LotRO: You’ll never see Mordor

January 22, 2015

Let’s talk about LotRO!

Actually let’s not talk about the content of LotRO, because why make everyone suffer, but instead let’s talk about how things have gone for the game overall, and specifically under F2P.

Spoiler alert: LotRO is a third-tier (at best) MMO right now, and F2P is in part to blame.

In 2007, prior to release, LotRO looked like a serious ‘WoW-killer’, and that term wasn’t a joke back then. The pre-release advertising for LotRO said you should join “the millions of other players”, which shows you what Turbine expected out of the title. Also back in 2007, Turbine wasn’t yet in the SOE/Trion bin of developers we love to watch fall on their face; they were respected thanks to Asherons Call and even DDO (while DDO wasn’t a breakout hit, it did well-enough, and not being a huge failure is actually a compliment in the MMO genre).

Plus yea, it had the freaking LotR IP, easily one of the hottest IPs in gaming back then. License to print money really, just like the Sims or Star Wars! :rimshot:

LotRO at launch was solid. No, it wasn’t a WoW-killer, not even close, but it wasn’t a bad MMO. Unlike WoW, it took its lore very seriously, had solid storytelling, and back then did a bunch of stuff different-enough to hold its own, at least for a bit, and the numbers reflected that.

Then for a bunch of reasons, it got worse. Major mistakes were made, people left, and overall Turbine was slipping towards the Turbine we know and laugh at today.

The game went F2P, and, much like with DDO, Turbine released a big “congrats to us!” press release about how awesome F2P was for the game. F2P fans STILL link to that thing (can’t get to it now, someone link it for me please?) as evidence of F2P working, and more than a few people still hold that time as if it were a reflection of today or even the last few years.

Only it didn’t work, because between that press release and today things are very different. There was never a follow-up “F2P is still awesome!” press release. Turbine had a bunch of layoffs. They started to get desperate with the game, to the point of basically selling you The One Ring in the cash shop, among other typical F2P model garbage cash grabs like ad spam and immersion-destroying fluff. LotRO no longer has expansions, and the big outstanding question now for the game is whether the story wraps up before the game goes offline. (Easy money is on offline)

Saying that F2P ‘saved’ LotRO is wrong beyond the fact that the game is still online, and we don’t know if LotRO would still be online if Turbine had kept it as a sub MMO. Most likely not (and of course no one still with Turbine would admit to it anyway), especially given what Turbine became, but unless your ultimate goal with a game is to scrap by for a bit after gutting your studio of employees, LotRO isn’t an example of success; it’s just another example of the F2P price; you get a short-term bump at the cost of any long-term hope.

The real problem is that when talking F2P MMOs, there are no examples of success. The current “hey it worked!” example from some is SW:TOR, a game that originally EA hoped would have 1m subs, then later cut that to 500k, and despite having by far the largest MMO budget and a ‘can’t miss’ IP, still didn’t produce a game good enough to even get that. F2P hasn’t ‘saved’ SW:TOR, as the game still isn’t close to meeting expectations, nor has it risen above mediocrity (I believe it has 1m ‘active accounts’, which is a joke when you consider all of the above). Again, unless ‘success’ in F2P land is “the game is still online”, SW:TOR isn’t a success. It’s not (yet?) at LotRO-levels of failure, sure, but being better than that is still a long way away from success.

And SW:TOR is the BEST example of F2P non-failure that I can think of. If we use EQ2 as the example here, it’s not even a conversation, to say nothing of what effect F2P had on ArcheAge, or the AA-before-AA example, Allods (which as far as I know, is the only MMO to partly move from F2P to a full sub option, which was well-received).

This conversation would be far more interesting if we had even one FFXIV-level example of F2P MMO success (asking for EVE longevity or just WoW overall success is asking way too much), but we don’t. We never have, yet some still tout the model as the new or current formula for success. The ‘formula’ hasn’t yielded a single positive result people. Not. A. One. In what other industry is something that has never provided successful given so much credit? Literally banana land going on here, but that is the MMO genre.


Pay to play, pay to spawn item

January 16, 2015

One item I want to address today in light of Smed being Smed: Since the beginning of time, you have been able to pay another player real money to get something in a game.

In UO I could buy a fully maxed character, a huge house, a powerful item, or a ‘fluff’ thing like a broken water tile with real money. The same is true for basically every single MMO. If you want to spend money instead of time to get something, you could always and still can do it. In some games this requires more effort, or the ban risk is higher, but its an option in EVERY SINGLE MMO.

