Home court advantage in DarkFall

April 30, 2009

I was hoping that after this past weekend, I was going to have a post about our planned siege in DarkFall to capture a local hamlet. Unfortunately the day before our planned siege was the day the Cold War broke, and the alliance leadership decided to take advantage of that opportunity and strike. As time was winding down on the hamlet, the server crashed and ended our opportunity. Even though we never got a chance to execute the full extent of our plan, we still learned some good lessons concerning sieging in DarkFall, and our next go-around should go that much better.

One of the major challenges or advantages currently is the size of the world and the available travel means. The world is absolutely huge, and riding a mount is the fastest form of travel, which naturally favors local combatants versus long-distance forces. Not only must the traveling side initially cover more ground, but upon death they are also further removed from combat. If you are defending a hamlet or city which you are bound near, you will naturally be able to jump back into combat much faster than your invading enemy. It’s this inclusion of meaningful travel that helps to localize communities in DarkFall, and makes defending vast empires like Hyperion or the Goons more difficult. 

The other major advantage a local force has is their knowledge of the terrain down to the smallest details. Knowing the layout of the rocks and trees over the next ridge might not seem very important when you are just riding through, but when you are chasing someone fleeing on a mount, knowing the best location to jump off and fire arrows is critical. Pick the wrong spot, and the enemy will be able to hide behind trees or other terrain features, while the right spot will allow you to fire enough arrows to bring that mount down. If you come across an enemy group and they flee, knowing the local area will help you corral them into unfavorable terrain, be it water or impassible mountains. Without that knowledge, you will likely just end up in a long chase which results in your enemy’s eventual escape.

These types of details won’t become known until you run into a situation where they are needed, and that need depends on multiple factors. How active you are in local PvP, how often you fight quality opponents, your preferred fighting style (melee, mount, range), the size of each engagement; all of these things eventually add up and give you an edge when fighting on your ‘home court’.

More FreeRealms price wondering

April 29, 2009

Just to follow up on the FreeRealms post below, how many of you are going to PAY for FR? I see a ton of people say they will try it, but I’m not hearing a whole lot of talk about all the features people are looking forward to buying (card game is the only one mentioned AFAIK). How much money are you going to invest is what many are calling a secondary MMO?

While FR can’t really be compared to a standard subscription MMO, I also don’t think you can make a comparison to traditional F2P games either. F2P games are generally budget titles with low development costs aimed more at tossing out ten titles and hoping one is a hit. FR is not one game out of ten SOE hopes will find an audience; it’s FR or bust for SOE here.

FR drops the upfront profit of box sales, meaning they forfeit the gains made from the tourist population. Everyone knows AoC and WAR both got a large chunk of change from initial sales before settling into their market size, and FR won’t be able to benefit from this post-WoW effect. This also increases the pressure on getting more people to not only pay, but pay for a long time. Everyone who quit AoC/WAR in the first month essentially paid a subscription price of $65 for that month, equal to a bit more than four months of ‘normal’ subscription pay, or a full year of the FR sub price. So even if every single tourist actually pays for 12 months of FreeRealms, SOE has only managed to collect what Mythic or Funcom collected in the first month.

This all leads me to believe the RMT factor in FR will be higher than I’ve read, or SOE really believes they can get millions to pay the $5 monthly fee. The issue I see with RMT, and I’ve said this before, is that while someone with a credit card might be willing to pay a few bucks on impulse, a child playing FR has to ask mom/dad to buy them that pink bunny. How many parents are going to allow their child to rack up $15+ of RMT transaction a month? Remember that the business model behind RMT is to accept many, and profit off the few that go overboard. With a third party (the parent) controlling the cash flow, that will significantly curb the ‘addiction’ of RMT that we see in traditional F2P games (not to mention that the basis for that RMT is usually to gain power compared to others, usually in an end-game PvP setting, which is clearly not going to be the case in FR)

Side note: This discussion of FR puts the actual gameplay aside. If FR is amazingly fun and gets 11 million paying customers, that minimizes the impacts of a bad business model, just like if FR is terrible and has 10k paying customers, no amount of cleaver payment plans will save it. I’m simply trying to further understand and analyze how SOE seeks to capitalize on FR with their current pricing model, as it’s clearly different from the standard $15 a month we normally see.

FreeRealms from a distance.

