EQ Next to be “the largest sandbox MMO ever designed”

In 2010, SOE announced that they were working on a follow up to EQ2, code-named EQ Next. There was some muted excitement from Everquest fans, but after that we didn’t hear much about the project. Yesterday, John Smedley announced at SOE Live that they’d trashed their original design and now plan to bring EQ Next to market as a sandbox style MMO game.

I had been wondering whether Blizzard would end up taking this route with Titan (or going for a FPS MMO), as the trends simply aren’t towards large subscription MMOs and ‘more of the same’ isn’t going to cut it.

As it happens, with Planetside 2, SOE along with CCP’s Dust are both shaping up as good options for FPS MMO fans. And with this EQ Next announcement, suddenly a lot of old school MMO players will again be very very focused on what SOE is doing. I think this was a momentous announcement for them, it’s the day they became relevant again. And now Blizzard is on the back foot. Check out the link, there were quite a lot of announcements and statements about how they see the industry.

[Links] Gaming ethics, Trolling trolls troll each other, and flimsy excuses to post a cute red panda picture

redpanda

via ogwen@Flickr

It seems that Mists of Pandaria is off to a generally well received start, aside from people who are finding the reputations/dailies heavy going when they just want to get into the raids, and apparently the review scores on Metacritic. My hope for the next expansion is that it features another race/zone/mechanic which gives all the gaming blogs excuses to post cute animal pictures. Blizzard, if you’re listening, how about sentient sea otters?

It is becoming clearer that Blizzard have taken the whole concept of ‘story’ on board and are planning to railroad everyone through the MoP storyline, whether they like it or not. Initial patch notes for 5.1 (on the test realm) include insights into the progression of the faction war, and Wrathion’s legendary questline. (Surely nothing can go wrong with us PCs following the instructions of a black dragon.) I’m not sure if this is more linear than SWTOR’s take on story but since it updates the entire continent on every patch, it might be. I think it sounds kind of cool because it is so different, but I’m also glad to be playing other more classic MMOs like GW2 (I know, sounds odd to call it more classic, but there you go) for my ‘wander around under your own steam’ fix.

I went to the Eurogamer Expo at the end of September, an event which seems to get larger and better organised every year. Although first impressions were that every new game coming out was a shooter, I think this was biased by the fact they just seem louder and to take up more floorspace and screens than the other genres. In fact, this year is shaping up to be a gaming classic, with new games coming out in just about every genre … except MMOs. At first glance, Assassin’s Creed 3 particularly caught my eye, because it’s gorgeous. I was reminded of Uncharted 2. I’ve also heard good things about Borderlands 2 (which has made very strong sales) and XCOM, and FIFA 13 (a genre which regularly sells strongly over here) sold millions in it’s first week. The UK figures show it selling a million copies here in the first week, a feat which only FPS games have previously done (MW2, MW3, CODBLOPS).

Why does that matter? It shows the industry (and the audience) is opening up a bit from the FPS domination of the last few years, IMO.

The game which most caught my eye as being different was The Unfinished Swan where you are exploring a blank white area with only a paint gun to help you discover the world. The graphics are stunning, check out the video. And it’s going to be launched in Europe on 24th Oct this year.

In other news, more senior staff have left Bioware, Black Prophecy closes down, Pirates 101 enters Head Start, and Zynga shares continue to plummet.

LOTRO ‘s next expansion “Riders of Rohan” is due to release next week (15th Oct), and the next upcoming SWTOR patch is going to give players the ability to acquire an HK-51 assassination droid of their own.

Gaming Ethics

At the GDC (Games Developers Conference) there seems to have been more interest in ethics in gaming.  Gamasutra cover the panel on ethics in game design via some choice quotes, which is perhaps not the best way to accurately sum up a panel. Nik Davidson (Amazon) in particular makes some strong points, though.

We’re saying our market is suckers — we’re going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!”

It might be cynical to wonder if Zynga’s public failures have now meant it’s OK to discuss the ethics of F2P, whereas before it was more likely to be seen as the saviour of the industry and any criticism from industry insiders meant that they wanted to see fellow devs lose their jobs (or something). But players and gaming bloggers have been wondering about the ethics of F2P for some time, so none of this will come as a surprise.

That isn’t to say it cannot ever be ethical (or at least as ethical as any other way to sell a game, particularly an ongoing persistent world type game), it’s just increasingly difficult for anyone to think of successful examples of F2P games (either ethical or not) that have stood the test of time.

Another Gamasutra post has a video of a talk from the EU GDC touches on the monetisation of Chinese F2P MMOs. Tami Baribeau sums it up neatly in a blog post. If this is the future, then it doesn’t sound very pleasant. But the basics are LOTS of leaderboards, huge launches, lots of game launches, masses of events, embracing “pay to win”, and poor retention.

Psigoda mentions that what the Chinese browser game designers get excited about is creating epic “monetization pits” where players can spend thousands of dollars without finishing the game or reaching max level.  We simply don’t think that way here in the U.S., and I honestly don’t think our gamer market is ready for games with that design.  ((…)) We still tend to feel that we need to have a compelling and fun game design that supports  great monetization rather than the opposite.

Imagine.

Trolls and Anonymity

One of the ‘big’ stories on the internet this week is about the ‘outing’ (or doxxing) of a sleazy reddit superuser by a reporter from Gawker. This has opened up a whole slew of discussions about anonymity and freedom of speech. I maintain that the only smart forums to hang out on are moderated ones and that if your argument for free speech means you regularly end up defending people who post pictures of underage girls that were taken without their consent then maybe you need to revise your argument because these people are utter creeps and have abused their anonymity for too long already. Perhaps the answer is to let the trolls out each other, but that kind of mob rule isn’t really any better.

Meanwhile, it has made me think hard about why we just accept that some parts of the internet (including gaming parts, that relate to my hobby!) are misogynistic cesspits and that ‘freedom of speech’ means we should just live with the net being so unfriendly to women. I don’t buy it. What I think is that it’s not an accident that many of the early power users were dodgy porn mongers (remember ‘the internet is for porn’?), and they deliberately used their status in online communities to shape what was seen as normal and accepted in those communities, AND to shape the online debate about freedom of speech and anonymity. And yes, they did tend to hate and objectify women. (This is not a screed against porn, but there is a certain type of user.)

Reddit is such a mixed bag, including some of the dodgiest cesspits on the internet as well as some of the best examples of online collaboration. But if they cannot delete their own trolls (and in fact let some of them become admins) then they’re not ready for a wider audience. It’s interesting also to note that Reddit founders originally welcomed the trolls and their sleazy porno subreddits because they helped build the site up. It reminds me strongly of Zynga’s reputation for doing all manner of dodgy ethical deals when they were building up their business.

Clearly profit trumps business ethics and any manager worth his salt will happily toss the privacy of a few underage girls under the bus if it brings them a few power users and their hordes of sleazy hangers on. If the net communities cannot manage their own trash then don’t be surprised if the much vaunted freedoms of speech do eventually come under threat. Ultimately, it’s down to all of us who use these communities to speak up against the trolls, even when it involves pissing off power users and their fans.

