Do we still need new games?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 February 2015, 10:24 am
Several people commented yesterday that as long Steam doesn't go bust and they keep their current library, they wouldn't be too much affected by a decline in the video game industry. That is especially visible in the MMORPG genre, where the most successful game of 2014 was 10-year old WoW, and NCSoft was losing money on Wildstar while making money with the ancient Lineage games (in Asia). People apparently don't need new games all that much.

I do believe that there is an unlimited amount of stories to tell, so there is room for an endless amount of books and film. But when I read the bad reviews for The Order: 1886 which all laud the great cinematic story-telling and then slam the game for having too little and too outdated gameplay, I don't think that people buy games for their stories. I don't know how long Telltale can keep up the concept of making a series of games with no evolution of gameplay, just by telling a different story every time. Personally I much dislike those "games" which are only pseudo-interactive stories with no real meaningful decisions.

On the gameplay side evolution is very slow. When was the last time you played a game where the gameplay was not a minor variation of gameplay of earlier games? At best you get interesting combinations mixing gameplay elements from several different games. I can see how somebody who already has a dozen first-person shooters doesn't necessarily need a new one. With 70% of the games in my Steam library not yet played, and my iPad library being like that as well, I certainly could survive a drought of new games for a while.

So do we really still need new games?

Personally I think we do, but unfortunately not the ones that we are likely to get. For me for example the possibility space for massively multi-player online role-playing games is huge; but the part of that possibility space taken up by existing MMORPGs is tiny, because they all cluster around the same set of features with only a few outliers. I can imagine fully dynamic virtual worlds with many modes of gameplay we haven't seen before, but I'm not optimistic that somebody will have the guts to deviate from the tried and tested. So "no new games" isn't all that different from the current "no games that are really new".
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Coping with reality
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 February 2015, 7:22 am
I believe that 2015 will be a difficult year for video games, if not worse. My newsreader feed is already full with stories of layoffs, games cancelled, or MMORPG's whose earnings dropped by two thirds in one quarter. I believe that a combination of factors like the rise of mobile platforms and Steam Early Access / Greenlight has made it increasingly easy to make and distribute games. To the point where there are more games being produced than there is demand for. Demand in the economic sense of the word, as in willingness to pay for, not like in demanding better games on a blog / forum.

Warren Buffett said after the financial crisis in 2008 that it is only after the tide goes out that you can see who is swimming naked. As long as making games is a boom industry, over-enthusiastic investors or developers can keep a game studio afloat even if there isn't a good business case. When there is a game industry recession and hope is in short supply, tougher business decisions get made based on financial facts. It is also possible that this year or next we will see a major backlash against the crowd-funding business model. It already made headlines when Godus failed to deliver on its Kickstarter promises, imagine what the reaction will look like if Star Citizen isn't as great as everybody believes!

I believe the overall result of that gaming recession will not be pretty. And in particular I believe that the kind of games and business model we will see surviving this recession will be the ones tailored to more casual gamers, and diametrically opposed to the wishes of the hardcore gamers. The success stories of the future will resemble the story of games like Candy Crush Saga (casual, mobile platform, Free2Play). While games like Wildstar (hardcore, PC only, subscription) will have a hard time even getting published in the future.

This is not based on wishful thinking or my own preferences (I detest Candy Crush Saga). I am simply observing what works financially and what doesn't. Both major subscription MMORPGs released in 2014 are already in deep trouble. TESO is removing the subscription, and the Q4 Wildstar revenue numbers suggest only 100K players left, and quickly reaching the level at which NCSoft shut down City of Heroes / Villains. And more and more people discover that if they save $60 on a triple A game and buy a bunch of indie or mobile games for the same money, they get more bang for their bucks, especially given the number of triple A games that disappointed over the past few months.

I don't think that complaining will help. Life isn't fair, but we knew that before. The whole "this business model is morally superior" discussion is crap; in a recession the question becomes which business model and which kind of game enables a game studio to survive. Pure and simple. To some people with a huge sense of entitlement that will be a nasty surprise. The rest of us will learn to cope with the reality of the business of making video games.
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1886 clashes with 2015
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 February 2015, 10:31 am
Friday a much-hyped PS4-exclusive game called The Order: 1886 comes out. But in spite of a review embargo until Thursday the launch is already in trouble: Somebody with a review copy played through the whole game and posted the full length Let's Play videos on YouTube (now taken down). YouTube is where many people get their information in 2015. Problem is that on seeing the game life, many people didn't want to buy it any more.

Part of the criticism is exaggerated. While the videos showed 5 hours 30 minutes for a full completion of the game that was very obviously a speed run. I totally believe the devs saying that a regular player is more likely to need 8 to 10 hours to finish the game. That still isn't very long, but saying that you shouldn't buy this only because it is "only 5 hours" isn't right.

On the other hand the videos showed very well the gameplay, and people complained about the number of quick-time events, and the re-use of boss battles for example. I think those are valid concerns. And the interesting thing is that due to the review embargo combined with the leak the raw information about how the game played was out way before the filtered opinions of any game journalist. I might be a cynic, but I'm pretty sure that some journalists have now secretly lowered the score they game The Order: 1886 in their draft review. If you already know that your readers hate the game, don't post a too glowing review about it, however much advertising money you get from the game company. The whole thing is likely to hurt Ready At Dawn / Sony badly.

