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

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

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

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

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soloing in MMOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diablo 3

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

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

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

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

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

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

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

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

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

Microsoft and the Console Wars

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

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

And finally …

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

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

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

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

Gaming News: Free Steam Game, Comic Con MMO News, GTA Rothbury, Women spend more on virtual goods, 38 Studios big reveal, Starcraft did not cost $100m

Happy Sunday!

This week brings lots of announcements from Comic Con, including new trailers.

EA/ Maxis also announced that they are producing a game called Darkspore which seems to have nothing at all to do with Spore, except that they claim that they were inspired by the Spore character creator. Perhaps they realised that people enjoyed playing with the character creator more than they did with the game.

Having said that, “players battle across alien worlds to save the galaxy from the mutated forces of Darkspore in a four-player co-operative and full single-player campaign” sounds just a little bit like Alien Swarm, the free 4 player co-op top down shooter which was released for free (free as in beer) along with its base code on Steam this week. (It had good reviews too, go grab a copy if that sounds like your type of game.)

But riddle me this: Does the  “build your own pet dickmonster and watch it dance” play of Spore character creator really translate into a successful “build your own weapon out of monster body parts” type of shooter? Surely a Pokemon type of “Build your cute monster and then make it fight other monsters!” game would have been more logical.

DC Universe Online launch trailer

Fans of lycra-clad men, woman and aliens with improbable body shapes look no further, the Who do you trust? DCUO trailer is here.

Is it bad if every time I saw Wonder Woman, I wished they’d put her in the new costume? Also Batman looks terrifically butch in this trailer, I prefer him with the voluminous cloak.

DCUO is due to launch in November. Hopefully we’ll soon hear much more about the game itself and how it plays.

Space Battles to feature in SWTOR

Another announcement made at Comic Con confirms that the SWTOR team plan to include space battles in their upcoming MMO. It sounds as though it will involve some kind of self contained gameplay – and there’s more information to come in next month’s PC Gamer (a magazine which has been working hard to earn MMO fans’ money recently).

Dragon Age 2 at Comic Con

Lots more news this week about Dragon Age 2, also. I can’t sum it up any better than Arbitrary, who was there at the DA2 panel:

There’s a couple of big differences which I think will prove quite interesting, but obviously which we can’t really see in a short playtest. First of all, the hero is voiced! No more silence.

Secondly, the narrative structure of the game has changed. The game covers a much longer period than Dragon Age, and is told by a couple of (not necessarily reliable) narrators – the tale of The Champion (that’s you, that is!) and who s/he was. This allows Bioware, and the player to play key points in the life of the character, with each being able to have a massive influence on the rest of the story.

The section of playable game was chosen to show off some of the fighting and a little of the dialogue, but it was pretty short. I thought it definitely looked like the combat flowed more and I liked what I heard of the voices and what I saw of the new art style. In fact, there really wasn’t much I didn’t like about the changes and I’m now really looking forward to playing the game, due out in Spring next year – in perfect time for my birthday!

More from Comic Con

Arbitrary has been filing more reports from Comic Con here and there are a few more to come, also. Lots of news there.

And a link to Super Hero Squad Online (I couldn’t get this to work in Firefox but it’s fine in IE) which sounds like a terrifically fun little kid-friendly MMO where you collect Marvel Superheroes into a team and get them to go fight for you.

GTA Rothbury

Recently in the UK we had a manhunt for an ex-prisoner who went on a shooting rampage. There was a lot of criticism about media coverage, claiming (with good justification) that they turned it into a media circus with journalists reporting next to armed police squads whilst negotiating was going on and in earshot of the subject of the manhunt, and so on.

The final stand took place in a small village called Rothbury. This is only relevant because one of the crappier UK newspapers was taken in this week by a faked screenshot showing the cover of what purported to be Rockstar’s next game – Grand Theft Auto Rothbury.

Whilst any actual gamer would not have given that even a second of thought, clearly the Daily Star has none on staff because they ran with it. They got mocked widely in the gaming press, and then Rockstar got some lawyers involved. The Star had to apologise.

Women spend more than men on virtual goods

A survey published this week shows that women spend more than men on virtual goods. As you’ll see in the link, there’s room for some queries on the survey methodology, in particular running a survey on a micro-transaction site is likely to show that users spend more on casual games than ‘traditional’ ones,  but it wouldn’t surprise me if the general trend turned out to be correct. Hopefully there will be more surveys to follow.

But this does raise the question: in an era where online games are leaning more and more heavily on ‘micro’-transactions, how will they change to lure in more women if women are actually their best customers? Or is there a way for them to get men to spend more? Will it involve guns and/or porn?

Lots of questions. You can bet that many business heads in the industry are thinking about this right now.

38 Studios reveal Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning

Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios have been teasing a reveal of their first game for many moons now, and this week they brought out a trailer and some information.

Previously known only as Project Mercury, their single player RPG has been announced as Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning (or KOAR for short.) There’s a trailer to go with the announcement, and it looks pretty sleek.

38 Studios always claimed to be about MMOs, and this single player RPG is to be a testbed for their rich game universe and background, as well as a good game in its own right. While the long long trail of hype without any supporting substance has put a lot of bloggers off, it’s hard to argue with talent like:

People working on the game
- Lead Designers: Ken Rolston (Redguard, Morrowind, Oblivion), Mark Nelson (Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout 3)
- Lead Narrative Designer: Erik J. Caponi (Oblivion, Fallout 3)
- Lead Systems Designer: Ian Frazier (Ultima 5: Lazarus, Titan Quest, Dawn of War: Soulstorm)

And that’s even before you include Bob Salvatore and Todd McFarlane. So either way, this has to be great news for fans of single player open world RPGs. It isn’t due to be released until Autumn 2011 though.

No, Starcraft did not cost $100m

Last week, I noted rumours that SC2 had cost $100m to make. It turns out that the commenter who said “no way” was absolutely right. Starcraft 2 did not cost $100m, the Wall Street Journal got its figures mixed up and had to print a retraction.