Today’s Kool-Aid flavor is grape. Grape and failure

August 28, 2013

A lot of funny stuff is happening in this post over at TAGN, please go check it out. My only major complaint is that Wilhelm was light on the actual insults. I’m going to try and correct that here.

I think the biggest gain from that post is my discovery of a new blog: Zen of Design. The title is a bit misleading though; I think it would be far more accurate to call the blog “Tales from a hotbar salesmen”. That aside, its great reading, in much the same way the comments section on Massively is ‘great reading’. Just quotes on top of quotes of goodness.

But before we get to that, a few quick points from the TAGN piece; has anyone ever considered that while you benefit from having multiple accounts in EVE, the real reason so many do it is because they really, really like the game? We talk all the time about what a huge insurmountable barrier $15 a month is, so what are EVE players telling you about their game when they happily pay $30, $45, or more per month, for months if not YEARS at a time? (I really only want replies to this from people who have an above-Tobold understanding of EVE, thanks).

On the chances of TESO or WildStar being successful; in a genre with F2P abominations like SW:TOR, B2P 3-week titles like GW2, and “I have nothing in common with my 2004 version” WoW, is it really that unimaginable that there are hundreds of thousands of players just looking to play/pay for 2005/6 WoW in 2014? I don’t mean an exact copy/paste job, but I’m not buying this notion that all gamers have evolved into something unrecognizable from 2005. Not saying that either TESO or WildStar will become that game, but if/when someone does, my bet is they will be successful (just not perfect-storm WoW successful)

Those points aside, let’s get back to my new favorite blog, shall we?

I’ll state this up front; the below is a little unfair. The writer is working for EA and SW:TOR, so perhaps a lot of this is just singing the company line rather than personal belief. That said, no one (I think) is forcing the guy to write this, so it’s fair game.

“It probably comes as no surprise that I have discovered religion about Free 2 Play in a big way. It’s very clearly the way that the future of the genre is going, and any new competitor that enters the space is going to face immense competition from the rest of us that now provide a pretty substantial amount of gameplay for free. Right now, WoW is the only successful subscription-only MMO in the west, and even they seem to be sticking their toe in the pool.”

Let’s do a real quick recap of SW:TOR and its initial aim:

1) It had a built-in audience thanks to its IP (Star Wars), the devs (BioWare), and prior games (KOTOR)

2) It had the biggest budget of any MMO, with the marketing power of EA

3) Its goal initially was to challenge WoW, a title that retained millions of subscribers year after year (until everyone with talent left the company, and the interns started doing updates/working on Diablo 3)

What actually happened:

1) The launch was a disaster, with ridiculous bugs (invuln dancing), high-res textures being held out, and countless PR embarrassments

2) Players were jumping ship at an amazing rate, thanks to the game being a shallow, sub-par sRPG on a tragically terrible engine that couldn’t handle more than 5 players in one area

3) The game was forced into the F2P minor leagues

4) The F2P model itself might be the biggest joke amongst all offerings, including the beyond-ridiculous option to buy hotbars. It’s so bad that when Massively put up a “it’s not that bad guys!” piece about it, readers were not sure if it was satire or not.

5) EA has been trying to distance themselves from the title ever since, downplaying its impact during financial calls and trying to redirect attention to its successful properties

6) The heads of BioWare threw in the towel shortly after SW:TOR crashed.

So, that is the basis of Damion’s new ‘religion’. Whelp.

(Talking about NVN and Marvel Superheroes) “It also means they get to avoid the stigma of ‘failure’ that comes from a hasty conversion. Perhaps the most painful part of transitioning SWTOR from subscription to Free-to-play was reading all of the commentary describing us as a failed game, when all of the internal numbers we had showed that F2P completely reinvigorated the game.

So wait, SW:TOR isn’t a failed game that was forced into F2P, but yet was reinvigorated by F2P? I was not aware something already successful can get reinvigorated. Usually we call that “more of the same”.

