Hero Academy : TBS greatness

January 30, 2012

Hat-tip to Keen on this one, because I’ve been playing Hero Academy like a fiend since getting it after reading his post. Just a great, great game for TBS fans.

It also demonstrates how asynchronous multiplayer can work when done correctly. The key is to have turns be rather quick, and for the game to ‘rewind’ the previous turn for you (bonus points for being able to watch the turn again if you back out and select the game again). While the strategy is IMO fairly deep, the depth does not come from memorizing what happened 2-3 turns before, or having to spend a great deal of time re-evaluating the situation every time. Being able to reset your own turn, allowing you to ‘test out’ different moves before committing to one, is also very nice.

Along with the above, the ability to play multiple (up to 40) different games at the same time is huge. One opponent not responding? Start another game. Someone playing at a snail’s pace? No problem, you have a bunch of other games going that are moving along. Very smart design decision here, and similar games should take note.

The payment model, as of this writing, is also another example of F2P done right. The first time you pay will likely be the $1.99 to remove ads and access the second army, dark elves. Then you can spend a buck or more on fluff like army colors or avatar icons. Future releases will no doubt be more armies, and the fluff that comes along with them. So long as the armies are equally balanced (as balanced as LoL champions anyway), spending opens up options rather than power. Great example, as opposed to selling in-game ‘buffs’ or other game-altering crap that so many lesser games do.

The one thing missing right now is progression. Some kind of stat tracking and ranking would go a long way to the game retaining long-term interest. Let’s face it, ELO matters, and not only does it matter, it provides a way to track your skill level and progress. Hopefully Hero Academy gets something like this going soon.

As it stands today though, the game is easily worth the $1.99 to turn off ads and give you access to the second army. I’m Syncaine on the game, feel free to throw out a challenge.


What’s a man to a king, what’s a king to a god, what’s a god to a non-believer?

January 27, 2012

My post about the 1% in F2P games did not finish my thoughts on that topic completely, and hopefully in this post I can bring all of this around and wrap it up (not likely). The predatory nature of the model, and how it influences developer focus, are very important aspects, but equally important are the options players have, and how their voice might be heard.

Compare the LotRO cash armor incident with EVE’s monocle fiasco.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that selling items of power (be they BiS or not) has a little more impact on a game than selling an overpriced fluff piece, right? And long-time LotRO fans have every right to suggest that their game is heading (plummeting) down a slippery slope. This is especially true in a game like LotRO, where supposedly the integrity of the IP is so important. WoW has always had its fair share of silly crap, so sparkleponies almost make sense, but LotRO was a pretty serious game in terms of respecting the IP.

Yet it’s CCP and EVE that changed course and listened to player demands, while Turbine further insulted their players with some weak-ass explanation of why selling The One Ring is not that big a deal.

EVE, because it’s a sub-based MMO, is ruled by the majority (more on this in a bit), while LotRO is ruled by the 1%. The only way Turbine is going to pull the cash gear out of the shop/game is if the 1% not only refuses to buy it, but also stops buying everything else. And like I stated previously, sadly the 1% are not exactly die-hard MMO purists or hyper-invested in the future prospects of that MMO. They show up, grab all the candy, and leave when they overdose on sugar, only to be replaced by the next ‘child’ with too much money.

About EVE, and sub MMOs in general: While CCP’s goal is ultimately to get as many subscribers as possible, this is by no means accomplished by catering to the casual majority at the expense of the die-hard minority. Again, one SynCaine is worth 30 Casual-Calvins (formerly known as Casual Billy). And not only that, but one SynCaine keeps those 30 Casual-Calvins playing for months/years, where if left to their own devices the Calvins would “run out of content” in a month, while also failing to attract a single friend. If you want to see what happens to an MMO when you drive away the hardcore to cater to the casuals, take a look at current-day WoW, and Blizzard scrambling to replace the churn rather than attempting to retain players. If you are a current-day WoW player, what does that stance by Blizzard tell you?

The Jita riots in EVE were not organized by the Calvins, but in order to be effective the casuals were herded over and told to shoot the pretty structure. And then when the content-drivers started to unsub, it did not take long for their flock to follow.

