Are Bungie working on a new MMO?

destiny1

Actual concept art, from the horse’s mouth

Big gaming news this week was that IGN got access to leaked materials about story details and concept art from Bungie, who confirmed that this document was an outside look at Destiny, which is their follow up to the Halo games.  It sounds to be a full on Space Opera Star Wars-esque science/fantasy futuristic setting and the take out quote about the gameplay is that it is to be “social at its core.”

Bungie had a particularly classy response to the leak, releasing the concept art shown above and saying:

Go ahead. Take a peek. It’s alright. We weren’t quite ready, but we will be soon, and we can’t wait to finally show you what we’ve really been up to.

We do actually know a bit more about Destiny than the above links would imply.  Polygon read through Bungie’s contract with Activision that was unsealed as part of the Activision/Infinity Ward lawsuit earlier this year. They described Destiny as a “sci-fantasy, action shooter” and list out a schedule for future releases and expansion packs.

The contract describes the Destiny franchise as a “massively-multiplayer-style,” detailing the genre as “client based mission structures with persistent elements.” The franchise plans to go beyond four games and four add-ons, comprising “a blend of retail packaged goods sales, subscriptions, downloadable content, value-added services and micro-transactions.”

While the latter sentence is a bit off putting, I doubt any game would sound attractive if you described it purely from a monetisation point of view. But  they do include subscriptions as a planned payment option, and “massively-multiplayer-style” with “client based mission structures” sounds more CoD than full-on virtual world.

So how about it, Halo fans? Does a space-fantasy mission based massively multiplayer shmup appeal? Because Bungie might well be going there. Is Space Opera going to be the new hotness, now that Disney is making more Star Wars films?

It does also make me wonder how Blizzard will plan to position Titan, given that best conjectures I’ve seen on that have been based on some kind of science-fantasy MMO shooter.

[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 :)

[News Bits] DA2 DLC, How much do popcap want for that zombie?, CoH goes F2P, Diablo 3 followers for normal mode only, more on EVE

Apologies for a bits and pieces posts, there’s a lot of news out this week that I thought was interesting but not really enough to write a whole blog post about.

First DLC announced for Dragon Age 2

Arb and I are keeping a weather eye out for announcements about Comic Con 2011 since we’re going to be there (have I mentioned this enough times yet? :) It’s less than a month away now.)

Bioware chipped in this week with the announcement that they’ll be offering demos of Mass Effect 3, SWTOR, and Dragon Age 2 Legacy – the first DLC for that game. The SWTOR announcement is in a different link but I’m sure that was a no brainer anyway. We’ll be aiming to check those out, if only in the hope of picking up freebies such as the inflatable swords which have been on offer the last couple of years.

We don’t know much about Legacy apart from the title, but already starting to wonder whose legacy we’re talking about here, exactly. I would be quite curious to find out what happened to Kirkwall after I left in a blaze of glory skulked out in the night with my batshit insane blond boyfriend of doom. Surely the world can’t keep on turning without Hawke to set it straight/break it horribly??!

ArenaNet will also be demoing Guild Wars 2 at Comic Con this year, so hopefully we’ll be able to report on that as well. As well as snag freebies, obviously.

Is Zynga going to buy Popcap?

Venturebeat reports rumours that Popcap (makers of Bejewelled and Plants vs Zombies, amongst many others) is in talks to be acquired. It’s not known yet if it is true, but they naughtily bander Zynga’s name around as a prospective suitor.

I think the most depressing sentence in the article is:

PopCap is an appealing target for almost any game company because it has several extremely popular games that can be turned into franchises.

I suspect that a lot of us would rather have new games than Bejewelled 17: the slightly sparklier version.

City of Heroes (finally) goes free to play

This is good news! City of Heroes announces that later this year, they’re switching to a model which will allow players to play for free or go with a subscription model. It sounds as though they’re going with a LOTRO-type of approach where subscribers get some free currency to spend in the game shop (which has plenty of fun cosmetic costumes) as part of their monthly deal.

Here’s the side-by-side comparison of what subscribers get in comparison to F2P players. And again like LOTRO, if you have ever paid a sub for CoH previously you get some perks when the game switches over compared to a new F2P player (Note: F2P players are limited to 2 alts unless they buy more slots, it’s not clear to me if older players will be able to keep all their alts if they come back except for directly purchased slots.)

I’m happy about this news partly because it’s a fun game which I think will lend itself very well to this model, and also because I have friends who play and now it’ll be way easier for me to join them occasionally.

Followers in Diablo 3 are for noobs only

Anyone who thought Blizzard had caught the companion bug from Bioware and were planning to amp up the importance of  followers in Diablo 3 can think again. Apparently the main use for followers is to help new players in normal mode in single player (and get them used to playing in a group – although this may backfire once they find how annoying real people are compared to their faithful NPCs). They will become less useful in hard mode, pointless in nightmare, and not available at all in multiplayer.

They’re there to make the single-player, normal difficulty experience feel more cooperative and to aid in enhancing the story. These factors lose some importance in multiplayer and in the higher difficulty settings of the game, and as such, the followers won’t be as relevant there.

