Gaming News: FF 14 Open Beta, Stardock blames Elemental launch for layoffs, Red5 announce Firefall, Duke Nukem, $100 XBox live predicted

We’re heading now towards the last few gaming conventions of the summer season. PAX was this week, and so expect to see more articles imminently in the gaming press about various demos. The Escapist’s article on the Torchlight 2 demo caught my eye (in a ‘when can I play this’ kind of a way.) The most fun trailer out of PAX so far has been the SWTOR/ KOTOR one – a little unexpected information there about what happened to Revan for any fans of him/ her/ it. And HK-47 who was the real star of the game.

EQ2X continues through open beta and SOE are evidently paying attention to feedback because they have now opened up the ability for bronze (ie. free to play) customers to buy access to the various different races and classes which had hitherto been locked to subscribers. They’re selling races in packs of three, and classes as single items. I think selling classes in matched pairs would have made more sense – what happens now if someone wants to defect to a class they don’t have access to? Arkenor takes a look at the marketplace (cash shop) to see what else is on offer –- bear in mind the game is in beta so these could change.

LOTRO opens up its doors to Free to Play customers next week also, so expect to hear more about that too.

Another story which caught my eye this week: Jason Kapalka, one of the co-founders of Popcap, gave a talk at GDC Europe on the ethics of social gaming. He thinks social games are “kind of evil right now,” and although Popcap isn’t 100% evil free, they’re trying to put fun above monetisation. If I ever get bored of Plants vs Zombies or Bejewelled, I’ll let them know.

And if anyone is curious, SC2 sold 3 million copies in its first month. Not bad, but Cataclysm can beat it – come on WoW fans, don’t let the RTS players win!

Final Fantasy 14 has a rocky open beta

Square Enix opened their doors to the muddy hordes of open beta testers for Final Fantasy 14 this week, and may wish that they hadn’t. Everyone agrees that the game is beautiful – well, everyone who was able to download the files and play the game – but I’ve also seen a lot of feedback to the effect that it looks and feels like a console game.

Pete@Dragonchasers likes the beta and shares some tips.

The Final Fantast XIV Core crew have a really good post on how to figure out if it is the game for you.

Elemental has a rocky launch too, Stardock lays off employees

Anyone been playing Elemental? It’s a 4X fantasy themed game that was released recently by Stardock, and has been plagued by reports of being severely bug ridden to the point of large parts of the game being unplayable.

A lot of people were looking forwards to the game, a lot of people have been disappointed. The Stardock CEO even published a statement acknowledging that the launch had been disastrous, taking personal responsibility and promising to do better in future.

Darren@Common Sense Gamer picks up on news from the forums that because of the poor launch and poor sales, Stardock are now laying people off.

It’s all very unfortunate – at the end of the day if you sell a faulty product then this is what happens. But he’s lucky people aren’t suing and asking for their money back.

Red5 finally announce their new project

Another project featuring ex-WoW developers, Firefall is going to be a team based online shooter in a futuristic setting and is due out towards the end of 2011. And naturally, it’ll be free to play.

Duke Nukem Forever

2K have announced that Duke Nukem Forever is due out in 2011, courtesy of Borderlines studio Gearbox Software.

I personally doubt many people still care about Duke Nukem Forever (but I expect all of them will reply to this post :) ). The game is mostly notorious for how long it has been ‘in development.’ Whilst you can just about get away with this if you are Blizzard, I’m not so sure it applies here.

$100 pa for xbox platinum live? analyst predicts yes.

I wish people would pay me to predict that prices will go up. Michael Pachter thinks that $100 is the next big price point for xbox live. This of course followed Microsoft’s announcement this week that the console online service would be increased by $10.

He thinks they will reinvest some of the money in providing new services. Although I agree that any notion of a tie up between the xbox and itunes is very far fetched – I don’t think Apple operate that way. But who knows. I’m mostly amused by the phrase, “the next evolutionary step in subscription options.”

And it seems odd to me that in an era of free to play pricing models, Microsoft is so attached to bundling services which players may or may not want.

Gaming News: Acclaim shuts down games, Google game dev advocate leaves, Digital Chocolate sues Zynga, THQ says used games are evil, Kinect will feature voice control

eq2xnwehalas

Another quiet week, this time featuring a selection of bad news.

