Give us this day our daily quest

wow_dragondaily

Next, attach a heart shaped balloon to your dragon … (the heart does remind me of GW2)

We are all creatures of routines. In any MMO you play regularly, there are routines you get into when you log in or out for a session. Maybe you check the auction house, send some materials between alts, check bank/guild logs to see what has happened while you were away, make sure you get your character somewhere ‘safe’ to log out, make a to-do list for what you want to do in this session, and so on. We can call this housekeeping, meaning habits you get into which will maintain your character/account the way you like it.

It’s in the interest of any MMO designer that players build regular habits around the game. For subscription games, it encourages you to keep subbing. F2P games may not charge subscriptions, but they benefit from having regular players if only for the content and marketing they provide for the people who do pay. Also players who log in regularly are more likely to form communities; when you see or hear the same people around every night, you will eventually feel that you are getting to know them even if you never stop to chat.

Daily quests are pretty clever, because they can slot neatly into this need for routine. So you log in and instead of the dailies being part of ‘what shall I do this evening?’ they are part of the housekeeping instead that you want to finish before you get some ‘me time.’ I have a good tolerance for daily quests (as long as they don’t expect me to do something I really hate) and if nothing else you will become really expert in the geography and spawn patterns of the daily quest areas of WoW. Pandaria has gone rather whole hog with the dailies, of which there are many and for multiple different factions. Which does lead to the risk that if people focus on dailies, they might not have enough time to do anything else.

I like to think people can sort out their own playing schedule, but the lure of ‘must complete dailies’ can be very strong. Not only that but it’s very easy to “log in quickly, just to check auctions” and end up with “while I’m here, might as well play a bit” and daily quests are an easily quantifiable unit of gameplay to plan. So “might as well play a bit” could become “might as well do the cloud serpent dailies.”

GW2 takes a very different approach, where the daily appears much more freeform and wrapped up in the sorts of PvE activity people tend to do anyway. Harvest X materials, kill Y mobs, kill Z different types of mobs, complete ZZ dynamic events. I love the requirement to kill lots of different types of mobs – it rewards you for knowing roughly where to find them and encourages you to move around. I am less fond of the dynamic event requirement, because those are random elements and hunting round for DEs can be tedious. So basically, although the daily appears more freeform, if you want to complete it you might have to fit it into your closing set of housekeeping routines (ie. things you need to do before you log off : complete daily quest).

In many ways, the best daily at the moment is the farming one in WoW. You log in and harvest your crops, then plant some more. It doesn’t involve fighting other players for scarce mobs, or doing anything onerous (like logging in your lowbie alt on GW2 so you can do lowbie DEs), but there’s a routine you can get into. It’s no accident that Farmville style games took off in such quantities, they’re really good at getting players into habits. It’s a lightly gamified version of the crafting/ AH housekeeping that a lot of people do and mostly you’re just being trained to log in every day.

It would be stretching things to say that daily quests help games to become more than 3 monthers, and really its better if you can set up your own habits,  but getting people into the idea of logging in regularly might play a role in building a more longterm mindset.

Random musings: SWTOR event, MoP trailer, and GW2 fanboism

I was hoping very much that Bioware would be able to use the SWTOR world event (that had been hinted at by dataminers after the last patch) to regain  the community’s confidence. Demonstrating the ability to keep putting out good quality updates  would do a lot to win people over to the future of the game in the upcoming F2P environment.

Things began with the news bots on the fleet, directing players to Nar Shaddaa to pick up the first part of the quest. The second part followed via in game mail, which led to another questline that runs in parallel. Basically the A questline involves characters trying to find various items in a scavenger hunt. The B questline involves trying to figure out whether the scavenger hunt has a nefarious underlying purpose.

Some of the scavenger item quests are supported by actual quests telling you where to go and (vaguely) what to do. Others are hinted at via in game conversations. I’m not entirely sure what the clues are since I didn’t personally see any, I may not have been hanging out in the right area, or not for long enough. I imagine a lot of people are using websites to find their items. Dulfy, as usual, has a great summary for anyone who is interested in running through the event.

Rewards are mostly cosmetic, with a couple of weapons included with purple mods that only cover a couple of classes.  If you finish the grand acquisition quest there are some titles and light side/ dark side points up for grabs also. We have also been informed that the event will last only for one week.

