[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

20 thoughts on “[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

  1. I had a lengthy response, but the comment system killed it while it was deciding whether I was allowed to post, so let’s simplify. (This may be a bit testy because of that.)

    You are arguing against a position both broader and narrower than mine, rather than what I posted. That there are exceptions is a given, not a counter-argument. That’s why Bhagpuss will usually join us to comment that the post does not apply to him. Well, no, if you are an extreme outlier who is not there for the same purpose as most of the population, your experience will differ. Adding outliers does not move the median value significantly. The point of looking at the aggregate, rather than what one person posts about her guild, is to find and analyze those central tendencies.

    You can find a refuge of like-minded players in most any game, but your average interaction in low-sec EVE will probably reflect those forums and blogs. If that does not sound good to you, you might prefer a community where the average interaction will be something you would like; similarly, hardcore EVE players are unlikely to find Pixie Hollow a source of satisfying social interactions.

    If you know enough to find your subculture within an MMO community and draw value from a game that is not built for you, you are past the point at which advice is necessary. Back to the source of the post, if you already know how to identify great Pakistani cooking, you do not need Tyler Cowen’s advice on what are good signs for finding it.

    • OK, but on what basis do you (or anyone) have the expertise to offer that advice? How do you measure a MMO’s audience in terms of playing style, communication style, etc in a way that would be meaningful to a new player?

      You talk about looking at the aggregate but how would anyone actually know the aggregate? That is the point I’m trying to make. I can tell people about my guild and make some guesses based on the blogosphere and forums but unless my guild is recruiting and looking for newbies, I cannot guarantee someone else a similar experience.

      And sometimes bloggers will have very different views on the community for different games. I found AtitD community to be very cliquey, for example, and it got more so from telling 3 (when I first tried the game) to the last telling (when I played for a couple of months). I didn’t blog about it so how would anyone know that was my experience? TERA would be another example, where some bloggers comment that it’s full of sexist male players who like all the stripper costumes, Melmoth says the general channel settled out to some kind of normality and someone on rpg.net said their guild was full of female players who like anime. And that’s just the comments I have seen, for all I know it has a hardcore raid community of Russians as well.

      Plus in many MMOs there are multiple communities which don’t overlap much. Lots of games have a hardcore raiding circle, a PvP community, and a softcore casual playing circle and the players rarely interact.

      Ultimately I think you just end up saying “Well, if you like PvP and space ships and sandbox games, try EVE, and you’ll find other players who like those things” which isn’t really about the community at all. When you say SWTOR will appeal to people who like a strong storyline and single player oriented levelling, that’s information you could probably get from their website without having to poll the community at all.

      A restaurant is much easier to quantify than an MMO, I think.

      • If I come up with those quantifiable measures that guarantee results, I am quitting my job and living fat on big consulting contracts.

        You’re making the perfect the enemy of the good here. No one will be able to guarantee anyone’s experience anywhere — not in an MMO, not at a restaurant, no matter how hard McDonald’s tries. If you lower that standard to “a pretty good guide,” getting a sense of the aggregate should not be that hard provided you think to do it. Remembering to stop and think is a hard thing for many of us as consumers. I think you can get a good sense of the core community(ies) in a game with minimal research.

        The original point of looking at the community, recall, is as a guide to the game — what sort of playstyle is this game likely to support, based on the kind of people successfully playing that way? (MMOs get the added wrinkle that the community really is part of the game, as opposed to restaurant food where interactions with other customers are not a primary focus of the dining experience.) What are people talking about as the main draws?

        My sense is that LotRO, SW:TOR, STO, and CoX have more laid back communities; people are drawn by the settings and the atmospherics. Flipping to the LotRO forum General Discussion, I see people fervently interested in how welcoming the elves of Lorien should be and what cosmetic items you get from a flower gift box. Looking at any CoX blogging, there will be a fashion show and a discussion of losing hours on the costume creator. You’re familiar with the focus on “the 4th Pillar.”

        I expect the standard research before dropping money and planning to spend dozens or hundreds of hours on a game is to review the features the developers promise. That is nice, but it just tells you the promises. Looking at the players provides a richer, if much noisier data set. 5 or 10 minutes there will tell you more than watching another developer video or two.

      • “people are drawn by the settings and the atmospherics”

        As soon as you say that, you’re looking at the game rather than the players/community. You might as well say “People who like genre X are drawn to game Y.”

        Anyway, don’t give up just because it’s difficult. I think it should be possible to try to quantify gaming communities, as long as you realise they are a moving target and that one of the appealing things about MMOs as games is that they can and do support multiple communities.

        For example: what types of topics are recurrent on blogs about that game, does the game have player run events and if so how popular/common are they? You could try to build a metric of how elitist the player base is or how much noobs and hardcore mingle (ie. in Rift people always tended to just do Rifts with whoever was around). Any kind of measure involving official forums is going to be biased towards the types of people who frequent forums so that’s a bit tougher.

        If you want to get technical you might look at ‘what is the social capital like in this game’s community’, or ‘does this game favour individualists or collectivists?’

