[Links] Day of Reckoning for 38 Studios, soloing in MMOs, Diablo 3, Sony won the console wars?

Scott Jennings writes eloquently about the week when 40% of the SWTOR team was laid off, and 38 Studios (makers of Kingdoms of Amalur, and with an MMO in the works) imploded very publically.

I think the direction that our industry is going – the incredible amount of money wasted by EA on what was essentially a roll of the dice that came up 2 and 3, and the even more incredible display of massive hubris and utter incompetence on the part of Schilling and his management team, is killing the very concept of massively multiplayer gaming.

Everything I have read about 38 Studios going tits up makes me think that the management were a bucket of tits. (Yes that is the technical term.) Implausible business plan, lack of auditing on cashflow, taking on way more staff than they needed or could support, dicking around with staff. Unsubject writes in more detail on the financials. The only surprising thing to me is that so many MMO bloggers have sympathy for them – MMOs get cancelled in pre-production all the time, we should be used to it by now. I don’t care if it was run by a rich sportsman with a dream or a lameass banker, they screwed up.

Or in the words of Kevin Dent at  Kotaku:

I have a theory that Harvard Business School basically set this entire thing up so as to demonstrate how many ways someone can screw up running a business. If this is the case, heartfelt congrats to the Crimson Halls, you owned it.

I literally could not invent more ways to screw up than Curt Schilling has with 38.

I can’t entirely agree with Scott about the effect on MMOs though, because big budget AAA MMOs were already pretty much on the outs. You can tell this because Michael Pachter recently said so, and he only ever makes predictions after the event.

One of the interesting things about this story though is that both Bioware Austin and 38 Studios put out pretty decent games that got some critical acclaim. Neither Amalur nor SWTOR are bad games, and both were reasonably successful in the market. Just their funding model needed more than ‘reasonably successful’ – in 38 Studio’s case it is because their management can’t handle simple maths and in Bioware’s case it’s because for some reason EA felt that ploughing unfeasibly massive amounts into the game was going to pay off. (Nice bonus for players I guess, because it does feel lush.)

SWTOR will be profitable, incidentally.  It will just take a few months longer than EA predictions and that’s why it is being seen as a failure. Whereas in fact it sold more boxes more quickly than any other western MMO in the market and has fairly decent retention figures for an MMO, even allowing for number massaging. In any case, they’ve just announced that patch 1.3 (which will include a random dungeon finder) is going onto the test server imminently and that they have plans to consolidate servers into super-servers, which are both needed updates.

Shintar shares some hopes and fears that she has for the new patch.

Anyhow, it’s sad for the staff, obviously. But we’re in a recession and MMOs are risky business at the best of times, and these things happen (especially when your management are a bucket of tits, which isn’t really the case for Bioware). Hopefully they’ll find something else swiftly. I’ll miss Stephen Reid/Rockjaw, he was a great CSM.

Soloing in MMOs

Keen also found time to muse this week about why people solo in MMOs (remember in my last incredibly wise words of wisdom to new bloggers I noted that soloing vs grouping was one of THOSE topics?), claiming that MMOs aren’t single player games. So why do devs want to try to mimic single player gameplay?

I am referring to the open and deliberate act of making a very core part of a MMO into a single-player experience as if the players were offline.

Bernardparsnip at Diminishing Returns reflects on players who might want some of the advantages of mas…sive games without the disadvantages.

I recognize that there is a demographic of players that want the benefits of an MMO – a persistent world, frequent content updates, a player-driven economy, opportunities for PvP and cooperative play, without the disadvantages inherent with playing with others.

Azuriel takes a different tack and wonders whether MMOs really do suck as single player games.

…in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG.

My view is that we’re seeing traditional boundaries between single player and multiplayer games come crashing down around us, and players may not yet be sure exactly what they do want. This sense of wanting all the benefits of massive multiplayer games (like a vibrant player based economy and instant groups whenever you want them) without the negatives (like having to actually talk to anyone or rely on other players in any way) is very strong in the current crop of games.

I think Journey laid this out most neatly with having other players viewed as friendly but nameless entities, and Dee wonders if maybe the public quests in GW2 will have the same effect. But it won’t ever be the same as the sort of communities that more forced socialising will bring together, we could end up with people playing side by side but always on their own.

Ultimately I’d like to see more gating in future games, allowing players to build up communities of interest in games of their choice. What if I want to play EVE but without having to play with the more sexist, racist, homophobic players who seem to populate it (going by forum posts at least)? This is going to become more and more of an issue for anyone running online games in future, I suspect, as players lose their tolerance for playing with random dickweeds. (This will come to be seen as one of the negatives of MMOs that people would like to avoid.)

