Life Evolution in the sandbox

November 24, 2009

Pacing and gameplay evolution are very important and at times overlooked factors in any MMO. The actions and motivations of a day one player are very different than those of a two year veteran, and good game design takes that into consideration. What can be enjoyable in the first month might very well be considered a ‘grind’ one year in, and something that might cause confusion after a few weeks could be a key feature keeping someone around month after month.

Themeparks get off easy in this regard because the developer is always in control of the rope pulling you forward, and they decide what is available to you day one, day one hundred, and ultimately on your last day. On the other hand a sandbox by design does not have such a rope, but rather multiple points-of-interest that server to motivate and influence, but never force, player behavior.

DarkFall has not always had the smoothest progression path, and while improved today it still has a ways to go before it’s fully there. Beyond the differences in control and UI, I believe the initial pacing of the game is currently solid. Skill gain from 1-50 is IMO relatively fast for most skills, and a skill at 50 is generally ‘good enough’. In relatively short order (10 hours?) you can be well on your way to establishing your preferred method of combat (melee/archery/magic), and in that time the average player should be comfortable with the controls, immediate environment, and basic concepts of the game. You certainly won’t be a master at anything, but your character should begin to establish an identity and purpose (being a part of a clan at this point will of course help in both regards, but motivated solo players should be fine).

In-game this means exploring and finding local mob spawns that are a good source of skill and loot gain, building up your bank, and learning the basics of crafting, PvE, and PvP (likely from getting attacked) combat. If you are part of a clan at this point you are likely still focusing more on PvE than PvP, with the major difference being that you are hunting mobs around your clan’s current location rather than a starter city, perhaps even in small groups. You can still join in on any PvP runs (with the knowledge that you will likely be going up against superior enemies and 1v1 situations will result in death, so just play your part and help out rather then trying to play the spearhead of any attack), and you will be included in major events such as sieges or large raids.

At some point later down the road (30-40 hours?), player motivation and gameplay should shift from discovery and growth to role execution. At this point your core skills should be around 75 or above, your secondary skills should be coming along, and you should have a solid understanding of most in-game mechanics and happenings. Your in-game time should be shifting away from focused skill gain to doing and reacting to what is happening around you (which is why a clan is key for all but the most self-motivated individuals), and through those actions your skills will continue to increase more ‘naturally’.

In-game this means you are now hunting mobs with a more focused goal (enchanting mats, gold for a specific skill/goal, rank 40+ weapons), and really working on your PvP skills, both group and solo. You should be able to hold your own in most combat situations (although power-gamers will still dominate you), and most importantly that initial rush and panic will be controlled.

The final ‘phase’ in a sandbox is true role pursuit and acceptance. Whether this means being a powerful economic force, a name to be fears on the battlefield, a regarded tactician, or simply a local area menace, you should have SOME purpose other than more gold/skills. Your character should be ‘done’ in most areas, with perhaps some secondary goals that serve more as a side project than a true need.

In-game this is where a sandbox shines, because the number of options and possibilities should be great, and the ability to change direction should be possible without a complete re-roll. This is also the stage of the game where upcoming additions and changes affect you most, and you should be heavily involved (directly or otherwise) in the ‘end-game’ of politics, city warfare, and empire building. The amount of content here should be nearly endless, as things such as alliances and military power change almost daily. Your allies today might be your enemy tomorrow and vice versa.

It’s this final phase that is both the major strength and current weakness of DarkFall. On the one hand, it deserves credit for having such a solid and functional end-game this early in its MMO life. That you want to and can siege a city without the server blowing up is more of an accomplishment then you might think, considering MMO history like SB (SB.exe), AoC (instanced city fails), WAR (the whole endgame), WoW (world PvP and Wintergrasp fails), Aion (fortresses). At the same time, clearly some issues exist, such as OP AoE magic, 6 hour sieges, ships and warhulk functionality, etc. And compared to other sandbox titles such as UO (pre-tram) and EVE, DarkFall is lacking the true depth those titles features in areas such as economic balance and possibility, non-combat influence/power, and RP/fluff possibilities (think player-made orc clans in UO).

