Thoughts on the Steam Sale, also Dust

It’s like Valve read my mind (or blog). I hadn’t really planned to buy much in the Steam Sale but they kept putting up games on my list so what’s a girl to do? Current haul this time around includes: XCom, FTL, Kerbal Space Program, SIns of a Solar Empire Rebellion and Dust: an Elysian Tale. I don’t feel manipulated and am a happy customer (at least now that I’ve figured out how to get XCom to save) but it’s true that I spent more than planned.

I am epically ambivalent about Steam’s strange trading cards thing – is it a game or just a bizarre hook to reel in collectors? Not sure, but it seems popular and I picked up some pocket change by selling my cards on the Steam marketplace to people who (for whatever reason) seemed to want them. It is worth noting that people will also pay pocket change for cards generated by playing the games so if you buy a game from Steam that has a lot of associated cards, you can recoup some of your outlay/put the profits towards your next purchase. This makes it one of the most excruciatingly clever promotions ever seen.

Also I kind of like the design that collectors get rewarded with being able to collect things, and I can still  get rewarded for NOT being a collector (ie. by being able to sell the unwanted collectables.)

Jamie Madigan has spent more time thinking about the psychology of steam summer sales.

So what’s the score with Dust?

I haven’t booted up Dust: an Elysian Tale yet, as am currently too occupied with XCom. But the name does remind me that I haven’t heard much recently about CCP’s Dust 514.

I assume from this that no news is bad news, given that gaming companies tend to hype every minor piece of positivity to the ends of the earth and beyond. So colour me unsurprised that Brendan Drain just slated the game on Massively after trying it last week:

Last week I finally sat down to play the game myself and was thoroughly disappointed with both its 2005-era graphics and fundamentally broken gameplay.

The review a couple of weeks back in Edge Online was also harsh.

Combat has about as much personality as the bleak, dust-blown worlds. There’s none of Halo’s gently exaggerated physics, Shootmania’s relentless velocity or Call Of Duty’s immediacy. There’s just shooting people with guns, albeit while battling against some suspect hit detection and sludgy controls.

It’s in stat-packed menu screens, not on the battlefield, that Dust feels most part of the universe in which it nominally takes place.

I don’t know of any official figures about Dust, but I remember wondering last year how much CCP had invested in developing Dust and what the knock-on effect might be on them if it wasn’t successful. I guess we’ll find out.

Out with the old year, in with the new. MMO predictions for 2012

I didn’t make a great job of my predictions last year. TAGN has a super gaming roundup of 2011, covering what actually did happen.

I was right about mobile gaming becoming ever more popular although I’m not sure any specific game has rivalled Angry Birds yet for popularity, and also right about the Android market growing. I predicted something big for Zynga and sure enough they went public, although the share price hasn’t been performing well.

I predicted e-sports to grow, which I’m not really sure has happened.

I also predicted more emphasis (in the PC and Xbox world at least) on Indie games/ bundles/ etc. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the breakout indie MMO, but this year has seen some super and well received new indie games. Dungeons of Dredmore and Terraria have been two that have seen particular play round my house. Avadon the Black Fortress is the one on my backburner, as it’s on my hard drive but I’ve just not had the time yet to play it.

Any fans of roguelikes out there? Check out the results of the Ascii Dreams Roguelike of the year 2011; TOME4 heads the list with Dungeons of Dredmore close behind.

I said, of the Nintendo 3DS, “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.” And also said I didn’t think it would be a good year for handhelds. Well I should have had the courage of my convictions, the 3DS was very disappointing for Nintendo. 3d in general has failed to really sell itself to gamers.

Blizzard failed to announce Titan, and also didn’t announce an emphasis on crafting features in the next expansion, preferring to focus on Pandas and pet battles.

Sure enough, GW2, TSW, and WoD failed to launch this year. However, D3, ME3 both also did not get released in 2011. And I’m not sure Microsoft has been able to do much to clear up the Xbox live chats.

MMOs I have played most this year have been Rift with bursts of WoW and LOTRO. I did (and still do) like Rift a lot, but for me the pace of new content and sameish events was a bit overwhelming. I wound up feeling that my lifestyle just didn’t support keeping up with Rift, not because it was grindy but because new stuff kept turning up so often. I think Trion did a super job with the game and will look forwards to seeing future games from them.

