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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you curious about in 2014?




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

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

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

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


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

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

Hat tip to Liore for the link.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Total
Total - $321


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Interesting times we live in, I suppose. 


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 


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