EVE and Microtransactions

The latest on EVE is that someone has leaked an internal memo about plans for microtransactions in CCP’s games. Eve News 24 discusses the cosmetic cash shop prices and the data in the memo.

One of the main reasons that I think long term players get concerned about some of these microtransaction plans is that there’s a point where you wonder how far game devs are putting profit above making fun games. And if your main concern as a consumer is to buy (and pay for) fun games, you’d probably like THAT to be their main focus.

Clearly it’s great if companies that make good products do well. But at what cost?

The other main issue – probably mostly for old dinos like me – is that we like virtual worlds because they’re separate from the rat race of the real world. It’s because the real world doesn’t have much effect on the game world that the game world can be relaxed and fun, and being relaxed and fun is important for being able to play. The more the game favours real world tilts, the less ‘fun’ it gets. It’s like the way people always seem to have more fun in betas, because they know there’s no major consequence for failure or not optimising.  Maybe fun is a minority interest.

Call of Duty to get a subscription option

What is this I don’t even …?

News today is that Activision-Blizzard are planning on introducing a subscription option for CoD. This itself is not surprising as there have been rumours about it for months. But what is perhaps unexpected is that apparently this is going to take the form of an ‘elite’ social network  to which players can subscribe.

So the idea is that you pay your $60 or so for the main game, and then they’re going to try to sell you a subscription on top. It sounds as though some content (such as map packs) will be included, as well as being able to compare stats with other players and find people with similar interests (if ‘likes to play shooters’ isn’t similar interest enough).

But no, the surprise here is that they broke the story in the Wall Street Journal and not a gaming publication. That sends a message about who Activision really want to hear about this development. No doubt we’ll hear more at E3 next week. (And I guess, the other surprise is that they’ve decided subscriptions will make more money for them than expanding F2P options, so opposite to the way the MMO world has been trending. Wonder if they’ll offer a cash shop on top of this.)

So if you are a CoD player, how do you feel about this option? Better value than buying occasional map packs as DLC? What could they put in to make it tempting? And how much would you be prepared to pay per month/year?

And if you aren’t, don’t worry, chances are that if it’s popular, your favourite online multiplayer game will go this way too:

Rob Dyer, senior vice president of publisher relations at Sony’s U.S. games division, said only a few games have the audience loyalty and size to support a subscription service like Call of Duty Elite. Mr. Dyer said he is “very confident” other publishers will follow Activision’s lead. “There’s money to be made there,” he said.

And a video trailer for the new service has also been leaked in advance of E3. I wonder if CoD counts as an MMO yet …

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.

The problem of old content, and is recycling the answer?

Anyone else love gossip and speculating about games you know nothing about? Yeah, me too. I was pondering the next WoW expansion a few weeks ago and mentioned in passing the notion that they might come totally out of left field and rework old Azeroth in its entirety. Except I didn’t really think it was a serious option.

I’m still not convinced about the latest Cataclysm leaks, although we’ll know more very soon since Blizzcon is this weekend. Me, I suspect some of the leaks will turn out to be true (new race/class combos might be a smart way of luring people into rerolling without actually having to generate any extra content). I’m still dubious about the sheer amount of work that would be involved in redoing everything in vanilla WoW.

But one thing is for sure, people have reacted with excitement about the possibility of revisiting their favourite old zones and instances in an up to date 2010 edition. Even the one raid boss who we know for sure is being revamped, Onyxia, has stirred plenty of interest.

The Problem of Old Content

In MMOs I have played, PvE content has a definite life cycle.

  1. It is new and a bit buggy. People flock to do it. They abandon the old zones they used to hang out in.
  2. Bugs are ironed out, content is better tuned. People complain about nerfs. More people flock to do it.
  3. Content becomes old hat. It stays popular if it is either fun, required, or offers good rewards for time put in.
  4. New content is patched in, go to #1.
  5. (Old content stays in the game, but no one goes there any more. It becomes part of the game’s mythology. Old players tell new ones about what things were like ‘back in the day’ when the old zones were busy. New players shrug and get on with the new stuff.)

We see this particularly with new expansions in games like WoW. The expansion is intended to reset the endgame, so the old endgame content is meant to be mostly abandoned. There are no relevant challenges or rewards there any more.

Even if the old instances could get revamped a bit, it doesn’t solve the problem that a lot of players are bored with them anyway and just don’t want to go back. So you can easily end up with vast areas in the game where no one ever goes. Perhaps the occasional exploring newbie will stumble into it, unaware that it’s not on the optimal levelling path.

Now aside from the fact that it’s quite atmospheric to have empty zones as well as full ones, this always feels a bit sad. And while there are ways to keep the old zones busy, they’re just not as exciting for players as a constant stream of new content.

But … could a cataclysm in which every old zone got a total revamp — new graphics, new quests, new updated storyline — could that be the way to make everything old seem new again? Maybe it could.

Aside from the fearsome amount of work (yeah I’m still not convinced), what better way to lure back old players who had quit than the offer of cool fun things to do in the zones which they remember? And that’s exactly the audience Blizzard needs to be looking for at the moment. To add some extra charm, reviving 5-year old content in this way is far enough in the past that even old players who ran it to exhaustion might be over the boredom and ready to go check it out again. So maybe, just maybe, the leaks are on the money…