And as it turns out, the game I bought and played on Steam most last year was actually Duels of the Planeswalkers, the MTG computer game. I still think this is a pretty excellent game so there ;)

Predictions for 2012

I’ll keep things tight this year. The recession/ economic climate is affecting players and their expectations more now, and although you might think this would benefit F2P games, I wonder if people are preferring to both save their money and stick to more manageable games (ie. standalone indie/ older/ games) with known good reviews. Has the F2P sheen worn off? Are there so many F2P competitors now that it’s easy for players to hop from one game to the next before they get in deep enough to be wanting to spend much money? I suspect this may be the case. Zynga’s share price implies that others wonder the same thing.

Is it that the MMO fad is over? No, SWTOR’s release proves that there are plenty of people still willing and able to plonk down their cash for a solid AAA Diku style MMO. I think this game will have better legs than the naysayers are predicting – yes some of us will have level 50 characters by the end of the first free month, but if you enjoy the basic gameplay, there’s replayability in the alts, and the game itself is just good fun which is worth a lot. I know I’m recommending it to friends who I wouldn’t normally point towards an MMO.

Better legs in this case may mean stays strong for 6 months rather than 3, it’ll be down to Bioware in the end to persuade people to stick with it. I personally would like to see better social features, but they will have to balance this up with adding more content in other areas too.

There has been a fair amount of upheaval involved this year with sub games switching to a F2P model. While a sub game can survive on retaining players, a F2P game needs to either keep raking the newbies in or focus hard on retaining the actual spenders. So expect the big name AAA F2P games to push out paid for expansions/ patches this year even if the value for money isn’t great. LOTRO will continue to expand Isengard but Turbine will find a way to release something that the max level player base will want to buy (probably extra content in some way).

Diablo 3 will release this year, and although it’ll be a solid game, it won’t be the massive excitement that fans had been hoping. I’ve seen hints of this in beta reviews – people liked it, but there was something lacking. There will however be much focus on the real money auction house, which may overwhelm the rest of the gameplay in commentary (like the game is just a basic mechanic to support the AH). Torchlight 2 will also release this year, and will actually be the better game in many ways (world design, pace) although I would put my money on Blizzard when it comes down to solid game mechanics and class design. I will play and enjoy both of them.

Mass Effect 3 will release this year, will be highly successful. It’s hard to say whether Bioware are over-expanding when they have different teams to do all of these things, however being able to release a hugely successful standalone game at the same time as running a successful MMO will be quite an accomplishment. They will also announce DA3.

Pandaria (WoW expansion) will not release before the Summer. This will be at around the 6 month mark for SWTOR and a lot of players will go back to WoW to check out the new stuff. Blizzard has a real chance to keep them if they play to their strengths. But now the poor WoW voice acting will be more in the spotlight (it’s not that players need voice acting but if it’s there, the bar has now gone up.)

The Secret World will release, to mixed reviews. I still feel that I don’t know much about this game, except that they’ve been relying on ARGs to push out word of mouth. If they stick to that type of model, it could gain a small but very dedicated hardcore following and keep them. I wish them luck.

GW2 will release towards the end of 2012. I really cannot decide how I feel this one will do – but it will depend a lot on how well the dynamic quests and PvP work with the player base, and whether they make the WAR mistake of balancing it with the assumption of constantly full servers at all levels. I’d like to see GW2 succeed.

CCP had an anno horribilis in 2011 and are now claming to have cut back development on everything except Dust and space stuff in EVE. I predict slowly falling numbers for EVE – devs have been leaving, and I suspect internal confidence at CCP is falling. They hopefully will be able to keep most of the core fanbase happy but I think the events of this year will have affected player confidence too.

Other MMOs which have been hyped for 2012 include Tera and ArcheAge (both korean MMOs, I think), and Battle for Dominus (or Dominus as it is now known) which is a more PvP/DaoC type of western MMO. I wish them all luck but I don’t see any breakout successes there. I think Dominus could do well in its niche if it can attract a solid core playerbase.

Aion is going F2P in early 2012, as is Startrek Online (I recommend STO for people who want a more involved space combat than either SWTOR or EVE) there aren’t many other games left to do so other than WAR and WoW.