More links: GW2 and more

As people get to max level in GW2, I am reading more complaints about the max level content. It isn’t really correct to refer to this as endgame, because you can do what you like in GW2. But there is a theme to these comments.

Zubon discusses the Ruined City of Arah.

It is probably the worst instance I have ever run, second only to the collective, multi-hour pain of the City of Heroes Shadow Shard task forces that spanned entire zones.

Entombed writes at Divinity’s Reach about annoyances and other bothers with GW2. This is an exploration of the various ‘endgame’ options at the moment, and discussion of why none of them really works.

And the personal story.  Oh the personal story.  Something that was ultimately just empty promises.  Will NPC’s actually care about you now if you re-enter your personal instance?  We were promised this repeatedly leading up to launch.  I can walk into my instance and see nothing of value and certainly no NPCs that I remember or that remember me.  Will my choices matter?  No.

Dusty Monk discusses some of the strong and weak parts of GW2, a game he still loves playing. And he also takes issue with the personal story.

I’m at level 72 or so in my personal story, and am quite honestly completely uninterested in finishing it.

Azuriel also finds his enthusiasm ebbing, although disagrees with Zubon about the worst dungeon.

… dungeons were the one bright spot when it came to enjoying playing my character, even if the specific dungeons I have played thus far have been fairly bad; Caudecus’s Manor in particular is the worst designed dungeon in any MMO I have ever played.

Since my Mesmer just hit 65 with lots of pauses to go play Pandaria, I haven’t touched on many of these issues myself. Although the one instance we did wasn’t really all that fun. However, maybe that turns out for the best, because Arenanet has lots of new content planned and a Halloween event, so not being burned out on the ‘endgame’ might be a good thing. It may be that GW2 simply isn’t a game that suits the grind-100-hrs-for-a-1%-bonus hardcore as well as it suits the more relaxed player, but that doesn’t really excuse Arenanet for messing up the last story boss in the game or making the dungeons an exercise in tedium.

But I enjoy my time in the game a lot, even more so with friends around.

In other news:

Shintar finds that hunting datacrons in SWTOR can be really fun with friends.

I’ve experienced strangers being willing to jump through various hoops purely to show someone a datacron as well. There is clearly a certain appeal to the feeling that you’re sharing “secret” knowledge with someone, even if you’ve got nothing tangible to gain from the experience yourself. Being on the receiving end of this kind of sharing isn’t half bad either, as it makes you perceive other players as helpful and promotes community.

Beruthiel ponders what makes healing fun in MMOs.

Tipa posts about her experiences with Pirates 101, a game I’m looking forwards to trying when it’s out of head start.

There has been some discussion on blogs about the notion of a ‘three month MMO’ and whether the phenomenon of a rush of players to new games and then numbers dropping massively after 1-3 months is down to the game design or changes in player expectations. Liore is squarely in the latter camp, and argues that it’s all down to the player.

The dream of Elite Online is not dead, Chris Roberts (designer of Wing Commander) is crowd funding a new space combat MMO called Star Citizen.

Redbeard ponders how playing a rogue in WoW makes him act like all the rogues he used to hate.

I can’t count the number of times I’d been ganked by a Rogue while in that BG, swearing that if I ever decided to start a Rogue I’d never do any of this stuff.  And yet there I was, roaming around in the rez zone, waiting for toons to respawn so I could gank them before they could buff themselves.

Oestrus writes about her decision to stop playing as a hardcore raider in WoW.

Chris at Game by Night is surprised at how outraged PvE players get if they feel they have to do PvP to get gear for raids.

Is it so terrible that there could be more raiders and more PvPers to fill out your teams? Give me one good reason why. And please make sure it’s not related to your ego. Thanks.

Grumpy Elf explains why he thinks the best time to raid in random LFR raid groups in WoW is on the first few days that they are released. He clearly didn’t experience my group (but somehow we did make it through, an indication of the lack of difficulty I think Smile ).

[Links] Death of an MMO, Obsidian Kickstarter, Backlash for GW2

We are just coming up on one of the traditionally busy times of the year for the gaming industry, and this year is busier than most for MMOs with a slew of big new releases, new expansions and media blitz. You might almost think that the traditional (whatever that means) MMO is not in fact dead.

Unless, like City of Heroes, it is dead in the water. One of the reasons the news about CoH inspires such emotion around many of the blogs I read is that it is an older MMO, from an era where social networking was not as widespread as it is now. Back then, if you played an MMO, it may well have represented a much more important part of your online social life and online support network, at a time when these things didn’t greatly exist anywhere else.

Welshtroll notes some memories about the UK CoH community. Bree thinks about how this will affect how she plays MMOs  in the future, and how she feels about GW2 now. Strawfellow writes about what CoH meant to him and why the news that it is closing has hit him so hard.

What I am left with is a profound sense that no part of my life is sacred from the feeling of loss. Online games used to be my refuge, and now I am acutely aware that this ground is not safe either. It is difficult for me to trust to begin with, and investing myself in a new game will be significantly harder. You never do trust as easily as you do the first time.

Peter @ Markovia also reflects on what it means when a virtual world shuts down that had been active for so long (relatively).

… I’ve heard from people who have grown up there, who have proposed to wives and husbands in-game, or who have introduced their children to it as they become old enough. These people face losing their old haunts, places they often regard as an extension of their hometown. The community faces being torn apart.

<…> this isn’t a game anymore; the ‘game’ aspect of it is, at this point, something of a vestigial organ connected to the body of something much larger.

Unsubject analyses the state of NCSoft to think about why they made this decision.

NCsoft wants big successes, not titles that have limited future potential for growth. If the money might be better off going to ArenaNet (you bet NCsoft wants Guild Wars 2 to an incredible success) or Carbine Studios (Wildstar is on its way) than staying with Paragon Studios, then it makes sense to divert the cash.

Another game that has had a rough ride recently is The Secret World. Funcom announced that the game failed to meet their (crazily high) expectations, and that they have laid off some staff, and the promised monthly update is also running late.

A former Funcom CEO is also under investigation for insider trading.  Tobold suggests that figuring out that the game would not meet Funcom’s expectations and that this would affect share price, and therefore selling ones shares before launch may not indicate insider trading so much as common sense.

But I am sympathetic to all the players who really love the game and hoped for it to have a long and prosperous future. It’s far too early to announce doom and gloom, but clearly things aren’t going to well at the moment, and they’ll have to make do with the players they have.

lonomonkey argues that players who want MMOs to go places other than fantasy need to back new ideas with their money by supporting games like TSW when they are released. I would rather give the industry the message that if they make fun games, I will buy them.

A word from our developers

Alexander Brazie (who is a WoW designer) has a great blog on game design, and his post this week touched a nerve with me.

If you consider the pacing the macro level of a game, dungeon or encounter, you don’t want players to be going balls-to-the-wall nonstop for the entire experience. To cater to their human nature, you want luls, breaks and breathing periods between moments of intensity. Players, however will continue to naturally seek higher and higher levels of intensity until they breakdown from exhaustion.

You need to give them a hint that pushing forward harder is wrong.

Although I think I’m fairly good at knowing when to stop, I’ve definitely played games that felt like the gaming equivalent of a sugar rush. It was exciting, there was so much to do, and I played to where I was (mentally, if not physically) exhausted. So I appreciate efforts by designers to design in this type of lull as a pacing mechanism.

