AA: Trion does its best to ruin a good thing

September 29, 2014

ArcheAge makes for some rather interesting blogging fodder, and hopefully I can get through the major points and get my point across in a way that makes sense, but no promises, as this might get rambly.

Let’s start with the business model. Flat out, AA has one of the worst versions of F2P in the genre. For starters playing for free is basically a non-option due to the limits of labor point generation, among other crippling restrictions. What’s really awesome about this is that it encourages free players to stay logged in even when not playing to generate labor points. Such brilliant design was no doubt a major factor in the terrible queue situation that AA had (has?) at launch.

Then there is the pay-to-win (P2W) factor, which really should be renamed pay-for-power (P4P) overall, because that’s really what it is. In almost no game can you outright buy wins, but in many you certainly can buy power so that if all other factors are equal, the guy who spent more wins (or gets ahead, has an advantage, etc, as you can’t always ‘win’ in an MMO).

I don’t mind the P4P model if its honest and upfront (gold ammo in WoT before it was removed, for instance), because then I can decide if I want to get involved in something like that. What I hate is the “oh no we don’t sell power in the shop, just convenience” bullshit developers try to shill you, and Trion has plenty of this in AA. From labor points (buy a potion to get more!), to pet/mount levels (buy a potion to level them up!), to lottery item chests; if there is a scummy F2P itemization strategy for the cash shop, Trion has included it in AA.

The multiple currencies situation really brings this home, as AA has three. The first is in-game gold like all MMOs have. Then you have ‘loyalty’ points, which you earn 5 of each day if you sub and log in. This buys you a few things in the item shop, but not much, which leaves it as little more than an insult from Trion. “Thanks for your $15 a month, feel free to buy some table crumbs from our store”. The third is the cash-only currency, which buys everything else.

The double dipping ($15 for the basically required sub, plus a fully stocked, P4P item shop) is bad. Really bad. The fact that you have to run the game through Trion’s feeble little Steam-clone Glyph sucks as well. Trion has 2.5 games released (Rift, AA, Trove/Defiance), and the Glyph shop has an embarrassingly small selection of other titles to purchase (Not that you would want to anyway, though I would LOVE to meet someone who has, must be a fascinating creature). Glyph is just bloat garbage that delays getting into AA, so thanks for that Trion. Also thank you for your anti-hack program that installs itself without asking. I’m sure there will never be an issue with that, plus who doesn’t love random stuff installing itself on your PC, right? Also that program delaying getting into AA is another plus of you being the publisher!

The MMO that XL Games (the developer) made seems pretty great so far. It really does, and I’ll cover that in future posts. The trash Trion stacked on top of said game brings the experience down sadly. The translation that took Trion so, so long to do is at Google translate-level, and even some of the voice work in the game isn’t in English. The whole “Join us in beta” email campaign that was really a “buy into beta” message was insulting. The launch was a borderline disaster thanks to multiple Trion missteps. Plus given Trion’s history with Rift, I’m not exactly confident that they won’t find a way to (further) screw with AA.

AA the game is great. What Trion the publisher has done with it is terrible. Seems that even when we get nice things in this genre, they come with something that reminds us we aren’t allowed to just fully enjoy ourselves. So a big ‘Thank you’ to Trion, for going above and beyond in attempting to take a fun MMO and trying to ruin it, what you have done really is next-level incompetence and scumbaggery.

PS: While its possible XL Games forced Trion into all of the F2P-based crap (there is no doubt who caused the Glyph garbage), and they are just a helpless unthinking drone in all of this, until this is made clear, they get full blame.


What happened to all those WoW-babies?

August 4, 2014

TAGN, in a post about the closing of Vanguard, brings back a theory that was pretty popular around the 2006(ish) timeframe; mainly that those who played WoW would ‘grow up’ to eventually play a ‘real MMO’. Let’s revisit that theory today.

As I mentioned in the comments section over there, I think a good number of WoW players did ‘grow up’ and went looking for something better/deeper. How many is the impossible question, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that if WoW never happened, the MMO genre wouldn’t be the size it is today, supporting all of the different MMOs we have out. To that extend, WoW did bring in a lot of new players, and those players did ‘grow up’ to look for something else.