CCP’s hand was forced because of the sheer number of lost accounts, but those losses were not driven by a lack of catering to the casuals. Hell, Incarna was the most direct attempt from CCP to do exactly that, to ‘break EVE out of its niche’, and while certainly not perfect, it did somewhat accomplish its goal (casuals love dresses after all). But casuals don’t make EVE an 8 year old MMO that is still growing. They never have, and they never will.

Consider the CSM. If there was ever a “let’s listen to the super-hardcore minority” program, it’s the CSM. It’s a collection of players that not only know the ins and outs of a very complicated game, but have been around said game for years. They have no doubt poured THOUSANDS of hours into it, and are willing and able to take large chunks of time out of their lives to fly to another country and talk about it for DAYS straight with the devs. And yet upsetting the CSM to the point of protest is/was the single biggest mistake CCP ever made, and all it took was selling a fluff item. Not gold ammo, not even lower-tier ‘noob help’ items or catch-up potions. Nope. Fluff. Dumb, zero-impact fluff (yes, this oversimplifies the whole issue, but this post is already too long).

It’s also disingenuous, and IMO outright silly, to suggest that when the devs cater to the die-hard minority, they must do so at the expense of the casual majority. Back when I played WoW, all you would hear from ‘casuals’ is how Blizzard needs to stop making more raids that ‘no one’ will ever see, and focus more on the ‘fun fluff’ that casuals can’t get enough of. That since ‘only 1%’ all of players defeated a boss, that content was ‘wasted’ and did nothing for the vast majority of the players.

Of course all of this was happening while WoW was growing at an astronomical rate, and pushing what an MMO could do in terms of a subscriber base further and further. It was also during this time that the die-hards created the UI for WoW, created its first PvP system (town invasions, NPC leader raids), and created all the guides/websites/podcasts that further expanded the popularity and growth of WoW. This was long, long before Mr. T or Chuck stepped in.

EVE in many ways is very similar. Non-EVE players love to point out that most pilots live in Empire as some sort of evidence that PvP does not matter, or that EVE is successful DESPITE its neg-sum PvP. And those who play EVE or at least are able to comprehend a bit of it understand why this is laughable. Why the minority that fights over 0.0 space drive the game. Why people like The Mittani ‘matter’ a whole hell of a lot more than Casual-Calvin ever will. And most importantly, why listening to the CSM (in moderation of course, and still doing their jobs as game designers) is not catering to the minority, but doing what’s best for the game, which in turn is what’s best for everyone playing.

To bring this all the way back around, compare how that mentality, of doing what’s best for the game leading to success, compares to doing what will get the 1% to spend again. Is it any surprise that CCP is motivated and rewarded for putting out something like Crucible, while SOE is pouring resources into coming up with the next ‘wings’ mount? That Turbine is willing to upset a large section of their playerbase just to get a few to buy mid-level gear?

Now both models work. Zynga after all was worth something at some point, right? But pure business model aside, as a player, which game would you rather play? The one getting updated in order to make it better, or the one with an ‘addictive’ shop that is able to lure in the 1% ‘kids’?


Adrenaline rush

January 27, 2012

Another night, another victory (followed by crushing defeat).

The nice thing about our most recent war-dec / war-shield shenanigans is that we know on exactly what night we will be able to fight, which makes organizing the Corp and having people online a little easier, and also eliminates the whole cloaked-and-afk thing. Last night was another such night, and it was a hell of a time.

Intel revealed that when outnumbered, our enemies would bring out battleships to try and over-power what they would expect to be lesser ships (either due to cost or simply our pilots being new and not skilled enough to fly anything that big). Our plan was to lure them into thinking we would at best field a few battlecruisers, and once they had committed to the fight, spring our trap.

Sure enough two enemies in battleships engaged our bait Drake, and stayed on the field when we sent in a few other BCs and frigates (first month pilots). As the tank of our Drake was breaking, we undocked our battleships. I was in an ECM Scorpion, and we also had an Armageddon and a Dominix. Though it took a few cycles, my ECM eventually jammed both enemies, allowing our Drake to warp away and avoid destruction. At the same time, everyone began raining death on the enemy Megathron, and before long he was in deep armor.