The good news is that because of it’s solid base, developer time can and is being focused on adding and expending those areas rather than continually trying to get the core working, so while DarkFall might not be the game for you right now Mr. Exclusive Crafter Economy guy, it should/will be at some point ‘soon’, and when you do join up, you’ll have a lot of other options to entertain you as well.

(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)

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!).

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.

When it comes to open beta, timing is key.

August 28, 2009

Out of all the open beta discussions that I’ve seen (is it a free trial, should it be given a pass because it’s a beta, etc), I’ve yet to see anyone mention that timing of an open beta could play a key role in the games reception. Since an open beta, unlike a free trial, is only available for a limited amount of time, a player must make the choice of playing for free now, or not at all, and I think this has a huge impact on how a player perceives the beta itself.

I’ll use my recent venture into Fallen Earth as an example. I’m currently playing two MMOs that I’ve very happy with (DarkFall my primary, WAR my secondary), and I’m also playing Blood Bowl as my non-MMO game. Those three games basically dominate all my gaming time, so in order to get some time in with Fallen Earth, I had to cut back on DF/WAR/BB. What this means is that even before I create a character, FE is being compared to the three games above due to time constraints. If I was not playing any MMO at the time, FE would stand alone and be judged strictly on what it offers, plus it would very likely receive more consistent playing time and patience. When the FE beta crashes, I’m left with the choice to either log back in, or switch to DF/WAR/BB, and that only makes each crash more noticeable and detrimental.

Right out of the gate, just to capture my attention and eventually money, FE has to beat out DF/WAR/BB, which is unfair in a number of ways. I’m already comfortable and established in the other games, they have had some time for patches and fixes, and you know, I like those games (otherwise I would not be playing them, other than DF, I’m playing that as part of my Crusade of the Miserable), which means I have to like FE more in order for it to get attention. That’s a MUCH different challenge for any game than being ‘interesting enough’ to spend some time with. (Which IMO is why Aion is getting as much attention as it’s getting, because so many people are in that ‘space filler’ state with WoW slowing down for them and WAR/AoC/etc not delivering what they hoped for)

Let’s assume that in 3 months my interest in DF fades, WAR still has not fixed T4, and I’m done with BB, and NOW the FE open beta starts. It’s very likely I’ll put in far more time with it, learn more about what exactly it’s trying to do, get into that comfort zone with its controls and systems, and very likely, enjoy it a lot more overall. It’s the same exact beta, just at a different time in my current gaming cycle. Now instead of one short blog post about my time with it, FE gets 2-3 posts a week, breaking down the details and overall reporting that it’s a fun, unique MMO offering. My blog might not influence thousands of people to put down cash for FE, but replace this blog with someone over at Massively or PCGamer, and clearly timing could really add up.

While this whole scenario is similar to say, releasing a game in November among the usually holiday rush, the difference here is that people WILL try your beta because it’s free and they know time is limited, they just won’t give it as much time/patience/effort as they would under different circumstances, and we all know how important first impressions are. The only ‘fix’ to this issue that I can see, besides releasing your open beta when most people are bored (whenever that is), is to not limit the beta period to a short timeframe like a week or two. With such a short timeframe, its far more likely someone is only going to log in 1-2 times, for a few hours, and with MMOs being as complex as they are that’s just not enough time to do anything but glance at the graphics and do a few very basic tasks. That works great for Aion, because graphics and being familiar is what that game is trying to do, but it hurts a game like Fallen Earth, which is trying to shift the usually MMO focus a bit and try something different. Give people a full month to try the game out, and I believe more people would get beyond the first 3-4 hours (not all of course, Ed Zitron will still complete his full review based on your character creator and some forum posts), get into the heart of your game, and get a more honest view of what you are trying to do. If you honestly have a solid product that does indeed do some interesting things, that will only help you in the long run to not only draw people in, but allow people to give more complete and hopefully positive word-of-mouth.

