[News] TSW drops subscription charges, Layoffs at Trion

Just a couple of links today because the news is rolling.

Rock Paper Shotgun have an interview with Funcom, AHEAD of the announcement that TSW is going to drop sub fees. I don’t really understand this whole concept of the pre-announcement announcement, but moving to non-subscription is going to make the game much more appealing to anyone who was on the fence because of the costs.

I’m certainly much more likely to take a longer look. We knew Funcom had issues with TSW sales from previous layoffs, hopefully this will help the game to find an audience. Alongside SWTOR, this is another nail in the coffin of the subscription MMO — not to mention another example of an MMO changing its payment model fairly shortly after launch.

And in other, sadder news, Trion is laying off a number of developers from the Rift team. (What is it about US firms that they like to have a round of layoffs just before Christmas?) We heard very little about the sub numbers for Rift recently, so I can only guess this means that expansion sales weren’t enough to keep the boat afloat. I have been curious about how well Trion is managing to cost all of it’s projects (Rift, End of Nations, and Defiance). 2012 is certainly turning out as an anno horribilis for the gaming industry,  in the West at least. Moorgard notes that he has friends who have spent the year moving from one layoff to the next; I can only feel for them and hope next year works out better.

Oh, and Darkfall put back their release until January to allow more time for testing. This will likely be interpreted by a lot of people as a failure, but I tend to view delaying launch to allow more testing time as a success that bodes well for the future.

One off events in MMOs, and the players who love them

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Ideally this picture should show a screenshot from the recent weekend-long one shot event in GW2. It should but it doesn’t, because I wasn’t there. And the world event went on without me. A one off event, by the way, is any event that happens in a game world on one occasion only, like opening the gates of Ahn-Quiraj in WoW.

My traumatic experiences with one off events in RP MUDs

You’d think that players in virtual worlds would love it when exciting world events kick off! We know these persistent game worlds can get a bit boring, a bit stuck in their rut. What could be more popular than a big event to give everyone something new to do or talk about? You’d think, right?

Back when I was staffing a MUSH, we used to run staff-driven plots alongside player-run plots (which mostly, if I’m honest, revolved around romantic subplots.) And occasionally, one of the staff would have a great idea for a world event. We had plague, earthquakes, a tyrannical ruler demanding a census of all the NPCs and player characters, psychic vampires appearing in people’s dreams, and in one particularly adept piece of foreshadowing – a financial disaster and run on the banks.

From running these events I have learned one thing. Do not assume that players will find your event more exciting than their daily cybering. Do not assume they will be invigorated by the opportunity to interact with the new event or the NPCs involved.

And the other thing I learned is that players like to have the opportunity to opt in. When we posted up messages asking for volunteers to be involved in a plot, telling them only that it would involve dreams and nothing permanently bad would happen to their characters without their permission, we got a good number of volunteers for the psychic vampire plot.

The traumatic event of the title, by the way, is that when I introduced the royal census plot (not an opt in plot) one of the players contacted me and said their character would rather commit suicide than submit to the census. I was all about suggesting ways they might be able to make some cool plot out of dodging the census (and there were viable ways to do it) but the player was adamant. It was a DID NOT WANT moment. Since I wasn’t able (or willing, really) to stop a perfectly viable in game event just because one person didn’t like it, things continued on. It got a bit feisty IC – the upset player acted it out by disclosing her character’s feelings to a PC she knew to be a powerful loyalist. That player was upset OOC because she didn’t want to kill another player or force them to submit to the census, but it was the only avenue she felt open to her. And so on. It would have been easier all round if the upset player had just accepted that shit happens and laid low ICly for a week or so, hanging out with other disaffected characters.

And the lesson from this is that some players feel a strong sense of ownership of the setting or the NPCs. They don’t like it when things happen that they didn’t want to happen, and they don’t really like having so little control over the setting. Saying “just roll with it” to them is like lighting the blue touchpaper.

But in an MMO, or any game where you can’t just discuss things with the GM, sometimes you have to just roll with it. You are one character in a big world. Things happen that are not all about you.

