It’s a race to the bottom!

October 21, 2011

Oh Blizzard.

Free D3 to save WoW?(read: inflate sub numbers temporarily)

Pandas? Pet fighting? A new race + new class + cap increase all in one expansion? It’s like WoW is in panic mode or something…

On a slightly more serious note, going forward it will be interesting to see the differences between CCP trying to ‘save’ EVE and Blizzard trying to save WoW. We know the CCP A-team is back on EVE. Looking at that jaw-dropping (sarcasm) Panda video, I’m guessing Titan is coming along nicely. Between waiting for CCP to shut down (sarcasm) and waiting for WoW to finishing burning (serious), 2012 is looking great already.

Side-note: Did anyone else get an April 1st vibe from that Blizzard DoTA video? That’s not really a product is it?


My genre can beat up your genre

October 21, 2011

I’m melting!!!

Wait no, that’s a pretty level graph isn’t it? So if the sky is falling, and I’m stable, does that mean I’m crushing it as hard as you suspected? I guess it does right?

Epeen measuring aside (did I mention I’m one win away from 1600+ ELO in LoL? No? Well I’m one win away from 1600+ ELO. Guess that makes me the 1% of Occupy Blogstreet or something), let’s talk about the death of MMOs as we know it.

MMOs are dying. SW:TOR is the last gasp of a soon-deceased genre, and I personally hope that rather than going meekly into the grave, it dies in a horrifyingly entertaining train wreck of epic proportions.

By the time I finish writing this post, WoW will have lost another million subs (real subs, not China ‘subs’), Rift might announce it’s going F2P, and LoTRO will be selling you a “One Ring + Frodo mini-pet” combo pack in the item shop.

The MMORPG genre is doing just fine. Aventurine, despite their best efforts for well over a year now, can’t kill Darkfall. Dawntide, which I’m pretty sure is a social experiment in pain tolerance, actually has a following and just got more money to continue. Wyrm Online launched a new server. ATiTD is around and kicking. Etc, etc.

Oh and EVE is still the second biggest sub MMO out, the longest growing MMO out, and CCP actual plans to update it after taking a “hey lets go over here and tinker with WoD” break. Not bad when you consider that the game is Excel with a worse UI, it “welcomes sociopaths with open arms”, sells $8,000,000 vanity items, and has the leader of the Goons as its player representative.

Not that any of this should be a real surprise if you think about it. If it costs $300m to make a themepark that will entertain you for a month or two, or $10 to make Darkfall and keep people sieging and resieging for close to three years, which one would you pick? Or if you are a talented team with limited funds, do you have a choice? I’m a VC with some cash to throw at something risky, do I feel better about throwing $300m or $10?

The worst part of it all is that even if you DO get that $300m (good luck after SW) needed to make a themepark, its dead money. You will need another $300m to keep pumping out the type of content themepark players want fast enough to retain them, and unless you retain 100m of them, the math isn’t going to work out. The biggest red herring of all time is WoW, because DESPITE being somewhat of a themepark at launch, it retained people well-enough initially to make Blizzard rich, and it was only when Blizzard started making WoW more and more of a themepark did the castle start to crumble (and when you factor in the social aspect of having such a huge playerbase, it just amplifies how un-sustainable a themepark really is).

The reason you are seeing people like Tobold panic is that he, and most current-day ‘MMO’ players, don’t like MMORPGs. Games like UO/AC-DT/EVE/DF are scary places where feelings get hurt, and if you don’t have a thick skin, you can’t play. Which is why they like single player online games over staying offline all together. And why not? Who would turn down Bioware spending triple the money making Baldur’s Gate? Who wouldn’t want the sRPG genre going from niche, low budget games to the cream of the gaming crop, even if you have to pay the paltry sum of $15 a month? You know why people are really excited for SW:TOR? Because it’s KOTOR with a massive budget. From a fans perspective with nothing invested in the company, hell yea I want way too much cash spent on my game.