For me it would be perfectly fine if we got such a video leak for every new game. It didn't help me for The Order: 1886 (would never have bought it anyway, don't owe a PS4). But for the few games I'm still tempted to buy on release, I'd love to see a gameplay video before. That would be a lot more helpful for me to evaluate my purchase decision than some day one review. So here is my proposal to all game developers: If you really believe in your game, why don't you publish a full Let's Play video playthrough on YouTube yourself before release? It would get tons of views, you could show your game played as intended by you, and if it is really good then this should only increase your sales. How about it?
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Beware of hackers coming over the phone!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 February 2015, 8:21 am
A gentleman with an Indian accent called me today. He said he worked for Microsoft, and they were getting reports that my computer had been hacked. As proof he told me how to open up the Event Viewer, where of course there were lots of error messages and warning. After thinking he had me sufficiently scared he then offered to fix my problems by asking me to type in the address of a website into the Windows run window. At which time I told him where he could stick his lousy scam. I did a virus and malware scan, just to be safe, but my computer is already pretty well protected with hardware firewalls and software, so of course there was nothing.

So please, if somebody calls you with tech support for a problem you didn't even know you had, be extremely suspicious. That sort of customer support simply doesn't exist in the modern world. Somebody is simply trying to lure you onto their site that then *will* infect your computer, or they'll sell you a scam protection or something.
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Putting the cart before the horse
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 February 2015, 2:20 am
Since I have resubscribed to World of Warcraft, it very much dominates my gaming time. That is the one thing I always hated about subscription games, you feel like you are wasting your money if you don't play. So you're taking it for granted that you will play, and then decide what exactly you want to do in the game. More and more I am getting the impression that this is putting the cart before the horse. Shouldn't I first look what exactly there is in the game that I really want to do, and then decide whether I want to play this or rather something else?

While the garrison sub-game is interesting for a while, it does get repetitive after some time. Yes, I got my main character to item level 634, somewhere between heroic and LFR without having ever done either. But as I am not doing dungeons and raids, I don't actually need that epic gear anyway. So I ticked the "I'm not doing dungeons and I've run out of things to do" check box on the WoW cancellation form and quit.

Well, I can still play until the end of the month, which should give me enough time to finish the Shadowmoon Valley quest lines with my one alliance character. It appeared to me that much of the content in the other zones was faction-neutral, except for the parts related to building outposts. So even if I don't make it with a third character to level 100, I won't have missed much content.

One can perfectly well play the WoW garrison game by just logging in twice per day for a short time to start work orders and send out followers. But I'm sure not going to pay $15 a month for that. The garrison doesn't really solve WoW's problem of every expansion providing 2 months worth of content every 2 years. At this point in time I would be more interested in a Free2Play version of WoW.
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Apple against free
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 February 2015, 2:06 pm
Gamers know that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Games cost money to make, so any game being advertised as free probably has some sort of hidden cost or other source of revenue for the developer. And as such advertising can be attacked as being misleading, distributors end up being in the crossfire. Especially distributors of mobile games, because so many of them are "free".

Apple had to settle a suit accusing them of misleading children. Afterwards they changed their app store so that the button to acquire a new "free" game now says "Get" instead of "Free". And recently they featured a new category on the front page of their app store: Pay one and play games, giving rise to some satire for that being so unusual.

Now all payment models have their advantages and their disadvantages. But I think Apple is onto something in their approach: It focuses not on eliminating "free" games, but on disclosure. I think that is a very good idea. I would very much like to know in each and every case what the secondary costs of a game are. Not only for "free" games (where that is already not so hard to find out), but also for games where only after paying $60 you find out that you'll need to shell out another pile of money for DLCs or other stuff from the item store.
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That didn't take long
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 February 2015, 4:32 pm
Apart from some stupid remarks from SOE haters, there was a genuine discussion about whether leaving Sony was good or bad for the future of the studio now renamed to Daybreak and its games. But the optimists just took a big hit, as Daybreak now announced huge layoffs. Of course those are accompanied by the usual press releases of "don't worry, firing people will have no negative effect on the games these people were developing", but frankly, nobody believes those.

As EQ Next was pretty much the only remaining MMORPG on the horizon that I had any hope for, this isn't good news. If EQ Next is either rushed out cheaply or abandoned, we are left with an outlook on a selection of games rehashing old ideas and marketing themselves with nostalgia rather than innovation. Games that might have a certain niche appeal, but which won't revive the genre. That is too bad.
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Traveling with Netflix
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 February 2015, 11:42 am
Living in Belgium I have not very many options for video on demand services, I can't get Hulu or Amazon video. For a long time I only got the BBC iPlayer, which outside the UK only works on iOS. But then, a few months ago, Netflix came to Belgium. A huge improvement, and saving me a lot of money on purchasing DVDs.

Netflix not only runs on pretty much any device, it also runs everywhere. While the BBC iPlayer would refuse to work in most countries, Netflix simply gives me access to that country's catalogue of videos. Especially when traveling to America that gives me a lot of new options. The only downside is that on coming back home, I lose access to that much expanded offer, and am back to the much smaller Belgian catalogue.

Now I understand that licensing results in TV series being available in Europe later than in the US. But why does the US Netflix have older UK series like Midsommer Murders, and Netflix Belgium doesn't? Why doesn't Belgium have even old seasons of CSI? I sure hope that with time we'll get access to the back catalogue of the US!
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Extrapolating from a sample of one
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 February 2015, 6:06 am
One of the most common mistakes when people write their opinions on the internet is what I call extrapolating from a sample of one: You like something, and think that means everybody likes it; you lost interest in something, and think that applies to everybody else too. I was thinking of that when I read about both WoW Insider and Massively being reincarnated as Blizzard Watch and Massively Overpowered. I read somebody commenting that Blizzard Watch might have captured a lot of the nostalgia money by getting their Patreon out first. And I thought, well, there isn't going to be much interest in a new Massively anyway. But then I thought that I might be completely wrong about that, because currently I'm playing WoW and no other MMORPG.