The problem today is ‘something else’ is either EVE, meh at best, or minor-league garbage. Now let’s be very clear here; no MMO was ever or will ever be a ‘WoW-killer’, but that is mostly due to the fact that WoW was a pop-culture phenomenon. Yes, prior to WotLK it was also a very good MMO, but it wasn’t 12m+ players good.

The same can be said today about League of Legends, the ‘real’ WoW killer; it’s a very good game, yes, but it’s not 40-60m or however many active accounts Riot has. LoL right now is benefitting from similar pop-culture status that WoW did, though arguable to a lesser extent because ‘vidyagames’ are more common and accepted today than even in 2006, so playing something popular isn’t front-page news-worthy.

I think a similar story can be written about the current massive success of Clash of Clans (the #1 grossing app still). Farmville laid the groundwork, and without doubt some of those players ‘graduated’ to a ‘real game’ in CoC. Because much like WoW and LoL, CoC is a great game, but is its design really “highest-grossing app out for over a year” great? Or did the pop-culture snowball effect kick in at some point and millions upon millions of people started playing because everyone else was, or because TV told them to?

Let’s get back to MMOs, or more accurately, the lack of either a great one or few with proper aspirations. I think the market size for a great MMO ala EVE is around the 500k-2m range. EVE is the king for virtual world design, but even by its own admission is somewhat niche. It might be the perfect version of Excel in Space, but at the end of the day it’s still Excel in Space. But I think a more mass-market, well-done MMO can get and retain around 2m players. Problem is every title that has tried has been horribly flawed and failed. LotRO, WAR, Rift, SW:TOR, ESO (I miss anyone?); all aimed at millions and fell well short, as each just isn’t great (or even good).

Then we had the problem of niche titles not defining their niche correctly. I think (hope) we are somewhat past this as indicated by titles like Pathfinder Online, Shroud of the Avatar, and Camelot Unchained. None of those titles have promised to be a WoW killer, or to be the next big thing. All, from what I have seen, are embracing their niche, and I hope that embracing extends to the business plan and surviving on 50k players or so. The only big whale I see crashing is Star Citizen, and even that has already kinda made its money (which is insane, but a totally different topic).

So yes, the WoW babies grew up. Not all 12m however, which confused not just readers but also the industry as a whole for a number of years. Seems like people are finally figuring it out, and now we just have to wait for the results when the next wave is released.


ESO: If you have played one zone, you have played them all

May 14, 2014

If you have played one ESO zone, you have played them all.

I think the above is the best way to sum up my feelings as of right now for ESO. It’s so simple, and yet I’m having trouble fully understanding why. Is it ESO specific, is it my continually growing distaste for themeparks, or a combination of both?

ESO gets a lot of major stuff right. The graphics are good, the sound is good, performance is great, and it had a solid launch from a technical perspective. I like the character progression system in terms of modifying skills and selecting 6 to fit into your hotbar, as well as being able to mix armor. At least, I like those on paper. Actually, I think one of the major issues is I like a lot of ESO on paper, and then in-game I’m either indifferent or annoyed.

Quick example; recently my character dug up a treasure chest that contained two blue weapons that were exactly at my level. They replaced two green weapons that were a level or two below at the time. This should have been a large, noticeable boost in power. Maybe statistically it was, but man it didn’t feel like it when I went into combat the next time. I felt just as powerful after equipping those weapons as I did before, and that’s just terribly lame.

Another example; exploring in ESO is better than in most themeparks. There are lots of chests, nodes, and skyshards to be found off the beaten quest path. In the first zone this truly felt like exploring, and it felt rewarding. By just the second zone, this all felt like going through items on a checklist, and while the rewards were the same, they didn’t get me excited or had a noticeable impact on my experience. Again, terribly lame.

