Gaming News: Elections! Infinity Ward Respawns, DDO slams into a wall, and sparkly horses again

And it’s Sunday and time for some weekly news from the world of gaming (and possibly the world of the UK election but bear with me, we don’t do this very often.)

Election Debate PvP

This week marks the first time that leaders of the three main UK political parties have held a live television debate. It was very successful in the sense that it got a lot more people talking about politics. Our media went crazy for it, naturally. So did twitter.

The Guardian sums up US media reactions – which thought it was pretty staid compared to the US version. But I beg to differ. It was exciting in the same way that the first series of Big Brother was exciting; because the people taking part weren’t yet sure what they were getting into. And also, because as every DaoC player knows, PvP is always better when you have three sides (wait till they start ganging up on each other in the next two debates).

I did see a TV documentary about the history of TV debates and the reason this is the first one in the UK is because the incumbent prime ministers kept turning it down, Brown accepted. In any case, one of the Tory advisers said excitedly, “It’ll be like ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly!”. I preferred twitter’s version: “It’s like playing snog, marry, avoid.” (Twitter, btw, settled on ‘snog Clegg, marry Brown (?!), kill Cameron’).

Infinity Ward and Respawn

The studio which made chart topping Modern Warfare 2 continues to bleed more staff and is beginning to sound as though it is on a downward spiral. Gossip Gamer sums up, saying that the studio’s future is uncertain.

And meanwhile, the original two Infinity Ward developers who walked out have founded a new studio (Respawn Entertainment) and signed a deal for distribution with EA. Apparently EA also lent them some seed capital. There’s a Games Industry.biz interview with them here although you have to join the site to see it. They say that they anticipate making big blockbuster titles but haven’t decided on a project yet. MCV analyses their first press release.

I haven’t seen any reports yet that staff leaving Infinity Ward are joining Respawn but  … well duh. Of course those are the people they’ll want to recruit, and who probably will want to work with them again. EA are certainly getting some mileage out of gloating about Activision right now. How the wheel turns.

Bear in mind, this is (or was) the studio which created one of the biggest selling titles of all time. The fallout from this debate about who should own the IP of a franchise and what they do with it, will echo far across the industry.

DDO flirts with the offer wall

This is a great story.

Free to Play darling, Dungeons and Dragons Online surprised players this week by setting up an offer wall. This is the kind of thing people may be used to on facebook games, where you can sign up for various free offers from a variety of companies in return for some game points. Unfortunately these offer walls have a poor (and more to the point, well publicised) reputation, mostly from past abuses by Zynga.

Bloggers were shocked, if only because this implies that the much loved ‘pay for content’ F2P scheme which has been highly praised simply isn’t making enough money. Is this the slippery slope for all F2P games? Once you have one good avenue for cash, it’s never enough? You have to explore every monetisation method available?  And as if that wasn’t enough, there were also some privacy issues with the offer wall.

In any case, Turbine acted with remarkable swiftness and pulled the offer wall a couple of days later. That’s an impressive level of responsiveness, whichever way you cut it.

While you can make the point that lots of players would probably like the opportunity to get some game points ‘for free’ by signing up for offers, if the developer actually wanted to give away game points for free they would just do it. Nothing really comes ‘for free.’

Offer wall type schemes can easily manipulate the more naive players who aren’t savvy about stuff like giving away their mobile phone numbers etc – I don’t believe that this is something an ethical developer should be doing. Design your game and charge for it however you want, but don’t throw your customers (who may include minors) to the wolves.

And more on the sparkle pony

If anyone missed the story that Blizzard started selling a $25 mount for WoW this week, then I have a sparkleflyingbridge to sell you.

Predictably, the blogosphere went crazy. But not as crazy as you might expect. Although I was amused that openedge1 has a campaign for people to give their $25 to charity instead. (I don’t see why people shouldn’t spend their money on fun things without being made to feel like shit, though. They can always give money to charity as well.)