Zubon has a really smart post about how different games attract a different type of player and suggests people flock to games which seem to be populated with players like themselves.

But there is a flaw in his argument, which is how exactly are you going to find this out? If I search round EVE blogs and forums, I’ll find a lot of very aggressive posturing and the aforementioned sexist, racist, etc. language. But I do happen to know people who play EVE who aren’t like that, so it isn’t universal.

Similarly, WoW is so large that it probably contains communities of just about every MMO player type under the sun if you can find them. So characterising it as the McDonalds of MMOs isn’t quite true in terms of the playerbase. It’s more of a mosaic than a least common denominator known for poor but consistent quality.

While LOTRO is justly known for its attention to the setting, I’d also say it was a haven for more mature gamers and for RPers. But that was before it went F2P and it may have changed since then. So how would a new player know?

So while I think Zubon makes a good argument, it just places more emphasis on how /the community/ constructs explanations of what type of player different games attract and then communicates it. And bloggers bear a lot of the responsibility for this. When I write that my guild in SWTOR are laid back, friendly, casual players and raiders, people will assume this is normal for the game. It probably is! But you’re just getting one player’s view.

Redbeard tackles a similar topic from the point of view of new players in WoW at the moment.

If Blizz is serious about bringing in and keeping new blood, then they have to address the social issues in WoW.  This isn’t Pollyanna country, and it ain’t EVE, either.  People like to be welcomed and respected and tolerated.  If they feel the environment is toxic, they’ll move on.  You can’t expect a new player to blindly stumble through all of the social pitfalls and land in a good guild without guidance, and likewise you can’t expect someone to blithely ignore all of the social issues that some players bring to WoW.

Diablo 3

Clearly we haven’t had enough posting about D3 yet. I’m still having fun with the game but slowing down now that I’m in Hell level on my barbarian. I don’t know that I can honestly see this as an evergreen game I’d be playing months from now (especially if Torchlight 2 and GW2 and updates to SWTOR are coming out). The Auction House is definitely impacting on the game’s lifespan in my view, and they haven’t launched the real money AH yet.

Hugh at the MMO Melting Pot (who you should follow for excellent daily aggregations of MMO blogging) collects some more views on the auction house.

The Ancient Gaming Noob has played both Diablo 3 and the Torchlight 2 beta and gives a thorough comparison between what he has seen of the games.

Milady explains why she thinks Diablo 3 is a wellmade mistake.

They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard’s perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.

Rohan argues that Elective Mode in D3 is a mistake.

Green Armadillo lists a lot of things that D3 is not and wonders if Blizzard were right to keep the name.

And Gevlon explains why he thinks D3 just doesn’t work as a competitive game.

Straw Fellow defends Blizzard’s decision to require D3 players to be always online.

Microsoft and the Console Wars

Microsoft may face a ban on imports of the XBox 360 into the US and Germany because of patent infringement. I assume they’ll settle with Motorola out of court, but it would be an amusing way to lose the console wars.

It would be nice to think that the patent rats nest might get sorted out sometime soon, but since there is no real sign of that happening, better hope your favourite manufacturer knows how to play the game.

And finally …

Berath ponders why there are so few gaming blogs focussed on shooters, given how many people play them.

Xintia explains why Bioware are great at telling stories but bad at designing games.

And Melmoth waxes lyrical about the general chat channel in TERA.

What was fascinating about the channel was that it had become a microcosm of the blogosphere: nearly every general topic that I’ve seen repeatedly touched upon over the past five or so years of blogging was mentioned in this one place, all in the fast forward nature of a back-and-forth conversation between people whose attention was invariably elsewhere. I quickly found myself privately playing Cassandra to any topic raised, knowing full well the future of each discussion, where the disagreements would come from, and the conclusions which would be drawn.

Gaming news: Zombies in Black Ops, FFXIV released, MSoft wants Second Life, Recettear and Minecraft huge hits, Skaven in WAR

So, yesterday was Eurogamer which bore a surprising resemblance to a bunch of gaming zombies wandering around a huge exhibition hall, half of which was full of demos of Assassin’s Creed II.  Arb and I will talk more about our Eurogamer thoughts next week.

