In which Blizzard figure out how to charge social players more

Always the contrarians, Blizzard announced plans yesterday to charge players more for the ability to group with people on their realID list who play on other servers.

The idea, as I understand it, is that the person who has paid for the service would be able to form LFD groups out of their own realID friend list (you already have the ability to chat to them while playing).

Basically, you could reap the benefits of LFG without ‘having’ to group with the great unwashed.

Since people who actually form their own groups are likely to be the more social players anyway, Blizzard effectively will be going the opposite way from Valve and charging the people who most want and are able to build social networks for their friends. I am sure people will pay for this. But clearly it is cheaper to just be friends with someone who pays for the service and hang on their coat tails, assuming you like the groups they form.

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.

Nerfing Heroics: Clocks go forwards early for Blizzard

So today (tomorrow for the EU) sees the next big patch of the Cataclysm era. Patch notes are here.

There is a massive amount of class tweaking, and all raiders will be happy to hear that the components for flasks have been toned down. There are further tweaks to Tol Barad, which I’ve written about previously.

And the big news this week is that Blizzard are also planning to make random heroics more appealing by adding an extra buff to damage/ healing/ stamina if you zone in with random members in the group. This is similar in spirit to the Icecrown Citadel buff, which was increased over time in that raid instance. The idea being that the hardcore would power through the raid with no buff and the increasing buff over weeks would gradually make the instance more accessible to the rest of us.

Also, there is supposed to be a small buff for random heroics, which ran at 5% in Wrath. That apparently has never been working in Cataclysm, which is one minor reason that the instances may have felt harder.

I think the Icecrown Citadel buff, whilst initially viewed with suspicion, actually worked quite well and people were fairly happy with it. The hardcore had their bragging rights and more casual raiders got to finish the instance more slowly. Everyone’s happy, right?

And yet there’s quite a big outcry about the forthcoming heroic buff. I think it makes more sense if you imagine what heroics were like towards the end of Wrath. They were popular. They were easy enough to run smoothly, if only because the emblem gear given out was so much higher level than the actual instances themselves. High end raiders and new 80s alike queued up in randoms and it all seemed to work fairly well. People did complain that they were too easy but they also ran them.

Compare that with now. Heroics are longer, contain more trash, and random groups are as likely to fail as to succeed. The rewards they give are no better than drop in raid instances. Queues are fairly long for dps because tanks (in particular) don’t seem to be queueing for randoms – I know I certainly don’t. And they’re long enough that doing one daily is likely to be a drag. They’re fun in organised groups. No fun in randoms unless you get lucky (I’ve had good random groups, usually early in the morning.)

Ghostcrawler commented, on the buff:

in general, Heroic dungeons are of appropriate difficulty for organized groups, but just brutal on Dungeon Finder groups. Players wonder, and rightly so, why Dungeon Finder supports Cataclysm Heroic dungeons at all when the chance of success is so low.

To my mind, effectively what Blizzard are trying to do is turn the clocks forwards. We all know that in a few months time, after the next big content patch when all the badge gear gets upgraded, heroics will be much easier after everyone is overgeared. That’s the same effect this buff will have. So if you had decided to not bother with heroics until that happened, you don’t have to wait any longer.

The only big surprise is that they’ve decided to give a buff of up to 15% (if you have 3 random people in your group) which is a huge boost over the old 5% heroic random buff. We’ll see whether it is enough.

In which Blizzard continues to flog the dead horse of Tol Barad

After regaling us with a dev blog assuring all and sundry that Tol Barad was working exactly as expected (did anyone believe this? thought not) we’re seeing the next round of tweaks coming through with the next patch.

Mumper explained (in the link above) that the design goal was to make it more difficult for the attackers, as an extra incentive for defenders to hang onto it. In practice, there are three keeps in the zone which can be captured. Attackers need to capture all three of them to win. Defenders just have to stop them doing so.

The best defensive strategy is just to follow the attackers around, so after any point is won and the main attack force has moved to the next point, you send your defenders in to retake it. That way instead of the defenders being forced to defend more than one spot, it’s the attackers who struggle to hold existing captures while trying to take the next one.

Anyhow, here are the changes proposed for the next patch

PvP
Tol Barad

  • Attacking forces will receive a 200% capture speed bonus when they control 2 keeps.
  • Defending forces will receive a 200% capture speed bonus when they control all 3 keeps.
  • Daily quest creatures, herbs, minerals, etc. will only spawn when Tol Barad is in the quest phase between battles. There will be 5-minute and 1-minute warnings before the quest phase ends. The quest phase ends 15 minutes before the battle for Tol Barad begins and queuing is made available. At that time any players in the daily micro dungeons will be ported just outside. This does not apply to Tol Barad Peninsula or the daily quests there.

I have no idea where they are going with this.

The first change will not stop the tactic of following the attackers around, if defenders do this, it’s not going to make it any easier for the attackers to hold two keeps and still have a force on the third.  And what does it even mean that defenders get a capture bonus if they already control all three keeps? (hint: if they control all 3 keeps there’s nothing left to capture.)

But it is amusing that you can’t do dailies while the battle is on :)

Funny thing is, I don’t even hate Tol Barad. I like the general ‘capture three points’ mechanic. I liked it in Warhammer (Nordenwatch) and I like it in Arathi – and both of those battlegrounds play out better than Tol Barad.

Speaking of Warhammer – possibility of F2P

I have heard rumours lately that Mythic is (finally) considering converting WAR to F2P. If they do this, I heartily recommend it to PvP fans as the lower level (tier 1-3) PvP was always very good fun, and I’d certainly be tempted to go back for a while.

My tour in Call of Duty Black Ops

call-of-duty-black-ops-arctic6

I could hear the crunching of footsteps on snow, and froze with my back to the wall. Suddenly there was a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision and I spun round in time to bring the light machine gun (LMG) to bear on the man behind me.

“Oh shit, which button is it to fire…” I said, accidentally swinging the viewpoint round so that I was pointing my gun at the floor. I may possibly have said rude words to the PS3 controller.

My friend, patiently, waited until I had gotten the controls together and could happily obliterate him with a headshot.

“Sorry,” I said, as his blood splattered over the snow.

“You don’t have to say sorry every time you kill someone.”

Call of Duty doesn’t do unhappy endings. You don’t really die, you just respawn round the corner with a full clip.

————————————————

So here’s the setup. I was round visiting friends over New Year and had a chance to play Black Ops on a lovely big TV. “You write about games, you should try this,” seemed like a great idea at the time. And then there I was, controller in hand, feeling like the clumsiest soldier in the western hemisphere. Do real black ops personnel spend 5 minutes trying to get through an open door? I suspect not.

I can’t get over how awkward the controller is for this type of game. I haven’t played shooters for years, not since playing Quake on the office LAN (despite my partner’s best efforts to interest me in Unreal Tournament) and never on a console.

And yet. Once you have a vague feel for the controls, it’s a very exciting game. Sure, it’s just a souped up version of hide and seek. That actually is the basics of most shooters, as best as I can see. But add in interesting buildings, vehicles, and obstacles to duck around, and hide and seek with imaginary guns seems like a perfectly good afternoon’s pastimes.

I personally find that the ultra realistic uniforms and guns add approximately zero interest to the genre for me. If anything, the more realistic it gets, the more uncomfortable I get. I have no desire to shoot real people. I don’t really want to do anything more violent than paintballing (which I have done iRL and was a lot of fun.)

And compared to the MMOs I’m used to, Black Ops with its first person view feels very claustrophobic. You can’t see the whole battlefield, you can often barely see a few inches in front of your own face and if you tweak the controls awkwardly then the camera careers around, not only making you feel seasick but also destroying any chance at all of you getting a feel for the layout of the area.

I can see though that once you are comfortable with the controls and can get more into the ‘hide and seek with guns’ zone, you can get a good deal more fun out of it.

Reflections on FPS and Black Ops

One of the stand out points for me is that Black Ops was not especially more fun than Quake, despite the length of time between the two games. The actual gameplay wasn’t all that, at least not that I could see. It certainly has prettier graphics, more hyper realistic settings, and lets you interact more with the environment (or at least shoot holes through doors and break windows), but I’m not really seeing the great leap forward in FPS that I was expecting.

The second thing is that really, paintball is a lot more fun and way less claustrophobic. I did find the controller was a hindrance. The studio that can make a good Kinect based shooter will be onto a winner.

The third is that there’s nothing really novel about playing hide and seek online. It’s very basic gameplay, even compared with other console games like Uncharted 2 or Grand Theft Auto. (GTA in particular shows off the console much better, to my mind.)

The fourth is that although it is kind of fun to tag your friends, I just don’t like actually shooting people. So I feel a bit conflicted when I kill anyone. (I think once we started playing for real a bit more, although I obv. wasn’t as good as the guys who had more practice, I did get some actual kills that weren’t pity kills :) ).

The last is that if Blizzard are working on a PvE/ MMO type shooter for Titan, they could well be onto a winner. I think there are lots of players out there like my friends who enjoy playing with people they know, and like the PvE game, but aren’t all that excited about being massacred by random 14 year olds (the game, astoundingly, has no player rank matching a la Starcraft 2, which is an inexplicable omission for me in a genre that stands or falls on it’s PvP tournament modes.)

Predictions for MMOs/ Gaming in 2011

It is that time when we look ahead and try to predict what the year ahead may bring. Arbitrary and I have put our heads together to see what we can come up with…

In general, it’s going to be another huge year for both social gaming and mobile gaming. There will be more massive hits along the lines of Angry Birds, and both iPhones and Android will continue to be strong platforms. We’ll see the trend for Android to increase in popularity continue as more and more models come onto the market.

The debate as to what does or doesn’t constitute an MMO will continue. Facebook will continue as the platform of choice for social games, particularly on handsets, since it actually is handset agnostic.

The iPad will not really live up to the potential that the industry had hoped. Already we’re seeing that magazine subscriptions on the iPad are below predictions. There will be popular games, yes, but they will never come close to the popularity of the phone-based versions. So iPad owners had best get used to continuing to receive iPhone conversions.

I predict something big with Zynga this year. They’re huge, but they’ve not had much success in breaking away from Facebook. The desire to do so is still there … maybe they’ll even try to take over FB or merge the companies in some way. Whatever it is, it’ll be crazy.

E-sports will be a big trend this year in some form or other, as publishers try to find more ways to draw in the ‘core audience’ into more social, F2P type games. Expect at least one hugely successful multiplayer game, possibly on a console or on Facebook, with this kind of worldwide e-sports competitive ethos at its core.

One of the other big trends this year was for breakout indie games. This is nothing new, but Minecraft in particular has been a stunning hit. In addition, the various Steam indie bundles, more attention from PC journalists and blogs, and ‘pay what you want’ weekend offers have gotten more people to try them out than ever before. This trend continues, and we’ll see at least one successful indie MMO launch this year.

Interactive/ internet TV is going to be another big trend this year. Look for gaming on Google TV in particular (one area where Zynga may have their eye). And this is a platform that favours simple social games.

This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade. However nice the graphics, there’s unlikely to be a killer game that really uses the 3D. (If it played films, however …) This won’t be a good year for handhelds, losing more ground to the ubiquitous smartphones.

WoW/ Blizzard

This year Blizzard plays it safe with WoW. There won’t be any big features analogous to the dungeon finder. Patches will be more of the raid instance, dailies, extra minigames type of content.

Whilst some players will get bored quickly of Cataclysm, the strategy to draw in more casual players will work, by and large.

The balance of ranged vs melee is going to continue to be a big feature of this expansion.

The leaked expansion plans date the next expansion for 2010. I predict this is correct and we’ll hear more about the next expansion and about Blizzard’s plans to offer more frequent, smaller expansions. Wrath will soon be perceived as the golden age of WoW in much the same way that TBC was by the old guard for most of Wrath.

The big change for the next expansion will be a crafting revamp.

Blizzcon will be held in Europe.

Blizzard will announce their next game, currently codenamed Titan. It will, as expected, be a different genre from WoW. (Please take a moment to imagine what the WoW community might be like if Blizzard’s next game is a FPS. Heck, imagine what the Blizzard community for a FPS MMO might be like? Scared yet? This is why they will come back with a more player friendly version of realID.)

Other games

Guild Wars 2 will not release in 2011.

Neither will World of Darkness (Vampire).

Neither will The Secret World

The walking in stations expansion for EVE will release and will generate a flurry of ‘look at this amazing character creator’ posts. It will not substantially expand the player base, though and will largely be seen by existing players as watering down the current game.

Star Wars: the Old Republic will release and will fail to either gain a million subscribers or to be a game people want to play for 10 years (both predictions made by EA). It may even fail completely within 6 months. (I will still play it.)

Mark Jacobs will announce a new project, DaoC 2.

There will be more discussion about the F2P model as it applies to MMOs, focussing more on practical details of ‘what works’. People will pick their games at least as much based on payment models as anything else, to the point of having preferences for very specific flavours of F2P.

There will also be extended discussions in the blogosphere about how trustworthy various publishers are viewed as being. This is partly connected with games that failed in 2010 (do you trust this game to still be going in 6 months before you invest too much time into it?) but also with the way the F2P model has been implemented by companies such as SOE.

LOTRO will release their Isengard expansion which will be comparable in size to Mirkwood. ie. a couple of levelling zones, new instances, and a raid. They will increasingly be spread thin trying to keep both the lifetime endgame player base happy and the new F2P players who are more interested in lower level revamps.

2011 is a big year for RPGs. In fact, it will probably also be the biggest year ever for computer games in general.

Diablo III will release, will be a massive success. It will contain various features borrowed from WoW, and so the cycle comes full circle.

Dragon Age II will release, will be a massive success.

Mass Effect III will release, will be a massive success.

The Witcher II will release, will be a massive success (but possibly not on the scale of the previous three games, which is a shame.)

And not a RPG, but yes, Portal II will release, will be a massive success.

Whatever Infinity Ward does for EA will release, will be a massive success.

There will be at least one film tie in game that is actually good, and will be a massive success.

Microsoft attempt to clean up the Xbox Live community in some way, possibly involving an element of realID.

Cataclysm: Peacebloom v Ghouls

singingsunflower

Anyone who was paying attention to the latest list of Cataclysm achievements will have noticed a couple for surviving waves of “Peacebloom v Ghouls.” And if, like me, you love Popcap games you were probably dancing around at that point, because it could only mean one thing: Plants v Zombies comes to Warcraft.

And as an example of why Blizzard is always so feted for their polish, not only have they implemented a version as a minigame, but one of the rewards is a singing sunflower pet. And it will be voiced by Laura Shighara, who is the composer for the original PvZ score and song.

Here is a video of the WoW minigame in action, with some voiceover explaining what is going on.

Does anyone else wonder how this fits into the new ‘no advertising on MMOs’ scheme at Activision? Sure, it’ll be great fun but I’d be astounded if it doesn’t also sell a lot of PvZ (which is an awesome game, incidentally).

Minigames in MMOs

Lots of MMOs feature mini games of some sort. You could even argue that combat is a type of minigame, as is playing with the economy. But it’s the instanced style of minigame that has the possibility to be so anti-immersive. Not only does it take you out of the main virtual world, but into another one with completely different rules.

And the sad thing is that the parts of MMOs which probably should be minigames (crafting!) usually aren’t.

Anyhow, if you love the sound of Peacebloom v Ghouls and are curious about other games which offer a lot of slickly executed minigames to try while wandering around the world, hie thee to Free Realms. It’s a very neat game and has lots and lots of cool minigames (including tower defence, bejewelled-style match-3 games, and cart racing) to try out as you explore.

SOEs latest Clone Wars Adventures is also chock full of minigames, although without the virtual world to wander as well. (This game is more like a minigame arcade.)

You might also want to check out Wizard 101, in which combat works far more like a card based minigame than a typical MMO and which also has an arcade of rather addictive minigames to help you regen mana.

Feel free to recommend any games in comments and I’ll add them to the list.