Because sometimes you want chilled out fun and not balls to the wall fun.

Whatever you think of GW2, the trading post/ auction house/ economy is shaping up to be one of the most exciting parts of the game (in my opinion). John Smith, the house economist, writes a great blog on the state of the economy that I hope is going to become a regular update. And incidentally, why don’t other MMOs other than EVE have their own economists?

We’ve noticed several markets that are clearly out of sync in terms of supply and demand. It isn’t interesting or fun to have a market flooded with items that contain very little value, so we’re making adjustments to the game every day. Players can expect to see these markets even out over time.

While adjusting the supply and demand will bring markets closer to non-vendor based equilibrium, there is still the matter of massive surplus of some items. To address the surplus, we’ve created some new, limited-time Mystic Forge recipes that use these items. These recipes create boxes that give chances for gold and some cool items.

It’s the fact that they are making constant adjustments in a way that players can respond immediately (via trading, naturally) that makes this so interesting. The day after he posted this, the ‘massively surplus items’ shown in the screenshot on the blog saw a huge increase in value, presumably because some players decided to stock up so that they could gamble on the new limited-time Mystic Forge recipes.

I realise this won’t be new to anyone who plays EVE, but it is entirely possible that Anet will do a better job of ‘balancing’ the economy than CCP. They also have an easier task because GW2 isn’t a completely sandbox game so they can tweak elements like the Mystic Forge and what is sold by NPCs in a way that CCP can’t. I think it will be interesting to watch, and interesting to play if you are economy-minded. I’m already loving the buy orders.

Smith also discusses economic issues around gold making ‘exploits’ in MMOs, and the karma vendor exploit in GW2.

The game has gotten to a point in size where there is no such thing as a single player discovering an exploit. Exploits come in waves of mass participation and in the end, if they aren’t dealt with, the economy becomes hyper-inflated. After mass exploitation, your wealth is only relative to how good you were at exploiting, rather than your success in the game. This damages the integrity of the game and makes it unfriendly to new and honest players. There have been cases where exploits have severely damaged and arguably killed a game.

Exploits are mostly generated by a mistake on our end and are really hard on players. When an exploit is discovered, players are tempted to participate by the draw of becoming wealthy and out of fear of being left behind the massively wealthy players who do participate. We take a harsh stance on exploiters because this decision should be easy: find an exploit, report the exploit and move on. It isn’t worth the risk to the player or the game.

Let me give you all my money

If you are one of the 36k players who have already thrown some money into the Kickstarter hat for Obsidian Entertainment, you probably know all about Project Eternity.

If you are like me, you got as far as the first paragraph of blurb ….

Obsidian Entertainment and our legendary game designers Chris Avellone, Tim Cain, and Josh Sawyer are excited to bring you a new role-playing game for the PC. Project Eternity (working title) pays homage to the great Infinity Engine games of years past: Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape: Torment.

… and then gave them some money immediately, before finding out what this game is actually intended to be about or when it might be released (2014 is the current estimate.) I do not pretend that this is either sensible or smart, but what is life without a little risk? I hope it’s more like Planescape than Baldur’s Gate but I won’t quibble either way.

The Kickstarter still has 29 days to go and, amazingly, made it’s $1.1m goal in about the first day. What makes me excited as a player (and pundit) is that with the success of games like Skyrim, GW2, and this kickstarter, I hope the industry is getting a strong message that there is a really solid audience for open world fantasy games and that we would like more of them.

Guild Wars 2 – backlash edition

So the game has now been out for a few weeks, plenty of  time for bloggers to get stuck in and come out with a stronger idea of what they do and don’t like about it.

Syncaine describes the game as ‘enjoyably meh’ and feels that it lacks meaningful decisions. Or at least the sort of decisions and challenges that would feel meaningful to him. It feels as though he can’t quite summon the energy for a full blown rant, but knows that something isn’t right.

Keen explains that he really enjoyed the levelling experience, and talks about what he and his guild are doing at level 80, with suggestions for other players. (Mull around, get bored and/or burned out, write an insightful post about flaws in the game and hop on the next hype train?)

Verene at Under the Pale Tree gives her two week summary and  touches on something Arb brought up while we were playing. The game is like crack for people with short attention spans.

Nearly every time I set out to do something, I spot another thing going on, and then another, and so on and so forth. Suddenly it’s three hours later, I’ve leveled up several times, and I realize I never got to what I was going to do in the first place!

Ravious is looking forwards to giving Arenanet more of his money in return for fun toys, like a pirate outfit that comes with its own emotes (we thought that looked quite fun when we saw it in the store too.) He also writes about his attempts to slow down and smell the roses in game – this is related to what Brazie wrote (see link above) about the natural lulls.

One of the cool things about being British, apart from the Olympics/Paralympics and having a weather system that isn’t trying to kill us, is that “afk 5 mins to get tea” is one of the great universal codes among British MMO players for “need a lull/ slow the pace.”

smakendahead also touches on the pacing of the game.

Dusty writes about roles in GW2 and discusses dungeon tactics. Since my main takeaway from the one dungeon we did run was “That wasn’t really very fun compared to roaming in PvE/WvW,” I’m trying to be open to the possibility that I was just doing it wrong. However, he does conclude that it would be useful to have a plate wearer around to take damage, which doesn’t quite gell with the whole ‘no trinity’ vibe.

Jeromai describes why he loves the underwater environments so much in GW2. I think I’d love them more if they were less full of barracudas.

Doone summarises some of the rest of the feedback from bloggers.

It’s interesting that I don’t have a lot of bloggers on my reader discussing WvW or sPvP in GW2. Feel free to recommend any blogs that cover those in more detail (or if you have written about them, feel free to add links in the comments, I’ll post them up here.)

On another note

Lord British (Richard Garriot) is getting Zynga to publish his new Ultimate Collector game. Don’t hate me but it sounds kind of fun and I think both of them are going to have a big success on their hands. You heard it here first.

Although I will probably be too busy playing on the GW2 auction house.

Does hearing about overachievers demotivate players?

I feel I’m getting way behind all the posts I intended to write this week, time mostly lost between RL and playing GW2 and WoW. As a gaming blogger, it’s not a bad idea per se to spend time in games but I think you’re supposed to pause occasionally (outside meals, work, sleep) to write things up.

I have also been following a course on Coursera on Gamification.  If you are interested in the subject I recommend checking it out, it’s all free. Gamification seems to be a mixture between game design, game criticism, marketing, psychology et al and the syllabus also looks as though it’s going to cover criticisms of gamification and uses for social good.

Anyhow, one of the comments made in a lecture was that players are only really motivated once they get 90% of the way to a goal.

This I suspect is true of a lot of games; it may not hold for a goal you really want  for personal reasons, or if you are just good at motivating yourself. But the idea is that people need to see their goal, see that it is achievable, see what they will need to do to get there, and feel as though they are almost there already. If those things are all in place, chances are you will play ‘just a bit more’. Both WoW and GW2 do a great job with this type of motivation, using stepped achievements and the game environment itself. GW2 is great at tempting the player to explore the expansive game world with the dynamic events, view points, resource nodes and travel points scattered across the landscape.