The games I am currently most looking forwards to in 2012 are (aside from D3/ Torchlight 2): Journey (PS3), and Dragon’s Dogma (PS3) — based on having seen/demoed them both at conventions last year.

There have been several large browser based MMOs launched in 2011. It will be interesting to see whether this trend will continue and how devs adapt the gameplay to the general strengths of browsers. In my opinion, browser games are fantastic for strategy, but I still am not really sold on them for straight out action. Still, that’s my pick for MMO trend in 2012, more browser games.

I will also be keeping an eye out for more news of Three Rings work on a new Doctor Who MMO (they made Puzzle Pirates and Spiral Knights, and were recently bought by SEGA.)

The LoL gameplay model has been fantastically successful in 2012 (and previously), which makes me wonder if some dev (maybe Valve or even Blizzard) will announce an MMO with combat based on that mechanic. A left field prediction might even be that Popcap would be encouraged to enter the MMO field with their polished casual gameplay.

2012 will end with no major new AAA MMO being announced as in development (other than possibly the one stated above), and will be seen as the end of an era. But the success of Skyrim in 2011 may mean more companies are considering large sandbox style open world single player games … will that take us back to the start of a new RPG cycle?

CCP fire EVE community team (and WoD devs) to focus on … EVE

In classic ‘just before Xmas’ firings, CCP announced today that they had laid off 20% of their development team and put World of Darkness Online onto the back burner in order to focus on EVE. Makes sense if they have cashflow issues since EVE is the game which is currently bringing in money.

But players are intrigued to find that the 20% laid off includes members of the EVE community team who are popular with the playerbase. That’s an odd way to focus on EVE and its community …

Sympathy and best wishes to anyone who was laid off. But CCP is acting like a chicken with the head cut off at the moment. I’ve never known laying off 20% of the workforce to be a good sign for any company, and I’m sad (although not surprised) to hear about WoD which potentially could have brought in a whole new swathe of players and allowed CCP to show off their sandbox strengths to a new audience.

If they are able to focus on EVE and give the EVE players what they want then good luck to them. But firing community team from an active game with a lively community (to say the least) says that they don’t really understand the genre they are working with to me.

Brief posts: World of Darkness ‘news’, difficulty in MMOs

Posts are likely to be getting more sparse over the next few months since I’m back at college. This is going to be challenging not just because of blogging but also because of Diablo 3 and SWTOR. I’m all for casual gaming but how easy is it to play games THIS casually – we’ll find out!

CCP/ White Wolf made some announcements about their Vampire/ World of Darkness MMO at the recent Grand Masquerade (thread includes comments from someone who was there at the time). I don’t see any clear and actual signs that this game is anything more than vapourware yet. For a start, there’s no actual internet official announcement, just a few interviews they have given to fan sites. And also, the concept sounds … obscured. They want a hardcore LARP style game, but also the possibility to just hang out and chat/ RP socially.

Usually Vampire style games accomplish this by nominating some safe zones (or Elysiums in WW-speak) where vampires aren’t allowed to fight. But a hardcore core game might also attract gonzo griefers like Goons et al, and I can’t imagine them leaving the RPers to posture in peace. Anyhow, still no dates for this one or any demos other than pretty graphics, so I’m comfortable leaving it on the ‘probably won’t happen’ pile for now.

Who are these people who want difficult MMOs?

If you want your MMOs to be difficult in any sense other than socially then you have my permission to leave already and go to a game designed more specifically for ‘gamers’. You won’t ever have to worry about annoyances like story or lore any more.

The one unique selling point for MMOs has always been the virtual world and being able to be part of a virtual community. Pushing hardcore game mechanics on top of that has never really been a comfortable fit. Activities that busy people around the game world are good, especially if they are thematic. This is why we shouldn’t be so down on the concept of grinds. But I don’t see where intellectual difficulty became some holy grail for MMOs – it should be difficulty enough building that community and organising things together.

[EVE] Monocalypse Now

So the new EVE cash shop and captain’s quarters debacle turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving. For a game that’s quite niche (albeit popular in its niche) they are certainly generating a lot of press at the moment.

I have been mildly surprised at quite how much blogspace and press EVE has been getting over this. I thought it was an interesting angle on experimenting with the value of virtual goods, but I think to get this much outrage out of the fanbase over a cosmetic cash shop, there are likely many other latent frustrations boiling up at the same time.

