Your MMO won’t have a million subs, sorry Blizzard.

September 30, 2009

Tobold and I have a friendly little challenge going (around comment 45 on that post), one that sadly won’t have a result for a few years. The challenge is simple: The next Blizzard MMO won’t reach the popularity of WoW. More specifically, my bet is the game won’t retain 1million+ subscriptions after 6 months in the US/EU. Tobold is betting on 1m+. Of course WoW is closer to around 5 million subs in the US/EU after all these years, so even if Blizzard gets 1m it will look like a failure, but one million is a nice round number so lets go with that.

The details behind the challenge are, imo, more interesting than the actual sub numbers of the next Bliz MMO. To quote Tobold:

I think the stupid and false belief that WoW’s success is due to a combination of luck, timing, and marketing is the direct reason why we are seeing so many bad, sub-million subscriber games out there. If other companies would study what WoW did right (and I’m not saying they did everything right), and produced games with the same excellence of execution and attention to detail, they would have over a million subscribers too.

So if I can put words in his mouth, “Better WoW-clones please”. My view is the exact opposite, the more you try to out-WoW WoW, the closer your game is to Warhammer Online’s current fate/flaws. The more you stick to what you do well (CCP with EVE, Turbine with LotRO, even Mythic themselves with DAoC), the more sustained success you will see. Remember success in the MMO space is a marathon, not a sprint, and designing for 11 million is a fast track to the unemployment line.

The biggest problem I see today is studios are looking at WoW, and more specifically its huge user base, and trying to mimic the gameplay/design of WoW to get similar financial results. The problem is that WoW’s financial success is not tied directly to it’s design, but to the fact that it launched in 2004, at a time when what it offered was exactly what people wanted, SOE helped by pushing their established user base from EQ2 to WoW thanks to a disaster at launch, and the snowball rolled downhill after that. Yes WoW was a great game, but sorry, its design compared to the rest of the genre is not 11m great vs 300k for everyone else.

As each new AAA MMO launches, we see the same pattern repeating over and over. Initial over-hype and ‘the next WoW’ praise, tourists flock the servers on the first month, they wake up and realize game X is not WoW (their first and only MMO love), and return home. One million sold, 300k-ish after 6 months. We saw it with LotRO, AoC, WAR. We will see it with Aion and SW:TOR, and yes, with Blizzard’s next MMO as well.  Any MMO that launches will have its share of issues, and while so many were not around to witness, WoW was no different in this regard. It had queues, it had server crashes and rollbacks, it had (has) class balance issues, broken systems (pvp), an inadequate UI, botched lore, graphic and sound problems, dev controversy, etc. You name it; WoW had/has it, just like any other MMO. It was not the polished little gem many found in 2006 or beyond that they now compare to any freshly launched game.

It’s too bad we have to wait so long, but hopefully between now and then the genre sees a few more EVE-like titles with actual vision (small v) and purpose rather than soulless WoW-clone after WoW-clone (but with wings!).

Because 59 FPS just won’t do…

September 30, 2009

I would like to think I’m normally strong willed regarding most things in life, with one very noticeable exception: gaming. Be it chasing a .05% crit upgrade in a themepark, grinding out some skill to 100 just to get it maxed out, or resetting a level because I made a small mistake on one of the 30+ turns, gaming makes me a loon. And it’s not just in-game either; gaming-related purchases are no different. Why ONLY spend $130 on headphones when the $180 model might help identify sounds just that much better. If you are going to spend $2500 on a gaming rig, you might as well go to $3000 and get the Alienware, right?

And so when Aventurine announced that DarkFall now supports SLI thanks to their work with Nvidia, well, that single 8800GT just won’t do. And while a second 8800GT would be a quick and cheap option, the 295GTX card is only a few… hundred dollars more. I mean it’s going into a $3000 comp, what’s a few hundred on top? I’m weak, so so weak.

