interest to do so.  This particular case just had the misfortune of making it obvious how little power the customer actually has.

MMO Black Friday 2013
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 November 2013, 9:46 pm
Another year, another round of sales - or not - in honor of the day after American Thanksgiving.  The things that are already announced are below, other observations are welcome.
  • World of Warcraft: Base game (up to Cataclysm) for $5, Pandaria for $10, direct download from Blizzard; a total of $15 to get into the game, i.e. a single month's subscription.  I'm predicting now that the new expansion next year will be the first to go ahead and bundle in all the old content - with the new expansion featuring "one free level 90 character" to attract new and returning players, it isn't going to make sense to insist that players pay for a Pandaria box that they're never going to set foot in.
  • Turbine Games: Standard "double bonus point" Turbine Point sale bundles are in effect in both LOTRO and DDO.  DDO's new expansion from last summer is 50% off, and all of its multiple tiers of upsells are also 50% off.  LOTRO's new expansion from last week is NOT included.  They've slashed the price as early as 5-6 weeks after the fact in the past, but apparently last week was a bridge too far.  They are bundling all of the previous expansions in one package for $20. 
  • Guild Wars 2 is on sale for $30 again, which they are promoting as their "lowest price ever" even though it's the same price I paid a month ago.  I guess it's technically accurate that they haven't offered a lower price?
  • Marvel Heroes is offering 25% off of almost everything in their cash store, other than two heroes who were released this month.  Storage stash tabs for general and crafting purposes are NOT included in the sale, and character specific storage tabs are only discounted indirectly if you purchase a bundle containing that character.  The main catch here is that, as with most cash shops, you may have a hard time purchasing exactly the right amount of currency to pick up the stuff you wanted.  There's also an in-game bonus of 50% exp, rare item find, and special item find for the weekend. 
  • SWTOR is not doing any direct sales that they've announced yet, but they are running double exp through Sunday.  

What I personally bought:
Probably no surprise to folks who have been reading of late, but Marvel Heroes is my current surprise game of choice.  I've been waiting on this sale to decide what to buy, and I decided to splurge here.  I spent $50 for the G's to unlock:
  • The X-Force bundle (Cable, Colossus, Deadpool, and Wolverine, with two extra costumes each, stash tabs for all four heroes, and some misc consumables), on sale for 4,500 G's, normally 6,000 G's.  (Can be purchased on the website for exactly $45, or you can buy 5500 G's for $50, which is what I did - an extra 1000 G's for $5 is a much better exchange rate than you'll get any other time.)
  • A holographic crafter, summons an NPC who gives you access to your stash for storing the stuff you want to keep, and accepts donations (for crafting exp) of the junk you don't want to keep.  In my view a much more versatile purchase than the similar portable stash token, works in Castle Doom (where you can't teleport out to sell your stuff), and highly recommended for all players.  On sale for 700 G's.
  • A crafting stash tab, NOT on sale, for 300 G's.  One crafting tab is nigh must-have for all players with as many as 40 slots worth of basic crafting materials - you can expand or compress that number but this is time-consuming, and you'll be hurting for the space if and when you go beyond a single character.  I don't begrudge the maybe 75 cents for buying it not on sale, though I might regret that stance if I come up precisely 75G's short of being able to buy something in the future, oh well.  
To be clear, I consider this as somewhat extravagant.  I could have cleaned out my existing currency balances to snag the bare minimum stuff I considered must-have - the crafting tab, the holographic crafter, and the hero unlock for Wolverine.  That said, the other three heroes were all on my "would play if I owned them" list, so I now have a nice diverse list of folks I will actually play (as compared to rolling the dice with the random hero box and getting additions I don't want).  I will use at least one of the costumes, and I can see how the hero-specific gear tabs may be useful when actively playing more than just the one character. 