However, one thing you can guarantee in a new game or new expansion is that  you will quickly hear about players who have reached the level cap, geared themselves up, beaten any raids, and generally zipped through the content while you are still noodling around in the newbie area wondering how to get to that potato patch or access your bank. I wonder if has a demotivating effect by reminding new players that despite the game’s attempts to lead you through in terms of small steps and reachable goals, there are people who are quantum leaps ahead.

I don’t personally find it demotivating when random people I don’t know inform that they are already max level, maxed crafts,  fully kitted out in exotic gear and just working on their legendaries.  Or that they’ve made tons of gold already and exchanged a load for gems while I am still figuring out how to achieve that first gold piece. I made my peace long ago with the fact that I’m not hardcore, not much of an achiever in games, and probably not that good at them either**. But it doesn’t make me engage more with the game either. As well as highlighting all the goals that are far away, it’s tempting to compare yourself with other players in a way that isn’t encouraging.

This may be connected to the 90%, above,  because hearing about overachievers can make a goal feel less attainable rather than more, or the player feel “I am a bad player compared to X, Y and Z, maybe I shouldn’t bother with this game.” This is all in the mind. In the long run everyone who keeps playing will be max level and will probably have as much gold as they can be bothered to grind out. But emotions are powerful, and the feeling of disengaging from a game is powerful too.

Do you enjoy hearing about people who have zipped through a game, or only if they give some useful hints and tips for how you can do the same thing? What about guildies exercising bragging rights? Or have you ever been turned off a game because someone else made you feel that you were falling behind and would never reach your goals?

 

** I know there will be people who I make feel like that too ;/ These things are all relative.

Don’t play on hard mode, girlfriend

Just for a moment, try to imagine what it’s like (if you don’t know from personal experience) to go into a computer shop or a gaming shop with a male friend and have the shop assistant ignore everything you say and do because they just want to speak to your companion. Like, even when you are asking sensible techy questions, they’ll give the answers to the man you are with. It won’t take long before you feel the urge to throttle them and yell “I made Elite on Elite before you were even born!! I collected all 151 pokemons in Pokemon Yellow! I built my own PC!  I am a gamer too, dammit!” (Incidentally, no one should really need to justify why they are in a gaming shop looking at games.)

And maybe you’ll see why female gamers in particular get wound up when the gaming industry often seems to do the exact same thing. I’m sure other people find it annoying too that so many devs are only interested in ‘engaging’ with straight male gamers between 18-35. Certainly it feels sometimes that they are the target audience and everyone else is chopped liver. More than that, it often feels that devs would prefer you just don’t play their games so that they can keep that exclusive brofest atmosphere.

Does anyone really doubt that it would be better to find ways to engage your core audience which don’t automatically push away anyone else?

The saga of ‘girlfriend mode’ and Borderlands 2

I’ve seen a lot of reaction this week in blogs and the gaming media to a comment that one of the Borderlands 2 designers made about a new DLC character class. It takes the shape of a cute steampunk chick and has talent trees based around being a support class with easy mode targeting – ie. it’s designed for inexperienced FPS players who have someone else to play with. They called the support talent tree BFF (Best Friends Forever) – a phrase that in my mind is inevitably linked with Paris Hilton – and the dev comment was that he described this as ‘girlfriend mode’. So basically they have identified part of their core playerbase that is made up of guys who want to play the game with their less skilled female partners and so on and so forth.

If you are either one of those male players or one of those female partners, you will probably think “Fair enough” or “Hey, that guy read my mind and made EXACTLY what me and my partner want.” I am quite sure that Borderlands 2 will not suffer at all financially from the press coverage – in fact chances are that more people will hear about their ‘girlfriend mode’ comment and be more likely to buy the game rather than less. Sure, maybe they pick up a reputation for casual sexism but that’s probably a bonus to their target audience anyway. “Yay free casual sexism included! Bros welcome!”

So why did the ‘girlfriend mode’ comment get people wound up? Much of it is because female gamers are tired of being treated as though they don’t exist unless as a sidekick to a gaming boyfriend, and that in the latter case, they probably suck. It’s the continual stereotyping that wears people down. Also, sexism in gaming is an increasingly hot topic.

Brandon Sheffield at Gamasutra pretty much sums up my thoughts. He also discusses why the backlash against casual sexism (and this honestly is pretty minor in the general scale of things) is getting louder.

I do believe that the mode is a good idea, and I also believe that Hemingway didn’t mean any offense to women. Still, simply saying something is not sexist doesn’t make it not sexist.

I’ve addressed this problem before, but the issue I find worrisome is that “girlfriend mode” made it into Hemingway’s lexicon at all. It’s not an official mode name, but it rolled off the tongue so easily. Developers don’t head into press meetups completely unprepared – he must have thought of this term before. It was said without malice, but also without really thinking about what it might mean to some people. It was unconscious.

Now, in my field of work, being rude, derogatory, or sexist/racist about clients in the office would very likely lead to disciplinary proceedings. It’s unprofessional, disrespectful, and more importantly if you are getting into that mindset in private, it WILL be expressed in how you behave towards clients in public. So good management come down on that sort of thing.

There are also plenty of games which manage to include easy modes without labelling them as girly, and hence avoid this minefield completely. I’ve played a bit of MW3 with friends and whilst I am terrible at shooters, I could at least run around, shoot stuff, and find it vaguely fun on the easiest mode. I felt that if I was motivated, I could spend more time with the game and get better at it, and meanwhile it would still be fun.

Gunthera1 writes in Borderhouse about why variable difficulty modes are great, but using gendered terms for them is not.

But instead of using a term that doesn’t alienate women and paint them as the lesser players, some gamers and the industry itself continue to use “Girlfriend Mode”. Every time it is used we are putting out a sign on the clubhouse door that says “No Girls Allowed”. It is one of many subtle indicators that video games are made ONLY FOR men. If women play games they are viewed as interlopers. They are the girlfriends dragged to the media by their partners. They are not there because of their own desires and interests. They are deemed Girlfriends, not Gamers.

That this story made The Guardian is a pretty good sign that sexism in gaming is becoming a topic of more general interest. Mary Hamilton comments (in The Guardian) that Borderlands has a good history of strong female characters and feels the Eurogamer reporter should have asked for more clarification during the interview:

Eurogamer compounded the issue by using a partial quote in their headline and failing to ask or report a follow-up question. Hemingway’s words change depending on their context: whether this is a widely used internal nickname or his own word; whether he was speaking generally, about all girlfriends, or specifically about his own. It would have been ideal to see that clarified at the time, not dissected afterwards, especially in the light of the franchise’s interesting female characters and approach to bad-ass women in their games.

But none of this would warrant much reaction if game culture wasn’t currently primed to go off like a field of fireworks at the merest hint of sexism.

My other thought is that it’s pretty disrespectful to men who are inexperienced with shooters to provide an easy mode but make it obvious that it’s only targeted at ‘girlfriends’.

Easy modes in MMOs

In these days of ‘bring the player, not the character’ it is easy to forget that MMOs have also toyed with having some classes being easier to play than others, with the aim of making it easier for groups of mixed skill to  play together.