Both of their ships stopped firing in an attempt to dock back into the station once the aggression timer was off. The order to overheat guns was given, and the Mega popped just in time. I don’t believe we even got a single volley off on the second battleship before his timer was up and he docked inside the station, revealing just how close we came to missing out on the kill. Along with scoring the wreck, we learned the valuable lesson of bumping a target off the station, and how things might go when fighting around a station or gate.

After this fight I was pretty sure our enemies would not engage us again, having seen our force and knowing they could not match it. Two others were at a different station (I had expected them to join in on the earlier fight), and would occasionally undock, take some fire, and dock back up (again, bumping would have helped here). As this waste of ammo was going down, I got a convo invite from the CEO of another Corp who was also at war with our enemies. Seems they also had a fleet of about 8-9 pilots in the system looking for a fight. We merged fleets, although now it was certain our common enemies were done for the night.

But we had 16 or so pilots all in a fleet, all in PvP ships, so why not find some trouble, right? That pirate system with the carrier was nearby, and we had nothing better to do.

We repeated our bait strategy from last time, with all but three members of the fleet on the other side of a gate. And just like last time, the pirates responded quickly. Four ships were on the gate almost immediately, and before our fleet could even jump in, one bait ship went down. In response, our fleet managed to blow up a Megathron battleship. After this however things got ugly.

As expected, a carrier soon arrived. And then unexpectedly, a second. Along with some logistics ships and a few more battleships, all in less than a minute since our initial arrival into the system.

It was at this point that I started semi-panicking (read: total panic), calling out one target while I actually shot at something else, and completely losing track of how we were doing. Our overall focus fire was horrible, and this allowed the enemies to easily repair anyone who took too much damage. And since our new friends were not in Vent with us, when they all jumped back through the gate, it took us a few seconds to realize it, resulting in a few extra ships lost.

I always laugh when people describe the PvP in EVE as ‘boring’ or ‘simple’. Sure, targeting someone and firing your weapons on them is indeed simple, but that has almost nothing to do with the skill it takes to do well. This fight made it very, very clear I have a LONG way to go to even be a remotely competent FC, and the night overall was a series of lessons in tactics, mechanics, and fleet composition.

And along with being education, it was a hell of an adrenaline rush.

EVE-related blog post notice: If you would like to join us, comment here or shoot me an email. If you don’t have an EVE account, I’m more than happy to send a 21-day trial invite, and split the PLEX-related profit if you decide to sign up. Again just comment or email me.


Preying on the weak

January 26, 2012

I have a friend who is in the 1%. No, not the Occupy nonsense, but the 1% of F2P players that spend a silly amount of money in the cash shop. He is the guy who buys up every DLC regardless of what it is. He is the one who buys fluff just to own it. And he is the guy who runs XP pots/boosters/whatever because ‘he can’, even if they don’t make the game actually more fun to play. If it’s in the shop odds are high he has it. Cost is not a factor either, so whether a pony costs $5 or $50 is irrelevant to him.

And he is notorious for playing a game for a month or two and getting bored. He is also fairly anti-social, preferring to solo whenever remotely possible, and is someone who often gets excluded anyway thanks to his attitude. To put it bluntly, he is not someone I’d want in my MMO from an in-game activity/actions standpoint.

Yet in that month or so of playing something like LotRO, he was the ideal customer for Turbine. He certainly ‘counted’ a whole hell of a lot more than anyone not spending, or spending little, in terms of influencing what Turbine should work on next. His voice (wallet) was far more important.

Which brings me to my point: considering the above, is it at all surprising that F2P MMOs do what they do, and suck as much as they suck for people who like the sub model? Turbine selling you The One Ring next month is not done with consideration for the 99% that don’t pay and want the game to remain ‘fair’. It’s not done with consideration for how the average player will feel, or how the game will play once you buy the ability to turn god-mode on. The 99% don’t count. Game balance does not count.