April 28, 2009

While I personally have zero interest in playing FreeRealms myself (shocker I know), I am interested to see how it all plays out for SOE given some of FR’s design decisions. FR all along has been marketed as a kid-friendly game, one set more to challenge Club Penguin than WoW, and certainly not a game aimed towards MMO gamers who are currently playing WAR/LoTRO/EQ2 etc. Is the ages 12 and under market big enough to support FR, especially at a free or $5 a month price point, and is the design behind FR the right one to keep that market playing for months on end?

The first issue I see is the market/price. At $5 a month, FR needs 3x the number of paying subscribers to make the same revenue a standard MMO makes. In other words, FR needs 900k+ just to match WAR’s 300k+ in terms of income. FR also has RMT elements, but those might be balanced out by the far larger group of free players still using bandwidth and customer support. It’s yet unproven whether dropping your price down to $5 will encourage 3x the number of people to pay, all other things being equal.

The other issue I see is player retention given its design. With no upfront cost for a box, the option to see 40-60% of the content for free, and needing each customer to play 3x longer to equal the same revenue of other MMO games, FR relies on its paid content to excel in order to succeed. While I can’t comment on the actual quality of the content itself (reviews seem to be mixed on this), I think the way it’s delivered could pose some problems. With all classes and content being instantly available, FR seeks to reduce the usual MMO ‘grind’ to get to the good stuff. In theory it’s a more ‘friendly’ approach, but MMO history raises some issues.

In WoW, pre-dailies, players would only play one of the four available battlegrounds in order to grind out welfare epics. The one battleground played was not because it was the most fun or entertaining content, but simply because one could grind out the most points in the least amount of time. To a lesser extend, this also happened with instance runs, players ignoring the tougher or less rewarding content and only farming the highest gain spots. The addition of daily heroics and weekly battlegrounds changed this, not because they made the content more fun, but because the reward was increased enough to attract players to it, therefore extending the contents shelf life. How many players delayed quitting WoW because they had yet to finish grinding towards some daily reward, despite the fact that they were still playing the same unchanged content?

In WAR, RvR is clearly the games best feature, but that content was largely ignored until Mythic added significant player incentives. Prior to this, many players sat in warcamps and chain-queued scenarios, again not because this was the best content, but because it was the most rewarding. Only after changing the reward balance did the players adjust their playstyle, and overall helping make the best content in WAR possible (and the game better overall)

While FR is not aimed at the same crowd WAR or even WoW go for, it’s tough to think an entire player base will game so radically different than everyone before it. Playing for the fun of the content, rather than the epix it provides, is more a DarkFall mentality than a mass-market MMO mentality, and I don’t think FR is aiming for DarkFall numbers. While the solo player activities won’t suffer much from this, what happens to the group-based ones? What if (just an example) kart rider is less rewarding than mining, and so the majority of players grind away at mining and ignore kart rider, leaving only a few players to sit in long queues just to get a race going. Will this issue only become more prevalent because all content is always accessible? And if you allow players to grind away at their given activity, how long until they tire of that content, even if it’s of high quality, and stop paying the fee to use it? Players are well known to over-focus on rewarding aspects of a game, many times to their own determent. How does giving players all access instantly play into this, especially when the goal of your product is to retain that player for months? (and theoretically that player already had a much shorter attention span due to age)

While I don’t doubt FR will attract a lot of eyes to its product, I’m skeptical how many of those eyes it can convince to pay for select content, and even more skeptical on it’s ability to keep them paying for months on end. The tween market is notorious for jumping from one fad to the next, often at random, and it will be interesting to see if a product like an MMO is able to retain them long enough to profit.

Stop blaming the game for your own failure

April 28, 2009

In a shock to no one but perhaps himself, Keen is on his way out of DarkFall. The same game that last month was god’s gift is now a “bad game” and “destroying itself”, despite the fact that since launch it has only improved both from a code/content perspective and also from general player activity (the cold war is over, sieges happen daily, boats/warhulks are starting to come into play, alliances form and fall).

A player leaving a game like DarkFall disillusioned is not surprising. On the contrary, I fully expected the churn rate to be far higher at this point given the nature of impact PvP and the majorities’ perception/reaction to it. The mentality of “it’s not me, it’s the game” is somewhat sickening however. The same source that continues to ask for something different goes out asking for more of the same, while at the same time wondering why 95% of the MMO market is an EQ clone.

