What is Blizzard's Direction?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 November 2013, 1:20 pm
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery than WoW's newly announced expansion is a remarkable condemnation of what has come before.  On paper, being willing to re-evaluate anything and everything is commendable.  The problem is that smart people implemented the things that Blizzard spent the weekend backpedaling from, and they did these things for a reason

Blizzard's genre-defining MMO has always struggled to reconcile its two heritages - the social, progression-heavy virtual worlds MMO's like Everquest and the accessible online gameplay of Blizzard's own Diablo II.  The trade-offs needed to allow these demographics to co-exist are no longer scaling well in an increasingly crowded marketplace, but I'm not yet convinced that willingness to change alone will prompt a longer-lasting solution.  

Three major focuses from the last five years of WoW that are now out of favor:
  • Blizzard is touting that Warlords will feature few if any daily quests at max level.  Pandaria featured a heavy push on daily quests - Blizzard stated that a third of the quests in 5.0 were level 90 dailies so that players would be offered a variety of dailies in rotation.  Also worth noting, Blizzard probably wasn't the first to stick a daily progress limit on repeatable quests back in Burning Crusade, but they certainly helped popularize the format.    
  • Cataclysm devoted a massive level of effort to replacing low level content, in the process removing more content from WoW than most MMO's ever produce.  In revisiting Draenor, Blizzard is making the entirety of level 1-90 optional instead of repeating the probably futile effort to update the content.  They are also preserving the current incarnation of Outland (possibly through the Caverns of Time, which I had thought might be a good idea back in 2011).
  • Wrath introduced the dungeon finder and near single-handedly made it a mandatory feature for all MMO's to have an automated system that puts players in a group that will defeat the content quickly and painlessly.  Blizzard is now saying that they want random groups feel like your last resort.  This would be a much bigger deal except that I doubt they will follow through.  
  • (Two other reversals that aren't as relevant to my theme:  Re-forging items?  Gone, along with some of the stats that made this system necessary (especially hit rating, which was hard-capped for casters.  Also, as Nils notes, the entirety of Pandaria will be optional, though seeing Pandas in Draenor presumably will not.) 
For people who play the game for accessible gameplay, having to slog through 90 levels to get to their friends is unacceptable, and there is an expectation that the game will provide something to do - dailies and random dungeon groups - once you do get to level cap.  For people who play with an eye towards progression with their friends, however, constantly wiping progress (both the levels, and the gear resets every 6-12 months - a sacred cow that's not on the table at the moment) undermines the point of the game, while all of the intentionally non-challenging dailies become a chore. 

The coalition of the smaller but more stable demographic of social MMORPG players and the siginificantly larger but less committed masses of more independent online game players held in WoW's prime from 2005-2007.  Today, Blizzard faces much more competition for the online instant action crowd (both from other MMORPG's, and from action-RPG's and MOBA's that cut out the persistent world for even faster access).  At the same time, when you have 90-100 levels and over a dozen tiers of raid content it becomes harder and harder to retain critical mass amongst the progression MMORPG players.

Personally, while I expect to return to WoW frequently, I suspect I will spend more total hours in Hearthstone and the Blizzard MOBA Heroes of the Storm (which was by some accounts the surprise hit of the show).  Moreover, when I do visit WoW, I expect to continue to focus on more accessible minigames like pet battles and the new and bigger version of the Pandaren Farm in garrisons.  (Aside: The Garrisons are being widely called "player housing", but Blizzard also stated that they don't want to make systems - such as the farm - from previous expansions mandatory.  Wonder how they're going to deal with this in three years.) 

I suggest it's no accident that Blizzard is focusing on these areas.  It would be really interesting to know whether the version of Titan that got killed this year was guilty of the offense of being an MMORPG in an era in which that's no longer where the money is. 


Transmedia Synergy, the Marvel Way
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 November 2013, 11:08 pm
Trion and their partners with Defiance coined a novel marketing term - "Transmedia Synergy" - to describe the crossover between the TV show and associated MMOFPS.  Marvel has chosen the speak softly and carry a big stick approach to this problem, namely to implement it without a fancy marketing name.

Case in point, Marvel Heroes is rolling out a new level set in Asgard to promote the new Thor movie, and have also made Loki into a surprise playable hero to commemorate the occasion.  The cross promotion with licensed films is not new, but the ability to take the digital files used to make the effects in the film and hand them straight off to multiple licensees is something that I haven't seen done to this extent before.  See for comparison the sample screenshots in this MMORPG.com article about the new Marvel Heroes content and this announcement for the standalone Thor licensed game on Android.  

All of the Iron Man suits in game
In some ways, it's a win/win for everyone.  Players get higher quality stuff - for example, Marvel Heroes has an insanely large number of Iron Man costumes in-game because Marvel provided all of the files for all of the suits in the movies.  The game gets extra traffic from Marvel's promotion of the film.  The film gets cross promotion to players of the game who might not have heard or bothered. 

The downside is that if you really don't care about Thor or his movies, you need to put up with having this be a focus for a bit.  We're seeing heroes added to the game quickly but new content is presumably going to be further in between.  I suppose it's a peril of working in a licensed IP.  Even so, I could see this being a model that other licensed products hope to attain. 


A Nomadic MMO Autumn
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 October 2013, 10:00 pm
I've spent most of 2013 subscribed to one primary MMO and dabbling in maybe a single other non-subscription title at any given time.  For whatever reason, I ended up resolving to tackle some of the backlog and logging into seven different online games in the last week.  I dunno how folks routinely cover as many games as Syp or Chris from MMO Reporter manage this, because it's exhausting.  Anyway, what I've been up to:
  • FFXIV: This game has quietly been my go-to since mid-September.  It's a good mix of keeping enough of the new school - public quests, group finder, and solo-ability - but with some old school elements that are a welcome change of pace.  I don't mind that I was playing for over a month before I qualified for a mount or that I'm less than half-way to level cap after six weeks.  In some ways, this game caused my current "crisis" by pushing everything else off the plate. 
  • Guild Wars 2: This went on a one-day sale for $30, which is the price point at which I'm willing to snag a AAA buy-to-play game as an impulse buy.  I had a ton of trouble actually playing the game because their email authenticator would not work and it took seven CS tickets to get someone to read the ticket and agree to remove this feature.  (Aside: the only other MMO where I have ever needed an extended exchange of tickets due to new login restrictions that the provider added - Guild Wars 1.)  I spent an evening, gained a few levels, and it didn't leave much of an impression.  I definitely could have been looking in the wrong places, or this might just not be a title that I'm going to like (which was why I didn't buy it earlier).   Not going to rush this one, pinging some folks I trust for suggestions on where I should be looking before I spend more time heading in the wrong direction. 
  • LOTRO: Turbine has turned on double exp for an entire month in advance of their upcoming expansion.  I've been behind on solo content in LOTRO since a few months after the game's launch, but 2013 has been the year when I haven't even managed the token effort to finish the epic story and hit the level cap.  At this point, my favorite part of the leveling game are the non-combat quests where I wander around the towns of Rohan doing things that feel like the belong in Middle Earth, but that interactive story isn't quite enough to convince me to come back.  Also, possibly odd decision by Turbine to try and bring back inactive players just before a major class revamp that is drawing much concern from current players - it might actually have been easier to get the new system if I didn't just take a refresher on how things used to be. 
  • Hearthstone: I'm not playing this thing daily - maybe once or twice a week - and I'm still losing the overwhelming majority of my games, but I am at least starting to get a hang of which characters not to play or at least how to revamp their decks so that I might have a chance against the non-overpowered heroes.  Game imbalance may play a larger role in my mixed experience in this game than I initially realized.
  • Rift: Not sure this one counts, but I did log into four characters long enough to tell Trion not to recycle all my names.  I sympathize with the intent, but I feel these drives are misguided - you're still not going to get the name DeathKnight because A) your current characters are already named and B) someone else is going to beat you to it if it does get freed up, which means you're going to have to go back to either spelling it wrong or adding non-English characters that will make it harder for normal players to type your name in a day or two at most. 
  • Marvel Heroes: I forget why I popped back into this game - probably for the sole reason of continuing the "different game each day" trend that I had going.  Well, there was a bonus exp/loot weekend that kept me involved long enough to finish the story and explore all the improvements.  This game had a rocky launch week and I'm really impressed with how far they've come - both quality of service and quality of life are dramatically better for such a short time post-launch, and bode well for the team's ability to set and meet a schedule.  My biggest complaint now is that there are so many heroes in the queue that it's going to be months before the ones I really want get added to the game, and secondarily that you need to download a second 12 GB client to access the test server if you want to try before you buy.  That's not bad in the broader scheme of things.
  • SWTOR: I've been mostly out of game for a few months now, and thus have missed two content patches.  The new stuff is great as always, but it doesn't seem like it's going to last that long.  I've also got an unfinished Sith Warrior about to tackle Hoth followed by his final story chapter, after which I may move a character over to play with the Ootinicast folks. 
Have you found yourself wandering the halls of multiple MMO's, or is it just me?  


Incorrect Blizzcon Predictions for 2013
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 October 2013, 9:51 pm
It's been so long since a Blizzcon that I've forgotten how I used to post my comically incorrect predictions before the show to see how badly they would turn out.  Coming in late means there are some gaps that have already been filled, but there's plenty of room for me to write stuff that we'll be mocking in a few weeks!

