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.

Kappa Sigma Turbine

December 5, 2012

Forumfall loves to bitch about Aventurine. It’s basically a tradition at this point, and it’s pretty well deserved considering DF2010 is (maybe) coming out 12/12/12. Like how hard would it have been for someone from AV to just provide a quick “don’t worry, first person view is in DF:UW”? Not that hard. And then we got the first role preview video, with 3/5 skills shown. Why did you not just show all 5? Because :AV:

But the MMO genre being as wonderfully entertaining as it is, you only have to take a small step back to realize :AV: or :CCP: is still god’s gift to gaming compared to SOE or Turbine. The latest pants-head development to fall out of the clowncar is the $50 hobby horse in LotRO. As others have mentioned, if this was an April 1st post it would fail because it would be too obvious, but no no, Turbine is serious.

Now sure, LotRO is already a F2P MMO, so the bar is meh high, but even at that level this is good stuff. First off, the ‘mount’ just looks stupid, in Middle Earth or otherwise. If it was a free drop for new players as their first mount, people would call it cyberbullying new players by making them ride around on something that looks so insulting and is often used as a hazing ritual. That Turbine wants $50 for it must be some social experiment (I think the question is “How many LotRO players would pay to get kicked in the balls?”), with the ultimate joke being on said players.

Because let’s make no mistake about it, LotRO players will buy this, just like WoW players got in line to buy a sparkle pony. We are not talking about the EVE playerbase that turned back CCP and Incarna here with the Jita Riots, we are talking about a F2P playerbase who already purchase The One Ring in their shop, and subject themselves to the game perma-spamming them to buy more every two seconds. Furthermore, if you think this is the only time this is going to happen (or even worse, that you think THIS is the START of a slippery slope…), let me introduce you to EQ2, a game basically funded on F2P dummies buying fairy wings, magic carpets, or whatever the SOE brain trust has devoted 90% of their development time and effort to. The only question left unanswered here is what will Turbine call the panda expansion for LotRO?

Bonus points to former MMO blogger Tobold for this gem as he attempts to defend Turbine:

Let me get that straight: You would rather that Turbine makes no money and shuts the game down than allow them to “break your immersion”? Sounds extremely selfish to me.

Because it’s either hobby horse or death people! That’s the only option in the MMO genre. Nothing else works. Providing a consistent, quality service and charging for it is for suckers. Massively successful games with a huge playerbase like EQ or LotRO are doing it right, and you are all just way behind the curve.

Never change F2P people, never change.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before

October 22, 2012

A year and a half ago SOE scrapped EQNext and totally revamped the game to be the “largest sandbox style MMO ever designed”, yo. John Smedley promises, and puts the fine and well-respected SOE name behind that promise!

Of course, something else was released about a year and a half ago, but I’m sure that’s a total coincidence. It’s not like Smedley is talking about mob AI and world impact or anything.

I wonder if EQNext royalties will match up to all the money Aventurine paid me to hype Darkfall…

The long list of mass market MMOs that everyone is playing

October 2, 2012

So if you did not pick up on the fact that yesterday’s post was a long-winded setup to tell you that EVE is the best MMO ever, you are either new here or not paying attention. Also if you are someone who likes to dismiss EVE because it’s a niche MMO in a genre full of mass-market MMOs, this should prove educational.

Let’s cover the niche part first though, since it’s pretty easy. WoW is an outlier with millions of subs, so I’m going to put it aside for now. Yes, EVE is niche compared to WoW, but based on that logic GW2 selling 2m boxes is also niche because 12m subs > 2m boxes. Same goes for SW:TOR, LotRO (who had a lovely “come play with millions of others” ad campaign pre-release. How’s that working out for ya?), or… actually any MMO not called WoW in the NA/EU (silly Asia).

