[Links] So are we finally at the end of the (MMO) era?

In a week where I’m still struggling to move my armies around in Crusader Kings 2*, I’m sensing a sort of existential gloom around the MMO blogosphere. Not quite what you’d expect when WoW have just announced a release date for their next expansion, perhaps.

* I know, total fail. But the bizarro thing with CK2 is that you can play it like a sort of medieval soap opera even if you suck totally at the military side.

But let’s start with some upbeat links.

Huw at the MMO Melting Pot does a great job at curating MMO blog posts into a small daily digest. If you are interested in reading good writing from actual players (as opposed to  paid journalists or for-profit sites) about their experiences, thoughts and feelings with MMOs, put the Pot on your regular feed. I feel that we as a community (ie. gamers) don’t appreciate enough the value of our own gaming expertise. But I’m darned sure I would prefer to read views from a wide range of players, covering the full range of casual-hardcore, PvE-PvP, and other ways of playing I’d never even have considered, than a small selection of gaming journos.

Arb writes a paean to the Ultima games, and explains why she’s so excited about Ultima Forever. (It took a fair while, btw, for her to say anything nice about my boyfriend/husband – but we’ve been married 11 years now, so perhaps he’s been accepted by my family. A bit :-) ).

Any Rift fans in the house? Scott Hartmann (Exec Producer at Trion)  has hosted an extensive Q&A thread on reddit. This was part of an answer to a hardcore raider complaining that it wasn’t fair that some guilds had better access to beta tests than others:

If people require more fairness than “a guy is working a 16 hour day just so my guild can test,” to be happy in an MMO, I guarantee the MMO they are looking for simply does not exist.

Also, anyone catch the Olympic Opening Ceremony? Everyone British I know really loved it; I think it captured a certain irreverent spirit at the same time as touching on some national traits/people/ culture that we’re actually very proud about. I especially loved the bit where Tim Berners-Lee tweeted live from the stadium “This is for everyone” and it literally showed up as a RT on my twitter stream about a second later (obviously I had twitter up while watching the opening ceremony, doesn’t everyone?) This is the best review I’ve seen (comparing it to the Chinese one), and the whole thing is available on the BBC iPlayer to anyone who can access that.

Maybe F2P isn’t the answer to life, the universe and everything

This week, Zynga stock prices are falling through the floor. I don’t think this will surprise many gamers, as their model of F2P, fast turnabout on new games, and heavy reliance on Facebook was never really convincingly long term. Especially since so much of their initial growth relied on cross-fertilisation between games using features that FB has since heavily restricted (due to them being massively annoying), and various other underhanded semi-exploits such as deliberately working with scam advertisers and “… did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away”.

However, now that they are a public company, this type of stock performance triggers analyses in fairly mainstream publications as well as gaming sites.

Mashable suggests Zynga try making better games rather than aiming for more gambling applications (note: they will do the gambling thing though.)

Forbes asks why Zynga is bleeding users.

The best analysis I have seen is on gamesindustry.biz (you’ll need to create a login to read the whole thing), which notes that although they’re still gaining players overall, fewer of those players are paying. This is not the trend that F2P believers want to see.

Free-to-play mechanics mean that you expect the vast majority of users to play for free, effectively acting as cost-effective marketing to entice the small minority of players who’ll pay money and make the service profitable overall. However, in Zynga’s case, the trend is all wrong. Back in Q2 2011, 1.5% of Zynga’s players were paying money for things. A year later, the figure is 1.3%. That 0.2% figure may not seem like a lot, but it’s a trend moving in the wrong direction – and it actually translates to about half a million players who ought to be paying, if Zynga could maintain its ratios, but aren’t. Moreover, that isn’t being compensated for by “whales” dragging the average expenditure of the paying players upwards – in fact, the company’s average income per DAU (Daily Average User) dropped by 10% year on year. In short – costs are up, and revenues aren’t rising to match them.

So does this mean that F2P is perhaps not the answer to life, the universe, and everything, or just that Zynga is ‘doing it wrong’? Probably a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Cash rich Zynga could have put more of that cash and effort into developing better, more engaging games, but they haven’t done so, nor have they really ported their success to non-Facebook or mobile platforms. Pincus is almost certainly more comfortable running traditional casino games, so it’s not surprising he wants to take the company that way.

But the general trend of players drifting from one F2P game to the next, tending to spend less as they go, is one to take on board. You are NEVER as invested in any MMO as you are in the first one you play. It’s entirely possible that this is as true for F2P social games as for AAA MMOs.

Since we don’t really get meaningful numbers from most F2P MMOs (eg. LOTRO, STO, etc) it’s hard to know if this signals a general trend. Maybe companies do have to work harder to get F2P customers, even the fabled whales, to keep spending enough to make their games truly sustainable once the flood of new players has dried up. We know that regular paid expansions is one way to keep the money flowing in (you could think of this as similar to the subscription model, if you only had to pay once every year or so), but if a F2P game cannot sustain a fairly massive base, can the model still work?

Whither SWTOR, and can any new MMO have a longterm future?

EA have an earnings call this week, and it’s likely that SWTOR subscriptions are significantly down from the last time they were announced. They will drop further in August when the six-monthly subs from people who took those out at launch run out. Even as someone who still enjoys the game, it’s hard to feel positive about SWTOR’s future. Bioware have let a lot of SWTOR staff go, and leavers include some of the more influential senior designers. That’s never a good sign in a new MMO, because their vision is the thing which made the game appealing to the players who actually like it.