Unfortunately throwing money down the drain is coming to an end, and the reality of WoW being an exception rather than the rule is setting in. You can’t replicate WoW because WoW was a once-in-a-lifetime, perfect storm title (not going to debate that here, feel free to search this blog for those posts). It was also NOTHING like the game it is today, which is why we are seeing trainwreck after trainwreck when other games try to emulate it. You are copying the flawed version of something that once worked. Oh and your version has even more flaws because you’re not Blizzard’s A-team.

Lost in all this is the fact that 100k, or even 20k MMOs are perfectly viable, and have been for years (decades now I guess). If you plan correctly, 20k people paying you $15 a month is a pretty health income. Now you are more limited in what you can develop, which is why you need to provide tools rather than one-and-done content, but well, that’s kinda what MMORPGs are, aren’t they? But those tools enable ‘scary’ stuff like player interaction, and that often results in even ‘scarier’ player conflict. And such concepts, along with the time required to actually get into such games, are simply unacceptable to the thin-skinned octo-mom casuals.

But look on the bright side.

You will always* have Facebook MMOs!

*Always being the next 20 minutes, when that fad also dies. Hurry!


I want sand in every genre

October 20, 2011

I prefer a TBS game (Final Fantasy Tactics-like games) that lets me build my party from scratch over one that gives me pre-made party members. This post is not about any one specific game, just some random thoughts.

Creating the entire party yourself has a lot of benefits. You don’t have to follow the ‘holy trinity’ model, and instead can come up with whatever crazy combination of classes that will work. Or not work, which can be half the fun to try and get a really sub-optimal group to succeed.

I can see how giving the players pre-made characters is the ‘safe’ design choice, as you eliminate the chance that the player will do something that does not work and get stuck. Safe limits the options in this case though.

The ‘nameless’ party members also don’t have pre-defined personalities. This means that if you want your knight to be good or evil, he can be. A pre-defined character is hard-locked into one or the other. This is especially true if the game lets you select which character performs certain actions. For example, you have to select who executes a prisoner, and whoever you select, they start down the ‘evil’ killer path. The guy who you selected to save the orphan is heading down the ‘good’ path. If the party members are pre-made, usually you don’t have a choice when it comes to who kills and who saves.

This concept can be pushed further, and based on party choice and composition, the general story can branch as well. Too many ‘evil’ guys, and you go down path A. Too many ‘good’ guys, down path B you go. Or Path A vs Path B is determined by the magic-to-melee ratio of your party, or the number of females vs males. Maybe the difference is simply how one particular battle plays out, or in what order, or just who shows up to face you in said battle. Point being, the more open-ended you leave things, the more control you can offer to the player in determining how things go.

From a story perspective, you can have a pretty basic “save the world” theme, and instead of sneaky pre-made plot twists, what keeps things interesting is the fact that the game reacts to your character/party choices. When YOU are the reason something happens, rather than something happening because you reach that specific point in the storyline, you tend to feel more connected.

Basically, I want a more sandbox-ish TBS game than the hard on-rails experience most TBS games turn out to be.


Dungeon Defenders: Flawed fun

October 20, 2011

I played Dungeon Defenders last night, having purchased it as a 4-pack with my regular gaming buddies, for about five hours (casually, yo). I think the fact that we played it for five hours straight says a lot right there, but this being a blog and all let me write a bit more about it. Also see Zubon over at KTR for some more impressions.

For a $10 game, graphically it looks surprisingly good, and the sound is also enjoyable. Controls in-game are mostly solid, although the occasional wonky collision detection is noticeable. The UI on the other hand is clearly console-inspired, and makes simple stuff like inventory management unnecessarily sloppy. As Zubon mentioned, this is very clearly a console-first title.

All of my impressions are based on playing the game with three friends on vent, which is basically the ideal scenario for the game. Even after just five hours, I can’t imagine the game being nearly as fun playing with PUGs (though keep in mind my general tolerance for PUGs is somewhere between zero and none).