So WoW aside, how do the 400k subs (I know I know, it’s just one guy with 400k accounts, and he buys PLEX in-game so even he is not paying anything, but let’s pretend for a moment that somehow magically those 400k subs still somehow count as 400k x $15 per month for the sake of CCP’s revenue) stack up to everyone else? Well no one has 1m subs, so now we are talking thousands rather than millions.

A whole slew of ‘mass market’ MMOs are now F2P because not enough people found them worth $15 a month. SW:TOR, which will soon join the F2P fail-ranks because it could not keep its 500k or bust target, cost more money than any MMO before it, and EAWare famously stated that if you are not spending $300m, you can’t compete with WoW. I guess if you DO spend $300m+, you can’t compete with EVE either. In fairness to EAWare EVE probably cost somewhere close to 300m to develop as well. Well 300m Yen anyway.

GW2 just launched and rewrote the whole MMO formula, including that nagging issue of having to pay to keep playing, because really, who likes paying when you can get the exact same thing for free? Not surprisingly GW2 sold fewer copies than Skyrim though, another “buy the box and play forever” fantasy title. To be fair, Skyrim is in the more mass-market sandbox genre, while GW2 has to carry the heavy burden of being a themepark. Also the NPCs in Skyrim are more helpful and less likely to go poof after a month, and the dynamic events don’t repeat as often. Both games do feature loot piñata dragons, meh combat, and nice visuals. I’ll be kind and not compare the main storylines.

Rift is still a sub-based MMO, and it’s a mass-market themepark. It has fewer subs than ‘niche’ EVE if various data sources are to be believed, and somehow if Trion retained half a mil subs I think we’d here about it. Plus get back to me when Rift has 400k subs at its ten year anniversary. Hey only about 8 years to go, but to be fair when EVE launched it had way fewer subs too, so maybe Rift will grow much like EVE has. Maybe. That said, out of the last few years, Rift is the only major MMO to actually stay a sub-based MMO for a year+, so it would not be totally unreasonable to call it the most successful launch since… WoW?

So I ask, what ‘mass-market’ MMO are people talking about when stating EVE’s 400k subs is ‘niche’? I thought we got over the whole “WoW or bust” thing in 2007? Or are people really still thinking the ‘MMO market’ is 12m strong, and surely the NEXT title is going to hit that mark? Because if you do I’m sure EAWare has a spot for you on the team! Or maybe Funcom. Or Mythic. Wait is Mythic still a thing? No, why, what happened? Didn’t they have that huge surefire IP and mass-market MMO that was going to crush WoW? (I hate you whiteshades.)

And once you realize that 400k subs is not niche, but near the top of the not-WoW market, you can reasonably set expectations for design and market size if you are actually aiming to design a game that is intended to be played beyond the first month. You know, an MMO. Or what the old folks called an MMO before Anet came along and ‘fixed’ it for all of us.

Furthermore, if you can’t make $18m in yearly revenue work for you and your dev team (100k subs for a year, and assuming zero box sale money), you are doing it wrong. Probably to the tune of $300m wrong that leads the head doctors to call it quits because people pointed out that you delivered $300m worth of garbage while helping to shut down a game people loved (which may or may not have had more players than SW:TOR currently has actually playing).

But seriously, $18m a year is not peanuts, and I don’t think retaining 100k people for a year is asking for the moon. Hell, maybe would call that hyper-niche and laugh while they go back to their 1m+ subs MMO not called WoW, so it must be easy! And look, if EQ1 got 500k people back when you had to use a rotary dial to login, I’m pretty sure a team of devs can make something today to get 100k. Or 50k and try to survive off $9m in revenue. The horror.

Or you know, keep pumping out those ‘mass market’ MMOs all the kids are talking about. The ones just crushing it in terms of numbers like… WoW. Release in 2004.

Yea, those!

Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy

September 28, 2012

When I see people write that no MMO can hope to retain people beyond 3 months now, like they did back in the big 3 days, I can only shake my head, laugh, and think about my recent two years with Darkfall, my almost three with EVE, and the infinite amount of time I’m about to spend with MMO baby jesus DF:UW.