Rohan wonders if the event was designed to allow hardcore players to run through it quickly with slower paths for more casual players. This would have been cool if true, it was a good idea on his part; but it turns out one of the ways for players to complete things fast was a bug and the quests don’t actually expand slowly to include all the items eventually.

I was hoping for something more similar to the rakghoul world event, which included dailies, explorations, collections, and so on. This is an event with a smaller scope. I would personally give it a resounding ‘meh’ so far and have not really heard much in guild chat about the acquisitions after the first day or so, so I don’t think they are very excited by it either. The event has also been plagued by bugs, particularly one early on which rewarded players with ALL the items if they did a particular space mission.

I can’t feel this bodes well for the future. I’ve nothing against small scale events, but it would be nice if they were … a bit more fun? Anyone else tried to solve any of the item locations themselves?

And then the over powered new race/new class beat everyone else up!

moptrailer

So as is becoming the norm, Blizzard released a short trailer for the upcoming expansion. Apple Cider Mage does a shot by shot feminist analysis :

…the fact of the matter is that this trailer is literally and utterly masculine. It features male power fantasies and counterpoints them with a more wise, agile man. It’s all men! All men, all the time. Just the way we like it, eh?

She’s not wrong.

However I quite liked the trailer and here is why. From the very earliest days of Warcraft as a RTS game, the theme and in fact the subtitle was Orcs vs Humans. I feel that what Blizzard have done with this trailer is present a very classic Warcraft scenario (ie. an orc vs a human) and then thrown a panda into the mix to show how it changes everything. That’s it. That’s the actual story of the expansion. Portrayed in one short, and very pretty, cinematic. The butch male orc and butch human in the new trailer do look reminiscent of the box art from the old Warcraft games.

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So I think the trailer does a good job of setting the scene, with callbacks to the very core of the WoW lore and backstory, and then showing what’s new in this expansion. I would have personally preferred to have also seen some fly bys of the new zones, dungeons, bosses, creatures, and so on. I want to see how pretty it is.  I preferred the Cataclysm cinematics from that point of view.

The GW2 backlash to the backlash starts on time

It is an incredibly normal part of the MMO cycle for a new MMO to be hyped to the stars and back during beta, for the backlash of criticism to begin shortly before launch, and for die-hard fans to decide that arguing with critics IS the hill they want to die on … still before launch.

It is also true that criticising a game that everyone else loves, or waxing lyrical about a game that the majority seem to hate will tend to get a lot of page views. It’s called being contrary; but that doesnt mean that people raising contrary points are wrong, per se.

Azuriel has drawn the wrath of the GW2 fanbois by listing some features of the game that he thinks are merely OK. He also comments that he has pre-purchased his copy and has every intention of playing it. But that won’t stop the tide of haters once the fans decide to strike.

It will be interesting to see how views pan out on this game on release. I expect to be playing next week, assuming the servers hold up, and I agree with Azuriel that dynamic events are not the be all and end all of PvE. I think I did like the WvW much more than he did, but he has also played the beta for longer than me. Time will tell. Hopefully the fans will stop piling on any views of the game that are not 100% enthusiastic once they are actually busy playing the thing.

[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.

[TSW, SWTOR, WoW, CK2] Well, it’s certainly been a week.

I thought today I might sum up some experiences I’ve had in games recently. This is mostly a quick fly though, just to demonstrate how incredibly /different/ some games which are nominally similar can be.

The Secret World

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The Secret World had a free weekend, and sadly I didn’t have as much time in game as I had hoped. Partly due to watching the Olympics (on TV) and spending a day out in London (not to go to the Olympics because I didn’t have tickets), and also partly due to getting roped into some raids in SWTOR. So these really will be first impressions.

I like the game a lot, and as other people have said, the setting and storytelling is very engaging. For me there was a disconnect between “secret masters of the world. conspiracy theories.” and “welcome to Kingsmouth, here’s your shotgun. Go kill some zombies.” There is even more of a disconnect between the clever and immersive world building and a public channel full of “LF2M tank and healer”.  I’m also not sure whether I find that the combat fits neatly to the storytelling parts of the game – it’s common for RPGs to have this disconnect but the stylistic difference seems stronger in TSW. It just is a very disconnected game. All the individual bits seem good in themselves, but I liked the RPG/investigative parts so much more than the combat. Partly for that reason, this is absolutely a game that sings “single player or small group only” to me. Even more so than SWTOR.

