ARK – A micro-MMO

August 26, 2015

My obsession with ARK continues, and it has now bled into the MMO-thinking part of my brain. To be very clear, ARK isn’t an MMO, but in a lot of ways it certainly plays like one.

The big thing is progression; you certainly have it in ARK, between your own character’s level, the base you build, the dinos you tame, the blueprints you collect, and the ever-expanding scope of stuff you can do as you progress and get more powerful. What’s funny is in an MMO like WoW, you can go from fresh character to the level cap in less time than it would take in ARK, and then both games have a lot of different stuff to do once you are at the cap, with a key difference being that levels help in ARK, while levels are required for ‘end-game’ content in WoW.

The main reason ARK isn’t an MMO is scale. Servers currently max out at 70 players, while an MMO server can hold thousands (or tens of thousands if we are talking EVE). ARK also has trouble handling more than ten or so characters on one screen, while again in an MMO that is common and expected. But the question in my mind is how often, when playing an MMO, does that matter? When you run a dungeon, it’s just you and the 3-5 others with you, and literally nothing else matters. Raids are bigger, but basically the same thing. An auction house is something thousands of players interact with, but unless you are deep into playing the auction house, do you actually care that the goods are listed and bought by others, or would your experience be mostly the same if bots did it?

In fact, one could argue player interaction in ARK is more important than it is in a typical MMO. The obvious example is PvP; raiding someone’s base has a huge impact, larger than killing someone in WoW or even blowing up a ship in EVE. A lot of things are easy to replace in ARK, but there are also a lot of things (high lvl dinos, rare items or blueprints) that aren’t, and losing those hurts. Plus base raiding has various degrees; someone blowing up one wall and looting one room stings, but a rival tribe leveling your base is a rage-quit level event.

PvP aside, even living near someone else has a large impact in ARK, while your garrison in WoW has nearly zero impact on anyone but you. In ARK resources don’t respawn near a base, so having 2-3 bases in close proximity not only means a large void of respawns, but also increased competition for the remaining resources. It’s comparable to mining in EVE, where you show up and the belt has already been stripped, only in ARK resource availability plays a more major role, and it’s not as easy as simply flying to the next belt.

ARK makes me wonder if a lot of the design problems of an MMO can be solved by going micro-MMO, especially if going smaller results in MORE player interaction.


It’s in the books, FFXIV is the largest sub MMO out today

August 21, 2015

The troll job from SquareEnix using ‘registered accounts’ for subs continues, this time to announce that the game has crossed the 5m sub mark. As WoW has likely continued to bleed subs since the 5.4m announcement, I think its rather safe to say FFXIV is now the larger MMO in terms of paying players.

So, who had August 2015 as the date WoW was dethroned?

I will admit this is a bit anti-climactic, mostly because Blizzard dug their own grave rather than being beaten while they were still putting up a fight. Sure, FFXIV is a great MMO, and the fact that it’s basically a modern-day vanilla WoW is especially fantastic, but if Old Blizzard was still running WoW this doesn’t happen.


Hitting rocks to build success

August 13, 2015

For me the simplest measure of how much you liked a game is how long you played it. I think there is certainly value in a great 10 hour experience, but IMO no matter how great that 10 hours was, a game you spend 100+ hours with is the better game. Even if you disagree on that, I think we can all agree that if you’re a dev for an MMO, you certainly want your players playing for 100+ hours instead of 10.

Right now in the group I’m playing ARK with, there are people who have 2000+ hours spent with the game, which besides being INSANE on a personal playtime level, is an amazing compliment to the longevity of the game and its ability to entertain someone long-term. ARK isn’t an MMO, but if it was, I think it would be a fairly successful one just based on how well it retains people and the amount of time you can spend with its content.

And ARK, besides being RUST+Dinos, is basically a crafting/gathering simulator. Sure, there are other things you do like PvE (kill dinos), PvP (kill players), and PvB (bashing bases), but those activities occupy a minority of your time compared to hitting rocks/trees/bushes, and making stuff from the gains of said rocks/trees/bushes. You build a base to protect your stuff and craft more stuff, and dinos enhance your gathering or ability to protect your stuff from others. In short, given the popularity of not just ARK but games like it, a TON of people love gathering/crafting, and love it enough to do it for a LONG time.

Now the critical part is the motivation behind those basic activities. Much like few if any find mining in EVE thrilling, so many do it because the ‘why’ is worthwhile, not the ‘how’. The same is true for ARK; hitting a rock isn’t thrilling, but what you can eventually make from hitting that rock is very worthwhile, so you hit that rock, and the rock next to it, and the next thousand rocks after that. It also helps that gathering in ARK can both be relaxing in its simplicity (running a low risk, familiar gathering cycle), and occasionally more of an adventure if you go far out into hostile territory with a valuable dino along with you.

What I find absolutely insane about the MMO genre is that, despite these obvious examples of player wants, few if any MMOs cater to this crowd well. Sure, EVE has its mining, and FFXIV might be the best example with its gathering/crafting roles and all of the additional gameplay options related to them, but what about everyone else? Why is gathering/crafting such a footnote and total mess in games like WoW? Why hasn’t someone made ARK, The MMO already? ARK itself is close, but clearly the design intent is to sell the product and allow players to play on various servers, which is a slight but very important difference from playing/paying for an MMO service.