WoW
  • New expansion is all-but confirmed and I'd say level 95 is a given - no reason they'd suddenly go back to 10 levels now, but I doubt they'd do fewer than 5.
  • I suspect the foe will be the Burning Legion.  For one reason or another there seems to be a ton of nostalgia for TBC and we're running out of things that are on Azeroth that anyone has heard of but that we haven't fought before.  I'm suspicious that the end of the Garrosh raid leaves a loose end that the Burning Legion would be happy to tie up.  
  • I'm going to go out on a limb and predict no new adventuring classes or races.  We had three races in the last two expansions, and Blizzard had historically said this was a huge load on the art people.  Meanwhile, with holy trinity imbalance being what it is, they cannot add any more classes that are unable to tank or heal, and at some point there are going to be unsustainable balance issues if they have to keep juggling more tanking and healing specs every expansion.  
  • Instead, I'm going to predict a continuing focus on minigames and other things that offer progression but NOT direct adventuring advancement.  The Farmville minigame and Pet Battles have been two of Pandaria's best-regarded features.  A significant overhaul to professions, possibly including one or more new ones and profession-based content would make a ton of sense.
  • Blizzard will NOT announce the game is going Free to Play.  The Blizzcon crowd is the demographic who signs up for the annual pass subscription, not the crowd that wants to pay less.  Even if WoW was going non-subscription, the news would NOT play well to this audience.  
  • I don't expect to see any faster than Blizzard's normal 20-month time table, placing the expansion in summer 2014.  If they were to stand up for the keynote and say "oh by the way, beta starts on Monday and you're all in", that would certainly be the show-stealing headline, but Blizzcon has not been that good at show-stealing headlines.  
Diablo III

The expansion is already announced, will be playable (I think they've confirmed this?), and presumably going to be a big push of the show.  Ditto the console ports.  If there is any major Diablo news, it will be some sort of new cash shop or other form of ongoing revenue to replace the soon-to-be-closed real money auction house. 

Starcraft II

I haven't heard anything about the second expansion (a.k.a. third game in the trilogy, to justify a $60 price tag for a new game rather than a $40 price tag for an expansion).  I assume Blizzard will remedy this.

Heroes of the Storm

Blizzard re-titled their upcoming all-stars MOBA, suggesting that it is moving along.  There will probably be an early build playable.  I doubt this will be launchable anytime before mid 2014.

Hearthstone

Probably the closest launch window of Blizzard's projects, so I expect a fair amount of chatter, but probably not a lot of real news with the beta already well underway.  I predict that all attendees will be given closed beta invites. 

Titan

Nothing to see here (back in January, I'd predicted this would finally be the year).  

Cross-promotion
Say what you will about WoW's decline, but Blizzard actually has four separate projects that are in the plausibly live and charging money for something new in the next year (NOT counting SC2, but their expansion is recent by Blizzard standards).  They're pushing a new integrated launcher for all their games through the Hearthstone beta, using one Battle.net friends list across their entire platform, and handing out cross-title goodies in their Collector's Editions.

I predict they are going to go a step significantly further, to SOE's model with a single in-house currency shared across all the titles (probably re-branding Battle.net Balance and no longer expressing it in real world dollar amounts), and increased incentives to try multiple games. 

At a minimum, I expect the WoW subscription will include a nominal amount free gold in Hearthstone and possibly free gold or other cash store currency for DIII (if I'm right about expanding that game's cash shop) and Heroes of the Storm - WoW's own longstanding pet and mount shop may move onto this new model.  (Not innovative, SOE has done this for years, even before they were champions of non-subscription models.)  I don't expect to see a higher premium plan along the lines of SOE's All-Access plan because it's not clear what they would offer players of the non-subscription titles other than more Blizzard Bucks.   

What do you all think is coming in just over two weeks?  Are you likely to care? 


Blizzard: Last Bastion of the Real Beta
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 October 2013, 9:15 pm
In a comment over at Azuriel's place, Zardilann says my post about Hearthstone had him worried about the game's business model.  It hadn't occurred to me that my post might be an example of the trend which has caused us to cease to have real MMO beta's anymore.

Hearthstone hits two of the three main criteria for a free to play title that claims to remain in beta for marketing reasons, but has actually soft-launched.  The game has a functioning cash shop and recently conducted its last wipe of beta account data.  It also has a level of polish - albeit not necessarily balance - that most live launched titles would envy.  Thus, I'd all but forgotten the final missing piece - the beta is still a closed beta (not open to the general public). 

I wasn't thinking of this product as a beta because MMO's don't do public closed beta testing anymore.  Say what you will about them, but Blizzard is basically the only studio that still does multi-month NDA-free come-as-you-please public testing of its upcoming products.  Pretty much every studio out there uses one or more restrictions:
  • Many beta tests remain locked down under a non-disclosure agreement until the last possible moment (see increasing grumblings about LOTRO's Helm's Deep expansion), while heavily marketing non-refundable pre-purchases.  Some titles have gone so far as to offer long-term or lifetime subscriptions as an offer that expires before the NDA on the beta test does. 
  • Games that do conduct public testing often restrict access to limited time weekend events.  These are unrealistic for three reasons - they artificially cram word of mouth into a single weekend because that was the only time when people could play an upcoming title, they prevent players from digging too deep (both due to the short time and restrictions on available content/levels) and by doing so they create unrealistic populations for open world events during the beta weekend that will not be seen in the live game as players spread out in levels.  
By contrast, Blizzard's approach is to let their product speak for itself.  To be clear, Hearthstone's positive buzz is not in any danger from a negative post on Player Versus Developer.  If anything, more than one lower profile title has taken an overly critical article and turned it into a publicity stunt for the game by calling media attention to protest how their poor little game was wronged.   The real concern is that if the underlying title is actually bad, it won't just be one post on one blog, but bad posts on all of the blogs.  This is why we don't get to have nice things such as real beta tests anymore from anyone other than the too-big-to-care Blizzard.  It never occurred to me that in accurately reporting my experiences, I might be part of the problem.

Aside: More Hearthstone commentary
Not the main point of today's post, but I figured it only fair to address some of the comments about my earlier Hearthstone impressions. 

Commenters make a case that my criticism was unduly harsh given the game's beta status.  There is some question about whether match-making is working as intended, or at all, at the moment.  Meanwhile, my win-loss record seems to vary dramatically based on what class I'm playing, which suggests some combination of balance issues and/or nuance to certain classes.  I lost six games in a row - including a 0-3 Arena elimination - playing as a druid, and then immediately won two games to finish the daily quest after blowing up my custom deck and starting over from scratch with a completely different strategy. 

Because they are accepting real money for entry into arena tournaments, I maintain there is a limit to how far the "it's still beta" excuse can be carried.  Moreover, if there is no good way to learn to play the game because of the game's focus on sending players to be slaughtered by general PVP population, that is a legitimate flaw with the title.  Time will tell, especially as more of the general public gets into the game. 


Hearthstone Constructed Match-Making: Profiting From the Stomping of Newbies
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 October 2013, 9:30 pm
Blizzard's Hearthstone is a well polished game that I would have enjoyed greatly if not for its trading card game (TCG) business model.  After a few hours in the beta, I am finding my newbie basic decks consistently demolished in un-ranked one-on-one play by decks stacked with epic and legendary cards.  Based on where Blizzard does - and does not - get paid for their work, I am not optimistic that things can or will change going forward.

I would rather be paying....
Hearthstone is free to download.  Playing against "basic" and "advanced" NPC AI decks is completely free, and allows you to unlock all nine heroes with 20 "basic" cards each.  Once you are satisfied that you know how the game works, entering the game's one-on-one constructed PVP lobby is completely free.  And here is where my experience went south very very quickly.

My experience makes me suspect that the "unranked" play mode operates on a hidden ranking system.  I faced roughly equal opposition for my first ten or so games, but as I had half a dozen wins under my belt I found that the games were increasingly lopsided against me.  I have slowly clawed to about a dozen wins, and I'm increasingly getting stomped into the curb five or more times in a row before barely winning the occasional match.  

In a one-on-one card game, one of the players is going to lose each and every game.  A perfect match-making system would aspires to pair opponents who have a roughly even chance against each other - which would mean that streaks of wins and losses are going to happen.  For that reason, the way in which you lose the game matters.  Losing because you made a poor choice or because the odds weren't with you or because your opponent built a deck that you could not answer can still be fun.  Losing because the other person has more and better cards than you do - the entire basis of the TCG business model - is not especially fun. 

Right now I am spending an hour at a time losing five or more games in a row because the match-making system is pairing my out of the box basic decks against players with cards that are objectively better than the cards I have.  I have had my entire health pool go from full to zero in a single turn as an opponent somehow strung together a combo in which they played a dozen cards due to draw and cost reduction mechanics.  And, to be clear, because this is a free to play game that I have not bought into, this abuse is the price that I am to pay in exchange for being able to play the game. 

Blizzard wants me to get stomped so I will want to buy more cards.  Failing that, they categorically don't want me to be able to click an option for "other people with basic - read unpaid - decks only" because that not only denies the people who have spent money the opportunity to stomp me, but it also means higher queue times for those players who are actually supporting the product. 