I say this because there are some serious game-design issues. The most glaring being that XP gain is based on who kills a mob, which naturally means support classes/tower, while very helpful in winning, don’t earn you the same amount of XP as killing stuff. This encourage bad-tactics stuff like people putting attack towers in front of defense towers to try to get more XP, or people charging into mobs to score more kills. If I saw it playing with three friends, I can’t imagine how this is going to play out in PUG-land. This also naturally makes offensive classes like the Squire ‘better’ than a support class like the Monk in terms of leveling/score. The whole mess could very easily be fixed by making XP gain global.

One concern I had with DD is how it would balance tower defense with the Diablo-monster-bash aspect. On the surface it seems like the Diablo part is dominant, and sometimes it is, but on tougher maps proper use of towers is the key to victory. We lost twice last night, and both times correcting how we place our towers resulted in victory. This was very satisfying, and I think there is a decent amount of strategic depth in terms of tower combos and placement.

While certain areas of DD are rough, I think overall the game does a nice job of mixing genres. Collecting items is fun, and the itemization is on-par with Diablo in terms of random stats and such. Going up levels is also fun, and there seems to be decent depth to the character customization (and no doubt there will soon be ‘best spec’ builds). The tower placement/upgrading part is flexible and interesting, and the monster-bashing is what it is, simple yet enjoyable.


What the CCP layoffs and refocus tell us

October 19, 2011

Is it just me, or is this good news if you are an EVE player? Yes, it sucks for whoever got laid off, and it sucks for WoD fans, but aren’t all the recent issues around EVE due to the fact that CCP lost its focus?

This also puts things somewhat into perspective; if 120 people make up around 20% of your company, that means EVE has been so successful since 2003 that it built a company of around1000 people. The game, in short, is a gold mine, and unlike another, much larger gold mine, it’s still growing year to year.

You would be insane to screw with that, and CCP, for a while, was just that. It sounds like they have taken their meds and returned to sanity. Now let’s see the results in action when the winter expansion is released.

On a higher level, I’m glad at least CCP has realized that if you get an MMO right, and I mean really right, you don’t have to abandon it after a few days/months/years. That if you play things right, you can keep updating and adding on to what you have, and players will reward you with the kind of loyalty EVE has enjoyed.

Today far too many devs AND players approach MMOs like you would a flash game; something to entertain you for 5 minutes before you twit to the next one. That’s not what real MMOs are about, and I’m glad at least one company gets it and is rewarded for that approach.


GW2: The pond with the fountain in the middle

October 18, 2011

Good post from Ravious over at KTR about zone/world events in GW2, and what some of the possible scenarios might be. He in particular talks about failure scenarios; what might really happen should the players not be successful during a phase or battle. I would questions things a bit further, and ask how much impact success or failure really has on the world, versus how much it matters on an individual basis.

Consider the impact of an ‘event’ like a siege in Darkfall, which itself is a fairly common and repeatable event. If the defenders are successful, they retain their player city for days/weeks/months/years (depending on when they finally lose it), and that impact is felt by every member of that guild, along with anyone who visits the city, be it for a raid or for trading.

Furthermore, if you siege and kick out an active PvE guild from a city with great fire elemental farming nearby, the effect could be felt server-wide as the price of fire elemental drops increases, while the price of whatever that PvE guild farms next drops.

In short, one event can trigger world-wide ripples, big and small, to not only players directly involved with the event, but also to those who were not. The total number of players affected is a very important factor when considering the impact of an event.

On an individual level, losing or winning said sieged is important, but it’s not as personally game-changing as, say, getting the best-in-slot weapon from an event. Once you have that BiS, you not only stop chasing other weapons, but that event itself is now ‘done’ from your perspective. You have also gained a significant amount of permanent (until the next gear reset) power, which you can leverage to progress through tougher content or dominate others in PvP. If that item/ability/whatever is ‘required’ to progress, said event must also be available to everyone; otherwise you create a massive content bottleneck.