The truth is, when I got the Alienware I intentionally got a weaker graphics cards because I knew at the time Nvidia was planning to release newer cards (this was before the 200x series of cards were released), so instead of getting a top end 9800x card, I got the older model 8800GT and waited. Plus with all the other hardware being top-end, even on a 24” monitor (why get a 21” when the 24” is that much better, right…?) at 1900×1200 most games still run at 60FPS+.

Unfortunately for my wallet, DarkFall does not run at 60FPS+ at ALL times with everything maxed at the moment. So shadows got turned off, and now even in large 100+ battles the FPS holds up, but hey, shadows are off, and I like shadows. So Newegg, Nvidia, and BFG all owe some money to Aventurine, because without those beta drivers that now support SLI for DF, I would not have been motivated to make the purchase of a new BFG 295GTX card last night. Hopefully I get it Friday for some weekend gaming goodness, but now comes the fun part, waiting for the damn thing to arrive!

(And if we are really being honest here, Nvidia actually bought the card for me, since their stock has been on fire recently. At least normally being good with money somewhat lessens the pain of being gaming obsessed)

DarkFall: Specialization rather than a skill cap.

September 29, 2009

Another day, another quality post in the “Spotlight” section of the Darkfall forum, with today’s entry talking about Aventurine’s thoughts on a skill cap (not happening), and their plans for character diversity through specialization. Follow the link for all the details, but the basic idea behind specialization is you boost one skill/ability at the expense of something else. One example is the mage-killer ability, which boosts your archery damage vs a player wielding a staff, but limits your own magic usage. Another example is the current spell specialization, with the options being jump-casting, 10% damage, spell travel speed, or a range increase. As you can only select one boost per spell (and not for all spells), you have to make some choices and pick which spells will fill what roll. Assigning and switching the specialization costs 1000 gold, which is a decent amount but not crippling.

As someone who was a supporter of a skill cap, I actually really like the thinking behind specialization and how it will add diversity to the ‘end-game’, when most characters have many of their skills maxed. Obviously the key will be how it’s implemented and how it affects balance, but the overall idea of getting one bonus at the expense of others is a good one. Currently this system only effects spells and soon will give archers some options, but hopefully melee and crafting also see similar specializations soon, rather than ‘MMO soon’. Melee users need a better way to close the distance and ‘stick’ to their targets, while specialization in crafting needs to reward players for focusing in certain areas rather than being a jack-of-all-trades with every craft maxed.

One other benefit of specialization that I have not seen discussed is its impact on newer players. For example, by focusing early on archery, a fairly new player can compete at the higher levels with specialization, as the magic penalties won’t effect them much (they don’t have the magic skills yet anyway) while the damage and utility boosts will be instantly noticeable. Once that new character has grown a bit, they can then decide if they want to further focus on archery, or at that time change focus to either magic or melee. While the ‘ramp up’ time in DarkFall is very short compared to most MMOs, anything that allows fresh characters to jump in and contribute faster is a plus in my book, and a real strength of sandbox MMO design.

My usually MMO cynicism for any new system to be right on day one is being somewhat held back by Aventurine’s short but successful patching history, and by the fact that even if archery specialization takes some time to iron out, it along with the other features in the October expansion (especially player vendors) are really starting to add up.

MMO sounds (of your doom!)

September 28, 2009

It’s difficult to really explain how big an impact sound has in DarkFall to anyone who has not played it, yet has played other MMOs that promote sound as being important. Usually in those games the sound is ‘important’ because an audio cue will tell you when to dodge or block, or alert you to a secret. If you miss the cue, you are likely not playing at maximum efficiency, but it’s not a make or break issue. Sound in DarkFall is deadly.