There's a good chance that I "overpaid" by paying for stuff that I ultimately won't use, but my total investment in this game is now up to $70 - just over what I paid for Diablo III, and I've gotten far more mileage out of this game than DIII.  Also, this way I've got my previous G balance and a growing stash of Eternity Splinters to spend on future releases.  I wouldn't say that a new player should expect to need to spend this much, but for me personally it's been worth it thus far. 

Cosmetic Audience - For Yourself Or Others?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 November 2013, 9:15 pm
" Once a game is clearly massive, like Hearthstone or LOL it's worth paying to differentiate yourself from every random player because a lot of people will be audience for your flashy cosmetic outfit."
- Stabs, commenting on my post

Stabs' comment assumes that displaying cosmetics to other players is a primary motivator for purchasing cosmetic items in a cash store.  I'm sure some people care about this sort of thing, but I guess for me it is a matter of how you define audience. 

I own Cyclops' 90's costume, after deciding to pre-order his founder's pack at the very last minute pre-launch.  If there had been even a small discount available for displaying the mediocre default costume to the audience of complete strangers who see me passing by in Stark Tower, I would have taken it.  The audience that I cared about in making a purchase to snag this costume is precisely one person large - myself.  Playing existing characters from the Marvel universe is a key selling point of this game, and I strongly associate this particular character with the costume he wore during the era when I was actually reading the comics and watching the cartoons.  I see my character on the screen far often than any stranger I run into in-game will, and it is worth having my character look the way I want him to look for my personal benefit. 

Marvel Heroes is not an open world MMORPG, and thinking back I can remember just one time when I ever had anything in an MMO that actually drew significant attention/comment from other players.  I had a horse for my gnome in World of Warcraft back in 2006, before riding skill or easy spill-over rep gain, and I did occasionally get compliments for having pulled it off.  That said, I'd argue there are two key differences - first, earning the horse was an in-game achievement (which took a lot of time back in the day) rather than just a small cash fee, and second, WoW servers in that era had much more of a community feel of days gone past when someone might actually remember the gnome on the horse.  For better or worse, those days aren't around anymore. 

Today, if I do but a cosmetic item, it's going to be primarily for my own enjoyment.  How do you all feel?  Would you pay extra for the sole purpose of showing off to other players? 

A rare sight back in the day (because it was hard to get a horse), and even rarer today (poor Marcus).

The Paradox of Generosity
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 November 2013, 9:30 pm
An odd quirk of the non-subscription business model is that generosity can make paying for the product less attractive.  The more stuff you give away for free, the less stuff you have left to sell people.

Case in point, Marvel Heroes has possibly the most generous model I've seen in a recent online game.  All the content in the game is free, there's a decent selection of free starting heroes (see Yngwe's guide for details), the developers have repeatedly cut prices on the paid heroes, and changes since the game's launch allow players to unlock all of the playable heroes through gameplay. 

I've gotten way more mileage and enjoyment out of an optional $20 unlock purchase for this game than I did out of the $60 copy of Diablo III that I paid for as part of WoW's annual pass deal.  It feels ungrateful to complain about whatever prices they want to charge for whatever else they want to.  But when I look at what they're selling I can't help but look at the prices and feel that the benefit of paying is lower than the benefit of paying in other products that have less generous models. 

The purely optional cosmetic costumes are pricey (comparable to League of Legends - in both titles, these cosmetics cost significantly more than the characters who can use them).  There are storage issues - in particular caused by the dozen different types of relics - that you can alleviate with modest amounts of real money.  Like most other games, the cash store currency is only sold in $5 increments and almost nothing is on sale for even amounts - they're actually adding a free 250G grant to all accounts this week which is just below the price of the lowest unlock (crafting storage) that offers any real in-game benefit.  Overall, the prices are comparatively low, but so is the benefit of paying them. 

As multiple commenters pointed out last week, players who are not paying can still contribute significant value to the game's community.  Meanwhile, freeloader or not, you cannot sell anything in the future to people who aren't playing the game at all.  I just find it all counter-intuitive coming out of a subscription era, when purchasing decisions were strictly business - the product either was or was not worth continuing to play and you paid or did not accordingly.  Knowing that something is for the most part optional and paying for it anyway to support the product?  Strange new world we're living in.