My theories about events and control

I have a theory that there are two types of players who play virtual world MMO games. Neither are really thrilled with virtual worlds, but for different reasons.

  • Type 1 players prefer the game world to be mostly static, as a backdrop for them to drive their own goals and events. Maybe that will be through doing quests and raids at their own pace in a theme park game, or player driven events in a sandbox. They like plans, and knowing what they will do when they log into the game and events being explicable (e.g. if the price of ghost iron ore goes up, the Type 1 economy focussed player will know why or be able to find out.)
  • Type 2 players prefer the game world to be more dynamic, up to a point. They like unexpected, memorable things to happen, and get bored of the static world and static scheduling. They don’t mind being killed horribly by some random spawn epic monster while questing if it meant they got to see a cool epic monster, and then maybe stick around to get a raid together to kill it. They don’t mind being caught up in a huge in-game plague of zombies, or an exciting weekend event. They enjoy these things … up to a point.

Type 1 players don’t really like too much randomness in their gaming, unless directly caused by other players. They have things they want to accomplish in their gaming time and will be disrupted if they aren’t able to do those things. They will tend to be annoyed if the devs throw random events at them unless they have time to organise their schedule around them, in which case they might like the events quite a lot. As long as they don’t go on too long. They like being rewarded for making smart choices in their gameplay.

Type 2 players are up for anything that seems interesting, particularly if it breaks up their regular routine. They won’t fret overly if they miss out on one event or reward as long as there are other interesting things for them to do. They don’t like being punished for making gameplay choices based on what looks interesting.

There are also two types of dynamic event.

  • Event driven. An event that is triggered by something the players do. You see this a lot in single player RPGs.
  • Time based. The event will happen when it happens,  independent of the players (at least until it starts – once it is running, how it ends might be dependent on player activity.)

So my theory is that Type 1 players (who are the majority of core MMO gamers) prefer the control and predictability of event driven dynamic events. One off events are fine as long as they have advance warning of exactly when, where and how long the event will be. Or if they run in such a  way as to not disrupt anyone’s existing plans.

Type 2 players like either type of event, but they especially love being part of the big memorable one offs. Anything where they can be justified in laying their regular routine aside to do the new stuff instead.

Suppose you gave a party and nobody came?

What if an event ran and players just don’t turn up it? Player run RP events often run into this barrier. It isn’t even because people aren’t interested (surely on a RP realm, you could find a handful of interested players for just about any RP). It’s a combination of poor word of mouth, players not knowing/trusting the organiser, or players having something better to do. How you decide that you have something better to do is a combination of what goals you were working towards anyway, what your friends/guild are doing, what rewards are on offer, and whether the event sounds interesting.

So it isn’t enough to just allow players to opt in, offer the chance to take part in something cool happening to the game world, and give plenty of advance warning. Players need rewards too. Plus if you want numbers, they need the chance to get the word out while the event is still on.

I do personally have a soft spot for unannounced surprise events though.

The best one off event I have seen in an MMO was the Rakghoul Plague in SWTOR. That is partly because it came with no warning. Absolutely none at all. I was on the fleet, chatting to my guild. Then there was an announcement on the local channel, news holos appeared on the fleet with announcements of an accident … and we were off to the races. EVERYONE was excited. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was racing off to Tatooine to investigate. And there were parts of the events that were accessible to lowbies as well as high levels.

It also lasted a week or two, which was plenty of time for word of mouth to kick in.

The second best one off event I have seen was a poetry contest in DaoC, which was run by one of the GMs but with lots of input from players. We knew in advance that this was scheduled, which gave people time to prepare and set aside time to attend. It was fun because there was a lot of player involvement.

I’ve seen plenty of other one offs, and the ones which were generally more memorable to me were the player driven events. Although they don’t always do so well at allowing everyone to actually take part. ie. you can go to a huge fancy ball and enjoy the atmosphere, but chances are you will be standing at the back watching events unfold. Similarly with large PvP raids, although you can usually at least hit something or play with the siege equipment.