I couldn't find any information how many readers the two sites had before AOL shoved them out of the door. So I was thinking about the respective audiences of the two sites: Blizzard Watch will appeal to everybody playing World of Warcraft, and depending how they develop their content further might also include other games like Hearthstone, with its 75 million players. With World of Warcraft having recovered a lot of subscribers with the latest expansion, that seemed like a large possible audience to me. Where I am more pessimistic is about the possible audience for Massively Overpowered, but as I said, maybe that is just me. Massively probably appeals more to people who do not play WoW or any other MMORPG for a long time, but rather to what some people call the "tourists", the people who try out every new MMORPG. And I'm wondering how well that sort of tourism is doing.

Personally, 2014 pretty much killed my desire to try out new MMORPGs. I was disappointed by Wildstar. I didn't like The Elder Scrolls Online either, but then I never had high hopes for that one. In particular I am left with the impression that the genre is stagnating: Games either come with a long list of features that everybody else also has, or they run on nostalgia for some past game with a much narrower appeal.

Not only am I not part of the narrow niche a game like Crowfall is targeting, I also seriously doubt that it can succeed with such a narrow potential audience. I mean if your designers KNOW that their design is driving away 70% of new players, and still rather want to repeat that design than the alternative which fixed that problem, what chances does the game have. It'll be Crowfail, with subscription numbers like Darkfail. 2014 also was a bad year for the idea that you could fix all problems of MMORPGs by moving from a theme park design to a sandbox design. ArcheAge couldn't get out of the negative news cycle long enough for me even wanting to try it. And later that year Elite: Dangerous (while not exactly a MMORPG) reminded a lot of adults why they stopped playing in their neighborhood's sandbox at the age of 5: An unlimited amount of sand isn't the same as an unlimited amount of actual content. So overall I felt as if the genre was somehow stuck between old ideas that have been already repeated endlessly, and new ideas that just don't work.

For me the news of Massively and WoW Insider being kicked from AOL, and SOE being kicked from Sony, are all indicative of a decline of the MMORPG genre. Even Blizzard doesn't want to make another MMORPG. And with Daybreak now being "independent", it looks like big companies have lost all hope in the genre, and all upcoming games are now indie games, more likely to be financed by crowdfunding than by investors.

The really funny thing is that the one outlier from this story of decline is World of Warcraft, which has been declared dead so often in the past. I guess if you are presumed dead, you live longer. On the current trajectory where expansions repeatedly succeed to halt the decline, WoW will still be around when every other MMORPG has closed down.
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Does your Bartle type determine your attitude towards Free2Play?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 February 2015, 4:10 am
Dr. Richard A. Bartle showed in 1996 that players in the same persistent virtual online world / game can have very different motivations for playing. The concept was later much simplified as the 4 "Bartle types": Achiever, Killer, Socializer, and Explorer. During this week's discussion on Free2Play I stumbled upon some comments where people considered Free2Play as being rather harmless, as they couldn't see how somebody would spend too much money on them. Other people thought that it was perfectly possible to ruin yourself financially with such a game. And I began to wonder whether this difference in opinion could be explained with the Bartle types.

The games where we have evidence that some people actually spent thousands of dollars in a short time on are all PvP games, like Clash of Clans or Game of War. It appears obvious to me that these people are of the Killer Bartle type. And I can understand that somebody who has strong tendencies towards that Bartle type can consider Free2Play games as dangerous: If you can buy power with money, and use that power to win over another player, that easily can lead to a spiral in which your opponent then spends more money to strike back, forcing you to spend even more money, and so on, until somebody gives up or is broke. Games where you can buy power only at lower levels, but not infinitely to beat high-level human opponents are considered by Killers to be much less dangerous.

For an Achiever buying power to win is also attractive. But as the challenges the computer opponents pose are fixed, there is more likely to be an upper limit of how much money you can spend. Even if raid epics were for sale, one set of the highest level epics would obviously suffice for an Achiever. The main concern that Achievers have with Free2Play games is that they consider the epic gear to be not just the necessary equipment, but also as the reward for their previous achievements, a trophy showing their achievement to the world. If somebody else can buy that, it cheapens their achievements.

Socializers are a lot less interested in buying power, and are more likely to buy cosmetic items and fluff. It isn't impossible to overspend on that, especially since some cosmetic items are rather expensive (WoW sparkly pony $25, EVE Online monocle $70). But there is not so much pressure on a Socializer to spend money, as even for him the items remain more in the nice to have category than in the must have category.

In a way the Explorers are the luckiest of the Bartle types with regards to Free2Play. Sometimes companies just plain forget to try to monetize them. I don't know if it is still the case, but I was struck at the time how Explorers got the best deal out of the move of Star Wars: The Old Republic to Free2Play: Everything an explorer wanted, like the full story content, was for free. What you can sell to an Explorer is mostly more content, like DLCs or expansions. Again those don't come cheap, but as it takes the developers quite a lot of time to produce more content, Explorers don't have to pull out their wallet all that often. Explorers are most likely to be annoyed by day 0 DLCs and similar moves. But as long as they buy really new content, they usually feel they get a fair deal. Offering fresh content is also the least specific possibility, as all the other Bartle types will probably want the new content too, for different reasons.

Ultimately much of the conflict about Free2Play models is often about the fact that everybody would prefer somebody else to pay. When you hear somebody demanding that games should only sell cosmetic stuff, that person sure isn't a Socializer. If the item shop contains nothing that you actually want or feel you need, you can actually play for free. But I think that for fairness it would be best if Free2Play games sold many different items, appealing to all different Bartle types, so that the cost of running the game is spread around fairly.
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Joe Nobody
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 7:59 am
j3w3l claims that Free2Play games are financed by "Joe “I am stuck at the laundromat because the parents cut me off” Nobody is bored enough not to wait another five fucking minutes, so he spends a dollar anyway. It can’t hurt, he thinks before racking up enough credit card debt to make his student loans look thin in comparison. Fuck you Joe Nobody, you just subsidized an evil, manipulative, and horrible monetization model." leading to a future where "every MMO will just be a store where you spend globs of cash just to show off how cool your avatar can dress while your house rots, your husband leaves you, and the kids get tired of pizza for dinner every fucking night and move in with grandma who smells".