But for all that, it IS immersive and engaging and I enjoyed how Funcom use the environment to drop clues to the player, as well as the usual “quest person marker” details.  I also always wanted to be an Illuminati, so there is that too. I also get a kick out of ‘take a shortcut through Agartha” and similar funky occult daftness; I love urban fantasy which this game does in spades. I didn’t have much of a chance to really check out any of the riddle quests so I’m still unsure whether I have the patience for that type of play or would get frustrated too quickly.

The screenshot above shows two of the other things I did really enjoy with the game.

  1. Blue hair. Apparently this is more of A Thing than I realised, since a lot of my twitter crowd mentioned that their characters also had blue hair. I do think it’s cool though. I also like how my character is holding the shotgun in the shot, her hands/fingers are actually closed around the weapon. Also was amused at being told I had good aim when I shot something. I am not a firearms person (to say the least) but I feel that using a shotgun at point blank range may not be a big aiming challenge.
  2. This shows a tutorial for the talent system. It’s a voiced video that steps you through how things work. Please could more games do this, it’s great.

Whilst I did get a good first impression from the weekend and would definitely like to spend more time with TSW, I can’t justify a sub at the moment. I just don’t have the time free in my gaming schedule. Maybe in a few months time. But I do want to go back.

SWTOR: All my raiding comes at once!

I think there’s a hidden switch in the communal mind of a new raidgroup that suddenly decides you are good enough (or needed badly enough) to be included in the main team. So I’m guessing all my practice with the Consular and generally being around and genial in guild chat has made a mark; this week I was invited to join the guild for runs in two Operations that I haven’t seen before: Explosive Conflict (Denova) and Karagga’s Palace. The raid leader was also really nice about explaining the fights, and the raids were friendly and patient. And we did clear them both. It was just a great gaming experience.

denova

These screenshots are from Denova, which is a very solid raid in my opinion. The encounters are interesting and well designed, there’s a nice mix of content, and they’re challenging without feeling that you are hitting your head against a wall. Bioware have done a good job with the raid content. Karagga is by far my least favourite of the Operations. The first and last boss are both thoroughly annoying (last boss might have been more fun if I had been on dps rather than healing).

My feelings about SWTOR seem conflicted at the moment. I do genuinely enjoy the game, but I’m not sure about its future. Whatever happens, I’m thrilled to have gotten the chance to play it, and to have met such nice players on both the guilds I’ve been in. This may affect how I view the SWTOR community in general, but even my PUG runs have generally been cordial and friendly. Dropping WoW last December to play SWTOR instead has been a really good decision for me.

In any case, this means that I have now seen all of the PvE content in the game, although there are harder modes for the Ops which we haven’t done yet. I’m not really sure what my next goals are, I enjoy raiding with the guys so will plan to keep doing that though.

Warcraft: Back for more abuse

I picked up a Scroll of Resurrection this week, and thought it would be a good opportunity to drop back into WoW and see whether absence makes the heart grow fonder. (The answer is: no, but it does give a different perspective.) My first impression on logging into Orgrimmar was of overwhelming chaos, noise, people all over the place, randomness on general chat. There’s so much going on and where is everything and heck, there’s so much of it. Like I say: overwhelming.

From what I can gather, the only new content since I last played (in December) is that the Darkmoon Faire has its own zone now. It looks cool and a bit foreboding and the music is good. The new Faire is (as with the rest of WoW), busy, noisy, overwhelming. There are quests which grant tradeskill improvements as well as rewards, and some minigames. None of the minigames looked especially interesting at first glance. There’s only so much designers can do with ‘whack a mole’ or ‘steer the vehicle into the other vehicle.’ This is a shame, because I would have thought a fairground would be ripe for actual vehicle minigames.

It was of course great to chat to my guildies again in game. They are a really good bunch, and have been the one thing I really did miss from not being in game. I did think it was a bad idea to agree when someone suggested queueing for one of the most recent heroic instances. This proved to be the case, and the complaints about poor dps started very soon into the instance. I do think there’s an issue with the game where everyone is studying your dps the whole time in groups using real time damage meter addons, even when they don’t need to. Anyhow, I didn’t stay long, I suspect my dps would have been OK but that’s not an atmosphere you want to learn new fights in.