Warhammer Online: After almost a year, does Mythic finally get it?

August 18, 2009

I’ll fully admit I might be too close to this to see it clearly, but with that said, I’ve noticed a pattern in Mythic’s approach to patching Warhammer Online, one that might be applicable to other MMOs as well.

The basic of this observation is this: At release, dev work was focused on expanding what WAR already did, seeking to attract more players overall. After 3-6 months, the dev focus changed from getting more players overall to bringing players back, especially those possibly interested in what WAR is offering rather than the general 1 month tourists. After 6+ months, dev focus again shifts from trying to get those not playing to keeping those currently subscribed.

Again, maybe it’s just me reading too much into patch notes or dev updates, and perhaps it’s just coincidence based on what has been patched so far and what is coming in the near future, but hear me out.

Consider the history of development with WAR. Shortly after release, Mythic adds in two previously cut classes, which while nice did little to address the issue at the time (chain queuing scenarios). Only after being burned for this from numerous negative reports (and no doubt exit polls by those who cancelled), Mythic slowly addresses the issue piece by piece, too slow to really change opinions (how many people still TODAY say WAR is nothing but a scenario grind?). Two more cut classes added and some live events later, subscription numbers are dropping while Mythic is still 50/50 focused on improving PvE and RvR. The major issue with RvR now, keep swapping, is again slowly addressed, and again only after numerous sources raise the issue. The PvE updates are made with little fanfare, as at no point was the PvE in WAR important to those who actually came for the games focus, RvR.

Mythic’s big gun, LotD, is now in full hype mode, with promises to bring back what Darkness Falls offered in DAoC. Of course the lack of a third side is nicely ignored, but the hype is thick enough to make many overlook this and still hope. LotD goes live, most players quickly figure out it failed in a number of ways (not the least of which is to fix ANYTHING wrong with the game before it), and we continue to march towards 200k or so subs. Players are left wondering how a game with such a solid core of mechanics could be so futile in it’s end game, especially coming from a company with years of experience working on DAoC.

Which brings us to the present, where the focus has (IMO) shifted from ‘add more stuff’ to ‘fix the crap’, with the crap being Tier 4 and the end game. If WAR had 750k subs right now, the hype train would no doubt be full steam ahead on adding the other two capital cities (remember those?), expanding the PvE dungeons available, and a bigger focus on ToK fluff and live events that give players stuff to do, rather than focus them on RvR. (So maybe for fans of RvR, WAR hitting 200k subs or whatever is a good thing…? Ok maybe not)

Assuming all of the above is correct, and not just coincidence, the real question then becomes: Is this a good thing? Obviously WAR being at 200-300k subs rather than 750k+ is not a good thing if you work at Mythic or own EA stock, but for those still playing WAR today, and for those who might return looking for good RvR, is this shift in dev attention a good move or just another attempt to put sprinkles on crap?

For me, it’s a great shift. I never cared too much for WAR’s PvE. I mean the PQs are fun and a good addition to the MMO formula, the dungeons are good enough, and honestly the questing is exactly what WoW-clone questing is, which is to say meh kill X, collect Y stuff we have been doing since before WoW became a pop icon. It’s not horrible, but not the reason I spend $15 a month or however many hours a week with a game. The reason I keep my WAR sub active is for the RvR, and for the last few months it’s not been because of Tier 4 RvR. WAR for me right now is a blast in tier 1 and 2 (my highest alt is about to hit T3, and it seems to follow T2 rather than T4 in terms of interest), and it’s the first game where I’ve actually ENJOYED playing multiple alts. But playing alts and the lower tiers will only last for so long, and eventually I would either move more of my focus back to T4, or quit if T4 was still broken. Now that Mythic seems to be 100% focused on T4 and the end game, rather than trying to create content for the sake of a Massively preview article (love you Massively), they might not draw as much attention for outsiders scanning patch notes, but you can bet all 200-300k players still playing are DYING to get a working end game.