There is no doubt that the events in GW2 won’t have the permanence of something like a city siege. If an NPC dragon was satisfied once it successfully beat the first group of players to fight it, everyone else would feel cheated from missing that content, and from a content delivery perspective, that would be a huge waste. So the dragon has to come back, and the players can repeat the battle over and over. At some point, the zone/world is going to be in exactly the same state as it was before. If that loop is hours long, the impact of the event is pretty minimal, and the buy-in to fight back would be low. This is exactly the effect Rift events had; they at most impacted the zone for an hour or so, and whether the mobs were defeated or ignored, the zone returned to normal.

This also makes any kind of ‘failure state’ not matter nearly as much. If the impact is Rift-level, where failure leads to a quest NPC not being available for a few minutes, no one is really going to go out of their way to fight back if they don’t need that NPC or any of the rewards associated with pushing the event back. MMO players don’t care about the feelings of NPCs, and so we won’t go on a heroic quest to save a village just to give those NPC farmers a safe home (while we would if said farmers were players farming stuff that we actually need – see EVE conflicts over high-value mining areas). We do it because said NPC farmers give us epics, and once we have those epics, we let them burn. And by design, those farmers NEED to burn so that the next solo-hero can come along and ‘save’ them to collect his epics. Actually making saving a village have impact would create more problems than benefits in a traditional PvE MMO.

While I believe the events in GW2 will be longer and more complex than what Rift offers, I don’t see a scenario where they matter more. GW2 has levels, so when you out-level content, you automatically stop caring. GW2 also has permanent items, so when you out-gear content, you stop caring. GW2 has ‘zones’, once you are done with an area, you are done. It does not matter how many branches defending a village has, or how long that chain might last; if the highest mob/reward is level 20 for that branch, someone at level 25 or with better gear than the best reward is not going to care if centaurs overrun a village or not; it simply has no impact on them.

Now it’s entirely possible that GW2 players are not looking for real impact. If the expectation is simply to go on a themepark ride with the option to make the rail go left rather than right around a pond, GW2 might very well deliver exactly that. It might even have a fountain in the middle of the pond to make you go ‘ooh, pretty’. For me that falls far short of the kind of impact I’m looking for from an event, but I believe the left/right choice is all the ‘impact’ the average MMO player today expects or wants.

The ‘real’ solution is to make the world an actual world rather than a collection of zones, but that gets you down the path to a virtual world and niche-MMO territory, and that’s not something AAA studios or the average player are signing up for these days.


Might and Magic Heroes 6 review

October 17, 2011

Might and Magic Heroes 6 (since when is this series not called Heroes of Might and Magic?) was released last Thursday, and over the weekend I spent a good deal of time with it, including a multi-player game along with a bunch of campaign maps. I’ve written about the beta before, but I want to put together a more complete piece now, especially given the changes between the full release and the beta.

Heroes 6 is, by far, the most polished game at release the series has ever seen. To say that everything (so far) works might not sound like a huge compliment, but if you have ever played a Heroes game before, you know what I’m talking about. The decision to push the release back, along with holding an extensive beta, worked out great. It runs without a hitch at the highest settings, so far I’ve not heard anything weird or off with the sound or voice work, and multiplayer connected and was smooth from start to finish. Hell the game even reloads quickly.

The graphics and sound are AAA caliber. The game maps look amazing, the units have great animations, and even the voice work is above average overall. There are also nice options to speed things up, such as fast battle animations, no zoom-in camera, or just letting the game auto-battle combat for you, with the option to replay the battle if you don’t like the results.