I was out farming some trolls near our clan city of Hammerdale, a location that is only a few steps away from an Air Elemental spawn. The Air Elementals however are not found on the ground, but rather on a floating island high above, accessible only by a floating platform that travels up and down on a regular interval (no fairy wings here). It’s something that unless you specifically look up, or you just happen to cross the platform’s location when it’s near the ground, you can entirely miss the whole thing as you pass by. That is, you could if no one is fighting the elementals; because if someone is there, you can hear them. Not only does the sound of combat travel a great distance, the sounds of magic being used is much easier to pick out, and the Air Elementals love to cast lots of noisy spells.

So as I was wrapping up with the trolls, I rode near the location of the Air Elementals and sure enough the sounds of combat can barely be heard from high above. The spawn itself is only three elementals, which makes it ideal for solo farming but a waste for two or more people. The drops are decent but not great, and generally it’s not a hugely popular spot (it’s somewhat hidden location no doubt helping in this regard). The plan was simple, jump and gank whoever is farming. As the Air Elementals are a glass cannon-type mob they deal some rather considerable damage, and most of the time they leave you heavily wounded after a fight.

So my adrenalin is now pumping as I slowly, slowly ride up the lift on my way to see exactly who is farming the Air Elementals, and in what shape they are in. A lot of things can go horribly wrong here. If the person farming is resting, they might be watching the lift location and if they see me riding up, they are going to nuke the hell out of me. They might also spot me before I want them to, and if that happens they can quickly mount up and ride away with little hope of being caught. And of course, I could catch them in-between spawns, we fight it out, and they beat me, taking all the loot I’ve been farming off the trolls in the process.

Finally at the top, I still hear the sounds of combat and casting, which is a good thing because it means the player is going to be focused on the mobs and is very likely to miss the sound of my character walking around to spot him. I’ve been to this spot to farm before, so I know the layout and what areas are best for creeping around. At one corner, I can look around and see the other player fighting while he can’t see me, and the plan now is to attack as soon as he kills the last Air Elemental. As luck would have it, he does this and ends at around 25% HP, with his back to me. Perfect. I sprint out, two-hander drawn, and rush up and swing away. After taking a few hits and dropping to 5%, he jukes me enough to get out of melee range, and manages to jump off the island. You can’t die from falling damage, so his 5% HP won’t factor into that, and I leap off the ledge in pursuit. As we fall, I switch to my bow and start shooting arrows downward, bullets-flying-as-you-fall Matrix style. Luckily for me I’m a crappy shooter, as I’m fairly sure if I killed him while falling his tombstone would have remained in the air (not 100% on this though).

We both land on the ground, and he quickly spawns his mount to make his escape. Before he gets more then a foot further, a well placed arrow hits him in the back and off his mount. Win. After some quick looting, I jump on his already-spawned mount and make my way home. It’s only at this point do I realize how tense I was that entire experience, all to jump someone at 25%. Sad and yet very satisfying at the same time, and all thanks to the sound actually having an impact in DarkFall. Good times.

The RL housing grind wins this round

September 25, 2009

Sorry for the lack of updates the last few days, house construction is almost finished and the amount of calls, paperwork, and bs one has to deal with in order to complete this whole process is unreal. Nerf RL housing grind please!

On a little side note, Aventurine seems to have FINALLY fixed the bank bug in DarkFall, meaning things actually stay in the location you put them when you re-open the bank or a bag. When you have hundreds of items in dozens of bags, that’s kind of important.  They also announced that EU to NA transfers will happen in about three weeks, and that EU characters will be able to keep all their skills and stats, but no items. That plus the October expansion should make for some interesting times in DarkFall very shortly. As I type this my character is grinding up his AoE magic protect spell in preparation…

Under the bright lights

September 23, 2009

As each day passes, DarkFall gets more and more carebear. First it was patch notes, then it was scheduled down time that actually stayed on or ahead of schedule, and now the final ‘slap in the face’, dev-to-fan communication. WTF is this, WoW (that’s a double joke, get it?)