Plus assuming Mythic DOES fix WAR’s end game (I have enough faith in them that they will), they will retain a higher percentage of their current players, and eventually positive word-of-mouth will grow their player base naturally. We are seeing it happen slowly with AoC (something I will give Funcom a world of credit for btw, especially considering how hard I panned that game at release), and of course we have seen it for the last five years with EVE’s unrivaled growth. And honestly, it’s not exactly a bad way to do things. Sure it would be nice to get 5m+ subs and keep them, but as only one pop icon has managed to accomplish this so far, and multiple titles have turned profits by keeping a loyal 200k-ish base (UO, EQ, AC, DAoC, LotRO) for multiple years, it’s not nearly as doom-and-gloom for WAR as some make it out to be. (Not to mention things would be a lot easier if a certain ex-employee had not run is mouth about opening more servers and other barometers for success in a market that had exactly ONE title match his parameters. Hard to imagine why that guy is gone…)

Fans of hype, fans of gaming.

June 2, 2009

Hype in the gaming industry is a form of entertainment all its own, and history has shown that plenty of people LOVE getting wrapped up in the pre-release fanfare. This is not only something that consumes people in their search for information; it can also be big business for those who cater to that crowd.

Remember Diablo II pre-release? The super-slow info leaks from Blizzard, including releasing teaser or outright misleading screenshots? The countless fan sites that literally broke down every single screenshot, dev post, or movie frame by frame? How many mega-sites launched years before D2 was released, feeding on that info frenzy and no doubt making a pretty penny along the way? If you don’t remember it, just follow along as the same thing happens with Diablo III.

That frenzy did not hurt Diablo because, well, Diablo was an amazing game. For all its hype, it lived up to it and more. No backlash from the super fans, and everyone following the game got to play something great, perhaps even enhanced due to all their ‘insider’ knowledge and being able to finally experience what they had been waiting for all those months/years.

Pre-release and post-release are two different phases of a games life cycle, and success in either can lead to some profit, while success in both is not only rare, but also exponentially rewarding. If your hype machine succeeds in selling a ton of people on a pile of crap, and that crap had a modest dev budget, you can still turn a profit even though your actual game failed to ultimately deliver (AoC for example). At the same time, a quality MMO will EVENTUALLY get the attention it deserves; even if it takes a while for word of mouth to spread (EVE is perhaps the best example). And of course the genre’s most famous example, WoW, delivered on both a successful hype machine and a quality game (since ruined by carebears, obviously). The MMO graveyard is littered with failed hype AND failed game examples.

And just like the games themselves have different phases, so do fans. Some people only play the pre-release hype game, jumping from one game to the next, always feeding on the possibility that the next game is going to be ‘the one’, moving on from a previous game a month or so after release because it did not live up to their own self-created vision of what that game should be. Others not only ignore all pre-release hype, but give any MMO a good 3-6 months of post-release time before getting interested, knowing that what is promised or even delivered on day one is NOT going to be the same game 3-6 months later. Between the two extremes is the gray area, where fans might pick a title or two to follow pre-release due to a particular interest, but generally don’t engage in the long, drawn out process of following a project years before release and gobbling up any and all scraps of information.

At the end of the day, regardless of how effective the hype machine was, or how many superfan dreams get crushed at release, a quality title will attract its buyers, and more importantly, deliver a quality gaming experience for its target audience. After all, we are GAMING fans, and not news/hype fans… right?

Giving credit when it’s due.