There have been comments about new content such as a new companion and new planet before the end of the year, but if EA want to retain players, they need to give out some actual timescales. If you bought the game and enjoyed the content and were hoping for a long lifecycle of regular content updates, it isn’t really clear whether that is still the plan at all.

As a fan who has been subscribing, if they kept a reasonable pace, I would retain a subscription. Possibly even for years. That offer (from me as a player) was on the table when I bought into the game.  If they can’t and the community crumbles and my guild/s wander off … then I won’t keep paying them. I’ll follow the players. I wish them luck with a F2P conversion if they decide to go that way and I hope a lot of new players get the chance to try SWTOR, enjoy it, and realise that it’s actually a pretty darn good game if you can enjoy it for what it is, and not whine about what it isn’t. But if they renege on what I expected at launch, I will leave them to it, albeit with fond memories.

UnSubject has been writing a super set of posts at Vicarious Existence about recent MMO failures. And he tops it by looking at factors that contributed to these failures, and predicting the end of AAA MMOs (it’s been said before, but this is a good analysis.)

I’m having difficulty thinking of a Western AAA MMO that has launched since 2006 that’s managed to grow its player base post-launch (well, without switching to free-to-play (F2P) anyway).

And with all that choice, the MMO player base is more fragmented than ever. It’s hard to get enough of them engaged for long enough to earn your development budget back (well, without switching to F2P anyway).

One of the interesting things about his analysis is that this doesn’t depend on how ‘different’ the new MMOs are from existing ones. Unless they are genuinely different enough to appeal to a different market, in which case existing MMO players may well not like them. motstandet writes a reply to my post about not minding MMO clones, describing how he looks for games with depth that he can play for years. (Clearly this also requires other players to play with/against if they aren’t single player games.)

From Zynga’s example (see above), it’s not clear whether F2P is a good long term solution either. So maybe the destiny of these games is never to be longterm again in the way they have in the past. Old dino players will look back to the days in which a core player would subscribe to a game for YEARS as if it were truly prehistory. And that will affect in-game communities also, because people engage differently with a game that they genuinely expect to be spending significant amounts of their free time around than a game which they expect to be done with in a month or two.

EVE is often cited as an outlier, with a steadily growing subscriber base. I’m always unclear how to analyse this, since so many of the core players seem to pay for their gametime and multiple accounts using in game credits/ PLEX. Gevlon has been theorising this week about which segment of the EVE player base actually pay for time – I have no idea if he is right. Theoretically, every PLEX that is bought in game had to be paid for at some point with real money, so it shouldn’t matter to CCPs bottom line how people finance their gaming (ie. if a player buys PLEX for in game cash, that PLEX still got bought by someone else before they sold it in game  so CCP still got the money for it).

But I’m not sure. I’m not sure if a model where the more hardcore players get to play for free is really a solid one, especially since the playerbase will tend to become more hardcore over time. If it’s really that easy to make money in game (which seems to be implied in comments to just about every EVE blog I’ve ever read), then are there enough players who like the game but can’t be arsed to make money in it to pay the subs for everyone else (and their alts)? I do take their subscriber base with a pinch of salt, given the preponderance of multiple alts though. That game is not as big as people think, and if Dust fails, we’ll see CCP feel the pinch.

People seem more dubious about MoP already

Let me be clear on one thing: I would never bet against Blizzard. They consistently make games that players enjoy, and even games that have garnered plenty of criticism such as Diablo 3 have broken sales records and generally pleased the majority of their players. I will not be surprised if Mists of Pandaria breaks sales records, even if they have to invent a record for it to break.

But I look on my guild boards and for the first time before an expansion, I see people wondering how long other players will find MoP engaging. I see one of the hardcore raid guilds on my server (which is the most populated RP server in the EU) take their entire guild to another server for the expansion. I think MoP will please many many players, and I like the new emphasis on a wider endgame. But for how long?

Anne at Wow Insider riled up readers by talking about how players got bored with Cataclysm and comparing it to the smart kids at school who are bored with lessons aimed at those who are merely average. The reason this annoyed people is because of the implication (which I don’t think was her intention) that if they’re not bored, then they were not ‘the smart kid at school.’  Redbeard has some good comments on her post here also.

I’m going to use a different analogy. When I was a kid, we moved around the country a lot, so I went to lots of different schools. And they taught the syllabus in different orders. I remember sitting in a beginner’s French class and being bored rigid because I’d already studied French for 2-3 years in previous schools. This is a type of boredom that comes of experience, rather than just being ‘the smart kid’. Experienced players in a game/genre will always get bored more quickly than new ones, because they don’t face the same learning curve. Wrath kept the experienced players interested for longer than Cataclysm because it came with a much larger set of zones and storylines than Cataclysm (10 new levels rather than 5, plus a new class, plus hard mode instances, plus longer raids such as Ulduar and even Naxx). Also for many casual raid guilds, Wrath represented the pinnacle of their raiding existences, where some of the barriers that had kept them stuck in TBC were removed.

Pandaria on paper offers more new content than Cataclysm for max level characters. The new continent seems larger and more connected (as opposed to the bittiness of Cataclysm). Cataclysm’s focus on remaking the old world didn’t sustain either old or new players. There will be a wider variety of endgame experiences. But now maybe the rot has set in, and players will be more willing to unsub once they are bored rather than hanging in there. Perhaps Blizzard will have to work that bit harder to keep them – after all, these last months represent the longest WoW has ever gone without a solid content patch.  Yet at the same time, more players than ever have tried the MoP beta. Does that mean they’ll get bored more quickly when the expansion goes live? Soon enough, we’ll find out.