What counts is my buddy putting down $100 for The One Ring, putting it on, one-shotting Frodo, and moving on from the game (because it’s too easy…). You can make a forum post about it, get 1000 ‘likes’ for it, and Turbine will feed you BS about “we never said we won’t sell The One Ring, we said we won’t sell direct passage to the Game-Over screen. God-mode is more of a convenience for our players”.

Now whether this practice is sustainable or not is another issue. We have all seen how ‘amazing’ the F2P conversion is the day after it happens. Announcements/tweets/forums posts all proclaiming activity is up 10,000% (from zero), that everyone loves the new ‘options’ in the shop, and that the game has been giving a new life blablabla PR speak. It’s odd that those same sources fail to continue telling us how awesome F2P continues to be a year after, but I’m sure that’s just a technical issue and not the reality of everyone checking things out the first day, seeing the same game they left (but now with pay-walls), and leaving after maybe buying a cute dress. Naw.

What’s even more disturbing is that the only way to keep a F2P MMO flying high is not by introducing great new content, or providing a long-term plan, but by ‘encouraging’ the 1% to keep spending. And the only real way that is going to happen is if the shop continues to get re-stocked with bigger and greater things. If The One Ring one-shots Frodo, then next month The Two Ring does it twice as fast and with fireworks after to announce your victory. And looks, its only $125! Soon as Two Ring sales slow, you better believe the devs have The Three Ring ready to go, along with super-Frodo, who is way too ‘epic’ to be taken down by unworthy adventurers and their outdated Two Rings.

And if you think the above is me being over-the-top to make a point, go check out the cash shop in Atlantica Online. Or just check back on this post in a year from now, after the latest LotRO update.

The whole model is also predatory. It targets those too weak/dumb to know better. Because let’s be honest, buying god-mode is not going to keep you playing anything long-term. Buying a pony that now gives you 20% more HP instead of 15% does not make a game more fun. A game does not get better or have more content when every month a new ‘convenience’ item that is more or less required is added. Solving the problem of low-level gear being ‘hard to get’ by selling it is not a smart long-term solution (it makes the cause worse, actually). SOE recently said that 25% of all their sales are ponies. Outside of pony addicts, what real benefit do EQ2 players get from more devs being focused on producing more ‘must have’ ponies? Because make no mistake about it, SOE is most certainly re-allocating more resources to ponies.

You can’t stop stupid. There will be thousands of Diablo 3 players who ruin the game for themselves by sending a silly amount of money to buy gear, just like there are currently pony addictions in EQ2 influencing SOE and One Ring buyers influencing Turbine.

And the worst part if it all is that while the stupid might be a niche, a tiny fraction of the overall playerbase, they are all that matter in the F2P model.


All the blame, none of the credit

January 26, 2012

Can people please make up their minds? Are raiders an insignificant niche that devs should not spend time developing content ‘exclusively’ for or listening to, or are they so important that they are the reason a seemingly unstoppable social freight train went off the rails and is losing millions of subs?

How can it be both? Why would it matter if the content for 1% of your playerbase is too hard? And how, if said 1% wanted harder content, would that then be bad for the niche that raids, and also somehow translate into about 20% of your population leaving?

On a serious note, frequent readers should know my stance on this: ‘hardcore’ MMO players > casuals when it comes to impact/effect on an MMO. Every SynCaine is worth 20 Casual-Billy’s. When I leave, the mod makers, guild leaders, guide producers, min/max/exploit ‘discovers’ leave. And all that’s left is Casual-Billy looking around for ‘something to do’. And his ‘something’ is un-subbing after he exhausted the most obvious and fastest-consumed content.


Lowering expectations across the board

January 25, 2012

To say that the SW:TOR launch has been mediocre would be an understatement, and if you want to go so far as to call it a disaster, considering the amount of resources BioWare had, I wouldn’t argue the point.

And that’s SHOCKING to me.

Now the first time I heard mention of the 4th pillar being the key to SW:TOR is the first time I said the game is going to fail as an MMO and as an overall venture. That has not changed.