Third example; The huge PvP zone is a giant improvement over GW2’s WvW. Bigger map, better siege equipment, better combat system, better performance; just all around superior. Yet I’m as excited to spent time there as I was in GW2; not much. Other than PvP for the sake of PvP, what am I doing there? I really don’t feel connected or care about the outcome, large or small. Dying is an annoyance in terms of respawning, and losing an objective just means a change in spawn points. There are rewards, but they don’t really mean much to me.

Combine all of the above with the general flaws of a themepark (levels, zones, level-based crafting, etc), and ESO flamed out fast for me. What’s different about ESO compared to say Rift for me is that ESO isn’t bad, it’s just not good-enough for me to spent time with. Trion ruined Rift for me with 1.2. That was clear separation. With ESO, it’s just a slow drift away.


MMO Future: Understanding old memories

October 31, 2013

Almost all of the original MMOs worked. UO, EQ1, AC1, DAoC; all of those games had solid populations and growth in their prime. In contrast, most of the recent MMOs (AoC, WAR, LotR, SW:TOR, Aion, Rift, etc) have not. Either they are getting shut down, closing servers, or in the F2P minor leagues. Based on this, it’s easy to see why many players are interesting in returning to ‘the good old days’, while others are dismissing those feelings as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that can’t be reproduced and only happened because of the time, not so much the games themselves.

As with most topics the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I do want to address why those older games worked as MMOs, and dispel a few misconceptions about ‘the good old days’.

First and foremost, all four of the games listed above worked because they had content for months if not years, rather than weeks. You can say it was a long character grind, or punishing mechanics, or archaic systems, but at the end of the day the fact remains that to ‘max out’ in those games it simply took far longer than in a game like SW:TOR or WAR, and when your business model is based on keeping people subscribed and playing, that’s pretty damn important.

Another factor to consider here is that we are not talking a few months or even the first year when talking about the original four peaking; they all did it later (And of course, we are still seeing EVE ‘peak’ yearly). This is important because it dispels a myth that leads to the often-repeated mistake of cutting your current game short to allow everyone to catch up and ‘get to the good stuff’, which is usually the latest expansion or added end-game content. Today we are so worried about a new player getting stuck in the old stuff, that we completely forget the fact that if the content is good, having more of it is a bonus, not a penalty.

WoW today has a stupidly-fast leveling curve, so fast in fact that you simply can’t complete all of a zone before out-leveling it. Is that really a strength of the game; zipping you to the end-game? Or would WoW today fare better with a much longer/slower leveling curve, one that allowed players to finish a zone without have to trick the XP system? Was WoW ‘broken’ in 2004 with its slower pace? Was everyone dying to get to the ‘good stuff’ of raiding Molten Core? The numbers most certainly don’t support that theory.

Player burnout is happening faster today than before. Is it because many of us are MMO vets now and are just not entertained as long by the same stuff, or is it also a factor that many of the games we play force burnout by zipping us along at a breakneck pace? It’s hard to state “man, I wish I was gaining XP slower!”, but at the same time, are you really dying to get passed the leveling and progression aspects of early life in an MMO? To put it another way, when you recall the more fun moments of a typical MMO (especially a themepark), are those memories all at the end-game, or did you enjoy the ride as much if not more than the destination (spoiler: in most MMOs the destination sucks, which is why you quit).

A related item I want to address is the memories older MMO players have of the early days, such as camping a spawn for hours or running the same content an insane amount of time for a single item. It’s common to see someone state they would never do that again, and hence the older approach to making an MMO simply wouldn’t work today.

First, when players talk about those times, it’s important to understand that such extremes are memorable because they were and are extremes; the average day for an EQ1 players was NOT spent sitting at one spawn waiting for a specific iem, just like the average day for a DAoC player was not a 5 hour relic raid. A UO player’s average day was not breaking into a house, or getting ganked with half your items at the Brit bank. Today massive battles in EVE are news-worth because they don’t happen daily, record breaking thefts make the front pages because, well, they just broke a record in a game with 10+ years of history.