[Links] Guild size, MoP and warriors, D3, The Secret World, Bad Kickstarters

The imminent release of Diablo 3 this week is likely to be the biggest PC gaming event of the year, which  has less to do with any gameplay innovations and everything to do with how slick the Battle.net interface is for helping people to play together. And nostalgia. It’s a good time to remember that one of the biggest factors that drives new game sales (based on unscientific personal observations) is word of mouth – and particularly in multi player games, this means knowing friends who plan to play and want to know if you are too. It’s worked very well for CoD and it will work for Blizzard too.

Anyway, on to the links. Let’s start with some links about Diablo 3 – you won’t  stop hearing about it from now on in so may as well get cracking.

Jaded Alt explains the D3 Auction Houses and how Blizzard is taking their cut (ie. charges).

On one hand the entire AH system appears designed to be bad. On the other, I can’t imagine Blizzard leaving money on the table.  This is a head scratcher for me. I really don’t know which way it will go. Either way there won’t be large quantities of transactions. $1 is a stupid price point for quantity and max listing of 10 isn’t much better.

Tobold writes some general tips on Auction House strategies in D3. Comments are entertaining because he dislikes paid for guides and discussions entail.

The Internet is full of get-rich-quick scams. And with the release of Diablo 3 next week, a lot of new scams are going to exploit player’s dreams of paying their rent by playing Diablo 3. Selling virtual items for real money sounds like a dream job. So scammers will gladly promise you the secrets of making $25 per hour, if only you buy their Diablo 3 secret gold guide for $19.95.

You could be excused for thinking that D3 was an auction house with a game attached, rather than the other way around. The AH is going to be used by such a huge number of people and I’m not aware of any UI Auctioneer-type tools to help analyse it, which means that any individual will only be able to track a fairly limited range of goods. So unlike Tobold, I could see the value for people in being in a community that wants to share information. I’m sure there will be plenty of free resources and communities around for people who want to do that. But why would you share information that is making you a profit? I think that like the RL stock market, there will be a lot of suspect ‘tips’ around. The surest bet is pick a class and sell magic find or gold find gear for it. (I may experiment with a gold finding farming set,  it’s less random.)

The Secret World held an NDA-free beta weekend so there’s a fair amount of feedback from blogs around that. People are generally positive about the game, it’s a modern day urban fantasy conspiracy setting and  it’s doing some quite different things, but I’m not hearing people say that they think it’s ready to launch next month. Which could be concerning, because it’s due to launch next month.

Gaming for Introverts has a really big TSW beta post.

Randomessa is drawn in by the beta .. or was it Illuminati mind control?

Sente also is converted by the beta.

Belghast is trying to decide whether the good parts outweigh the bad.

Personally I am looking for games more like EQ2, and less like WoW/Rift/SWTOR.  So all the extra fluff this game has, really appeals to me, and I can look past some of the awkward combat and cutscenes for the time being.

And Feliz at MMO Compendium has posted a lot of TSW screenshots.

Kickstarter has been the topic of some more discussion this week. I’m thrilled that Jane Jensen has met her target, and I think the way she has been engaging with the community is pretty much a model for how this sort of thing can work. I get the sense that she’s really enjoying the process, and that’s infectious. There are 5 days left to get in on this one if you are a fan of old school adventure games (Gabriel Knight being the more famous ones she’s written, and the next game sounds to be thematically similar.) They have announced that they will also definitely make a second game this year, making the $50 tier sound like a good deal if you are REALLY into old school adventure games.

But while it’s one thing to throw some money at an established name with experience in the field who you trust (to some extent) to come up with a product, other Kickstarters are more nebulous. The Pathfinder Online Kickstarter in  particular is a bit of a head scratcher – they’re asking for backers to fund their tech demo. (This game btw will never get funding to be made – I am pretty darned confident in that prediction.)

Ferrel at Epic Slant discusses his experiences with Kickstarter and has concerns about the Pathfinder one.

Vicarious Existence is even more cynical.

What this Kickstarter is really about ismarketing. Getting a tech demo developed on-the-cheap is a bonus, but the real focus is on showing publishers that there is a potential market for PathO.

Ryan Dancey compares himself in his blurb to ‘the Steve Jobs of MMO marketing’. Stopped laughing yet? The folks at rpg.net haven’t. (He’s been involved with large companies and done some good work but I’m not seeing it either.) What this says to me is that this isn’t even so much about marketing as padding out a resume with “have organised a successful kickstarter.” Having said all that, a Kickstarter should be very clear about exactly what is going to happen with any donated funds and backers are at the very least expected to read this and understand it. Caveat Emptor.

There is also an issue with their ‘stretch goals’ (ie. what they’ll spend the excess money on now that they’ve funded the $50k they originally asked for) because they’re not really assigning it to the same tech demo project at all, more to general funding:

Extra funding will allow us to bring more resources to the table faster. We may be able to accelerate our hiring plan, and begin the task of expanding the work we’re doing to create the technology demo into the alpha version of the game. And, of course, the more money we raise, the better Pathfinder Online looks to investors!

