[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.

[WoW] Bits and pieces about MoP: Future of raiding, dailies all the way down, pay for more powerful pets

Mists of Pandaria looks set to offer a very different style of endgame to Cataclysm. While the traditional raid and instance setup will still be present, along with a group/raid finder to let players jump into a PUG, Blizzard look to be making a definite push to provide more content and options for non-raiders and soloers. For example, there will be:

  • Many more daily quests
  • More factions to grind (rather than being able to earn faction points while running instances via tabards)
  • A farmville setup
  • Pet battles, including being able to tame pets from the wild
  • Scenarios (like mini instances/ events that only require 3 players, all of whom can be dps)
  • Challenge modes for regular instances (ie. more loot if you complete the instance more quickly)

And those are just the gameplay mechanics that someone who hasn’t  been following the beta closely has picked off the top of their head, I have no idea what the PvP plans will be. This could be an incredibly successful expansion for Blizzard if they can attract those more casual or solo focussed players with an ‘endgame’ balanced for their interests. Ignore the panda haters, there’s some genuinely new direction here.

Whither raiding?

Raiding, I think, in the sense of dedicated raid groups, will suffer more in this expansion than it ever has before. Players have pondered whether the relative popularity of 10 man raids over 25 man ones is purely due to ease of organisation of smaller groups. If the rewards (and difficulties) from gold level challenge modes are in any way comparable to hard mode raids, we may see whether 5 man instances will be preferred over 10 man raids by a hardcore PvE crowd.

Casual raid groups who got trashed by Cataclysm – and they did — may find a resurgence. (Although not as much as if Blizzard relaxed the 10/25 man raid locks.) There will be plenty of players who are happy to do a weekly 10 man run with the friendly guild and spend the rest of their time pursuing less directed, more solo focussed, or more casual play which lets them chat while they work on the pet collecting or faction grind.

There was a sad thread on the official boards that caught my eye called “Don’t let the 25 man raids die” which asked whether Blizzard was planning any changes to the 10/25 man setup, rewards etc in response to how much 25 man raiding has dropped off in Cataclysm. The CM answered:

The devs don’t have, at this time, any plans to incentivize 25-man raiding. They want to make 10 and 25-man raids close enough, so that you choose whatever you find more fun.

The thread is quite poignant if you like that sort of thing, with lots of reflection from people who preferred 25 man raiding but now feel 10 man is their only choice.

I’ve come to the conclusion that 10 man raiding is too small to sustain a healthy guild. Having multiple 10 man teams leads to the formation of cliques, and having a single 10 man team doesn’t have enough people to be able to support a pool of substitutes who’ll be there when you need them.

…not everybody who wants to raid 25-man rather than 10-man will be able to do so… not even remotely. If I think back to WotLK, when my guild was born… I came from a guild that raided 25-man on a rather casual level. You won’t find that anymore. It’s all or nothing with 25-man raiding nowadays, because players in general tend to choose the easiest way they can.

I liked doing 10man with guild and pug 25man in wowlk it was soooo fun. Now we can only do 1 or the other there is no choice in doing both before the 1 week reset.

10-man rosters are a nightmare… if you have 10 people that show up 95% of the time you get floored when 1 person can’t show up. People just leave if they get put on backup so rotating is almost impossible (unless you have a very casual / forgiving players).

I’ve seen that phenomenon, people who would rather quit than be put on backup even for just one night.

The real problem in Cataclysm is the survival of semi-hardcore or semi-casual 25 man raiding guilds. There were a lot of them and in the advent of Cataclysm they were the guilds that suffered the most. … With this system, Blizzard are killing off a specific breed of guilds. The semi-hardcore 25 man guilds that were so prevalent in TBC and WotLK, and that makes me really sad. That was the kind of guild many players liked to join, they knew they weren’t the best of the best, but I bet they had a hell of a lot of fun before Cataclysm came around.

I’ve ran and led 25man raids in WoTLK, and that’s something I know I’ll never get back to. The ingame rewards don’t override the out-of-playing hassle for me, not at all. Even if 25man had 50ilvls better gear, I wouldn’t bother with 25man if I had to be the one taking care of most organization.

So maybe there are plenty of players who would prefer 25 man raids in a semi-casual environment to 10 man raids, but can’t find those raids any more. (I think part of the problem was that officers/ raid leaders always had to be pretty hardcore in 25 man guilds, even if the rest of the guild was semi-casual.) Anyhow, Blizzard has no plans to tweak this or add any incentives for 25 man raiding. Expect to see 25 mans continue to die out.