I see two major problems with that assertion. First of all I don't think that Joe Nobody actually contributes much to the profit of Free2Play games companies. Journalist looking into "whales" have more frequently found examples of bored businessmen with an income in the six figures. Somebody who has more than enough money is more likely to spend it on something not terribly useful than somebody who has very little of it. Research also suggests that the typical Free2Play whale is over 30, and is not an impulsive spender, but a long-time fan of the game.

The second major problem I see is that if Joe Nobody played let's say World of Warcraft, he would still be extremely likely to arrive at the situation where "your house rots, your spouse leaves you, and the kids get tired of pizza for dinner every fucking night and move in with grandma who smells". If you have an addictive personality disorder and no self-control, a game where you advance by spending too much time in it is as unhealthy as a game where you advance by spending too much money.

In the end the attempt to paint Free2Play players as Joe Nobody's is exactly the same as pretending that hardcore gamers are unemployed losers who moved back in with their mother and play in the basement all day. What makes both of these assertions so unlikely is that games have become mainstream, with Free2Play games like Hearthstone having 75 million players, and that results in the players being a lot closer to national demographics than to some select niche group of losers or addicts.
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A thought experiment on game design
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 5:39 am
Let's compare two theoretical and very simple games:

Game A: Roll a 20-sided dice. You win if you roll higher than a 5, you lose if you roll 5 or lower.

Game B: Roll a 20-sided dice. You win if you roll higher than a 15, you lose if you roll 15 or lower.

Question: Is game B more difficult than game A? Does your answer change if the method of determining a number between 1 and 20 changes from dice to let's say throwing a dart at a dart board?

Please only answer if you understand the question. I don't need a comment to tell me that all versions of games I describe here are extremely stupid, I know that. The question is about comparing a player performance that is a result of luck, skill, or a mix of both with an arbitrary win condition.
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The business of creating content on the internet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2015, 2:54 am
I am old enough that my first steps on the internet happened on a university mainframe with text-only terminals. In 1993 the eternal September began with AOL opening Usenet to the masses. At that time, AOL was not just an internet service provider, but also a major content provider. It is very hard to sell internet access if there is no content on the internet, so this totally made sense. Of course the amount of content on the internet quickly exploded, and that business model went out of the window.

The next big idea, which led to the dot.com bubble was that you created content in order to attract "eyeballs", and that those eyeballs would then create revenue via advertising or direct sales. So AOL was still in the content creation business. While online advertising annual revenue in the USA alone is a $40 billion business, that revenue is very dispersed. Some companies like Google get a big slice of it, but there are millions of small sites that just earn pennies.

This week AOL decided to close several sites which operated on this "we create content and get ad revenue" business model. While those sites weren't really huge, they were big in the niche they operated in: Writing about computer games, and specifically the MMORPG niche. Gone are Joystiq, Massively, and WoW Insider. The overall interest especially in MMORPGs has waned, and apparently these sites weren't sufficiently profitable for AOL. Of course the people who ran those sites disagree and claim that AOL is just making a huge mistake by shutting them down. But from the outside, without having access to the numbers, it is very hard to criticize business decisions like that.

More interestingly it appears that the people who ran WoW Insider decided to go independent and change their business model. They now call themselves Blizzard Watch and want their readers to finance them via Patreon. They say their "minimum operating requirements are $8,000 per month", with additional content like class columns being posted if they can get $9,000 or $10,000 per month. This should be interesting to watch. As the new content will not be behind a paywall, people can just freeload and get the content without paying a monthly subscription via Patreon.

Personally I am a bit skeptical that this will work. While my blog is certainly in a much smaller league than WoW Insider, in my experience the willingness of people of donate money for content they could also get for free is quite limited. There might be a first rush, and then the contributions wind down. Patreon might actually work better than my donate button, because people sign up for it and then just never find the energy to cancel. But that is not a business model under which I would like to operate, counting on people's initial enthusiasm followed by inertia to get money.
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Grind2Win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 February 2015, 3:26 am
So some people are declaring the sale of SOE being a result of them making "horrible Pay2Win games". First of all that is blatantly and provably untrue: There is not a single SOE game where I could start today and with a budget of a million dollars get a guaranteed win. The much more accurate term would be Pay4Power, because I can in many games buy gear that improves my power. And in the overwhelming majority of cases I can get exactly the same gear, or at least equivalent gear, by grinding.

The sad truth is that most modern games went down a route where you would be rewarded for playing by receiving gear upgrades and the like that increase your power and make you more likely to win. Most online games today are Grind2Win.

And that is exactly where the protests are coming from: The so-called hardcore gamers absolutely *love* Grind2Win games. A Grind2Win game enables somebody who has too much time on his hand to rise to the very top of a game, and feel all smug and superior about his "leet skillz". When in reality leet gear with average skillz tends to do better than average gear with leet skillz. And Pay4Power game shatter exactly that illusion of superiority. If an average player with money can buy exactly the same gear that the hardcore gamer did grind for, suddenly the competition is actually really about skill. And many a hardcore gamer finds that he is in fact not really so much superior when the gear is equal.

Yes, of course, if somebody beats you just because he bought better gear than you have, that is unfair. But it is exactly as unfair as if you beat him because you did grind for better gear than he has. Games that are really about skill do not allow gear differences.