Since I play a warrior in WoW, I’m vaguely interested to read what people have to say about where they are going in the next expansion. And the word currently is … not looking good.

Malchome has been playing the beta and is  disappointed in active tanking for warriors.

The Warrior, Bear, and Paladin feel like all they did was take some of the survivability that was normally there and removed it and added some buttons to press to give it back on a limited basis with massive resource requirements.  Great so now we suck more by default and have to spend all our time gathering resources just to get our previous survivability back.

Zellviren agrees that active mitigation is a flop, in a two part post.

I’m now looking at a promising expansion in Mists of Pandaria, but wholly disappointing gameplay from my warrior. I didn’t reckon with the power of bad design and the impact it could have on such a good idea. Essentially, as far as warriors are concerned, “active mitigation” is turning into a nasty belly-flop where we’re potentially going to end up MORE passive than we are now.

Ghostcrawler actually posts a long reply to this.

We don’t think standing there doing nothing, or standing there trying to maximize DPS is going to be fun for tanks, so we want the attacks to translate into some amount of tank survivability. That’s the intent behind active mitigation in a nutshell.

Or people who want active mitigation could just go play another game with a more active combat mechanic style? For me, the best type of active mitigation in standard MMO is exemplified by interrupts. You do your tanking thing and if the boss starts casting its big attack, you interrupt it. Bingo, you take less damage because you used the right ability at the right time.  THAT is active mitigation. Anything that doesn’t involve the player reacting to the environment is just a more complex rotation.

But I’d be lying if I said that hearing all these negative things about my favourite class isn’t putting me off checking out MoP.

Dragon’s Dogma is apparently going to have something in it that sounds like huge multiplayer raids.

Rohan wonders if MMO decline, as shown by reduced subs, is driven by the move towards smaller guilds and raids. I’m not sure if decline is the right word when there are probably more people playing MMOs now than ever, taking F2P into account. But I do think he’s right that smaller guilds are less stable, all it takes is one person to leave and the guild may not be able to raid any more without merging, or recruiting, and before you know it, everyone is feeling unsettled and thinking about hopping to the next game.

Black Seven talks about the details of how the guild system works in GW2.

Liore joins the mass of SWTOR unsubscribers, and gives a post-mortem on her time with the game.

I like Bioware, I like Star Wars, I like “the fourth pillar” of story. Somehow, though, at the end of the day it all came together into something I’m not interested in playing, or at least not interested enough to pay $15 a month to play.

TOR Wars posts some shots of hats in SWTOR – they’re not as bad as LOTRO but …. some of them get quite close. There are some bounty hunter headpieces which are just awful that I’ll try to capture sometime.

Syp has been posting links to new blogs all week, check them out. He also has some advice on managing criticism and attacks in comments.

And Scary posts the best blogging advice ever.

You’re not going to like it, but if you still want to blog after this post, you NEED to blog after this post.

Yeebo describes how she uses in-game mail as post-it notes. Have there been MMOs that actually gave you some kind of a notepad for this kind of stuff?

Kadomi advertises a Pern MUSH, if you’ve ever been intrigued by the idea of MUSHes this sounds like a supportive kind of environment to check it out.

And now some more lists of links

A few people on my blogroll have been posting lists of links to posts this week. So this is a list of lists of links to posts.

[Links] Where are the links of yesterweek?

Liore wonders if one of the big themes in the gaming industry this year is animosity between players and developers. She picks out the Day 1 ME3 DLC and the GW2 pre-purchase in particular, but I also wonder if this increased animosity is “a thing.” Maybe it’s down to consumerism – I have seen the enemy and it is the capitalist system, etc. We could also ask “Can players and developers ever be friends?” when the object of one is to make money from the other. Maybe this is part of the appeal of Kickstarters. Zoso also writes about EA being voted worst company in America by some consumer website earlier this month.

Or is it that MMO players tend to really hate their game-of-choice’s developers? Chris@Levelcapped wonders what the real cost of making an MMO is in terms of player relationships, noting that Blizzard and Bioware have both had reputations in the past as well loved companies, before they entered the MMO field. (The history of Bioware’s relationship with consumers in particular is likely to be a case study in marketing courses well into the future. I actually really enjoy their more recent stuff, but there’s some real hatred out there.) Then again, I don’t think anyone really hates Trion.

Werit comments on one of the SWTOR story features which is that bits of your character’s story can happen unexpectedly when you thought you were just returning to your ship or zoning into the orbital station. It is actually really cool when you first see this, and realise that some of your story won’t be stuck in phased instances in the middle of nowhere. It gives things a real sense of omg this really is my story.

Milady wonders if there is anything she can do as a consumer to get the message across to developers that she really doesn’t want to play female characters who totter around in high heels and low cut tops, given that she still wants to play games like GW2 and Diablo 3. Realistically the answer is probably that there is no way unless you are willing to be very selective about the games you play   (eg. you could probably get through Skyrim without heels, Torchlight had pretty cool female characterisation, and not all MMOs use that character style.)

Zubon writes a thoughtful post about balance, discussing whether MMO fights are balanced around everyone in the group knowing the fight, and the difference between balancing for gear/dps and balancing for skill/ knowledge. My personal pet hate are fights that are balanced around using particular consumables  or resistance on gear (Final Fantasy games in the past have been dreadful for this.)