Some have been more interesting mechanically with new minigames or requirements for the realm to work together to unlock an event. Others had more human input, or involved much larger numbers.

All of these can be cool, all of these can be fun, all of these can enhance the MMO experience.

Is it really all about control and rewards, in the end?

Maybe it is all just about control and rewards.

The players who hate one off events dislike having their previous plans interrupted (especially if the interruption lasts for a few days.) They don’t want to ‘just go with it’ or ‘enjoy the experience’ or ‘just not log in or go to that location while the event is on.’ They want their controlled, predictable environment back. They prefer to be in control of their own events and not have world events dropped on their heads.

Another category of players will be frustrated if a one off event gives really good rewards or some kind of achievement and they aren’t able to attend (maybe like in the recent GW2 event, it just doesn’t last long enough). They don’t want to ‘just go with it’ or ‘not worry because there will be something else next month and they can go to that’, they just don’t like missing out on content.

Devs need to try to keep these two groups happy, particularly the first set as they are quite a large grouping.

But also there are players who ADORE world events, love seeing the game world disrupted, like being part of something memorable, enjoy running around with a bunch of other people who all want to go check out the new event, and really love being surprised by the game world and other players. For everyone else: one offs are for these guys.

You’ll get yours. Meanwhile, try to just roll with it Winking smile

[GW2]What do you give the gamer who has everything? More progression!

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Someone is a bit enthusiastic about serving the Mad King

The Guild Wars 2 team have been wasting no time with pushing new content into the game. We have already seen a Halloween Event which included new quests, jumping puzzle, mini instance, mini PvP zones, and lots of cosmetic rewards. This weekend sees a slew of one off events and the introduction of a new zone (and free trials for the first time) and there is a new PvP map for sPvP also. Then there are the inevitable Winter/Christmas events which are doubtless in the pipeline.

But the latest announcement about this month’s new iteration of dungeons has been greeted with a 126-page threadosaur of outrage on the official forums. Why is that? Item progression. Entombed explains in more detail what the players are angry about. Some of his points look more valid to me than others – sure, a portion of the player base will care deeply about which site breaks the news but probably most don’t.

Truth is, in a game that was going to break open the MMOsphere by ditching all the conventions, this new content and gear looks very much like a traditional endgame gear progression. A new tier of gear is being introduced that sits between exotics and legendaries in terms of stats, and includes sockets for players to add a stat that will allow them to go further into future dungeons. Syp comments on the similarity with the unpopular LOTRO radiance mechanic.

And like the LOTRO radiance mechanic, none of this will impact on players who play the game more casually because they probably never had much intention of grinding cutting edge ‘endgame’ anyway. If I lack zeal for attacking Arenanet on this, it’s because I think their logic with the new content is sound. It’s just unfortunate that it goes against the entire spirit in which the game was sold.

To be clearer: The current dungeons are flawed, inconsistent, and not particularly fun. Let’s call it ‘inconsistently fun’; there are some cool encounters. There is also way too large a gap between exotic gear and legendaries, in terms of the amount of effort players need to put in. Legendaries stand at the end of an excessively long grind. Enough so that a player looking at the legendary requirements is likely to get sticker shock and end up playing the game LESS because they decide it’s not worth investing the time.

So a slew of new mini dungeons and introducing a tier of gear between exotic and legendary are both pretty good ideas. Introducing a classic MMO progression endgame grind into GW2? Nope, was never going to be popular. Particularly when the only way to get the gear is via dungeon runs. Particularly when players had become used to multiple pathways to gear so that dungeoneers, crafters, PvPers and dynamic event fans could all collect similar gear.

The outrage will get worse before (if) it gets better.  Yet still, Arenanet are putting a lot of effort into supporting their game with new content.

The problem with cosmetic progression

There is one huge sucking problem with the concept of cosmetic progression, i.e. letting players grind for gear that looks different/interesting/better rather than gear that has better stats. It is, “What if you don’t like the look of the grindy cosmetic gear?” Taste is subjective in a way that stat improvements are not.