That said, let’s make no mistakes about it, the above are very important to those games; many are the catalysts that inspire others to start playing or to play more/differently. When they go well, they are the highs that make the day-to-day stuff worthwhile, and even when they go wrong, they leave an impression. Keeping everything vanilla is safe, but safe doesn’t inspire year after year of loyalty and excitement; it gets you a 3 week run that is entirely forgettable.

That’s not to suggest you can simply copy/paste 1997 UO, release it with updated graphics, and profit. Changes to the formula are needed, but outright abandoning the core is clearly not working. So when MMO fans talk about bringing back the ‘good old days’, it’s not because they want everyone to sit around a mob spawn for 12 hours daily, or because they would love to play a game where they lose everything at the bank all the time. In addition to a lot of basic concepts I’ll cover in a future post, they want the possibility of something memorable happening, because without those standout moments, your MMO is just another game to check out for a brief period of time, and that is NOT what an MMO is all about.


Rift closing in China, Death accountability.

September 18, 2013

Things are not looking so hot over in Rift-land, including the upcoming closing of Rift China. The mighty MMO 3.0 seems to be falling, and falling fast. I can’t do a real comprehensive “why” analysis because I’ve not played the game since the 1.2 (‘accessibility’) patch, but even from an outside perspective it’s an interesting story. Is Rift a bad themepark? Is it mismanaged? Or is it a reflection of the changing genre?

I have a hard time believing Rift is bad, even today. The game was solid in beta, got a bit worse for release, and 1.2 happened, but even after that there was a lot of room between Rift and ‘bad’. TAGN has had a few posts about it and from those it sounds like the game is still basically the same, just with more stuff now, so I’m going to assume ‘bad’ is not the reason.

Is it mismanaged? Maybe, and I only say that because lots of other blah MMOs are still up and running, so why can’t Rift seem to keep it together? In a world where EQ2 and LotRO are still alive, let alone the countless nameless straight-to-F2P trash heaps, Rift should be able to keep the servers up.

A reflection of the changing genre? Man I hope so.

The genre’s roots are in part based on taking a single-player game experience (Ultima) and removing the single-player limiters and just letting players live in that world (Ultima Online). EQ1 started the ‘shared single player experience’, but it was so rough and extended that it worked (and compared to themeparks today, it was a ‘sandbox’, as ridiculous as that actually is). WoW cleaned things up a bit, but still had enough ‘world’ to keep going for a few years. At some point the interns at Blizzard took over and we got WotLK, phasing, and the full-forced introduction of the sRPG on a server.

As game development operates under a delay, even after WoW started to falter we still say WoW-clone after WoW-clone, with many cloning the now failing version. WoW made this harder to see for some due to its monstrous size and pop-culture snowball effect. For a bit, even as the churn was extreme, the number of players coming in was able to keep up with the flood of players going out. It was a uniquely WoW situation, like many are/were.

Rift, especially post-release and with 1.2, was cloning the failed version of WoW. More focus on the sRPG aspects, and a heavy limiting of ‘world’ aspects. Again, I don’t think it’s purely a ‘bad game’ issue, but it’s not doing itself any favors either. What I think is a bigger factor is players, even themepark fans, are growing tired of the online sRPG.

Let me clarify that actually; I think the average MMO fan is finally, FINALLY figuring the themepark formula out, and while they still enjoy the quick burst of Online sRPG content, they are not sticking around for long after the best parts are consumed. At the same time, those best parts (heavy story-based solo content) are non-repeatable and too time-consuming for devs to produce more of at a reasonable pace.

The end result; a lot of dev time/money spent to produce something expected to last, and all of it consumed in a month or three, with the devs left holding a rather large bill and no further revenue coming in. The death march is sometimes delayed by F2P-switch trickery, but as we are seeing, that fad is nothing more than a simple delay of the inevitable, and much like the Online sRPG itself, its being figured out faster and faster with each title.

There are a few important things to understand here. One is that the MMO market is indeed a niche, and not only that, but each title should be a niche within that niche. There are groups of players looking for certain games, and they will play them for long-enough to justify a reasonable investment. Just don’t expect WoW, or even EQ1 numbers, and you will be fine so long as you deliver what the niche is looking for.