For example World of Tanks has a special sort of ammunition which can be bought either rather expensively with in-game currency, or it can be bought with real money. Yes, if your opponent has that "gold ammo" which penetrates armor better, you are at an unfair disadvantage. If you otherwise have the same tank and equal skill, the "gold ammo" can make the difference between winning and losing. But why would it make any difference how the opposing player acquired that gold ammo? If he got it by grinding a lot of in-game currency or by spending real money, the effect is exactly the same. Grind2Win is exactly as bad as Pay2Win.
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It's your fault
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2015, 8:22 am
SOE has been sold to an investment company and renamed to Daybreak Game Company. While the official press release is "pleased to announce" their future as "independent game development studio", the reactions from the blogosphere are less optimistic. Investment companies don't buy game development studios because of their heartfelt belief in the value of good games. They buy them to make money. SOE made $60 million of losses last year, it sounds unlikely that the investment company bought them to continue exactly like before.

The latest headlines about SOE before that were all about gamers complaining about various monetization ideas SOE had, e.g. the H1Z1 airdrops, or Planetside 2 being called Pay2Win. Basically people would like to play some of SOE's games, but they don't want to pay for them; they don't even want to allow other people to pay the games, not if those payments result in any nice rewards for those who pay. This is exactly the customer attitude that will kill a lot of game studios.

I am sick and tired of entitlement kids complaining about "Pay2Win", only to then complain some more when a game gets shut down. If you don't contribute enough money for a game to survive, but are contributing to the game's "bad press" by complaining about its monetization, the resulting failure of the game or studio is your fault. SOE will either have to shut down some expensive long-term projects like EQ Next, or it has to monetize its games even more aggressively to pay for those development projects. Game companies aren't charities, and if Sony ran SOE like one, they were negligent in their fiduciary duty towards their shareholders.

"We want great games, and we want them for free!" is just plain stupid. We need to encourage game studios to make money with their games if we like those games and want those studios and games to still be around tomorrow.
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 10
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2015, 3:21 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had vanquished both the alchemist who had created the powder that had transformed them into svirfneblin and the assassin who had first applied that powder, and then tried to kill them. They also had found an incriminating letter in a female handwriting, which the commander of the guard, Prince Ular, identified as being that of his sister, Princess Taidra.

This session started with the good news that the players now had accumulated enough experience points to reach level 11. In D&D 4E that is kind of a big thing, as you go from the "heroic tier" to the "paragon tier". You select a kind of sub-class which gives you new powers and abilities, and your stats go up. While it isn't in the rules anywhere how exactly that happens, I ruled that the players would need 1 month of training for this, but all the trainers they needed could be easily found in the town they were in (or outside, in the case of the druid).

First of all the group concluded the negotiations they had been sent out as ambassadors for by the svirfneblin king. They already had done two successful rounds of negotiations on peace guarantees and trade terms, and just had the miscellaneous demands left. I left them to decide what they wanted to ask for, they drew up a list, and then their chief negotiator managed to roll a natural 20 on his diplomacy roll and got all of his demands approved.

At the start of the adventure the Favorites of Selune had just been passing through this town on their way to Moonstairs, where they wanted to find a portal to the Feywild. Now they heard that there was trouble with trolls around Moonstairs, and that the prince would soon go there with a squadron of soldiers to sort the problem out. But as they had to stay for a month to train for their new level, they still had plenty of time to investigate who was behind the murder and their transformation, with Princess Taidra being the most likely suspect.

They managed to get another document in her handwriting to compare with the incriminating letter and found that it was in fact the same handwriting. But they had no absolute proof that the letter wasn't forged, and the sorceress of the group wasn't convinced that this wasn't all some sort of setup. Different players proposed different approaches of how to proceed, but they couldn't agree on anything. So the adventure ended in a damp squib, with the group finally deciding to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. :( They left town and decided to do their training with the svirfneblin.

Unlike computer games where not resolving a story can totally block you from advancing to the next chapter, in a tabletop RPG doing nothing is always an option. Forcing a resolution by the DM risks to be perceived as railroading, which I am trying to avoid. But of course resolving the story of an adventure tends to give rewards, in addition to being a reward of its own. And as a DM I'm sure not to give out rewards for deliberate inactivity. So ultimately the evil princess got away with her crimes, defeating the players by the simple device of not confronting them head-on like many fantasy villains tend to do. Kind of disappointing, but giving freedom to the players also means giving them the freedom to do disappointing stuff.

A game month later the players returned to town, to take a boat to Moonstairs. They met Belina, the prince's secret lover, who asked them to look for Prince Ular in Moonstairs. He had gone there with his soldiers weeks ago, and after a first letter had failed to give any further news, so Belina was worried. She also told them that she had sent Beatrice, the guard of the seamstresses's guild, with the prince to watch over him.

The players found a river boat that was leaving for Moonstairs the next morning and was willing to take them. The trip was three days, and on the third day, just hours away from Moonstairs, the boat hit a hidden underwater chain that somebody had spanned from one river bank to the other. At the same time magical tentacles sprung up from the mud of the closest river bank and started to attack the boat. With this cliffhanger we ended the session.
Tobold's Blog



A lupine change of plan
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 February 2015, 5:41 am
I got my second character in World of Warcraft to level 100, the frost mage after the fury warrior. Now my original plan was to now level the shadow priest, but I feel no desire to do so. The priest just isn't fun to play! By necessity you have to do some quests with all your characters, and there it really becomes painfully obvious how much less fun the priest is to play than the warrior or the mage.

Now there often is some confusion in MMORPGs between difficulty and time requirement. I found that my characters leveled a bit too fast for my preference, I would have like leveling at half the speed. But that doesn't mean that I want to play an underpowered character who struggles with fights that other characters can do easily. If I say I want slower leveling, I mean I want to do more quests before I level up, not that I want to lose time in slow fights or by getting killed.

