Why CoD Elite is great for gamers

Amidst all the complaints of cash grabbing and random exploitation of gamers levelled at Activision after the announcement of the CoD Elite subscription service, I wonder if anyone else thinks it’s a smart idea for what  could be a pretty good service.

I really like the idea of being easily able to find players who share similar interests. Don’t hate me! I just think it would be kind of fun to be able to run a battleground with other players who are fans of The Game of Thrones and discuss what’s likely to happen to Sansa and Arya in between rounds of PvP. Or easily find players who are from the same area so that we could get together for meetups more easily if we all get on.

One of the big unsolved problems in MMOs has always been how to find a good guild. Achievement-heads have gotten around this by defining a good guild as one where they can get lots of achievements, and then flocking to websites where guilds are defined by their achievement scores/ progression. More social players make contact with each other by chatting, by targeted ‘adverts’ on bboards and by getting recommendations from their friends. But there is always an element of luck involved.

But what if it was just easier to hook up with a bunch of fellow gamers who share similar interests/ location/ age/ criteria of your choice? What if it was easier to set up tournaments and events in the game just for your friend list?

The challenge of building a social network layer onto games isn’t a new one. Steam has an implementation, Blizzard toyed with Facebook associations before an outcry from players closed down that idea (incidentally, Facebook would have been free, anything they decide to implement for battle.net might not), various startups like raptr and xfire have experimented with these ideas as well.

But none of them have been as well integrated into a specific game as CoD Elite will be.

The first step with introducting a new paid service is to plan out a service that people will want to use. I think that Activision have hit this one for six, it could improve the game experience for a lot of current fans. The second step is to get them to actually pay – and in a world where other social networks tend to be free, that may be a harder sell.

And yet, those ‘free’ social networks are supported by advertising, by marketing demands which are tilted in favour of the bottom line and not of the users. Perhaps a pay-for social network which really is designed purely to serve the users’ needs isn’t a step we should be shying away from.

At the end of the day, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I commented recently that the way I’d prefer MMOs to earn more money from players is to offer more services and goods outside the game itself. I’d much rather pay for access to a cool social network than for cash shop goods and xp potions …

Call of Duty to get a subscription option

What is this I don’t even …?

News today is that Activision-Blizzard are planning on introducing a subscription option for CoD. This itself is not surprising as there have been rumours about it for months. But what is perhaps unexpected is that apparently this is going to take the form of an ‘elite’ social network  to which players can subscribe.

So the idea is that you pay your $60 or so for the main game, and then they’re going to try to sell you a subscription on top. It sounds as though some content (such as map packs) will be included, as well as being able to compare stats with other players and find people with similar interests (if ‘likes to play shooters’ isn’t similar interest enough).

But no, the surprise here is that they broke the story in the Wall Street Journal and not a gaming publication. That sends a message about who Activision really want to hear about this development. No doubt we’ll hear more at E3 next week. (And I guess, the other surprise is that they’ve decided subscriptions will make more money for them than expanding F2P options, so opposite to the way the MMO world has been trending. Wonder if they’ll offer a cash shop on top of this.)

So if you are a CoD player, how do you feel about this option? Better value than buying occasional map packs as DLC? What could they put in to make it tempting? And how much would you be prepared to pay per month/year?

And if you aren’t, don’t worry, chances are that if it’s popular, your favourite online multiplayer game will go this way too:

Rob Dyer, senior vice president of publisher relations at Sony’s U.S. games division, said only a few games have the audience loyalty and size to support a subscription service like Call of Duty Elite. Mr. Dyer said he is “very confident” other publishers will follow Activision’s lead. “There’s money to be made there,” he said.

And a video trailer for the new service has also been leaked in advance of E3. I wonder if CoD counts as an MMO yet …

Blizzard subs fall, and voting with your feet

News at the Activision investor call yesterday (yes it’s that time of the year) was that WoW subscriptions have dropped by around 600,000 since Cataclysm launched.

Kotaku comment that this means numbers are dropping towards pre-Wrath levels, which is an odd way of putting things since they still have a fair way to go before that. The Ancient Gaming Noob puts it better, as a 5% drop since Cataclysm launched.

This will not surprise any player who has been paying attention – I think the playerbase is well aware that many players have been getting bored with the new expansion relatively quickly. And although it’s tempting to say “yes but 11.4 million players are still there”, that’s probably not a constant population so much as a churn anyway.

But it’s interesting to imagine that the vast bulk of WoW subs are stable, with a swing population of 4-600k (easily enough to populate another successful MMO or two when they get bored of WoW). I wonder if they still count as WoW tourists if WoW is the game they’re getting bored with?

Activision’s response is that they will bring more frequent content updates to WoW, so both people who left because they ran out of content and current players who find they’ve run out of things to do should be pleased with that. It’s interesting to wonder how far this is a response to Rift’s frequent updates also but I’m sure that paying players voting with their feet is a larger influence.

In any case, expect subs to drop further over the summer because .. well … it’s warm out (at least in the northern hemisphere).

Changing patterns of MMO playing

I think the patterns in which people play MMOs are changing. With a larger choice of F2P games, as well as older AAA games offering new updates and content, there’s an increasing slice of the playerbase who will be more game-nomadic and less likely to set down roots in a single game for long periods of time.

This probably won’t affect WoW for a long time, they’re enough of their own thing to be in a different category altogether. And the majority of their player base has little interest in other MMOs. But people who do want to drift in and out and try different things will be wondering what they get for their sub.

And once you have a tooled up character in any game, it’s much easier to hop back in when a new and interesting content update comes along. (eg. I hadn’t played LOTRO for awhile but went back for Enedwaith.) So Activision’s comments about more frequent content updates show that they’re recognising this direct link between new content patches and players returning to the game. I’m sure they knew this anyway but this time they’ve explicitly stated it.

It’ll be interesting to see how they try to balance up attracting ex-players to return with keeping existing players from getting bored and leaving.

Gaming News: Bioware’s Mystery Game, LOTRO takes hobbits to Isengard, Music games nosedive, Jagex beats patent suit, Activision closes more studios

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So apparently this is a traditional week of sales in the US, which brings me to the picture to the left. What’s odd about this screenshot?  It’s from amazon.co.uk. Yes, I’m puzzled too.

In any case, keep an eye out for sales from your favourite US vendor (eg. steam, etc) this week. There does come a point when virtual shops become almost indistinguishable from any other type of online shop with the various sales, time limited offers, etc … which is of course the point.

CODBLOPS duly and predictable broke some sales records last week, despite reviews generally agreeing that it isn’t as good as the predecessor. I presume people are keen for their annual shmup purchase and if it’s disappointing will just whine about it until they get a chance to buy next years’. But it is interesting that the quality of the game doesn’t seem to affect buying decisions unless it really does dip below some kind of acceptable level.

Speaking of which, Activision now claim that Infinity Ward (the studio which made MW2) has now been successfully restructured which means that they have 3 studios working on Call of Duty games. But we don’t know which one will be tapped for next year’s episode.

A lot of MMO bloggers have been writing about Perpetuum this week, an EVE-like game featuring giant robots which is in beta and giving out beta keys at the moment. Interestingly, even the home page gives me an EVE vibe.

EVE itself has released footage of a rather stunning character generator that will go live alongside Incarna (the upcoming expansion that will allow characters to walk around inside space stations). I do still have my doubts about a game where in a standard starter guide, trying to scam other players is listed as a standard way for newbies to make in-game money.

Posts of the week are from Rhii and Alas, both on the subject of having to choose between friendship and progression in WoW. And this illustrates nicely some of the  structural issues in WoW which break up the community (not to mention stressing out players unduly) and which Blizzard has shown no interest in addressing by adding support for raid alliances or multiple guild membership. (ie. anything that would make it easier to be a member of multiple social organisations, some of which might be focussed on different in game objectives.)

The notion that if you want progression you need to pay for it by dumping your mates just reminds me of Fame (“Fame costs and right here’s where you start paying!!”). It doesn’t have to be that way.

Bioware’s Mystery Game

Bioware have been dropping teasers this week about a new unannounced game, promising to reveal all at the VGA awards.

Clues so far have been translated as:

Amazingly, people are attempting to sound somewhat excited about the picture of the man with the gun. I’d say it’s either going to be Mass Effect 3 (in which case they should have teased with a picture of Garrus without his top on) or … some shooter. Kotaku are guessing that it’s a multi-player spinoff of Mass Effect, but surely if it was a scifi game they’d show space or something cool?

I wouldn’t begrudge Bioware if they wanted to take a shot (sic) at a FPS. Good luck to them. But I don’t think they really get the whole PR thing sometimes …

We’re taking the hobbits to Isengard … in Autumn 2011

Turbine announced that the next expansion for LOTRO, The Rise of Isengard, is due next Autumn. It isn’t going to be a huge expansion like Moria, Turbine are moving away from that kind of update due to pacing issues. But it sounds as though there will be plenty to do.

Also they are due to release more raid content next year before that.

I think the pacing comment was very telling. Maybe players would prefer more piecemeal content releases rather than waiting around a couple of years for a big chunk of content all in one piece.

Music games face a downturn

Remember those halcyon days when Rock Band and Guitar Hero were the big thing? All in the past now, apparently gamers just aren’t buying the things in the same quantities any more.

Jagex beats patent suit

Jagex, developers of Runescape, won a patent suit this week and the CEO took the opportunity to have a snipe at the dreadful US patent system. I don’t have much to add except for yes, the US patent system is extremely awful and allows people to pursue frivolous patent claims which end up being very expensive to the defending party on very little evidence.

(I was surprised that the losing party wasn’t required to pay costs, I’d have assumed that to be standard.)

Activision closes more studios

Apparently if your last game wasn’t a huge hit, Activision loses interest. This week they moved to close Bizarre Creations (maker of Project Gotham Racing), although there is a rumour that Microsoft is among several companies interested in buying the developer.

They also closed Budcat Creations, a studio that has been working on Guitar Hero and Band Hero games (see above note about music games being down on sales).

Gaming News: Halo Reach breaks sales records, APB is dead or is it, Pirates to go F2P, Activision to sell cut scene movies, Steam introduced new wallet

This week heralded the Tokyo Game Show, with more news about forthcoming Japanese games.

Stories from Tokyo that caught my eye were the announcement of Valkyria Chronicles 3, but not for the PS3. I think that’s a shame, the first game is a super RP tactical strategy game with a very different type of tactical strategy combat from games like Final Fantasy.

Never mind, the trailer of Studio Ghibli’s Ni No Kuni should keep PS3 RPG fans happy for now. (WANT!!)

And Phantasy Star Online 2 was also announced and due for the PC in 2011. I never played the original but I remember it had a huge cult following, so MMO fans might want to keep their ears peeled.

Microsoft also took the opportunity at their TGS conference to predict 3m sales of Kinect this Christmas and announce some Kinect exclusive games. More interestingly, they predict that there could be 5 years of life left in current gen consoles (admittedly they have a vested interest in encouraging people to buy them, but it may also be true.)

In WoW news, wow.com has changed its name back to WoW Insider and moved domains to wow.joystiq.com. They answer questions about the change here. But you have to wonder whether a domain name like wow.com will be allowed to rot in limbo.

Halo Reach breaks $200m in first day sales

Halo Reach has been breaking sales records, recording over $200m in sales in America and Europe on it’s first day. This actually makes it the biggest US entertainment release of the year, beating opening weekend sales for top blockbuster films as well as gaming releases. Amazingly, this still falls short of the Modern Warfare numbers last year. The game has been getting great reviews in the media, too.

And this is why we will always have AAA shooters.

The sad demise of APB

Realtime Worlds failed to find a buyer for APB as a going concern, and the servers closed down this week, about 80 days after launch. This is a record, as far as I know, for MMOs.

It isn’t clear what sort of legal rights any buyers have, although requests for refunds are being directed towards retailers. That’ll certainly make them keep to take more new MMOs in the future. There is a rumour that a buyer may have emerged for APB, but even if true that doesn’t mean they want to actually run the game. They may be more interested in the codebase.

Pirates of the Burning Sea announces switch to F2P

Flying Lab software have announced a change in charging scheme for their pirate themed MMO, Pirates of the Burning Sea. The producer comments in his post:

Finally, in the modern MMO environment, players often rotate through several games that they’re engaged in. With a subscription, it’s a hassle to cancel and then re-subscribe as they move back and forth between games. With F2P, players can play the games they want to play right that moment without having to keep in mind what they committed to weeks or months ago. F2P is a win for the player, and it’s a win for a more diverse MMO community.

I remember thinking that Pirates was a rather cool game when I tried it in beta, just I didn’t want to commit to subscriptions. And I think his point that players often rotate through different MMOs these days is a really interesting one. May add more thoughts about that this week, but the idea of finding an MMO to become your virtual home is probably looking old fashioned right now to a lot of players.

They haven’t announced a date for the switchover but fans of nautical combat and economic PvP might want to give this one another look. It’s very different in theme and style to other games out there, having more in common with EVE than with WoW.

Anyone want to pay for a collection of cut scenes? Activision says yes

Bobby Kotick is keen to monetize cut scenes. Although he was talking about selling them separately as a movie, I can’t help wondering whether they’d be keener to sell them as extras to existing games (which is probably a bonus if you hate cutscenes and never want to see them again.)

Speaking about these cutscenes, Kotick said: “If we were to take that hour, or hour and a half, take it out of the game, and we were to go to our audiences for whom we have their credit card information as well as a direct relationship and ask, ‘Would you like to have the StarCraft movie?’, my guess is that … you’d have the biggest opening weekend of any film ever.”

Does anyone else find it creepy when he reminds everyone that they have the credit card information from their audience (not to mention untrue because I don’t recall that you are forced to buy the game direct from Actiblizzard)?

My thought is that sure, you could have a fairly large opening weekend if it was CHEAP. No one who spend £45 on a video game is going to want to spend half again on the same cutscenes … are they?

Still, I could  imagine paying a fiver for a collection of nicely edited together cutscenes for a game I really liked. I enjoyed watching through the video collection of warcraft 2/3 clips showing Arthas’ story pre-WoW.

Speaking at the same conference, Kotick also claimed that Activision have no wish to charge online fees for CoD, or in-game ads at all. It is quite odd to hear him talking about showing respect for his customers, wonder what happened to the real Bobby Kotick.

New Steam wallet

Steam are planning to let you load your account up with cash, which will be available via prepaid cards (ie. if you want to give one as a gift or don’t have a credit card) as well as via credit card purchase or offer codes. They have chosen not to go with their own virtual currency.

This will be a boon to people who want to sock some cash away when they are feeling flush in order to get the most out of the infamous Steam sales later on.

They do note though:

Funds added to the Steam Wallet are non-refundable and non-transferable

Gaming News: Bungie signs up with Activision, EQ2 removes starting zones, Fallen Earth Dev cuts staff, and Vote Norman!

It’s that time of the week again. I feel I should thank the entire gaming industry for coughing up interesting news regularly since I started this column! Especially since all news in the UK has been postponed until next Thursday because of the election.

Bungie signs soul away for 10 years to Activision

Activision will be have been pleased to distract investors from the continuing saga of Infinity Ward (can we start calling it Finite Ward yet?) by announcing that the highly respected studio – best known for the Halo franchise, as well as Myth and Marathon – has inked the deal on a 10 year exclusive worldwide partnership.

Bungie were however careful to retain ownership of their IP. And this is all good news for PS3 owners because future games are likely to be multi-platform.

But lest we forget about Infinity Ward, this week 38 members of the Modern Warfare 2 team launched a lawsuit against Activision in respect of unpaid bonuses.

More Obstacles for Starcraft 2

As if it wasn’t bad enough that SC2 was rated 18+ in Korea, Blizzard is now in dispute with KeSPA (the Korean e-Sports Players Association) about which organisation is in charge of managing the sport of SC2 in Korea.

I think this is likely a bigger story than it seems, and that we’ll hear more about this one. It also sheds some light on the tricky relationship between a developer and the third party organisation responsible for organised player events.

Blizzard sets up a Cataclysm in the WoW Raiding Scene

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Blizzard has also switched into full-on information mode about Cataclysm recently. As well as the well publicised announcement about raiding changes, they’ve also started to release screenshots such as the one above.

The substance of the planned raid changes is:

  • 10 and 25 man versions of all raid encounters. They will drop the same loot, and offer approximately the same difficulty.
  • 10 and 25 man locks will be exclusive, players will not be able to run both on the same character. Instead they will have to choose.
  • The aim is to make 10 man raiding seem like a stronger option rather than the lesser and easier way to go.
  • Class designers will also be tweaking classes to make 10 man groups easier to form (that means spreading out raid buffs and abilities even further). So if you are deciding what class to play in Cataclysm, at least wait a couple of months until they’ve announced all the details because they may yet surprise you.

A lot of bloggers came out either in favour or against the changes, and you can see from the comments on my post how strongly people feel about their raiding. I’ve been most surprised by the number of people who feel that they’re carrying half the members of their current 25 man raid and can’t wait to ditch them. Really? But if you feel like that, why don’t you just go apply to a more hardcore raid guild yourself that will do a better job at winnowing the chaff than your current leadership? I thought that was how it worked.