The post which caught my attention was Sera@Massively wondering why people go apeshit about some virtual goods schemes, but most people have been fairly positive about the sparkle pony. She calls hypocrisy. The main difference, to my mind, is that Blizzard has earned more trust from the player base by operating their polished and hugely  successful subscription game for years. It just will look different when a new game announces a cash shop just after launch, and before they’ve earned that level of trust.

I really think the key points to take away are:

  • People need to be really invested in a game to throw $25 on a mount, however cool. This only works at all because WoW is a good enough game to have earned those players. You can’t just throw up sparkle ponies on any MMO and expect that many people to throw that much money at you …
  • … or can you? There are a LOT of web based games which make decent money from selling virtual goods. Is the player base just getting used to it now?
  • Ignore everyone who says that this mount is purely cosmetic and doesn’t affect gameplay. It IS purely cosmetic, but this surely is a change in game design for Blizzard. It’s a change in how rewards can be offered, and the player base is right to wonder whether in future the best fluff will be reserved for those who will pay. (I leave the question open as to whether that’s fairer than reserving it for those who raid or grind hardcore.) And the magic circle is forever thrown open, which is sad for those of us who love our virtual worlds.
  • The budget people are spending on sparklyponies is most likely their mad money, which would have been spent on something fun and silly anyway. People spend their money on all sorts of shit in the real world, never mind the virtual one. (I am not trying to say that the new doctor who sonic screwdriver which my husband bought this week is shit, by the way, if you’re reading :) I’m looking forwards to zapping him with it when I need to wake him up).
  • We have no real way to evaluate how much a virtual good is ‘worth’, except by how much people are willing to pay. (This is probably true of real goods too, but it’s not as obvious how easy it would be for the producer to just change the price.) Comparing the price of the sparkle horse to beer, games (is a DS game really worth that much more than an iPhone game? Is a PS3 game worth more than a PC game?), or anything else is not answering the basic question, “Do people want this enough to spend $X on it,” to which the answer for many people is clearly yes.
  • People love sparkly flying ponies, oh yes they do.

Activision vs Infinity Ward. And where does that leave Blizzard?

godfather

Bobby (Don) Kotick makes the Infinity Ward CEOs an offer they can’t refuse.

The big story in gaming this week was Actvision’s abrupt dismissal of the two most senior executives of the studio which made Modern Warfare 2. In case anyone missed it, that was not only the top selling game last year but is also touted as the biggest entertainment launch in history.

Not only that but Activision commented in a statement that they plan to create a new unit for future titles in the series, and mentioning insubordination as a reason for having taken such aggressive action. They also mention breaches of contract, which probably means that the two ousted execs had been dealing under the table with other publishers with a view to slipping the leash. Apparently the associated HR investigation involved extended interrogations in locked rooms also. (I swear, I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Scott Jennings takes a longer look at the story on his Broken Toys blog.

We certainly haven’t heard the last of this. Because West and Zampella (the Infinity Ward executives) have also filed a lawsuit against Activision, claiming that the reason that the parent company came on so heavy was to avoid paying royalties for Modern Warfare 2 (which as mentioned, made a metric tonne of cash). They’re also trying to gain control of the Modern Warfare brand.

If there is any truth to this, then you have to wonder how Blizzard’s senior management are viewing the news. They’re likely to have three chart topping hits in the next few years (SC2, Cataclysm, Diablo 3). Would Activision be crazy enough to pull another fast one in order to cut off those royalties at the knee also?

And a bizarre side-effect of this story is that it makes EA look pretty good in comparison.

Whatever happened to virtual worlds?

Mashable has a brief post about virtual worlds, calling them the hottest ticket in tech back in 2005.

We imagined the people of Earth leading double lives in alternate realities. It was the stuff of science fiction, like flying cars and robot butlers, and unlike those things, it actually looked like it could become reality.

But somehow, they never really took off. These days, it’s Facebook or Twitter that have become the world’s virtual hangout, not fully realised graphical worlds where you can walk around as your avatar. (Unless you play MMOs.)