May 13, 2009

It’s very easy to point out flaws in a game or it’s developer. When a server crashes, it’s impossible not to notice. When you are in a login queue, you know it. If your current class/race is underpowered, it affects your gaming. Even little things like hair poking through a helm or a single skill not functioning correctly get noticed by gamers, and any games message board usually contains plenty of minor errors people want fixed. But outside of ‘back of the box bullet points’, how often do you stop and take notice that something is working correctly?

How many reviews/post/threads have you read about how balanced mounted combat is in DarkFall? Hell, those of you that have actually played the game, how many of you gloss over the fact that DarkFall HAS working mounted combat? It seems such a simple thing: get on mount, pull out a weapon, and swing at people. No big deal right? Look around, how many AAA titles have mounted combat? WoW in 5 years has never added it, instead adding vehicles in controlled spaces to play around with the idea, but never added it fully. WAR, a PvP game that contains mounts, forces you off them before you can fight anyone. LotRO, EQ2 (does, see comments), etc, mounts but no combat. (AoC has it, but given the stories DF players tell about AoC PvP, it’s hard to give it too much credit, but having never actually played it I can’t comment beyond that)

But beyond the simple fact that DF has mounted combat, let’s look at how it balances out. On a mount, a player is faster than a player on foot, and loses less stamina riding over the same distance as a player who sprints. A swing from a mount does more damage than the same swing on foot, and a mount also has a forward and backward special attack that does even more damage. Hits from a mount punt an enemy player a decent distance as well. Given all that, mounts sound rather overpowered don’t they? So why is it that a player will dismount to fight on foot when facing a balanced encounter?

For starters, mounts can be killed, and at 300ish gold a pop, you can’t exactly burn through mounts without it hurting you financially. Next, mounts limit what you can do. You can’t cast magic or shoot arrows while mounted, and turning around on a mount is far slower than a player spinning around. Finally, if you only bring a single mount with you, getting it damaged or even killed during a battle means you have just lost your best means of escape should things go south.

Change up any of the seemingly small design decisions, and how balanced is mount combat now. If players were allowed to shoot arrows while mounted, what would that change? If a mount could turn at the same speed as a player, would you still see people fighting on foot? If the speed advantage was slightly lower for a mount, would players still value mounts as highly as they do now? All of these things are currently well balanced, and so you probably never question them.

Another example of unnoticed features is archery in DarkFall. It’s FPS-ish in that you have to aim to hit someone rather than picking a target and spamming your hotbar skills. But it’s deeper than that, in unnoticed yet critical ways. Ever consider the current rate of travel with arrows? If they flew faster, would escaping on a mount still be possible? If they flew slower, would archery have any value past point-blank chasing? If the arrows flew perfectly straight, rather than curve the way they do now, how would that effect fighting at long distances, or from higher ground? If arrows were unlimited, and only the bows durability effected whether you could shoot or not, what impact would that have not only on combat, but on crafting, the economy, and on the decisions made by players when loading up before heading out on a PvP trip? You see lots of threads about how archery currently does too much damage, but how many do you see complaining about the flight speed of arrows, or how imbalanced it is that archers have to always carry around ammunition?

It’s easy to look at any game and point out broken or incomplete features, let alone design decisions that simply don’t fit YOUR playstyle, but how often do we give credit when things are done right, especially things others have back off of and not even attempted to implement?

300k, has Mythic pulled a Failcom and Flagshipped WAR?

February 4, 2009

Remember back in the summer of 2008 we were all making WAR subscriber predictions, and we figured they would be in the range of 1-100 million, depending on how high your fanboy rating was? Everyone reasoned that if WoW can get 11 million, WAR can at least get a few million right?

Just like all the other MMOs with a million+ subscribers…

I’ll be up front and say that initially I thought the 300k number was low and disappointing. While WAR had its issues at launch (and a few still persist), in the grand scheme of the MMO world it had a good launch and is a very stable product. Plus personally I’ve had a damn good time with it, as have the regular members of CoW that I play with. Even MMO newbie Aria (my fiancé) enjoys it, and she has a short fuse when it comes to frustration, be it for technical reasons or her witch elf being blown up repeatedly by a bright wizard.