Weirdly enough my warrior has better in-combat self-healing than my shadow priest does. The priest can shield himself and do desperate prayers with a long cooldown, but as he takes far more damage than the heavily armored warrior that is barely sufficient. The real healing spells are too slow for combat, and drop my priest out of shadow form. So in direct comparison the warrior deals more damage, resists damage better, and has better in-combat healing through victory rush and enraged regeneration which heal him without stopping his damage output. The frost mage on the other hand just deals far more damage than the shadow priest, and has better means of keeping the enemy at a distance. Both the warrior and the mage in combat frequently get bonus spells, which makes the combat a bit more lively. The priest rarely ever does, and is often reduced to having to use an ineffective Mind Flay spell because all the good spells are on cooldown. Even in isolation the priest isn't much fun to play, and in comparison even less so. I need a different third character.

I am using an addon (Wholly) that tells me which quests I haven't done yet, as this expansion has some quest-givers in not obvious locations. As the addon doesn't work very well and can't tell that I am Horde and can't do Alliance quests, I see that the Alliance has a somewhat different main story line. I'm being told the Horde story is better, but I've already explored that one on two characters, so for a third character an Alliance character would be better.

Now I do have a level 85 human paladin on a different server. But after some consideration I was thinking that I would prefer a ranged dps class. So I made a worgen warlock and started leveling him. The idea is play him at least through the worgen race content, and maybe a bit beyond, to see how I like the warlock class. But as I positively hate the Burning Crusade content, I'll probably either abandon that character or buy him a level 90 upgrade if I really like him. That way I could experience the Alliance quest lines of Warlords of Draenor.

As I didn't want another underpowered character, I looked up whether a warlock was any good in this expansion. Unfortunately the only information of that type available is about raid dps performance, where demonology warlocks are doing quite well. I'll have to get a feeling myself for how the character performs in solo questing and leveling content. I'd be grateful for any comments on which character classes / specs you liked or disliked leveling in Warlords of Draenor.
Tobold's Blog



Plastic isn't easy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 January 2015, 6:32 am
I am not a huge user of Kickstarter. Many people who promise to create the game of your dreams are either downright frauds, or they are kidding themselves on the complexity of such a project. Good game designers are quite frequently bad project managers, because those two skills require very different mindsets. So I tend to stay away from video game Kickstarter projects. After all, if the game succeeds, I can still buy it later.

The same isn't necessarily true with projects that involve physical objects. Last year I backed two projects: Tinker Gearcoins and Rollable 4-sided dice. As both of these are small private initiatives, it isn't obvious that one could buy these products later, at least not easily. Being a backer is sometimes even the only way to ever get that product.

Nevertheless the problem of project management doesn't go away if you deal in plastic instead of bits and bytes. The dice were funded in May last year, and had an estimated delivery date of September. The coins were funded in August, with an estimated delivery date of November. Guess what? I haven't received either yet. But the updates suggest that both projects are still advancing, they are just late, not stopped.

The real test will be whether the products, once they arrive, will be as good as promised. I'll keep you up to date on that when it happens.
Tobold's Blog



Inexpensive content creation
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 January 2015, 2:07 pm
A reader who was moved by the rumored closing of Joystiq (and by extension Massively), decided to "vote with his wallet" (his words) and send me a donation. I appreciate the sentiment, but the situation of my site and Joystiq isn't the same. Not only that, I might actually be part of the problem that sites like Joystiq have.

It used to be there was a huge barrier to entry to getting your opinion published. The internet removed that barrier to entry. While that did lead to the publishing of lots of opinions of the type "Lol, look at my funny cat photo!", it also led to some people who could actually write publishing some opinions worth reading. For free. Meanwhile gaming sites never found a good way to get a really good income, so much of the stuff they publish is basically a disguised press release. Which made some of their readers suspect that the opinions published on those sites, especially reviews, were paid for by the game companies.

Unless you *want* to read all the latest press releases that news sites offer, a well chosen collection of blogs can today offer you more honest opinions and better writing than many professional gaming sites. With less or no advertising. As a business it is hard to compete with that. As a blogger I can live perfectly well with a monthly revenue of zero (which is quite often the case). I write out of passion. Public, but principally for myself, like an online diary. That sort of content creation is very inexpensive.

While a specific sort of "gamer" is joyfully dancing on the not-quite-yet dug grave of Joystiq, one should notice that the game industry is heading towards the same sort of problem. Already mobile games are extremely cheap to produce. And some game mods surpass the quality of the original game. The more game engines become cheap and widely available, the more people will create games, and some of them will be good. When you discover that the $10 indie game from Steam is more fun than the $60 so-called triple-A game, that doesn't bode well for the financial future of the gaming industry.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 9
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 January 2015, 2:45 am
In the previous session we ended the year in the middle of a combat, which we now continued. The Favorites of Selune had investigated a murder and their transformation into svirfneblin, found evidence that the assassin was a certain Honrak who lived in a boarding house nearby, and had then decided to not yet act on that information. That gave Honrak the opportunity to react, and the assassin attacked them at night in their sleep in the tavern.

Now Honrak is a high-level assassin, but as he had so easily transformed them into svirfneblin earlier, Honrak wasn't aware that the group was also nearly as high level as him. That, plus the fact that this night the group had put up a guard, made the assassination less easy than he had thought. He did do some serious damage, especially in the first rounds when the group was still scrambling to get into their armor. But as the Favorites of Selune only had a single opponent in this fight, their concentrated fire was too much for Honrak, who went down after a few rounds of combat, not having killed a single group member. Honrak had used a flaming dagger, which the rogue of the group happily recovered.

Having learned that inactivity wasn't a good option, the Favorites of Selune then tackled their second clue in the morning, going the alchemist's guild. They had by then searched Honrak's room at the boarding house and found two poison darts, one apparently used to kill Belina, with instructions signed "Y.". That fit with their information that there was an alchemist named Yengo doing necromantic alchemy in the basement of the alchemist's guild. As they had talked to the head of the guild at the state dinner and gotten an invitation to visit, they now were able to take a tour of the guild. In the basement Yengo was behind a locked door and told the guildmaster to go away, but the guildmaster had the master key and opened the door. To everybody's surprise Yengo had created a flesh golem, and sicced it on the adventurers. The guildmaster fled, and the group was in their second fight of the day against Yengo and his golem.

The golem was doing serious damage with a rampage attack. That was an attack with a recharge dice roll, and due to luck the golem could use that twice in a row. Meanwhile Yengo was throwing various bottles with alchemical attacks. The priest was caught in the crossfire and went down, but the druid revived him. The Favorites of Selune cleverly concentrated their fire on the alchemist, basically ignoring the golem. That worked out well, as the golem stopped functioning when his master was dead.

Meanwhile the guildmaster had alerted the authorities and Prince Ular came with a squadron of guards. Searching the room the prince found an unsigned letter to Yengo instructing Yengo to provide Honrak with the transformation powder to get rid of the Favorites of Selune. The prince recognized the handwriting as that of his sister, Princess Taidra. But as the letter wasn't signed, he didn't think that to be proof enough to persuade his father, Duke Ruwan. That left the players to decide what exactly they wanted to do to conclude this adventure in the next session.
Tobold's Blog



Dog eat dog games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 January 2015, 5:38 am
Stabs is playing Magic the Gathering Online, and says: "Of course the thing about pecking order games is that those at the top become very invested while those at the bottom tend to leave so it's always a pool of players that are refining themselves by success. But dog eat dog is kinda fun, nothing like seeing people rage when they lose :)". His statement of "Magic is an extreme of competitive gaming, the game is built around redistributing assets from unsuccessful players to successful ones." is a good description of why I left. Not that I was completely unsuccessful, but the whole atmosphere of the game was too much like swimming in a tank full of sharks to be enjoyable.

Of course there are still ways to have fun in such games, especially by subverting them. For example MtGO has a format called "draft", in which players each open a booster, pick the best card for their deck, and pass the rest to the next player, in a circle. The player who picks the best deck that way will then probably win the draft tournament and get more boosters as reward than he needs to continue playing. If you are good enough, you can endlessly play for free, while the unsuccessful players pay for boosters and entrance fee and go home empty, except for the cards they picked. The way to subvert a draft is to rare pick, that is not taking the cards that win the tournament, but taking the cards that are worth most to other players. As rare cards rarely are the best to build a winning deck, a good player passing you his leftover cards means he probably didn't pick the rare of his pack. Of course rare drafting messes with the draft tournament, as the rare drafter nearly automatically loses, giving a free win to his lucky opponent. But it is a great way to redistribute assets from successful players to unsuccessful ones, in reverse of the normal situation.

By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average (median, to be precise). More modern and more successful online games have managed to keep those less successful players playing, by having a reward structure where there are only winners. You don't actually "lose" a game of World of Tanks, you just "win less". Note that the reward structure is external to the rules of the game, Magic the Gathering Online could just as well have used such a reward structure which doesn't overly punish the losers. As a result the most successful physical card trading game in history managed only a disappointing online success, with just a fraction of the number of players that for example Hearthstone has.

"Seeing people rage when they lose" might be fun for Stabs. But I believe that as a business model it is inherently self-destructive. Successful competitive games make life easy for the losers, because you just can't run a game without them.
Tobold's Blog



Recognizing the traps
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 January 2015, 8:44 am
A commenter this week said he was "burned by ArcheAge" and asked "How how much time and resource do you waste on a Free2Play game before you realise its Pay2Win?". My answer to that question is that this depends very much on your familiarity with Free2Play concepts. Whatever semantics you want to use, but Free2Play games definitively do want to seduce / trick / trap you into spending more than you intended. If you can avoid those traps, you can actually get more game for less money than in a Buy2Own business model. If you fall into those traps, you can get burned.

My recommendation would be to download a large number of "free" games on whatever mobile platform you have, phone or tablet, Apple or Android. As the games are not very elaborate or deep, you can easily play several of them in sequence. And you'll quickly learn how the same traps to incite you to spend money appear over and over in different guises. You can also learn a lot of those tricks by just watching some relevant YouTube videos like this one.

Once you are trained to recognize the traps, it becomes a matter of routine to avoid them. And you'll easily be able to recognize the same traps in more elaborate PC or console games.

P.S. While the Elder Scrolls Online is not going "free" to play, it will make the subscription optional from March 17th on. "Optional subscription" means that subscribers get virtual items and services that non-subscribers don't get automatically. So there will be a shop for virtual items and services, designed in a way that somebody might consider continuing to pay a subscription to get them. Which means ESO will have the same sort of seduction / tricks / traps as a Free2Play game. Buyers beware!
Tobold's Blog



Buying blindly
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 January 2015, 2:43 am
One reason why I am okay with the Free2Play business model is because I trust myself to handle it intelligently. I'm never going to spend thousands on a game, and if I end up paying as much for a "free" game as a full-price game would cost it was because I got as much enjoyment out of the game, or even more than I get from a full-price game. My buing decisions are informed, and commensurate to what I am getting out of the game. The key point is that I can start playing for free, and see whether I like the game, and gain a good estimate of the value of any virtual goods or services before I buy them.