The Theurgist in DaoC was a great example of this, because it had incredibly powerful passive buffs. To the extent that if you were grinding xp with a group and had to leave, the group would ask you to leave your character logged in. So it was a great class for people who had hardcore friends or partners and wanted to group with them without it being frustrating for anyone, anyone who liked ultra laid back play styles, or for anyone who liked to chat or watch TV while gaming.

In WoW, paladins were originally designed to be the ‘easy to play’ class. (It’s hard for me to find the actual dev quotes from Vanilla era WoW but I am pretty sure they actually said this at one point.) They have changed a lot since, but that was one of the original design goals.

Another MMO cliche is the male player who gets his female partner to play as a healer. Imagine for a moment if we called healing “girlfriend mode.”

[Links] No news is good news edition

I wish I could package some of the good cheer that has enveloped us here from hosting the Olympics the last couple of weeks; whatever doubts people had beforehand, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t enjoyed the whole thing. Plus Paralympics still to come (that’s the one where I actually have a ticket to go see the Athletics Winking smile ). I’m surprised that the blogosphere hasn’t picked up on the Olympic theme more, I was half expecting to see discussions around sportsmanship in gaming (like: hardcore Olympic athletes don’t smack talk each other, and they congratulate each other after a good race/ bout) and whether e-sports might ever be included in a modern modern pentathlon. Alas, it was not to be.

Big up though to The Godmother who does share my Olympic enthusiasms!

The Secret World: one month in

The Secret World launched on June 29th, which means that it has now passed the one month mark, which also means time for some punditry on how things are going. Short form: not meeting publisher expectations. Blogger reactions on the other hand have been very positive. Players are enjoying the game and the general buzz has been good; unfortunately not in projected numbers, it seems. (So: philosophically, does that mean the game is a success or a failure?)

Scott at Broken Toys quotes from Funcom’s note to shareholders, highlighting  that projected sales for TSW will not be met. This is bad news for players, and likely worse for employees as at least 10% of them will be laid off.

Flosch at Random Waypoint gives his first reaction to this:

I really want TSW to succeed. It’s earned its right to succeed, and it shows that Funcom seems to be a company able of learning, which in and of itself is rare enough that it should be rewarded, not punished. Plus, I am having so much fun in the game now! It would be sad to see Funcom fail 100 meters before the finish.

Sente at A Ding World notes that the sales for TSW are pretty much in line with his expectations, that it’s likely that retention will be better than for similar MMOs, and that TSW is going to be available on Steam which might also extend its reach.

I did not expect then to sell over a million copies of the game and if they sell 500K copies of the game the first year I think that is fairly reasonable actually in todays market. Not because the game is bad, far from it. I think the game is great – but I think it is also a game that does not go out of its way to attract the big masses.

I see a general theme that solid games are being released onto the market but because the pre-launch predictions by publishers have been wildly over optimistic, costs aren’t kept in line and a game that probably should have been a success may end up labelled a failure. We’ve seen it with 38 Studios, SWTOR, and now TSW. It’s a failure of the marketing team (stupid projections) and bean counters, not necessarily of  design.

Terra Silverspar also writes a good review of TSW at one month in, explaining what she does and doesn’t like about it.

If I were to give this an overall, I would say wait until it goes Free to Play. I’ve heard they are adding more hairstyles and such, but hell, I hear a lot of things about MMOs that just launch that turn out to actually do very little. I really did want to like this game, as I said, but it just buried itself under the weight of a lot of things that just make it not very fun for me to play.

EQ2 will require players to pay for future content in cash, not coins

SOE have been very up front about tweaking their F2P offerings if the money isn’t coming in quickly enough, and I wonder if this heralds a general trend.

Starting Monday, August 27th, 2012, we will no longer accept Station Cash as a payment method for Expansions and DLC Packs. Real-world currency will be the only way to purchase these products.

So basically: like most other F2P publishers, SOE allow you to buy their in-house virtual currency with real money and then spend that virtual currency in their cash shop. They are now not going to sell expansions and DLC in that cash shop, instead you’ll have to buy those in actual cash from their website (which we could call the real cash cash shop, or something.) The cash shop will now be restricted to cosmetic items, bag space, and the other usual suspects.

Presumably this was because players were stocking up on the virtual currency when there were sales on with the aim of using it to buy future expansions/ DLC – we can call this “acting like sensible and forward thinking consumers who are confident in making a long term commitment to the game.” So rather than just making the DLC more expensive in virtual currency terms, they decided to remove it from the cash shop altogether so I guess they have more control over what people pay for it and when.

Monetization changes in MMOs generally mean that not enough money was being generated using the previous method. So maybe the virtual currency is now being seen as a hindrance in selling that type of content. This is likely to be pretty rough for anyone who was stockpiling virtual currency in EQ2 with the aim of buying future DLC; that’s now money down the drain that they can only spend on virtual goods and other stuff they might not want.

In a quite prescient post, Green Armadillo wonders if it’s possible to monetise an MMO via DLC. I think games like Wizard 101 seem to manage OK but I don’t follow them closely enough to know if they are also putting more pressure on players to spend more.

My conclusion is that it’s better not to plan too far ahead with MMOs these days. Don’t assume that your game of choice won’t shift to F2P in under 10 months. Don’t assume that your virtual currency hoard will pay for an expansion next year. In a genre that’s traditionally all about the long term planning, it rather sucks to be forced into short termism but c’est la vie.

In vaguely related terms, Jester discusses specific money making strategies in EVE connected with the faction wars.

CCP in general and Dr. EyjoG in particular have been bemoaning the fact that there is too much ISK in the game for quite some time which is why you’re seeing an increasing number of sinks in the game.  The recent addition of the need to purchase data-cores for ISK is a good example.

There are two main reasons for a dev to want to introduce more money sinks into a game. One is for game balance reasons, to keep people who have built up huge money hoards motivated and give them stuff to spend the cash on. EVE has a second reason, which is to generate more income, because of the mechanic by which players can exchange RL money for in game cash (via PLEX). Players can never really be sure whether changes are made for the balance reason or the monetisation reason (or both).

Dust to Dust

CCP’s new FPS game, Dust 514, is in beta at the moment, and we’re starting to get some feedback from players. The exciting thing about this concept is that it hooks into EVE so players can interact by blowing each other up or something. The rather unexciting thing is that EVE is a PC game and Dust is a Playstation 3 exclusive, so it looks as though CCP are aiming for very different audiences (ie. as opposed to EVE players who like FPS games.)

Chris at Game by Night casts a FPS-fan’s eyes over the game. He finds the learning curve steep, and wonders whether existing console FPS players will find that a turn off.

CCP makes it pretty clear that they’re looking to expand the MMO audience to a whole new demographic, which is awesome. <…> My concern, however, is that they’re stacking the chips against them. Excel Online is alive and well in DUST. Look at the first video in this link. I see that depth and think “wow, that’s awesome.” Your average Call of Duty player will probably think, “holy sh*t, that’s a lot of stuff to worry about.”