The market is there, by the millions who are willing to play for a long time, and it’s crazy that not only do we not have a full-on crafting/gathering focused MMO (ATitD is the closest, but in all honesty is a pretty poor product overall when compared to the gameplay and features of RUST/ARK), but that so many current MMOs minimize this aspect of the game or outright neglect it. We keep talking about MMOs today lacking longevity, perhaps if we looked at what players DO spend a lot of time doing in other genres, we might be able to return to a time when MMOs lasted longer than a month or so of content consumption.


WoW Legion: We get to watch it all burn down to the ground

August 7, 2015

Oh New Blizzard. After attempting “We are making the game like Vanilla again, come back!” with WoD, and failing to actually deliver, New Blizzard is back with “We are making the game like TBC, our one good expansion, come back!”, and, based on the feature list, have failed again.

Likely the only good that will come out of Legion is it further reinforces that TBC was the last time WoW was growing because it was still a solidly designed MMO, and I’m one of those crazy people who believes that the quality of your design has an effect on how successful something is. New Blizzard is, in a somewhat ironic way, trying to copy/paste Old Blizzard now. Unfortunately New Blizzard isn’t as good at the copy/paste game (see WoD vs Vanilla design), so isn’t getting the expected results.

Another problem going forward for New Blizzard is people aren’t going to be fooled again. WoD provided a large spike because people want WoW to be vanilla/TBC WoW, and bought into Blizzard being capable of return the game to that level of quality. A lot of people experienced that Blizzard isn’t capable of that today, and won’t believe Blizzard saying it this time around.

Additionally, past mistakes like the initial release of Diablo 3 with it’s RMT AH, subpar games like Hearthstone, and abortions like HotS have all worn away at the Blizzard name. They aren’t a sure-hit studio anymore, and fewer and fewer people will blindly buy the next Blizzard offering just because its a Blizzard game. What Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo built, these new release have torn down.

There will of course be some spike in numbers when Legion releases, because for all its long-term faults, enough people do still enjoy the first month of new WoW leveling content, and even at increased expansion prices, still see that month as a worthwhile buy. But between now and launch, subs will continue to erode away due to bad design and the fact that FFXIV is doing to WoW what WoW did to EQ2; just being a similar but outright better game (though for all its faults, WoW today isn’t nearly the disaster that EQ2 was, so at least the fight is a bit harder). How far those sub numbers fall will be interesting, as will seeing how much smaller the Legion pop will be compared to WoD.

I also think another major factor will be when Square-Enix announces it now has the largest sub MMO out, because that announcement will be seen as big news and draw the curiosity of the ultra-casual WoW player who doesn’t follow gaming news as closely as a lot of us do. MMO population momentum can turn quickly, and if suddenly guilds in WoW are getting empty, with everyone going to that FF MMO they keep hearing about from their friends/guildies, that snowball is hard to stop.

For me the most interesting item to watch is not when WoW is dethroned, or how quickly it falls overall, because those items are now inevitable, but the larger picture of when will Blizzard stop being considered a major studio? Right now their pipeline looks terrible (HS, HotS, and the only upcoming new title is Overwatch, which I think most of us know will be DoA), and they can’t live off older IP glory like Diablo and StarCraft for long. Can’t say I’ll shed too many tears over seeing the studio that nearly destroyed the MMO genre finally burning down.


I just fixed WoW, you’re welcome Blizzard

August 6, 2015

As I wrote over at TAGN, what the next expansion should be, but won’t because this is New Blizzard, is an expansion of garrisons, with Blizzard taking one of the current most successful games (Clash of Clans) and doing what Blizzard did best; copy/paste + apply Blizzard coat of paint.

Garrisons should be expanded to be used in the same way a base is used in CoC. You set up its layout to defend, and your followers become your troops that attack. Via questing, crafting, raiding, and battlegrounds, you can collect resources to upgrade both your defenses and followers, and your overall garrison has an ‘iLvl’ like your character.

You would initiate a search for a base to attack, be able to skip to another until you find one you want to hit, and then the attack would play out much like it does in CoC; you can’t directly control your followers but they have different AI with different focuses (some target defenses, others resources, etc). Since WoW is focused around a character, you can also use your character in the fight as a kind of super-minion, with customizable AI.

Add in a ranked mode, along with guild vs guild wars, and you have something that ties a lot of the existing WoW content into this new ‘end-game’ feature, allows you easy expansion (more defenses, more followers, more skins for garrisons/followers) without having to create new zones, more character levels, or dungeons/raids that would go stale once someone has the items they want.

But knowing New Blizzard, the expansion will just be more orcs or something equally dumb.


New Blizzard investor call ‘highlights’

August 5, 2015

Items that jumped out at me from the Activision Blizzard investor call:

“Destiny now has over 20 million registered players, with an average of about 100 hours of game play each”

First, the statement that the average gameplay length from 20 million people is 100 hours is pretty incredible. It would be interesting to see the number of people who didn’t like the game (under 5 hours let’s say) and the number who fiend on it (1000+ hours or so), but either way that 100 hour average is impressive.