A perfect example of ‘doing it wrong’ is Haven’s history. (Keen pre-launch created guild) Starting off as an independent and casual guild, they soon discover that more forward-thinking guilds have captured all of the world’s real estate shortly after release. Now rather than doing something about it themselves, Haven joins the largest alliance on the server (Hyperion) and is soon handed both a hamlet and a city. The ‘cold war’ sets in, with both Hyperion and the Goons doing a lot of forum talking and not a whole lot of in-game fighting. It’s at this point that, according to Keen, DF is broken because everyone just sits inside their city walls doing nothing but boring PvE and grinding, and there is no small scale PvP to be found (to the contrary of this and other blogs). The solution here, again according to Keen, is to change the game rules and create rare spawn points and other artificial incentives. The cold war breaks, Haven loses their city, leaves Hyperion, and claims to go ‘nomad’ and return to what made the game fun for them all along. Shortly after we get the ‘I quit’ post and comments linked above, complaining that character skill is beyond broken and that somehow DarkFall did not deliver on its promises.

Now while it would be foolish to argue DarkFall is currently perfect, its issues are not those that Keen found. Exploiting in-game mechanics to enhance a character beyond normal means is an issue currently (and becomes less of a factor daily as everyone catches up), but it’s far from game-breaking. The game is not based on 6v6 conflict, let alone 1v1, and continually focusing on an individual characters skill total is misguided. Yes that enhanced character is likely going to take you down 1v1, or perhaps even 1v3 assuming he is skilled, but not 1v5 if the 5 are competent players, and the odds of actually having that fight remain 1v5 are slim. In a 10v15 scenario, that one enhanced characters impact is minimized, and again the deciding factor will be player skill, rather than the sum of the characters skill points. Yet when you continually obsess over your stat sheet, and each encounter with that enhanced character sticks out, you stop playing the game to play it and jump on the skills treadmill trying in vain to catch up. DarkFall is an open PvP game, and won’t hold your hand to make every fight ‘fair’. Expecting to go out and find that ‘fair’ fight will only lead to disappointment; either in being underprepared and overwhelmed, or in the enemy avoiding you until they have a more favorable (read: unfair to you) situation. There are games that cater to preset, ‘fair’ engagements that are readily available, DarkFall is not one of them, nor was it ever sold as such.

The issue of cities and guild activity is another player created problem, rather than a broken game mechanic. It’s obvious that something will have less meaning when it’s just given, rather than something you worked for. Inquisition takes pride in our hamlet, and we work to keep the surrounding area as safe as possible. Our small alliance’s focus is based around that same principle of establishing our little area of control. Had we been given our hamlet to watch over by a large alliance, I doubt we would feel as attached to it as we do. Yet somehow, according to Keen, it’s the games fault Haven feels indifferent about its city or alliance affiliation, and the game rules should be changed to fix this. Balance changing rare resources should be added, creating artificial player incentives (which would only increase the advantage of the major power blocks, and push the smaller factions further down, but it sounds good, right?). In essence, he is asking for a themepark-style design to be added to the sandbox; rules to govern player activity and herd them in the right direction. That’s fine in a themepark MMO, but goes sharply against the ideas behind a sandbox. The issue is not the rules, but rather how the players use them. In this case, rather than being a focal point of guild unity and pride, the city and alliance were a source of boredom. That’s called user error.

In the end, a player’s choice to leave a game is his/hers to make. And while a guild leader/officer leaving so soon is sure to disrupt that guild, it’s also to be somewhat expected of guilds formed pre-release and with little history (It happened a few times to CoW in WAR). What I take issue in is the perception that the game did not live up to the expectations of the players. The players actually playing and embracing the game for what it is would strongly disagree (and since the game world is near max capacity, clearly more agree than disagree) Asking for radical changes to be made to tailor the game to YOUR expectations is what upsets the current players and gets you a “WoW that way” response. We play DarkFall, in part, because we enjoy creating our own rules/content rather than having it delivered. For those looking for a themepark, plenty of options already exist.

Of course, the likelihood of Tasos actually reading such a post on a blog or forum and pushing DF in that direction are slim to none, but if you look at MMO dev history, more than a few changes have been made that displaced the current population in favor of chasing those who left or never came. It’s that history, and those burned by it, that elicits the common response misguided or disenchanted players received in the past, receive now, and will continue to receive in the future.

Edit: Just to hammer the point home, we have this from Keen:

“It should be about constant action and dynamic gameplay in a hardcore, real-time, environment. Ships everywhere in the seas, warhulks razing the countryside, keeps falling, armies amassing, and all of that good stuff. Right now Darkfall is like watching paint dry.”

That sounds a lot more like Lake Wintergrasp than DarkFall, but at least you made your point a whole lot easier for everyone to see. It really is overused, but in this case it just fits: Go back to WoW.