Snark aside, the reality is that most MMOs after 2004 are designed, either intentionally (GW2) or not (SW:TOR), to be short. The first time I heard EAWare mention the 4th pillar is the first time I said SW:TOR is going to fail (look it up kids). That one single design decision is all I needed to know about the game, because NOTHING could have saved SW:TOR from being a short-burst game after the 4th pillar was announced. (Short of going in the total opposite direction after the story end. Gee I wonder what EAWare is focusing on of late?)

Consider these two stark contrasts. In GW2 you have access to EVERYTHING your character can do combat-wise at level 30, which lets be really kind and say takes 30 days to reach. In EVE, you won’t be able to sit (forget flying well) in one of the biggest ships (Titan) in the first 177 days, assuming you do NOTHING but straight train towards that (and completely ignoring how you would actually acquire one).

The question at hand is not which method you would prefer, or which one is more ‘fun’. The question is simply this: out of the two options above, which one sounds like it’s designed for a game that the devs expect you to play long-term, and which one is designed to be played in a short burst?

Of course for the 177 day training to be found worthwhile, everything else around it must also work to some extent, and in EVE it does. I’m by no means saying that long-term retention is as simple as extending the ‘grind’ and calling it a day. As I’ve said thousands of times now, long-term retention design is HARD. Really, really hard. But hard does not mean impossible, and under the right conditions, long-term retention done well can yield WoW (12m subs). Most likely it yields EVE (400k subs). Maybe if you really go niche it yields Darkfall (100b subs). So long as you properly identify your market size and deliver something for it, you can be successful on a variety of levels. Not everyone (anyone?) can be WoW, and that’s ok.

And it’s important to remember that much of the current MMO population is not interested in long-term retention. Whether someone outright states they don’t want to play something longer than a month, or has a playstyle that reflects it (solo), these people are not looking for the same thing people interested in living in a virtual world are. They might drop in and visit (tourists), but regardless of the design, you just can’t retain them. (WoW is the MMO first-love for many, which is why it draws them back time and time again. It’s another perfect-storm situation that can’t be repeated. It’s also dying and something like 5 people bought into Panda-time and 3 of them have already quit, so whatever).

The mistake so many devs have made is believing that they CAN retain them, if only they tweak the design and add more solo PvE content to a PvP game (WAR), or put in a 20 level pre-game to the core game (AoC), or spend a billion dollars on one-off voice acting (SW:TOR). These design decisions sacrifice the long-term for a quick burst, and the expected result happens; you get your short burst at the expense of your long-term. It’s why MMO release after MMO release looks exactly the same, and why it has convinced some that that’s just how things are today.

The reason I cheer for games like SW:TOR to fail is because, hopefully at some point, developers will wake up and realize you can’t attract the millions of short-burst players AND retain them by trying to design for both.

If you want to make a short-burst MMO like GW2, go for it. Sell the box and don’t expect more after, have a business plan that supports that expectation, and make the best one-months-worth of content you possibly can. If you do it right you will sell a whole lot of boxes and people will move on happily a month later. Just don’t do PR where you proclaim to have ‘fixed’ the MMO genre and all will be good.

And if you want to get $15 a month from a few hundred thousand people, please design accordingly as well. That group has shown a willingness to deal with valleys if the peaks are worthwhile, but they better have something to do in six months, and that something better not be the exact same thing just reskinned from the first month. Plan your business model accordingly, figure out a way to handle the tourists initially, and don’t get fooled into thinking you have something bigger than you actually do. Long-term retention MMOs are a niche. It’s a pretty sizable niche, and $15 a month for 6 months is more than $60 once, but yea, it’s hard to get right.

As players, we have to be honest with ourselves. You can’t expect the highs of long-term moments to fit into your ultra-casual schedule. The peaks and valleys will be more muted because in the MMO genre, you get what you put in. That said, it’s not nearly as hard to be part of something big as some make it out to be. World-first raiding and the time/dedication it requires is not the only way to get a huge high from an MMO. Just being a regular member of a guild doing something big/cool might be enough.