And whilst you can transmute gear in GW2, who wants to grind dungeons so that they can buy some exotic gear with a new skin that they then transmute to looking like the old gear?

Does easier content make for friendlier MMO communities?

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A pretty WoW screenshot, being able to fly does give you a good choice for perspectives

It has become a truism in MMOs that behaviour in random pick up groups can be really atrocious. There will be elitist jerks urging everyone to gogogo, pulling extra packs of trash mobs themselves if they think the group isn’t moving fast enough, there will be people acting like idiots purely to annoy the rest of the group, there will be insults, aggression, rage quits,  intolerance towards newbies. It’s like a war out there, put on your kneepads and body armour before venturing into LFG!

It’s also widely held that smaller, more coherent communities tend to be nicer to each other. I’m not so sure this is always true, but guild groups certainly tend to be nicer and more successful because of being willing to work together.

And yet, while I’ve been running at least one heroic a day in WoW, and LFR raids every week too, I just haven’t seen much of the horrible behaviour that gives PUGs such a bad name. The worst I’ve really seen is people leaving the group mid-instance, possibly even mid-pull (which is bad behaviour, yes), and a bit of frustration on raid/party chat which is as often countered by people telling the speaker to chill. It isn’t just that I’m on a more chilled out RP server because LFG/LFR is cross server. Although the world boss groups (Sha of Anger et al) on my server have tended to be particularly chilled out and willing to welcome any warm body who is able to help, even when people are annoyed at being beaten to the pull by Alliance – which happens reasonably often because they outnumber us on the server.

So while it’s not possible to change human nature, I think PUGs have become nicer in MoP than they were in Cataclysm. While this isn’t great for having funny ‘it came from the PUG’ stories to relate in blog posts, it probably does mean that the player base in general is having more fun (where being in aggressive LFGs counts as less fun). The only factors I can put this down to are:

  • People who left because they didn’t like pandas were some of the really annoying folks so the game is nicer without them (I don’t really see why this would be the case but you never know)
  • The instances and LFR are generally easier in MoP and less dependent on every individual performing well. Easier content means that there’s less stress on a group. If people just settle down, chances are they’ll get through it in reasonable time.
  • Less odd trash pulls which need specific tactics (Shado-Pan excepted). If you are looking up instance tactics, they tend to focus on boss fights so making these the main content in instances means there is less for new players to learn.
  • The more hardcore players are still motivated to do regular LFG/ LFR for the tokens, but less gated by inexperienced/ bad players. ie. If you are a decent dps player, chances are you can pull a group through a heroic even if the other two dps get themselves locked out of fights, die in the fires, etc.

I also think Blizzard has done a good job of making the boss fights generally fun, even though the group difficulty is a bit lower. There’s lots of movement, add switching, things to dodge, and all the other stuff that generally switches games up from pure tank and spank fights.

But really, random groups need easier content to make up for the fact that they won’t have as much experience at working together, are less likely to communicate, and are likely to contain players of widely differing skill and experience levels. We’ve seen this in the GW2 dynamic events also – they’re easy, and there’s no group size limits, so any warm body is welcome. I am glad Blizzard have twigged this, because their group content is one of the strong points of WoW and making PUGs more fun for everyone (newbies and hardcore alike) is a huge win for the game.

Bashiok actually says as much on the official forums:

While you may go in with a ((random)) group and all learn something, that a specific mob needs to be CC’d, or a certain boss behavior to avoid a wipe, those lessons are more than likely out the window with the next group you’re matched with ((…)) and most people don’t want to spend every run waiting for everyone else to learn all those same lessons. That can just be a frustrating experience. So instead of trying to force a group of strangers to be so heavily coordinated (maybe even having to jump into voice chat) just to complete the first steps of progression, we reduce the complexity to a point where the random groups that are being put together can most of the time be successful without needing to be hyper-organized or educated on each pull. Instead, that organization is far more important for the organized content where random people aren’t matched together: normal and Heroic raids.