Gevlon has a theory that World of Tanks is rigged. I don’t pretend to understand the details of this since I always assumed the point of matchmaking was to be able to field reasonably matched teams, but you don’t expect your own stats to also be stealth nerfed/ buffed. He’s also thinking about what to do with all the ISK he’s making in EVE, and I think struggling a bit with the notion that there are lots of different viable goals and win conditions in decent MMOs, and there may not be a single right way to play.

Stropp wonders why you never hear about anti-PK corps in EVE.  My experience is that it’s very difficult for guilds which form to maintain the status quo/ law to keep momentum, plus there’s nothing you can really do to stop gankers coming back later or logging alts to keep griefing.

Rampant Coyote has some thoughts on crowdsourced funding and what it means for indie developers.

Should publishers be worried? Short version: Yes. Long version: Yes, and if I were them I’d be scrambling to redefine myself in the new paradigm.

Ardwulf explains things that frustrate him about Guild Wars. It’s a game I have never really been able to get into and I think he’s hit on some of the reasons why. In fact, I think I hit my head against that exact same mission in Nightfall a few times, and put the game aside. You know how sometimes you know something is a decent game but don’t feel very motivated to play it?

Kotaku report that the PS Vita is doing really badly on sales in Japan, which was probably predictable given the predominance of cheap games on mobile phones. Do you spend your cash on a specialist handheld games system or buy a smartphone and load up on cheap games?

Keen asks readers “what is your one MMO must-have?” and I’ll get in first with ‘must be able to run on my machine’ or ‘must be a price I’m willing to pay.’

Massively asks “Do kids belong in guilds?” which can be quite a sensitive topic in family friendly games. I imagine a lot of adult gamers would prefer not to hang with other people’s kids during their gaming time. Having said that, I’ve played in guilds with some smart, reponsible 15 year olds and as long as everyone is patient and sensible about things, it can work.

[Links] Diablo III without PvP, ME3 Morality, Journey, LOTRO

Blizzard announced (if announced is the right word) last week that D3 will be shipping without PvP. While waiting till just before release to announce that ‘major’ game features are being dropped does smack of panic (better planning/ management would have involved making that announcement sooner), I don’t remotely see this as a bad thing.

Surely no one was planning on playing Diablo 3 because of the PvP. Were they? The whole point of that game genre is solo and group PvE. Yes, there were facilities in Diablo/ Diablo 2 to have a random punchfest but if you wanted a better PvP experience that involves loot gathering then just about any MMO would offer it. (Yes, that is a reflection on how poor Diablo PvP has been.)

So now Blizzard can get the game released sooner rather than later in a state which the VAST majority of players would have wanted, and then fix up PvP arenas later on. The great bonus though is that PvP does seem to attract the most colossal tossers (nothing personal to PvP fans, just the communities get toxic) so if any of those give D3 a pass then that’s hardly a bad thing either.

It probably will affect the auction house, though. PvP players wanting better gear for PvP without having to grind PvE for it would have been a significant market. Stabs analyses this briefly in his new D3 blog and concludes it’s not a big deal. And meanwhile, Blizzard are making the best of a non-ideal situation by being able to talk up how great the PvP will be when it does come in a later patch – arenas, achievements, matchmaking.

Meanwhile, Blizzard have a new offer for returning players to WoW which involves a free level 80 character, and also a server/ faction transfer thrown in. I have seen this touted as being a great deal, but that really depends on whether you wanted another level 80 and if you have characters scattered over servers and factions that you’d want reunited. Having said that, the Cataclysm levelling zones were quite fun if you haven’t seen them.

I think I am surprised at how popular this Scroll of Resurrection has been. Were there really that many people who hadn’t seen Cataclysm yet and really wanted to? Evidently so, or else people are using the scroll for their alt accounts (why you would need an alt account for WoW is beyond me, but whatever.)

Although let me be the first to say that the new mount that existing players who refer an old one using the SoR get looks extremely dumb when it is being ridden. Ghost fliers sound great until you realise your character will be flying around legs akimbo looking like a tit. Flaming hippogryph forever!

More links

Boatorious has issues with the ME3 morality meter. Should a hardened soldier still feel bad when s/he kills people? I would say yes, it’s basic humanity to feel bad about killing, but then I’m not Commander Shepard. Bioware’s morality choices do tend to highlight when the writer’s values conflict with the players’.

Syl blogs about Journey, the upcoming (as in ‘this week’) PS3 release from thatgamecompany. I have been jonesing to play this game since I saw it last year at conventions, so will hopefully be talking about that later this week. It was a ravishingly peaceful and beautiful demo, what can I say?

Milady watched the recent Big Bang Theory episode that features SWTOR and wants to know why female gamers are portrayed as spoiling the experience for the guys.

Turbine does seem to be dancing with the boundaries of acceptable F2P content at the moment. Player vs Developer looks at a recent feature which fixes an existing design issue … for those who are willing to pay.

If you haven’t read this yet, Apple Cider Mage posts a brave account of her experiences of being harassed in and out of WoW, and also a guide on how to deal with internet harassment.

Gevlon has unleashed himself on EVE and is posting his thoughts and tips as he learns the game. Comments on those posts by EVE vets are incredibly harsh given that he’s a new player and is picking things up quickly. (Maybe it’s his manner, but they come across as utterly despising of newbies.)

Speaking of EVE, this is a piece that The Mittani wrote comparing communities that form in game with communities that form out of game. I think I will follow this up in a later post, but it’s very much a feature of new MMOs these days that many players will be members of existing communities that met outside the game and then formed guilds to play with. It does affect the play experience, since those players have no need to form social links in game. But to more social players, forming links in game and making new friends is part of the fun of playing MMOs…

[Links] May the links be with you

Oo, it’s been ages since I wrote a links post. Let’s see what’s in the can.