This, incidentally is where WoW is utterly failing at the moment. If a reasonable, average player cannot learn a new fight in LFG and guild groups are unlikely to form (due to people either preferring the convenience of LFG or being tired of the group content) then your group game is basically dead. I’ve heard arguments that this will be better at the start of a new expansion when the content is new to everyone. I don’t entirely buy it; this may be true … for a week or two.  If Blizzard want to break this chain then they need to a) make the LFG instances easier, no complex boss fights that require a page of tutorial to explain the tactics or tightly tuned dps races and b) give players a chance to practice the fights on their own first. (I’m not arguing against hard instances, but I don’t think they are good LFG content.)

Before being put off grouping altogether, I then thought I’d queue for one of the original Cataclysm heroics. These are instances I’ve run several times in my character’s current gear before taking a break. There were no dps issues, but after one wipe the tank aggroed a pack of mobs while everyone else was running back (which led to another wipe). Here is a snapshot of the conversation that followed:

Me: Could you wait for everyone to get back before starting the next fight?

Him/ Her: No.

Me: Why not?

Him/Her: *pause* Because I like doing things wrong.

Me: OK, have fun then. *leaves group*

Maybe it’s because I’ve just spent time in SWTOR where I haven’t had a single bad group, but two poor PUGs in a row isn’t cool and shouldn’t be the norm. Anyhow, I will be hanging out in WoW for the next month or so. Partly because I feel I’d like the guy who sent me the SoR to get his (ugly) mount, and also because it’s good blogging fodder to come back with fresh eyes and gauge how WoW might feel to other returning players. Right now, I feel that I could happily never run another PUG in WoW ever again.

One thing to note for returners: Your spare justice or valor tokens are still useful, Blizzard regularly upgrade the gear you can trade them in for.

I feel I haven’t said much about good first impressions yet. WoW has an INCREDIBLE sense of being an actual world.  It’s buzzing, chaotic, there’s a lot going on and huge zones to explore.  So I went back to a quieter zone to do some daily quests that everyone else is probably bored with (or even forgot by now) to chill out and chat.

wowreturn

Crusader Kings 2

This is such a big bonkers game, but it’s the best gaming crack since the original Civilisation. How can I be so drawn to a game which I am so bad at playing? My latest ruler did actually manage to win some wars, but I think I could happily watch the game play itself out without me really doing much. Still, I continue to read up about it and try different things in new games. I wanted to mention CK2 in passing as I’m still only scratching the surface but it takes a special sort of game to engender this kind of love from poor players.

Instance protocol in SWTOR, and my switch from dps to healing and back

holocronnfind

So it’s been a busy week or two in SWTOR. Aside from all the F2P news, I have been settling into the end game and spending more time chatting with my guild. This currently feels bittersweet, because although I am sure the conversion will bring in a lot of new players, it’s not clear whether that will translate into continuing enthusiasm for flashpoints and ops which will be behind the paywall of a subscription.

Anyhow, let me tell you about my character! The pics above show me on a datacron hunt, I’m wearing PvP gear because I was queueing for PvP while I was doing it. This works better than queueing for flashpoints because PvP drops you back into the world where you left it after your match. “The Deprogrammer” is a title that you get from completing the Directive 7 flashpoint; I get a kick from it as an ex-coder.

I have also been running at least one flashpoint a day using the group finder tool, and have been refining my dps spec and rotation.  Having spent some quality time with the noxxic.com guides, my dps is looking much better these days. I don’t really like specs where the optimal results come from NOT taking the top ability in that spec tree, but that is how Balance seems to work at the moment. The groups have generally all been great, even tempered, and friendly. Everyone says Hi when they zone in and Thanks at the end.

It isn’t all hearts and flowers, but the patience levels seem high compared with WoW (this is not a high bar, admittedly). In one run someone said they had to go answer the door and offered to leave as they weren’t sure how long it would take and the rest of the group were happy to sit around, chat, make tea etc for 10 mins while waiting. One phenomenon that I have seen is people who haven’t done much group content while levelling other than PvP and jump into hardmodes without really being aware of how PvE fights differ. It’s not a real issue, but you can tell by: tanks who don’t know they need to just tank the elites and let the dps CC/ kill the other mobs, tanks who can’t hold aggro on more than one mob at once, tanks who don’t notice when their healers are being beaten up, dps who don’t wait for the tank to pull or take aggro.

Note: you can’t actually tell if you have a PvP healer since PvP healing is actually pretty similar to PvE healing, and is also rather harder. There are subtleties like remembering to use your detaunt, but most groups won’t spot that.