I would gladly pay a one-time fee for this product.  I would consider paying a subscription for this product.  I have zero willingness to pay into a system where I spend money and get a random assortment of cards that probably aren't the cards I wanted.  And as to the free option - on paper you can "win" booster packs every few days - the experience is not worth my time.

Alternatives
Two alternatives worth noting, that will probably be the only way I spend more time on this product:

1. You can supposedly challenge specific friends if you have their Battletags.  This would mean that you could come to an out-of-game handshake agreement to use the basic decks, and, ironically, not pay a dime for the product as a result.
 
2. The game's other format is the Arena.  Normal TCG's offer "sealed" formats in which you buy new packs of cards for a specific tournament (thus ensuring that the game maker gets paid) and then pay an additional entry fee, in exchange for a comparatively level (random card draws aside) playing field.  This is potentially fun but guaranteed to be costly - the sealed cards you bought are yours to keep, but you're probably never going to assemble a competitive constructed deck with these small random draws. 

The Hearthstone twist is that you do NOT get to keep the cards in your Arena deck, but that the format only costs $2 per draft because the entry fee is all you are paying.  As Azuriel notes, this does mean that a losing streak costs you real money per loss, but at these prices you're going to have to draft, play, and lose very quickly to be racking up more than $1-3 per hour in entry fees.  That's potentially high compared to MMO's (or potentially not if you subscribe to a game where you don't spend 15+ hours per month) but very very low compared to any other TCG on the market. 


The Paid Bypass For Levels
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 October 2013, 10:04 pm
With one click of a button, my old Warden crafting alt in EQ2 gained 48 levels and presumably a variety of gear, perks, and AA's.  I don't even know what I won because I have yet to log on to check.  I made my decision to throw this free upgrade at a crafting alt based on why I do - and do not - play MMO's. 

Indirectly passing on the free 85
Before pushing the win button, I used the "try before you buy" feature to test drive a level 85 Beast Lord.  This expansion class would have been the most likely choice if I were rolling a new character to actually play the game with.  Even on the partially locked down trial status - you start with limited AA's but a full set of high quality gear - I concluded that it was pointless for me to spend the free level 85 token on that character. 

I was killing things so quickly that I could not get a good feel for the class.  More importantly, I actually enjoy playing solo content in EQ2.  If I ever do play a Beast Lord, playing it from level 1 would be the entire point.  Since the free upgrade is a limited time offer (for the next week), there was no reason NOT to use it to grab some random perks for my highest level crafting alt to facilitate future crafting. 

Now my 62 Tailor is suddenly a lot harder to kill for any mobs I encounter during crafting quests, and supposedly he has a free flying mount for his troubles.  I wouldn't have paid the $35 SOE is asking for this service, as there is a non-zero chance that I will never actually benefit directly from having this character at level 85.  Still, I don't have a problem taking the upgrade as a freebie.

The myth of the perfectly-balanced player
There are two real drivers for this feature. 

First, the modern MMO model of vertical progression is completely failing people who play MMO's because they want to play with their friends.  There is no way for games to maintain critical mass for group leveling in a game that's multiple years old using traditional MMO mechanics.  Even in games where there is some sort of down-leveling or "level-free" system it is almost always somehow less rewarding for players to come help their newer brethren.  Thus we have a situation where soloing to the level cap - 80 or more levels in MMO's that have been around for a while - is the frequently only option.  

This would be fine if everyone who played MMO's actually liked all aspects of MMO's, but many people do not - for valid reasons - enjoy soloing.  However, you can't just punt on allowing solo content unless you are willing to write off a significant chunk of the market (not a bad decision in principle, and I tip my cap to the games with the guts to go this way).  And thus the developer's dilemma.  No matter how many times you nerf the content, the player who does not want to be there soloing is still going to see it as a speed bump between them and the group content they want to be doing with their friends.  Meanwhile, you will ruin the content for players like myself who actually want to play it long before you make the grind palatable. 

While it was EQ2's producer who floated the idea of jumping players to max level back in early 2011, it was actually World of Warcraft who implemented it first, with a revised win-back program a year and a half ago.  I supported the plan then and I still support it now.  Developers are not going to change player preferences on whether or not leveling solo is a good thing.  Killing levels outright for everyone (which Keen proposed a year ago) does fix the on-ramp problem but it does not provide an alternative solution to the design problems that levels exist to fix.  Offering instant levels is the most expedient - and, with fees, mutually beneficial - solution that I've seen to date. 


Advice for New Bloggers - Write what you want
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 October 2013, 8:01 pm
The Newbie Blogger Initiative is back for another year courtesy Roger of Contains Moderate Peril and Doone On of T.R. Red Skies.  I'm never sure what advice to offer a newbie because it depends on who you are and what you are attempting to achieve.  Personally, even five years ago when I generally played one MMO at a time, I felt strongly that I did not want my blog to be tied to a single game - then again, some of the best and most helpful blogs out there are game-specific.  Tobold makes some good points about not blogging under your real name if this is purely a hobby for you, but these go out the window if you are looking to make the jump into gaming journalism or elsewhere.

Thus, I'll offer up one tip.  Write what you want.  Player Versus Developer started five and a half years ago partially so I would have a spot to write about the Wrath beta (having won a key in a contest) but partially because I realized that I was already creating enough content for a blog, I was just doing it in the comments at other peoples' sites.  In some ways, posting that content to a site of my own was not any additional work.  

Keeping a blog running for years will take some dedication, and you need to enjoy it.  Your readers may have come to expect one thing from you, whether it's how often you're going to update, what game you play, or even what opinions you have, but I do not think you can keep a blog going purely on what others want your blog to be.  In fact, as someone who also reads a lot of blogs and listens to a lot of podcasts, I've found you can tell when the person creating the content is starting to get burnt out (often shortly followed by them closing up shop).

To me, making sure that this blog remains a hobby and not a job is what has allowed me to continue.  If you do stay in it for the long haul, your life will change - whether it's your job, your daily routine, or your family - along with what you play and how you think about what you're doing.  My daughter celebrates her first birthday this weekend, which also marks the better part of a year in which I have been posting just once a week to allow time for family and actually playing the games I write about.  Perhaps I don't have the readership I did back when I was updating more frequently, but I can say with confidence that I would not still be writing the blog at all today if I had tried to force myself to stick to the old schedule in changing circumstances.

Whatever your goals are, find a way to fit them within what you want to be doing.  The rest will come as it may.


Content Sales, or Lack Thereof in SWTOR
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 September 2013, 4:10 pm
I've been having a conversation with the folks at Ootinicast, who are celebrating their 100th episode this week, about the latest changes to SWTOR.  My thoughts don't really fit into an email that anyone would want to hear read aloud on a podcast, and I've mangled them slightly by trying.

At a minimum, Bioware appears to feel that keeping players out of current endgame content is not worth the modest amounts of money they previously charged for access.  In the longer term, I think Bioware is trying as hard as they can to have more of their money come from people subscribing to partake in traditional MMO endgame staples that are more sustainable than the game's famous story content.

Content Sales, or lack thereof
The core of Bioware's re-launched model is to use their content to sell subscriptions, rather than selling their content.  Games that have succeeded on a content sales model are generally able to deliver small releases of highly repeatable content every 2-3 months.  If people are only paying you when you have content (new or old) that they want to play available - whether that's a one-time payment as in LOTRO and other games or a subscription that players only pay to see the next chapter in the Sith Warrior story - and you cannot maintain that release pace, you are going to have problems getting paid.

Bioware launched the game's first expansion - with the only significant new story content to date - back in April at a cost of $10 for subscribers and $20 for non-subscribers.  Five months later, subscribers get permanent access to the expansion for free (even after their subscription lapses), making it cheaper for non-subscribers to pay for a $15 one-month subscription (which includes 500 Cartel Coins) than purchase the expansion at full price.  This could be a routine mark-down/discount (albeit unusually early compared to other games' expansions), but I feel it's worth considering Bioware's patch strategy as well.

At the Free to Play relaunch, Bioware implemented a fee for non-subscribers to access Section X, a new daily quest area that also offered a new NPC companion.  This may not have been a great test case - as the Ootini crew point out, it's the least popular of the pre-expansion daily quest areas, and Bioware gave away the unlocks in random Cartel Packs to subscribers who had no use for them and therefore resold them for trivial prices on the auction house.  Good test case or not, though, there was no fee for a new daily quest area added in patch 2.3 and to my knowledge no fee planned for new content - including some story - scheduled for patch 2.4.

Towards the endgame
A for-profit company does not reduce or eliminate fees that are successfully generating revenue unless there is some other consideration.  If newly level 50 players were routinely taking out their credit cards and paying for the expansion then there'd be no need to change the pricing.  The alternative is that significant numbers of eligible accounts have declined to purchase the expansion.

Because the expansion is tied to a level cap increase, not paying that fee means not having access to current group content and not having access to new daily quests and revised world events in new patches.  Likewise, counterintuitive as it may seem, I believe you can be a subscriber and still represent short term revenue for Bioware if you are only paying to solo the story content.  Such a player is unlikely to pay extra for access to a daily quest area with little new story.  In both cases, Bioware may be hoping that the player will ultimately pay for more game time if given the content for free.