  • Things I saw which caught my eye were:
    PS3 Move. I saw a few demos with the Move and … they looked fun. I don’t think my living room is large enough or tidy enough to justify a purchase but it did look cool.
  • Dragon Age 2. Now with less blood spatters but still with some so you know which game you are playing. We cheered when there was a closeup on the blood spatter.
  • Indie Arcade. Didn’t have time to look at all the games, so focussed on a bizarre passive aggressive game which kept telling you to stand away from the computer and not press buttons. Also a fun explory/ platformy game where I amused the guy standing next to me by falling off a cliff and exclaiming, “Oh! I guess that’s not how you use the stairs.”
  • Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Absolutely adorable, and looked pretty fun too.
  • Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. Reminded me of Uncharted 2, mostly down to the graphics, gameplay and camera angle.

In a press release about SWTOR, Bioware revealed more information about the smuggler. It’s sounding increasingly as though the smuggler IS Han Solo rather than just being inspired by him, and one of the latest reveals is that there is a wookie companion.

Also in gaming news this week was another spat between Bobby Kotick and whoever. I’m getting bored of following these arguments but they seem to get a lot of gaming press. I imagine it will be EA’s turn next week.

Gaming post of the week is Unsubject’s admiration of DCUO’s courageous and brave brave marketing decisions. The game is due to be released in November and we still know virtually nothing about the gameplay – it doesn’t bolster confidence.

Zombies in Black Ops

Activision revealed that Call of Duty: Black Ops will feature a multiplayer zombie mode. Apparently it will involve “brand new zombie experiences”. Your guess is as good as mine.

I don’t pretend to understand where it makes sense for a franchise that has always been fairly solidly based on well researched real world settings to go all zombie on us but zombies are cool, right? (Maybe the new zombie experience is that you actually get to play a zombie!) The game is due to launch on 9th Nov.

Another shooter which is drifting away from being too realistic is Medal of Honor, from which it was confirmed that references to the Taliban were dropped this week. Instead they have been renamed as “Opposing force.” Personally I think they should have just reskinned them as zombies.

Final Fantasy 14 launches on PC

September 30th marked the launch day for FF14.

Feedback I have heard so far has been positive, but keen to point out that the game harkens back to an older style of MMO than recent WoW fans (for example) may be comfortable with.

Microsoft interested in Second Life

The Escapist reported this week on a rumour that Microsoft has a bid in for Linden Labs, noting that LL laid off a lot of staff recently and is known to be in some trouble.

They think that Second Life would fit in great as a virtual world for xbox players. I’m not sure about that one myself, but it’ll be interesting to see what comes of it if the rumour is true.

Minecraft and Recettear show good sales

You may notice on the right hand margin of this page that I’ve included both Recettear and Minecraft under the current list of games we’re playing. (Arb is playing Minecraft, I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I will!).

We think they’re both ace, and so do lots of other people.

RPS reports that Recettear has sold over 26k copies, which is pretty darned good for a little indie PC game relying mostly on word of mouth, a near zero marketing budget, and digital downloads.

However, Minecraft makes that look paltry by apparently taking in $350k profit per day.

These trends all bode well for the indie market. With every awesome game that gets successful, players will be more and more willing to try another one if the word of mouth is good. Both of these games are excellent value for money –- obviously there’s no guarantee either will be up your street but both have demos and it won’t be hard to google a review online.

Skaven in Warhammer Online

Werit writes about (Bioware) Mythic’s announcements of their plans for WAR. Plans which include playable Skaven … sort of. Players will be able to control Skaven, but not in a way that replaces their main character.

I’m a little unclear on the details but it sounds as though players will be able to assume a Skaven role in PvP but there won’t be any supporting PvE for the rat people. Werit compares this to monster play in LOTRO which, to be fair, is enjoyed by a lot of people.

Gaming News: What’s hot at E3, APB and the embargo of doom, WAR drops producer, Microsoft still has no sense of humour shock

Mourn with me now for the ongoing death-by-boredom of English football, coming to a TV near you on Wednesday night.

And in other news, another E3 industry convention has come and gone. So what did 2010 have to show? I’ve covered much of the MMO news here with a special SWTOR post here.

The two biggest stories of the convention, to my mind, are hardware related.

  • Sony and Nintendo are betting that we’d all like to see our gaming in 3D – the PS3 will get a compatibility patch for 3DTVs and Nintendo’s new 3DS handheld (no glasses required) will offer a 3D experience. In fact, if I had to pick one single news story from E3, it would be that everyone who tried the new 3DS said – in shock – it just works. And it will also apparently be able to show films in 3D.
  • Sony and Microsoft also showed off their respective motion controller technology. The Sony Move looks like a stick with a ball on the end, and Microsoft’s Kinect (the renamed Natal technology) doesn’t require the player to hold a physical controller at all, it picks up your actions as you move around. But somehow, despite giving a new XBOX to everyone at their presentation, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have captured the journalists’ attention.