For the record, I’m still enjoying SWTOR and will write a post about my experiences in the endgame sometime next week. While both Stabs and Richard Bartle comment on how unusual it feels in an MMO for the levelling part to actually feature an ending, they come to different conclusions on whether or not this works.

I’ll note only that I think the original endgame-ish model borrowed a lot from original D&D in which it was assumed the game would turn into more of a simulation/ sandbox/ war game after your character reached the dizzying heights of level 10 or so and there were originally rules for what types of settlements/ strongholds each class would build and what types of followers might be attracted to them. Bear this in mind: the MMO model was based on a game where levelling was an RPG and endgame was sandbox. This accounts for a lot of the confusion for both players and designers I think.

For what it’s worth, I subbed for 6 months. I am in fact in the habit of always taking out a 6 month sub for a new MMO that I really liked in beta/ opening month. It’s one of the ways I try to support my hobby, plus I get to explore the game without feeling rushed. Will I be in for the full 6 months? That gentle readers is a future we’ll explore together ;P

I don’t really have a good list of SWTOR blogs; if you know any good ones or want to advertise your own, feel free to mention them in comments. One SWTOR post that did catch my eye was Calli’s post on Dude, Where’s My Bantha about some patterns and issues she’s (edited: HE I mean. Sorry Calli!) noticed with the republic-side romances. Food for thought!

It’s almost as if Bioware think that everyone playing The Old Republic fantasises about being the kind of tough, strong and ruggedly handsome man that damsels in distress everywhere need to shelter them from all the ugly in the world.

I recommend Imperial Agent, a good dose of Kaliyo will clear away any of those sorts of thoughts.

What’s buzzing round the blogosphere?

Kingdoms of Amalur is released next week, and here are Tipa’s thoughts on the demo. I did briefly try the demo on the PS3 and my thoughts mostly can be summed up as “combat looks as though it’s going to be fun and engaging, the world and story didn’t really grab me.” So if you want an open world fantasy type game with engaging combat, roll a coin. If it’s heads get Amalur, tails get Final Fantasy 13-2. (I’m still looking forwards to Dragon’s Dogma, though.)

Zubon doesn’t like games that have achievements that can only be completed at certain points in the game, so if you miss the right time, you can’t go back later and do it. Good discussion in comments here between people like me who think achievements are just a bit of fluff and fun and not to be taken too seriously, and more achiever/ completionist players.

Keen talks about sandbox games, and particularly some of the design notes that Goblinworks have been putting out about their upcoming (although probably not any time soon) Pathfinder fantasy sandbox game. They’ve been discussing links between PvP, trading/ economy, and resources/ building in a sandbox world. There is more to sandboxes than just giant economic-war simulations though, and it would be nice to see sandbox games experiment more with the sorts of social challenges that featured in Tale in the Desert. Or anything that would encourage players to build working in game communities rather than always be focussed on in-game profit and achievements.

Brian at wasdstomp gaming wonders why in F2P games, he always buys a bundle of points just before he gets bored of the game, so ends up not spending them.

F2P games have been in the news again, with Star Trek Online and SOE announcing that Everquest will be taking the plunge in March. Aion is due to go F2P soonish (in the EU at least), and Rift now offers the first 20 levels free. Anyone planning on taking up any of those? Everquest F2P hold any interest for anyone who didn’t fancy it before?

Scott Andrews at WoW Insider discusses the current (dying) state of 25 man raid guilds in WoW. Syl at Raging Monkeys has a thoughtful look at social control in MMOs and how WoW players have been getting streamlined over the years into small groups of similar ability.

I don’t wish to be in a guild where every person is exactly like me <…> Nor do I mind slower learners or players who simply fail at the odd mechanic <…>  – as long as you can compensate for them somehow during specific encounters.

Zynga has been in the news recently following accusations that they cloned/ copied another game (Tiny Tower). This wouldn’t be the first time for Zynga, whose big hit Farmville was also ‘strongly inspired’ by another similar game. Brian Reynolds (Zynga’s head of design) discusses copycats and cloning on Gamasutra, but only if they don’t ask about Tiny Tower :) Tadhg at What Games Are shares his thoughts on how you can tell if a game is a clone, and what to do about it (if you are the designer of the cloned game.)

Sente reflects on how difficult it can be to remember how to play a game if you return after a few months, and wonders what MMO devs in particular could do to help.

[Gaming Links] What everyone says about everything!

Back in the day we used to walk uphill both ways to raids in the snow AND we enjoyed it!

Syncaine claims that his guild wiped over 400 times in AQ40 in Vanilla WoW, and he enjoyed every minute of it, dammit!

I’m in the happy situation (for the purposes of being able to make a point ;) ) of having also raided AQ40 and Naxx in a 40 man raid guild in vanilla and there were many many things I enjoyed about that style of gaming. But I don’t think we wiped that many times, and certainly not on any single boss, and here is the reason. We couldn’t extend the raid locks back then. Every raid reset every week. So there was an actual limit of how much time you could spend wiping on a single boss. And in AQ40 in particular, it took ages to run back after a wipe. Oh and trash respawned after a couple of hours (I think that was the respawn time).