Making Money
Damien Schubert once told the Ootinicasters that he would like to develop Capital Ships as guild housing in SWTOR - during that conversation, he admitted that part of the development process would have to consider how Bioware could expect to make money off of the project.  This is why this seemingly academic question may matter to the game's full-time subscribers.

Endgame PVE can't suffer exactly the same fate as ranked 8-player warzones (axed after months of promises of attention to the format this fall) or craftable cosmetic gear (all reserved for the cash shop henceforth), but the level of emphasis it gets can definitely shift based on where the money is.  The less money Bioware can rake in at endgame, the larger the portion of their effort they will need to shift to stuff that is open at lower levels and thus able to be paid for by more of the playerbase.  Coincidence that the game is now working on a revamp to space combat that will very likely be open well before max level?  Time will tell.




Failure to Transfer-proof MMO Launches
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 September 2013, 9:47 pm
There are at least four US/EU servers in FFXIV where people I know from blogs, twitter, or podcasts have characters.  I will need to pick one of those servers as a home.  That choice has huge implications on my future in the game. 

If I pick a newer server that is populated too heavily with tourists - players with established social ties are seldom willing or able to re-roll when new servers open post-launch - it could be deserted in a few months, leaving me high and dry in a search for groups.  If I pick one of the more crowded servers and the game does somehow continue to trend upwards, I could be facing the kinds of extended performance issues that I experienced in 2004-2005 having rolled on one of the 40 WoW servers whose names were announced prior to launch.  Perhaps most importantly, if I roll on a specific server to join specific people and those folks don't stick with the game, as I did in SWTOR last year, I'll be looking at a lonely experience.

I find it frustrating that we as customers who pay for online gaming services seem to have a misguided focus on the portions of the server population discussion that should be easiest to forgive.  We dwell on overcrowding on launch week, even though these problems are almost always fixed in a week or two.  We brand as a failure any product that ends up with too many servers and has the nerve to make the correct decision to consolidate them. 

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here with a server list and a choice that's harder than it should be.  There's no choice I can make today that is transfer-proof, and the provider really doesn't have an incentive to care since they stand to pocket the transfer fees if I get it wrong.  It just seems like the rare thing that we as customers who are paying for a service actually have a good basis to complain about, but we don't complain much and the problem persists. 


Wasted Content in WoW 5.4
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 September 2013, 9:03 pm
World of Warcraft's patch 5.4 finally dropped this week, adding another gear reset to the game's progression.  As a result, the unfortunate but efficient way to win Pandaria's endgame is to skip the overwhelming majority of the endgame content.  It just seems like such a waste, and I continue to question whether having stats on gear is even worthwhile if it's going to waste this much content. 

Raids gone by
By design, players can jump straight from heroic 5-man content into the new looking for raid content (with a very brief visit to Throne of Thunder - more on how this works in the next section). This is a good thing if your goal is to join your friends in the new content, either because you are returning to the game or rolling up a new alt.  It's probably a good thing if all you want is to beat the Garrosh raid once on LFR mode to say that you've been there and looted that.  If you were actually enjoying playing through multiple tiers of content and steadily acquiring new gear as you did so, however, this sort of spoils a fair chunk of content.

I have now run the Throne of Thunder LFR's once each (with an additional run through a partially completed final wing this week).  That's four raid wings I could be doing weekly and getting real gear upgrades each time.  At least I finished the five LFR wings from patch 5.0 before this new content arrived, because changes to gear vendors render that content pretty much entirely obsolete. 

I can still go back and do the old content as it was designed - in fact, the expansion's Legendary questline sort of favors that approach (you can go straight to the Ogrimmar raid and do almost all of the steps there, but you will be grinding the same content for a very long time) - but knowing that I'm getting worse rewards for the same time investment feels like doing it wrong. 

Appendix: Comparing 5.3 to 5.4
For context, an explanation of what changed and how it got us here:

Endgame PVE in WoW uses two currencies, which were not changed in the new patch.  Justice points are obtained in relatively large amounts and there is no cap on how many you can earn as long as you're spending them before you get to the 4000 point cap in your currency wallet.  Valor points are typically obtained in smaller amounts per reward, and there is a weekly cap in how many you can earn.


In patch 5.3, these currencies were of somewhat limited value.  Your goals were to get to ilvl 460 to get into LFR and then slowly increase your ilvl up to 470 and then 480 for the higher tier content.  The problem was that the justice point gear was low enough that it wasn't going to boost your average by very much, and you couldn't actually purchase any of the valor gear without first grinding reputation (primarily through solo daily quests).  As a result, I basically skipped random 5-mans, and got to 460 primarily by doing the daily random scenario once per day and spending the rest of time working on miscellany (the farm, archeology, etc).  Then I did the LFR's as intended. 

Patch 5.4 removed the reputation requirements and downgraded almost all of the gear from the valor vendor to the justice vendor.  As a result, ilvl 496 gear that previously required lengthy reputation and valor grinding to obtain is now quickly earned through unlimited random dungeons for easily obtained justice points.  This obsoletes the five LFR wings from 5.0, as it takes longer to earn fewer, lower quality rewards that will still actively hurt your average for the newest content in patch 5.4. 

Additionally, ilvl 522 rep rewards from the 5.2 raid now require only friendly reputation with that raid's faction.  You'll get this in maybe 2 hours by running 3-4 wings of 5.2 LFR's.  Once you have this rep, the return on your time in 5.2 content is questionable - you can earn valor points faster in other formats (including heroics) and those points get you ilvl 522 vendor rewards rather than scraping for a chance at ilvl 502 stuff in the 5.2 LFR's. 


Is SWTOR Space Combat a Good Idea?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 September 2013, 9:34 pm
SWTOR all but announced over the weekend that their long rumored "super secret space project (SSSP)" is a new off-rails space dogfighting minigame (see Ootinicast for a detailed summary of the event).  This idea is pretty universally popular (see Werit) - does that make expanding the game this far beyond its current scope a good idea?

The big trade-off when adding a major new game feature is the time that the developers weren't able to spend developing something else.  When your game already has instanced dungeons for 4-6 players including a tank and a healer, and you go to add instanced content for 3 players with no class restrictions, you are building something that is plausibly of interest to people who are already playing your game.

By contrast, we have EVE Online's decision to expand their space economy game into a First Person Shooter spin-off (that was platform exclusive to the PS3 for no reason that I've ever heard explained by anyone).  I haven't heard how this effort has done recently, this idea has always faced a challenge because of how far it strays from both its parent and its new genre.  Why would someone looking to play a new FPS want their battles to be dictated and decided by people playing a different space combat game? 

SWTOR's project isn't quite that extreme.  Space dogfights are a major part of the Star Wars lore and movies, and the game was widely criticized at launch for including an on-rails space combat game rather than a more open system.  That said, the current system is also completely optional - I never completed a single space combat mission (I did somehow fail the first one I tried about three times before giving up on the system for good), and it's even access-restricted for non-subscribers. 

Thus, the question remains - if you weren't willing to play the game before, why would you want to put up with an MMORPG as a condition of getting your space combat game?  If you are a current player but off-rails space combat was an absolute must-have deal-breaker feature, wouldn't you have quit SWTOR by now?  More likely, the question of whether this was a good use of Bioware's time will hinge on its ability to extract more revenue from existing players.  The sale of cosmetic ship appearances in the cash store gambling packs is an absolute certainty, and it remains to be seen what else they will have to tack on in terms of sales of power and/or access to recoup their investment.  I wonder if the system will be as popular when it's more than just a teaser video. 


PVD PAX Prime Recap
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 August 2013, 12:05 am
I managed to tack a single day of PAX Prime onto a trip to the Seattle to visit family - apologies to any readers who might otherwise have wanted to chat, I'd planned to post about this trip in advance, but the family vacation cabin rental turned out not to have internet access.  Anyway, it's not ideal to try and cram a show this large into a single day, but I accomplished significantly more than I'd expected.

The good - the community
As with my previous PAX experience, the best part of the gathering is the chance to see the people.  I managed to just stagger in the door in time to catch the MMO Reporter pre-PAX gathering on Thursday.  I'd met Chris back at PAX East in 2012, and this time I got to meet the rest of the crew.  In addition, I finally met up with Syp of Bio Break and various other projects. We've been chatting online through our blogs for five years now, and neither of us knew in advance that the other would be in attendance, so it was pretty cool to walk up to a table and get introduced.

These blog celebrities aside, it's always to be a treat amongst our folks.  I had some nice conversations with total strangers at this gathering, FFXIV's debacle of a launch party, and elsewhere in the show.  I also got a fair amount of swag - neither LOTRO nor Trion were in attendance with official gatherings this year, and they appear to have shipped their allotment of prizes on to the MMO Reporter shindig.  Good time all around.

The Bad - crowds, lines, etc
There's a certain amount of chaos that is inevitably going to happen when this many people show up.  That said, PAX Prime's bigger scale seemed to make for larger logistic snafu's than in the East in 2012. I showed up 30 minutes after the show floor opened, expecting to find the lines dispersed into the venue.  Instead, I was directed to a 20 minute line that went around the equivalent of two city blocks.... that ultimately deposited us back at the same place where we'd been ordered to go get in line, where people who showed up after we had were being allowed directly into the venue.