Yo dawg! We heard you like dailies so we put dailies in your dailies …

So, daily quest lovers, in MoP you will be able to run about 48 daily quests per day should you so wish. There’s actually no limit so you can always do some lower level dailies from previous expansions if you finish all of those and are still bored.

Vaneras comments:

Mists of Pandaria is actually the expansion where we have emphasized dailies the most… ever!

I don’t have any issues with this myself. At that point in the game, people just want to log in and do something fun that will progress their character in some way. Assuming dailies are at least as fun as normal quests and that people who like PvE are happy with normal quests, the only issue is whether players get bored and how many dailies you have to do to get whichever reward you are aiming for. I’d assume players will be less bored when they have a wider variety of daily quests to choose from, so this is probably a good change.

This is also likely to provide quite an influx of gold into the economy, with the usual inflationary effect. People who play the AH will no doubt profit greatly. There will be a new gold sink in the black market.

Olivia@WoW Insider worries that players will feel forced to do as many dailies as possible. I don’t think anyone is ever actually forced to get in game rewards as fast as is humanly possible and maybe the people who do feel that pressure just need to chill and let the people who can control their own playing times enjoy the extra choice.

I find it quite tiresome when choices in games are deliberately restricted because ‘hardcore players would feel forced to do everything.’ Well sucks to be them then.

Cash shop pets to be more powerful in pet battles

Ah, you probably saw this one coming as soon as Blizzard announced that some pets would be considered ‘rare quality’ (ie. more powerful in pet battles) and they would add some non-capture pets to this list. Non-capture means pre-existing pets as opposed to ones that are captured from the wild in MoP.

The full list is here and it does include many of the previous pets that were rare drops in the game. It also includes pets bought from the in game shop.

Blizzard comment:

We decided which pets to change based on how difficult they are to obtain. This approach makes sense since it means that more time was put into getting these particular pets than other ones.

It did not take much time to click ‘buy’ on the cash shop, just saying. Still, I did get warm fuzzies when I saw my crimson whelpling on the list – that pet was given to me by Arb during Vanilla WoW Smile Happy days.

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?

The ways that WoW changed us (and me)

When WoW launched and Blizzard immediately announced that they would need to open more servers to cope with the flood of players, I think we realised that the gaming landscape had irrevocably changed. Now, 7+ years later, it’s been a good time to look back on not only how WoW changed gaming but how individual gamers were changed by coming into contact with WoW.

(This is not even including changes because of other people met while playing.)

Syl asked other bloggers who WoW changed them, both as players and as people, and has summed up responses here.

How WoW changed me

Warcraft wasn’t the first (or last) MMO that I played. It wasn’t the first game in which I was a guild officer or a raid leader:  but it was the first game where I was part of a (fairly) hardcore endgame guild, it was the first game in which I kept a regular raiding schedule, and it was also the first game when I switched guilds just for the sake of progression. It was also the first game in which I played a tank, and the first game in which I burned out on endgame.

That is quite a lot of firsts. In vanilla WoW, I was the priest officer in a 40 man raid guild which ended up in 2nd place on the server. So I saw how these things worked from the inside. In TBC, I saw that guild break up painfully on the rocks of 10/25 man raiding, switched back to a different server and set of friends to raid Karazhan and recover from the sad guild breakup, and eventually switched an alt into a more hardcore raid guild because I wanted to clear Zul Aman and see The Black Temple.

The 40 man guild days were probably the most hardcore I personally have ever played. I used to log in on BWL nights and sit outside the instance for 3 hours just in case they needed a substitute. I had to leave work at 5:30 on the dot in order to get home in time, and many evening meals consisted of a mug of soup by the monitor. I was constantly recruiting new priests, trying to keep the active ones happy, and working with players on improving their performance and fine tuning our tactics.

I have to say, my partner was very understanding.

It was exciting, but it wasn’t something I could sustain. In retrospect, I was almost relieved when the guild split up. I was upset too, but I couldn’t have carried on for much longer. That type of raiding does burn people out, not from the actual raids, but from the stresses of trying to keep a raid guild together.

So I suppose I learned that I could play like that, I was good enough, but I also learned that I didn’t want to and that for me, progression wasn’t worth the cost. I also learned that a lot of other players would judge you purely on progression, and would not accept that you might be a good player who was motivated more by other things than achievements. And that I kind of regret losing out on progression even though I know the decision and play/life balance is much better for me this way.