In fact, Mashable can only think of two virtual worlds to compare. Second Life – which is genuinely a virtual world – and Metaplace, which wasn’t really designed to be a communal ‘world’ at all, more a series of unattached themed meeting rooms. Neither of them, despite the hype, succeeded in setting the world on fire. Did they fail to catch the imagination of the mainstream, or were they just not accessible enough? Anyone who tried to build anything in either ‘game’ might wonder about the latter.

They also note that WoW is probably the most successful of all virtual worlds if you go by the numbers. And although purists would shake their heads at the notion of Blizzard’s MMO as an actual virtual world, it does fill some of the criteria. (Sandbox games tend to be even moreso.)

I’d keep watching this space, because we haven’t really had any ultra-accessible virtual worlds on offer. The WoW equivalent to Second Life doesn’t exist, yet. And yet, a highly accessible virtual world might have the sort of broad-based mainstream success that AAA MMOs have lacked.

I don’t know if it would be a good thing for Blizzard to be behind this type of push in addition to their current market domination. But looking at the rumours about their next MMO, they talk about having two worlds in one:

  • a social area, like The Sims, where players can hang out
  • a FPS game type area

The former could be that virtual world. Certainly attracting non-gamers to previously niche genres has been Blizzard’s great strength. Could they pull it off again?

When expectations change

Tobold wrote about a week ago about players and their sense of entitlement. Do players have a right to feel entitled to easy levelling, easy loot, and accessible raiding, or is it just as much a sense of entitlement if the hardcore feel entitled to always be a quantum leap ahead of the rest?

The word entitlement implies a sense of  rights. For example,  I have statutory rights as an employee, as a consumer, and as a British citizen. Those rights are enshrined in (local) law. So as a consumer, I’m entitled to buy items that are fit for purpose – and if they aren’t, I can go argue my case in court and the state will back me up if I’m right.

In a computer game, we don’t  have rights in the same sense.  No one is entitled to anything beyond their standard consumer rights when they buy a game. What we do have, however, is a sense of expectation. If I buy a book and I don’t like it, my consumer rights aren’t breached because the book being fit for purpose doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be a cult classic. It just means that it has pages with words/ pictures on them and can be read (note: insert legal definition of book here if you are feeling pedantic). If the book radically fails to  fit the description on the jacket then maybe, just maybe, I have a case. But if my expectations are shattered then I won’t buy another book by the same author (unless they are shattered in a good way.)

But what expectation do players have from MMOs? The box and advertising will tell you a lot about what it is possible to do in the game, but cannot guarantee that you will be able to do those things, because many of them require the cooperation of other players. That’s  the one thing that no one can sell you, unless the box specifically states, “bring some friends.”

So maybe you go in, sold on the idea that you can create a character of your own to explore and adventure in the virtual world, and meet other people. Those are reasonable expectations. Everyone will be able to do that. But what then? Will the game allow you to finish all of its content, or will some be locked to specific groups of people or need commitments of time or money? If you see someone wearing a cool outfit, will your character also be able to get one? If you read about something fun that another player did, will you be able to do that also?

In a single player game, the answer may well be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty and time required. In an MMO, it may also be ‘yes,’ depending on the difficulty, time required, and other players required. But the ‘other players may be required’ is part and parcel of having massive games.

Still, where do the expectations come from of:

  1. Hardcore raiders will become the nobility of the game?
  2. All players will be able to do everything?

The answer is, those expectations come from within the game itself. No one went into their first MMO with any assumptions beyond, “Cool! I can create a character and go explore this virtual world with other people in it.” The assumption that people who put more work into their virtual characters will become more powerful in the virtual world is just a case of people mirroring real world assumptions – that’s not really surprising in itself, but it is the game play that determines what forms of  ‘virtual work’ are most valuable in the game. In a strongly social game, that would mean time and effort spent in politicking and socialising. In a WoW-type MMO it could mean hardcore raiding, or beating the economy.

Expectations can change, or be changed. In Warcraft, each patch has changed the expectations of the player base for the future of the game. If casual players feel more entitled to raids, loot, and achievements, that’s because Blizzard has indicated that this is how the game is now played. It isn’t a sense of entitlement that came out of nowhere. Back in the days of Vanilla WoW there were complaints about raid inaccessibility, but I don’t recall anyone ever expecting that the majority of the player base should or could raid. Similarly, if the hardcore players feel a sense of entitlement, that didn’t come out of nowhere either. The first few years of the game indicated that Blizzard intended a class based playerbase with hardcore at the top. They put dedicated hours into the game on that understanding. Both parties have good reasons for their expectations, but they cannot both be met at the same time.

The developers decide what players are or aren’t entitled to. So when a game changes to the extent that Warcraft has, it isn’t surprising that everyone is on edge. No one knows what their assumptions should be any more. People cling to the last patch as either an aberration that will be fixed in the future, or the shape of things to come. And so we pick apart the discarded musings of the blue posters (official Blizzard posters) as if we could divine the future from their entrails. Our rights in the game may depend upon it.

Peace on Earth and RMT to Games Companies

We are approaching the time of year when for many people in the western world, Christian or not, thoughts turn to charity. How can we use our hard earned money to help other people and make the world a better place?

Among the many good causes who’d like a slice of that pie, this week sees a couple more game companies throwing their hats into the ring. (I feel like it’s RMT week or something.)

Say you love her, buy her a minipet (on WoW)

There were a couple of big(ish) WoW news items that came up yesterday. People seem to be mostly ignoring the fact that you’ll soon be able to earn arena points from winning battlegrounds which is a pretty big climbdown on Blizzard’s part, in favour of the minipets added to the Blizzard shop.

So, for $10/£9 (this is an extortionate exchange rate for us, by the way) you can now buy yourself a funky minipet with special moves to add to your collection. Or, smartly, they have made it very easy to buy one as a gift for someone else who plays Warcraft. Is letting people buy minipets going to break the game? Nope. It’s not functionally all that different than giving them away with rare cards in the CCG. It is, however, another step towards a fully fledged item store. Maybe they just weren’t making enough money. I think they are smart enough to avoid selling items that will affect gameplay but the temptation to see if they could push their players just a little further is always going to be there.

It also raises questions along the lines of “How much is a minipet worth anyway?” For the price of both minipets you could snag yourself a copy of Torchlight, for example. The answer of course is that it’s worth whatever people are willing to pay and from forums I frequent, I see a lot of people enthusiastically buying the new pets either for themselves or for partners/friends. The pets themselves are undoubtedly high quality, as such things go, with their special emotes and animations.

They plan to add more pets to the shop as time goes on. I wonder if they’ll go as far as a ‘pet of the month’ club where you just increase your sub to cover the monthly minipet too. I suspect a lot of players would spring for that.

Free Realms not so free after all

Player vs Developer spotted an announcement buried deep in an interview about Free Realms about a shift in philosophy for that game also. Previously, a large part of the game was free to play. If you picked up a monthly sub you got access to more powerful and interesting classes to play, and access to extra quests and activities. In addition they had an item shop selling many of the usual suspects (pets, cosmetic items, potions, equipment).

In early November (ie. nowish, I guess) that’s all set to change. The game is now only free to play up to level 5 in any career, although that now includes the jobs which had previously been locked to subscribers. But if you want to keep playing after that, you have to subscribe. Naturally the cash shop will remain available. Pre-existing characters will still be allowed to level up to 20 on the previously free jobs.

I can only assume that they feel they’ll make more money from switching to a full subscription game. Maybe the free to play wasn’t working out as well as they’d hoped? (I suspect the issue is to do with targetting kids as their main audience, they’re just not a market with much disposable income to spend on cosmetic gear and pets.)

Why choose between subscriptions and RMT when you can have both?

What both of these announcements have in common is that they show that the big western AAA MMOs are playing around with different payment methods and seem to be settling on the one which is least advantageous to players.

To whit: they’re going with a mandatory subscription, possibly a mandatory box sale for the initial game and expansions, and also throwing in an item store.

We’ve seen it in Champions Online, we’ve seen it in EQ2, we’ve seen it in WoW (they’re just more explicitly selling cosmetic items now), and if the model sticks, they probably won’t be the last ones down the line.