There were at least 200 people behind me in that line who also would have been better off waiting a few more minutes before they got in line.  I understand a need to spread out the crowd, but this absurdity felt like it was punishing those of us who played by the rules and did what we were told - if you're going to make people line up, it's only fair to let the people in the line into the venue first.

That said, this paled in comparison to FFXIV's launch party.  The game re-launched this week and had major issues with server load despite the experience from both the original launch and several beta/headstarts.  (See - Saylah and Keen for more info, I sat out the re-launch due to my vacation.)  It appears to only be appropriate that the party went at badly.  I showed up at the 3:30 PM "doors open" time and was number seven in line when the room was declared to be full for the developer panel - no additional people were admitted to the room during the panel even as folks began to leave.

You might have imagined that the developers could have repeated their presentation for the several hundred people in line outside, but this was not in the cards.  The activities when we were finally allowed into the room included a total of eight demo stations for the early game, a greenscreen booth for people who want to be photoshopped onto the game's Facebook page, and a massively long line for the chance to do a PUG raid encounter to win some t-shirts if your group was successful.  The SE people were admitting to each other that even folks who showed up when I did - over five hours before the end of the event - might not make it through this line in time, but still there were large numbers of folks waiting to get into the line when I gave up and left to spend my time elsewhere.  Ironically, this was my number one MMO to check out at the show and I would even have considered picking up a copy (they had them for sale, but on a cash-only full MSRP basis and no bonus swag for buying on the spot), so they really blew the chance to make a good impression.

The unfortunate, lowered hopes
  • Wildstar: By far the best experience I had at the show was at the Wildstar booth, which was my other top priority (and happened first because the FFXIV did not start until later in the afternoon).  They were handing out lanyards to anyone who signed up for beta, but the real prize was for playing the game.

    They had something like 24 stations up and running for timed 25-minute play sessions.  The options were the new starting area for the maniacal Chua race (though this was open to the entire Dominion faction for the demo) and a newer higher level area.  You were in for a bit of a wait - I waited around 40 minutes, which was also an opportunity to scout out what the other people were playing, and not bad return on investment as far as these lines go.  As if the play session for one of the most anticipated MMO's out there wasn't reward enough, there was a free t-shirt for everyone who waited long enough to get a demo station.

    I went with a Dominion Human Esper class, a ranged psychic damage dealer, in the new starting area. The nuts and bolts of the game are the standard quest-based MMO, with the addition of secondary objectives based on your chosen "path". Unfortunately, the combat was action-based, which is not an MMO trend that I'm fond of. Almost every ability for both player and enemy attacks is targeted on the ground, so combat requires frequent but uninteresting movement out of the enemy's target area.  I respect people who like this, but I don't feel that it adds real depth, just additional work.  Thus my best convention experience also seems to all but drop this game off of my watch list.
  • Assassin's Creed 4: For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, Ubisoft has decided to make the next game in this series an open world piracy (that's 1700's era people with swords and boats who say "Arr") game.  It looks like a great game about pirates.  Unfortunately, the Order of Assassins are really ninjas, not pirates.  There is some stealth, but they did not show any actual sneaking up on people to assassinate them, and instead focused on naval ship battles, spear-fishing for sharks, and 18th century diving for treasure.  
  • WB Games Booth: The only Turbine game present was the new DC Universe MOBA, and it appeared that you had to sign up in a team to play a live televised match to be allowed to play it.  There was also the newest single player Batman game, which, fortunately, does not appear to focus on whaling and naval combat.  
  • Elder Scrolls Online: This was another lengthy line, and one I decided to bail out on due to the length and what I was seeing over the shoulders of the people playing.  It looks like the single player games that I declined to play over the years, so I guess that's a good thing.
  • SOE: SOE was in the house to talk up Dragon's Prophet, EQ Next, and surprisingly DCUO.  EQN wasn't playable, but it had a respectable following.
  • Square Enix: FFXIV was all off-site, but they had stations available for two HD re-mixes and the new Lightning Returns game.  Looked reasonable enough.
  • Next Generation Consoles: I'm not expecting to buy a next gen console at launch.  If I had, I probably would have tried to fit in the new Infamous title.    
Overall, I guess it's not a bad thing that there are so few major titles on my radar - more time to catch up on all the MMO's I'm behind on.  If I'd had more time I would probably have tried to catch the big MMO panel and TESO, but really I covered basically all of my high priorities.  

What are you all watching out of the show?  



Cash and Burn
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 August 2013, 9:04 pm
I'm concerned that MMO Gamer Chick and Tobold are correct in their suspicions about this week's business model announcements.  Two of the highest profile upcoming MMO releases - Wildstar and Elder Scrolls - plan to launch with a mandatory box purchase and mandatory subscription fee despite nearly nine-years' worth of post-WoW MMO launches that have failed to sustain that model.  Both bloggers note that it would be borderline irresponsible for a business launching a subscription MMO NOT to have a back-up F2P plan - indeed, it appears that both titles may be setting the groundwork, with Wildstar's implementation of in-game time card items seen in other MMO's (including the F2P relaunches of EQ2 and Rift) and the cash shop that Elder Scrolls apparently confirmed in a German interview.  

Unfortunately, the same financial incentives dictate that launching with a subscription is an opportunity to extract $60 for the retail box (with $150 or higher price tags widely accepted for collector's editions) and some subscription revenue in the interim - especially if there's a chance to sell people on "discounted" pre-paid six-month subscriptions before they've had the chance to play the game. 

The problem isn't the subscription fee itself, the entry barrier created by the initial box price, the bad press often generated as games visibly fail to live up to their original promises (Elder Scrolls is already making the same promises that they plan to update every 4-6 weeks that so many studios have failed to sustain), or whether the final business model when the dust settles is in any way sensible.  My main concern isn't even that this model puts MMO studios in the business of exploiting hype and vague, misleading information to make a quick buck.  As Bhagpuss points out, these things ultimately have limited impact on the merits of the actual gameplay. 

The real casualty of these cash and burn tactics is the community.  When the dust settles, the tourists have come, overpaid, and gone.  The jaded veterans like myself have waited for the inevitable re-launch and gotten a high quality product at a fire sale price.  The cost is that the community is shattered as the majority of servers shut down, the majority of your friends leave for games that are looking more promising, and the folks who do return do so for brief periods as the content release schedule permits.  This may not change the gameplay - especially as more titles are offering more ways to play and win with limited time and commitment - but it definitely changes the experience of playing these games and experiencing these worlds.

If this is the solution to the problem of how to finance MMO development, it's a sad day. 


Missed Events of August
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 August 2013, 8:35 pm
It's been a busy month and I've missed a variety of things - some that I regret and some that I do not. 
  • Golden Lotus Storyline: I was aware that Blizzard was removing the Vol'jin world event introduced in patch 5.3 when patch 5.4 launches, presumably next week.  I was not aware until very recently that the patch also blows up the entire Vale and with it removes a large chunk of the less-than-one-year-old Golden Lotus storyline from the expansion.  I scrambled when I found out, but it does not appear feasible for me to gain the required reputation in the time remaining.  As an aside, I'm gaining this rep nearly twice as fast as was possible when the expansion rolled out due to new mechanics (rep for scenarios, dungeons, and farming) and it still feels slow - no wonder people were less than thrilled with Pandaria's launch.
  • FFXIV Open Beta: I'm frustrated that every studio insists that limited time events run on weekends.  Personally, I play most of my MMO's to unwind after work on week nights and have less time to spend on MMO's during the weekend.  In this case, that missing the party have been a good thing, as I've heard less than ideal things about how Square handled the inevitable soft launch server population issues.  (The open beta servers will NOT be wiped, and is followed by a headstart this week.)  That said, I have not heard anything about a free trial, so it's not clear whether there will be any mechanism to try before you buy for those of us who missed this weekend.  Not necessarily the best move for a game trying to shake a bad reputation.
  • Hearthstone: Got into the beta direct from Blizzard.  Not sure what, if anything, I'll do with that access - why spend time unlocking stuff now when the final game will be F2P and the beta is going to be wiped?
  • Patch 2.3 in SWTOR: New endgame content.  Guess it's not going anywhere.
I guess it's a good thing that the "slow" month of August hasn't been too painfully slow.  Anyone else feeling like they're having trouble keeping up? 


Havok and Hijincks on Kickstarter
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2013, 8:53 pm
My good friend Ferrel of Epic Slant and various podcasts has just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a card game called Havok and Hijincks that he and his colleagues designed.

As a recent parent, I love the idea of a game that requires thought but not a lot of time - something I can play with my wife during nap times, but that won't take a ton of time to set up or put away.  Cute dragons on cards and some light strategy sounds like just what I'm looking for.  Between Ferrel's track record publishing three books (two of which went to Kickstarter only after he finished the manuscripts) and the public record of the game's development over the last year (I provided some rules suggestions myself), this is the relatively rare Kickstarter that I can recommend without reservation to anyone who thinks they are interested in the product. 

More information on the game is at http://havokandhijinks.com and the game's Kickstarter campaign runs through September 24th.