Along with that, if your model relies on keeping people around for months and months, your content, and far more importantly, your content delivery plan should reflect that. Unless you have a magic voice-over production factory that costs you nothing, it’s not too smart to base your game around that extremely costly gimmick, now is it?

So while the news is bad for Rift, I think the underlying story is positive for the genre.

In totally unrelated news (ha), I’ve joined up with Sinister in Darkfall after the post-Proxy plan did not really work out. Our alliance (Death), has recently won a war against NOX, and an excellent video recap of the war can be found here. Worth watching IMO.


The cure for F2P disease is quality

August 22, 2013

In the comments section from yesterday’s post, Rohirrim raised the issue that with so many failed MMOs being demoted to the F2P minor leagues, gamers today might be weary of jumping on a new game that is sub-based for fear of the F2P switch. I think the issue has two parts, one being overall recent market conditioning (which includes things like Steam sales rewarding waiting rather than buying on day one), and the other being the somewhat recent sub-to-F2P trend.

Both problems are solved by having a quality game, but making a good game is hard.

When a new game is released on Steam, I only pay full price if I want the game right away, and the only games I want right away are the best ones (for me, of course) or if my friends are playing it and I want to join in. Civ V and its expansions were full-price purchases, and I consider those money well spent. Same for XCOM and Skyrim. How many people paid $30+ for ARMA II because their friends were playing Day Z and they just had to jump in? But that is a high bar to reach, and again, most devs can’t reach it.

The same goes for MMOs; if you have a good MMO with good retention, you stay with the subscription model. If you launch an MMO that can be ‘finished’ in 3 weeks/months, or one that doesn’t have the social hooks to keep guilds going, you switch to F2P and milk suckers with the F2P math tax for as long as you can get away with it.

Will WildStar or TESO be good-enough to stay as subscription games? We’ll find out ‘soon’. At the very least, they are not throwing in the F2P towel on day one, so they have that going for them.

But let’s not kid ourselves, no successful MMO has ever switched to F2P, because if you have a successful title, the subscription model is where the money is in NA/EU (Asia is completely different for countless reasons). You don’t go F2P because you will make MORE money with a successful title, you go to F2P because you are failing and a cash shop might hook enough suckers to keep you afloat, especially early on as you have not yet destroyed your overall game with the kind of additions you will eventually add to the shop (gear, lockboxes, etc).

And the F2P “sell the future for the present” design destruction will only accelerate as the dummies catch on. You (usually) can only fool someone a few times before they realize buying lockbox keys is stupid, or that they are paying way more than $15 just to come close to getting what they had before with a subscription. Zynga made a lot of money when it beat everyone else to those tricks, but it caught up to them (as did the laws) and the company is worth a fraction of what it once was (that they are still in business is a miracle actually).

By the time EQN is finally released, how many uneducated F2P dummies will be left? By that time, how many actual MMO gamers will be fed up with the cash shop trash and looking for a straight-up deal? Even at a site like Massively we are already starting to see such comments, and if there was ever a bastion for F2P dummies, its Massively.

Side-note; I think the next evolution of the sub model will be to increase the monthly cost. The sub ‘barrier’ of $15 is nothing to something who actually wants to play an MMO, and the only people you are going to lose are the people who were already flaky. If you have a solid title, I don’t think increasing the cost to $20 or even $30 a month is going to matter to fans (again, people paid $30 for ARMA, an older title, just to play a mod), while it would allow a developer to continue operating at a certain level with a smaller total population.

Even at $30 a month, an MMO you play as your primary source of gaming would still be ridiculously cheap entertainment compared to anything else, but it would more than double the income a studio would get per player, lowering the ‘make or break’ threshold and allowing for more target-focused titles, rather than the ‘try to cater to everyone, deliver to no one’ junk we have been seeing over the last few years.