I also learned to hate Blizzard just a bit for:

  • Making me PvP to get a decent raid weapon (that was in TBC)
  • Nerfing both my main classes hard at the beginning of TBC (that was warrior and priest, if anyone is counting)

It’s a funny thing because I have been raiding casually for far longer now than I was ever raiding hardcore, but I’m still bitter about some of the ways hardcore raiding forced us to play. I enjoyed the camaraderie and team spirit, hated feeling that we had to run just to keep still as far as keeping raid members went, and hated being stuck with fixed team sizes when I knew fine well that the DaoC ‘just take whoever wants to go’ method both worked and was less hassle for raid leaders.

I’ve also made good friends via WoW, but they tended to either drift off, not go to the same games I did, or abandon my friendly 10 man Wrath raid for a hardcore progression raid to which I wasn’t invited (which did put me off raid leading again, possibly ever.) I’m also still quite proud that my little raid team did some of the 10 man Naxx achievements in Wrath while they were still current, especially the 4 horseman one.

Although TBC shaped my playing style a lot, Wrath was my personal high point in the game and was when I was main tank for a 25 man raid guild as well as leading my own 10 man team. But that’s also a time I don’t know that I’d want to return to. It was fun, but I burned out on that style of raiding too and now am more in favour of a more relaxed type of raid schedule.

So I learned a lot about MMO mechanics, made some friends who mostly weren’t permanent, and got involved in MMO endgame. And learned more about myself and achievements, and that I’m more motivated by social and internal goals than my extrinsic motivators, which I sometimes feel separates me from the great mass of gamers who seem to love pointless achievements. So it goes. I also learned that while tanking and healing are good ways to make friends and make yourself useful to your guild/ raid, I’m just as happy with dps and it tends to be a stronger solo playing style, and I’m tired of having to gimp my solo play just to get groups.

I also learned that flying mounts are awesome, I will never get tired of flying.

Breaking the Bond: things that disrupt a player’s MMO experience

Cynwise writes this week about ‘The Tyranny of Classes’ and wonders what happens when a class you once loved doesn’t feel right for you any more. Maybe it’s because your raid group has a greater need for a different role and you are tired of being the unwanted umpteenth melee dps and really really want to feel needed by your raid group. Maybe it’s because various patches and changes over the life of the game have just changed how it played.

Players I know who have switched mains for raiding or PvP seem to go through certain stages of anguish over this. Every time someone drops a pure DPS to tank or heal, it’s always emotionally complicated. <…> Sometimes it works out well – the new class is a better fit than the old one – but even then there are questions of discarded mains, of emotional attachments which need to be resolved. Rerolling is a tough step to take.

Or maybe your class took some nerfs and another class now performs that role better. It shouldn’t matter as long as yours is still good enough but other players will tend to ram it home to you all the time that the blood death knight is a zillion times better of a tank than your warrior (example picked at random) and how much easier things are when the DK can make raids. And before you know it, you feel unwanted and wish DKs would get nerfed into the ground just so that people would appreciate your efforts more.

I honestly think that for a lot of players, this is their first personal experience of discrimination. People judge you on external attributes that you can’t easily change, such as your character’s class. And it’s not fair because it isn’t your fault you weren’t prescient enough to roll the current overpowered class; you are just as good as those stupid DKs with their overpowered abilities, and why can’t anyone appreciate the great stuff that you can do, even if someone half asleep could do it better on their paladin and with fewer key presses too.

Cynwise is wondering why allowing characters to re-class is such a bugbear for MMOs. I’d say that role/class being fixed is a staple of RPGs because it stops everyone from rolling a tankmage and keeps some diversity of flavour in the game. But the fact is, players often have an emotional link with their main character. If that link weakens, the player feels less of a connection to that character or maybe loses the will to play it altogether, then their link to the game is disrupted.

There are other occurrences that can disrupt a player’s link to a MMO. Having your guild (or raid group) implode or friends leave is one of them. Another is having new content arrive that you feel forced to do for progression, but hate (ie. if a game that had been mostly PvE now ‘forces’ players to PvP for their upgrades). Another might be having the payment model change. Another might be burnout, which typically happens over a period of time, but there might be a single disruptive event that gets a player to realise they are burned out.

Any of these disruptive happenings offer the player a chance to change how they play the game: find a new guild, roll a new alt, learn how to enjoy a different playing style. Or they might just decide to leave and try their luck in a different game.  Because changing how you play may involve a lot of effort and energy – joining a new guild and getting to know a new crowd for example can require a lot of emotional energy, especially if you are naturally quite introvert.