Jon Shute blogs at VanHemlock about the various new hardware on offer, and concludes that neither of the two motion controllers seem to be aimed at the hardcore gamer.

The big three E3 presentations

Each of the big console manufacturers traditionally gives a big presentation at E3. The aim is to build up some excitement about their hardware, future plans, and what’s in store for their customers over the next year.

This year, I think Nintendo did the best job of capturing people’s imaginations. The 3DS wowed everyone who tried it. Their software lineup includes new outings for a lot of old favourite franchises (well, if you are a nintendo head anyway) including Zelda, Goldeneye, Kirby, Metroid, and Donkey Kong (yes really). There’s a strong lineup of software on offer for both of their consoles and as an avowed DS fan, I can’t wait to get my hand on a 3DS. I also look forwards to more DS RPGs and puzzlers. All very crowd pleasing stuff.

What Nintendo do extremely well is put the message across that their portfolio offers something for everyone. I’d be surprised if anyone saw that presentation and didn’t find at least one game or genre that caught their interest.

By comparison, Microsoft just can’t seem to get it right. Even when they have technology as potentially exciting as the Kinect, they somehow … miss the mark. Instead of a coherent ‘we offer something for everyone’ message, they just give the impression that they’re incoherent and confused. On the one hand, they’re chasing the 18-30 male gamer with a slew of shooters and a deal with ESPN to show premium sports on Xbox live. To hammer the point home, EA introduced a new Xbox loyalty program called ‘the Gun Club’ – I guess they won’t be including any family type games with that then.  … And then there’s Kinect with some dancing games which M/soft is trying to portray as the Xbox’s great white hope. It does not compute.

Then there’s Sony who are trying to sell people on the future of 3DTV – a rather expensive future given the current recession for sure. Their presentation leaned heavily on third party games, but what a great lineup. Sorcery – a magical combat game based on using the Move controller – sounds amazing, exactly what you’d want of a Harry Potter knockoff.

They also put one over on Microsoft by actually announcing prices for the Move. And also, whilst confirming that the PSN (online aspect of the PS3) will remain free, they plan to offer a premium service which will include extra downloadable content. I think we’ll need to see what’s on offer before people decide whether to go for this or not. The other big news from the Sony presentation is that Portal 2 will be available for the PS3, along with steamworks.

Some of the other games that caught my attention at E3 were Tron, Bulletstorm, Portal 2, the obligatory SWTOR and a whole slew of games for the DS.

No reviews for APB until a week after release?

All Points Bulletin, the GTA-alike PvP based MMO is rumbling towards release at the moment. And the developers decided that now would be a good time to demand that reviewers not release any reviews until a week after the release date. RPS state in this link that response to the beta has not been positive – I’m not so sure. Plenty of rpg.net players seemed to like it well enough.

In reponse to press complaints, Realtime Worlds produced another press release and moved the embargo forwards.

Whilst I understand that MMOs take time to review, the answer is glaringly obvious and is just to read impressions from several different sources – blogs, bboards, professional sites. A MASSIVE multiplayer game needs to be seen from a massive number of views, and most casual blogs also treat foolish press embargoes with the disdain that they deserve. Trying to get a blogger to not tell their mates what they think of their latest purchase is a fool’s game.

Drescher leaves WAR

I had hoped that WAR might be settling on an even keel but in news this week, Josh Drescher (the producer) got the boot. I wish him luck in future – I still do have a soft spot for that game, but it cannot be a good sign.

No more red ring of death

I cringe for Microsoft, I really do. There will not be a red ring of death (the nickname for the indication that hardware has failed) on future XBOXs because …. they’ve removed the red LED.

That’s a classic marketing solution to an engineering problem, by the way.

Gaming News: Shake up in Microsoft’s gaming division, EVE expansion launch, Revving up for E3, Prince of Persia on iPhone, Direct2Drive sells F2P

It’s been a fairly quiet news week. This is the calm before the storm of the various industry conventions held over the Summer months, of which the first up will be E3 on June 15-17 (i.e. I’ll have to make up some more news next week too).

Shake Up in Microsoft’s Gaming Division

A couple of big names announced that they were leaving Microsoft this week. Robbie Bach was the head of MSFT’s Entertainment and Devices Division and J Allard was the Xbox supremo. There are rumours that the departures are connected to Microsoft’s decision to cancel the Courier tablet device, but nothing that has yet been substantiated.