 


The blogs reflect the genre

July 10, 2013

This post about blogging over at TAGN, along with the comments, is worth reading, even if you are only vaguely interested in the topic of MMO blogs. As the posts-per-day rate here has slowed over the last two months, it’s a topic I’ve thought about as well. This blog is almost 6 years old now (yikes), and I still don’t feel like I’m ‘done’ talking about the MMO genre. At the same time, something has happened to slow the content rate here, and not all of that can be pinned to changes in my RL (though that is a major factor). So what exactly is going on?

First, I don’t think the fad that is blogging is passing, if only because it never was a fad to begin with. Sure, blogging might have had its ‘time in the sun’ around the time the Warhammer hype machine was at its peak, but it was around before that and is still around after. So long as MMOs still somewhat resemble virtual worlds, they will be worth writing about.

What is happening is that the genre itself is changing, and right now the change is just not really giving us much to talk about. A little history lesson first.

When I was writing about WoW sucking before writing about WoW sucking was cool, a major reason for that was because Blizzard was shaping the genre, and the direction they were going in was not one I liked (or that works). I don’t really care about Blizzard/WoW now because they are non-factors. No one is building the next ‘WoW-killer/clone’. No one is taking a great IP (Warhammer) and driving it into the dirt thanks to the WoW taint.

Right now, everyone is basically in two camps. You are either in the EAWare camp, where you just believe MMOs don’t work, or you are in the indy camp, where you understand that MMOs work when they are virtual worlds rather than sRPGs with a login server, and that the market for THAT is not millions. There is no “let’s make a bigger/better WoW” camp, and so I no longer need to keep educating people about it. You’re welcome. When WoW goes F2P in 2015, it won’t be a surprise but rather confirmation of about a hundred posts I made in 2007/8. Feel free to look back and just leave a “damn, Syn right again” comment on each one. It’s the least you can do.

Where MMOs are going is both obvious and as uncertain as ever. It’s obvious because EVE is still crushing it and for good reason; it’s the definition of MMO design done right. If only someone had pointed that out in 2007… What’s really scary is that CCP might be doing its best work with the game right now, ten years in, so rather than decline like “all MMOs do”, EVE is still very much on the way up, with the only real question being just how high up it will go. I know I said the market is not millions, but CCP might prove me wrong in a few years.

The uncertain part is, spaceships aside, where does everyone else go? I think Darkfall: Unholy Wars is a much improved version of DF, and the patches Aventurine has been doing are hitting all the right areas, but the game and the company behind it have a long, long way to go before they reach anything close to current EVE/CCP status. The foundation is there, certainly, but the goal is so far away its borderline impossible to even think about right now. And much like EVE itself, DF doesn’t NEED 1m subs to be what it needs to be. The current population in the game is just right; fights can be found, but the world is not overcrowded to the point of game-breaking (as can happen).

GW2 continues to do what it’s doing, but nothing since the 3rd week has struck me as a reason to return. It’s just there, which since day one has pretty much been the issue with the game. Again, there is a reason Anet isn’t asking for a monthly fee, and it’s not because they are just that nice. Similar statements can be made about most other MMOs; it’s amazing SW:TOR has not been shut down, Secret World is what it is, and a few other titles are chugging along or milking the last bits for whatever is left (LotRO).

The genre is evolving and devolving at the same time. It’s evolving in terms of how games are made; Kickstarter being the biggest factor, but even having games on Steam vs requiring a box in a store is a big change for gaming, and MMOs in particular. A niche game for 50k gets made today if that 50k votes with their wallet strongly enough, while just a few years back this wasn’t the case.

It’s devolving in that we are returning to games based off what Ultima Online was trying to do (virtual world) vs what WoW became (sRPG). Designing your game for a target audience vs ‘for everyone’ is once again happening. Games with scale and longevity are being pitched. Catering to the lowest common denominator is once again seen as a negative.

The great unknown right now is whether the above will deliver or not. Will an MMO off Kickstarter release and be what it promised? Are all of the devs that today talk about “not being WoW” follow through, or are we just in another Warhammer cycle where people in white shades talk about bears but really just deliver a crappy knockoff?

And because all of this is unknown right now, we can’t really blog about it at length. The genre, and as a result, blogs covering the genre, are in a bit of wait-and-see mode.


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