Thought of the Day: What should you expect from an SOE sub?

The big MMO launch this week was DC Universe Online, now available on both PC and PS3 (anyone tried the console version?). Unsubject posts a thoughtful look at some of the plus and minus points of the launch.

Intriguingly, in an interview with Eurogamer (which is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the game who wants to know more about it), John Smedley commented with respect to subscriptions:

“Just like the PC gamers, once they see the amount and level of content they’re getting compared to a normal game with bits and pieces of DLC, they’re going appreciate this a lot more.”

So while the rest of the MMO industry is following a trend of PC games morphing towards F2P payment models, SOE is trying to persuade console gamers that subscriptions are best.  Which is fine, but I think that claiming that console gamers should learn from what PC gamers want may be the wrong argument for that model.

And as for:

The monthly subscription fee means players can expect a lot of new content from us. And I say a lot — I really mean that. This is something that we feel obligated to the players, because they are paying monthly sub fee

… I wonder how players of SOEs other subscription games feel about that.

My tour in Call of Duty Black Ops

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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.

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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.)

Gaming News: First PS3 MMO?, Cataclysm Alpha, Lucasarts Execs resign, and Games Workshop sue Fan Site

The local news of course is that our election on Thursday produced a hung parliament. I was practically in the news myself when our demo for electoral reform made the front pages. I still think, “What do we want? Electoral reform. When do we want it? Now!” is not very catchy.

Free Realms for the PS3

Free Realms, Sony’s kid friendly MMO, will be demoed on the PS3 at next month’s E3 convention. It’s a fun, colourful game with plenty to do and see and also does not rely heavily on in game communication, so that might just be a very good fit indeed.

SOE have said a lot in the past about their goals to get MMOs onto consoles but this is the first game in their stable to actually make the leap.

I’m intrigued to see how this might work and how they’ll handle the pricing, but it’s a fun little game for all that and I’ll certainly be trying out the PS3 port. For research purposes only, you understand and not at all because I want a calico pet cat in every game which allows it. (You can train your cat to do tricks in FR.)

Cataclysm Alpha Test Begins

Friends and family alpha test began this week of Blizzard’s new WoW expansion. The client was leaked and fully data-mined and posted all over the web approximately 2s later.

The wow.com editors attempt to justify this by explaining that it’s all Blizzard’s fault for not paying attention to employee’s concerns (but we don’t know what these mysterious concerns might be). Or Blizzard could just sack anyone who leaks information that is clearly marked company confidential, like any other business would do. Assuming that it came from an employee, of course.

I’ll come back to this topic later. But it’s clear that either Blizzard fansites make too much money from printing leaked info to stop doing it, or else Blizzard just doesn’t have the goodwill from the playerbase which is what mostly keeps other NDAs under wraps.

Someone has managed to run WoW on an iPad

Gaikai have shown off their vaunted streaming gaming technology by demonstrating that it can be used to run WoW on an iPad.

But they don’t answer the most important question that this raises: is finger-turning worse than keypad turning?

Lucasarts President Resigns

This week several executives resigned from Lucasarts along with the company’s president. There is always a story behind mass senior resignations but in this case we don’t have much information on what is going on behind the scenes. It isn’t necessarily bad news for the developer, per se.

Lucasarts say that no current game development (such as Star Wars) will be affected, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? The fact that the company announced that they are searching for a replacement implies that he actually did resign rather than being pushed (when someone is fired, there is usually already a replacement lined up.)

Games Workshop sue Warhammer Online fansite

This was one of the more unexpected news stories of the week, and really should have all fansites on their toes.

The main fan-run bboard and community for Warhammer Online is called Warhammer Alliance. It has been up for months (maybe even years) before Mythic’s Warhammer MMO went live, and was bought out by Curse to be part of their fansite stable. Yes, that’s the same curse.com who host a lot of WoW addons.

And now, Games Workshop are suing Curse for trademark infringement among a host of other issues. The issue is the name of the fansite. They claim that Warhammer Alliance implies that the site is formally associated with Games Workshop.

Or in other words, Curse is in profit and GW wants a cut. It will be interesting to see how this lawsuit goes, if Curse even attempt to fight it rather than just settling out of court. I suspect that Curse et al have a good case, but that the costs of legal action against GW could be prohibitive.

However, if I was involved with a fansite that had gleefully picked a game specific name without asking permission first from the trademark holders, I would be watching this one with interest. Anyone else think Blizzard might have a case to claim that wow.com infringed their trademarks if they get pissed off by  … for example … consistent leaks about new expansions?

Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

What might our games might be like if we couldn’t communicate via text? It’s a difficult concept, because text based communication has been absolutely core to every MMO I’ve played. No guild chat? No whispers? No way to carry out multiple conversations at once? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if text chat is one of the big enablers of massive games. Without them, our communication is limited to the number of people we can reasonably see or hear at the same time.