The EQ2X open beta is also in progress at the moment. Anyone trying that? I made a cool half elf guardian called Spinks and am quite liking New Halas. The streaming works like a dream – it’s a very fast install indeed and gets you into the game almost immediately. The EQ2 devs are still in love with the zone design that sends you out from your quest hub to the same group of mobs about 5 different times in a row. It’s also very lonely when you can’t actually access any chat channels. And call me old fashioned but I think that plate mail should look like plate. I don’t see this as a long term diversion.

Player vs Developer (who has been on a roll this week, go check his blog) has written a thoughtful post discussing all the EQ2X free to play restrictions.

Acclaim shuts down all games (except 9dragons)

Earlier this year, Acclaim was bought by social gaming company Playdom. This week it was announced that they have shut down all of their games. I don’t pretend to understand the thinking behind buying a developer and then shutting down all of their games unless they were costing too much to run and the actual developers are needed to work on new projects.

9dragons may have escaped the cull. The North American license has been bought by GamersFirst. Presumably more news about what they plan to do with servers will be forthcoming.

Google’s game supremo jumps ship

In what must be a blow to Google’s gaming plans, their games boss has left after just four months in post. He commented that Google wasn’t the perfect fit for him, which could mean anything really.

Digital Chocolate sue Zynga

As the header says, Zynga are being sued for the rights to the name “Mafia Wars.”

They said in a statement:

We are surprised and disappointed by Digital Chocolate’s lawsuit. The timing of the action appears to be opportunistic, and we plan to defend ourselves vigorously

Frankly, all copyright and patent suits are opportunistic. There’s no point going to all the hassle and expense of suing someone unless there’s some money in the property. And since Zynga have made their fortune by hijacking other people’s game ideas, it’s ironic to hear them complaining about it now.

Is it evil to buy used games?

THQ complained this week that when gamers buy used games, they are cheating developers out of their rightful profits. The Penny Arcade crew jumped in and agreed that they were uncomfortable with the used market.

And then there was a storm on the blogosphere.

Personally to me this comes down to ownership. Once I own an item, then I can do with it as I wish, including selling it in the second hand market once I am finished with it. This is very different from piracy (which involves making unlicenced copies and selling those.) You also don’t see authors complaining about libraries – quite the opposite – although no author ever got rich from borrowing fees.

Having said that, if companies wish to charge for providing online services then it seems perfectly reasonable for them to do so. Just once you have decided what to charge, you don’t get to double dip. It’s another mark in favour of subscription service, in fact. Although it’s against the EULA to sell accounts in most sub MMOs, at the end of the day the developer is still getting monthly fees from someone. F2P has an even more chilled model. They actively want everyone to play for free so that they can entice them to use the cash shop.

So perhaps the flaw is with the charging model which requires players to put down a large amount of money up-front for a game they haven’t yet had a chance to play.

Kinect either will or won’t feature voice control

There were some mixed messages this week about whether Kinect will feature voice control or not. The upshot is that Microsoft claim that it will – at least for English.

Gaming News: Gamescom News (GW2, Diablo III et al), Skaven for Warhammer Online, Age of Empires goes F2P, Blizzard sues private server, 90% kids in the US play online games

It’s been a week of new trailers and press releases, as opposed to actual news.

One of the more interesting forum snippets that Player vs Developer picked up is that the majority of F2P players in Dungeons and Dragons Online don’t reach the endgame. I’m not surprised by this, given that the free to play model encourages more casual players who’ll tend to be less engaged with a game and probably more likely to drift away if it gets grindy. And also that we know that even in WoW, most casual players don’t get past level 10 in any case. But I also wonder how much of this is the model that allows you to unlock content for all alts at the same time. So once you have bought a few low level instances, you might as well level a few alts through them because … hey, you’ve already paid.

There are also rumours that Realtime Worlds (devs for APB) have found a buyer. Hopefully more news on that shortly.

Bits and Pieces from Gamescom

I thought the Best of Gamescom awards were quite interesting this year in that although Star Wars: the Old Republic was nominated for both best game and best online game, it didn’t win either. Guild Wars 2 won best online game of the convention, though. And that’s via voting from people who were there and tried the demos. I suspect that to be more of a judgement on the demos than anything else, but I really think that the Best of Gamescom category should be made up of games which already won their own categories. And maybe they should make the developers have a steel cage death match fight too.