Anyhow, hard on the heels of the leaked internal newsletter article on microtransactions comes what claims to be a leaked email from the CEO on an internal mailing list. I’ll reproduce this in full since it’s a) quite interesting and b) might get removed from the bboard. (edited to add: Yup,  got deleted while I was posting this. My blogging instincts are being quite good atm.)

As with all such claims, this could be a fake. But even if it is, I think it’s pretty well written and makes the sorts of points that perhaps a CEO should be making.

We live in interesting times; in fact CCP is the kind of company that if things get repetitive we instinctively crank it up a notch. That, we certainly have done this week. First of we have Incarna, an amazing technological and artistic achievement. A vision from years ago realized to a point that no one could have imaged but a few months ago. It rolls out without a hitch, is in some cases faster than what we had before, this is the pinnacle of professional achievement. For all the noise in the channel we should all stand proud, years from now this is what people will remember.

But we have done more, not only have we redefined the production quality one can apply to virtual worlds with the beautiful Incarna but we have also defined what it really means to make virtual reality more meaningful than real life when it comes to launching our new virtual goods currency, Aurum.

And how do you know if you have succeeded in making virtual reality more meaningful than real life? By seeing how much you can make people pay for it. This idea that cash value is the optimal way to measure meaningfulness is pure CEO. It is, to be fair, the basis of many values in modern society.

I won’t debate meaningfulness here, but their argument is that expensive things are more meaningful. I don’t feel that this adequately explains tea, cats, virtual reality, best friends/ partners (unless your social network is very high upkeep) or books, but crack on. Meanwhile, the phrasing just makes me think of the Red Dwarf Holodeck, which was called Better than Life.

Naturally, we have caught the attention of the world. Only a few weeks ago we revealed more information about DUST 514 and now we have done it again by committing to our core purpose as a company by redefining assumptions. After 40 hours we have already sold 52 monocles, generating more revenue than any of the other items in the store.

These purport to be the hard sales figures, for anyone who was curious.  I know Stabs commented the other day that he’d bought one via in game cash to speculate with, so not sure how many of the other 51 monocles were bought for the same purpose.

Still it proves a point, if it’s there then people will buy it. I wonder if they’d sell more if a character could wear two monocles at the same time. He’s right about having gotten a lot of attention, too.

This we have done after months of research by a group of highly competent professionals, soliciting input and perspective from thought leaders and experts in and around our industry. We have communicated our intention here internally in very wide circles through the Virtual Economy Summit
presentation at the GSM, our Fearless newsletter, sprint reviews, email lists and multiple other channels. This should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Currently we are seeing _very predictable feedback_ on what we are doing. Having the perspective of having done this for a decade, I can tell you that this is one of the moments where we look at what our players do and less of what they say. Innovation takes time to set in and the predictable reaction is always to resist change.

This is perhaps the more interesting section, because he’s right that the feedback was predictable. He’s also right to note that players won’t always do what they say they will do.

However, think back a year or so to Blizzard’s RealID campaign. They stood their ground for awhile (and I’m sure these types of emails would have been circulating Blizzard HQ as well), but eventually they blinked. I wonder if CCP is for turning also – if I had to guess, I’d guess not.

Intriguingly, the corporate culture seems fairly close to the hard nosed in-game EVE culture. I think there’s got to be room for a PhD in comparing cultures in virtual worlds with the cultures in the companies that produce them. Come to think of it, CCP is also looking as leaky as a sieve these days with all these ‘secret’ memos and broadsheets making the rounds. I wonder how many of the EVE devs also play the game and are perhaps a bit too much enmeshed in the virtual world for corporate comfort. (ie. If CCP employees find that virtual worlds are more meaningful than for example their RL jobs.)

We went out with a decisive strategy on pricing and we will stay the course and not flip flop around or knee jerk react to the predictable. That is not saying nothing will change, on the contrary, in fact we know that success in this space is through learning and adapting to _what is actually happening_ and new knowledge gained in addition to what we knew before and expected.

All that said, I couldn’t be prouder of what we have accomplished as a company, changing the world is hard and we are doing it as so many times before! Stay the course, we have done this many times before.

Standard wisdom on player (over)reaction to game changes is to sit tight and wait for the storm to blow over. For all players talk about quitting, there is no immediate EVE-substitute for them to flee to. Some games are more interchangeable than others.