        But there’s still key info that I’m not sure you can know, like how engaged the player base typically is, what percentage are true casuals and what percentage have played for more than six months (ie. is this the type of game that lots of people call home.)

      • “As soon as you say that, you’re looking at the game rather than the players/community.” Yes but no. That’s the entire point of the post: what parts of the game are the players looking at? Going back to the original book: if a restaurant attracts customers who are paying more attention to the atmosphere than the food, you can bet you are mostly paying for quality of atmosphere rather than quality of food. If a game attracts players who are primarily interested in story, setting, or cosmetics, you can bet developers are paying more attention to those, Businesses respond to what their customers care about, and you get a self-reinforcing cycle.

        This could explain the disconnect. For the purposes of the hypothesis I am pursuing in that post, the community is only relevant as a guide to the game or as a feature thereof. You’re trying to look at the community while I’m proposing looking at the game through the community.

      • I like the general idea of ‘I should go where people who share my gaming priorities go’ but I feel that characterising an MMO is more like trying to characterise a town than a restaurant because, by design, they are trying to cater to multiple playing styles.

        I still don’t get how you’d propose to gauge what the current playerbase is tuned into, and also suspect sampling a few blogs may not be as solid a representation as just reading patch notes to see what devs are actually focussed on.

        Also sometimes devs change focus to a different segment of the community, like WoW tends to do on each expansion. And in F2P there’s this tendency to focus on the whales, which may not represent the player base as closely.

        Which is mostly to say that it’s an interesting idea, but hard to measure and the restaurant metaphor may not be totally apt.

  2. I disagree with this statement: “the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3″

    …is completely wrong imo. How many WoW-clones crashed before SWTOR even came out? It was far from a ‘random chance’ that people were tired of the WoW-formula. Adding fancy cinematic single-player storylines that have no replay value (thus minimal value to a MMO game) on top of the same-old WoW-gameplay skeleton is what crashed SWTOR, not an ‘unlucky roll of the dice’. To paint it as just having been a result of bad luck rather than as a Bioware’s failure to make a good non-derivative MMORPG is to completely miss the point.

    Bioware didn’t know how to make a good MMORPG. They thought all it would take to make a hit MMORPG would be to paste a single-player RPG storyline over tired 7+ old gameplay copy+pasted from another game. Their failure was in that laziness and nothing else.

    • I figured he was referring to EA’s tendency to throw money at gaming studios/ genres and hope that something sticks.

      I don’t know if it’s true that people in general are sick of the DIKU style MMOs. Certainly there’s no other style of MMO that has been as popular. Maybe I’m still hung up on WoW having claimed no drop in subs over the last 3 months.

    • There’s nothing particuarly wrong with a WoW skeleton. The issue that emerges is that if you’re going to have a WoW skeleton, you should at least include all the bones and SWTOR was a bioware game pasted over a Burning Crusade era WoW skeleton.

      I’m thinking at the very least, every MMO from now on should come with a dungeon finder. The issue with pvp popularity in SWTOR wasn’t that it was especially good, though Huttball was kinda fun, it was that unlike the flashpoints, you could actually just press a button and play some game.

    • The statement bugged me so much I made a blog post about it. =P

      Even if he is referring to EA trying to bend the laws of business to make tossing money down a hole blindly magically result in profitable returns, the fact is not only is stuff like 38 Studios’ example of blatant mismanagement not something new in MMOs (I can name 3 other examples off the top of my head; Horizons, Vanguard, and APB), but the failings of SWTOR’s entire design philosophy was being commented on months and months before it ever came out. Both of these games failures are nothing more than two of the most expensive examples of old lessons that you’d think MMO devs would’ve learned years ago.

  3. Thanks for the link love, Spinks!

    And yes, I also agree that TOR isn’t a failure either. The instant success formula doesn’t work in the real world, and it shouldn’t in the gaming world either. People get inundated with stories of the “overnight success” of Zynga or Facebook or Twitter, and they forget all of the lead up to even get to the tipping point.

    The “people are tired of the WoW formula” isn’t exactly true, either. Maybe the existing MMO userbase is tired of the WoW formula, but that doesn’t mean that MMOs can’t get new players. I’m one example, because I began playing MMOs in 2009.

    The thing is, I had help in getting started with WoW. Other people may not have that help, and they’ll quickly get confused in a story that can seem discombobulated at best, and wonder why they should find a game like WoW is worth playing. Then, they’re told that the game only really starts at max level, and they stare down the barrel of L1 to L85, throw up their hands, and leave.

    But it doesn’t have to be like that.

    • I think it’s less that people are all-out sick of the WoW formula, as it is that folks are much less willing to pony up 60$ and $15 per month to play what amounts to the latest rehash of it.

      Even I still enjoy the ‘classic style’ MMORPG from time to time nowadays, but I am personally totally over playing $15 a month for one. I did my 7 years of time in WoW and enjoyed it a lot, but I’m not interested in shelling out that much time and investment in some newer copycat.

      • But the underlying assumption is that MMOs are a closed environment, that everybody who wants to play an MMO is already doing so.

        I disagree with that assumption, because if that is correct, all a new MMO can do is cannibalize from other, already existing MMOs.