Also any voting in which Gran Turismo 5 wins out over Kirby’s Epic Yarn is not reflecting my personal tastes so is largely irrelevant to me ;)

Blizzard turned up with some more information about crafting in Diablo III. Comments have noted seeing similar elements to WoW, but I suspect that’s missing the point. Or maybe it is the point. I’m looking forwards to hearing more about D3 at Blizzcon, it’s probably going to be the biggest ever PC game when it does launch. They also commented in interview that Cataclysm needs a couple more months before release.

Arenanet brought a video of Guild Wars 2 gameplay.

(edited to add: Yarr suggests in comments that people might find this to be a better and more informative link.)

There is also a Portal 2 trailer.

THQ also ruffled the Warhammer 40k fans by noting in interview that their upcoming MMO would not allow players to play as space marines from the beginning. I don’t really get why people are upset about this since inquisitors are way cooler!! *ducks the flames* but you probably won’t be able to play those either.

Bioware Mythic mention skaven, fans go wild

Mythic discussed future plans for WAR in an interview this week which mentioned ‘an RvR pack’ which would involve skaven but not as a standard race that players could play from level 1.

They expanded on this  in a chat session. There will be a new PvP zone, new renown ranks to earn, and a focus on open world RvR. We’ll expect more announcements on this fairly soon.

Age of Empires to go Free to Play

Microsoft is planning to release an online version of their popular RTS, Age of Empires. And it will use the free to play/ freemium model.

Apparently there will be levelling and quests and incentives to team up with other people. It will be quite interesting to see how this works out for a RTS game and why they aren’t going the battle.net route of matching opponents instead.

I suspect it’s easier to make and balance a cooperative game. And also, they’re keen to provide some permanence for your capital city which means that it can’t be nuked while you’re offline.

Blizzard sues private WoW server, wins $88mil

So the story is that someone was running a successful private WoW server, with a F2P type model. Blizzard found out and sued them. And was given a huge punitive award by the courts.

Lum notes that the private server had more players than most other MMOs out there, although I think that since it was F2P that most of them probably weren’t paying, or else registered to see what it was all about but didn’t play much. What is real is that the owner earned $3 million from the private server, and with that kind of money on the table, you can see where the incentive lies. And also why Blizzard pressed for a large award.

The question on the table is whether this indicates a large latent demand for WoW to go free to play. I suspect there probably are plenty of people who’d love to pay their way past bits of the  game they don’t want to play, and lots of others who think it would work out cheaper for them with a F2P model.

The kids are online

A report this week based on a survey of 5000 kids across the US showed that over 90% of ‘tween’ kids (8-15) play online games. My first reaction is to be surprised that 90% of kids in the US have access to game capable PCs or consoles and internet connections, so I’m assuming this survey is based purely on those in families which do have these things.

I mean, who gives an 8 year old an iPhone anyway?

More worrying was the facebook statistic:

Facebook is now the favorite website among tween (8-11) boys and teen (12-15) girls.

This is interesting because Facebook’s policy states:

  • No information from children under age 13. If you are under age 13, please do not attempt to register for Facebook or provide any personal information about yourself to us. If we learn that we have collected personal information from a child under age 13, we will delete that information as quickly as possible. If you believe that we might have any information from a child under age 13, please contact us through this help page.”

Yes, you can play facebook games through someone else’s account, but … I wonder. Or is it just that it’s the easiest website for kids to remember and to tell surveys if asked to name one?

EQ2 Extended in Open Beta, has a bumpy ride

The free to play version of EQ2 is now in open beta, so feel free to go try it.

But don’t buy anything (who buys anything in a beta? Honestly, people!!) if you already have a subscriber account, because you might accidentally lose everything. I’m sure SOE will figure out a way to give all the stuff back and fix the bug, but that one is pretty epic.

Having said that, it’s great that people actually do buy stuff in the beta because it helps to find these sorts of bugs.

Gaming News: Lord British takes NCSoft to the cleaners, EQ2 goes free to play, Where will the social gaming acquisition madness end?, WAR comes to the Bioware forums

Lots of business news this week with some ludicrous amounts of money changing hands over ownership of social gaming developers and sites.