(P.S. At the risk of derailing this post with broader MMO discussion, there is a big difference between someone trying to crowd-fund a pen and paper game, and all the video game and MMO projects that have gotten so much press of late.  You can actually design, test, and prototype a card game using index cards and a sharpie and have a decent idea of how the product is going to function.  If you are willing to support the development out of pocket through some combination of volunteer-work by the team and fronting the art costs out of pocket, you can get most of the way to the finish line BEFORE you go to your customers and ask them to pay you.  It's not impossible to do the same for a video game - see the valiant efforts of Eric at Elder Game - but that's no easy path either, and I maintain it's only a matter of time before a video game project that received a seven-figure budget from Kickstarter goes bankrupt without releasing their product.) 


Gear Catch Up Versus Bolster
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2013, 11:31 pm
I've been spending some time working on the tips from Blizzard's official guide on "catching up to 5.3" to gather some of the endgame gear from the patches I didn't play at the time.  I'm enjoying most of the process and it's going reasonably quickly, but I can also see how a new player just looking to play current content with their friends would lose patience with even this significantly accelerated pace.  Is this system really better than just automatically bolstering characters up to the entry level gear - a mechanic we're seeing increasingly for PVP in other games?

The Catch Up Method
Blizzard's guide is helpful and I highly recommend it to anyone who does have a new max level character in World of Warcraft.  I also find it unfortunate that the developers of an MMO are in the position of having to write this document, and especially unusual that the authors are encouraging customers to skip so much of the content that Blizzard spent so much money developing.

To oversimplify greatly, the guide's main point is to get to the bare minimum gear level required for the computer to let you queue for the lowest level of the automated raid finder, and then take advantage of several mechanics that have made gearing up in these raids much faster than it was a year ago.   To this end, the authors identify several low-hanging fruit in the reward scale - the kind of advice that five years ago you'd read on a player site like Player Versus Developer, rather than having the developer themselves TELL you to do X content and not Y content because the rewards are better.  They even go so far as to suggest fooling their own queueing system by equipping easily obtained PVP gear - this stuff may actually be worse than the random quest rewards you already had on from leveling because some of its stat budget gets spent on PVP stuff, but the item level is high and this is all the group finder cares about. 

Personally, I don't feel that players who get something early, when doing so is hard, should have a right to demand that future players must work as hard for the same rewards.  However, when you consider how often WoW in particular resets its entire itemization curve, and how extreme the catch up curve is, it starts to seem like your accomplishments will be so temporary that it's hardly worth working for them - better to just show up at the end of the expansion, like I have, drive through quick to see all the sights once, and come back in a year or two for the end of the next expansion.  Meanwhile, the new or returning player is forced to spend time - the guide says a week or two but this appears to assume far more effort far more consistently than what I've been putting in - grinding dailies and running random groups until they have enough gear not to hinder their friends in current tier raid content. 

Bolster and other automated solutions
Just giving players the stats they need to do the content they want seems counterintuitive to a genre that is built on persistent character progression.  Then again, this has happened in a variety of settings - Guild Wars 2 in particular made a big deal of this feature - and in particular in PVP settings.

I'll pick on SWTOR for a moment because their situation has evolved - and brought with it some serious growing pains.  Like many games, SWTOR has a PVP-specific character statistic, which causes problems when placing new characters who do not have this stat against characters who are fully geared out - even if the newbie's gear is very good for normal gameplay, they will fare very poorly. 

Bioware's first attempt to solve this problem was to make the entry level PVP set available for relatively reasonable sums of credits.  Next, they moved to giving every new level 50 character a full set of entry level PVP gear for free (in the process significantly upgrading whatever random stuff you had on when you hit the cap).  In the new expansion, they started implementing an automated "bolster" system that is intended to scale your stats up to some baseline level.  There were many loopholes (i.e. better to go in naked than wearing mediocre gear, because this would get you an overcompensating bolster bonus) but it sounds like most of the issues have settled down.

The end result is that players show up in whatever gear they're wearing, but are boosted up to the amount of PVP stats found on the new entry-level set.  This begs the question of why that's a non-zero number to begin with, rather than just using the entry level as the baseline if you're going to set everyone to at least that number anyway.  Players can still spend PVP currency to get the entry level PVP gear - and I think the intent is for this to be slightly better than the automated bolstering - but the overall effect is that you should NOT need to go do something you do not want to do as a prerequisite to doing something you do want to do with your friends. 

The cost of NOT bolstering
Getting back to World of Warcraft for a moment, prior to the current expansion, the developers stated that about a third of the quests in the expansion pack were daily quests so that players working on any one faction would have a variety each day the logged in.  Today, the guidance straight from the developer is that all of this content is completely optional.  The 3-man scenarios and 5-man instances also seem to be things that you spend only brief time in if you really want to - the real rewards are quicker and easier if you somehow get into the raid finder.  

It just seems like such a waste.  Time and limited resources wasted by the developer on content that won't be worth doing in six months.  Time wasted by players grinding out gear, enchantments, etc, that will be blanked constantly.  Time spend playing but not enjoying the game in the notoriously reward motivated random groups (that would not exist if not for the daily rewards).  And - in my case as someone who actually likes small group content - entire chunks of the game that aren't worth doing because the raid finder is easier and more rewarding. 

Would it really be worse to take stats off of gear altogether, give everyone what they need to do the content they're trying to do, and let players spend as much time as possible doing what they want with the people they want? 

(P.S. Random speculation - a purely subscription game makes its money based on how long players spend playing, so it's especially odd to see the last big subscription game standing giving players advice on how to skip so much of the content.  Either the lost revenue for NOT handing out this advice is even worse - players burning out and quitting early - or perhaps Blizzard is thinking about laying the groundwork for a business model shift where their money is less proportional to time /played.) 


The True Story of Theramore and Pandaria
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 July 2013, 9:16 pm
Nearly a year ago, Blizzard rolled out a pre-Pandaria special release of the in-game World of Warcraft scenario that destroyed the long-standing Alliance town of Theramore.  My reaction at the time was that the events shown in game made no sense without context provided from the novel, Tides of War, that was released around this time.  I picked up a copy of the novel as part of my pile of offline trip reading, and it turned out that I had only part of the partial story... it's the entire expansion that is only now making sense to me after having read the book. 

In addition to explaining how and why Theramore was wiped off the map, the book describes how numerous Alliance and Kirin Tor NPC's were killed in the bombing.  Their deaths were not immediately apparent in-game, and are a key part of the political context for the entire expansion - why it is such a big deal for both sides when conflict breaks out over the newly discovered continent of Pandaria.  The player finally encounters the survivors of Theramore in the Alliance Thunder Isle storyline (patch 5.2), and is left to piece together what happened to them in the time since last they were seen in game from random snippets of dialog. 


A Blackrock Orc named Malkorok is introduced in the novel as Garrosh's personal enforcer, at a minimum helping to enable the Warchief's fall to the dark side.  His actions - murdering anyone who disagrees with Garrosh and denying the Warchief's most closest advisors access to their leader - are apparently a big part of how the other leaders come to the conclusion that Garrosh must be removed, even if it means working with the Alliance to do it.  In game, this character is a throwaway character in one of the scenarios added in patch 5.3, and in a quest along the Horde storyline.  I guess he'll probably be a raid boss next patch, and most players won't know why. 

More generally, my initial impression of the Pandaria expansion storyline, NOT yet having read the book, was extremely mixed.  I felt that the Pandaren stereotypes (serene but hungry) were jokes that got overused and that the faction tension appeared artificial with the two sides in the conflict somehow taking on the same foes as they work across the continent.  Now I understand the narrative decision that brought us to Pandaria, and the seemingly odd decision to pre-announce that the Horde's own faction leader would be the expansion's final boss. 

The entire continent is a narrative gimmick, used to introduce the concept of "Sha" - physical corruption of people who have negative emotions - to take Garrosh's story to the end of his career as Warchief.  Knowing that this is what the story is about - and knowing all the context that was only available in the book - now makes me much more interested in seeing this seemingly bizarre detour in the story of Azeroth through to its ending.  It also emphasizes how inadequate the in-game treatment of the story was, when a player could go to the level cap, covering a fair amount of the content in the process, and have no idea what was going on. 


Things I Missed In Game
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 July 2013, 7:31 pm
The downside to being away from MMO's for a month is that stuff happens when you're not around.  A few things I observed from afar:
  • Another round of double exp weekends in SWTOR.  A bit disappointed to have sat this one out, the exp rate would have gotten my third character through their class story and made a decent dent in a fourth.  
  • FFXIV's third closed beta phase (received invite).  Indifferent to having missed this, as characters were wiped at the end of beta 3, and supposedly characters will NOT be wiped at the end of the open beta/phase 4.  Not sure how they're going to have both a non-reset open beta and a pre-purchase headstart program, guess we'll know in a month or so. 
  • Growing pains in Marvel Heroes.  The game's launch was a bit of a mess.  The patcher kept re-downloading the entire game client to the point where technical support was recommending that you install the game through Steam.  There were a variety of bugs and quality of life issues associated with quest rewards.  Perhaps most interesting, the studio has announced plans to move away from the completely random drop system for earning heroes in game and instead use a token unlock system.  Given that playing real characters from the IP is a central selling point of the title, I don't know if it's more puzzling that they refused to give ground on this point for so long, or that they reversed so suddenly.  Either way, the game looks like it's in much better shape than it was a month ago.  
  • Other things I'm not tracking so closely include Rift's business model shift (came down just before I left, haven't really heard much discussion since) and TSW quietly putting out DLC at a decent clip after the game's relaunch and the relocation of its studios.  
It could have been worse, seems to have been a relatively quiet chunk of summer.  I also learned today that WoW's patch 5.3 world event is apparently going away in the next patch, but I'm hoping there's still time to catch that.  What else has been going on in game this summer? 