Anyhow I don’t want to get hung up on number of wipes. One of the differences between Olde Worlde raiding and new fangled raiding was that we did expect to spend a few weeks on each new boss, that was our normal situation. And that would involve a lot of wipes and learning. It’s just that because of the raid locks, you would also be interspersing this with farm raids. So the time you spent in your raids was a mixture of hard, frustrating wipes, and chilling out on older content, plus taking longer to get back after a wipe was also time to chat.

I don’t think even the hardest core raider is going to enjoy 400 wipes BACK TO BACK, especially when each wipe comes from a single mistake or unlucky random event after 10 minutes of demanding fighting.  That’s maybe the key to endgame content.

Just one more quote from Syncaine:

And yes, at one point, between managing the guild, running raids, carrying ‘bads’, and main-tanking, it got a little much. But in all honesty, that was my fault.

If he were the only person who burned out for that reason then maybe it’s purely his fault. But a lot of people came out of vanilla WoW raiding and decided that it had been too much. I felt the same. Some of that comes down to the game.

Perhaps part of the definition of a newly hardcore hobbyist of any stripe is that they struggle to set boundaries on how much of their life they want to give over to the hobby. Maybe the experience of being a bit too hardcore for your own comfort is an important one for learning to set your own boundaries, I know it was for me.

(It’s the same reason as to why sometimes new graduates work crazy long hours and put up with awful conditions at work and then burn out where an older worker would not.)

That’s a good question!

Ratshag wonders why Blizzard always create the male models for new races first. What would be so bad about starting with the female model next time and using that as the baseline?

Azuriel opines that if MMOs are intended to be social games, it should be easier to find like minded players. Truth is, a lot of us fell into our current guilds or in-game social networks via a set of happy accidents. There might be a better way … why aren’t devs trying to find it instead of just going the solo route?

Oestrus asks why anyone thinks it’s a problem that WoW players could sell lion cub pets for in game gold? Who exactly is hurt by this?

Fulguralis asks whether readers are planning on taking Blizzard up on their annual pass.

Let me know what you think… not about why they’re doing this, but rather, if taken on face value, who this is for.  Who will it sway?  Who will it remain unmoved?

Food for thought

Wasdstomp is having a great time with Dragon Nest and wonders if other game companies are taking notes. Anyone else playing that?

Cassandri of HoTs and DoTs reflects on her experience of running instances in normal and heroic mode as a new 85.

I’m tired of feeling like I’m not good enough, or somehow am the weakest part of the team, somehow dragging down the run into something slow or hopeless or pathetic. I hate feeling as though I need to be carried. Feeling as though I am being carried.

OK, so the press embargo on SWTOR beta testers is now gone. Ask a Jedi has a great set of links from around the net with some feedback. But why exactly does the press embargo have to drop before the player embargo? I’m tired of hearing that players won’t be neutral – that’s why I want to read their accounts!

Dusty Monk writes a comprehensive review of the F2P version of City of Heroes, particularly aimed at people who played in the past and are considering coming back. (I think given that it’s free, you might as well give it a shot and decide for yourself). Silverspar has been playing City of Heroes, and isn’t happy with the amount of content offered to the hero faction as opposed to the villain one.

Alas writes offers some feedback on what she(?) feels is missing in Blizzard’s current approach to raids, based on what went well in the past. As a commenter notes, this could be an example of how it’s just not possible to please all of the people all of the time. But the example of Karazhan is still a compelling one, and Alas isn’t the only person who would offer that as an example of raiding done right.

Dungeon Crawl recently removed mountain dwarves from their list of playable species. Naturally, this sparked a long and controversial comment thread.

Ask a Jedi (and yes, they get two links this time around!) wonders if being part of a guild in a MMO can teach players something useful about getting involved with their communities and local politics in real life.

[Links] Facebook games, immersion in films, other links from this week

tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-poster-gary-oldman

Happy Sunday. This is where I make a spurious link between something I have done this week and computer games, before linking to some better pieces of writing from other people.

The new film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (TTSS) was released this week in the UK. And since it’s been getting rave reviews, we went to see it. This was always going to be a tricky film to make because everyone compares it to the iconic 1970s TV series. If you read any reviews, there’s a 95% chance someone compares Gary Oldman’s performance to Alec Guiness. But truth is, there only a certain number of ways to play George Smiley and everyone thinks Guiness absolutely nailed it.

You can compare this to the challenge of making a sequel to a much loved game, or an expansion to an MMO. People want to see all the things they loved about the original, but they want them to be new and fresh too. They want the NPCs to hit all the beats they remember, but still to have a continuing storyline. TTSS performs the miracle of translating a book that had enough content to fuel a whole TV series into a single film without feeling that any key information to the plot was missing. To do this, actors, writers, cinematography and director use a phenomenal amount of economy with their acting, shots, scenes, and writing. Smiley is a hard character to pin because he’s written as someone quiet, introvert and understated, but who also feels things very strongly. If you go see the film, just watch how Gary Oldman portrays that with each single pose or shrug of his shoulders. You don’t hear the internal monologue but you know it’s there. So when he does raise his voice – for one sentence, in one scene – it’s arresting.

The other game related thought about the film is how incredibly immersive it is. For the whole duration, you are there in their world of browns, greys, beiges, cigarette smoke, and half full whisky bottles. Every detail is perfect. And none of it is thrown in your face.