In other news, good luck to the folks at the new WoW shaman forum (totemspot.com) and new mage forums at Mana Obscura. You’ll likely see lots of class blogger names that you recognise on both fora.

Also if you are a keen reader of MMO blogs (I am going to assume this will apply to most readers, otherwise why are you here?), check out the new MMO Melting Pot. Their goal is to pick out interesting posts from around the web, with commentary. And they also keep tabs on podcasts et al. As of now, it’s very WoW-focussed.

Richard Garriot wins lawsuit against NCSoft

The sad story of Richard Garriot (aka Lord British) and his dealings with NCSoft finally comes to a close. This is more of an employment law story than a gaming one, but he claimed that he was forced to resign from his post as NCSoft Austin CEO and then to write letters claiming that it was a voluntary redundancy.

This matters hugely in terms of what sorts of payments he was entitled to on leaving. You tend to have more rights to redundancy pay et al if you are fired than if you choose to leave.

A court decided in his favour and awarded $28million in lieu of the lost pay. I’m always happy when I see companies which try to pull a fast one on employees nailed down by employment law, most of which doesn’t represent all that much protection for employees anyway. Hopefully others in the industry will take note.

Everquest 2 Extended

EQ2 is going to offer a free to play payment option, on separate servers from the current ones – I think I’m rapidly preferring non-subscription over F2P for games funded by microtransactions. Their plans confuse commenters who note that the F2P servers will also have subscription options which offer fewer options than the current subscriptions for the same (or higher) price.

I’m not all that certain that EQ2 will really suit the model, but I’m sure lots more people will at least give the game a try when the new options go live. And it’s another step in the seemingly unstoppable trend towards switching from subscriptions to cash shop payment options. Or at least adding different payment options.

This all seems very experimental to me at the moment. But the separate servers and unimpressive F2P subscription options mean EQ2 at least has plans to dissuade existing subscribers who play casually from immediately switching over and paying less. (Ideally you don’t want players to say ‘you know, suddenly my $15pcm subscription doesn’t look like such great value, I only play  a couple of hours a week …’)

Social Gaming Acquisition Madness – Disney buys Playdom, Gamestop buys Kongregate

Only a few weeks ago, Playdom bought Ralph Koster’s Metaplace. Now they in their turn have been acquired by Disney for the heart-stopping sum of approx $560mill; a little less than that for which the mouse house sold subsidiary Miramax earlier in the month. (note: you may have seen the figure $762mil around the place, that part is actually dependent on Playdom’s performance).

So Disney thinks that social gaming is a better bet than Hollywood, and they may be right. They certainly own a vast number of IPs that could prove fruitful for gaming purposes. But that’s a lot of money for a gaming studio that isn’t right at the top of its field. Or even second. The eMarketer blog has a pithy analysis, wondering whether this will go down in history as one of the notorious acquisitions of the decade. In comparison, EA’s $275mil for Playfish last year looks like a bargain.

US chain gaming retail store Gamestop bought PC casual gaming nexus Kongregate this week also. Kongregate is a great site, home to many great tower defence games, The Elements card game, and doubtless many others I haven’t heard of. They are very upbeat about the news in their blog, unsurprisingly.

But as a non-US person, I can’t imagine that Gamestop has a lot to offer me in terms of things to buy with tokens. This is a general problem with going from a bricks and mortar business into the internet – suddenly you are serving a worldwide population who really don’t care about your US based restaurant/ movie/ netflix rewards. It’s likely they’ll concentrate on the US customers, if driving people to their US outlets is seen as the core of their business.

Note: We see the same trend in twitter with their @earlybird offers. I haven’t seen a single one that would be applicable locally. I really think they should call it @usearlybird or just do internet based offers.

Zynga also have evidently decided that the mere 500 million Facebook users is insufficient of a user base and is exploring new opportunities with google, and also in Japan. They also annoyed players this week by shutting down one of their games, with no reason. (I assume the reason is insufficient profit but these games can’t cost all that much to run …)

In any case, with Disney switching from films into social gaming, Warner Brothers recent acquisition of Turbine, Gamestop looking to online social gaming rather than retail … there is a trend here.

Valve (with Steam) and Blizzard (with battle.net) must be laughing.