I also thought it would be handy to practice healing, just in case that was ever useful. So I’ve also run a lot of flashpoints and warzones in a healing spec and have picked up some gear for that also. I find that once you have the hang of your healing spells and have sorted out quickbars, it is fairly straightforwards. I do find healing easier than dps, and people are also much nicer to healers (in general). However, I also find healing more boring except when things are going totally AWOL. I just don’t feel as engaged with the fights. So I’m mostly back in dps mode, switching to healing when I either want to PvP or the guild needs a spare healer.

The sage/ sorcerer, incidentally, is a great class that I enjoy very much. I love having CC, heals, AE, DoTs, and nukes all on the same class – and you actually have access to all of those abilities in both healing and dps specs. I also find that having played in both healing and dps roles, as well as doing some PvP, I’m much more confident switching the roles up. It feels very comfortable to drop some CC or AE dps even while healing, or throw a (weak) heal or shield in between dps if the group really needs it. Or in other words, it’s a nicely hybrid class. I do wonder why all classes cannot be this hybridised, and even a game like GW2 that has ditched the trinity still ends up with classes like Elementalist which has huge utility compared with – say – Thief.

I’ve also run a few Ops now with my guild, who are a really nice bunch and very welcoming. So my sage is now in full Columni gear with a sprinkling of Rakata and Black Hole (from dailies). It actually looks ok, although the hat is definitely an acquired taste.

Instance and Ops protocol

If you have played multiple MMOs, you will notice that they tend to have a lot of instance protocol in common. For example, it’s really common for people to say hello when they join a group and thanks or goodbye when they leave. People also often ask if its OK for them to roll need for offspec gear, and polite tanks may ask if it’s OK to skip bosses before they go ahead and do it.

The SWTOR Ops protocol that most made me smile is that because the game doesn’t have a built in ready check, raid leaders sometimes ask players to jump up and down to show that they are ready for the next pull. I thought it was a cool use of jumping (always a popular player pastime), and easier to spot who is afk than squinting through chat to see who hasn’t typed ‘OK’.

Is there any interesting instance or raid protocol that you’ve experienced in MMOs?

[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.

[Links] So are we finally at the end of the (MMO) era?

In a week where I’m still struggling to move my armies around in Crusader Kings 2*, I’m sensing a sort of existential gloom around the MMO blogosphere. Not quite what you’d expect when WoW have just announced a release date for their next expansion, perhaps.

* I know, total fail. But the bizarro thing with CK2 is that you can play it like a sort of medieval soap opera even if you suck totally at the military side.

But let’s start with some upbeat links.

Huw at the MMO Melting Pot does a great job at curating MMO blog posts into a small daily digest. If you are interested in reading good writing from actual players (as opposed to  paid journalists or for-profit sites) about their experiences, thoughts and feelings with MMOs, put the Pot on your regular feed. I feel that we as a community (ie. gamers) don’t appreciate enough the value of our own gaming expertise. But I’m darned sure I would prefer to read views from a wide range of players, covering the full range of casual-hardcore, PvE-PvP, and other ways of playing I’d never even have considered, than a small selection of gaming journos.

Arb writes a paean to the Ultima games, and explains why she’s so excited about Ultima Forever. (It took a fair while, btw, for her to say anything nice about my boyfriend/husband – but we’ve been married 11 years now, so perhaps he’s been accepted by my family. A bit :-) ).

Any Rift fans in the house? Scott Hartmann (Exec Producer at Trion)  has hosted an extensive Q&A thread on reddit. This was part of an answer to a hardcore raider complaining that it wasn’t fair that some guilds had better access to beta tests than others:

If people require more fairness than “a guy is working a 16 hour day just so my guild can test,” to be happy in an MMO, I guarantee the MMO they are looking for simply does not exist.

Also, anyone catch the Olympic Opening Ceremony? Everyone British I know really loved it; I think it captured a certain irreverent spirit at the same time as touching on some national traits/people/ culture that we’re actually very proud about. I especially loved the bit where Tim Berners-Lee tweeted live from the stadium “This is for everyone” and it literally showed up as a RT on my twitter stream about a second later (obviously I had twitter up while watching the opening ceremony, doesn’t everyone?) This is the best review I’ve seen (comparing it to the Chinese one), and the whole thing is available on the BBC iPlayer to anyone who can access that.