But if we enter the land of make-believe, and pretend WoW does not exist, how does 300k stack up? It’s around LoTRO and EVE numbers, and it beats EQ2, CoH, AoC, ect. Basically, it’s close (if not at) the goal of being #2 in the market, with the perception problem being you are a VERY distant second. I’ve said this many times here and elsewhere, but its worth repeating, if your MMO is budgeted around WoW-like numbers, you are going to fail even if you deliver the baby jesus of the MMO world. The 11 million people playing WoW are not MMO players, and they never will be. The kids/moms/dads/grandmas etc playing WoW won’t make the jump to the next shiny that’s released, and the MMO tourists that WoW has created won’t stick around past a month of ANY new MMO (which may also include Blizzards next MMO btw). We always talk about rose-tinted glasses when we talk about UO or EQ right? 10 million people are wearing WoW-tinted glasses, and those aren’t coming off anytime soon.

Moving beyond the “my MMO has more subs than yours, hahaha!” aspect of 300k, what does that actually mean for WAR’s future? It’s a high enough number to justify WAR’s continued development with a full crew, for one, meaning the game is here to stay. It also means that as WAR improves (and it has a LOT of room for improvement due to its solid fundamentals and the difficulty of getting a PvP-base game ‘right’), that 300k number will go up. The shine of WotLK continues to dull, and if recent CoW member movement is any indication, some of those players will be giving WAR another shot. I think a common thread we saw with WAR early on is people liked the concepts, but too many issues prevented people from fully enjoying the game as a whole. With the release of WotLK, those people had the perfect excuse to move away from WAR and enjoy WoW again, knowing could always give WAR another shot once it has been fixed up. I think we are starting to see the beginning of that process, and with WAR’s full content schedule coming in the next few months, it will give people more and more reasons to give WAR a second look.

One would think being horribly wrong on one prediction would teach you a lesson, but here goes my 2009 prediction: 500k+ by the end of 09, securing the #2 spot without debate. I have faith that Blizzard will continue its snails pace of delivering content, and making WotLK so easy is going to burn them. Along with that, I really believe WAR is 1-2 patches away from getting its end-game where it needs to be to really hook people, and the buzz from a successful city siege will go a long way to raising peoples attention (think EVE tournament or some of the other major stories that draw people in). Fanboy optimism? Of course, I’m a fan of the game after all, and I believe in its design. I think there exists a spot for it in the MMO space, just like DAoC had its spot among EQ1 and company. Mythic just needs to step up to the plate and finally deliver that one set of changes that will finally get T4 RvR where it needs to be, that perfect balance between making a city siege possible, but still rare enough to make it something special.

2009 Predictions

January 2, 2009

I thought I did a 2008 predictions post, but I guess not, so welcome to the first annual “throw darts at the board” Official 2009 MMO predictions.

WoW: All players will burn through WotLK faster than they did TBC, increasing the churn rate. WoW will launch in new areas of the world and count those players towards its own overall sub number (despite more than half of those not being full-paid subs), which counters the effects of the above and WoW retains its 11 million ‘subs’. The new raid content will be beaten the day it is released live by top guilds, but it will be considered tuned ‘correctly’ despite the churn. More daily grinds in 09.

WAR: Mythic steals CCP’s stackless I/O tech and Fortress sieges without lag become a reality. The Choppa and Slayer classes are added, and the game overall is ‘fixed’, with balance becoming the never-ending debate. Keeps gain the functionality they have in DAoC, along with some new features. WAR continues as the #2 sub MMO in the US/EU.

LoTRO: Replaces EQ2 as the ‘other’ fantasy PvE game in town, and continues to improve monthly. The overall effects of MoM are seen as a huge long-term positive for the game, and take its focus in that direction, with more legendary items and complex classes. The bread and butter book quests continue to be the best PvE in MMOs.