Which again brings up the question seemingly no one has an answer to; why is it that only failed MMOs go F2P? Why is it that failed F2P games don’t go subscription? Why is it that when a F2P game does really well (Allods, somehow…), it goes from F2P to subscription? Why is it that successful MMOs (EVE, WoW for now) stay subscription? If F2P is so awesome, so amazing, so “the future”, why is it only used when you either have a subpar MMO out of the gate, or you fail as a sub? Anyone?

Free-to-play is all about making the game accessible – getting more people into the front door. SWTOR’s success here is no fluke – DDO reported that their concurrent players increased 5x. For LOTRO, the number was 3x. If anyone wants to see the effects of Free to Play on logins, check this chart

Again, that “SW:TOR success” part cracks me up, as does including a link to DDO from 2009 (at the time of the F2P conversion) and LotRO from 2010. Damion, why have you not provided more recent links to DDO and LotRO success stories? It can’t possibly be because going F2P from subs is a one-time boost for a failing game that fades and you return to just being a failed game, can it? Based on those 2009 and 2010 stories, Turbine must be straight killing it today right? What’s that, Turbine has been in financial trouble for a while now? But F2P really saved those games, didn’t it? Just like it’s going to save SW:TOR, won’t it?

Whether or not the billing model of Eve’s economic-spreadsheet driven libertarian paradise is right for a fledgling mass market MMO remains to be seen. But I doubt it.

As I’ve mentioned before, if someone associated with SOE or SW:TOR tells you something is bad, put the house on that something working out. Easy money.

One of my mantras about being a free-to-play game is that, in order to call yourself that, your evangelists have to feel good about telling their casual friends, “Yeah, you can totally play for free!”

You sell hotbars. Your fluff piece about your F2P model over at Massively was ridiculed. YOU MIGHT HAVE THE WORST F2P MODEL IN THE GENRE. Dude…

And all of those delicious quotes off just one post. So, so much more to dig into in the days to come.

Edit: F2P ALL THE WAAAAYYY (out the door)


Hell officially freezes over

January 16, 2013

What

The

Fuck?

Obviously overall this is awesome. F2P MMOs that are actually good games growing up and becoming sub games is a thing that should happen. I’ve said over and over that I’d pay $30 a month or more to play a sub-based version of Atlantica Online, for instance. So yea, great news.

But Allods? The $7,000 gem armor or whatever game? That is the first title to start the march back to sanity? What’s next, WAR adding a third faction? SW:TOR becoming successful? Someone playing GW2 longer than a month?

Cold.

So cold.


Darkfall: Beta blues

December 12, 2012

Darkfall Delay; part 72,343.

First off, massive points for announcing the delay minutes before you are set to go live. There is trolling, and then there is AV. Just next level stuff that gets forumfall to exactly where it needs to be; on the bleeding edge of suicide (get it). The delay sucks, but at least beta is going to start Monday (hahaha).

Having the beta sucks a lot more though. We live in a world where everything in an MMO is known and well documented before the game even comes out, so it would have been fun to have everyone go in blind for DF:UW. Especially because DF is a virtual world rather than a generic themepark, so things like city locations, farming spots, and builds matter more here than knowing the layout of the next zone in something like GW2.

Having this beta and letting organized guilds pre-plan everything is also going to take away some potential fun. Pre-beta, everyone was going to scramble and take cities they believed would be worthwhile, but that very well could have ended up with powerhouse guilds in below-average cities. That would have resulted in motivation for sieges and conflict. The pre-release meta-gaming was already great fun, with alliances spreading misinformation about their plans and where they will go.

With beta, all of this will be known, and so the most powerful alliances will grab the best locations, while the have-nots will have to settle for lesser spots. That right there will reduce conflict, at least initially. A pity.

Another pity is what day one will look like now vs in a no-beta state. Without beta, day one would have been a wild scramble with unpredictable results. With beta, organized clans will be following a tight script for success, while those less organized will instantly fall behind much further than they would have otherwise. The scramble would have been a chaotic mess of fun. The script execution will be doing what needs to be done, which is important and ultimately leads to what we want (winning), but short-term is a lot less fun.