My prediction is that players who get over the learning curve will absolutely fall in love with the game. There’s really nothing else like it or even trying to be. There are design quirks but I’m also very much aware that this is CCP’s first try at something other than a PC MMO.

TAGN notes that CCP have recently raised $20mil in new funding. If that is based on Dust popularity, then CCP may have a lot riding on this one. Will their funders give them enough time to build a core playerbase slowly and grow it, or would an indifferent launch hit the parent company hard? It will be interesting to watch this one from the sidelines, because a game with a steep learning curve might not be the one to pull in loads and loads of F2P players.

What else is in the links file

Ratshag hangs up his blogging hat; he’ll be greatly missed and I wish him and his family the best of luck for the future. (I was going to say that he’s always been a voice of reason, but maybe voice of unreason is more accurate Winking smile )

Pixelated Executioner tells the story of what happened when he reported another player for racism in WoW.

Stropp explains why he thinks that Windows 8 will be a catastrophe for gamers.

G. Christopher Williams writes in PopMatters about why some people are really interested in whether their opponents are upset in PvP.

Many bloggers and current SWTOR players share their reactions to the news that SWTOR is transitioning to F2P in November. Ravelation compares her experiences in LOTRO with the proposed SWTOR setup.

Welshtroll reflects on why he loses enthusiasm for games when they go F2P.

It seems that the GW2 honeymoon period may be over as the cold light of reality breaks over the darkest hype. One of the questions seasoned gamers are asking is what sort of longevity the game might have without a traditional PvE endgame. Kadomi presents a carefully thought out list of pros and cons for the game, explaining her final decision not to play.

Kurn writes about his decision to leave WoW after playing and raiding for many years:

It’s not just because I’ve been playing for nearly seven years. It’s not just because I’m tired and have other stuff in my real life I should really be paying attention to, either.

It’s because I have satisfied my curiosity.

Tzufit wonders where new or inexperienced players are going to learn to raid in WoW these days. I suspect they might go to older content, as I do see raids run to Wrath and TBC raids for transmog purposes. But Cataclysm certainly didn’t provide an easy learning curve for new raiders.

Day Z, the incredibly popular zombie survival mod for ARMA is being turned into a stand alone game.

Keith Stewart at Hookshotinc shares his confessions of a middle aged gaming writer.

I am aware, when I go on press trips now, that I am old enough to be the father of some of the other journalists I am with. <…> I am ancient enough to remember playing games in black and white, on old Grandstand consoles; I played Pac-Man in a Blackpool arcade when it first arrived in Britain; I even remember when Sega was a serious force in the industry. That stuff makes me feel like Rutger Hauer as the majestic yet dying replicant in Bladerunner – I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Aly at Mistress of Illusions muses on why L2P (learn to play) is such a popular insult in MMOs, and what this might mean for GW2:

Speaking of Guild Wars 2, there has been criticism regarding the learning curve. Namely, that there is one. People don’t want watered down game play or another WoW clone, but when presented with something different, some people can’t handle being taken out of their comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s valid criticisms to be made but no complaint should ever begin with the phrase “I had to learn…” It’s a new game. You should have to learn. There’s nothing wrong with learning, and it’s a shame that a generation of gamers have stigmatized the act of learning.

Jeromai urges players, and particularly bloggers, not to let other players’ opinions of a game affect their enjoyment. He also admits to his love of cheesy games, and notes in the comments:

But my real point is, Popcap and other casual game manufacturers can hide some seriously solid gameplay behind initially unappealing to the so-called ‘hardcore’ gamer looks, and we will slowly get to that as I fiddle around with the games.

In which EA does a good deed

It hasn’t been a good week for Zynga, what with their stock going through the floor, their veteran COO (chief operations officer) having been ‘restructured’ away from creative duties, and now they’ve been hit by a lawsuit from Electronic Arts around copyright infringement.

I predict EA will win this case, if it gets as far as court. The formal complaint document is very thorough, very readable, and pretty much sums up every accusation everyone has ever made about Zynga and copying games, as well as specific claims about how The Ville ripped off Sims Social, including poaching EA executives who had inside information about the game pre-launch.

There is one thing you need to know about patent suits. (This is also true of other lawsuits but sometimes people do it anyway to make a point.)

1. There is no point pursuing a defendent who doesn’t have much money with which to pay large fines.

Zynga is now a large public company. They have assets. That makes them worth suing. EA has genuine commercial interest in protecting The Sims, one of their tentpole IPs, and they’ve clearly decided to make some solid PR out of the whole affair.

Much as EA garners a lot of hate from gamers – they are after all an investment company whose main goals are to monetise their games into the ground – I always felt that Riccitello was speaking from the heart when he talked about promoting new IPs, even if he does close studios down swiftly when they underperform. They have also shown some desire to foster the independent gaming ecosphere, some of which fell wide of the mark, and others may have shown genuine appreciation for crowd sourcing and indie developers who can grow their own fanbase.

So yeah, I think this is a positive development and I wouldn’t be too quick to cry doom or foresee EA and Activision suing all and sundry for games with similar looks and feels if this is successful. Zynga will deserve what comes from this. Indie and social gaming devs will only benefit from the protection against having their ideas stolen by more unscrupulous dev houses.

Nimblebit (the devs who made Tiny Towers, which Zynga then notoriously ripped off) seem to agree.

[SWTOR] 4 things you need to know about F2P SWTOR

“.. in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes AND F2P MMO conversions.”

So, the big MMO news today is that Bioware announced that SWTOR will transition to a full free to play game before the end of 2012. It doesn’t come as a great surprise following a couple of rounds of layoffs in response to falling subscriptions, and departures of senior developers. Clearly EA were looking for some quick fixes for the expensive MMO which is starting to look like an albatross around their necks.

I thought I’d distill the answers to the four main questions I had.

1. When is the game switching to F2P.

November 2012.

2. How much can you get without subscribing?

Quite a lot. Many players (including me) would say that the real jewel in the crown of this game is the levelling content, and that’s largely what you’ll get for free. The game will be F2P to level 50, with restricted access to flashpoints and warzones (ie. a restricted number per week) among other things such as number of auctions. You will have to subscribe to gain access to raids/Operations and there are some other restrictions which are lifted for subscribers.

The current plan is that you’ll still have to buy the core game, but the price is being reduced (a lot) to $14.99 in August and who knows what will happen by November.

If you like the idea of this style of Bioware/classic MMO gameplay, then I’d say it’s a pretty darn good deal. EA never expected to have to give this away and spent way more than they would have done otherwise so you’re getting a very polished Old Republic RPG with some MMO elements attached. It’s also one of the best games I’ve ever played for duoing.

3. I’m a subscriber now. Should I drop my sub and go F2P in November?

Well, if your main interest is levelling alts, you don’t care about Ops, and you aren’t too bothered about grinding flashpoints or warzones, it looks at the moment as though F2P would be the way to go. This is the problem with introducing a F2P mechanism that offers only free or subscription options. Suddenly the subscription option becomes a worse proposition because you pay the same sub as today, but get relatively less for it.

But who knows what they’ll plan to do with this in the future. Ideally they’d look at letting people buy things piecemeal.

3a. I’m not a subscriber now. Should I play this game when it goes F2P in November?