SOE and EQ2: Not much will change for EQ2, as 2009 will being ‘more of the same’, which will be embraced by the core players. Thanks to Station Access it will remain a nice option, yet it will concede more players as the engine continues to get more dated. FreeRealms will launch, and no one above the age of ten will notice. It certainly won’t be the MMO jesus SOE is praying it will be, but rather will become another free-to-play cartoon. The Agency will flop, as MMO players will reject the FPS-lite gameplay.

AoC: Closed before we see 2010.

EVE: Continues to grow, with avatars in stations bringing in many new players. Most leave once they fly out to low-sec and get podded. EVE continues to be the one MMO that defies all of the ‘WoW or bust’ logic, and gives hope to anyone looking for a different and yet successful MMO.

Free-to-play MMOs: They continue to be pumped out at dime-a-dozen rates, each a bit more anime than the last. Without a AAA representative, they remain in the same spot as they have been in 2008, an MMO afterthought or ‘niche’. The few gems in the crowd have difficulty finding an audience due to the overall perception of free-to-play games.

RMT: Again as in 2008, RMT is kept to buying ponies or cute dresses, though all games in the MMO graveyard (Station Access) gain some form of RMT. At least one major MMO will make a legitimate push into full-on RMT, giving us the NGE of 2009.

The bored WoW player wave comes and goes, leaving empty servers behind

October 31, 2008

With WAR’s recent server transfers, the natural first reaction would be that since so many players are jumping ship, WAR is dying and needs to consolidate. It’s generally the statement we make whenever we hear an MMO is merging servers, and generally this has been true, yet I’m not entirely sure it applies in the post-WoW MMO world.

The fact is, for a large majority of current MMO gamers, WoW is their first MMO, and hence every game after will be compared to it. We all do this with whatever MMO we played first (UO for me), thinking back to the first character we created and the fun we had. We always hope that whatever MMO we pick next, we will get that same experience, and it’s an impossible hope. You will never be a total MMO noob after your first game, and since part of the initial MMO magic is that once-and-gone noob feeling itself, you will continually slip down the path towards jaded MMO gamer. Welcome to the impossible and unreasonable expectations club.

The major problem in the post-WoW MMO world is that any new MMO that comes along grabs the attention of bored WoW players. This rather large group jumps into a new MMO on day one with the hope that they will get something new, yet at the same time expecting it to play EXACTLY like WoW. They take issue if the bind keys are different, if the mini-map is in the wrong spot, if the combat/leveling is slower/faster, etc. For far too many of these people, they don’t actually want anything but WoW, they just want more of it.

And so any new MMO is flooded with these players, who soon realize the new MMO is in fact not WoW, and rather than adapt to the new environment, try to force WoW-like gameplay into it. Once that’s no longer an option, it’s time to quit and return to familiar grounds. Now this process has always happened in MMO land, but the difference today is rather than a few thousand UO players leaving EQ1, you have a few hundred thousand jumping back to WoW. This means any new MMO has to launch with a far greater number of servers than it can really support, if only to host the first-month players until the its-not-WoW feeling sets in. It happened to PotBS, TR, AoC, and now WAR. (It should have been done in LoTRO, but Turbine has instead left a few near-dead servers online, as overall population is less of an issue in a totally PvE game) It will also happen to future releases as well, leaving players with the hit-or-miss game of picking the right server.

The good news for fans of non-WoW MMOs is that despite the initial player exodus, a core develops and life goes on. The developers fix and patch, the games improve, and fans that actually came to the new MMO for what it offers, rather than in the vain hopes of finding WoW2, get to play the game they want with like-minded players.

*Of course, marketing at times will interfere, and actually assume it can recreate WoW, setting unreasonable expectations. In turn this might cost the company too much when magically all 11 million players don’t show up, and the servers are forced to close. An MMO can be a success with 100k players, it just has to be planned for that 100k, and not 11 million.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers