AoC, APB go F2P. What happens when free isn’t enough any more?

The big MMO news yesterday (apart from Blizzard nerfing their last raid tier) is that Age of Conan will be switching to a Free to Play payment model sometime this Summer. And it’s calling itself UNRATED – which most commenters are interpreting as ‘with more boobs’ (because the world might end if they showed a naked man.) Funcom claim that Howard’s Hyperborea has always been a sexy setting … whatever turns you on, I guess.

APB, the cops and robbers co-op shooter which had previously won a name for itself as shortest lasting ‘MMO’ in existence, also gets a F2P relaunch under new owners.

But I wonder if the trend towards AAA games shifting to a F2P model to get warm bodies through the door is starting to backfire. ‘Free’ isn’t as exciting a proposition as it was a year or two ago. You only have to look at the reaction to the reparation offer that Sony made after the PSN outage to see that; many gamers complaining that they weren’t happy about being offered two free games. Free on its own was not enough to make people excited, it had to be something free which they would otherwise have wanted to buy.

Even when Bioware was giving away free copies of Mass Effect 2 to DA2 owners, there was a substantial outcry that there weren’t enough DLCs included. (It was free, remember.)

So the point to take away is that free stuff is always going to be worth more to some people than others. If you don’t want an item or already have it, then free is worthless and might even be seen as an insult.

(This is a strange concept to those of us who go to conventions with the express goal of picking up as many freebies as possible, especially if they are random things we don’t really want.)

Having said that, AoC is a solid MMO if you’re bored of whatever you are currently playing and the first 20 levels in particular have a good reputation for story and gameplay. So it’s really just a case of whether you have the time and energy to bother downloading it.

Blizzard downgrading Tier 11 raids

I do think the increasing number of F2P MMOs is affecting Blizzard’s strategy. It looks to me as though they’re seeing each content patch as a new chance to win back customers (who have drifted off, possibly to F2P games when they are done with WoW’s current content), which means that it is a priority to make sure that returning customers feel that they have a chance to see the new stuff.

Nerfing older raids so that it’s easier for people to use them and gear up via PUGs plays a part in that strategy, or in other words I agree with Rohan on where they are going with this.

I vaguely remember commenting during Wrath that I felt we were being herded through the content on Blizzard’s timescale rather than our own. So it goes. TotalBiscuit has a fairly incisive summary of how he feels things have changed since TBC. If you ignore the macho “I did this content in beta when it was harder than you can even imagine” posturing, the main complaint is that the timing of progression has been taken out of the players hands. So now if you struggle on content, the smart thing to do is not spend every minute of free time trying to get into a top guild but instead just chill out, wait for the next patch and … yeah … maybe noodle some time away in a F2P game instead.

If you are hopping back into WoW, incidentally, and wondering what class to play, a poll on MMO-Champion voted by large amounts that mages had been the most favoured class this expansion so far. Availability of a legendary caster staff certainly won’t hurt that.

Gaming News: CODBlops breaks records, Rock Band dev up for sale, APB bought by F2P publisher, Fixes for FF14

CODBlops, if anyone is curious, is the going shorthand for Call of Duty: Black Ops which has been breaking sales records this week. I don’t play shooters, and I’m not really sure from reviews whether people think it’s actually better than the last entry in the series, Modern Warfare 2. More details and news snippets on CODBlops (a word I’m going to keep using now) below.

Another minor (ish) news story that came up was the notion that SC2 hasn’t really taken off yet in South Korea in the way Blizzard might have wanted. This is the report, from Edge magazine.

A newspaper report out this week disclosed that thousands of prisoners in the UK are allowed to play computer games. This was greeted with the usual howl of outrage which happens whenever prisoners are treated like human beings (such as being given the vote, for example). But if you actually read the article, the consoles are paid for by the prisoner’s family and access to them is part of an incentive scheme for good behaviour. So the games are part of a schema of behavioural therapy. Lest we forget, part of the prison remit is still to rehabilitate and even if the consoles just encourage more civilised conditions and behaviour behind bars, then they are a Good Thing.

Also of interest to WoW players, Blizzard announced that race changes to the new Cataclysm races will be available on launch night.

Post of the week is Dusty’s time travel imaginings of an evening in the near future when you sit down to play your favourite game …

CODBlops Breaks Records

Ah, watch those first day sales records tumble as another entry in the CoD franchise rappels its way onto the shelves.

And as usual, players immediately start to find and exploit any bugs they can find to gain advantage in multiplayer mode. Treyarch took the unusual step of biting the hand that feeds by criticising the gamer culture that makes people ‘nerd famous’ who have posted details on how to exploit a glitch. This, btw, is the same gamer culture that has made it lucrative business for guilds to race to be first to post strategies and kill videos of new WoW raid bosses. Yup, maybe he has a point.

The other rumour doing the rounds is that the next instalment in the franchise is to be set in space and to feature space marines.  Personally I think they should go back to Napoleonic times, because surely people are sick of space marines now … or is that just me?

Viacom to sell Harmonix

Viacom has lost a lot of money on its video games arm, has decided that it doesn’t really have the expertise to manage the games business, and is planning to sell Harmonix (maker of Rock Band.)

Gamepolitics.com wonders whether the developer would be a good fit for EA. That’s my guess also.

APB bought by F2P publisher

There is an unconfirmed rumour floating around that APB (current holder of the shortest-time-from-launch-to-closure MMO of all time) has been bought by a free to play company. The comments on the RPS post which I linked here are quite an interesting read also.

Whether or not APB will ever go live again we really don’t know. Presumably with all these rumours there should be an announcement soon.

And on that note, what’s with CCP not having announced World of Darkness yet? Developers discussed it at the grand masquerade and still nothing on the website.

Square Enix announces update for FF14

I haven’t said much about Final Fantasy 14 on here since the game launched. This is because I’m still sore that I never was able to get a free trial so never found out whether/ how well it would work on my machine and consequently didn’t feel inclined to dig into my pockets to buy a game which I might not be able to run. (Or in other words, la la la I’m waiting for the PS3 version …)

Anyhow, the game looks gorgeous in screenshots, but there have been some issues. Squenix have a fairly extensive plan to fix this and it sounds as though they’re going to cover a lot of ground. Any FF14 players have any comments on the plans?

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

Caveat Emptor and the (un)timely demise of APB

One of the big gaming news stories this week was the closure of the servers for APB (all points bulletin), the MMO that had been compared to Grand Theft Auto.

Owners Realtime Worlds set a record here for the fastest shut down of an MMO after launch, weighing in at about 80 days. Naturally boxes are still on shop shelves as lumbering retail chains pass the message down the management chain at glacial speed. Which means that it’s entirely possible right now for an unsuspecting punter to pay full price for a box which is perfectly useless – an online-only game with no active servers.

Comments around the gaming blogs come in two varieties: why did the game fail, and is it even moral to launch an MMO knowing that your company is on the verge of bankruptcy unless it sells an unfeasibly high number of boxes?

APB: Doomed from the drawing board

The concept behind this game was never, never in a million years going to work as an MMO. The idea is that you have a social area where people can have their avatars wander around and chat/ casually insult each other/ show off their costumes, and an instanced PvP area where they can face off in the mean streets of a large 100vs100 battleground.

Neither of those are bad things. Trying to sell it as an MMO based on that, however, was never going to fly.

It isn’t that a GTA type of MMO could never work. It just could never work without the virtual world side of the game in place. Players would have to want to become playas, to own some of those bars or nightclubs, to run their own gangs or advance in the ranks of law enforcement. They’d want some kind of a working economy. They’d want to be invested enough to have something to fight for. In particular, you can’t run a gang war without turf rights. Done right, it could have the depth of The Godfather or The Untouchables. And it could still foster the fast paced running combat.

It isn’t even that hard to put together a ruleset for a turf/ black market based gangster game, I’ve played PBeM games (play by email turn based game) that did it. Add that to a decent shootout implementation, and maybe, just maybe you’ve got something. APB however never did.

The smart thing to have done would have been to start with a single player/ small group game (a la Torchlight)  to test the concept and then maybe look towards expanding, taking feedback from players, and building an MMO from there.

They didn’t do the smart thing. They built a neat looking customisable character demo though.

Obviously it’s sad when a company goes bust and people lose their jobs but this time it isn’t down to the current state of the economy. I worked for a company during the dot.com boom that put out products that no one wanted and we went bust too. That’s life. As an engineer, when you see this is happening (and everyone who is paying attention in a company like that will have half a clue), you get as much training and experience on new and trendy techniques and tools as possible before the shit goes down– at least you’ll get some transferable skills for your CV out of the whole shebang.

Keen has written his thoughts on why APB failed, and as usual he’s pretty much on the ball when analysing why he doesn’t like something.

The morality of running MMOs

So assume you are running an MMO, and selling it to players as a service. And then for whatever reason, the service ends. Have you done something immoral? How much notice should players get? Should you even launch at all if you can’t guarantee to keep the servers going for … well … that’s the question? What if you know at the launch that your company is teetering on the financial brink?

From one point of view, as the CEO of a company in trouble, it’s pretty much immoral to not attempt to maximise profit. If you have a product and could sell it to recoup some investment, clearly you should go ahead and do it. On the other hand, if you are selling a service then you need to factor in the costs of running that service. If you can’t afford it then maybe you need to think about other options – maybe selling IP rights or code instead of launching.

But is an MMO a product or service?

We know that in most recent MMOs, there is a surge of players at the start and many of them drop off at the end of the first month. But if you told those players that the game would close at the end of the month, the vast majority wouldn’t buy it at all .. even though they know full well they probably wouldn’t play for much longer than that.

I think it’s because we still think of an MMO as being like any other computer game, most of which we probably don’t play for over a month either. It’s just that with the MMO, there is always the possibility that you’ll want to make it your second home, and with other computer games, the decision as to when to play is in your hands. Also, with other computer games, you don’t feel an obligation to check the developer’s financial position before you buy the game, just in case.

So I think APBs swift failure, whether it was a moral failure on the part of the management or not, is unfortunate for future online games. After Hellgate London, players might justifiably have gotten more nervous about buying ‘lifetime subscriptions’. And now, after APBs failure, players might be more nervous about buying an MMO from a company that hasn’t any track record of running one previously.

Gaming News: What’s hot at E3, APB and the embargo of doom, WAR drops producer, Microsoft still has no sense of humour shock

Mourn with me now for the ongoing death-by-boredom of English football, coming to a TV near you on Wednesday night.

And in other news, another E3 industry convention has come and gone. So what did 2010 have to show? I’ve covered much of the MMO news here with a special SWTOR post here.

The two biggest stories of the convention, to my mind, are hardware related.

  • Sony and Nintendo are betting that we’d all like to see our gaming in 3D – the PS3 will get a compatibility patch for 3DTVs and Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld (no glasses required) will offer a 3D experience. In fact, if I had to pick one single news story from E3, it would be that everyone who tried the new 3DS said – in shock – it just works. And it will also apparently be able to show films in 3D.
  • Sony and Microsoft also showed off their respective motion controller technology. The Sony Move looks like a stick with a ball on the end, and Microsoft’s Kinect (the renamed Natal technology) doesn’t require the player to hold a physical controller at all, it picks up your actions as you move around. But somehow, despite giving a new XBOX to everyone at their presentation, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have captured the journalists’ attention.

Jon Shute blogs at VanHemlock about the various new hardware on offer, and concludes that neither of the two motion controllers seem to be aimed at the hardcore gamer.

The big three E3 presentations

Each of the big console manufacturers traditionally gives a big presentation at E3. The aim is to build up some excitement about their hardware, future plans, and what’s in store for their customers over the next year.

This year, I think Nintendo did the best job of capturing people’s imaginations. The 3DS wowed everyone who tried it. Their software lineup includes new outings for a lot of old favourite franchises (well, if you are a nintendo head anyway) including Zelda, Goldeneye, Kirby, Metroid, and Donkey Kong (yes really). There’s a strong lineup of software on offer for both of their consoles and as an avowed DS fan, I can’t wait to get my hand on a 3DS. I also look forwards to more DS RPGs and puzzlers. All very crowd pleasing stuff.

What Nintendo do extremely well is put the message across that their portfolio offers something for everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone saw that presentation and didn’t find at least one game or genre that caught their interest.

By comparison, Microsoft just can’t seem to get it right. Even when they have technology as potentially exciting as the Kinect, they somehow … miss the mark. Instead of a coherent ‘we offer something for everyone’ message, they just give the impression that they’re incoherent and confused. On the one hand, they’re chasing the 18-30 male gamer with a slew of shooters and a deal with ESPN to show premium sports on Xbox live. To hammer the point home, EA introduced a new Xbox loyalty program called ‘the Gun Club’ – I guess they won’t be including any family type games with that then.  … And then there’s Kinect with some dancing games which M/soft is trying to portray as the Xbox’s great white hope. It does not compute.

Then there’s Sony who are trying to sell people on the future of 3DTV – a rather expensive future given the current recession for sure. Their presentation leaned heavily on third party games, but what a great lineup. Sorcery – a magical combat game based on using the Move controller – sounds amazing, exactly what you’d want of a Harry Potter knockoff.

They also put one over on Microsoft by actually announcing prices for the Move. And also, whilst confirming that the PSN (online aspect of the PS3) will remain free, they plan to offer a premium service which will include extra downloadable content. I think we’ll need to see what’s on offer before people decide whether to go for this or not. The other big news from the Sony presentation is that Portal 2 will be available for the PS3, along with steamworks.

Some of the other games that caught my attention at E3 were Tron, Bulletstorm, Portal 2, the obligatory SWTOR and a whole slew of games for the DS.

No reviews for APB until a week after release?

All Points Bulletin, the GTA-alike PvP based MMO is rumbling towards release at the moment. And the developers decided that now would be a good time to demand that reviewers not release any reviews until a week after the release date. RPS state in this link that response to the beta has not been positive – I’m not so sure. Plenty of rpg.net players seemed to like it well enough.

In reponse to press complaints, Realtime Worlds produced another press release and moved the embargo forwards.

Whilst I understand that MMOs take time to review, the answer is glaringly obvious and is just to read impressions from several different sources – blogs, bboards, professional sites. A MASSIVE multiplayer game needs to be seen from a massive number of views, and most casual blogs also treat foolish press embargoes with the disdain that they deserve. Trying to get a blogger to not tell their mates what they think of their latest purchase is a fool’s game.

Drescher leaves WAR

I had hoped that WAR might be settling on an even keel but in news this week, Josh Drescher (the producer) got the boot. I wish him luck in future – I still do have a soft spot for that game, but it cannot be a good sign.

No more red ring of death

I cringe for Microsoft, I really do. There will not be a red ring of death (the nickname for the indication that hardware has failed) on future XBOXs because …. they’ve removed the red LED.

That’s a classic marketing solution to an engineering problem, by the way.