But leaking an email explicitly stating that they have no interest in listening to what players say is probably not ideal PR. Neither is releasing a new patch with severe performance issues that might put off any new players who are attracted by the furore.

ps. I think this is one of my more inspired blog titles :)

End of the free ride for (EVE) money making gaming blogs, guides, and addons

CCP, developers of EVE Online, set the cat among the pigeons yesterday when they announced that they intend to charge a licence fee to 3rd parties who use their assets for profit making activities. (If you run a not for profit blog, service, etc then you just need a free licence.)

They didn’t spin it quite that way, saying instead:

Starting this summer you will be able to charge people for usage of your applications, websites and services for EVE Online.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, why should people be able to make bank by producing online guides without paying anything to the owner of the IP? That’s not how things usually work. Or in other words, people already are finding ways to monetise (I do hate that word) their EVE blogs, guides, and apps and now they’ll all have to register and pay the piper.

Examples of monetization could be donations, one-time purchase, in-app purchase, subscriptions or ad-supported sites or apps

Note that they have explicitly mentioned ad-supported sites. If you run Google Adsense or have a tip jar on your EVE blog, CCP will also want their $99, thank you.

I have no horse in this race since this blog a) isn’t game specific and b) isn’t monetised (there I go again). But you have to wonder if other MMOs with strong communities will follow where CCP have led – after all, it’s money on the table and if a few bloggers who fancy themselves entrepreneurs throw their toys out of the pram and close up shop, no biggie. (The smarter ones will either find better ways to monetise or switch to a multi-gaming blog.) Would Blizzard do this? Hard to say, it’s a lot of work to police the licensing although doing so would give a dev plenty of clout and control over the fanbase.

On the other hand, if app writers want to charge people for services provided, are happy to throw a sop to Cerberus/ CCP  by paying the license fee and people want to pay, what’s the real problem with that?

If there is a problem, it comes from the increasing reliance of devs on addon makers to clean up their UIs. Effectively encouraging players to pay for addons is letting them pay for an in-game advantage, which is one of the things players have in the past complained about with cash shops for F2P games.

Maybe cracked.com got it right with their 4th most ominous trend in video gaming (“the new model is infinite payment”.)

Caveat Emptor. The bottom line will be whether or not CCP is prepared to go to court over any addon writer/ blogger et al who ignores this. If there is a real likelihood of a legal fight which will definitely cost more than $99 then paying the license makes sense. If not, then it can be ignored.

CCP announces Vampire MMO! And it’s based on Masquerade.

bradstreetvamp Tim Bradstreet is one of the quintessential V:tM artists

Dear Mina,

Finally, the wait is over.

V.

There will be a White Wolf/ CCP Vampire MMO, and it is due out in 2012 (at the earliest). The announcement was made at White Wolf’s Grand Masquerade event, as predicted, and is all over twitter on #grandmasquerade. There is not as yet a formal announcement on CCP or White Wolf’s website, but that surely to follow next week.

The big surprise for Vampire fans is that the game and lore will be based on White Wolf’s old Vampire: The Masquerade game, rather than the current reimagining which is called Requiem. This is great news for those who fondly remember the older game, who possibly outnumber current players. The setting will also be familiar to anyone who has played Bloodlines.

ventrue

Another quote relayed from a convention goer reads:

WoDO going to focus on mystery, power, romance, danger. Three types of play: sandbox, theme park, coffee shop.

V:tM features a noirish, modern day setting in which vampires and their clans play a byzantine political game of cat and mouse for power and prestige, whilst at the same time battling to keep their own humanity alive. (In other words, this isn’t Twilight.) WW coined the word ‘gothicpunk’ to describe the genre and peppered the first edition with quotes from ‘edgy’ indie bands.

If you are curious to read more about the setting itself, White Wolf did produce a free introduction. If you’re not interested in the roleplaying rules just skip to the parts about the setting, the clans, and the story ideas and sample adventure.

Apparently the old V:tM books will also be back in print and available from White Wolf on a print on demand (PoD) basis.

Arb and I will be aiming to write up some more information about Vampire, and if you’d like to share your experiences with the game, or your favourite character or clan as a guest post, get in touch! The more the merrier!