But if consoles are going to be the next MMOified platform, this is a barrier that they will have to cross. Will it mean more voice chat? Will consoles get keyboards? Will we have to pick our texts from a list instead of being able to input them freeform? Does it matter? Is text an old medium that just slows our games down and adds more pointless information for players need to read?

As a society, we have a long, long history with text. Historically, Victorian text chat — or telegrams, as we like to call them– was the great enabler for the modern internet. And back in those days, if you needed to communicate with massive numbers of people, you put a text advert in the local paper or published a pamphlet.  (If you spend too long thinking about this, you can see why some people hail the printing press as the greatest invention in human history.)

  • Text carries a sense of permanence. Someone can read it later than the time at which it was written. It may not be much later if it is in a text box that scrolls off the screen, but communicating via text doesn’t mean that both the sender and receiver need to be time synchronised. Voice messages can also be stored but it is less convenient.
  • Text is fast, but voice is slow. It takes much longer to listen to someone speak a sentence than it would to read it. If we have to rely on voice for all communications, we simply won’t be able to pass on as much information in the same timescale.
  • Text is easily searchable. You can skim through a box of text to find the amusing typo and copy it to all your friends. Skimming through voice chats means listening all the way through, and hoping that someone has bothered to index which topic came up at what time so that you can fast forward.
  • Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people, chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone else standing next to you. Voice chat — not so much.
  • People can’t talk over each other in text. They may ignore each other, but you don’t have the issue of more than one person trying to talk at the same time.
  • Texts can mix private with public conversations. At the risk of embarassing mavs, you can have a private and a public conversation at the same time. This is why you can discuss your cat with your best friend at the same time as explaining a boss fight to your guild.

I wonder if text based chat is required for any kind of massive game experience. If we forcibly keep the group size small, then voice chat could totally replace it. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone outside the group but maybe that wouldn’t matter. If we make sure that all the information needed is provided by the game, then you might not need to explain fights to people. We could imagine using menus to select what we want to say from a list of options (ie. instead of typing), but that feels restrictive. Or maybe we can communicate via symbols, emotes, interpretive dance on screen?

Or, I suspect, the other alternative is that people still use text. They just find ways to do it outside the game. Maybe everyone has a netbook running IRC, or uses their iPhones to text each other instead. They chat via text boxes and bulletin boards and only log on to actually play instanced content.

Possibly console type MMOs just get less massive. Maybe you don’t need to talk to anyone outside your immediate group ever. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.

What would it take for MMOs to work on consoles?

There’s been a great story this week originating from an article in Gamasutra where an analyst claims that 1/3 of people who intend to buy God of War 3 don’t currently own the console  to play it (PS3). I thought this was interesting because it highlights one of the ways in which consoles are different from PCs: backwards compatibility.

(Note: it may also mean that people say they’re planning to buy lots of games that they don’t actually buy. If you’d asked me last year I would probably have said I intended to buy Fallout 3. I still do … some day.)

A new console might not run your old games. So before people fork out for the hardware, they’ll wait to be sure that there are enough games out that they’d want to play to make it worthwhile.  God of War 3 may well be a console seller for the PS3, if it tips enough people  over the decision line. Upgrading a PC is a much more predictable operation, and can be done in pieces — ie. upgrade the RAM, upgrade the graphics card, etc. And when you do it, you know that your current favourite games will still run.

MMOs on Consoles

MMOs on consoles have been tried. There’s no special technical reason why it wouldn’t be possible to run one, assuming the net connection. But  you can look at how we play MMOs to see why it might not be that simple.

A lot of people play MMOs with their families. PC games generally assume one user per computer, so if you have multiple MMO players you’ll have more than one machine. This is not the console model. Consoles are sold as being family machines. You’d have one per household. If a game is multiplayer, that means everyone huddled up on the sofa with their own controller, playing via the same box and watching on the same TV/ monitor.

But having more than one person playing an MMO via console means that MMOs would need to work differently. Maybe you’d be running different characters in the same team. Maybe the screen would be split in two (sounds awkward though). But what you couldn’t really do is have one person raiding with their guild while the other went off to explore and do some crafting instead.

It might be that a true console MMO would simply be something quite different to what we have seen before. But in order for consoles to run MMOs the way they currently are, you have to break that one-per-household mindset.

Households like mine which currently have more than one PC, probably with a shared net connection (not doing this would result in divorce ;) ) would have to switch to multiple consoles instead. It’s not impossible that this might happen. I’m sure there are student households where there’s an XBOX in each bedroom.

It will however be a tough nut to crack to persuade the majority of users that they need another console and another monitor just to play with their family.

Which does beg the question: what about handhelds? And this is going to be the key market for console MMOs in my opinion. An iPhone, a DS, a PSP? They could be net-connected. They could run some kind of MMO.

I’d put money on this being where the revolution starts. And if I’ve finished Chronotrigger by then, I’ll be there with my DS at the ready.