That rather depends on why you’re not playing at the moment.

If you liked the idea of the game but were put off by the cost, then come play and enjoy it. I do rate it highly, it’s a good quality game of its type. I think the levelling game is way better than WoW, for comparison. If you played SWTOR for awhile and then left because you were bored, you might want to check out changes such as LFG, or reconnect with other friends who are playing, it’ll be much easier to set up the occasional flashpoint/PvP night when people don’t have to all subscribe.

If you hated the idea of the game and are burned out on this type of MMO anyway, then it’s not going to change your mind when it is free.

If you are a current or ex-subscriber, you’ll be given an allotment of ‘cartel coins’ (ie. cash shop tokens) when the conversion happens, although the only things we currently know to be on sale are a pet, a cosmetic hat, and a chair (I’m not sure where the chair goes, would be cool if it was on your ship though.)

4. So what new content is planned for this year, seriously?

Currently the stated plans involve a new Op, new warzone, new companion (HK-51) and new space combat missions. What they notably don’t involve is new story content, which is unfortunate since that’s the main draw (fourth pillar et al) of this game.

A new planet had been mentioned previously but isn’t listed on the new content page for this year.

Various commentary stuff

SWTOR subscriptions were noted  as being below a million during yesterday’s EA earnings call (link is to the pdf of the transcription):

Although it launched well, subscriptions have been on a declining trajectory and have now slipped below one million. Last year we announced that the breakeven point was roughly 500,000 subscribers. And while we are well above that today, that’s not good enough.

- (Frank Gibeau)

So the question is whether they can get enough players in for F2P to work its magic, compared to the number of paying subscribers they have today. And how many of those new players (assuming they come, which I hope they do since it’s basically a good game) will want to take out subs or buy items from the cash shop. On the fleet last night, reactions ranged from looking forwards to a new influx of players, people wondering whether they will drop their sub and just play F2P, the usual concerns about the unwashed masses who might pick up a F2P game, and more specific concerns about the future of the game – will they ever make enough money to plan future story chapters?

This looks to me like a swiftly implemented F2P conversion. I have no idea how long Bioware had been considering it as an idea (my guess is from fairly soon after launch) but this isn’t a carefully thought out plan so much as a “give lots of free stuff away to get players in and … err… then charge a subscription for hardcore endgame type players.”

Scott Jennings at Broken Toys is, like me, a fan of the game. He notes that subscriptions for MMOs are looking more and more like an initial markup, which devolves quickly to F2P. That implies that a F2P conversion is in TSW’s future also, and that anyone who said ‘I’ll wait until it goes F2P’ about a new subscription game is likely going to be right in their assumptions. (Note: WoW currently is obviously an outlier to this model, although I suppose who knows what the future holds?)

Green Armadillo has a typically thoughtful analysis, noting that:

While I personally will most likely pay less for SWTOR under the new model, I’m not celebrating.  SWTOR is a quality product, albeit one that may have been especially ill-suited for the subscription model.  The quality and direction of the game’s future development, with the reduced staff and revised business model, are likely to suffer.

[Diablo 3, GW2] Does Diablo 3 need an endgame?

Bashiok (one of the Blizzard community managers) has been quoted a lot this week for his comments on Diablo 3:

We recognize that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game. There are still tons of people playing every day and week, and playing a lot, but eventually they’re going to run out of stuff to do (if they haven’t already). Killing enemies and finding items is a lot of fun, and we think we have a lot of the systems surrounding that right, or at least on the right path with a few corrections and tweaks. <…> There needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now.

That’s a lot of endgame talk about what is basically a single player game with co op functionality.

I think this is a great quote because it goes a long way to explaining what devs think of as ‘end game’: gameplay/ content that keeps players engaged. Possibly indefinitely. To everyone else, endgame is “what you do in the game after you have finished the game” which is a bizarre statement if you take it as read. Logically, after you have finished a game you put it away and play something else. It’s certainly how I play the majority of single player games, not to mention other media like books and films. Except for the games where you keep coming back.

There are a few main reasons people will keep coming back to a much loved game:

  • There’s some randomisation involved so the game never really ends or is never the same twice. Especially if there is a rising difficulty curve associated with the randomisation so the game stays challenging. (eg. roguelikes, puzzle games like tetris).
  • Moreish gameplay. Could involve PvP.
  • Extra ‘stretch’ goals or achievements. Final Fantasy always excelled at offering ultra hard extra bosses that were clearly only for people who wanted to spend much longer with their game than was needed just to finish it. Some of these might be long term goals which would need weeks or months to complete.
  • Lots to explore. Try a new spec or play style. New Game Plus can fit this mould, where you get new stuff to do if you replay the game after finishing it once or twice.
  • Your friends are playing it. Come back for the social aspect.
  • New content. Maybe a new patch just dropped or a mod maker released a really cool new mod for a game.
  • Sandbox game. (Not sure how well this really applies to single player games but there are some open world games where you had a pretty free rein of what to do after finishing the main storyline.)

It’s funny to think that before subscription MMOs and  F2P, there was never any great cash motivation for single player games to  be endlessly replayable. Square Enix didn’t get extra money because Final Fantasy had secret uber bosses in it to encourage you to keep playing; at least, it’s unlikely that this was a major purchase factor for players. Rogue and its ilk are free, there’s no incentive for the game to be endless other than it happened to be designed that way. If a game turns out to be evergreen then it will last longer in retail (the long tail), and there are probably loads of opportunities for creators to make more money by ‘exploiting the brand’. Arcade games obviously make more money the more people come back to them also. But it was always one indication of a good game. That people would keep playing, and playing, and playing.

Some of the old classic endgame design won’t fly in today’s world. Secret uber bosses won’t be secret for very long in the internet age, and no matter how complex it is to find them, you can assume someone will do it and publicise it widely.

Diablo and endgame

The endgame in Diablo 2 involved playing the game through again on harder modes, trying different specs or classes, and gathering loot. There was also the possibility for PvP, and Blizzard organised levelling ladders  on the battle.net servers for players who enjoyed doing competitive speed runs. Unfortunately, with Diablo 3, they’ve made some of that endgame redundant. There’s no need to play through the game with a different spec when you can switch spec on the fly. There’s little motivation to gather specific gear sets when you can almost certainly buy better stuff from the auction house than anything that will drop for you.

Instead, there is an end game around farming and selling drops on the item house.

I don’t personally feel slighted that I played through Diablo 3 a few times and then decided I’d had enough. I never did get to Inferno level and I’m cool with that, I think I got as much fun out of the game as I wanted. I’m sure lots of other players are equally placid about Diablo 3. It was good enough, there was enough fun. The story (for all its flaws) was told engagingly and there were enough pieces of story detail that you could discover a few new things on each subsequent play through. The achievements were nicely thought out on the whole. I could imagine playing it through again in a few months time, just for fun.

But clearly, many players wanted an endless endgame, and Blizzard wanted to design a game that had one. Preferably without the hassle of having to actually add extra content. I say this because they could totally add extra secret bosses, secret levels, secret events, secret companions, secret crafting recipes and so on; they wouldn’t stay secret for long but it would get people back into the game to see the new stuff.