And because the above is 100% true, this also means that every single item and account in an MMO has a real-world money value. That you may not be aware of what the value is, or that it even has a value, doesn’t change the fact that it does. That’s just you with your head in the sand, and pretending everyone else is also right there in the sand with you is beyond silly.

Now, the new-ish trend in games, and in MMOs in particular, isn’t the ‘money for items’ exchange, its the ‘money to dev to spawn item’ exchange. That is new, and that is how you go down the Pay-4-Power trail.

The only thing I can give CCP money for in EVE is account time (and cosmetics via Aurum), be it direct (pay my sub) or indirect (PLEX). I can’t give CCP money and have them spawn me a ship, ammo, skill points, or anything else that has direct power. I can give SOE/Smed money and he will spawn guns and ammo for me. That is the critical difference. That’s why people are pissed off, and rightfully so.

Especially because it’s one thing to make a Pay-4-Power game, which itself isn’t the end of the world. Plenty of games are exactly that, and can still be fun games whether you do pay and go all wallet-warrior, or don’t pay and see how far up the hill you can climb. But the worst thing a P4P game dev can do is lie and pretend the game isn’t P4P.

If you embrace what you are and are honest about it, players can make an informed decision, and don’t feel that they are supporting liars who think the players are too stupid to know what they are playing.

Smed taking a piss on every H1Z1 player and tell them its just raining is probably not how SOE wants to be represented, is it?*

* Answer: 50/50, because SOE.


Smed being Smed?

January 16, 2015

SOE being SOE is well established, but do we now need a sub-category for them with Smed being Smed? I think we might. I present you exhibit A:

“We will NOT be selling Guns, Ammo, Food, Water… i.e. That’s kind of the whole game and it would suck in our opinion if we did that” - Smed

Right now, in H1Z1, you can PAY to have an airdrop fly by that can drop guns, ammo, food, water, which in my opinion makes the whole game suck. Oh Smed.

But don’t worry everyone, Smed is fixing the airborn lottery lockbox by reducing the chance to get the good stuff. Because the only thing more fun in an ‘MMO’ like H1Z1 than paying for a random lottery chest, is paying for a random lottery chest with really shitty odds to give you what you are paying for. Because who doesn’t love paying to get junk? Certainly not SOE fans!


Hearthstone: Wake up, roll dice, return to nap

December 4, 2014

If you’re like most people, well actually if you are like most people you aren’t playing Hearthstone. But if you are among the select few who found the game way, way down in the app store somehow, I’m sure by now you are really annoyed at the games biggest flaw; sometimes when you are awake-enough to notice what is happening, you are very, very occasionally forced to make a decision that might actually effect the outcome of the game. Super frustrating right? Give me dice or give me death! Player decisions and skill are for weirdos and such game never succeed to attract the masses! (please ignore the fact that many of the top games today are heavily skill based, please!)

But fear not fellow fans of Candyland, Blizzard is set to fix this horrible problem shortly! Check out all of the wonderful new cards coming. Now count up the number of times you see the word “random”. Or just stop after the count of 50, no need to spend half a day here. Awesome right?

Random weapon for BOTH players, random minion summoning, random damage cards being put into your deck, minions going back into your deck randomly, 50% chance to attack something randomly (this is a whole new monster skill line, which is almost too sad to mock. Almost), summon a random LEGENDARY monster, random skills to your minions, random random random…

I love that New Blizzard is trying to fix Hearthstone being a shallow, sleep-inducing title not by expanding the cards to add more depth, but by going in the exact opposite direction and just making even more things random and further removing the impact of player actions. I’m honestly surprised one of the cards isn’t “50% chance to reduce your opponent to zero health, 50% to reduce you to zero”. Oh what a fun silly goblin card that would be, wheee!

Can’t wait to watch the next world championship played out between two dice cups sitting at a table. Heavily leaning towards betting on the blue cup, his dice seem to have that ‘it’ factor.


Burnout is a myth

November 25, 2014

When WoW was declining due to one crappy expansion after another featuring accessibility-inspired dumbing down, some people tried to write this off as not being about the content, but just due to ‘burnout’. They would have you believe that after 1, 2, or 4 years, people were just getting burned out on WoW and that’s why sub numbers were declining. The counter point the entire time was EVE, but now you can toss WoW itself into the mix.