Of course, that guild can’t do something really cool if everyone moves to the next game in a month, but that’s the tradeoff you accept when deciding between the two styles.

Day-one mastery

June 29, 2012

Keen has a nice post about why he is finding current-day MMOs lacking, especially in immersion. I think what Keen writes is something many (most?) MMO players feel, whether they actually know it or not. A major issue with MMOs cloning WoW is that today, everyone is already really good at WoW, and so a major chunk of ‘content’ (learning the game) is instantly missing from whatever AAA MMO you load up.

This is a major reason why, despite having access, I only played GW2 a tiny bit during the first BWE event; just enough to know the game was decent-enough to play with INQ and my wife. Because while GW2 is set to cure all MMO woes, it does so in very familiar fashion. You are still mashing a hotbar, you are still going from lower level zones to higher, still collecting ever-increasing gear, and you still have an end-game where you bash people/doors/npcs until… well until you are bored (or for a small subset, until your server sits at the top).

The details of all of the above is what will make GW2 interesting, and there will be some changes thrown in (ooh, dodge), but learning those will take minutes rather than years, and because this is a mass-market game, the learning will be terrible accessible and dummy-proof.

The ride itself will undoubtedly be pretty, it will have some ‘ooh neat’ moments, and the time spent with it will be entertaining. But I have absolutely no doubts that GW2 will not be immersive. It won’t be something that sucks you in and challenges you on that level for months if not years. It won’t be the land of unique MMO stories, where a year after release we are reading about how a small group of players just discovered a new way of doing… anyway. And all of that is 100% fine, so long as you go in with reasonable expectations. I fear many are not, but what can you do.

Back to the larger point; in the days of the big three, immersion worked not only because no one really knew this MMO thing, but because each game had little in common with the other two. Simply put UO did not play or work like EQ1 in any way, and what AC-DT was doing was also completely different. If you put UO next to EQ and added up the similarities, and did the same for WoW and GW2, which total would be higher? And by how much?

On top of this, figuring each game out took longer, mostly thanks to the games being less accessible and the ‘how this works’ never being officially explained. This lead to information being posted elsewhere, but at that time half of what you read was still wrong. Today not only can you get every system explained to you on one site, but that one site is almost certainly accurate. If today I want to know the absolute best build for a GW2 character, I’m only one Google search away.

As always, the current-day exception to this is EVE. The lack of accessibility in EVE means you are left to figure many things out either on your own or in your group. The wealth of options means that while you can master one aspect, there are dozens of unrelated things you know nothing about. A great null-sec pilot is a noob in WH space, for instance, and to truly become a master of everything not only requires a massive amount of time, it’s also very, very optional. You would have to force yourself to jump from area to area of the game frequently just to experience it all, and that’s not very realistic for a variety of reasons.

What EVE loses by those dropping off before the first month due to the complexity it makes up for (and then some) from those who are 4 year vets and still have things to learn. The PvP-based nature of EVE also means that not only will that 4 year vet have game systems to learn; he will constantly be adjusting his gameplay due to other players and shifting tactics.

It would be difficult for a new MMO to replicate the complexity and depth of EVE on launch day, simply because unlike WoW, EVE has actually been expanding (rather than replacing) its content over the years. But while it would be unrealistic to expect years of complexity on day one, more than a month is not asking too much, is it?

My favorite genre is coming back!

May 30, 2012

MMOs are a niche genre in gaming. They are games that require additional ‘work’ beyond just loading something up, and to really get the most out of them you have to put in that ‘work’ consistently. They can also be very expensive or absurdly cheap depending on how much you play, and overall the barrier of entry and when the game ‘clicks’ is far longer than most other genres.