Of course things could be a lot worse. Instead of a delay, Aventurine could announce that they plan to sell UI elements for $5 apiece in the cash shop, or mount skins for $50. They could have announced the addition of a new race, the pink anime bunny from outer space. Or a RM auction house. Or that they plan to add a new gear tier a week after release. Or that they have downgraded their graphics engine to EQ2-quality. Or just done basically anything that SOE has ever done.

Now that would be worth raging about. A delay? Welcome to Darkfall.


The more things change…

March 1, 2012

In a sign of the apocalypse, Keen is playing Darkfall again (100% joking, everyone should be playing Darkfall (unless they are playing EVE)), which brings about the old “I’m playing Darkfall until the minute something better comes along” comment we often hear. Darkfall sucks, but it sucks the least amongst fantasy sandbox games (insert Democracy quote here).

Now one could say this is because no one has really bothered to make a quality fantasy sandbox, and so Darkfall is only alive (for three years…) until someone bothers. Sure Mortal Online and Xyson have come out (do we count Fallen Earth here? No, ok), Wurm and ATitD are still out, but shhh. The moment someone bothers DF is dead!

Another popular comment to make here is that fantasy sandbox MMOs are niche and not an area worth pursuing. Yup, only Sci-Fi Excel sandbox MMOs can get 400k subs after 8 years (most successful MMO not called WoW, no big deal), and a fantasy equivalent has no chance. Niche yo. The big money is in themeparks, as clearly demonstrated by… well that one game use to make a lot of money! Ignore that all the other AAA themeparks to come out after are now in the F2P minors selling you the One Ring or wings. They ships (and maybe sold) a million boxes, and only cost about 10 or 1000 times the cost of DF/EVE to make. Success like you read about (in the PR release, telling you that a day after going F2P, F2P-based sales are up 100%. No wai! Still waiting on the follow-up PR release telling me how growth has continued…)

Of course maybe, just maybe, the reason Darkfall is still online, a sub game, with its original servers still up (all two), is because it’s good at what it does, and that what it does is not nearly as easy to get right as people think? Naw, that can’t be it, right? That maybe the fundamental ideas behind the game, ones Aventurine copy/pasted from UO rather than EQ (if you want to do the whole ‘EQ was the original themepark’ thing), work a bit better at this whole “MMO retention” thing the sub model and the genre was built on? Crazy talk.

When I wrote that the genre is finally emerging from the dark ages, part of that is the ability for developers, those talented and those working for EA or SOE, to finally be given the chance to produce something that is not DoA. Post-WotLK WoW is trash, and no matter how talented the dev team, being tasked to copy trash is still going to result in trash. It might have a cool soul system attached, it might have a great fantasy IP, or it might be fully voiced, but at the end of the day you built off of trash, and no amount of good ideas or tweaks is going to change that foundation.

And so now, finally, after 7 or so years of repeating the same mistake and seeing the genre come to a grinding halt in terms of innovation (CCP aside, of course), we are starting to see signs that real MMOs might start getting made again. Be they in the indy space (Pathfinder) or the ‘AAA’ space (GW2), finally the core is not being built on the solo-hero trashheap that everyone was convinced worked so well if you only did X or spent Y.

So hopefully in 2012 or 2013, we do see a game or three that comes out and is that “better than DF” MMO. Maybe then AV won’t have the luxury of not updating the game for A YEAR! Maybe finally as much effort/resources will be put into refining that formula rather than racing to the bottom of the ‘accessible’ failheap, and we end up deciding which MMO to play on merit rather than buying a box and praying the content lasts until the next one ships.

It’s happened before, after all, but not many were paying attention (or had internet) back then.


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.


It’s only a problem if you can’t afford it

December 7, 2011

I find the discussion around gold ammo/tanks/accounts in WoT fascinating for a number of reasons, and the subject reveals a lot about gamers and their tolerance for different things, especially in a PvP game.

First let’s start with some facts.