MMO games: Why are they more fun in beta?

April 24, 2009

If you’ve been playing MMOs for a decent amount of time, it’s likely you have taken part in at least a few beta tests, be they open or closed. If a game really got you interested early, you might have gotten a chance to get into an early beta phase and really see a game from the inside. And despite the game being in rougher shape during beta than at release, how many people have had MORE fun in beta? Odd right, or is it?

In a typical beta situation (not a stress test open beta), testers play on one server and have a focused message board to comment on the game. The community is small, almost everyone playing is more invested in the game than a ‘normal’ MMO gamer, and the player-to-developer communication is usually much higher. The game usually changes at a rapid pace due to patches, server wipes are both frequent and expected, and players are more tolerant of bugs and crashes. And last but certainly not least, beta is free.

The free part is easy to understand. If you are not paying for something, your expectations are generally going to be lower than if you have to spend money. If a free app on the iPhone sucks you chalk it up to it being free and don’t worry about it. If you spend $50 on a game that’s unplayable, you are not as likely to just delete and walk away. But free vs pay only goes so far, as plenty of F2P MMOs exist, and even at that price most people can’t be bothered to play them longer than it took to download them.

The player-to-dev aspect is nice, but how many of us really expect our armchair designer dreams to be taken seriously? It’s always nice to get inside the mind of a designer and know the how and why’s of the game, but unless the game takes a turn you don’t like, you are going to remain happy reading patch notes and just enjoying the game itself. In other words, a shitty game with an active dev staff on the boards is still a shitty game, and no amount of ‘blue posts’ is going to convince you to spend $15 a month.

A far more important aspect is the player community itself. With one server, whatever happens in-game is happening in YOUR world, not on some other server you could care less about. If the auction house is really active, it’s YOUR auction house that’s active. If a major war breaks out between two big guilds, its people fighting on YOUR server. All ‘world first’ kills are also server firsts, and it’s YOUR server. That’s a big deal, and really keeps players interested in the day-to-day of what’s going on. With high day-to-day interest, you are likely to want to log in more, and that also keeps your individual interest in the game high.

In addition to the single server advantage, you are also likely gaming with only ‘core’ players, ones that all follow the game more closely and actual care about what’s happening. Generally the players are more competent, involved, and invested in the games future. That type of environment rubs off on everyone, and leads to closer and more respectful communities. The world is no longer just about what your guild is raiding tonight, the rest of the server be damned, but about seeing familiar names/faces each day and actually enjoying rather than dreading PuG groups.

While players care more about the game overall, they also don’t stress out as much about actual in-game accomplishments, in large part because they know a beta is not permanent. It’s an interested dynamic really; we are drawn in part to MMOs because of there ‘never over’ nature, yet we are able to enjoy them more when we know what we do ‘does not count’. Is there a gray area here? A Tale in the Desert has regular resets that seem to work for that game (never played myself), but would this work for others? Unlikely in WoW or similar games, but ShadowBane had one before its death with reported success (DarkFall killed SB, not the reset).

All this leads to one question; what would you pay to play your favorite MMO in a more closed beta-like environment. If for $30 a month WoW offered a premium server, aimed at the ‘core’ WoW players (include whatever bonuses/rules would go along with this to make it happen), would you go for it? Would paying double the monthly fee (or more) be worth it if your in-game experience and community was at the level of a good beta test, making PuGing enjoyable and the world more alive with players playing to have fun rather than chase the next shiny? Would you pay more to play WAR in a guild-only server, where the only players were ones in solid and established guilds, removing the zerg vs zerg herd mentality of tier 4? Would you pay extra to play LoTRO on a more strict RP server, where the spirit of LoTRO was better enforced and the more WoW-like players were removed?

As gaming matures, so do its players. Many people are no longer ‘growing out’ of playing games, but rather growing with them. Those asking mom and dad for $15 a month are now working and have disposable income. Is there a niche market for that demographic; those that are still huge fans of the genre but no longer entertained by High School humor or with 8+ hours to grind daily?

DarkFall: Forumfail

April 23, 2009

The DarkFall forums are a near endless source of entertainment. The clan discussion section is basically one giant game of “who can tell the most lies about in-game activities”, a section generally dominated by the Goons in there “anti-zerg” crusade. That’s right, the Goons, sticking up for the little guy. Bit of a hard sell when your motto is “we have more players than you have ammo to kill”, but whatever you say. While it’s not quite up to the standard of COAD in EVE, it’s still good times.