Adapting to MMO Churn
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 July 2013, 7:19 pm
I enjoy the occasional time "offline" from my hobby reading and writing about MMO's.  It's a change of pace and a chance to get perspective on the way things have been going, both in my personal gaming life and in the bigger picture.  My thought, sitting back and observing the major discussions of the last month, is that this entire genre - players, developers, financiers - is still struggling to adapt to the current reality that MMO's are no longer a long-term commitment to a single title. 
  • Business model discussions remain the hottest issue in MMO's, in part due to Blizzard's effort to create the infrastructure and groundwork for a significantly expanded cash shop in World of Warcraft.  The upcoming title Wildstar is actually announcing in advance that they intend to make a business model announcement in the future. This environment is affecting the direction of game development, as studios struggle to recoup ever rising costs, but no one seems to have found a solution that is as mutually acceptable to both producers and consumers as the monthly subscription was in the days where players stayed put for the long haul.   
  • Increasing portions of the innovation that we're seeing in MMO's focuses on lowering entry barriers to combat the effects of churn on PVE groups and guilds.  WoW announced a new raid format with flexible group sizes in early June.  SWTOR is rolling out story mode flashpoints which remove the requirement for the holy trinity, and has also added guild bonuses that require players to be in guilds that have at least 25 active accounts.  Titles including FFXIV and WoW are adding instanced content intended to train players to function in groups.  These features simply weren't necessary in the old days where players stuck with games for the long haul and were forced to learn to group as they leveled. 
  • Another topic of the day is the decline of MMO bloggers - especially blogs that focus on a single title.  In an era where more and more people are hopping in and out of games, the investment required to set up a dedicated blog for a single title is harder to justify and sustain.  The same seems true for single-game podcasts - the recently concluded 200-episode run of Casual Stroll to Mordor is the highest profile example, but I've been seeing both smaller numbers and shorter runs on game-specific podcasts for a while now.
  • I think the story of the Pandaria era in WoW is that Blizzard attempted to use incentive design to replicate the level of daily engagement that players had in Azeroth back in the days where people stuck with the title for years.  My view is that people stuck with WoW in 2005-2006 largely because no other title on the market in that era was as focused on solo play, and that people formed legitimate social bonds that led to ongoing long-term engagement as an accidental consequence of not having anywhere else to go.  You can get players to log on for daily quests, dungeons, and raids, but you cannot replace genuine social ties with an alliance of convenience motivated purely by the fastest path to the daily incentive reward.  Instead, the artificial drive for commitment leads to faster burnout. 
People who lived through the old days and liked them continue to hold out hope that some future niche-focused title can recapture the level of stability that MMO's took for granted 8-10 years ago.  I wish them the best, but I see this outcome as highly unlikely.  The wide array of titles on the market today is a huge driver of player mobility, and a major challenge for retention - I believe a title that succeeded in this approach would need to be revolutionary, not merely evolutionary, such that no one who played the new title would be willing to return to anything we have today.  If the road back where we came isn't likely, and the place where we are now isn't financially sustainable, then the only hope is to adapt to modern demographics and find a way forward.  It's just not clear whether and how this can be done. 



PVD Summer Vacation
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 June 2013, 10:57 am
It's been a busy summer thus far and only stands to get a bit more hectic.  As a result, extended summer vacation for the blog starts a bit early - it's not worth stressing about when I'll have time to update the blog.  I should be back up and running in mid-late July.  As always, comments will be moderated while I'm away from the helm to keep the place from filling up with spam.  Have a good summer everyone!


Character Transfer Diservice
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 June 2013, 10:25 pm
I picked a server a bit over a year ago, after consulting with three bloggers who I knew were playing the game.  All recommended the same server and even the same bloggers' guild.  The third party stats sites guesstimated that the server was the number three RP server in the region.  Unfortunately, the guild didn't really work out - all the members seem to have gone off to other games, and I haven't even been able to find people to get guild invites for my new alts, leaving me on a server where I don't know anyone.  I can name at least three other servers where I would rather be playing today, but for the not-so-minor issue of all the time and even money I have invested on the server with my six current characters.

If you really follow my games and guilds closely, you might have guessed that the unnamed game experience described above is in SWTOR.  Most of you were probably scratching your heads, because a highly similar scenario exists in many MMO's. 

SWTOR's transfers
After promising for the better part of a year that character transfers were finally coming - a year which saw 90% of the game's servers closed, including the seemingly healthy one I picked several months post launch - Bioware has announced its paid character transfer service.  Transfers will cost $14-18 per character (depending on how you purchase your cartel coins), and it looks to me like they will NOT be available for resale in the in-game auction house. 

Bear in mind that this is a game that specifically promoted making all of your alts on the same server though the game's legacy system.  My six characters cover all the crewskill professions and each has probably a million credits worth of in-game currency investment in terms of character-specific legacy perks, collection items, companion affection purchased with gifts, etc.  More importantly, these characters share a large array of server specific legacy unlocks, a few of which I even purchased in the cash shop using my subscriber point stipends. 

Despite all of these reasons why I opted to make this many characters in the first place and all the claims that the transfer service would be "legacy friendly", there is no discount for transferring multiple characters off of the same server.  I would either need to leave behind characters - and not get any credit for their future efforts towards my legacy on the new server - or else be prepared to fork over $80.  Even if I did move to a server that's better today (the Harbinger server, home to the Ootinicast crew, would otherwise be a top contender), I'd have no guarantees that I won't be in the same boat in a few months if the new server also goes belly up.

An industry-wide standard
In a related story, Blizzard is running a one-week only sale on its paid transfer services - Azuriel points out that even at 50% off these prices are still higher than the SWTOR prices.  At the time Blizzard announced the service, the stated justification for such high prices was to recoup the development costs for the transfer feature and to deter frequent use of the service to enable antisocial behavior.  Apparently both of these arguments can be dispensed with if it encourages more transfer fees.   Tera also apparently had a window for open transfers that is coming to an end, with a new fee starting next week.

I get that locking players into static servers worked great for the industry in 2004, in part because that's what the technology of the era could support.  It's not 2004 anymore, and I don't think it's reasonable to punish customers for choosing "wrong" months or years ago by charging them to play with their friends in a genre that's struggling to find ways to keep customers engaged in the product.  It's not good for my enjoyment of the game as a customer, and therefore it's also not good for Bioware's revenue when my poor experience leads to less money spent on their product. 

It doesn't have to be this way.  Many modern games offer single-shard or cross realm functions in one way or another (Cryptic games, GW2), and we also have the example of Rift, which offers free transfers between its more traditional servers. Unfortunately, this feedback falls on deaf ears when developers can rake in nearly six months' worth of sub fees by selling a single customer in my position on paying to solve a problem that was not the customer's fault. 


Non-Buyer's Remorse Remorse?
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 May 2013, 10:20 pm
The Marvel Heroes online Diablo clone game is attempting to get off the ground right now with mixed and generally unfortunate results.

The game was down for the entire first day of the promised early access period for $200 ultimate founder's pack customers.  It appears from the forums that the game's account systems somehow completely failed to correctly flag accounts with what people had purchased.  Some folks who had NOT paid for the first wave of early access got in briefly this morning, some folks who did pay did not get in, and almost everyone did not receive the correct amount of bonus in-game currency - the devs were so busy trying to make sure people were able to log in that they gave up and credited everyone with the minimum amount of currency and promised to fix the remaining balance later.

On the one hand, this type of debacle is precisely why I don't pay for early access deals, and think they are a terrible (though industry-wide) idea.  When access a certain number of days in advance is a specific selling point, customers have every right to be irked if you fail to deliver.  On the other hand, part of me feels a bit of remorse that I'm not in the crowd that's currently feeling the buyer's remorse for their purchases.

The Pre-Sales Campaign
If you'd asked me back in January when pre-purchases were announced - without any knowledge of what was actually going to be in the game - what hero and what costume from the entire Marvel universe I'd like to play in the upcoming title, I would have said Cyclops in his 90's era costume.  Cyclops has been portrayed very inconsistently over the years, but that particular era's plotlines - and that particular visual look - were amongst my favorite memories of the comics I read in my high school years.  Ironically, that very character with that particular costume was offered as one of the $20 starter packs.

I didn't bite.  It didn't occur to me that the studio would engage in an incredibly aggressive hard-sell campaign.  Shortly after that first post, they reduced the amount of cash store currency included in all bundles without advance notice, and threatened that the deal could get even worse with no notice.  Then they started removing popular characters (i.e. most characters with recent movies) from the $20 tier so that they would only be available in the $60 premium packages.

Then they announced at PAX East that the pre-orders would be the only way to guarantee that you got the specific character you wanted.  At the time, they intended to disallow players from purchasing specific characters post-launch, instead offering a lottery ticket that would contain a random hero instead.  This went over so poorly that they had to walk it back - apparently even MMO players have an upper limit of how much business model abuse we will take.  (Instead, they've rolled out a system where all heroes are available in the store, with most costing $9-12 and a few popular picks as high as $20.)