Daily Rewards and Non-Subscription Games
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 November 2013, 10:46 pm
I've been taking League of Legends for a test-drive over the last two weeks.  I play for about 30 minutes per day.  That's how long it takes to win a Twisted Treeline match against NPC bots to collect the daily "first win" award.  Playing a second match after that would yield maybe 1/4 of the rewards, so I'd rather go spend my time elsewhere.  Is this incentive functioning as intended? 

Influence in the League
For context, in League of Legends gold and items are all temporary resources that are granted and used in a given match.  The biggest things that are persistent are your roster of unlocked champions - each week there are ten champions available to try for free and beyond that list you can only use your unlocked champions - and the Runes attached to your summoner's Rune pages.  These things are earned with two currencies.  
  • Riot Points, named for the studio, are used in the cash shop to unlock Champions, cosmetic skins for the Champions, and a few other things such as boosts for additional rewards.  There is a one-time grant of 400 RP for new accounts to unlock permanent access to one basic Champion (so you aren't totally dependent on the weekly rotation), but otherwise this currency is only obtained by spending real world money. 
  • Influence Points are earned in-game by playing matches.  These can be used as an alternative to Riot Points to unlock Champions (though not the other stuff like the skins), and are also the only way to purchase the runes for your rune slots.
There is more precise math on Influence Points but I find that 2 IP/min on a match that you win (which will be all matches against NPC bots, since probably one good player can carry your team to victory if needed) is not a bad estimate.  This means that a 20-30 minute Twisted Treeline match against the bots is offering up somewhere around 50-60 IP base.  The cheapest basic Champions are available for 450 IP but from there it quickly goes up as far as 6,300 IP, which means you're looking at 100+ matches for the high end Champions.

The wrinkle here is the daily award for winning a match, which is a flat 150 IP.  That's a big deal because suddenly you're looking at only 30ish matches for the high end Champions - i.e. the Champion of my choice for free every month (more if I choose cheaper characters this month).  As a result, if I know I will want to play around 5-10 matches this week, I have a strong incentive to make sure that's one per day rather than all on the same day. 

(Two asides: Losing cuts your IP rewards significantly.  I doubt this is the only reason why this game's community is known for being so toxic, but it can't help your teammates cope with a loss when they know their IP salary just got docked.  Also, the need to buy Runes with this currency undermines the "you can unlock all your heroes in game" model a bit, as in the long term you're looking to fill 30 rune slots with runes that can run 400-2000 IP each.  You can actually pay with Riot Points - i.e. cash - to earn IP faster, and I assume this is almost exclusively for Runes, since you can just buy the Champions if you already have the RP.) 

The Daily and the Non-subscription
The daily quest system in a traditional MMO has an obvious path for netting the studio more money - players are paying for access to the expansion, game time in which to complete the content, and can be enticed to purchase any other perks the studio offers for sale. 

By contrast, the League of Legends model seems to have the opposite effect - with some patience, a less frequent player who wants to get a new champion each month goes from paying $5-10 for that character to paying nothing.  And, to be clear, League is not alone in this regard.  Hearthstone's daily quest system functions similarly, while Marvel Heroes' cash store alternative is NOT on a daily cooldown but can similarly compete with real cash purchases.

Any business model is going to cause some revenue to fall through the cracks.  Of the customers they could be losing out on, players with my level of patience may be the best group to write off if we aren't that common or wouldn't spend that much in the store anyway.  Perhaps they're thinking that if I find I don't even need the real cash store currency to buy Champions I'll be more willing to spend it on cosmetic skins.  Whatever the case, I appear to be in a position where I can see a little bit of a lot of games for very little money down.  Not sure it's working as intended but I guess I'll take it. 

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