Maybe F2P isn’t the answer to life, the universe and everything

This week, Zynga stock prices are falling through the floor. I don’t think this will surprise many gamers, as their model of F2P, fast turnabout on new games, and heavy reliance on Facebook was never really convincingly long term. Especially since so much of their initial growth relied on cross-fertilisation between games using features that FB has since heavily restricted (due to them being massively annoying), and various other underhanded semi-exploits such as deliberately working with scam advertisers and “… did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away”.

However, now that they are a public company, this type of stock performance triggers analyses in fairly mainstream publications as well as gaming sites.

Mashable suggests Zynga try making better games rather than aiming for more gambling applications (note: they will do the gambling thing though.)

Forbes asks why Zynga is bleeding users.

The best analysis I have seen is on gamesindustry.biz (you’ll need to create a login to read the whole thing), which notes that although they’re still gaining players overall, fewer of those players are paying. This is not the trend that F2P believers want to see.

Free-to-play mechanics mean that you expect the vast majority of users to play for free, effectively acting as cost-effective marketing to entice the small minority of players who’ll pay money and make the service profitable overall. However, in Zynga’s case, the trend is all wrong. Back in Q2 2011, 1.5% of Zynga’s players were paying money for things. A year later, the figure is 1.3%. That 0.2% figure may not seem like a lot, but it’s a trend moving in the wrong direction – and it actually translates to about half a million players who ought to be paying, if Zynga could maintain its ratios, but aren’t. Moreover, that isn’t being compensated for by “whales” dragging the average expenditure of the paying players upwards – in fact, the company’s average income per DAU (Daily Average User) dropped by 10% year on year. In short – costs are up, and revenues aren’t rising to match them.

So does this mean that F2P is perhaps not the answer to life, the universe, and everything, or just that Zynga is ‘doing it wrong’? Probably a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Cash rich Zynga could have put more of that cash and effort into developing better, more engaging games, but they haven’t done so, nor have they really ported their success to non-Facebook or mobile platforms. Pincus is almost certainly more comfortable running traditional casino games, so it’s not surprising he wants to take the company that way.

But the general trend of players drifting from one F2P game to the next, tending to spend less as they go, is one to take on board. You are NEVER as invested in any MMO as you are in the first one you play. It’s entirely possible that this is as true for F2P social games as for AAA MMOs.

Since we don’t really get meaningful numbers from most F2P MMOs (eg. LOTRO, STO, etc) it’s hard to know if this signals a general trend. Maybe companies do have to work harder to get F2P customers, even the fabled whales, to keep spending enough to make their games truly sustainable once the flood of new players has dried up. We know that regular paid expansions is one way to keep the money flowing in (you could think of this as similar to the subscription model, if you only had to pay once every year or so), but if a F2P game cannot sustain a fairly massive base, can the model still work?

Whither SWTOR, and can any new MMO have a longterm future?

EA have an earnings call this week, and it’s likely that SWTOR subscriptions are significantly down from the last time they were announced. They will drop further in August when the six-monthly subs from people who took those out at launch run out. Even as someone who still enjoys the game, it’s hard to feel positive about SWTOR’s future. Bioware have let a lot of SWTOR staff go, and leavers include some of the more influential senior designers. That’s never a good sign in a new MMO, because their vision is the thing which made the game appealing to the players who actually like it.

There have been comments about new content such as a new companion and new planet before the end of the year, but if EA want to retain players, they need to give out some actual timescales. If you bought the game and enjoyed the content and were hoping for a long lifecycle of regular content updates, it isn’t really clear whether that is still the plan at all.

As a fan who has been subscribing, if they kept a reasonable pace, I would retain a subscription. Possibly even for years. That offer (from me as a player) was on the table when I bought into the game.  If they can’t and the community crumbles and my guild/s wander off … then I won’t keep paying them. I’ll follow the players. I wish them luck with a F2P conversion if they decide to go that way and I hope a lot of new players get the chance to try SWTOR, enjoy it, and realise that it’s actually a pretty darn good game if you can enjoy it for what it is, and not whine about what it isn’t. But if they renege on what I expected at launch, I will leave them to it, albeit with fond memories.

UnSubject has been writing a super set of posts at Vicarious Existence about recent MMO failures. And he tops it by looking at factors that contributed to these failures, and predicting the end of AAA MMOs (it’s been said before, but this is a good analysis.)

I’m having difficulty thinking of a Western AAA MMO that has launched since 2006 that’s managed to grow its player base post-launch (well, without switching to free-to-play (F2P) anyway).

And with all that choice, the MMO player base is more fragmented than ever. It’s hard to get enough of them engaged for long enough to earn your development budget back (well, without switching to F2P anyway).

One of the interesting things about his analysis is that this doesn’t depend on how ‘different’ the new MMOs are from existing ones. Unless they are genuinely different enough to appeal to a different market, in which case existing MMO players may well not like them. motstandet writes a reply to my post about not minding MMO clones, describing how he looks for games with depth that he can play for years. (Clearly this also requires other players to play with/against if they aren’t single player games.)

From Zynga’s example (see above), it’s not clear whether F2P is a good long term solution either. So maybe the destiny of these games is never to be longterm again in the way they have in the past. Old dino players will look back to the days in which a core player would subscribe to a game for YEARS as if it were truly prehistory. And that will affect in-game communities also, because people engage differently with a game that they genuinely expect to be spending significant amounts of their free time around than a game which they expect to be done with in a month or two.

EVE is often cited as an outlier, with a steadily growing subscriber base. I’m always unclear how to analyse this, since so many of the core players seem to pay for their gametime and multiple accounts using in game credits/ PLEX. Gevlon has been theorising this week about which segment of the EVE player base actually pay for time – I have no idea if he is right. Theoretically, every PLEX that is bought in game had to be paid for at some point with real money, so it shouldn’t matter to CCPs bottom line how people finance their gaming (ie. if a player buys PLEX for in game cash, that PLEX still got bought by someone else before they sold it in game  so CCP still got the money for it).

But I’m not sure. I’m not sure if a model where the more hardcore players get to play for free is really a solid one, especially since the playerbase will tend to become more hardcore over time. If it’s really that easy to make money in game (which seems to be implied in comments to just about every EVE blog I’ve ever read), then are there enough players who like the game but can’t be arsed to make money in it to pay the subs for everyone else (and their alts)? I do take their subscriber base with a pinch of salt, given the preponderance of multiple alts though. That game is not as big as people think, and if Dust fails, we’ll see CCP feel the pinch.

People seem more dubious about MoP already

Let me be clear on one thing: I would never bet against Blizzard. They consistently make games that players enjoy, and even games that have garnered plenty of criticism such as Diablo 3 have broken sales records and generally pleased the majority of their players. I will not be surprised if Mists of Pandaria breaks sales records, even if they have to invent a record for it to break.

But I look on my guild boards and for the first time before an expansion, I see people wondering how long other players will find MoP engaging. I see one of the hardcore raid guilds on my server (which is the most populated RP server in the EU) take their entire guild to another server for the expansion. I think MoP will please many many players, and I like the new emphasis on a wider endgame. But for how long?

Anne at Wow Insider riled up readers by talking about how players got bored with Cataclysm and comparing it to the smart kids at school who are bored with lessons aimed at those who are merely average. The reason this annoyed people is because of the implication (which I don’t think was her intention) that if they’re not bored, then they were not ‘the smart kid at school.’  Redbeard has some good comments on her post here also.

I’m going to use a different analogy. When I was a kid, we moved around the country a lot, so I went to lots of different schools. And they taught the syllabus in different orders. I remember sitting in a beginner’s French class and being bored rigid because I’d already studied French for 2-3 years in previous schools. This is a type of boredom that comes of experience, rather than just being ‘the smart kid’. Experienced players in a game/genre will always get bored more quickly than new ones, because they don’t face the same learning curve. Wrath kept the experienced players interested for longer than Cataclysm because it came with a much larger set of zones and storylines than Cataclysm (10 new levels rather than 5, plus a new class, plus hard mode instances, plus longer raids such as Ulduar and even Naxx). Also for many casual raid guilds, Wrath represented the pinnacle of their raiding existences, where some of the barriers that had kept them stuck in TBC were removed.

Pandaria on paper offers more new content than Cataclysm for max level characters. The new continent seems larger and more connected (as opposed to the bittiness of Cataclysm). Cataclysm’s focus on remaking the old world didn’t sustain either old or new players. There will be a wider variety of endgame experiences. But now maybe the rot has set in, and players will be more willing to unsub once they are bored rather than hanging in there. Perhaps Blizzard will have to work that bit harder to keep them – after all, these last months represent the longest WoW has ever gone without a solid content patch.  Yet at the same time, more players than ever have tried the MoP beta. Does that mean they’ll get bored more quickly when the expansion goes live? Soon enough, we’ll find out.