        Some MMOs, such as Rift, are going straight for WoW players in trying to ‘out-WoW’ WoW. Others, such as TOR, are making more of an effort to bring in new MMO players into the fold by emphasizing the journey to max level.

        WoW, with both the name cachet and the huge player base, is caught in the middle: if it spends too much time trying to lure in new players, it pisses off a lot of the existing playerbase to whom max level and raiding are everything. If WoW spends too much time on end game, it lets other MMOs get the new blood instead. Everything that WoW has done to attract new subs is really WoW trying to draw back old subs, not get entirely new players. The Scroll of Resurrection, the D3 lure, all of it plays most to either the existing player base or those who recently left. The free L1-L20 levels that they’re currently working with aren’t enough to cover social and story issues in the game.

      • “I disagree with that assumption, because if that is correct, all a new MMO can do is cannibalize from other, already existing MMOs.”

        No, I’m saying that there is only room for a small number of games that are derivatives of WoW’s gameplay to exist in the market at once, -especially- if they’re each game going to charge people 15$ a month to play. The number one mistake companies are making is to believe that ‘WoW’s formula = MMORPG’ and keep doing the same things with only minor tweaks and making games that are not different enough from each other to justify people to keep paying to play them.

        The payment model is one part of the problem. At 15$ a month, people will rarely play more than one sub MMO at a time. This makes people very picky, and reluctant to cough up that much for a game that they don’t feel is worth it because the gameplay feels too cliche.

      • There could be room for more than a few games along those lines, it depends how many core players each one needs to stay viable and whether they can keep churn consistent.

        What we don’t really have is any proof that any other MMO type would attract more players. Sandboxes tend to get very hardcore, attracting a very loyal core user base but not necessarily more numbers. My suspicion is that a really successful mainstream sandbox would have to really dial down the gaming features and dial up the socialisation. (It’s actually got to compete with Facebook.)

        I would argue that even without subscriptions, MMO communities need players to focus on one game at a time. Whilst its fun for a lot of people to be MMO nomads, never really putting down roots, that’s not how solid guilds, friendships or communities are formed unless the nomads share some out of game common resource like a bboard or cross-game organisation or something.

    • I think the expectation that people have now that a MMO ‘needs’ millions of players or else it’s a failure is deeply mistaken. SWTOR does, because it cost $200 million to make. But WoW was originally expecting to ‘eventually’ top off at 300-500k players, and it cost $63 million. It was budgeted for a smaller profit margin, and exceeding it so much was a happy surprise. In the case of SWTOR, 1.3 million has been a -severe disappointment-. And that’s exactly the problem, imo.

      Budget bloat and everyone thinking WoW-like numbers is the new minimum requirement for success is choking creative gameplay design, imo. Nobody wants to invest hundreds of millions on an untested formula, yet for some reason there’s this stigma that spending (and achieving) -less- is somehow less prestigious or will result in a less quality game.

      • I agree, and I think this is a really important point to take away. These games can still be successful, but it won’t be on that scale. Also with all the F2P games, it’s going to be harder to attract a core crowd who want to ‘settle’ in a new game without going for the sort of hardcore gameplay that will turn off a lot of the casual gamers.

        I’ll be interested to see the numbers for GW2. Apparently Guild Wars sold 6.5 mil worldwide if you include all the expansions (which is kind of a cheesy way to count things, so I assume closer to 3 mil for the main game and less than that for each subsequent expansion) but I don’t know if the more overtly MMOified version will appeal to as many people.

  4. Pingback: The MMO Siren Song | Kill Ten Rats

  5. Late to the party, thank TAGN and HZero. I think current and future MMOs are caught in between a rock and a hard place. We all talk about the fact that success shouldn’t be measured by anything other than profitablility.

    SWTOR isn’t a complete success, therefore it is an abject failure in the eyes of many. But tons of people are still playing and enjoying the game. Count me among them. On the other hand, I haven’t raced to the top, still working to reach 50 on my main, and enjoying the journey. I am definitely an outlier there I suppose. I also don’t see an issue with replayability. At least 8 stories can be played through, with other way besides the planet quests to help level outside the storyline. But cool, it’s a failure.

    Are people tired of WoW and WoW-clones? I don’t know, ask the millions of people still subscribed to WoW and its clones. I guarantee only a miniscule fraction of them is even aware of this debate.

    The problem new MMOs have is that they must compete with an almost 8 year old behemoth. Maybe the original game only expected 500k players and had only(!) a $63 million budget, but the three expensions since then have surely topped $200 million in investment, at the same time the game was running unimaginable profits compared to everything else in the genre. What new game can possibly compete?

    If you’re using a shard system, some costs are scalable, but they’re mostly related to hardware and customer service. The basic development of the game world and all the game content and features have to be fronted, and compete with WoW’s 4+ current continents with all the different racial starting areas, and the dungeon finder, etc., that took Blizzard well over a decade (including initial developement and the development of the expansions) to develop.

    Until the market splinters more fully, I don’t see anything replacing the attempt to capture WoW’s lightning-in-a-bottle again.

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