EVE Tyrannis Expansion Launched

This is the new free (to subscribers) EVE Online expansion which involves building up resources on planets, and sets the stage for the introduction of the Dust 451 shooter/ hybrid which is expected to be released at the end of the year. Or thereabouts.

At the same time CCP introduced a social networking platform for EVE players. I’m curious to read about how this works out for them. Imagine Facebook. Then imagine that Facebook has a significant number of users whose main goal is to deliberately manipulate and screw with other uses. Or actually … just imagine Facebook.

Having said that, I do like the idea of being able to send/ receive in game mail via a web interface. And one of the other interesting features provided with EVE Gate (the social networking application) is a corps chat box. Now, I’m assuming most corps – like most guilds – probably have a bulletin board for communication out of game which may also have a chatbox. So I don’t know how useful this will really be, but it is a step towards being able to page someone in game from a website.

Ramping up for E3

We know that E3 is on the horizon because companies have to started to drop press releases about what they are planning to show there.

We know that Richard Branson has an announcement to make about Virgin Media. The company once had a good pedigree as a games publisher before pulling out of the business, but this new announcement is to be about a gaming service.  Something to compete with BT’s forthcoming OnLive service, perhaps? (Note: Yes I know this is only of interest to readers in the UK :) )

Ubisoft have released a rough list of what they plan to show off at E3 too, including lots of sequels. Lets hope the convention organisers have put aside a reliable internet link for them or else those demos might be in trouble.

We’ll also expect to see some more of the next Call of Duty sequel. And Nintendo have a surprise announcement about Zelda for the Wii. Evidently this is the sort of surprise that is heralded by carefully orchestrated press release for months in advance so presumably the surprise is not that they’ve canned it.

Bioware will also be showing off their latest version of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Arenanet however will probably not be there with Guild Wars 2 – they didn’t attend E3 in 2008 or 2009 either.

Prince of Persia released on the iPhone/ iPad

gyllenhaal-prince-persia-1

Yup, not so much a news story as a random excuse for a picture of Jake Gyllenhaal without his shirt on. But for the record, the original (and arguably the best) Prince of Persia game has been released on the iPhone. Reviewers have said that it is good. Well yes, this would be why it became an instant classic when it was released on the PC all those years ago.

I was very tempted to put in a spoiler here but I’ll just say that my favourite level was the one where the princess sends her pet mouse to save you. That part sadly didn’t make the film.

And speaking of the film, I saw it yesterday and thought that it was good fun. There are many many worse ways to spend an afternoon, and the people I was with also liked it (proving that the attraction isn’t just my fascination with Jake Gyllenhaal.) I did enjoy the use of parkour type stunts to simulate the acrobatics which is such a big feature of the gaming franchise. Also, blessedly, we didn’t have to sit through an advert for the game of the film.

The iPad also was released in the UK this week. But I don’t think initial reports of queues and shortages are all they’re cracked up to be. My inside report from a 3G telco says that they sold barely a few hundred iPad SIMS over the weekend and Charlie Brooker – reviewing the iPad for The Guardian – notes that they were able to walk into a shop on Friday and buy one over the counter, no queues in sight.

And as a bonus iPad feature, one of my friends describes how his mum has been getting on with her iPad. It’s an interesting view at how a non-techie views the device.

Direct2Drive sells Free 2 Play

I thought this was an interesting little news story. D2D has started selling packages of free to play MMOs. What you get for your money is a download of the free game plus some extras – tokens for the cash shop, items, mounts etc, the package depends on the game.

A first look implies that the deals are reasonably good value, although I don’t know how well it compares to any sales which the games themselves hold regularly. Is this an innovative way to package an unfamiliar pricing model to users or just a pointless waste of time? D2D are unlikely to release sales figures so we may never know.

Zynga is still in the news, and Offerpal goes large

I am now officially bored of news stories about Zynga. The Farmville developer has now entered a new partnership with Yahoo so presumably is planning to experiment some more with positioning their games on a non-Facebook social network.

And Offerpal, which organises deals by which social gaming players can agree to marketing tasks (such as signing up to a mailing list, ordering items, completing surveys etc) in return for virtual currency is apparently doing well with its new website. This an interesting spin because if you go to Offerpal’s site, you can do as many marketing related tasks as you can handle and earn Game Points. You can then exchange your Game Points for virtual currency for a number of different games. The idea is that the Offerpal site itself will be sticky. After all, you may get sick of Farmville eventually, but you’ll be able to turn your Game Points into something ‘useful’ in the next game that takes your fancy.

Offerpal is also known for having been involved with accusations of scammy and manipulative deals. But apparently they have a new CEO now and those days are behind them. Verily, we live in interesting times.