Do you think the WoW community has become more pleasant in PUGs in this expansion?

[WoW] The mastery curve, holidays, and it came from the PUG

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Hallow’s End is my favourite of the WoW holiday events. This isn’t just because the Headless Horseman talks in rhyme like a pantomine villain, but because it’s the only event which feels more meaningful in the game world than in real life.

In real life, Halloween in the UK is a  hodge podge which is currently drawing hugely on American customs. It is kind of taking off, but I think we have a much softer spot for the home grown Guy Fawkes Day with its fireworks, anti government themes and politically incorrect  history. It may not be the world’s greatest festival but it’s all ours, dammit.  In game, Hallow’s End is the holiday on which the Forsaken celebrate their freedom from the Scourge. (A fairly brilliant concept from Blizzard which keeps the spooky feel but fits nicely with the lore.) So as my main is Forsaken, it is quite meaningful to me. This screenshot shows the daily ceremony in the Undercity where Sylvanas walks out and gives a speech/ pep talk in front of the Wicker Man. You can see that there are a few other players standing around, even though I don’t think you get any buffs from watching the event. They just wanted to come and see.

As players, we are probably all used to seeing thinly veiled lore-based excuses for having Xmas events. Players like them. But I much prefer the approach that imagines what type of holidays the in game races might have, what events might they celebrate? LOTRO does a good job with these, tying their holidays to the seasons and harvests. Anyone else have favourite events with game-specific lore that just really works for you?

Yesterday you were the noob, today you are the master

In any MMO, you can imagine a kind of learning curve where you begin as an inexperienced player and end up achieving the sort  of mastery where random strangers ask you for tips about your gear/ playing style in PUGs. OK, in my dreams maybe, but every player takes a journey from feeling new and awkward and unconfident to feeling comfortable with the content, confident, and capable in their role. This includes collecting gear, exploring the zones and instances, learning the fights and learning the class.

In particular if you want to take part in group content at max level, there is a trial by fire where you start queuing for PUGs as a nervous, barely geared level 90. Then as you get more experience and better gear, you don’t feel so nervous any more. Your tanking/healing/dps is fine and you know it.

That learning curve seems to get shorter with each expansion, but I suspect that is partly my being generally familiar with the game. It is, however, one of my absolute most favourite parts of WoW. That sense that every dungeon run is exciting because you can still make daft mistakes, help your group narrowly avoid a wipe, or just barely heal a fight and keep everyone alive. And more than that, the sense that you are still learning something with every run, still hoping for that cool drop, still engaged with the content.

I know not everyone likes excitement or that skin of the teeth feeling, but I do enjoy the learning curve. I feel that with Spinks I’m pretty much at the end of it now, she’s geared for the next LFR when it turns up, is generally top dps in instances, and I have most of the gear I really wanted.  When I run heroics now, I feel far more laid back about it. DPS warriors hinge on the very basic fun of hitting stuff with big weapons and putting up big numbers and that never really pales.

The main alt this expansion is a priest and I’ve ended up taking her down the Holy (healing) path. This was initially because queue times were so short, but I also really enjoy it as a spec. It feels like a spec with a lot of depth, and though I can heal competently, I still feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface which is pretty cool.

Undergeared healers can be challenging to play because they tend to run out of mana very fast. I think the priest has particular issues with this, but since I don’t plan on raiding with her, I am reflecting that this actually makes the instance learning curve rather more fun for me. Or rather, it’s more fun because sometimes I have really struggled with healing an encounter, which makes it so much more rewarding when I can go back later to the same instance with better gear/more experience/better group and see that I’ve improved. I will almost be sad to be over geared on her.

But there are still Challenge modes ahead. I look forwards to more exciting razor edge victories/failures.

It came from the PUG

A couple of positive examples this week, both from instances where I was healing.