But what would a long term sustainable end game look like for Diablo 3? There is the upcoming possibility of PvP for people who like that. It would be gear dependent so frequent trips the auction house would likely be necessary if you want to be competitive. Other than that, how could Blizzard ever expect players to play through the same content indefinitely? They’ve already included variable difficulties with better drops at higher difficulty ratings. They have deliberately limited the randomness in D3 because of the increased story emphasis so it will never be one of those randomly generated dungeon endgames.

That leaves extra incentives for groups of friends to play together regularly, tying it in with other popular games (ie. WoW), or running some of those ladder type events. Diablo gameplay just isn’t deep enough on its own to keep people coming back.

MMO Endgames

We are in a new era of MMO endgames too at the moment. Subscription games have always encouraged devs to find ways to keep people playing the same game. They have encouraged inventiveness around what gives games longlastability.

OK, I kid.

But you’d have thought competition between sub games would have encouraged this type of experimentation. Instead what has mostly happened is that devs are more interested in the churn – in finding new players and getting them to stay for a couple of months – than in what gets players to stay for a year rather than 6 months. F2P games take this a step further in that devs are now looking for the ‘whales’ who view the normal way to play games as being to spend loads of money in cash shops when they are having fun. Some of those people will be long term players. I imagine the hope is that if a game can attract enough whales, spending loads of money in cash shops will seem more normalised of an activity for the playerbase.

Players also get frustrated more quickly. Long term goals in a game is one of the factors that makes players stay for longer, but also one of the things that makes impatient players say immediately “That’s too hard, I can never do that, why is it in the game?” One example of this is the Legacy purchases in SWTOR. It costs 5 million credits to buy an auction house terminal for your characters’ ships. To me that says a month or two of trading/ dailies. As you can imagine, the bboard has plenty of complaints that it is too much, it’s impossible, it’s unfair, etc. A long(ish) term goal based on gathering in game gold is the opposite of unfair actually, since it’s the one thing everyone can do.

The only types of long term goal players seem to accept passively in themeparks are ones that is explicitly based on subscription length, or collecting stuff. For example, EVE training schedules that take months (I know, not a themepark but this type of mechanism could be in one), rewards in CoH based on subscription length, WoW Firelands rewards based on how many dailies have been completed. Pet, mount, and gear collecting is another type of longterm goal which has been popular with players.Other feasible and challenging longer term goals often get dismissed as ‘unfair’ or inaccessible by the player base.

And with that, lets’ talk about raids. Raiding has been a core piece of MMO endgame for many years now, since EQ. The raiding ‘lifestyle’ includes membership of a raid guild, some commitment to regular multiplayer  raids, and a set of raid content of increasing difficulty that is projected to need many weeks of raiding to complete. Players have been increasingly dissatisfied with the raid endgame. It requires too great a commitment, guilds act as gatekeepers for content, raids are inaccessible to people who can’t meet a guild’s raiding schedule and so on. Random raid finders or dynamic events (as per Rift) have been one answer to this, making raids far more accessible to players than they were back in the day.

But the main thing about raids is that they did offer longterm progression goals to players. Not to mention a social network. That was one of the reasons they so successfully defined endgame for a generation of MMO players. So if raids are becoming more accessible, more immediate, or less appealing, what is going to replace them? Will it have longevity?

I have already seen people wondering what sort of an endgame GW2 will have. There aren’t any PvE raids. There is extensive open world PvP. There are lots of dynamic events. There may not be strong incentives to be part of a guild. Will that be enough to keep players engaged for months or years? And does it matter?

The next WoW expansion is also branching out with endgame, including speed runs for 5 man instances (challenge modes), a farmville knockoff, pet collecting/ battles, scenarios (smaller instances which won’t need tanks or healers) as well as the usual raids. Will these new mechanics keep people playing for longer without needing a constant feed of new content? I remain to be convinced about the challenge modes, I’m not sure how exciting it really is to be constantly doing speed runs of the same content. But maybe some players will love it. At least enough to try one once a day with their guild.

Towards a fluffier endgame?

One of the posters on mmorpg.com argues that fluff rewards are better in endgame than constant gear progression. (You can tell this is written by someone who likes PvP and hates raiding.) ‘Fluff’ is usually defined as something that doesn’t affect progression or stats. It’s fun or pretty, and that is its only purpose. In game festivals or special events are pretty much the epitome of fluff – they’re temporary, fun (we hope) and offer good fluff rewards. Players like them and a player who has drifted might easily be tempted back into a MMO to check out the event.

Mini-games can be part of a fluff endgame, they’re just extra things for players to spend time doing in the game. This is clearly the road WoW is wandering along, adding more single player/ small group compatible content, which means that MoP is going to have a wider variety of endgame content than Cataclysm did. LOTRO has always excelled at adding fluff, from supporting RP, to musical instruments in the game, monster play, chicken play, and skirmishes (probably the inspiration for WoW scenarios). Space missions in SWTOR are an example of a really well executed minigame, if you like that sort of thing. Bioware could do with adding more; games to play in cantinas would be a good start for example.

Player housing can be part of a fluff endgame.

Collecting pets, mounts, pretty things can be part of a fluff endgame.

But will that be enough to replace a progression based endgame?

The release date tango

  • The Secret World has just started its early access period prior to launch on July 3rd.
  • Arenanet have made the (gaming) internet explode by announcing GW2 release date as 28th August. (Like Tobold, I plan to pick my copy up then because I think it will be cheaper.)
  • Also Turbine will be releasing their Rohan expansion for LOTRO at some point this Autumn/Winter. I don’t imagine that will have a big impact on the other games, but you never know.
  • So the big question now is when will Blizzard release Mists of Pandaria?

In previous years, MMOs have tended to shuffle their release dates around each other. There is an advantage to having an earlier release than competitors, in that bored players will pick up your game just because it’s new. On the other hand, the typical MMO tourist spends a month or so in a new game and then moves on, so timing your release for a month or so after another game might work better.

  • Notorious clashes in the past have been when Warhammer Online released on Sept 18th, 2008. Blizzard released Wrath (probably their best expansion to date, imo) in November of the same year, just in time to pick up disaffected WAR players.
  • Cataclysm was released on Dec 7th, 2010. Aion released in the West on Sept 7th of the same year.

As gamers, we may tend to read too much into these things. Q4 is popular for gaming releases in any case, it picks up the Xmas market, returning students, and gets cash inflow before the end of the calendar year.

Still, it’s interesting that the big MMO releases this year seem to be edging earlier and earlier. There are good reasons for Blizzard to launch MoP as early as possible:

  • If players get hooked on GW2 before MoP launches (I see GW2 as more of a competitor here, as it’s also a fantasy themepark MMO), the barriers to switching from a sub-free game to a full subscription + pay-for-expansion WoW are much higher than switching from another sub game.
  • Players who picked up an Annual Pass (these are Blizzard’s core gamers, the ones they can least afford to lose) may get pissed off if they can’t get at least a couple of months of MoP as part of their annual lockin. Especially since this year in WoW has been rather a content desert.
  • No Blizzcon this year to act as a distraction to the playerbase.

So will Blizzard release against GW2, or will this expansion, like the previous ones, get shunted back to the end of the year?