And also at the people who think that if people flock to 10 man raids it must mean that they hated the other ones. It might, but more likely it just means that players will always take the easiest available route to the rewards. If Blizzard decided to put the same loot on 5 man instances, they’d do that instead.

Still, the jury is still out about whether this change will actually make the raid game more accessible or not. Bearing in mind that any group of friends who just want to run 10 mans can do that right now. And that to my mind depends a lot on the accessibility of PUGs.

EQ2 cuts out a starting zone

The new EQ2 producer, Dave Georgeson, has already started to make his mark at SOE. A couple of recent changes in the latest test-patch have riled up the player base because they’re removing content rather than replacing or updating it.

If anyone tried the EQ2 trial, you might remember the Trial of the Isle. This starting zone involved players learning their trade on an island zone, before graduating and being transported to their respective capital city. Well, treasure those memories because that zone is due for a Catac^D^D^D^D^D to be removed.

As a former (albeit brief) player, my reaction is that they could have just nuked Qeynos from orbit and left the harmless newbie zone (which really wasn’t at all bad) to drift under its own steam towards happier waters. Ysharros claims that some players loved the saccharine Wood Elf village in Qeynos. I agree 100% with her view which is that the districts were poky little racial ghettoes and when I tried playing a (ugh, can’t remember the name of the race, slender bald magic using humanoids) I quit the character in disgust at how awful the city was. Say what you will about WoW, it has awesome racial starting zones.

And I think the EQ2 devs made the right call here, their newer starting areas are SO MUCH BETTER than those tedious old cities with the constant zoning. I still think an actual nuking would be the way to go.

Level up in your sleep in Age of Conan

Funcom announced a new feature this week for Age of Conan, which is a variant of rested xp.

With this new feature you will get additional levels gained over time that can be allocated to characters in the character selection screen if you wish. It is designed to earn and allocate additional levels to gain over time even while being offline and it’s only available to put on characters that are at least level 30.

Again, the blogosphere has exploded with collective outrage at the notion that you might be able to level up a character without playing it (*coff* WoW register-a-friend *coff*).

I actually think it’s a pretty good idea. Probably a super turbo charged rested xp bonus would have done the same job without ruffling as many feathers but if I’ve been playing a game for long enough to have accumulated lots of offline xp then I probably do want the option to skip any levels or zones I didn’t much like the first time.

Now if AoC wasn’t so boobs and blood oriented I’d be tempted to give it another look. I keep hearing good things about improvements that the team has made since last year, and they have an expansion due out on May 11th.

Fallen Earth Dev cuts staff

Icarus Studios announced a restructuring this week which involved laying off 75% of the original staff. That’s not good news whichever way you cut it.

And if you get bored of the real election, why not vote for William the Conqueror instead?

This is a great story. A teacher in Northamptonshire decided to use the election as part of a history lesson. He set up a 1066 election between Harold Godwinson, Harald of Norway and William of Normandy (guess they didn’t want to call him William the Bastard). Connoisseurs of English history will remember that what actually happened was that Harold beat Harald at Stamford Bridge before marching down to Hastings to take an arrow through the eye from one of William’s men.

Anyhow, he took the whole thing onto twitter and that’s where the rest of the universe got involved.

I think it’s adorable and p.s. vote Norman, for change you can believe in.

Thought of the Day: Sparkly horses make quarterly earnings look great

Is it a coincidence that Activision announced that quarterly earnings for Q1 2010 were ahead of expectations (I was amused by EA’s comment) on the same day that Blizzard offered a sparkly pegasus mount for sale via the wow store? Methinks they just bumped up the next quarter’s earnings rather substantially too …

This is a significant (but hardly unpredictable) move on Blizzard’s part. Special awesome mounts used to be associated with hardcore raid or arena achievements. To put one into the cash shop that is prettier, sparklier, and more awesome than the raid achievements — yup, that’s a change of direction. Of course everyone will buy one. I only wonder whether they’ll make it time limited or not.

And to those pondering the costs, I suspect it actually compares reasonably to cash shop offerings from any other sub game. It flies, it runs, it’s available to every alt on the account and all future alts too, it goes as fast as the owner’s training will allow (up to 310% if you have access to that). And it’s a sparkly flying pegasus.

And bear in mind that the only reason so many people are willing to pony up (haha, I slay me) is because they’re already invested in the game, because the rest of the gaming experience offered is so high quality. Also, the more money they make out of this type of virtual fluff, the less likely they are to raise the sub fees.