On the other hand, you have the short bus section of the forums, general discussion. Scattered between “look at me” attention-whore posts and “the sky is falling” idiots, you find gems like this:

I would have liked to play DF but im not a big clan fan, and since I never got out of the macro stage I really could not do much. I could see a game being macro dependent for a while like to build magic or some basic skills but after macroing MM and heal for DAYS AND DAYS and not really seeing any benifit i said c ya dark fall.

So many levels of fail, so little said. On the one hand, you have the general issue of trying to solo DF, which unless you really enjoy a major challenge, is not going to work. But even before that, the mentality of a ‘macro stage’ is just ludicrous. I mean there is ‘players grinding out the fun’ and then there is this. After macroing for ‘days and days’ and NOT SEEING A BENEFIT, instead of actually playing the damn game the player quits. The game just told you, very clearly, “you don’t have to grind skills to play”, and the player interprets that as a reason to quit.

Yes skill gain helps, and characters with exploited skill levels have a noticeable advantage over those who play legit, but unless you are going heads-up against the exploiters, lower skill levels really don’t limit what you can do. I can now solo a few mobs I originally could not, I hit a bit harder with a weapon, and have more utility available to me with magic. Noticeable progression, but not even close to the power inflation of going 1-80 in WoW, or even going from greens to epics at 80 itself. Add into all this that any character can use any item, and that player skill is a more dominant factor than either gear or character skills, and it would seem to be very difficult to image why some people obsess over the numbers in a game like DarkFall. It would, if we did not know the majorities first MMO. In that light, it almost makes sense.

Paid beta: You’re playing it.

April 22, 2009

DarkFall is often referred to as a paid beta, and I agree. It has some serious issues, a multitude of minor problems, and countless little nagging annoyances. Despite all that however, it’s still the most engaging and enjoyable MMO experience I’ve had since UO in 1997. (And has shown me that those rose tinted UO glasses are indeed not as dark as some claimed)

Where I differ from some on the paid beta issue is that IMO, MMOs have two states; paid beta or slow death. That’s it, no magical middle ground of ‘done’ or ‘complete’; either the game is still being expanded and new, bug introducing code is being added, or the game is on the back burner and being used as a cash cow.

Of course there are varying degrees of paid beta. Vanguard was close to unplayable in its original state, WAR is stable/solid but feature incomplete, PotBS is stable but ultimately flawed, etc. Even WoW, which was perfect at release, introduces new bugs or broken/imbalanced features with each mid-year update. The only time it’s possible for an MMO to exist bug free is if no new code of significance is being added, and that only happens if your game is dead/dying. Any argument of ‘too many bugs’ also has to attach a release delay to it. Would you rather wait another 3-6 months for an MMO and have some of the bugs fixed (but not as many as a live paid beta fixes), or actually get to play the game you have been waiting for all this time, and roll with the punches knowing it will improve?

In addition, the feeling of ‘paid beta’ is likely only to be increased the faster content is added. WAR is a great example of this, as Mythic continues to crank out content faster than almost any studio around, and at the same time continue to introduce new bugs/imbalances. Flavor of the month classes are rampant depending on the latest patch, keep defense strategies rely more on what bug/imbalance is currently tops, and not all scenarios are created equally for the two sides. On the other hand, WoW is one of the least updated MMOs, with many areas seeing next to zero updates over its 5+ years (Battleground variety, new classes, graphics engine updates). In exchange for a trickle of content, the base code is about as polished as you get for an MMO. (Which says nothing about class or game balance of course, but at least you don’t fall through the world as often)

The question facing MMO gamers is not whether you support buggy software, but how high your tolerance for it is. Many have adopted a 6-month rule with any new MMO, as it’s within these 6 months that most MMOs experience the heaviest amount of bug fixes and changes. What they gain in bug fixes they lose in ‘New MMO experience’ of course, but it’s a choice they make. Yet regardless of when you DO jump in, if you play any MMO for long enough you will encounter a bug, downtime, or imbalance.

Seeing an MMO change (and hopefully improve) is a major aspect of this genre compared to others. It is, after all, the reason we pay $15 a month in addition to the $50 for the box/download. Unless a game is in truly rough shape, fans are always more excited about new content/features rather than bug fixes, yet we must also accept that all that new code is going to bring with it the inevitable issues. Luckily for us, its paid beta, and we are paying someone to fix those issues while providing us with new entertainment in a world/setting we love.


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