Also it caught my eye that they call users ‘registered players’, because that can be dismissed as ‘registered account’ in the F2P world, but you can’t register in Destiny without buying the game, so those ‘registered players’ are in fact paying customers. First FFXIV, and now Destiny, is ‘registered players’ some legal-driven term or what?

On to Blizzard.

“In Q2, the average MAU across Blizzard games was up more than 50% year over year, achieving its highest level ever.”

It’s almost as if allowing people to create free accounts, and allowing the same person to create multiple free accounts on different devices, results in more accounts than ever. Go figure, and a really strong number to LEAD OFF with.

Bet he gets into the real numbers shortly…

“Engagement for Hearthstone, which was already very strong, nearly doubled year over year in terms of active players and time spent.”

Is this a “how many free accounts do you have now?” or an earnings call?

“This year alone, the community has already held more than 1,300 Fireside Gatherings globally.”

Oh. Well ok then. Nothing of real substance was provided about HS, and (I haven’t seen it myself yet) I guess they lump HS with Destiny in the actual numbers again?

The HoTS part had as much depth as the game itself. My guess is every analyst on the call at this point was making a wanking motion and praying for something of substance to be said.

Then D3 was talked about and, because that game is doing well in China, financial numbers were given. Funny how that works.

On to the Q&A.

First question was about Hearthstone revenue. The answer given?

“We saw almost double the amount of active players and times spent year over year, and an increase in more than 50% quarter over quarter. Revenue on the new platforms appear to be incremental to PC.”

So when asked about revenue, the first answer is to talk about free accounts still being played, and then tossing out that maybe, perhaps, it could be possible that mobile is helping revenue along with PC sales. Solid answer Mike, really solid. Quick follow-up question though, how much of a factor is a title barely in the top 20 for revenue in the app store on iPhone (can’t find it on the iPad, fingers got too tired)? Is that a rounding error or a blip? Just wondering…

Skipping down to the HotS question:

“I was hoping you could discuss where you are with the players, and more specifically, the paying players for Heroes of the Storm”

Part of the answer, the rest was wank-motion nothingness:

“I think if you look at other games in the genre, they all had more gradual growth of their player base, so that is what we would expect to see with Heroes of the Storm.”

Translation: HotS numbers are in the toilet, but hopefully they turn around, because hey MOBAs need time to grow? I mean sure, LoL didn’t start with tens of millions, nor did DOTA2, but neither of those games are kiddie-pool shallow, nor did either of those games come with other major product tie-ins or as massive a marketing push as HotS. You weren’t watching LoL or DOTA2 commercials on TV when those games launched, were you now? Did you get a free mount or whatever in WoW when you signed up for LoL/DoTA2? But yea no, HotS is totally going to be saved by its eSport performance. That’s totally going to work out, hopefully as well as it did for Hearthstone last year, right?

New Blizzard just doing its thing yet again, good job all around everyone. Is there another China you could launch D3 in next quarter?


FFXIV: The good kind of difficult

July 6, 2015

One of the aspects that soured me on WoW post TBC (although even prior to WotLK this was already somewhat of a trend in the game, just much slower) was the decrease in challenge in the ‘normal’ game, with only special ‘hard mode’ versions of the same content being tuned to really push you. Especially in vanilla, there was plenty of content that would test you, even during the leveling game (elite quests, certain dungeons). This removal never made sense to me, because WoW never forced you to beat that content, and outside of max-level stuff, you always had the option to go back later if you wanted to see something.

FFXIV is a lot of fun in part because the content challenge doesn’t insult you with how trivial it is in spots. Yes, most random quests you pick up ARE very easy kill five of this or collect five of that tasks, but the dungeons you run as you level require some level of competence, and the main quest line (that isn’t optional) and class quests have some fairly challenging fights you must solo due to the Duty system (basically a private instance).

It’s these Duties that my wife struggles with at times (and sometimes I do as well), mainly because we always do them right as soon as they become available, and because our gear is limited to what we get from questing and running the dungeons once (no AH or crafting), and I think this challenge is a great thing overall. The smart thing about this design is you CAN come back to the Duty later when you are a bit stronger, but even then you can’t completely overpower it as the Duty will level-sync you should you be more than four levels above it (though four levels is a fairly significant amount of power).

The only consistent complain I’ve seen about FFXIV is that the main story is required to progress in the game, but I think the real complain is the challenge, because WoW has trained newer MMO players to not expect any. And again, this isn’t even older WoW, where if you wanted to see the main villain of the expansion (Illidan) you had to be a top-tier raider; this is simply required content you can’t completely faceroll to progress past, and yet a minority still complain.

As Rohan wrote, this overall helps FFXIV, as it weeds out the worst of the ‘WoW-kiddies’, meaning you don’t get randomly grouped with them during a dungeon, or have them running around spamming local chat, tagging mobs, and generally being WoW players. I’m glad SquareEnix ‘doubled down’ on this design by making the expansion content gated behind completing the original content, and hopefully they don’t make the mistake Blizzard made with WoW starting with WotLK.


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