It’s a fact that you can buy power in WoT. Shooting with gold ammo is better than shooting without it. It’s also a fact that you can buy accelerated progression in WoT in the form of gold tanks or account services. Finally, it’s a fact that the higher up in tiers you go, the higher the ‘recommendation’ that you spend money to continue playing gets due to how the repair cost system is set up.

I’ve seen fans of WoT argue against the buying-power aspect by suggesting gold ammo is rare, ineffective, or does not influence the outcome of a battle. All of this is interesting.

Rarity: So because, for example, only one in ten battles involves gold ammo, gold ammo is not really a problem? To me this suggests a few things. First, the care-factor for any one battle is very limited. Winning or losing a single battle is marginally important, to the extent that using gold ammo is ‘silly’ because why pay extra for something so trivial (winning)? This is further reinforced by the fact that gold ammo is most often seen in clan matches, which ‘matter’ more. The flip side of this is, of course, non-clan matches don’t ‘matter’ as much.

This then brings up the question: how rare is ‘rare enough’? If gold ammo prices were slashed, and gold ammo was used in 50% of battles, is it now a “buying power” problem? If the price is increased, and it’s used in 1/1000th of battles, is the problem ‘solved’?

Ineffective: If gold ammo is so similar to regular ammo, who buys it? Why do they buy it? Just for the lulz? And if gold ammo is as underpowered as some claim, why do clan’s use it? Furthermore, if level-of-effect is the issue, when does gold ammo really become a problem? There is a lot of space between “no effect” and “one-shotting tanks”, so where do you fall on the scale? 5% power increase is too much? 50% power? Anything above 1%?

No influence on the outcome: This is somewhat similar to the above, but not quite. If player skill, pure luck, pre-game random tank matching, the map, or anything BUT who has gold ammo is the factor in determining the winner, why again do clan’s spend money on gold ammo? Why is it even noticeable? If gold ammo has “never effected the outcome of a battle”, are all those gold ammo purchasers just idiots throwing money down a hole? And if they are, why are the ‘smart’ people who are not buying gold ammo talking about it beyond thanking them for the charitable donation? Plus if gold ammo has truly never influenced the outcome of a battle, shouldn’t gold ammo be buffed? Its crazy underpowered!

Would CoD or Battlefield players also consider gold ammo a non-issue in their games? If Riot allowed you to buy a few extra mastery points in League of Legends, would anyone even notice? I mean hell I’ve won LoL games with the completely WRONG masteries set, that’s how “worthless” they are! Surely, given how much of a non-factor such a minor purchase of power would be, we would see most tourney players in LoL not spend the cash for those extra mastery points, right? After all, LoL is more of a skill-based (twitch) game than WoT, so if anything the effect would be even LESS noticeable, right? Hello…?

As for gold tanks/accounts and their impact on repair costs, this is NOT an issue of buying power, but buying a way out of ‘bad’ game design. Repair costs that ‘force’ you to play lesser-tiered tanks to grind up cash unless you pay for a gold tank/account is, IMO, bad design (not letting you play how you want to play) driven by the payment model. I highly doubt Wargaming.net is not smart enough to ‘fix’ this ‘problem’, after all.

This part I have less of an issue with since in-battle it has no impact (gold tank power aside), and at the end of the day it’s just the cost of your “free to play” game. Some titles state up front they cost $15 a month, others don’t. Gamers should be smart enough at this point to not be fooled into believe the whole ‘free’ scam from 99% of what’s out there.

That said, LoL is a hell of a lot more ‘free’ than WoT in this regard. LoL does not have weak/bad design like repair costs, because of the fact that they don’t sell “stop walking over glass” stuff like premium accounts or gold tanks. Riot is able to collect enough money off reskinned sparkle ponies to not have to ‘force’ their players to pay up or suffer. Good deal if you can get it, sucks when you can’t. Most can’t, but then again most F2P titles are garbage.