Overall, as I wrote in February, the pre-sales campaign treated customers in a way that I do not want to be treated.

The alternative...
Of course, I didn't know any of this when I decided not to buy a starter pack back in January.  Rather, my decision was driven by lack of information about how the individual characters would turn out.  Sure enough, many people are saying very bad things about Cyclops on the forums and Reddit, referring to him as "Punchlops" since he seems to have to spend more time punching than firing optic blasts.  Even his defenders say he is a fragile character whose best contribution comes in the form of buffs for groups - and I'd anticipate spending more of my time solo.

Feeling locked into a character I don't enjoy playing because I paid for that character sight unseen months ago would irk me almost as much as the aggressive sales tactics and the significant issues with the game's launch.  On the other hand, in that scenario my decision would already be made, I'd be out $20 and left to make the best of the game one way or another.  In particular, I'd own that costume that I wanted and now know will cost $15 in the game's cash store post-launch - more than I can justify spending on an optional cosmetic item. This means that if I ever do get to play Cyclops - either as an unlikely random drop or by paying for the unlock - he almost certainly won't have that iconic look I remembered from high school and wanted to play. 

The good news is that I like The Thing, he's one of the free options for starter heroes, and supposedly he isn't bad.  I will now plan to roll into the game's non-pre-purchase launch next week without spending any money up front, and they will have a tough sell to convince me that I should give them money after all that I've seen and know now.  Objectively, I made exactly the right decision.  It just remains to be seen whether the cost of having been wrong would have been that bad. 


Examining Hex Upsells
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 May 2013, 11:50 am

Azuriel has been looking at the Kickstarter tiers for the upcoming Hex TCG.  Personally, I'm probably going to pay for at least the $20 tier so I can see what the whole PVE card game thing is about, but I'd been on the fence about what, if anything, to pay for beyond that.

When I look at these kinds of upsells (collector's editions, multi-month subscriptions) I find it helpful to take out the baseline amount that I'm pretty sure I'll spend, rather than looking at the total cost for the total package.  (For WoW's annual pass, I assumed that I'd typically subscribe for 3-4 months during the year in question, deducted that from the total bill, and looked at everything else in the package against the money that was left.)  A wall of text follows, so I'll offer the bottom line up front - based on my analysis, I'm actually leaning towards spending the minimum.

Breaking down the upsell tiers
My results, including stretch goals (with the starter and Penny Arcade merc on the $85 package, which I'm told is intended), and deducting the contents of the base $20 package (two starters, ten boosters, 3 free booster drafts -which I'm told include the required booster packs- 1 promo card, and hypothetically one pack for set 2 if the final announced stretch goal is met)

  • $35 ($15 upsell): One starter deck, 15 boosters, and four extra promo cards (1 mercenary).  
  • $50 ($30 upsell): Two starter decks, 35 boosters, and 11 extra promo cards (3 mercenaries).  (+2 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)
  • $65 ($45 upsell): Two starter decks, 45 boosters, 1 "primal pack", and 16 promo cards (5 mercenaries) (+2 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)
  • $85 ($65 upsell): Three starter decks (one of which is "KS exclusive"), 80(+12) booster packs, 1 "primal pack", 20 promo cards (7 mercenaries), and three months of VIP status (one free booster per week, thus the estimate +12 above). (+4 extra packs of set 2, final stretch goal pending)

When you look at the Kickstarter page, the $35 and $65 packages look underwhelming, probably to encourage people to jump from $20 to $50 to $85 (as Azuriel did).  I still think that's accurate for the $65 package, but I re-examined the $35 tier since Carson mentioned it in the comments at Azuriel's place, and your extra cards per dollar of upsell aren't that bad.  I can agree that the $85 looks tempting in principle - though your returns per dollar are starting to taper off (I would not even consider going higher) - but I'm hesitant to spend that much on an un-released product I haven't had the chance to play, even if the prices are "discounted".

Perspectives
Two additional ways of looking at this question:

According to the Q+A on the forums, post-launch booster drafts will have a $1 fee (not clear whether this can be traded) plus you will need to provide the boosters.  This is good and bad - good in that you can run a fair number of booster drafts for a greatly discounted price if you save your Kickstarter rewards, but bad in that A) this requires you to not open your boosters for use in PVE until you can complete the requisite number of drafts and B) it's in some way a hidden fee (i.e. if I got the $50 package and wanted to use all the packs in booster drafts I'd be looking at paying an extra $15 in booster draft fees).

The other thing to look at is the glass half empty approach - how much MORE would I pay if I declined to upgrade now and then paid for the stuff later.  Not counting the promo cards, what would the extra starters and boosters in each package cost if I were to change my mind later?

  • $35 package: $40 retail, $25 penalty for not spending $15
  • $50 package: $90 retail, $60 penalty for not spending $30
  • $65 package: $110 retail, $65 penalty for not spending $45
  • $85 package: Analysis starts to break down due to exclusive starter deck and VIP time, call it $215 retail and thus a $150 penalty for not spending $65

At first, it looks like you're getting really good returns for your additional money.  However, this assumes that you actually NEED more starters beyond the one free newbie deck everyone gets and the two that are included in the base package.  If you have some degree of patience, you can also join the VIP program for $4/month and get one booster per week (i.e. 4 boosters for $4 plus some other benefits, versus $2/booster retail).  If we take the $35 package, forget about the extra starter deck, and instead use the $15 (well, $16) to subscribe for four months, we end up 16 extra boosters... one more than the number of extra boosters in the $35 package.  I believe I have my winner.

Conclusion
I will wait and see whether new and exciting stretch rewards get added to this system later.  Right now, though, I'm inclined to stop at $20 and mentally set aside another $20 or so for VIP subscription time and booster draft fees.  It isn't as sexy as a massive day one collection of cards including unique promotional cards (like the Penny Arcade mercenary).  If I end up loving the game and spending $85 or more later I guess I'll regret it.  Then again, that would be a good thing because it would mean that I actually liked the game, and I'm prepared to pay a premium later rather than risk putting down a lot of money now on a product that I don't end up enjoying.



Review: Raptr and it's Rift Promo
Posted by Player Versus Developer [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 May 2013, 12:40 pm
I recently took part in Trion's cross promotion with Raptr to snag a free copy of last fall's Rift expansion.  I'm not playing Rift at the moment, but the rumor is that you will have to buy the new soul for each calling individually post F2P.  Getting all the souls now for free seemed appealing, but this created a minor question of how to log the hours /played to qualify for the promotion. 

The marketing campaign requires players to create a Raptr account and log roughly 13 hours of time "playing" Rift - the unlimited free (re-) trial version will do - with the Raptr client open.  This would be difficult if you were legitimately trying to play the game, as the trial caps at level 20 and you'd run out of stuff to do before you logged the requisite hours.   


Fortunately, to make a long story short, Raptr's client does nothing to deny you credit if you want to AFK to pad your playtime.  The clock starts when you open the Rift client and the clock stops when you close the Rift client.  If you choose to leave your the client on the "you have been disconnected, push okay to close client" screen for ten hours, that's your business. You can even play a different game simultaneously, if your computer can handle the load, and Raptr will log and credit your time /played in the second game as well.

Gaming and social media
Besides getting something I guess I sort of wanted to have without spending real money, this was an interesting visit to the social experiment that is Raptr.  I have misgivings about mixing social networking with online gaming, and the experience did little to assuage them.

My Raptr profile - which I immediately changed to self-only - proudly proclaims that I played a "crazy session" of 10+ hours of Rift during working hours on a weekday.  Publicizing this information - Raptr will spam your twitter feed for you if you provide your credentials - is what makes Raptr valuable to advertisers, as it can go back to Trion and say that every play session I logged is a advertisement for Rift spammed out to all my friends for free. This is also why they have zero incentive to prevent me from AFK'ing - Raptr knows perfectly well that I was idle (and will even mark me AFK in the chat system if I want), but it's just as happy to add my AFK hours to the total it includes in its marketing materials.

It's less clear to me why it's to my benefit to have my gaming activities broadcast so publicly.  I suppose the sheer length of time involved makes it relatively obvious that I opened the client, went to work, and stopped for groceries on the way home before checking to see if I'd made the required hours yet, but I can imagine questions being asked by current and potential employers if this type of activity log was public and a frequent pattern.

The client also helped itself to scanning my hard drive for all the games it could find (which was NOT most of them, because it didn't think to look on my data drive) without any warning that it was going to do so, and posting those to my profile as well.  You can delete them manually - and I assume re-delete them every time you let it rescan - but if you don't want the world to know that you have Hello Kitty Online Adventures on your computer, you're probably going to have to work at it. 

At the end of the day, it's your choice whether to opt into these sort of things - so long as you read the fine print closely enough to realize what you've agreed to, and think ahead to the reality that information that you placed on the internet voluntarily is probably never coming down if you change your mind later.  If I had any aspirations of making money either covering or making games, I suppose I could see some benefit to having this kind of record as a public resume of my achievements.  Perhaps if I was looking to catalog time /played for myself or someday my kid (i.e. if I see you on the computer playing and you're not in Raptr chat, I assume you've closed the client to cheat the logs and you lose your computer privileges) , having a log handy would be helpful. 

As an every day user, though, I think I'll pass, even if that does mean that I won't be getting credit for hours that might someday qualify me for some future reward. 


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