One of the comments on Tobold’s post yesterday rang true with me.

MMO players have a career. They get into it, they play for a few years, burnout, spend another couple of years looking for a new MMO that will do it for them again, and then they wander off and play other games. Whether this is because of the demands of life, family, and career, or they no longer respond to the endorphin release of new gears and levels depends on the guy. But the number of people who are willing and able to play these things for decades is very small.

Disruptive events are likely to move a player along this career trajectory because they encourage change. When do you start looking for a new MMO? When something has disrupted your connection to your last one, perhaps. This is why nerfs are more dangerous to a MMO community than buffs, people don’t enjoy having their characters nerfed even if it was regarded inevitable.

When I think of issues that have prompted me to switch games or stop playing a game, I come back to guild/raid issues and burnout, and changes in game philosophy via patches, but also to classes simply not being what they were when I made my original choice.

What changes in MMOs have you found most disruptive? And did you decide to change or quit?

[WoW] In which, surprisingly, subs don’t drop

Actiblizzard announced yesterday that subscriptions for WoW have remained stable over the last quarter (ie. Dec 2011-March 2012).

So despite the current Cataclysm content being widely considered by players to be poor in comparison to previous expansions, and there having been no new content added since last November (patch 4.3), players are hanging in there. That’s not what I would have expected to see. Even allowing for the annual pass tying players in for a year, only a proportion of the player base would have taken that offer up. All you can assume is that Blizzard will feel that whatever they are currently doing with WoW is working, or at least not failing. These long content gaps towards the end of WoW expansions – players clearly are cool with that.

Or not. (I’d disagree that Cataclysm is in its dog days now, I think it has been since shortly after the last patch. But clearly 10.2 mil subscribers disagree Winking smile ). If you play WoW at the moment, are you surprised to see sub numbers stable over the last few months?

Now, pre-orders for Diablo 3 setting some kind of new record for Blizzard doesn’t surprise me, by comparison.

[Cataclysm] 7 ways in which questing has changed

Now that I’ve gotten my main to 85 and seen a large number of the quests in the game, I keep noticing that Blizzard have made some changes across the board to how the whole questing game works. Some are minor, some already existed in other games (LOTRO players will definitely recognise some of these), and others smooth and clarify the existing system.

Bearing in mind that Blizzard pioneered the current MMO trend of levelling completely via quests and were seen as fairly innovative even for minor tweaks like marking quest givers with a giant !, it’s interesting to see where they’re trying to take the ‘genre’ further.

I haven’t mentioned the increased use of phasing, since that existed before. Although it has been used to great effect.

1. No more annoying escort quests

I think players always found escort quests a bit annoying. You find a poor hapless NPC and have to escort it to some other place, during which time you get attacked by several waves of mobs and have to keep the NPC alive. These quests were always plagued with NPCs who ran ahead and got themselves killed, or kept going regardless of the fact that the player was fighting so you got behind, or just generally being annoying.

In WoW these days, this barely happens. Instead, NPC sidekicks are useful (sometimes to the point of massacring mobs before you get to lay a blade on them), amusing/ worrying, and ‘escort’ quests form some of the high points of the questing experience.

Who could forget that dopey druid in the Plaguelands who keeps transforming into the wrong forms? Or the undead ex-Gilneans in Silverpine who coolly murder prisoners after you have freed them ‘for being cowards and getting captured’.

2. More interaction with the world

I have noticed that Blizzard are trying to foster a bit more interaction with the gameworld. Yes, it’s never going to be Minecraft but for example:

  • The Hillsbrad quest that made me go ‘ick’ where you had to pick spider eggs from the backs of dead bears. In previous expansions, you probably would have looted ‘[spider egg] from the corpse. In this one, you have to actually click on the pictures of the spider eggs to pick them up. It’s a subtle distinction but a useful one.
  • The dragonmaw/ alliance daily quests where you have to loot foodstuffs from the burned out villages. Previously the food would have looked like giant sacks. This time, you can loot loaves of bread, fishes, and grain hanging from the ceilings. It feels more like rummaging through the houses to see what food they have left around.
  • Quests where you have to pick things up and deliver them are more likely to show your actual character carrying the item. (I know I’ve seen this but struggling to remember the actual quest.) LOTRO or WAR players will find this to be old hat, but it’s new in WoW.