Related is this recent info about Payday 2. The highest activity in the game, which is now more than a year old, just occurred this October. Perhaps FPS gamers are just immune to burnout? Or maybe its because the content that is constantly added to Payday 2 is fantastic. Deathwish difficulty raised the bar and gave even the most experienced players a real challenge (or for most people, an unreachable/impossible tier, which sounds vaguely familiar to something else…), the mix of paid DLC and free updates have been solid and steady, and the game today doesn’t just have more ‘stuff’, but it has more stuff that fits and actually expanded all of the original content, rather than replace it (now where have I heard about that approach working long-term…).

LoL (4 years+, peak numbers), CoC (2 years+, top grossing app today (oddly Hearthstone didn’t show up in the top 150 for either downloads or revenue, wonder why)), DoTA2 (crazy growth this year), etc etc etc. I think you get the point.

If a game is great and keeping being great, while giving you more of that greatness, you don’t get burned out. If a game stagnates, or especially if it gets worse (hi Trion), people leave because of that, not burnout.


Hearthstone: This kiddie pool sure has a lot of leaks

November 18, 2014

More observations as I roll my face across the iPad ‘playing’ Hearthstone:

Just like MtG (or basically most card games of this type), Hearthstone is a major Pay-4-Power game. Epic and Legendary cards are silly strong, and as soon as you see someone drop a few on you in a game, you might as well take your participation trophy and move on (unless of course you also have a stacked deck). The fact that you can’t trade cards further pushed Hearthstone into a wallet-warrior game, because smart trading can’t help you catch up; only grinding or cash.

Speaking of participation trophies, Hearthstone has a few major design flaws in its setup. For one, having a bot automate conceding ranked games for you is amazingly effective. You still get XP for your ‘effort’, and you don’t lose anything. Plus, should you run across another concede bot who goes first (roughly 1 in 5-6 games for me currently), you get a free win to grind towards the gold card/character rewards and the 3-win 10 gold reward.

The whole ranked setup is also a bit of a joke. The only reward is at rank 20, and you can’t drop below rank 20 once you get to it. Also you can’t lose progress while working towards rank 20, so that auto-concede bot will eventually (surprisingly quickly) get you to rank 20. At rank 20 things are an expected mess. Concede bot farmers aside, you will also run into a whole bunch of ‘smurf’ decks just looking to smash people, again because Blizzard designed the system to not only allow, but actually made it incredibly easy for them to sit at that level. Safe to say a solid 50% or so of ranked games aren’t competitive (generously calling any relatively even deck game of Hearthstone competition here).

The game is perfect for ‘playing’ while you do something more interesting, because during your opponents turn whether you are looking at the screen or not doesn’t matter; you can’t do anything anyway. On the surface this is just boring while you wait with nothing to do, but go a bit below the surface and this is actually a major, major removal of interesting decisions and strategy.

In MtG you had to always be aware of the status of your opponent. How many cards they have, how much untapped land they have, how much land could they potentially need to use during your attack phase based on the creatures they have out, etc. None of this exists in Hearthstone.

If it’s your turn, whether someone ends their turn with 10 crystals or 0 doesn’t matter. Whether someone has 10 cards in hand or 0 doesn’t matter (overdrawing aside). They can’t have tapped or untapped creatures. There is no regen they need to pay for. No creature abilities they need to pay for. So many tactical player decisions are gone. Not your turn in Hearthstone? Nap time!

Regeneration is one creature ability completely missing currently, as is its counter bury. Flying is another, as is landwalk (landwalk would be impossible since Hearthstone only has one type, not five like in MtG), so is first strike. So are any player-active abilities beyond on-summon stuff. The game does have a whole bunch of dice roll abilities; such as one creature who randomly deals 3 damage to anyone; friend or foe. Sure you can attempt to limit the randomness by having fewer potential targets, but that critical creature you need killed who has one hitpoint might still be standing if Hearthstone randomizes the card not in your favor and decides the damage is all going to go to heroes rather than that card. Super fun when that happens, and a silly amount of cards are designed with such randomization.

Then there are just more general problems. For instance, there are a TON of board-clear cards/combos. A ridiculous amount honestly. On top of this there are even more single-removal cards, and of course none of this can really be countered since when it’s not your turn, you just sit and spin until it is. Imagine if every deck in MtG had 10 copies of Swords to Plowshares (but without the healing aspect, and the card destroying everything) and you get a decent idea of what I mean.