In 1997 Ultima Online came out and did far better than anyone expected. Stronger than expected sales, plus the ability to collect money after the initial sale in the form of a subscription, meant a LOT of money was being made from an unexpected source. Those with the ability jumped in as soon as they could, and most games did well if not very well (EQ1) in the MMO niche. You had to try really hard (AO) to screw up an MMO, and even if you did you still survived.

Then in 2004 WoW came out and suddenly a niche genre was flooded. Some called them tourists, others believed the genre had finally ‘made it’. Most importantly, Blizzard was printing money faster than anyone else, regardless of the genre. No matter how awesome Madden X was, after EA got your $60, that was it, and that always somewhat limited the earning potential of games. Not so for MMOs, and with WoW subscriptions toping 10m, the market was no longer collecting $15 a month from a niche crowd.

If UO encouraged others to give the genre a shot, WoW basically forced companies to do it. WoW’s profits made all other genres of gaming seem inept, and hey, how hard could this MMO thing be anyway? Grab an IP, toss a bunch of cash at it, and bam, 10m people throwing $15 a month at you forever!

A few problems.

The first being that 2004 WoW is not the version of WoW being cloned. WoW 04-06 built the foundation for the juggernaut, and the mistakes of WotLK and especially Cata were not realized until recently. The reason? MMOs snowball. Once you have a certain number of people playing, it’s difficult to piss them all off fast enough to boot them all out instantly. Even when you try (NGE), it still might not work.

The second issue is that for most, WoW was their first MMO. You always like your first MMO more because hey, it’s all new to you. That newness only happens once, and even if you perfectly clone the correct version of WoW, you can’t replicate your game being someone’s first MMO. This aspect can’t be underestimated, both for initial impressions and retention.

So you have MMO ‘noob devs’ cloning the wrong version of WoW, and not only that, but you have a fan base that is rather confused. True MMO players hate casual themepark games because they are MMO-lite, while the millions that made WoW such a huge hit say they are looking for more WoW, but time and time again they move on much faster than the previous title; and in a space where retention and collecting $15 a month is king, that’s an issue.

Is it really that surprising that AAA themeparks have sold well and retained so poorly?

The reason I take such pleasure in watching SW:TOR fail is because that game is the very definition of the above, only magnified to such an extreme that even the most casual observers are coming to the correct conclusions (mostly). And if the casuals get it, at some point devs and publishers will as well.

The truth is that the MMO genre is not dying. Not even close. MMOs like EVE or Rift are doing well. MMO-lite titles like SW:TOR and current-day WoW are not. This is very good news for MMO players, who for years have seen the vast majority of resources wasted on AAA themepark failures. Yes, not all of the money will flow into real MMOs, but we don’t need all of it. Just some, and some will most definitely find the right people due to the fact that real MMOs are making money. It’s hundreds of thousands of subs money rather than millions, but the MMO genre never contained millions of players. Just a solid core, and a whole lot of tourists mucking everything up.

In a year from now the story won’t be that the MMO genre is dead. Actually there won’t be a story because who writes about niche stuff anyway? But outside of the spotlight, we will be talking about some pretty cool upcoming games, and how EVE continues to be awesome, and how Rift is still getting content added like crazy, and how GW2 (maybe) feels so fresh and yet so familiar. That will be nice.

PS: It’s tough to judge 38 Studios in the above. If Copernicus was yet another WoW-clone (it sure looked like one), then the studio closing down was just an acceleration of the inevitable. If the game truly was an EQ1-clone, it’s a sad loss and further reason to shake an angry fist at management.

Marketing monkeys making noise

March 12, 2012

Entertaining read from Jef Reahard over at Massively about F2P, from the mouths of some of the industries ‘best’ in that area. Not sure where SOE, NCSoft, Perfect World, and GamersFirst rank on your all-time list, but that is who was talking.

First the entertainment portion:

“German gamers like to think a lot, whereas American gamers like explosions,” Merel said.

“Chinese players are willing to grind it out, and work for it,” Young agreed. “American players won’t put up with that.”

