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.


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)


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.

 


Shocking news; F2P is dead

August 21, 2013

Well that didn’t last long, huh? Wish someone had called F2P a fad, that would have been pretty insightful of them.

Am I happy that the F2P plague is dying? Of course.

Will F2P still exist in some capacity? Yes. Games like LoL that do F2P right will continue being successful, and lesser MMOs that have no choice like SW:TOR will continue to sell you hotbars until shutdown, but finally the genre is returning to the model that makes sense for players AND dev of good MMOs.

Now does this make WildStar, FF 14, or TESO good MMOs automatically? Of course not, but it helps in that at least the devs don’t have to carry the design burden of F2P.

And let’s not kid ourselves; F2P is indeed a dev burden. Do you think the devs behind SW:TOR think their game is better thanks to hotbar limits, or XP gain rates that have been drastically reduced? Is LotRO a better game now that it spams you to buy something every 5 seconds? Is there ‘design brilliance’ for creating yet another gaudy set of wings in EQ2? Of course not; but the F2P model drives what you create, and in order to sell crap in the store, the game has to ‘nudge’ you towards it. Great content without a hook into the cash shop is a ‘wasted opportunity’.

F2P fans have commented that a sub-model has built-in grind to keep you subbed. No shit. Oh the horror, a game I enjoy is designed to keep me playing. Because what happens when ‘the grind’ is no longer fun? You quit, and the sub model doesn’t work if you quit, so simply going SW:TOR on your MMO and gimping everyone’s XP gains is not a successful way to run your sub-based MMO.

The only semi-legit knock on the sub model is that it doesn’t allow you to play a dozen MMOs at the same time, and I’m 100% fine with all of those people not playing my MMO. There is nothing worse than a once-a-week playing in your guild, and your game doesn’t develop the kind of community that makes an MMO special with those people.

If that means you ‘only’ have 500k subscribers, so be it. It’s not like anyone has reach WoW peak numbers with F2P or the sub model, so one is not more ‘mainstream’ or successful than the other. A million free accounts are worth less than one paying account, as I’m sure some devs are learning the hard way.

Who knows, maybe in a year or two some devs will start talking about the importance of retention again, or how they have a plan longer than three months for players. The more things change…


WildStar – I can’t say it sucks, yet

August 20, 2013

TAGN beat me to posting about the WildStar PLEX plan. /agree

It works in EVE because EVE has a balanced economy. WildStar being a themepark, it won’t (feel free to bookmark this and come back 6 months into release and tell me otherwise).

What I do find interesting is that WildStar, being an NCSoft title, is going to charge a sub, while GW2, also under NCSoft, does not. Now sure, GW2 is a sequel to GW1, which was also sub-free, but Anet never set out to create an MMO with GW1, while they most certainly tried with GW2. Pretty clear message NCSoft is sending with this announcement; WildStar is not a 3 week vacation.

Whether it succeeds or not I can’t tell yet, mostly because I’ve not been following the game closely and I’ve yet to read anything convincing about it one way or the other.

Now that I think about it, that’s a huge compliment to the game actually. Past MMOs have been easy; be it SW:TOR (4th pillar of fail), GW2 (living world of static zones), TESO (“we reskinned WoW with the ES IP, yo”), or EQN (SOE, parkour, boss red boxes, countless design fails in a single presentation) those games and many others were/are/will be DOA. I can’t say that about WildStar yet. Congrats?


EQN: Leading off with your best

August 6, 2013

When someone states their MMO is doing something different from everyone else, which of the following innovations would you rather see:

WAR’s Public Quests, changing how you go about getting into a group to do group content.

Or

EQN’s “parkour”, adding an animation for going over (certain) rocks?

If you think the above example is silly and unfair, I agree, but I’m not the one in charge of putting together the agenda for the big EQN reveal, and that was one of the first items emphasized. Right after lighting, lighting, lighting, and lighting (which, btw, looked average at best, and won’t have any impact on gameplay, unlike say the lighting in Darkfall or Skyrim where shadows actually matter).

I bring this up not just to mock SOE, but to emphasis a point about “advancing the genre”. You don’t do that with fluff, which parkour very much is. You also don’t do it by fully voicing your quests, which is why SW:TOR was easy to declare DOA in 2010. When your big selling point is garbage, it’s not because you are hiding the really good stuff for later, it’s because everything else is even worse garbage.

Now yes, there was more substance to the EQN showing than JUST parkour, but apply the test; was anything else shown something that will have the impact of even WAR’s PQs? (Which is not a high bar, just one simple example) And if you come away with anything in the ‘Yes’ column, will any of those ideas actually work as fun MMO gameplay? A crazy new idea is still garbage if ultimately it’s not fun or outright fails.

Predicting when a new idea that impacts gameplay is going to work can be tricky. Identifying fluff garbage pitched as advancing the genre is easy, as is the reason why someone would present that over solid ideas or innovation.


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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