I  think that as gamers, we do appreciate how important details are in making our game worlds sublime, immersive experiences. I’ve seen so many joyful blogs written about small details in game worlds that implied untold stories or thrilled the blogger. In fact, this probably plays a larger part than pure gameplay mechanics in ‘immersiveness’. But will a dev that counts only metrics of how many times each player completed each achievement ever really see the contribution that immersiveness makes to how long players WANT to spend in their game worlds? It’s not clear, but it all goes towards those nebulous notions of quality and gameworld realism which can make these games so special.

So how are Facebook Games doing these days?

An interesting milestone in facebook gaming was passed recently. Sims Social passed Farmville in numbers of daily players, which is probably good for making EA shareholders feel like buying social gaming companies was a good investment.

Of course, Zynga has moved on since Farmville and released at least two more hit games (I lose track of them all). Tobold has some praise for Adventure World, which is one of them, but notes that you will need a lot of friends or a lot of money to advance.

I’ve been trying out the open beta for Heroes of Neverwinter, which looks very promising so far and less demanding of large numbers of friends. It’s based around gathering a group of adventurers together and heading off to clear out little dungeons. Combat is turn based and grid based, reminiscent of the original Dragon Age Journeys flash game before they moved it to Facebook.

I think Neverwinter in particular shows how some Facebook games are evolving these days. It’s fun, and definitely less annoying than the typical Zynga spam-a-friend-fest. But it would be more fun for me if it wasn’t a facebook game – still, this probably means that I’m not the target audience. My style of gaming is ‘play games when you have at least 30 mins free’ and not ‘I’m on facebook anyway, might as well take a couple of mins every so often to amuse my friends with virtual game items.’

Muckbeast has a heartfelt rant about Facebook games, that I think most gamers will find sympathetic.

In the social gaming space, the industry average is that only 2% of users ever pay a single penny. When only 2% of your customers think your product is worth anything, that’s not a good sign.

If you wanted to improve your monetization rate, what would you do? Some possibilities:

  • Make the game more fun.
  • Give players more value for their money.
  • Create engaging content people are excited to pay for.

All good ideas, right? So those are the kinds of things Zynga, EA, etc. probably do to increase monetization, right?

Wrong.

Instead, they come up with incredibly annoying gimmicks like “energy systems” that interrupt your gameplay every few MINUTES and nag you to buy more energy to keep playing. We have literally looped back to pumping quarters in a machine every few minutes to play a game, folks. Ridiculous.

Thing is, most of the several squillion people who actually play these games regularly probably aren’t gamers and don’t care so much about these things. For them, sharing virtual game tat with their friends is all in a day’s social networking.

So while I like Neverwinter more about about 90% of the other Facebook games I have played, the chance of me spending money on it is zero. Therefore, I’m very much not the target audience, and who knows whether they’ll be interested in D&D style adventuring when they could be playing Sims Social instead.

Strangely enough, I did spend some money based on a social networking game this week. The game was Night Circus, written and coded by the same team who run Echo Bazaar, and I bought a copy of the book which the game was designed to advertise. (I do find some of the game text/ concepts a bit precious but I figured I was intrigued enough to pay a few pounds for a book at least.) The book is actually better than I was expecting, so recommended if you like magical romances and magic realism and stories about magicians holding mysterious duels.  The characters feel oddly stylized though, more like silhouettes than real people, but I was entertained. So that at least was a perfectly targeted piece of gamified advertising – I’m all for it ;)

More Links

Blimey, CCP actually releases some information about World of Darkness.

Mana Obscura has held a ‘smile week’ this week and has been writing about things he loves about MMOs. Here he discusses how amazing it is that they work at all, and how largescale the systems are behind them. I have always had a sense of awe about computer networks myself too, ever since a technician told me at Uni that the ethernet stayed up ‘by the grace of God.’ The more I know about ethernet, the more I suspect he had a point.

The Official WoW Magazine is dead in the water after five issues. The Ancient Gaming Noob has a copy of the email they sent to subscribers with info. Who’d have thought that computer gamers might not be all that interested in print magazines, huh?

The Rampant Coyote asks what single player RPGs can do better than MMOs. Given that we’re in the middle of some sort of conflux, I think this (and the opposite question of what MMOs do better than single player) has never been more timely.

Bronte discusses WoW raiding and problems with overtuning content, and some of the assumptions behind it. The basic idea that each tier of raiding should be more difficult/ complex than the last is fine if you started on day 1 as a Molten Core nooblet and worked your way up – less fine if you were new to Cataclysm and had to try to learn everything at once, with a bunch of players who are bored before they start and lost their patience with newbies two expansions ago.

OutDPS has some issues with the storytelling in Cataclysm (he notes that the lower level zones are often great but that the high level story is … not compelling.)

And on one last Blizzard related note, COO Thomas Tipl has stated that Blizzard are planning to release six ‘proven’ properties over the next three years. Gossip Gamers guesses that these will be 2 WoW expansions, 2 SC2 expansions, Diablo 3 … and maybe a D3 expansion. Don’t expect any more Wrath-style large WoW expansions is what I’m saying.

Rohan posts an interesting analysis of MMO players, comparing people who like fixed schedule events (like regular raid nights) to ‘transient’ players. I think there is a lot of truth in this, and the way I play is very different when I’m in a group that has fixed nights to when I just log in when I feel like it. PvD  also mulls this over and wonders if that’s the problem that the new LFR (looking for raid) PUG raid finder with its special low difficulty mode is intended to address.