3. Zone introductions

This is most marked in the new Cataclysm high level zones, but you don’t just run into a new zone any more. Instead there will be cut scenes, travelogues, and ‘something will happen’ to drop you right into the middle of the action. My character probably should never take public transport again, judging by all the shot down zeppelins, drowned ships, and captured caravans.

And yet, it makes the whole process of going to a new zone and discovering it for the first time more of an event.

In particular, the prelude to the Twilight Highlands in Azshara for Horde is brilliant. You have to fetch some of the soldiers out of the goblin fleapits where they’ve been spending their R&R, help get the fleet ready for action, and sit through one of the funniest sequences in the game, where a couple of goblin flight attendants convince you never to set foot on one of those flying deathtraps immediately before you have to leave.

And then there’s the actual flight, together with the fleet of zeppelins, and what happens when they get attacked in the air.

Yes, it’s on rails. But yes, it’s also really exciting. If you’re going to run a game on rails, this is the way to do it.

I think in general Blizzard have been considering how to make progression feel more meaningful. The quest in Vash’jir where you have to tame your own seahorse, Avatar-style, is a good example. Instead of just giving you the seahorse reward,  you get to play through some of the process of getting the sea horse.

Again, LOTRO players will find this to be old hat. They’ve had special racing and riding quests associated with getting your character’s first mount for years.

4. New ways to receive quests

Gone are the days when all quests were received by clicking on an NPC with an exclamation mark over their head. Some will pop up when you enter a location, others when you kill a mob for the first time, others when a new festival starts.

I particularly like the location based quests. They aren’t typically thrilling quests, more along the lines of “there are tons of boars here, you think it’d be a great idea to thin the herd”, but the notion that you could be exploring and find a quest for yourself rather than going back to find an NPC who wanted those mobs massacred is definitely a step forwards.

WAR players will find this similar to the way public quests used to be introduced. You entered the right area and the quest requirements popped up on your screen.

Similarly, some NPCs will let you hand quests in remotely (something which will be familiar to CoH players), saving you having to keep running back to them.

And instance quests now tend to be given out inside the entrance to that instance. There are still extra instance quests that you can get by finishing the zone outside, but the majority are inside the instances. Of course, the downside is that after you have finished the instance, you have to run back to the start to hand them in.

5. More dynamic questing

If you’ve been trying the Dragonmaw/ Wildhammer dailies, you will know that some of them are based around little villages which constantly change hands between horde and alliance. As a player, you can get involved with these skirmishes, and are encouraged to do so in order to get your quests done. In fact, if you find a village occupied by the opposite faction NPC and pull one of them, your own faction NPCs will run in to help.

So basically there’s often fighting between NPCs going on in these locations. New waves will turn up every 10 minutes or so after a village has been captured. And a player can take part either solo or in a group. I imagine it’s a focus for PvP on PvP servers too.

I am rather enjoying it now that I have a better understanding of how it works. I wasn’t so sure before.

6. Use of cut scenes

I know some people hate cut scenes but I love how Blizzard have been using them in Cataclysm, and I now understand what they meant when they were talking about a new approach. You will see your character, wearing the gear it is actually wearing. You will be talking to people, sitting on wagons, interacting with the NPCs in the cut scenes. And if the cut scene involves part of the gameworld where other players are around, you will see them too.

I think they’ve been beautifully done, and if you hate them then there is always the ESC button. Sure, they could be improved. There could be a way to replay or pause them if something comes up iRL while one is playing and you missed it. There are some bugs in Uldum where you may have to terminate a cut scene early.

But I found them very cool on the whole. I like seeing my character in the cut scenes! It makes me feel more part of the action. In particular, the dream sequence in the Twilight Highlands was very very effective.

7. Great set piece solo encounters

Blizzard have really been trying to work on the solo gameplay, in some areas. There are fights like Baron Geddon in Hyjal where NPCs encourage you to move out of the flame ring, and get away from your friends when he turns you into a living bomb (I tried to bomb an alliance guy but he ran away – boooo.)

There’s a particularly cool example at the end of the Twilight Cultist chain in the Highlands where you are fighting alongside Garona (one of the big name characters from the lore) in a fight which feels more like a raid encounter – even solo – than some of the earlier raids themselves did.

In Uldum, Blizzard have tried some innovative quests where you control armies of mobs, where you roll around as a flaming ball of fire killing evil gnomes, and where you paint targets for a tank gunner. They don’t all work brilliantly as gameplay, but it’s obvious that they’re trying to do something different.

Cataclysm Screenshot of the Day

cata_daypic2 Riding my seahorse through a kelp forest.