Aventurine has hired some community reps to… you know, communicate with the community. They created a new forum section called Spotlight, which is a heavily moderated area intended to filter out the general ForumFall chatter and really focus on actual feedback and other community-related items. Items like, for example, linking to blogs that talk about DarkFall (hopefully this time around they don’t link any one-month ragequit blogs, oops), with the first EVA! blog being this amazing little space on the internet. I win, bow down!

The overall reaction to this whole initiative is rather priceless right now, as people are shocked that AV is actually reaching out and opening up the lines of communication. Plus we have these new people with their fancy green names (in this case, uncommon is better than rare) talking about patch notes before the patch comes out and other marvels.

AV is going soft man, and this is just one more step towards Trammel…

Launch Day: How to deal with day one in the post-WoW MMO space

September 22, 2009

From an outsider’s perspective looking in, Aion’s launch seems to be having the same issue Warhammer Online had a year ago; dealing with the huge initial rush of players and tourists flooding the servers on day one. In the post-WoW MMO space, it’s more or less a given now that any majorly advertised AAA MMO is going to have to deal with this issue, and the current solution of server queues and character creation limitations seems like a rough deal for those who matter most; paying customers.

DarkFall, while certainly not on the user scale of Aion, dealt with the problem by limiting sales of the game for the first month or so, allowing new characters to enter the world at a set pace and re-distribute themselves before opening the doors once more. Current customers benefited at the expense of potential future customers. The luxury that Aventurine has over NCSoft is they don’t have to answer to other retailers, and so it’s up to them when to allow additional sales to open up. NCSoft can’t call up Gamestop or BestBuy and ask them to pull all copies of Aion off for the week because the servers are full. I’m also guessing, due to retailer contracts, they can’t start selling the game online-only, and then doing a ‘full’ release to brick-and-mortar stores later, but perhaps they could.

The problem itself is very easy to understand; the first day of any MMO is the day it will see the most users trying to get online at one time (unless the game is EVE or WoW and grows considerable after launch). You can’t just open enough servers to handle the first-day crowd because on day two it’s smaller, on week two it’s much smaller, and on month two it’s likely down 30%+ as the tourists move on. In any MMO, but especially one where population is critical (WAR and Aion), opening and closing servers left and right is asking for disaster. So what can be done?

For starters, we might as well end the ‘open beta’ charade and just call it paid pre-release for most games now, and since people in the beta have paid, why not get them on live servers? Unless you MMO gets a miracle patch on launch day (and if you do, you have more issues than just server pop), the end of beta is basically the launch-day game, so it might as well count. Allow players who pre-ordered before a given date two weeks or a month of play time on live servers, so that you mitigate the impact they will have once the boxed copy customers come online. Aion had 400k preorders, which is more than enough for 10 server (give or take), servers that can easily be avoided by boxed copy users looking for a truly fresh start. Guilds won’t have issues with surprise queues or character creation, members buying the boxed copy will still be able to play with their guild or friends, and overall you hopefully mitigate 50% of the launch-day crowd from all jamming in to see your game for the first time live.

The other solution would be to accept this trend, and have a plan ready for it. Go live with enough servers to handle all the day-one traffic, and then have tools in place to automatically merge servers as their population drops. The only real issue here would be with character and guild name overlap, as everything else in most of these games is static (this solution would obviously not work in DarkFall, as different guilds own different cities in different states of construction). Continue merging servers (quickly) until your population settles. The bonus here is you can merge one imbalanced server with (hopefully) the opposite imbalanced server, creating a better environment overall.

I prefer option one over option two, especially because the hardware to support option two might not be cheap depending on how your server clusters are arranged. The bonus with option one is that it further encourages pre-orders (perhaps you could even stagger that, so the earlier you pre-order the earlier you get in), which will give the company a better picture on what their games population might look like. Regardless of the choices made going forward, one thing is clear, and that’s that the current go-live model for AAA MMO’s is not working. It causes confusion and frustration among players and guilds, it creates imbalanced or over/under-populated server, and it leaves a poor first impression on everyone involved.


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