The game also has a lot of other ‘stuff’ going on outside of any one map/game. First you have your dynasty rank, which is an account-level… account that has its own XP bar. As you go up in ranks, you open up more stuff at the in-game store. In this store you can buy fluff stuff like titles, character portraits, and dynasty traits. You get store points by completing achievements, which for the most part is the usual “kill 1000 monsters”, “finish combat in one round” stuff. It’s cute, and just more things to unlock as you play. If you are someone who loves the gotta-catch-em-all aspect, Heroes does a nice job here.

Similar to your dynasty rank, but with more in-game impact, are the new dynasty weapons. These are artifacts that can also level up (think LotRO), and with each level more stats/abilities become available. The weapons are tied to your account, so you can give them to any hero (there are some requirements for using them) in any game. You can disable dynasty weapons in multiplayer. They are found while you play the campaign, which is pretty interesting. Also during the campaign, your main hero keeps artifacts that are part of a set from one map to the other, giving the campaign a little more ‘carry-over’ and gives you incentive to fully explore each map.  IMO these are all nice additions to the Heroes formula. They don’t dominate the game, or completely change the feel, but rather bring the series into 2011. Best of all they don’t feel out of place or forced, nor do they imbalance the game.

Gameplay is both classic Heroes while also feeling fresh thanks to some of the changes. While not all of the units are totally new, they all play a little differently and have their own unique aspects. For instance, all factions have a low-tier archer unit that you have to protect and that does decent damage at range. But the Orc faction’s unit, the goblin, has a trap ability that can be placed and stops movement if it’s crossed, while the Undead skeleton has an AoE slow. Add in the racial ability of the undead (raise units back up), or the Orc’s (hit harder/move faster), and the two units, while similar, do indeed play differently. Multiply this by the total number of units, the different hero abilities/items/spells, and the strategy aspect of Heroes 6 is pretty deep. There is also plenty of room for expansion in terms of new factions, which I’m sure Ubisoft and the devs will take advantage of in the future.

The campaign, from what I’ve seen so far, is solid. The two intro missions set the stage for each factions 4-mission/map story, and there is a final (locked) campaign that I’m guessing concludes the whole thing. I’ve beaten three of the four undead maps so far, and each one has been entertaining and progressed the story nicely. The pacing is very noticeable, with a good blend of “just playing Heroes” and story/movie breaks at key moments. There are also interesting ‘one off’ battles, which can feature special conditions or units, and require you to change up your strategy.

As has always been the case, Heroes is certainly not a casual game in many ways. The campaign maps take hours to complete (you can of course save along the way), as do multiplayer games. The one multiplayer map I’ve played so far, a three-way game with a buddy and comp AI, took us about 4 hours start-to-finish, and that’s with most battles being resolved with the auto-calc feature. We had a great time, but this is not a pickup-and-play type of game.

If you have played and enjoyed pervious Heroes games, I can’t imagine you will be disappointed with Heroes 6. I’d also recommend the game to anyone looking for a strategy fix that has some time/patience. While the game has 2011-era features, at its core it’s an old-school game. It’s deep, it takes time, and (for me) its ultimately very rewarding.


These are not the customers you are looking for

October 14, 2011

You know, if I knew absolutely nothing about SW:TOR, and I read/heard this presentation, I’d be absolutely pumped for whatever MMO Damion Schubert is talking about. Converting casuals into hardcore players, retaining those hardcore players, understanding the importance of such players to an MMO. Man is talking my language.

This is why hardcores are great for MMOs, since they’ll settle down and be loyal longer. Hardcore players not only help subsidize the game but do a wonderful job evangelizing it as well.

Guy really gets it. Sign me up!

Problem is I do know something about SW:TOR. I’m well aware of its 4th pillar. We all know it’s going to (try to) be WoW with lightsabers and voice acting minus that silly massive multiplayer stuff.

So wtf is Damion talking about here? Does Bioware have some unannounced MMO project? Is Damion already working on it? Has he already ‘burned out’ on SW:TOR?