I had struggled to heal Shado-Pan Heroic, there are encounters where the group can end up taking a lot of damage without much warning. But I am getting better with practice, and also noticing how much of a difference it makes when players can keep out of the avoidable damage. This is something Blizzard are really pushing with the MoP heroics, and I think healers are in a good place to notice it. I realised I was getting more confident as a healer when after one of the boss fights in Shado-Pan, one of the dps who had died during the fight said “pay attention healer.”  And my kneejerk response was to say “no, you pay attention and keep out of the bad stuff.” And no one in the group complained, I like to think this was because I was right.

Another, similar, healing moment was in Jade Temple Heroic. One of the (dead) dps said to me “where were the heals” and I said “you need to keep yourself out of the bad stuff”. There was a pause, and he said “yeah sorry.” THIS NEVER HAPPENS (i.e. people apologising), BUT IT HAPPENED IN MY GROUP!! Cognitive dissonance follows.

I imagine that once I am overgeared I’ll be better able to heal people who stand in the fire, but I quite like the playing style where it’s just not possible to do that and  healing decisions have to be made based on keeping enough people alive to beat the boss, which means triage on people who just take too much damage.

[GW2] The epic and the mundane

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The one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater flying overhead! And us looting the chest after the fight.

Yay! Arb and I fought a dragon in GW2! It was big and purple! There was loot!

Let me describe a typical dragon fight in Guild Wars 2 – bear in mind that the dragons are the big bads of the setting.

  • Arb and I go to a zone, there is lots of running around like 4 year olds on a sugar rush as we both get distracted easily by hearts, vistas, gathering nodes, events, and just about anything else.
  • Someone in zone chat comments: anyone seen the dragon recently?
  • Someone else answers: it’s due in about 10 minutes.
  • I say to Arb: Just like a bus timetable.
  • She says: Probably 3 come at once.
  • We get distracted by the prospect of a dragon in 10 minutes and head to the other side of the zone to find the appropriate dynamic event (probably involving getting lost, splitting up, one of us dying from falling off a cliff, and more gathering.)
  • We get there, yay! The event is starting, yay! Lots of other players turn up, yay!
  • The dragon arrives, keeping a better timetable than local buses. There may be some mechanics and strategy but we’re too busy saying “ooo! It’s big” to really focus on them. The dragons are pretty big and impressive.
  • LEEKS! Arb spots a veg node.
  • We hare off in the middle of a dragon fight to pick the leeks.
  • We get back in time to see the dragon die and get some loot, which probably isn’t very exciting but you might get a nice rune.

It is very  typical of the GW2 experience that you might run off to pick vegetables in the middle of a boss fight. Even though you know perfectly well the veg will still be there afterwards, because all material nodes are shared.

On this basis, I am naming GW2 as being neither a Themepark nor a Sandbox but a Playground MMO. Free Realms might be another example of a Playground MMO. In the playground, there will be lots of different activities on offer. They will probably be a bit disorganised. There might be a small sandbox. You can do whatever you want, although staff will stop you annoying the other children. Some activities will happen at set times (eg. storytime). I don’t find the game childish, but there is something very childlike about playing GW2.

Maybe it’s the focus on play and playfulness in the open world. It feels difficult to take the game seriously. Why else would you run off in the middle of killing a dragon to go and pick veg?

[WoW] Things the dungeon journal doesn’t tell you

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There are different ways for players to learn boss fights.

  1. Trial and error. Go in blind, figure out what you can, and if you fail then figure out why you failed and try something different next time.
  2. As above, but with addons that give additional hints (eg. Change targets now! Move out of the fire now!)
  3. Talking to other players. Get someone to tell you what you have to do.
  4. Read about it offline or watch a video tutorial.

Blizzard have tried to incorporate #4 into the game with the in game dungeon journal. This lists out the abilities (and phases) of the dungeon and raid bosses.

Shame it doesn’t mention that the middle of the floor disappears in the last phase of the Elegon fight, so if you don’t run to the outside, you will die. You might think this was key information. I assume this is intentional to make sure that players need to figure out the strategy – but if it is meant to replace looking things up offline, it doesn’t work.

Do you find the dungeon journal useful?