What has changed is the timeline of it all. I’m floored by the number of “not going to sub after the first month” comments I’ve seen. I fully, fully expected the first 2-3 months after SW went live to be nothing but “greatest MMO of all time” posts from everyone and their mom. Of EA declaring victory, of Blizzard announced MoP will be fully voiced, and of SOE getting hacked.

Man is that not the case. From the 1.1 clusterfuck, to so many people not being interested in alts, to comments about the amount of side ‘filler’ quests in the game and their (lack of) quality, to people not being able to find a group in the FIRST MONTH of the game, to the silly and embarrassing bugs, it seems that every day brings another joke-worthy news item from the face-blasters. You know its bad when you have the fans saying this is ‘normal’ in an MMO and that everyone should just be patient with BioWare. Are you kidding me? 300m and EA banking the company on you is not enough? And let’s not forget that Trion launched Rift somewhat recently and did not have nearly as many issues, despite having a fraction of the budget and former SOE employees on the team (in retrospect, that totally explains that whole security loophole issue though).

And all of the above does not change the fact that, bugs or no bugs, SW is still a failheap when it comes to being an MMO. It just also happens to be having issue as an sRPG as well. That I did not expect.

Which brings me to my somewhat revised view for the genre, and in particular the miracle known as GW2. I want GW2 to succeed, assuming it’s actually an MMO and not a WoW-clone. I want it to be at least good-enough that I’ll buy it and play it with the Inquisition crew from launch until whenever ArenaNet turns it into WoW. Not because I personally can’t wait for GW2, or because I think it will solve all the genre’s woes, but because an actual MMO game doing well is better than only having failheaps like SW out and… well, failing. Because maybe if GW2 does well, other devs/VCs will look at that and think “hey, maybe we should try making an MMO to cater to the MMO genre!”

Maybe.


EVE: There will be… wrecks

January 24, 2012

Last night we got a little PvP crew together to see what fireworks we could create in the last few hours of our current war-decs. We knew at least one target was active in our home system, and we also had eyes on a few others in the area. The goal for the night was just to get into some PvP-fit ships and see what would happen when we got into fights more or less on our terms.

Our first fight happened in somewhat of a scramble. As some of us were warping from one station to another, three enemy pilots in Destroyers warped to that station at about 50-60km. They quickly popped a cheap-fit Rifter we had, but I was able to use that wreck as a warp target. Once in range, I put my ECM jammers on the three ships, and got a jam on two immediately. At the same time a few other members our of fleet had warped in and begun to tackle and attack. Two of the three enemies warped away as soon as this happened, but we had one of them tackled and he popped rather quickly.

At the tail-end of that fight, another enemy from a different merc corp warped to that station. Our war with them had just expired, but a few of our guys still had aggression on him from an earlier station ‘fight’. The bad news was I was not able to fight him, and could only sit and watch as the fight played out.

As you can see in the kill-mail, he was heavily tanked, and relied mostly on his drones for DPS. He actually ended up killing Rusty’s first ship just before he ran out of cap, and the Ares on the KM is Rusty’s second ship, which he had as backup in the system.

It was both interesting and frustrating to be able to only watch as the fight played out. I was able to assess the situation a bit better, and call for people to over-heat as things got critical, but the fight would have been an easy kill had I been able to engage and jam him.

After cleaning up all of the wrecks, we then headed to a low-sec system we knew housed a pirate corp. While the numbers our scout reported did not sound great, we were looking for a fight and sent in our bait ship anyway. The ‘bait’ worked, and he was followed to the gate by a Tempest and a Hurricane. We jumped into the system, and the fight started.

I was not able to jam the Tempest despite counter-cycling three jammers on him, but my fourth jammer did get the Cain. We were working down the Tempest when more ships warped in. First another Tempest, and then a Megathron. Then some tier 3 BCs. Oh and then a carrier. Whelp.

Since it was clear that we had brought a plastic knife to a nuke fight, those who could warped off, those who could not died bravely. Seems we will need just a bit more firepower if we intend to stir that hornets’ nest again.

We scouted one more system for potential targets, but all was quiet and it was getting late, so we called it a night. Overall a good time, and another valuable learning experience. It was also good to take out a few of our war enemies right at the end to even the score a little bit.


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