I’m trying to finish a product, Star Wars: The Old Republic, which I am not going to talk about today. This is more of a weary man, sort of stream-of-consciousness design theory talk.

Man sure sounds burned out, right?

As a developer who’s trying to urge players down the path toward a hardcore lifestyle in his game

What mystery game is he talking about!?


Paying full price

October 12, 2011

As we picked up the 4-pack for Dungeon Defenders last night, our Steam group talked about paying for games, and why anyone would pay full price for a game in the age of $5 Steam sales, Game+DLC bundles, and Sub-to-F2P tactics. Interestingly enough, the best reasons all touched on this week’s general topic; playing with others vs going solo.

The best reason to buy on day one, and pay full price, is because you want to play with your guild/friends, who are going to be playing right at the beginning. If you opt to join late, they will either already be ahead or have moved on from the game. Obviously, if you don’t play with a steady group, and just join groups from game to game, this is not a huge factor. If the game in question is a single-player game (either because it is in fact a single player game, or because it’s something like SW:TOR), that’s one less reason to shell out $50-$60.

The next reason, and this is somewhat related to the first point, is in a game where the first month plays differently than the next. An real MMO generally changes as time goes on, players do things month one that they don’t month two, and in a social environment being part of the buzz/wave is fun. The more single-player focused the title, the less this is a factor. Battlefield 3 is a title I’m not picking up day-one, and while the matches will mostly be the same in six months, the fact that players will be higher ranked with different guns is something to consider. For me it’s not enough to pay $60 for the title, but it was a consideration.

Finally, and this is certainly the weakest reason, is to show support for a title or genre. I pre-ordered Heroes of Might and Magic 6 not just because I want to play it day one (I honestly could wait), but because I want more TBS titles made, and I want HoMM6 to do well and get future support. Going back to Battlefield, I honestly could care less about EA, or to support ‘yet another shooter’. It’s also why I still have an active Darkfall account, despite the fact that I only play it sparingly (once a week for an hour or so). In the grand scheme of things, gaming is a fairly cheap hobby for me, but I fully understand for others money might be tight and you simply can’t spend as much as you’d like, so how often you can afford to ‘vote’ like this is going to vary.

I’m not sure we are really seeing the effects of this yet. Modern Warfare 3 sold like crazy in the first week, but consoles are somewhat different, and game prices rarely drop to PC/Steam levels. Duke Nukem Forever is on sale right now for $10. If you paid $50 for it at release (which was like a week ago, right?), how’s that working out for ya? Again I’m not putting money down that the average gamer is going to start shopping smart tomorrow and only paying full price when they strongly support a developer/genre, but I’d like to think at some point it’s going to matter, and if so, that’s good news for those of us who enjoy games with strong social (real social, not Sims Social) mechanics and true community-first design.


Forbes hates accessibility

October 11, 2011

Not that this Forbes article is saying anything we don’t already know, but I find it somewhat funny to read about anti-accessibility from such a source. It’s also amusing how close the issues in FPS-land mirror those of the MMO genre. A game is better when it’s based on working with others for bigger goals, yet what sells is solo-hero, simple, short-term objectives that appeal to Xbox kids.

Now one might ask “what happens when the Xbox kids grow up?”

I don’t think they will. I think a lot of those ‘kids’ are middle-aged right now. They just prefer games at a mental level somewhere around grade school. Maybe it’s because they are just that casual. Maybe gaming is ‘brain off’ time for them. Or maybe the difference between ‘brain off’ and ‘brain on’ is negligible. Whatever the reason, I don’t see the average gamer ‘growing up’ and flooding smarter, more niche titles, be they FPS’ers or MMOs.

In other ‘brain off’ news, you know Blizzard has stopped monitoring the interns running WoW when they can’t even copy/paste PLEX correctly into their game. I get that most of the stuff CCP is doing is “impossible” for Blizzard, but PLEX? One would think allowing one group of players to fund the subs of another group would be of interest to a game bleeding so rapidly.


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