The biggest gray area, and the least interesting part of all of this IMO, is the power level of gold tanks. It’s a fact they are stronger than similar base tanks, and it’s also a fact they are not as strong as a fully kitted tank. They lay somewhere in the middle (although closer to the top end than the bottom). They are far more noticeable than gold ammo because, well, GOLD TANK IN YOUR FACE. Hard to miss them, especially compared to how hidden gold ammo is.

The real reason, IMO, that gold tanks are brought up so often is because not only are they fairly powerful, they give you a huge advantage in terms of earning cash. The straw man is the power, the cash earning/savings is the real issue, because those without gold tanks are ‘forced’ to farm more cash to play at the higher tiers. This, I believe, is what breeds the contempt for them. It’s somewhat valid, if you ignore the whole “you knew what you were getting yourself into from day one” aspect. It’s not like gold tanks, repair costs, or gold ammo were patched in later, once everyone was hooked on a version of WoT where the wallet was not a weapon.

At the end of the day, what all of this reveals to me is that plenty of people are willing to pay for power, but only at a cost they are personally comfortable with, and buying power is only a problem when the cost gets too high for them. $7000 gem set in Allods = bad. $1 gold ammo in WoT = good. Unless that gold ammo is used against you in a noticeable manner and the results matter to you, at which point gold ammo = bad even if it’s just one penny above a cost you are okay with.

Furthermore, and far more disturbing, is that people are quick to ignore bad game design (repair costs) driven by the payment model if again the cost is ‘reasonable’ (reasonable of course being different for everyone). One-time gold tank for $35 = good. Per-month $20 character slots = bad. Unless of course the character slot is not that important, or you can get it on sale for $5. Oh and the gold tank IS a problem if its power level is too high. Too high of course being a personal opinion. Unless it’s the most powerful tank, then it’s just pure buying power, but again that only becomes an issue if you think $35 is too high a cost to buy wins.

Personally, I’ll just stick to games limited to selling pony skins, or charging everyone $15 a month and favoring those with more time. Way more ‘fair’. :)

 


Speaking of innovation…

July 19, 2011

The (not really all that) new MMO business model: Is your MMO ‘good’?

If you lied and said “Yes”, go to A.

If you ran out of money, need to ship the alpha, and said “No”, go to B.

A: Hold a closed beta open to everyone, drum up launch hype, pack a Collectors edition with a ton of junk, sell for full price or more. Promise the world a week or so after launch, while also talking about how you never expected such a strong response and that you are now playing catch-up. Patch some of the stuff you cut in beta into the game, showing how ‘agile’ your development is compared to everyone else.

Hype wears off, you actually launched another WoW-clone. Merge servers at some point, the longer you wait the worse things get. Make sure to release a paid expansion with all the other stuff you cut from release at full price. Expansion hype wears off even sooner. Go F2P shortly after. If your MMO is based on an IP, shut down. If not, get an intern to keep the lights on.

B: Hype launch, lie/cheat/murder to sound special, sell the box at full price. Wait for your game to die. The rate of death is directly tied to how bad your game is.

If death is measurable in weeks, announce a return to beta, ‘re-launch’ with a nice buzzword attached to the title, sell the game at a ‘discount’, then go F2P a month later. Shut down shortly after.

If death is measured in months, announce a “brand new, exciting” direction, go F2P. Plan B: Announce that subscriptions are a relic (despite you charging full price for a box just a few months ago) and that F2P is the new ‘it’ thing, and that you are simply doing what everyone else is doing (despite the good MMOs all being sub-based, still). Shut down months later when no one is looking.

Note: This post would be a lot funnier if any of the above was exaggerated or sarcasm. Recent MMOs off the top of my head that inspired this post: Alganon, APB, Gods and Heroes, Global Agenda, Champions Online, DCUO, PotBS. I’m sure I’m missing a bunch.

The point: If an upcoming MMO looks ‘interesting’, wait a month and play the F2P version, saving yourself $50. If an MMO looks like a ‘sure thing’, wait a month and pay $5 on Steam. If an MMO has ‘neat ideas’, play on day one because day three they are shutting down. Make sure to take day two off from work to really make that $50 count!


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