This leads to basically only playing enough cards to gain board advantage, but not ‘too many’ to lose card advantage when the inevitable board-clear happens. Game after game this is the pattern, and because Hearthstone has so few real patterns, it’s just boring. Arena is again a bit better, but only slightly so, and Arena is (or should be, anyway) like the ARAM to the real meat of ranked/SR, to bring this into LoL terms. Imagine if ARAM was the only interesting/balanced version of LoL? That’s Hearthstone in a nutshell, except if you removed 99% of the needed ability from actually playing ARAM and gave every hero a 1m damage Karth ult on a 30sec cooldown.

It really is not only a shockingly shallow game, but a basically flawed game as well, not just by Old Blizzard standards, but just general game design standards. If this was an SOE or EA product, it would still be a sub-par effort from those studios. For Old Blizzard? This is Ghost/Warcraft Adventures, only released instead of rightly aborted.

 


Hearthstone: New Blizzard vs Old Blizzard

November 13, 2014

TL:DR – Hearthstone is the perfect example of New Blizzard, and the perfect example of why I miss Old Blizzard so much.

It’s still Blizzard, so they still have the whole polish thing going. For a great example of this, open up Trion’s Glyph, then open up Blizzard’s Battle.net. They both do the same thing (try to be Steam), but it’s immediately obvious that one is well-crafted while the other is a clownshow.

Hearthstone has that polish. As a mobile game its well done and ‘works’ as you would expect a game to work. It has a ton of nice touches like bringing back classic Warcraft sound bites and themes, and there is just well-executed detail all over the place. The PC port of Hearthstone isn’t bad, but it’s bare-bones and very minimal; it’s very clear Hearthstone is intended to be a mobile game that also happens to run on your PC.

Hearthstone also has Blizzard’s easy of entry design. It gets you in and playing quickly, and ramps you up well. This again is critical in the mobile space given the amount of competition, and the expected patience/time the average player will have.

Where New Blizzard steps in is the depth and longevity aspects. Hearthstone is a very, very dumbed down version of Magic the Gathering. The number of difficult decisions you need to make in an average game is rather minimal (a scary number of games don’t even require one), and even deck building is heavily neutered compared to MtG.

For example, in MtG you have colors, which Hearthstone replaces with classes. Only classes lock you into one set of cards. No mixing. You then fill out the rest of your deck from a ‘open to everyone’ stack. This alone cuts heavily into deck building, and ultimately deck variety and strategy.

Another example; deck size is 30 cards with a max of two of the same card (one for legendary super-power cards). MtG (perhaps back in the day, its been a while) had a deck limit of 60, with a max of four of the same card (max 2 for certain cards in tourney format). On the surface this might look like it comes out to the same thing, yet it’s not. Plenty of decks benefited by having just one copy of a card, but still using that max of 60 as an advantage. All of those decisions are gone in Hearthstone.

The fact that you can’t trade cards in Hearthstone is a giant removal of ‘gameplay’, and it’s replacement (crafting) is a math-tax test of idiocy.

There are likely hundreds of other examples, but at the end of the day Hearthstone is just a much simpler, much easier card game, and that poor and short-sighted design kills its longevity as mastery comes rather quickly.

Now some might argue that because Hearthstone is a mobile game, it has to be simple and shallow. “That’s what works in mobile SynCaine!”. Except that’s not actually true. The most popular and profitable mobile game out (for years now) is Clash of Clans. CoC has Blizzard-level polish and easy of entry, but it also has Old Blizzard design in terms of depth. If you want to just pick the game up and derp around, you can do that. If you want to dive into the deep end, the game has one. Hearthstone doesn’t, as was made embarrassingly clear at the world championships.

If we move past Hearthstone and look big-picture, since when is Blizzard the studio that produces middle-of-the-road titles? Because that’s exactly what Hearthstone is; it’s a good-enough mobile game, but it looks like an SOE product compared to top mobile games like CoC. Heroes of the Storm, the upcoming MOBA title, sounds like a good-enough game that again won’t really compare/compete with League of Legends (another game with Old Blizzard levels of quality/design). Overwatch turnout out to be a good-enough TF2 clone won’t be a surprise. WoW going from vanilla/TBC to Cata/MoP? Old Blizzard vs New, and the sub numbers reflect that.

For whatever reason (talent drain, resting on past success, the Activision merger) Blizzard isn’t the company putting out instant classics like Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo 1-2 anymore. Instead we have been getting decent/meh titles and WoW updates, which is what’s most disappointing. I miss Old Blizzard.


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