Via the Battle.net launcher I received yesterday an offer by Blizzard to buy the $40 founder's pack for Heroes of the Storm. This is exactly the opposite of what I am describing above: I need to pay first to get beta access to the game, and I have absolutely no idea of the in-game value of the heroes, skins, and gold that is contained in the pack. I don't even know if I will like the game.

The best I can say about this offer is that it isn't quite as outrageously priced as some other founder's packs I have seen, and that I have more confidence in Blizzard to actually deliver a polished game in the end than I have in some of the other companies offering those deals. Some people already spent hundreds of dollars on Star Citizen. If that game fails to deliver on the hype, which given the high level of hype is nearly certain, some people will be severely disappointed and regretful.

Pre-purchase plans are bad enough, paying before the game comes out and you could read the reviews. But at least I've seen many pre-purchase offers on Steam where you could either get a discount for pre-purchasing or some other added value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm I am asked to pay $40 now for a game that will be free on release. I much prefer playing the game on release, when it is also in a more finished state. I'd rather miss out of some "exclusive" skin, or pay a bit more later, after having made sure that what is on offer is exactly what I need. I think buying games blindly is a bad idea, and buying virtual goods and services of a Free2Play game blindly without having first played the game is an even worse idea.
Tobold's Blog



10 minutes, twice a day
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 January 2015, 3:57 am
Over the years I have been subscribed to various MMORPGs for a long time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have played them every day during that subscription period. If you don't have much time, starting up a MMORPG usually doesn't make much sense. These aren't games that usually play well in chunks of 10 minutes, as they are designed to be relatively time-consuming. Warlords of Draenor is a big change in that respect: On a day where I don't have the time to play World of Warcraft, I would still log in for 10 minutes, twice a day.

The reason for that is the garrison sub-game, which is principally based on real time, not play time. You have a garrison cache which slowly accumulates up to 500 garrison resources, at a rate of 1 resource per 10 minutes. You have various building where you can give 7 work orders per level of the building, and each work order takes 4 hours. And you are sending followers on missions which last from 30 minutes to 10 hours. If you don't log on at all for several days, first your followers are all unemployed, then after about 3 and a half days your garrison cache reaches its cap and all the work orders of even level 3 buildings are done. At that point your garrison stops producing anything useful until you log on, send out your followers again, empty your cache, and start new work orders. Oh, and in addition your mine and herb garden spawn resources once per day.

If the reason that you don't have time is that you are working long hours with no access to a gaming computer, which is a likely scenario for an adult, you can still log in once before work and once after work and get pretty much everything set up again in 10 minutes each, shorter if you don't have alts. At this rate your garrison resource production is always at maximum, and by preferring long duration missions even your followers are productive for most of the day.

As I said, MMORPGs are generally designed to be time-consuming. At the level cap you usually need to put in quite some time to achieve some reward that is still useful for you. Compared to that the reward payout of a garrison per hour of play time invested is pretty fantastic. The downside is that by playing more, you can't advance much faster. For example it takes 1,200 resources to upgrade a barracks to level 3. With the garrison cache, lumber mill, and trading post you'll get those resources in around 3 days of just waiting around. But if you decided to get those resources by farming rare spawns, you'll get only around 15 per rare killed, and would pretty much need to kill every rare spawn in the game for one upgrade. Add all the treasures and quests that give resources and you'll have another building upgraded, and have run out of options.

To somebody familiar with city building / village building / farm building games on mobile platforms like The Tribez or Hay Day, that 10 minutes, twice a day mode of gameplay will be very familiar. But then these games don't have a subscription. While I would consider having to wait for hours for progress to be better than having to grind trivial content for hours for progress, the question is nevertheless how good this model works for World of Warcraft. 10 minutes, twice a day, makes 10 hours per month, which at $15 per month seems pricey. So the garrison is unlikely to be the sole reason for anybody to keep on playing. Even if you can get epic gear and other rewards for your character, those rewards aren't doing you any good if you don't play that character. But for a "weekend adventurer" with little time during the work week, the garrison is certainly a big plus.
Tobold's Blog



Keeping the lights on
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 January 2015, 3:19 am
Clockwork from Out of Beta is talking about commercialization of games. Quote: "I think it comes down to the intention of the developers when they are making the choice as to whether or not include a piece of content. If the developer is genuinely out of money to dedicate and needs to release, I see no problem with cutting content that they simply can't pay for. ... However, if the developer has already finished the majority of the content piece and will have it ready for release soon after and hold it back purely to sell it for more later, then I start to get a little annoyed."

Basically Clockwork wants game studios to only make as much money as is needed to keep the lights on. Which is a rather bad idea, I'd even go as far as calling it dangerous. What we need is spectacularly successful games where the game companies make money by the boatload. And selling more content over time is one valid strategy to get there.

The reason why we need those blockbuster games is the reality that so many games fail financially. If a company sets out to make a game, they are aware that there is a very real possibility that the game will never even pay for the development cost. If the best they could hope for was to break even, why would they even bother? The reason why we have such a big choice between many different MMORPGs to play today is that Blizzard at one point made a billion dollars of profit per year. If the financially most successful MMORPG in the world would just have kept the lights of the development studio on, many of today's games simply wouldn't exist.

To make a game you need capital from investors, and you need manpower. Investing in a business like games or movies is a high risk venture. The reason why you risk your money in that instead of buying treasury bonds is that there is a chance to get filthy rich. And the reason why developers program games instead of software for a bank is because they too dream of becoming famous for having created a blockbuster title or even rich.

I am opposed to a culture of entitlement where players want games and more content, but do not want to pay for all that. Let game companies pursue whatever commercialization strategy they want. If a game comes out at a certain price with a certain amount of content, you should decide whether that content is worth that price. Whether the development studio is profitable or not should not figure in that decision.
Tobold's Blog



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