Warhammer Forums move to Bioware

Speaking of which, the Bioware social network has recently absorbed the official Warhammer Online forums. I love that if you get to the language option screen on the Bioware forum, they use the Canadian flag to represent English. I’m sure the Quebecois are thrilled to bits with that.

None of the blogs I read had much to say about this, I’m not sure anyone was actually fond enough of the Official Warhammer Forums to care. Besides, it isn’t as if they are going away.

In other Bioware news, Greg Zeschuk has decided that his previous figure of 1 million SWTOR players wasn’t enough. Now he says the sales target of all future releases is 10 million units if they are to be considered major hits.

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this. Over the lifetime of a very successful game, 10 million sales is viable. Or maybe he’s just inhaled too much of the Brighton sea air …

Starcraft 2 is live and on air

Starcraft 2 launched this week, and players and reviewers alike seem pretty happy with it. The press were not allowed to review the single player campaign before launch so I imagine there have been a lot of gaming hours poured into the thing. Kotaku report that someone finished the single player campaign in 16 hours.

Gossip Gamer has a cool visual guide to show the difference between SC1 and SC2. And meanwhile, I saved the Norad II in SC1 – go me!

Some guest posts on the way next week

This is not really news but I’m away for a few days next week so you’ll see some guest posts on the blog here. I think you guys will love them, actually.

Everquest 2 goes Free to Play (sort of), and keeps the rabble out

Following in the footsteps of LOTRO, Sony Online Entertainment announced yesterday that they are unveiling a new type of server for EQ2. They call it EQ2 Extra (EQ2X) and it includes a free to play option with a cut down choice of classes and races, no access to send mail or use the auctions, restricted bag space and gold cap, but full access to all of the content.

EQ2X players can also choose to subscribe to pick up an ongoing bundle of extra options for their characters (access to all of the races, etc etc). Now while I would expect to see a special item shop which allows EQ2X players to unlock bits and pieces for their character (such as an extra class or race or lifting the gold cap, for example) there’s no sign of any intent to go this way. You either take the free option with its limitations or upgrade to one of the EQ2X subscription options which each give a bundle of extra options … but are subscriptions (and work out slightly more expensive than a subscription on the regular subscription server).

I think they really should go with the item shop approach, personally. You need to nickle and dime F2P customers so they feel in control of what they spend, not offer strange subscription models. But what do I know?

And for anyone curious, the free options include:

  • Human, Erudite, Barbarian, Half-Elf races
  • Swashbuckler, Brigand, Wizard, Warlock, Guardian, Berserker, Templar, Inquisitor (ie. rogue, caster, tank, healer for either good or the evil faction.)

There have been a lot of posts about this, spurred on partly by SOEs dogged insistence as recent as last month that EQ2 would never go free to play. Ardwulf has checked out the alpha test and returned with a positive outlook.

However stripped down and restrictive the options, this still amounts to a LOT of free content. They’re going into beta with this in mid-August so anyone bored of WoW and looking for something to do before Cataclysm might want to take a look.

Appeasing the subscribing masses

One of the interesting sides to this scheme is that SOE will keep the current subscriber base completely separate from the F2P players. There will be new and separate servers for EQ2X. There won’t be any more 14 day free trial on the subscription servers (I can see the logic in this one, no sense confusing new players with too many different types of free options).

It will be possible for regular subscribers to pay to transfer a character to the EQ2X server but there’s no indication that transfers will be possible the other way.

This means that regular subscribers won’t be greatly affected by the new scheme. Except that they won’t get very many new players at all unless they go out and recruit them. On the other hand, they may end up stuck in a slowly diminishing bubble as natural player turnover favours the EQ2X servers, which may be more inviting to players who just want to try the game before they buy.

But on the other hand, newbies won’t be swamped with hardcore players who have been playing the game for years. It will be interesting to see how this goes. If the EQ2X servers really take off, then SOE win because any EQ2X subscribers will be paying more than the regular ones.

Or maybe new players will use the free time to check the game out, decide if they want to subscribe, and then reroll on the sub server if they do. I feel that regular sub players are likely to lose out – they won’t get the majority of the new players on their servers and unlike LOTRO, if they decide to take a break from the game, they won’t be able to keep logging in, playing lightly, and chatting to their friends.

I am mightily curious to see how this works out, but it’s certainly a cheap way to see the game. I just wonder if the classes they have chosen to give out for free will really give the best impression.