“American players need a context, or a story, or a reason to go in [a dungeon],” Levy interjected, before going on to say that the only real context is loot and rewards. “In an MMO, the reason is the loot. The reason is that I’m getting something cool.”

“That is what MMOs have devolved into,” Georgeson laughed.

The above would be insulting if it was not true. I mean we are talking about the same playerbase who bought a million boxes of SW:TOR to play an MMO remember. Farmville was a big deal. Germans love wargames. And Asians are STILL playing Lineage in huge numbers. He should have also included that all South Americans play to troll (huehuehue BR Mord es #1 right?).

Joking aside, the last line is more tragic than it is funny. Mass market MMOs ‘work’ because they are heavily dumbed down versions of what the genre originated as. And really, to reach the mass market in ANYTHING, it has to be ‘accessible’, which means the average dummy has to get it enough that you get his money. It’s why millions shop at Walmart, summer blockbusters work, pop music is what it is, and it’s why WoW is trying to recover by adding pokemon and pandas.

But like any pop fad, the masses will (have?) move on, and when they do, the people left are the ones who enjoyed the genre to begin with, and likely DON’T enjoy what was produced during the ‘mass marketing’ phase. Boy bands that get manufactured a week after that fad ends become laughable rather than successful. Movies that cash in a few months late on whatever was ‘trending’ fail. And mass-market MMOs will be no different.

Well, one difference. MMOs take year to produce, so if you are working on a WoW-clone right now, you missed the boat by about two years. SW:TOR would likely have worked in 2007. LotRO did after all. But not so much in 2012.

Getting back to the F2P aspect, is that model itself a fad, or is it really the evolution of payment? A bit of both I believe. I think the predatory F2P models, the ones designed like casino games are a fad. They are the ‘new shiny’ to lure in the mass market dummies, and until the dummies really catch on, they will keep falling for the tricks. Margins on fooling dummies are high, as Zynga has show (bonus profits if you can exploit people before rules/laws change to make that illegal).

What I don’t believe is a fad is the ‘good’ F2P model, as used in a game like League of Legends. Rather than relying on trickery or feeding into peoples weaknesses (buy this item to get stronger, so you suck less!), Riot sells fluff. But the fluff is of high-enough quality to sell. Combine the quality of the store items to the fact that LoL itself is one of the best games out, and it’s not hard to see why LoL is printing money.

Of course LoL would have been successful as a $50 box game too (it’s a good game, those sell), but not nearly to the level it has achieved under F2P. THAT is the true value of the model; if you produce something really good, you can earn WAY more than what you could under the old model. In many ways it’s the same thing as games going from the flat box price to a box+subscription model. If you create a game people are going to play for months/years, only getting $50 up front is leaving a lot of money on the table. And really, as a gamer, while it would be great to pay less, realistically if I’m enjoying something for months/years, I SHOULD be paying more for that, if for no other reason than to cast my vote for “more of this”.

What most MMO devs have not figured out, or are ignoring to chase short-term Zynga-bucks, is how to add or implement the ‘good’ F2P model into MMOs. Or perhaps they do know how, but also know that the quality of their game is such that the only choice is Zynga-bucks. I mean look at a game like EQ2; clearly the quality is lacking overall, so SOE feeds into the small subset of ‘gotta catch em all’ players and feeds them mount after mount after mount, to the tune of 80% sales (which makes SOE’s Dave Georgeson’s comments about the dungeon creator and beast master class items pretty comical).

Assuming (big assumption) that the Zynga-bucks phase ends, what we will be left with is a market that highly rewards great games, but offers little to generic titles that don’t offer a solid reason to stick around over a competitor (under the old model, if PR could fool you into buying the $50 box, the devs get paid even if you end up hating the game 5 minutes in. Under F2P this is no longer the case). This means that niche games still have their place (the niche can over-pay and/or budgets adjust), while the few ‘top end’ titles will print money like WoW did back in the day. I’m more than OK with that.

Now if only that Zynga-bucks phase would end already…

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.

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’?


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