It’s widely held that some of the indie games have more favourable RMT schemes, such as Wizard 101 and Puzzle Pirates. Ultimately, I think they’re going to be the outliers though. STO is likely to use a similar scheme to Champions given that it’s coming from the same company. And who knows yet what Bioware will decide to do with their Star Wars game?

And that leaves Dungeons and Dragons Online, where the free to play model seems so far to be working for them very well (unless you’re in Europe). So well, in fact, that they’ve just opened another server. Have they just monetized better by charging for instances? Will anyone else follow their lead?

This post contains no spoilers

My favourite spoiler story is connected with Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince. If you have managed to go all of this time without ever learning what the spoiler is for that book then I salute you, and if real life had achievements you’d be up for [Harry Who?]. In any case, as soon as the book was out, so were the spoilers. People plastered them all over bulletin boards, had t-shirts printed (helpfully giving page numbers), blabbed it all over TV shows and … my personal favourite … put up huge banners on motorway bridges telling everyone who passed underneath the secrets of the book.

I’m reliably informed that indigenous tribes on planets in another solar system first learned English by interpreting messages beamed out from NASA about the Harry Potter spoilers. In a millenia’s time, when mankind makes first contact, I won’t be surprised if the first information exchanged by aliens, with a mad snigger, is about Albus Dumbledore.

Now, spoilers are a very personal issue for both geeks and non-geeks alike. You’ll definitely get a very different experience from a book or film or game if someone tells you the shocking twist in advance, but not everyone finds that it totally ruins their enjoyment. I’m fairly relaxed about spoilers myself, for example, but I don’t make a habit of deliberately spoiling twists for other people. (With the shameful exception that I guessed the twist in Sixth Sense about five minutes into the film and told my husband. I don’t think he has entirely forgiven me. My defense is that it was just a guess, I wasn’t SURE.)

In WoW, we’re now quite resigned to spoilers leaking out in advance of new patches. We know that someone (probably someone from mmo-champion) will have datamined the patch from the test server, people on wow.com will have posted all the strategies for new instances from the test server, and it probably won’t be difficult to find out anything else from various forums or twitter. Is it really a problem? You can just avoid the spoiler sites if you don’t want to learn too much.

In a surprising move on the official forums, Nethaera posted a comment this week implying that Blizzard do see it as an issue and disapprove of sites posting data-mined content:

We’ve put thousands of hours of work into crafting an epic conclusion to the Wrath of the Lich King story, and we’re excited that we’ll soon be able to share it with everyone — however, we also think the surprises we’ve got in store are best experienced within the context of the game itself. Should you wish not to have your Icecrown experience spoiled, we advise you to steer clear of any sites data-mining and posting this content. And if you do seek out spoilers, we ask that you please be mindful of your fellow players on the official forums. We’re looking forward to hearing about your adventures once the new content is available on the live realms.

Rumour has it that they have also exerted some IP influence to have spoiler related clips taken off youtube.

I can’t say I’m sorry to see it. I do find it frustrating that just because people are off testing the new patches (which is good) they feel they have to spoil it for everyone else. I just don’t see that it can ever be stopped, as long as lots of people really do want to get that slight advantage that the knowledge might give them. wow.com aren’t going to stop posting data-mined content, it must get them a ton of search hits every day.

But perhaps it’s not asking too much to have RSS feeds for people who don’t want their content spoiled, or to mark the spoilers a little more clearly…

So how did the Blizzard team react to the Cataclysm leak?

The Escapist sat down with WoW Production Director J Allen Brack at Blizzcon and this is one of the questions that they asked.

How did the WoW team react to the Cataclysm leak?: They “went through the five stages of grief, really. It’s hard to not have this initial irritation, where you work on something, you want to build up a surprise, an awesome reveal, and have it yanked out from under you.” But as the weekend went on, and they saw how the WoW community was getting excited about the news, it became easier to accept. “The reality is, the fans still went crazy for Cataclysm.